11th February 2017

A day in the life of a Single Pitch Award assessor

single pitch award assessment cours

Running a Single Pitch Award assessment isn’t all about sitting around with a stern face…!

The day actually starts the evening before the Single Pitch Award (SPA) assessment, with a final check of the candidate’s DLogs on the Mountain Training website when I’ll make a few notes on each person. It’s a good system, if you keep on top of logging your routes and sessions it’s pretty quick to do, it only becomes tiresome if you build up a backlog. From a Course Director’s point of view it’s really easy to use and I can check everyone’s experience very quickly, I’m a fan.

After that I’ll go and get all my kit sorted for the day, I like my extra minutes in bed in the morning! My personal kit all gets packed up along with plenty of warm kit, especially at this time of year, and I’ll put in plenty of other kit in case the candidates need to borrow anything such as extra static ropes, gri gris, abseil fig 8’s and a couple of guide books. It’s good to have plenty available on the day.

As per normal I’ll wake up before my alarm and check any emails, browse Facebook, see what odd thing Donald Trump has done to make the news today… My courses run from Pete’s Eats in Llanberis which is ideal and only five minutes away and when I get there I meet the candidates and have a quick chat.

spa assessor walesOften I’ll know one or two of them from a training course or something else we may have done together which is always nice, it’s equally great to be meeting new people going through the scheme. I still remember exactly what it was like when I was starting my climbing career and we all still go through various assessments so I know that it can be a stressful experience! I try my best to make sure my courses are as relaxed as possible, my feeling is people perform best when they’re comfortable and it’s not my place to be putting unnecessary pressure on people because I’m sure they’re putting enough of that on themselves! I try and set out what’s expected of them, which shouldn’t be anything surprising as they’ve already done a SPA training course.

We run through the rough plan for the couple of days, check that people have the right kit etc, talk about the scheme and Mountain Training, the possible results (Pass, defer, fail) and then we head out to a nearby crag for the bulk of day one, which for me is mainly focused on group work.

single pitch award assessment coursLion Rock is my normal first choice, as it’s super close and ticks all the SPA boxes, knowing it well there’s also some less well travelled parts that mean even if it’s busy I can find us some space. This is where the assessment really starts for the candidates! As much as I’m facilitating a nice chilled environment, I am still assessing so I’m taking in as much info as possible, what kind of harness have they got? Does it look used? Have they put it on correctly without faffing? I start asking some questions too like does this crag meet the SPA requirements, do they know the SPA requirements? What hazards are there here?

Getting things moving along I set the first task, I’d like them to set up something to get a group of novices climbing and I give each candidate a rough area to work in, to which someone will probably ask “do you mean a bottom rope?” I probably won’t answer this directly, not to be awkward, but I’m trying to work out if the candidate is thinking about the right sort of things.

As the candidates get to work, so do I. I’ve got a maximum of four candidates, that I potentially know very little about so although I’m trying to give them breathing space, I also need to keep a close eye on what they’re doing, with a lot of my focus on their personal safety, checking that they’re appropriately attached to something good when they are operating on or near an edge. I’ll wander around checking anchors and just having a general look at what’s going on, I’ll chat to people a bit as well, maybe about what they’re doing, but equally just having a nice chat to get to know them, I always want to enjoy my time at the crag. From an assessor’s point of view there’s loads going on now, so I will make the occasional note, but I’ll be sure to do this out of sight as much as possible, I don’t think it’s very nice to be sat looking at someone’s setup making notes.

Once people have completed their task, I’ll pop over and have a chat about it, ask a few questions and sometimes make a suggestion or two. Normally these are fine tuning points, I’d be gutted if even really slick people didn’t learn something from my assessments! At other times I might not be happy that what they’ve setup is safe to use, in which case we’ll have a chat and I’ll give them the chance to rectify it, ideally working it out themselves – we all make mistakes on assessments, if you do, it’s important to deal with it and move on, you’re unlikely to defer on one error.

single pitch award assessment walesAs the candidates have just set up bottom ropes (hopefully!), we then go and use them, with each candidate running a mini session on their route involving the rest of us, I may throw in the odd problem, if it’s appropriate to the context of the route. At this point I’m looking to see clear demonstrations and instructions, before the safe management of a belay system and climb, hopefully involving all of us. I normally ask the candidates individually what belay system they would use out of choice, but may ask them to do something else so each person is doing something a bit different. This gives us a chance for each candidate to review a system’s pros and cons once we’ve seen some different things going on.

