Category Archives: NGBs

Successful SPA Assessment

At the end of last week, I successfully passed the Single Pitch Award (SPA), which signalled the end of a period of five months, out of which two months were spent away from home. In the ten days leading up to the assessment, I spent almost every day at a crag or on the mountain, gaining personal rock climbing experience, leading and teaching groups, or practising the technical skills as found in the syllabus.


All of the awards which I have gained, along with my colleagues at The Mountain People, whether in hill walking, climbing or mountaineering, validate me to work with groups within the remit of the particular awards. In the case of the SPA, supervising climbers on single pitch crags and climbing walls, which generally means roped climbing and bouldering, but excludes teaching lead climbing.


These outdoor awards are an important part of our life and work. Although it is true that one can pick up the necessary skills and experience outside of the governing bodies for outdoor pursuits, which has tended to be the trend in the past (learning the ropes from an experienced mentor), it is a very rich, fulfilling and holistic process. Aspects of the system that I have personally appreciated include:


  • Interaction. It is so easy to operate in a bubble and find and hold on to the practises that one prefers. However, the training and assessment modules of the awards ensure that one is exposed to a large range of people from different backgrounds, including the trainers and assessors. Everyone has a different way of doing things, and sometimes it is helpful to learn a new technique to add to one’s repertoire or a more efficient way of doing so, for example setting up a belay or abseil. By exposing oneself to new people and situations there are excellent opportunities to grow and develop.


  • Discovery. All of the syllabuses I have read ask that the participant gain personal experience in three different mountain or climbing areas. It is tempting to think that one can gain most, if not all, one’s experience at the local crag or vicinity, but in fact that would squander a lot of variety. If one compares the rock of  North Wales, the Peak District and the Lake District, there are great variations, and even within those areas the rock is not uniform. This in turn affects the style of climbing and techniques required to operate on the rock. Experience on multiple rock types instils the confidence necessary to operate ‘onsight’, i.e., in an unknown environment, which is vital for a climber who needs the skills, techniques and self-belief to overcome unanticipated problems.


  • Knowledge. It is perfectly possible to read a book on climbing techniques, but by being incorporated into an official body one has the chance to compare oneself with the established best practice. No doubt there are many legitimate ways to do the same thing, but practices do change continually, and with the steadily development in equipment and technology, it makes sense to be up to date with current techniques and safety practice. By being part of an official organisation, one surrounds oneself with the qualified and competent people who can teach and inform.


If you have gained awards or are in the process of working towards one, what have you really appreciated? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Categories: Blog, NGBs, Simon
Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Highland Hobo Epilogue

Welcome home card

Welcome home card

Mark Chadwick, the Course Director for my Winter Mountain Leader (WML) assessment, passed my logbook across the table. There was a new red sticker in the WML section.


I had passed.


Primarily I was relieved, but then wondered what to do next. Better go and pack up and leave, was my conclusion. Clearly the culmination of six weeks was a huge anticlimax, but I was profoundly glad that the process had come to a happy end.


During the assessment, I was reminded of the Kraken, a mythical sea monster that is said to have ambushed ships and consumed their crews. Another candidate, Lucy Wallace of Wild on Arran, who passed the week before, had also described the process like a sudden, but expected, attack by demons:


There is a demon waiting out there in the storm for every prospective winter ML candidate.  You know it is coming, but you have to wait to learn how and when it will attack.


Although the weather was wild on the first day when it became hard to see fellow candidates in the blizzard carrying out their ice axe arrest skills 10 metres down on a slope, I felt we were given a reprieve on the expedition. Navigation plays a big part in the assessment, and although we had low visibility, walking in cloud predominantly, there were no winds to deal with at the critical points.


Tennyson wrote a sonnet about the Kraken, but interestingly in the poem the beast remains hidden in the depths, silent, still and waiting. Only one day will it awake and roar to the surface. We had escaped the Kraken – the weather beasts had granted us safe passage, but they are still out there waiting for the unwary…


So there ends the mini-chronicle of the highland hobo. Hopefully most of my walking will now be in and out from climbing routes and leading clients and friends in winter conditions!

