Working on ML training and assessment courses is flipping ace!

My brother brought me to N Wales when I was 15 and it has lead to a lifetime of fun filled adventures all over the world, for which I’m extremely grateful. The ML award has been vital to my career, enabling me to take groups out in the mountains and leading on to my Mountaineering Instructor Award and Winter Mountain Leader, so I feel very privileged to help others on their own journey.  

There’s a few steps to being able to work on ML courses and a few specific terms that’ll make more sense if I explain them now…

Provider: In my case this is my company – JB Mountain Skills, the role of the provider is to look after all the admin type stuff. They must be approved by Mountain Training, and briefly, they will have shown they have a market for ML courses and will be beneficial to Mountain Training.

Director: The person who’s in charge of delivering the course, ie. me, Jez Brown. A director must also be approved by Mountain Training and hold their MIA & WML or IML & WML, as well as having worked on at least 6 ML courses. They will also need to have a diverse range of CPD and tick a few other boxes too.

Staff: A second member of staff will be needed to deliver at least part of every ML course and will work under the direction of the course director. Whilst they don’t need to be approved by Mountain Training, they need to be an experienced ML as a minimum and have worked at least 20 days as an ML, most staff will have far in excess of this though.

Now that boring stuff’s out the way….

rock climbing warm up

How I like to start my day…

Before the course even starts I’ll have spoken to everyone on the course, as the provider, dealing with the admin and checking DLogs. The day before the course I’ll have a look at the candidates DLogs and make a few brief notes, are they meeting the minimum requirements, does anything jump out? Sometimes there’ll be something unusual in there like a trip to some far flung place or an epic that provides a good talking point. I can’t say I read every last note on each entry of the DLog as it’s pretty time consuming, but I’ll read some if they look interesting and sometimes I’ll have to hunt around the DLog to find everything – log everything, whether it’s a QMD or a winter climb or a Himalayan exped, it all helps build a picture of you as a candidate.

Day 1, I always meet in Pete’s Eats, it’s a North Walian institution as much as it is a cafe! I don’t like to spend too long indoors so I try to keep things fairly brief, we’ll have some quick introductions and have a chat about the week ahead. We’ll also get straight in to chatting about the weather forecast and analysing a synoptic chart. Because this is an assessment, I expect the candidates to be leading most of the stuff we chat about including telling me what kit we need for the day, group shelters and such like, then we’ll decide where to go for the day. Maybe Cwm Glas and we’ll be on the 1:25k maps.

We try and calm the nerves a bit, we know it’s a stressful time, by giving everyone some pretty straight forward legs to start with, fairly obvious points like stream / footpath / field boundary junctions etc. We’re looking for people to get us to the points and look after the rest of the group on the way there, maybe imparting a bit of knowledge along the way about anything mountain related, whether you’ve spotted a Sundew plant or tell us about the hydro electric developments you can see en route to Cwm Glas, or anything else – I love all this because I’ll usually learn something myself! For those not leading the leg, you still have to concentrate as you may well not know where you’re going and you’ll have to relocate when we get there… Assessors won’t always tell you if you’re correct, not to be a pain in the butt, rather to give you a chance to correct yourself should you realise you’ve made an error- but absolutely do not assume because we haven’t said “yes that’s right” that you’re not on the correct spot. Sometimes we will say yes, sometimes we may say “if we are there, where’s the stream shown on the map” or something similar, to try and elicit some justification points. Following can often be harder, especially when the assessor is chatting away to you, remember we all want to have a nice day out  in the hills too!

When you get to a point, I have no issue with candidates taking their time, having a quick look around etc., to make sure they are 100% sure where they are, I’d rather you do that than rush and give me a wrong answer.

As the day progresses we’ll probably start to navigate to smaller features, re-entrants, spurs and such like. At times I’ll let you just get on with it, other times I might ask you to let the group know what your plan is, along with any timings you’ve worked out. Remember to pick appropriate safe lines through any spicier terrain and keep checking that everyone is doing ok.

At the end of the day we’ll head back to Pete’s for a little review of what we’ve done and run through the home paper which is a pretty chilled affair, it raises some good points for discussions and lets us cover some of the less practical aspects of the syllabus.

mountain leader course

Navigation can be fun!

