Category Archives: Simon

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.

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What Does the SAIS & Latin Have in Common?

Sunday 14 April was a sad day – the SAIS announced the end of its daily avalanche reports (at least until next season, and weekend forecasts will continue for a little while yet). For me, this unofficially signalled the end of winter and the need to move on. Trad climbing, scrambling and summer hillwalking beckon.


Elsewhere on the internet, writers, such as Heavy Whalley, took the opportunity to point out that although the daily reports have finished, those venturing into the hills still need to make judgements based on sound information and reasoning. Snow and ice still linger, and spring conditions are more than capable of producing avalanches.


However, you may have have noticed my own flawed logic above – that the end of the SAIS forecast season equals the end of winter. I exaggerate to make a point, but wager that I am not the only person who entertained the thought. Perhaps we are institutionalised by official services these days, but the wrapping up of SAIS for another year is certainly not the cue to throw caution to the wind when venturing out on to the hillside.


It interested me that the post above quoted Tacitus, ‘Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty’.  I was interested to know where the quote originated in the Latin, so after quite a roundabout and frustrating search, discovered it is from Annals 2, 39, ‘veritas visu et mora, falsa festinatione et incertis valescunt‘. The passage relates to the slave of the historical figure Postumus Agrippa, who was adopted into the Roman imperial family, but later executed as a result of political intrigue in the first century AD. According to Tacitus, Agrippa’s slave impersonated his master after his death and caused rumours to circulate to testify to the fact.


This first successful search then led me on to attempt to find the source, which had long eluded me, of a favourite quote of mine, attributed to Cicero, ‘Live as brave men; and if fortune is adverse, front its blows with brave hearts‘. Surprisingly, they are not the words of the famous rhetorician Cicero, but belong to a peasant called Orfellus from the poet Horace’s Satire II.ii, ‘quocirca vivite fortes / fortiaque adversis opponite pectora rebus‘. This is quite a dramatic misquote, presumably as a result of quotation bots’ indiscriminatory cutting, pasting and harvesting. Somehow too the words lose a little power on the lips of a farmer, as opposed to a great public speaker.


So then, in relation to the avalanche forecast, a few principles are clear: information wielded well is powerful and helpful; but also it is easy to lift the same information out of context and apply it according to one’s own needs. Indeed, everyone enjoys a rousing quote or a sunny weather forecast to lift the soul. However, in the case of the avalanche forecast, ignorance or wrong interpretation could be damaging in the extreme. Weather forecasts suggest that winter may well cling to the Highlands of Scotland for a while longer whereas elsewhere spring will be in full flow. If you are heading into the Cairngorms, for example, where snow cover remains extensive above 900m, take care that you are making good judgement calls rather than assuming the best or trying to ‘make things fit’.

Categories: Blog, Conditions, Simon, Winter
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Sport Climbing, France | Viviers

James about to push through the crux

James about to push through the crux of Le sang se lave dans les larmes 6b

Viviers is a small, local crag, but no where near as large and extensive as Les Dentelles de Monmirail. Sometimes small is good, though, and so James and I headed down push the grade a bit, chill out and generally enjoy a lovely afternoon.


I generally climb best after a good warm-up, so led up T’es vivant, camarade… 5c+ (You are alive, comrade…). Bizarrely, this route crosses two others, so route finding was a little difficult: I’m not used to wandering sport routes, and there were bolts everywhere as the various lines criss-crossed.


James then led up Le sang se lave dans les larmes 6b (Blood washes itself in tears). This was a good route. Nice opening moves up to a vegetated break, and then two crux moves close together: a pumpy pull up to a miniature cave feature and then a delicate side-step traverse on slopers and finger pockets. James cracked it seemingly without too much bother, but I got my first bout of sport climbing airtime working the crux sequence.


Although I had to abseil off eventually because of lack of time, it felt very fulfilling to have worked hard on the moves and taken some (small) lobs. As I have mentioned previously, sport routes can often be a little forgettable and anonymous, so having had a good fight with the line felt refreshing.

Categories: Blog, James, Simon, Sport climbing
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With only a Shunt for company

Crag shot of St. Montan on a beautiful spring afternoon

Crag shot of St. Montan on a beautiful spring afternoon

With all the regulars are away at the moment, it was me and the Shunt today at the local haunt, St. Montan. Spring is finally here, and it was a fine afternoon, although April is proving to be much more showery than last year.


Self belaying (also known as self-lining) was on the menu, as free soloing wouldn’t really go down well with my wife, plus I would be rubbish at it. The basic concept is climbing on a fixed line whilst belaying oneself. The rope is attached at the top of the crag and the climber is attached to the rope via a device (a Shunt in my case), which automatically locks onto the rope in the event of a rest or fall.


Simple, surely?


It was was first time using a Shunt in anger, as well as on my own, so I was feeling slightly nervous. Strangely enough it brought back similar feelings to when I was tramping around Scotland in January in preparation for my WML – the feeling of being slightly on the edge and needing to watch one’s back that little bit more carefully.