Categories: Blog, NGBs, Personal, Simon, Winter
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Highland Hobo #6


My favourite photo from the last month. Ben Alder, the ‘hill of rock and water’. A fitting title for a mountain which exhibits so flawlessly all the elemental aspects of the outdoors.

This is my final update before my Winter Mountain Leader (WML) assessment starts on Monday. It’s strange to think that I stepped onto the hillside of Lochnagar on New’s Year’s Day, a month ago yesterday.


I want to revisit briefly a legacy post to bring this little chronicle neatly to a close. I quoted from Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in Scotland, Skyfall & Ulysses and would like to mention The Charge of the Light Brigade in conclusion.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.


I’ve invested a lot of time, effort and money into working towards the WML award. There have been sacrifices – family, comforts and conveniences – and it’s taken a lot of determination, and it all boils down to this coming week. Perhaps the process has become all-engrossing; I do feel that it’s now do or die.


The reference to The Charge of the Light Brigade is not meant to create an overly-heroic or macho image. Life will go on after the assessment regardless of the result. However, I have thought a lot about family, fathers and children while I’ve been away – unsurprising, I suppose, with a small family at home and in the face of very harsh and unrelenting conditions.


Little boys and girls idolise their fathers, and love to maintain their daddy as a hero who does great things and then comes home for hugs. All fathers are human and prone to fault, but all too often the role model of a father is lacking. Children don’t demand perfection, they are willing to forgive, but do look for a true heart. I quote The Charge of the Light Brigade because I want to be an inspiring role model to my girls and to encourage other fathers to be all they can be to their children.


It’s not about war heroism, putting on a façade or being false. Let’s not be melodramatic, no one’s going to die, but it’s about getting a job done. It’s about being all you can be and giving it your all. The poem talks about carrying on in the face of errors:


Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.


This week the weather may have some tricks up it’s sleeve . It’s a bit of an unknown, wondering how you’ll cope in gales and storms, whilst juggling all the other demands of a winter leader – navigation, avalanche and group safety, route choice. At the end of the end of the day, though, I hope I can put aside replies and reasoning whys and simply put to good affect the skills, knowledge and enthusiasm that I’ve built up over the last while.


I’m looking forward to a big hug with my wife and little girls next Sunday too.



Simon is the Morocco Director and an instructor with The Mountain People. He is currently preparing for his Winter Mountain Leader assessment, as chronicled by the ‘Highland Hobo’ series.

Categories: Blog, NGBs, Personal, Simon, Winter
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Highland Hobo #5

Less than a week now until my assessment and just over four weeks here in Scotland, I though it would be a good chance for a recap. Spending multiple days on expeditions has given me plenty of time to look at equipment and procedures, some of which might prove helpful to others.


You never need as much as you think


This is an easy trap to fall into, but when I started out on New Year’s Day I was weighed down unnecessarily with food and gear that I simply did not need. The main ones were too much food, which I ended up not eating and spare layers, which predominantly remained in the rucksack. Unfortunately, the best remedy for this is experience and pain, so after the first expedition I quickly dispensed with superfluous items. It is worth noting that the opposite is equally true – all too easy to realise what you could do with when out and beyond civilisation.


Be organised


  • Bit obvious, really, but easy to get carried away in the rush and excitement of preparations and be forgetful. A helpful tip I picked up in the Army was to organise a kit bag with fresh, clean, dry clothes in which to change on returning from an expedition. The psychological and emotional benefits of non-hill (i.e., sweaty) clothes is immense and allows you to relax immediately after the pain and suffering! If you’re a bit itinerant, like I am at the moment, you don’t want to be sitting in your transport festering away in damp, clammy hill kit.


Dry layers for immediate change at the end of the day

Dry layers for immediate change at the end of the day

  • Another helpful aspect of organisation is on expedition. Initially I was happy to remain in the same clothes by day and by night, hoping that my body warmth would dry them out and also, mistakenly, that I was doing myself a favour by carrying less kit. However, at very least, a change of baselayer top and socks makes the world of difference to comfort on expedition for a fairly low weight cost. Removing the wet layer next to your skin immediately helps to bring warmth and cosy toes help you to think better! Making a pillow out of a down jacket and a stuff sack is also a great way to keep comfortable at night. Expedition should not be synonymous with suffering and some concession to luxury should be made.