Day 2, meeting in Pete’s again we’ll have a look at the synoptic chart again and see what the weather has in store for us, we might then compare that to some forecasts such as MWIS to see if they match what has been said. On this day we’ll be going on some more rocky terrain to focus on security on steep ground stuff, group management and there’ll still be some nav involved. Somewhere like Tryfan is ideal for this day and the candidates will be taking a rope between two and a helmet each (the helmet is because we are planning to use the rope, unlike working as an ML when the use of the rope is not planned). As an assessor I won’t be carrying any extra kit than a normal mountain day, but I will make sure I have my camera because I can usually get some nice action shots! You’d also notice me taking notes on this day because there’s a lot going on and I want to be able to refer to everything I’ve seen, in part to make a decision on the candidates performance, but also to help give them feedback on specific things I’ve seen.

Arriving at the bottom of Tryfan’s North Ridge, with slightly heavier packs, the candidates will take it in turns to lead sections of the journey and at this point it’s more about route finding and safeguarding the group than nav with the map. I’m looking for people to pick appropriate lines, spot, shepherd, give good advice and such like, plus I still want people to impart some knowledge, maybe some geological gems as we’re in the Ogwen Valley and there’s so much there to talk about. I might ask some questions to the group at times too, “Why are there not many trees? Should there be?”

mountain leader rope work

Security on steep ground can be fun too!

This day requires a lot of judgement from the candidates, I’m looking for them to make the correct decisions of when to apply the various techniques in their tool box such as when to spot and when to get the rope out and if they do get the rope out, what kind of belay are they going to choose, and then how do they safeguard themselves? At some point they will need to use a rope and I’m not just looking at the setup, I’m wanting to see it used safely and effectively, I sometimes see a perfect setup, used perfectly until right at the end the candidate takes the person off the rope whilst they’re still in a precarious position, where just moving them on a couple of metres would have been much safer. At some point the candidates will probably be doing an abseil as well, and there’ll definitely do some confidence roping, which I often see being done really badly, make sure you practice it! Bent arms, twist in the rope in the lower hand, appropriately tight, good stance etc.

“Right folks, where are we?” A quick relocation somewhere on the ridge often catches people out, I’m careful where I do this, there’s a few good points where it’s not to hard if you think about it, but in some spots it would be super hard. Contours, contours, contours.

We might head down the West side and do some nav on the way down, maybe a leg each. At this point it probably enters my mind we were supposed to have done the 5 minute presentations on the hill that the candidates have been asked to prepare. Oh well, we’re out of time, we’ll do it back at Pete’s…

Scrambling course Tryfan the Canon

Taking a break!

On each day, but especially this day, I’d be giving out bits of feedback along the way and sharing any top tips that I feel may be useful, an assessment must be an extension of the training regardless of how well the candidate is doing.

At Pete’s, after a review of the day, we’ll listen to the presentations and probably have a chat about any salient points, before having a quick chat about the upcoming expedition… I’ll normally ask the candidates to come up with a route plan, having given them some key points that I want to get to. Snowdonia is a big place with so many awesome route choices, one of my favourites though is the Cnicht area of the Moelwyns, check it out on the map, lots of lovely contour features! If I’m happy with what I’ve seen day 2, we may not take ropes on the exped and wouldn’t normally take a helmet, however the exped gives further opportunity to see some rope work if I haven’t yet seen quite enough from anyone.

Day 3, we won’t meet ’til about 1030 so it’s time for a lie in! I wish, despite the best will in the world I won’t have packed ready the day before, so I’ll be up on time and sorting my kit and getting the head torch batteries out of the charger and such like. I’ll also be packing too much food, I usually do, 2018 will be the year of eating more healthily on expeditions I think, it’s too easy to pack junk food, which used to keep me happy but these days it makes me grumpy (and who wants a grumpy assessor!)

Mountain footwear boots shoes

What to wear?

When we meet, guess what? We’ll look at the synoptic charts again, followed by a bit of MWIS, then have a look at the route plan the team has come up with.

I once got to the parking spot at Gelli Lago and one of the team realised they’d left their boots back at Pete’s, don’t let that be you! Check and double check! That said, we all have little mishaps, I’ve eaten my dinner with a compass as a makeshift spoon before and I once took the pole set from a different tent (2 poles instead of 3..!) which made for a flappy tent…

Similarly to the previous day the candidates take it turns to lead legs, on the 1:25k again, while everyone else relocates each time, it’s important to manage the pace, we’ve all got bigger packs on, and it’s a full on few days, so make life easier for everyone, slow & steady! Up and over Cnicht and before you know it we’ll be at the camp spot where before anything else we’ll have a little chat, lead by the candidates about what makes a good camping spot and what considerations there are when taking a group out then we’ll get on with putting our tents up and getting sorted. I normally aim to get in to camp somewhere around 1700, after having a wander around and seeing how everyone is getting on it’s dinner then power nap time for me!