There were a pair of climbers already at the crag, and in the vicinity of the climbs I had earmarked, so I set myself up, trying hard to look like I knew what I was doing, never mind the climbing. Despite setting the Shunt upside down initially, and wondering why it wouldn’t lock, the setup was straightforward and it was time to climb.


Shunt setup - rope represents the fixed line; silver karabiner attaches to climber; cord is to release mechanism (e.g., for abseiling)

Shunt setup – rope represents the fixed line; silver karabiner attaches to climber; cord is to release mechanism (e.g., for abseiling)

It’s quite a novel sensation self-lining. It’s not quite top-roping and it’s not really leading or soloing – obviously – but there are some similar elements. The Shunt slides along smoothly when you make upward progress. However, there is the awareness of climbing above ‘gear’, as it were, and so the instinctive desire to whip it up to avoid shock loading (of you fell) can make the process a bit disruptive. Overall, I was getting the hang of it and making progress by the end, but moving routes was a faff.


When I got home I was pretty full of myself, but a bit of nosing round the internet reveals that Petzl issue a number of ‘dire warnings’, as Needlesports laconically put it, about self-lining with the Shunt. More nosing reveals that really there is no ideal autoblock or device suitable for this kind of climbing. All a bit depressing and slightly worrying, although Andy Kirkpatrick seems to have some time for it.


So, plenty of food for thought – more than I had anticipated – but still great to get out after a long climbing drought.

Categories: Blog, Personal, Simon, Sport climbing
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Is responsible tourism just a big, fat contradiction?


Patagonia’s environmental biography so far

James and Miriam, members of my team, read Patagonia’s story recently, ‘The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years‘, and passed it on to me. I was keen to read the book, knowing a little about Patagonia’s environmental ethos already, but mostly interested by the challenging facts and angles that James had begun to recount to me. (They also make some nice kit, but that’s beside the point!)


The back cover immediately summed it up for me:


Yvon and Vincent aren’t here to bum you out about a planet turning to desert, or to shame you into anything. They affirm that the ingenuity and hard work required to clean up our offices and industries will be the most rewarding (and profitable) work we do.


I felt relieved that the scope of the book was real, tangible and affirming and began the story, eager to draw upon and utilise the experience of others.


However, having progressed into the meat of the book, I opened my RSS reader this morning and read with interest a post from Trek the Andes: ‘Responsible Peru treks – fact or fiction?‘. The article challenged me in turn, as Patagonia’s story had been doing so far. I couldn’t help but feel a check in my spirit with regard to our operations in the High Atlas of Morocco. I quote the fourth paragraph:


Responsible tourism is a broad spectrum and often a contradictory one. Flying several thousand miles to trek on the other side of the world that is bad; you damage the ozone. But I provide work for porters and guides is that not good? Buying bottles of water from the ladies along the Inca Trail that is bad, you should be refilling your water bottles and cutting down on plastics. But I am providing these Andean people with income, am I not good?


We as a company expect that our clients will fly into Marrakech, typically from the UK, in order to start the process of traveling to Imlil and then begin the trek to the Toubkal area. Aircraft produce a huge amount of CO2, which contributes to the process of global warming, causing a whole number of problems for the environment. And yet we as The Mountain People care deeply about the environment in which we live and operate. How do we reconcile the two?


Moreover, Trek the Andes rightly points out that responsible tourism claims are made by all and sundry these days, likening them to background noise:


Click on any trek operator’s website or leaf through the pages of any travel company’s brochure and responsible travel will leap out at you. Well they would like it to but it has suffered something of the same fate as car alarms. Once you hear the same noise so many times you no longer hear it. Some companies clearly do practice responsible tourism but for other trekking agencies it appears to be no more than a marketing tool. When everyone proclaims it, who do we choose who we believe?


When I say we care deeply about the environment, do you really believe me? What makes our claim any different from the myriad other ones? I have even pointed out where our claim fails before a potential client even steps foot in Morocco.


The trouble with tourism, let alone anything in the world, is that in order to engage with it, we will inevitably cause waste and damage. And yet there is something profound in the human spirit that seeks adventure, to push physical and mental boundaries, to find wilderness and ultimately attain a deeper sense of being alive, especially coming from an increasingly desk-bound, office-orientated culture with its ensuing checks and barriers.


The challenge then is to be true to ourselves without doing so at the expense of the environment. The natural world has a certain resilience and the capacity to regenerate, but would be much the better for our full cooperation in reducing our footprint.


At this point we don’t have all, let alone many, of the answers. The biggest two issues though seem clear: airplane travel from the UK to Morocco is polluting; getting heavy and bulky climbing and mountaineering equipment to Morocco. So, this then remains essentially a memorandum of understanding amongst The Mountain People. We see the contradictions, we see the damage, but we want to overcome it in a healthy way and with ingenuity. The solution is not to do nothing or go nowhere. To do so would deny something within us all, but to paraphrase Trek the Andes:


To stay at home and not trek the Atlas; that is not the answer. Come and visit this beautiful place, come and trek these magnificent hills and come and meet its people.

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