Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Remembering Where You Started

How do you retain a strong empathy and understanding of what its like to be rock climbing and scrambling for the first time especially if you, in the role of the leader are so familiar with the activity that it barley registers above your background comfort zone? 

This weekend I met up with my old university climbing club to catch up with friends and get out and about. Myself, and another ex member Steve are in the process of gaining experience for our ML assessments, and we were both interested in taking out a group of beginners to get some hours of supervision training. After a night failing to keep up with the students either on the drinking or staying up front Steve and I found ourselves with a group that included two freshers  who wanted a days scrambling.

Looking down towards Coniston

Since starting my ML I've become much more aware of the group management aspect of leading people outside. You need to look at terrain and route selection through the eyes of your group and understand how will they react physically and mentally to the challenges of the obstacles and exposure (by this I mean steep ground and big drops). Then you must apply your judgement to the terrain and make a decision about if you have chosen the right route for the group. 

A corollary of this is that you must be completely comfortable on the terrain you are leading on; if your personal mountain skills are not second nature you will be worrying about yourself and not your group. So comfortable but empathetic; simple, yes? 

Well no, based on this performance I'm actually finding it quite hard to do. The route we had chosen was Low Water Beck a grade 3 scramble above the Coppermines Valley in the Lake District. This would feed us onto a grade 2 scramble up Brim Fell exiting onto the ridge between Coniston Old Man and Swirl Howe before traversing round onto Wetherlam and back to our base in the valley. Now technically a grade 3 scramble is above the remit of the ML syllabus but as our freshers told us they had done some scrambling before we decided to go with it. 

Steve on the upper section of Low Water Beck

None of the following is intended as criticism of the freshers but more analysis of mistakes in my role as leader. 

It soon became clear we had over egged the pudding. Neither of the freshers appeared comfortable on the initial sections of the route, their hand and foot movements betrayed a lack of being able to read the rock for holds and suggested they had little scrambling experience.  The rope came out and was weighted, they looked uncomfortable and scared, although when asked they said they were OK. 

I was desperately trying to get them to stand up as they were spread eagled on the rock using knees, bum, chest anything but their feet. On steep ground natural instinct is to crawl especially if it is exposed but in this case the slabby wet rock only exacerbated their insecurity gaining very little friction from fabric clad knees. At one point we had a slip, fortunately this was contained by the terrain and the person went about two feet before Steve spotting from below was able to block the fall. It was hard work completing the route.

On the most obvious level it was a bad choice of scramble that led to these problems but I think the failures can be broken down into the following mistakes. Firstly their boots were not suitable for the route being too soft and offering little grip and edging ability. I did not check footware before the off and should have done before we started. I have been taught to do this.

We accepted their claim to have done some scrambling at face value, I should have tested them out on some small outcrops before the main route to judge skill levels for myself. There may be no deliberate intent to mislead in most cases but two people may have very different understandings of what is meant by scrambling.

Had we done these things we would have chosen a different route, however once engaged we should have taken action once problems started occurring. The route was above their ability and we should have switched objectives; a leaders role is to make judgement's for people who don't have the experience to make them for themselves. Obviously this may disappoint people but group safety is crucial and needs to be your first thought. Ideally don't reveal your exact objective till you have assessed the group thus negating this problem. 

Overall it was a useful experience and clearly it's something I need more practice at. I was honestly surprised at how hard they found it. The confidence that comes with experience has  obviously desensitized me to what it's like to be a beginner and  this is something I need to work on.  For me the big take home message is that the whole situation could have been avoided with a little better planning and thought.

 The start of the route, a decision should have been made  prior to here.

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