Alcoholic hadn gel and a simple scrubber

Alcoholic hand gel and a simple scrubber

  • Get a scrubber or scourer for your cookset. You might think your hand and water – nay, snow! – will do the job, but once you’ve tarred the entire bottom of your Jetboil of pan for the first time, you will realise the shortcomings of the former solution. The only downside is that this will still not prevent you from getting frozen hands from dipping them in cold mountain burns. A bottle of alcoholic hand gel is a good addition to a scourer too for keeping bacteria at bay when hot water and soap are far away.


  • On the cooking theme, have a think about the whole process. How you can reduce the work and effort involved? Do you want to be washing up the pots and pans every time you cook, or can you simply boil water, eat out of a packet and avoid further hand dunking in freezing streams? Depending on your culinary tastes this might take a while to crack, but is well worth considering.


  • Minimise how often you need to do things in winter, for example, opening your bag completely to get water or crampons out; changing or putting on extra layers; checking your map. A few specific tips from me in these areas:


Crampons and essentials need to be accessible, even in your rucksack

Crampons and essentials need to be accessible, even in your rucksack

    • Keep your water, crampons and food either in the top pocket  of your rucksack or inside the main compartment, but not in the dry bag – you should then be able to open the lid slightly and slide out what you need.


    • Pile and pertex (i.e., the Buffalo windshirt) seems to divide opinion, but having operated in one (Montane Extreme Jacket) for a month I am converted now for Scottish winter! I personally dislike having to stop and take off my rucksack. Pile and pertex fabrics deal exceptionally well with wind and moisture, both external and internal, enabling you to keep on the move and regulate your temperature through opening or closing zips.


    • Checking the map continually is also a habit to avoid in winter. Although it is nice to have the security of knowing where you are, it pays to look at the map once, chose a destination and then walk to it uninterrupted. This is called map memory and is a useful skill to develop, furthering to reduce the stop-start process.


Plastic boots kill laces


The affects of plastics on normal laces (note the fraying and exposed cores) and their 3mm cord replacements

The affects of plastics on normal laces (note the fraying and exposed cores) and their 3mm cord replacements

I’ve been out in Scarpa Omegas, good, tough lightweight winter boots, that have eaten up everything I have thrown at them. However, this has included my ankles and shins, as well as the pretty laces that Scarpa provided with them. If you have ever tried plastics, you will notice how unyielding they are. The lack of ‘give’ in the plastic, as opposed to leather or fabric, means that they are gently chewing through the laces all day. Any grit or sand that gets in the eyelets will exacerbate this process, not to mention over aggressive tightening when lacing them up. A good solution is to replace the laces with 3mm cord, available from any good outdoor shop. Although not suitable for climbing, cord is much tougher than normal lace and will have a long lifespan. For the Scarpa Omegas, I recommend between 150 to 180cm per lace.


Play it safe when going solo


As I have mentioned before, a big part of the UK outdoor ethic is self reliance. This is particularly true with regard to solo ventures. The margin for error is much more pronounced because of lack of dialogue, experience of one and no backup. When solo trips go well they are of course a success, but when they go badly, they often deteriorate dramatically and the shortcomings of being alone become very evident. This is not to discourage solo adventures, but to say that an extra degree of caution and sensibility is wise, unless you have the corresponding amount of experience and knowledge, which should be considerable.


Test yourself


It can be a little worrying, wondering whether you are up to scratch when dealing with tough winter weather and conditions, whether in navigation, route-finding or otherwise. However, with the right training and foundations my advice is believe in yourself and test out your skills. This is the only way in which you will truly know whether you are on the mark. You may need to be realistic with your challenges to begin with, but with small successes you can soon push yourself harder and further. You will never know if you don’t try…


Modify your kit


An 'easy win' solution for long straps that get in the way

An ‘easy win’ solution for long straps that get in the way

  • Being whipped in the face or eyeball with a rucksack strap must rate up there as one of the worse experiences on the hill. Unless you have a particularly minimalist rucksack, you are likely to have a number of overly long straps that normally dangle harmlessly, but in gale force winds suddenly become demonically-possessed waving tendrils. Simple solution – chop straps down or tape them up. Electrical tape will do the job, just work out what their usable length is  and then take them to task. This has the added benefit of enabling you to see the right straps when the need arises.