I’ll wake up to the sound of my phone’s alarm going off and reach for my head torch, it’ll be dark now which can only mean one thing, night nav fun times! The time depends on what time of year it is, in the height of summer it could be 2300, this time of year though it would be closer to 1900. Anyway after quickly getting the right layers back on, it’s time to bag up and get back out there for another few hours. Remember why we’re doing night nav, it’s to simulate poor visibility, so if the vis has been really poor already, we might not do shed loads of night nav, but expect to be out for a while. I’m looking for candidates to navigate precisely and with simple, bomb proof tactics, still keeping an eye on the group of course and not taking us on any terrain that’s too spicy. Relocating at night is hard, so make sure you concentrate when following legs too, especially as you’re probably a bit tired and weary. Keep plugging away, try and remember to enjoy it and it’ll soon be bed time, phew!

mountain leader navigation

Night nav fun times

At some point during night nav I’ll try and get some signal to check the weather forecast for the next day, and let’s be honest, I’ll probably get a cheeky update on to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter…!

A review of the day and chat about the next day and that’s day 3 done!

Day 4, I like my sleep so I’ll have asked everyone to be ready to roll at 0900, with their gear all packed and their 1:50k maps at the ready. I’ll make sure I’m packed and ready before that, having had the standard porridge and a hot drink to warm the core and fuel me for the day. I think for a lot of people this could be the toughest day, out for another full day with another camp to come. Did your kit admin pass the test, is everything still dry and organised? That can be hard when the weather is grim, as it often is, but it’s all part of the game so keep on top of it, you need to be able to operate with ease to have the head space and capability to look after your group when working as an ML.

More of the same today but on the 1:50k and with longer legs normally. If anyone needs to redeem themselves in terms of steep ground stuff, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for those opportunities too.

snowdonia camping, campcraft mountain course

Say cheese!

Into camp around 1600, and it’s time to get the tents up again, hope they’re still dry inside..! Night nav fun times? Well that depends on the previous night’s performances. Did everyone smash it? Great, no night nav. Did some people fall below the standard and need another opportunity to prove themselves? Oh well, out again then I’m afraid, that’s all of us. I absolutely would not say “We’re all going out because Mr/Mrs X didn’t do well enough”, it would just be a case of we’re all going out and everyone will be doing legs. I love night nav, it’s awesome being out in the mountains at night, but I love my sleeping bag too, so I’m happy either way!

Day 5, 0900 and we’re ready to go again, it’s nearly over. I look around, and think how people are looking, we don’t defer people for looking tired so don’t worry about that! It’s just interesting to see how people are coping.

Think back to what we haven’t covered in the week yet. We haven’t mentioned emergency procedures yet, so at some point during the morning we’ll have a chat about that and maybe do some improvised carries. What about river crossings? Who doesn’t love a river crossing? Well, me for a start! We’ll absolutely have a chat about them, mostly about avoiding them, but tactics for crossing them when we need to. Will we do them, sometimes, depends where we are, what the water conditions are and the particular group.

“Right, lets relocate!” “What info will Mountain Rescue need?”…

We finish back at the vehicles around 1200. It’s all over, there’s nothing more to be done save the reviews, debriefs and results.

winter skills course scotland

Winter ML next?

Back at Pete’s again, or maybe the Siabod to mix it up, we’ll review the week and chat about what happens next etc., before having individual debriefs. These can be happy or sad times, that depends entirely on the candidates. As an assessor I think the acid test is whether I’d be happy for them to take my loved ones out in the mountains. Put yourself in the assessors shoes, it’s a massive responsibility to pass someone and we take into account the candidates performance over the whole course, I’ll have chatted to any other course staff to make sure I have all the info possible and give a lot of thought not only to the result, but also to the feedback.

Most people pass, that’s ace, that’s what we want. The ones that pass are the ones that have consolidated well and put in the practice.

Some people defer, take the positives from that though! That means you’ve met the mark in some areas, awesome, just a little more effort and you’ll have passed in no time. You get really constructive feedback and an action plan, and I’m always available after the course after the dust has settled to have a chat whether that’s a day, a week or a month later, it’s not always the time to take on loads of info.

