Monday, 28 March 2011

I Apologise For The Technical Difficulties Normal Service Will Resume Soon

It's been a big quite on the bloging front. Work has been hectic, I've been away for the last month and had no internet access.  At the same time I'm trying to move house which has pretty much swallowed the weekends.

It's all pretty frustrating as I want to get out as much as possible to log quality mountain days for my summer ML and start working on my Trail Center Leader biking qualification. Irons are in fires however Skye is being mooted for next month and It's too long since I've been to Wales.

To stop me going mad from withdrawal symptoms I've been hunting around on Vimeo. I can get inspired easily for the right adventure, New Zealand, one day I'm coming to get you!

The Whole Nine Yards from Tim Pierce - Zeros&Ones on Vimeo.

Normal service to be resumed next week, thanks for your patience.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Mountain Leader Training Some Thoughts

I recently started the long process of becoming a qualified mountain instructor with Mountain Leader training. The training is to allow me to take groups into the mountains whatever their skills and experience and to facilitate them to have a great day. The training also brings out the key areas that an instructor needs to get a handle on and some of the techniques that can be used to teach outdoor skills. This is a huge and complex subject and I feel I’m only just going to be able to touch on it during this blog.

Why do we even need training for leaders who take others out into the mountains? I believe passionately in the outdoors and our wild places and feel much more at home there than in any city. I really enjoyed my time in the University of Leicester Climbing Club including a lot of hours spent teaching others the basics of climbing. I believe anyone should have the opportunity to get out into the mountains, regardless of who they are. There is a problem with this though; nature does not like beginners, it’s not supposed too; evolution got us to where we are today by ruthlessly culling those that were physically weaker, and those who made mistakes. Unfortunately if you make mistakes in the mountains you could end up dead very quickly.

This is true to the extent that the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) which represents walkers and climbers feels the need to very publicly promote its participation statement:

"The BMC recognises that climbing and mountaineering are activities with a danger of personal injury or death. Participants in these activities should be aware of and accept these risks and be responsible for their own actions."

To get to here...

The modern world has robbed us of some of our sensitisation to our environment. In our day to day lives we are very sheltered from nature especially now the vast majority of us rarely leave buildings, be it centrally heated houses or air conditioned offices. These structures hold us in a narrow comfort zone which we move between in our climate controlled cars. We rely on systems to look after us, heat and light at the flick of a switch; we don’t really look after ourselves anymore the system does.

This means many people don’t realize how harsh our mountains can be, on occasions cold, wet, with fog to get lost in, wind to take you off your feet, uneven ground to trip on, cliffs to fall off, rivers to drown in. You can die out there quite easily if you don't know what you’re doing. Nature does not play by the same rules as we have come to expect in our daily lives and it can be hard to get people to switch to a completely different mindset if they are not used to being out on the hill.

I started here.

Mountain sport also has a very individualistic ethos, as is clear in the BMC statement. You make your own decisions and look after yourself and I think most people involved in our sport would not want responsibility to fall any other way.

How then do we square this circle? Get as many people involved as safely as possible but without dragging ourselves into a prescriptive hell of rules and regulations? The traditional way into mountain activities was either through a self taught ethic or via an apprenticeship to an “experienced” person.

First off apprenticeships, in my opinion these fall down in two key areas. Firstly there is no real inclusively in this route; when I became interested in the outdoors I knew of no one to look to for guidance or to take me on my first trips. The system only works for those lucky enough to have a contact for everyone else it’s useless.

There is a second floor with the apprenticeship route in that there is no reason to assume that just because someone has been climbing or walking for years they are competent and/or able to pass on their skill in an inspiring or informative way. Just as a bad teacher can spoil a subject for a lifetime the same is true of a bad instructor, only here the consequences can be worse.

So what about teaching yourself, I’m mostly self taught, so are most of my friends, it’s the route that most in keeping with the individualistic nature of mountain sports but it’s also the route that’s most likely to see you end up in hospital because you are not exactly sure what you’re doing.

You will always have epics in the mountains even if you’re really; really good it’s the inevitable consequence of pushing yourself. With knowledge and experience epics can usually be dealt with but for beginners the epic is much more likely to turn into an accident. It’s not a coincidence that males 18-25 are the most likely group to have a meeting with mountain rescue.

ULMC Freshers meet Circa 2004, I think?