Chop those straps down, although don't do what I did and cut them in the wrong place...

Chop those straps down, although don’t do what I did and cut them in the wrong place…

  • The same goes for crampons straps. For too long I put up with tying down the remaining lengths, but with cold hands and pressing time the task can become infuriating. As above, work out how long the strap needs to be after being threaded around your boot, chop it and then seal the end with a lighter. I would recommend that you leave enough strap that you can grab it with a gloved hand and yank on it, but short enough that it does not act as a trip hazard – particularly dangerous when it comes to cramponing.


A chunky replacement zip tab and one typically found on items

A chunky replacement zip tab and one typically found on items

  • Many of these tips are winter related and might seem insignificant in isolation, but make a big difference when performed repeatedly in harsh conditions. One of the problems with modern outdoor kit is that it is sometimes designed with the high street in mind. As such, zip pulls can be quite small and unobtrusive – more fashionable, basically – but very difficult to grasp with big, bulky winter gloves or mitts on. This is where accessory cord comes in handy from above. Simply cut lengths of cord and rethread your zips, including a chunky knot at the end that you will be able to feel in any condition.


Practise when you can


Someone said to me recently, ‘this might be the only patch of névé we see all day’. He was right and it was fortunate that we stopped to get the rope out and practise some skills. If you are on the hill for the journey, fair enough, but if you are out to practise skills for an award or otherwise, put in the time when the opportunities arise, as they may be the only ones of the day. You will appreciate it in hindsight.


If you have any top tips for winter, let me know via the comment box below – let’s share the knowledge!



Simon is the Morocco Director and an instructor with The Mountain People. He is currently preparing for his Winter Mountain Leader assessment, as chronicled by the ‘Highland Hobo’ series.

Categories: Blog, NGBs, Personal, Simon, Winter
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Highland Hobo #4

On the Lancet Ridge

On the Lancet Ridge

Intense was the feeling that I came away with after a week in the Ben Alder region.


Intense situations: a knife edge ridge, snow covered mountains to the horizons, night navigation to leave the area, crossing frozen burns


Intense cold: -2 to -7 degrees average outdoor temperatures; 0 to 2 degrees average indoor; breaking ice to draw water; the lingering feeling of cold in the bones


Intense emotionally: taking responsibility for another person in a real wilderness situation; assessing avalanche hazards; and the long, interminable nights


I would be lying if I did not admit that I am weary from the cumulative experience of the last three weeks. Perhaps it was the lack of a rest day for over a week. Really, it is being apart from family and having a lot of comforts and norms stripped away. Yet something in me keeps me to the task of seeing this Winter Mountain Leader award through to completion.


There were many moments of sublime consciousness, seeing things in nature and the landscape that evoked deep thoughts. I will not share these at this point, not to multiply those from last time. I simply share one from the extraction walk.


We left the bothy at 4:00am to commence the five hour trudge to the road, walking by the light of headtorches with wind-driven snow falling around us. In the beam of my torch snowflakes scudded past, too fast for the eye to recognise an individual form. Instead, the flakes took on the appearance of acetate film strips, the white of the flakes forming the perforations of the 35mm film. Multiple layers of strips, white on black, carved across my field of vision. I walked onwards, engrossed in the small cinematic world of one; a banal, yet strangely involved activity of night walking, finally, and thankfully, broken by the watery winter dawn.


Torridon was supposed to be next up on the list, but has been postponed because of high winds. We head into the back of Glencoe tomorrow, mindful of those who lost their lives recently, but eager for what our adventure will bring us.


Ben Alder Forest

Ben Alder Forest


Simon is the Morocco Director and an instructor with The Mountain People. He is currently preparing for his Winter Mountain Leader assessment, as chronicled by the ‘Highland Hobo’ series.

Categories: Blog, NGBs, Personal, Simon, Winter
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment