Here’s a disclaimer: I’m not going into huge detail about the rope work techniques here, more pointing out they exist and what they are for. You can also find them in the book ‘Hillwalking’ by Steve Long with is the official handbook of the Mountain Training walking schemes. If you want to learn them properly get someone qualified to show you. My descriptions are brief and not fully detailed at best so you’ve been warned.
As you can imagine I’m writing these posts in retrospect, I’m not out there right now, I’m sat typing listening to the wind try and rip more pieces off our hostel at Pen Y Pass. It sounds angry outside, and looks it too. Why anybody would go up Snowdon in these kinds of conditions on purpose I do not know. I stuck my head out the door for about a minute and got the equilavalent of a shower. Whoever said there is no such thing as bad weather only inappropriate clothing clearly hadn’t spent any time in North Wales in winter. Maybe it was Wainwright, then again he was northern maybe he barely noticed.
Today we head out and meet our instructors by a lake out in the middle of the wilderness of course. The guys doing their assessment also turn up, and they look utterly knackered, maybe a taste of what’s to come in future for us. They’ve been out there for a couple of days and it shows. I can see I’m going to have to get hyper fit again so when I do finally come around to my assessment that it doesn’t kill me off. Kitting ourselves out with ropes and climbing helmets we head out to a popular spot for local climbers however our intention isn’t actually climbing it’s the practice of some techniques to move on steep ground, and the discussion of mountain hazards. This is a useful thing to know as you never know when shits going to go south when you are out in the mountains.
We head up through some pretty boggy ground towards a set of rocky outcrops and look for a place to practice some rope techniques and for the most part we are going to be looking at rope work for mountain leaders. This area I’m a bit more comfortable with as I do have some experience of techniques for steep ground movement (how couldn’t I as I’ve done and been trained in winter mountaineering and walking, though it is far more fun in the snow, plus you can build snowmen) Only issue is I’m very rusty and of course lockdown kind of killed most of the opportunities to get out in the mountains for any practice. Though you can practice them in your back garden if you want your neighbours to think you are a nut job.
In fact I’ve already practiced roping techniques with my mate in the local woods and got some weird looks. Reading that sentence that sounds a bit like it could involve kidnapping or murder, but actually before you start questioning what I do in my free time it was actually just teaching my mate how to belay! It’s emergency rope work we are looking at so not the sort of thing you just do because or plan to go out and do (unless of course you are training for mountain leader). Equipment wise you only really need a 30m rope (can be a cut climbing rope or a purpose made confidence rope) and gloves are a wise option as when and if people slip rope burns can be pretty nasty.
None of the rope techniques we are going to practice would be good for anything too steep however as a mountain leader you would hope you had planned your route and potential escape routes well enough to not get into a situation where you had to use even this. Id expect if you did end up using this somethings already gone a bit wrong. The idea is they get used when you are on steep ground that you could descend but only safely by using rope assistance rather than doing anything climbing related. The great thing about these techniques is they don’t require any other gear apart from a rope, and it is unlikely you’d be carrying any other climbing gear anyway.