Clearly all beginners taking an instructor out with them every time they go out is a stupid and financially ruinous idea. But if those first session with a school or youth group are led by good people I think relatively quickly good foundations can be laid to allow people to branch out on there own in the true spirit of mountain activities.

The event which really crystallised the need for a high standard skill and training for people leading groups in the mountains was the Cairngorm Tragedy. In 1971 five teenagers and their instructor, who was only 19 themselves died when caught in a blizzard on Cairn Gorm mountain. The instructor made mistakes that day but more importantly the system which put them in charge of that group failed to insure that the leader was properly qualified for the roll they were to undertake.

Out of this need for training and guidance grew the Mountain Leader Training Associations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The roll of these organisations is to supervise the training of people who want to teach others in the mountains, it's a road I'm just beginning. The system is very much set up to teach leadership not personal skills. Your personal skills are your own responsibility and in this way the system stays true to the individual responsibility ethos of mountain sports.

The MLTA have constructed a system which although prescriptive delivers the opposite, producing instructors who can think for themselves, adapt, make the right decisions on the hill and who can pass this ethos on to there clients. 

Further thoughts on knowledge, experience, and ethics with respect to mountain sports are in the works. These will be view from someone just starting the MLTA syllabus. It will be interesting to see how my views change when I get to MIA/MIC level. I did want all four blogs written before releasing the first one but that's not going to happen. I've sat on this blog for three months trying to find time to marshal my thoughts and finish the others. They should appear eventually, promise.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

A last Stab At Winter - Ben Macdui

A rainy and windswept Torridon fades in my rear view mirror, the image a forewarning of the forecast for the weekend ahead which looks pretty grim all round. Trawling the Internet for a shaft of sunlight in amongst the pages of gloomy reports I catch word of a brief window of opportunity in the Cairngorms, a few short hours on Saturday when the winds should drop and the cloud should lift.

Clutching at this quixotic straw of optimism the decision is made quickly and the miles fall beneath the tread of my tyres one after the other, on the long drive to Aviemore. I take the scenic route down to Locarron, then up through Kintail and along the shores of Loch Ness. Kintail in particular looks amazing, the famous five sisters standing like giant sentinels above the valley, another place to return to ASAP.

Saturday; I start early, up at 5.30 to find a frost on the ground and a stillness in the air. Looking up from the campsite the air is clear and the the corries of Schnechda and Lochan are free of cloud. The plan for the day is to walk into Schnechda and climb on to the plateau via one of the easy gully's then continue on to the top of Ben Macdui the second highest mountain in Britain.

Aladdin's Mirror follows the right hand
edge of the prominent buttress

The walk in to Schnechda has changed since January, there is much less snow on the ground and I can follow a proper path almost to the foot of the head wall. Ice on the small lochans on the corrie floor is beginning to melt leaving pools of azure blue water. The gullies on the face above are still looked chocked with snow and ice which crunches satisfyingly beneath my crampons.

Aladdin's Mirror is a grade I, the route follows a bow shaped ribbon of snow astutely avoiding all the difficulties on this side of the Corrie. As I set off there are teams already on Patleys Route and the Direct looks fat and ready for climbing. For a second I'm tempted by a very cheeky solo, it only looks about 10m or grade IV, then common sense reasserts it's self and I save it for another day.

The icefall of Aladdin's Mirror Direct. I follow the postholes out right.
On the plateau the clear conditions of the morning have changed and I'm enveloped in mist bringing visibility down to about thirty meters the sky diffusing into the snow leaving no distinct horizon. I suffer a few minutes of doubt; it's four 4km to the summit from here all of which looks like it's going to have to be done by timings on bearings. Terrain matching begins to fall down in these contritions the gently undulating plateau will be next to impossible to read in the diffuse light. Is my navigation up to this and is it sensible to go in there alone?

I decide to go, you never learn if you don't push yourself; you can practice your navigation in good weather but the only way to prove you can do it for real is to do it when you really can see the best part of bugger all.  If I really do get lost and admit defeat I have a fully charged GPS in my bag to get me off the plateau and into the right valley.