It’s possible to fail, this is rare and only happens when people have not put any effort in.

Done!

Well, not quite! Home time is followed by a well earned shower and then it’s time to sort and dry any kit that needs drying. I might need it again the next day! The course director also has to fill out a course report online with Mountain Training which takes a bit more time, personally I tend to do that the day after. I also have a personal reflection on the course, what went well, what could be better etc., none of us ever stop learning and I strive to never stop improving so reflection is an important part of the process for me.

Well, that was a monster blog so good effort if you made it to the end, your ML will seem easy in comparison!

Good luck to anyone going through the scheme!

As ever, check out the Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds for more of what we’ve been up to!

There are also more blogs on ML top tips etc on our Articles section

I remember the days of trying to climb something at my limit, be it indoors or outdoors, where my warm up would consist of an espresso, waving my arms around a bit, climbing an easy route, then wondering why I got pumped out of my box and climbed terribly.

It was pretty simple really, my warm up routine was lame, pointless really. Sure, these days my warm up might be a bit different depending on whether I’m jumping on a low stress E1 after work, or headpointing an E4, or redpointing that 7b+, again, but I’ll be doing a warm up of some description for sure.

rock climbing warm up

Not quite the warm up we’re after…

Before we go any further I hate the phrase “warm up”, there’s so much more to it than that, so lets call it Performance Preparation – thanks Paul Roberts!

Today’s the day that the route’s going down, the grade is irrelevant (warm up before everything), it’s at your limit though, how are we going to best prepare ourselves?

  1. Rest well, and eat properly. Turning up hungover, tired and hungry isn’t going to work, well, not for me! Be fuelled up and hydrated, I then like to eat little and often through the day otherwise I get sleepy.
  2. Bring a good belayer you trust implicitly – can’t stress this enough.
  3. Make sure conditions are good, if the rock is greasy and your crux move is a smooth sloper, it’s going to be hard to succeed, go somewhere else if need be.
  4. Get your body ready to perform. We need to get the heart rate up (cardio), get your muscles and joints mobilised, and get your body well coordinated so your foot goes where you want it to and your hands hit the holds right first time every time.
    Cardio – think star jumps, running, skipping
    Mobilisation – such as lunges, gentle shoulder rotations, hip twists (I use a Theraband)
    Coordination – turn your brain on with simple exercises like rubbing your tummy and patting your head in different combinations, stand on one leg with your eyes closed and touch the tip of your nose with the tip of your index finger, things like that.
  5. Do some easier climbing (don’t underestimate them though), maybe a couple of routes, maybe some bouldering or traversing, depends a bit where you are, just remember it’s very hard to perform at your limit straight away. This will get your body and brain working, and your muscles recruited
  6. Look at the route, get all the info you can from the ground, where’s the rests, where do you need to climb fast, where’s the gear / clipping positions, where are the key holds etc,. If you’ve already worked the route, still do this to reacquaint yourself with it and run through those sequences. Visualise the moves, visualise yourself doing them, visualise yourself successfully at the top.
  7. When you’re tying in and getting your shoes on, get your mind in the right place if you haven’t already. This varies for everyone. It could be a happy song, it could be visualisation, it could be you going quiet, it could be you having a laugh with your belayer. I have a few things depending on my mood. Be positive.
  8. Once you’ve started that route, give it everything, absolutely everything, if you shout “take” instead of slapping for that next hold you’ll never know if you could have made it! Give yourself every chance.
redpointing at Torbryan

Putting the warm up to use, Laura working a 7a at Torbryan

There’s two results available.

  1. Failure, well that sucks, but what did you learn? The rocks not going anywhere, rest and have another go, be that on the same day if you’re fresh enough, or another day if you’re not.
  2. Success, yes! Enjoy the moment! I often struggle to make that moment last as there’s always another project to be done. Don’t forget to think why it was successful, we have to learn from our successes to keep achieving our goals. Don’t forget to thank your belayer!

Give yourself every chance of success!

The aim of this blog is to give you a bit of an overview, there’s a lot more to be said on each point!

If you feel like you like to push your grade, check out our Rock Improver courses…

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sport climbing castle inn

When it all comes together

Looking out the window at the drizzle means one thing, no two. Firstly, no excuse not to go down the wall for some training and secondly no excuse not to write a blog about something… Normally my blogs are super easy to write, this one’s a bit more complicated, requiring more thought, but here we go, just bear in mind this is a massive subject, so this is really just an overview – the internet is full of great articles, and some utter rubbish as well.