By an anchor it is like how it sounds, a large object you are attached to to stop you falling. The first thing you really need to do is check what you are using as an anchor is ‘part of the mountain’ by that I mean that it isn’t just a huge loose boulder that you will temple of doom yourself with. Check for cracks and give the thing a decent heel stomp and see if it moves. If it does you need to find an alternative as being crushed by a boulder isn’t a great way to sell yourself as a leader. If there’s cracks in the rock it could break and that won’t be good. Any time you are putting a rope around a rock as an anchor you also need to make sure the rope isn’t going to come off the rock when you weight it. The direction you are going to load the rope in is also important as just because it’s solid in one direction doesn’t mean it will be if the direction of the load changes. So when we are setting these anchors we are pulling on them and checking them before putting them to proper use. It’s best not to leave anything to chance. So we choose ourselves a rock for an anchor. and before long I’ve tied myself to a rock like a sacrifice to the local wildlife. The point of this is practicing setting an anchor and securing both the client and yourself using it to belay from. And the way we set up is so a section of the rope takes us ‘out of the system’ so if the client falls we can c catch them but without our bodies having to take the impact of this. essentially we are taking part of the rope to secure ourselves but this is tied off from the rest of the rope that the client is on. (Theres a great example of this in the Hillwalking handbook by Steven long page 230 )
We also practice confidence roping which I wish I had some photos of to show readers what it looks like when it’s being done. The idea being when you have someone who feels uncomfortable on steep ground the rope comes into play pretty much to do what it sounds like, give them a bit of confidence that you’ve got them. Having the rope stowed in the rucksack we pull out about one and a half metres and place a loop in the end which we tighten around our hapless volunteers like a belt. The leader positions themselves directly above the client or in this case volunteer and keeps the rope tight while adjusting their position to increase physical and psychological support. If the client is really freaking out you can guide them by holding the waist loop directly. The leader needs to keep their knees and arms bent and keep eye contact when possible with the person being assisted. It’s important you talk to the person being protected and let them know what happening, guide them through it I’m finding the confidence roping a little difficult to pull it off properly, I’m not sure if it’s just the state of my feet that’s causing me to either concentrate less, walk wrong or probably both. It will definitely be affecting my postioning. At lease I have the concept of what we are trying to do here so I can practice another time.
Despite being in pain as I’ve just got a random volunteer on a rope, I’m still having to suppress the urge to crack a bad joke and ask them if they need a safe word. I have a feeling that my sense of humor won’t go down so well with these guys however! On a serious note I hope I don’t end up having to do this much in the future past assessment as it’s a bit of a pain and I can imagine it slows your group right down. I’m pretty understanding and of course if someones panicking I’d do this for them, though you’d think that people who are that uncool with slopes would maybe avoid heading out in the mountains. Then again you never really know how people will react to some situations until you get them out there. I reckon groups of guys would be the worst for it as I can imagine the trying to seem scared of nothing in front of your friends must have a part in plenty of mountain rescues that never needed to happen.
The South African Abseil
Next up is the south african abseil which is one of my favourites. This I know. and it’s actually a pretty fun way to descend a steep but not severe slope using just a rope. Plus its generally easy getting an always expensive rope back. Firstly you put the middle of the rope over an anchor point in this case a very large boulder that isn’t going to move. Because being crushed by a boulder isn’t anybodies idea of a good day. And again you are checking it’s integrity before committing to using it as an anchor. The fun part of this is wearing the rope like a pair of pants. you take both ends of the rope at equal lengths and step between them and pull them up near your armpits then pass the rope stands in opposite directions behind your back, pelvis and then pass them back through between your legs and you can hold both stands separately or pass them both other one leg and hold with one hand to keep one hand free in case you need it. Then as you descend you feed the rope out, controlling your descent. It’s quite straight forward and I expect me and my mates will have a lot of fun practicing this.
Another abseiling technique we try is called ‘the classic’ which is kind of useful as the rope holds you in a way that you are pretty much looking over your shoulder. It’s not as comfortable but at least I can see where I’m going now. It involves putting the two ends of the rope through your legs, wrapping the ends around your thigh, across and then over your chest and over the shoulder and down the back and held on the same side of your body as the thigh you went around. This technique though used pretty widely is not comfortable, though you can turn sidewards to make it less uncomfortable and get a better view of where you are ascending to.
Finally before heading back we play a sort of task/game where our instructor points to a place on the map and we have to navigate to it. I’m still a bit off with my nav and I kick myself again that I end up a bit off target. For assessment I’m going to need a lot more accuracy and I’m hoping that i’ll get to spring and summer next year and I’ll be motivated enough to spend every other day practicing. Right now I am just about getting enough motivation to actually do this 6 day training stint so I’m not going to kick myself too hard. Finally after looking at lots of techniques, we summit the hill behind us because why not. It’s there. Thats another day done, more to come!