It's hard work, timing, pacing, constantly checking the bearing and the shape of the terrain about me as I make slow progress through the clag.  After about half an hour I should be approaching the slight coll between Cairn Lochain and Ben Macdui where I need to turn approximately due south for the run into the summit. I'm unsure but I think I  can feel the sun getting stronger through the cloud then suddenly there is a chink of blue in the sky. The terrain about me begins to reveal itself, great waves of cloud rolling up and over the landscape in front of me as the snow on the plateau begins to shine in the sun. West over the great trench of the Larig Gru the peaks of the Breariach massive break free of the clouds and suddenly I'm surrounded by a glorious winter day on all sides, and pleasingly I'm pretty much where I thought I was!

Breariach, the third highest peak in the UK

From here it's an easy if cold walk up to the summit of Ben Macdui; the views in all directions are spectacular. After ten minutes on the summit drinking in the view and copious ammounts of tea I turn and head back down. My initial plan was to descend into Corie Lochain and have a look at the routes in there but this comes unstuck at the top of the decent Couloir where the cornice has collapsed to leave a series of unstable looking steps riven by huge cracks. Not wishing to have tones of ice collapse on me I decide to descend into Schnechda as it's a short detour to drop into the top of the goat track. Whilst I'm descending the (very steep) goat track two guys shoot past on ski, very impressed I want to be that good.

Skier on the Goat Track

Its still only eleven o'clock and I cant resist getting another route in, so despite howls of protest from the calves I head up Central Gully Left Hand as a final route of the day and perhaps also the season. Having spent most of the week dodging pretty poor weather and filing to find anything really in condition it's been great to get out and have a proper winter day

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Right Rant Regarding Rubbish

Loch Maree is one of the most beautiful bits of one of the most stunning areas in Britain. I had pulled over to take some photos looking back towards Slioch "the spear" the peak which dominates the north shore of the loch. It was then that I saw it, litter, lots of litter, the rest area was covered in rubbish; cans, bottles, polystyrene some of which looked like it had been dumped on mass. For the rest of the week whenever I stopped, I looked about me and on most occasions I found rubbish littering the roadside even in the middle of nowhere.

Stood there on the shore of Loch Maree I felt a deep physical disgust in my stomach, coupled with anger and total contempt for the people who had done this. I mean; who could do this? How can they possibly think this is acceptable? I can only see it two ways; these people must either be completely blind to their surroundings or in total contempt for them (there was a bin in the rest area). It's things like this that reinforce that selfish little part of my personality that wants to keep the mountains as my own private world for me and my friends

Rubbish beside the A9

A lot of work has been done in recent years upgrading the roads in the northwest highlands, many of the narrow single track roads with their passing places being replaced with a network of fast flowing roads which are a joy to drive. There has been some criticism of this building arguing that they spoil the natural beauty of the landscape and this is true to the extent that you can't drive a road through a landscape and make it invisible, although I feel that a huge effort has been made to minimize the impact of the construction.

The old road down to Loch Maree

Broadly however I’m for the new roads. Unlike the wild lands and national parks of North America all of Britain including our national parks and even our most isolated moor has been touched by man. Our wild landscapes have been shaped by us through forest clearance, the grazing of animals, or the exploitation of minerals. More importantly unlike in the USA these areas are lived and worked for a living. The US has so much space they can afford to protect vast areas inviolate from the hand of man; we cannot, and indeed need not as our landscapes can and should live in symbiosis with their inhabitants as they have done for centuries.

And the new


To expect people who live and work in the mountains of Scotland to suffer with inadequate roads is wrong. They should not have to spend hours driving back and forth to obtain the basics of life, or suffer from isolation in winter when narrow difficult to clear roads become blocked. Also the increased popularity of these areas lead to minor roads becoming massively overloaded with traffic.

There is however another consequence; less effort means you need to make less commitment to get here and in my opinion that means you don’t have to care as much about a place for you to make the trip. Has increased access made the landscape and it’s beauty a consumer product, a commodity which people come to see then discard as it fades in there rear view mirror? Many people  view this landscape from the confines of their car, you often see them sat at the viewpoint inside their little climate controlled box going for the picture postcard experience not the full immersion in a landscape which come with slowly moving through it on foot. Does the car create a barrier to the landscape, which desensitizes people to their actions when they throw litter from it? You very rarely see litter beside a footpath.

Or am I making excuses for these people? Are they just selfish filthy bastards with no empathy of their impact on the environment or on others enjoyment of it? Get the F**k out of our hills.