For years I was kidding myself “off down the wall to get strong” I’d say, rubbish. Is going down the wall with a mate and doing a few routes training? No. I’m not saying it’s pointless, it’s great fun and you’ll get some benefit, as you will from any climbing, but don’t kid yourself it’s training. Sorry about that.

Rock climbing improver course

Time in the wall pays dividends…

Do you need to train, and more importantly do you want to train? If you’re happily climbing a grade and going to a climbing wall is just your way of ticking over when you can’t get to a crag then great, keep doing what you’re doing! If, however, you’re trying to improve your grade, think about what’s stopping you succeeding.

  1. Being let down technically, or can’t work out the moves? Consider working on your technique first, if you haven’t done a massive amount of climbing, this will be a key limiting feature. Before training any aspect of your climbing, you must have a decent technique. It could also be your tactics, are you using the holds in the correct sequence? (Correct for you).
  2. Getting scared? Don’t we all! But we can work on managing this through various techniques this will probably include falling off practice when appropriate to try and get more comfortable with it. The psychology of it all is vast subject in it’s own right.
  3. Arms get pumped silly on climbs when you’re not actually finding the moves very hard, for example on sustained but non cruxey routes? You’re lacking endurance.
  4. Not strong enough to hold the holds? Get stronger!
  5. Unable to do the individual moves even though you can hold the holds? Not enough power.
  6. Not able to link hard moves, even though you can do all the individual moves? This indicates a lack of power endurance.

It’s important to understand a few key words when giving the above points some thought.

  1. Endurance, this is the aerobic capacity of of your muscles, specifically in climbing your forearms (local endurance). It’s the ability for you to keep climbing without getting too pumped (ie. solid forearms that can’t grip any more), which is when your forearms can’t get enough oxygen in them.
  2. Strength, by this I’m talking about contact strength – holding that hold. When we talk about strength, we are talking about a static force, i.e. hanging from a hold, nothing more, so a stronger climber can hand off a smaller hold than a weaker climber (relative to their weight).
  3. Power, doing something with that strength you’ve got! The product of strength plus movement. Think of a boulderer climbing a steep, short, sharp problem, they are using power.
  4. Power Endurance, this is linking hard moves together without your arms giving up. Thinking back to endurance being aerobic, power endurance brings in the anaerobic process as well so to train it you need a good base of all the above.
climbing holyhead mountain e4 katana

Some success, Katana (E4) at Holyhead Mountain

How do we train our weaknesses? With hard work! Remember you’ve got to want to do the training, so have a think about what motivates you. It could be a particular route or grade, it could be to burn off your mates, or to make the most of that upcoming trip to the Costa Blanca – whatever it is, use it.

Before anything, warm up! You need to prepare your body to perform, get the heart rate up with some jogging, star jumps etc, do a bit of mobility stuff to get your muscles and joints moving and do a bit of co-ordination work as well. Then move on to some EASY climbing or bouldering.

  1. Endurance, low intensity mileage. Example, doing laps at the wall, 4x4s at a level that makes you moderately pumped, but no more. If you get to the point where you’re feeling very pumped to the point you might fall off then you’ve moved in to the anaerobic phase which is not what we’re after.
  2. Strength, if you’ve not done a lot of climbing yet, embrace bouldering, this will do wonders for your strength. If however you want to train strength specifically and you’ve been climbing a while already then the finger board is hard to beat. But, there’s a bit of a warning here, finger boards are brutal on your fingers, I’ve already mentioned warming up but feel the need to re-emphasise it again! Do a good 30 minutes of bouldering or climbing before getting on the board, and if you’re under 18 seek some advice first as it has the potential to mess up your long term finger development. That said they are massively useful, repeaters on a Beastmaker or similar will improve your strength. My top tip here is to download the Beastmaker App for your phone and start easy.
  3. Power, campus boarding is one choice, and will undoubtably improve your power, like fingerboarding it’s intense so remember that warm up. You’ll see campus boards in every wall but they probably only become of use once you’re bouldering about 7a / V6 or above. Personally I prefer to boulder to my limit and have only ever used a campus board to benchmark my progress, this involves boulder problems near my limit and resting in between each go for a few minutes to recover properly, before doing another one. Using bouldering to train has the advantage of being more enjoyable and allows you to work on technique at the same time.
  4. Power endurance, so you’ve got a good base of all the above? Now you can work on power endurance! Remember back to endurance and 4x4s, for power endurance we’re going to be doing 3x3s, but instead of being at a moderate pump level, we now want to be at a higher pump level, by the end of each set of three you want to be at our absolute max, a move or two from falling off, or falling off very close to the top. We can also achieve a similar result from bouldering. Choose some problems a couple of grades below your limit and aim to repeat an individual problem 3 times, you should be failing or close to failing on your last go, rest and repeat.
sport climbing costa blanca