Next! Group abseil time, this is probably the most complicated setup an SPA holder will do, it’s not rocket science but it does have a few different things going on, and people know they’ll probably have to solve a problem when their time comes to send someone down it, usually a stuck hair or stuck on a ledge problem. Today, we’ve moved away from the main part of Lion Rock because it became busy with a couple of other groups running taster sessions. I’ll try my best to move out of other people’s way where possible, because I can probably make things work in places where it might not be as good for them. Whilst setting up the group abseil in the new location (Spotty Walls area of Lion Rock), I find myself a good vantage point to see everyone doing their thing and make a few notes on what people have done so far, if I don’t do it, I forget! As I mentioned earlier, it’s important that people keep learning so if there’s anything I’ve seen that I think the group will benefit from chatting about, I’ll make a note of that too.

learn to lead trad rock climb wye valleyOnce a couple of people are ready to go, I get one candidate to manage another one down their abseil whilst I observe. I’m looking for them to get the abseiler safely to the abseil, give them a good brief and to have positioned themselves in an appropriate spot. Was the abseiler on a safety rope well before the edge? Is the candidate safe and able to see all the way to the bottom? Do they keep hold of the dead rope? Part way down the route I introduce a problem such as hair stuck in the abseil device, I’m looking for the candidate to solve this in a safe manner and fairly slickly, it doesn’t need to be fast, slow and steady is good for me. The candidates have to be on top of their game here and so do I, I’ll have already given the set up the once over, but I’m also watching what they’re tieing off / releasing really closely. It’s usually pretty obvious who has practiced this and who hasn’t! As the next person running an abseil has a ledge halfway down their route, their candidate becomes crag fast on it, so they get a different problem that requires another method to solve it, but again I’m looking for the same things – safe and slick.

SPA climbing course kit dmm dragon camsMust be lunch time! After a good sandwich and a hot drink I’m ready to go again, so it’s time to get the candidates working again! I’ve set a few tasks, so one runs us through harness checks, one runs us through putting our harness on properly, one talks us through a variety of belay devices and the other talks us through how to place a cam well. One of the candidates didn’t quite nail the group abseil setup as well as I’d like so I send them off to do this again in another spot, whilst the others place some gear and equalise these with slings, before I send them off to do another setup for novices (yep, that’s a bottom rope!), each in a different spot to what they’ve used already. One of the candidate’s nut placements weren’t quite what I was after so I send them to a spot that relies on nuts, to try and get them to redeem themselves, which they do. Crag knowledge pays dividends for me to be able to create the scenarios I need to see.

After a bit of chat about the environment and our responsibilities at the crag, it’s time to head to the Beacon climbing wall for the indoor element of the assessment, and I ask the candidates to be ready to deliver a couple of games that have a learning point attached to them. When we get to the Beacon, it’s cafe o’clock first, which gives us a chance to go over the home paper that candidates get sent prior to the assessment.

single pitch award indoors spaAfter a bit of a warm up and the candidates running their games – which I’m looking to be fun, educational and safe, we harness up. The indoor wall gives me a great chance to see lots of belaying, catching falls (just on a top rope), tieing off the belay plate etc. and we’ll use a couple of different belay devices. As with the outdoor stuff there maybe a few problems to solve as well, even though the key is always problem avoidance in the first place!

After a quick debrief and a chat about day two, that’s about it for the day!

I’m usually pretty tired after an SPA day to be honest. You might think the assessor just sits around thinking about what’s for tea, occasionally getting up for a little stroll, but while I may sometimes sit down for a bit if I find a comfy rock, my mind is constantly working. What’s he doing there? Is she safe? Has he got an equal number of strands coming out the back of that knot? Is that krab done up? How we doing for time? What are we doing next? What more do I need to see from each person? Have they met the standards so far?

Whilst my candidates are still learning, the same goes for me, I learn something every day at work and I believe it’s imperative that we all review at the end of each day and put anything appropriate into practice.

Hopefully the waffle above gives you a bit of an idea of what to expect from an SPA assessment, and a little insight into an assessor’s thoughts. Every SPA provider has their own way of doing things, their own styles, their own itineraries, so it goes without saying that these thoughts are only my own ramblings!

To summarise what I’m looking for from candidates…

  • Safety
  • Efficiency rather than speed
  • Appropriate setups
  • An understanding of what they’re doing
  • Thought about the “group”
  • Enthusiasm

And from me…

  • Safety, keeping myself safe and also the candidates
  • Maximising time through efficiency
  • Creating a relaxed, friendly, learning atmosphere
  • A robust, fair assessment
  • Picking appropriate crags, often to make the most of wind direction etc
  • Enthusiasm (that’s easy, I live for climbing!)

If you’re looking for an SPA course, or anything check out the rest of the website for more information and don’t hesitate to get in touch if we can be of any help!

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