Wings of Freedom, 7a+ onsight, Spain. Photo Bennett Barthelemy

This is such a complicated subject. You’ll want to train all these different elements in phases, but we have to keep on top of them all. If we focus entirely on endurance, you’ll be stumped when you come to a crux section on a sport route, if you focus solely on power you’ll run out of gas hanging around placing gear on a trad route.

Don’t forget to rest. All this training requires your body to rest and rebuild to get stronger & fitter.

Remember I asked why you’re failing on routes? We also need to consider what we are looking to achieve from our training, maybe that’s linked to what’s motivating us. If you’re aim is to onsight The Strand, E2 at Gogarth then you’ll need endurance just to keep on trucking, if it’s to redpoint your a cruxey 7a somewhere then it’s probably power endurance you’ll need.

Well done for making it through that lot! Hopefully it’s useful and gives you something to think about. I get such a buzz from succeeding on routes that I’ve had to work hard to achieve that it’s easy to stay motivated to train and I enjoy the training itself, and that’s super important I think. If you don’t enjoy the training, even if it’s type two fun, it’ll be hard to keep doing it, week in week out.

Lastly, remember this blog is just a bit of an overview, this is, as I’ve already said, a massive subject… If you’re going to get training, get as much knowledge as you can, whether that’s reading stuff or seeking advice from a climbing coach.

Get training and smash those goals!

If you feel like you need help or a push in the right direction, check out our performance climbing courses…

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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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Last year was a good year, in many ways, but especially in a climbing sense. I’ve loved climbing for as long as I can remember, but 2016 was the year I really started training properly and I made a conscious decision to try harder.

In terms of training, I mixed it up with bouldering, finger boarding, laps on the auto belay and some core workout sessions. The single biggest piece of enlightenment came from bouldering, and I’m saying that as someone who would never call themselves a boulderer! It was the realisation that sometimes you have to try hard, I mean really hard, every last bit of energy you have might need to go into that move and instead of not trying, and letting go, giving it everything and trying might mean you get that route. Outdoors I bouldered Font 7a and indoors 7b and this has really translated to my sport and trad climbing, if you don’t give things a max effort attempt, you’ll never know if you could have got it or not.

The other biggest improvement came on my climbing trip to Spain. A month of climbing with super psyched people (in some amazing places!) really sorted my head out, not being held back by unrealistic thoughts of hurting yourself etc. really frees up your climbing. On that trip I managed to onsight my first 7a, then 7a+ and redpointed my first 7b then 7b+.

On returning to the UK I’ve been super keen to keep riding the wave of psyche so I’ve tried to translate the extra fitness I’ve got from the sport trip and the good mental state from taking loads (I mean loads!) of falls on sport routes. Yesterday I managed to get my first non slate E4, Katana on Holyhead Mountain, which has really got me excited for the climbing possibilities of 2017.

Super happy to have ticket Katana E4 6a

The list on my fridge helps give me some focus, sometimes I find the amount of climbing on offer a bit overwhelming and struggle to know what I want to do. Last year the list was 43 routes long and I only ticked about half of them, but the list provided a bit of structure and my total number of routes was just shy of 200. Highlights included routes like Left Wall E2 5c, The Strand E2 5b, Khubla Khan E4 6b, Heading the Shot 7a+, Quartz Icicle E2 5b and Dale Duro Negro 7b.

This year’s list is going to be hard to complete, I’ve made it quite challenging! But I’ll love every minute of working through it!

The 2017 list of psyche, some “easy”, some requiring more effort!

I love climbing, obviously, and I love sharing my passion for it with all my clients, none of us should ever stop learning so this year I’ve enrolled on some coaching courses to improve my own delivery so I can really make the most of my clients time with me.

A massive part of the fun hasn’t just been the climbing, but also the amazing places I’ve been and the awesome people I’ve met along the way that have made the last year so brilliant.

Anyone can improve their climbing if they want to, I’ve just been lucky enough to meet the right people to give me the drive and determination to up my game a bit, but if you need any help working towards your own targets, get in touch!

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