Loch Coruisk and the Cuillin Ridge

Mountaineering Skills: use them or lose them!

There might be little long-term benefit in having been expensively trained in technical mountaineering skills if we are unable to rely on using them successfully thereafter. And we will only be able to rely on them in the long term if we practise them occasionally when the opportunities arise. This is why First Aid Certificates have a limited 3 year life. Whether we are prepared to do anything about this dilemma is up to each and every one of us, but here are a few ideas.

Basic Mountain Navigation.

The precision of micro-navigation is taught and assessed when we qualify as a Mountain Leader or Walking Group Leader, but there is usually very little need to practise it when we are out in the hills. Although there seems no logical reason to practice it in good clear weather, it is far safer to do so in such conditions rather than waiting until being overtaken by thick hill fog or darkness. One fundamental problem is appearing to be discourteous if we are trying to concentrate on micro-navigation when accompanied by loquacious friends, but a simple explanation of what we are up to often succeeds. Here are some thoughts:

Direction. It is easy to use a compass on good ground when heading in a straight line, but relying on it when zig-zagging over boggy ground or while avoiding other obstacles is far from straightforward. In such cases it is well to remember the technique of aiming off for a hand-rail.

Distance. It is easier to become adept at very quickly estimating the distance travelled between legs if using maps all of the same scale, such as the ubiquitous 1:50K. Pick a landmark, and relying solely on the information on the map, not on what you can clearly see, estimate either the paces or the time, and then see how near you were. With practice, this skill can be honed quite sharply, so that when overtaken by hill fog or darkness you are justifiably confident. You will need to build up a mental catalogue of factors for steep or rough ground, and this refinement requires persistent effort and determination, (although very difficult to apply on (say) Skye’s Cuillin Ridge! )

Position Fixing. It is surprisingly easy to develop the habit of routinely identifying features in the middle distance which could be used for resection, even if not actually carrying out such a resection.

Backup. The author has had his only map whipped out of his hands in a gale and seen it disappear irretrievably over a cliff edge. He has also found himself without a compass on 3 occasions, once when he hadn’t noticed that he’d dropped it, once when the damping fluid so filled with air bubbles that it became unreadable, and once when he arrested a slip by putting out the hand holding the compass and smashed it. The answer is to carry a second map and a second compass in your rucksack.

GPS. A GPS comes into its own on extended trips in hill fog or in the dark, but initial practice should be carried out in clear daylight and with reference to a paper map as well, until confidence has been built up. A route can be pre-defined on a digital map and uploaded to the GPS, speeding up the navigation task considerably. Whenever the author intends to rely on a GPS, then a second one is always carried in the rucksack, both with fresh batteries and both programmed with the intended route, providing backup.

Rock Climbing

Do you remember what to do as a leader if your second becomes incapacitated half way up a pitch? Can you escape from the system and get both of you safely to the foot of the pitch in 20 minutes? Why not think it through, and then practice it occasionally?

Ice-Axe Self-Arrest

When out in any terrain where there might be the slightest need to rely on ice-axe self-arrest, why not find an early safe opportunity to persuade all members of your party to practise it, in each of the 4 basic configurations, head-first and feet-first, on you back and on your front.

Snow Assessment

There is no justification for ignoring the wisdom of digging and inspecting a snow profile whenever appropriate. Avalanches have killed in England, Scotland and Wales, and even on well-used footpaths; even if a footpath is horizontal and cannot in itself avalanche, it could still be swept by avalanche debris from slopes above.

Alpine Techniques

When you rope-up to cross a crevassed glacier, do all intermediate party members use an isolation loop? the rope carried without slack? Does each person have a short and long prusik loop ready for instant action? Have you considered putting the heaviest party member on the uphill end of the rope, first up, last down, when crossing glaciers, so that if he falls down a crevasse he would have to pull the lighter party members uphill into the same crevasse? If proceeding directly across a glacier from one side to the other, when your obvious straight line is likely to be parallel with the line of crevasses, do you avoid all walking in the same straight line, in order to ensure that you are not all above the same hidden crevasse at the same time? The time to think it through is not when someone has disappeared down a crevasse. You might have been taught the technique of using a z-rig to help extract someone from a crevasse, but are you sure you remember it; Why not use the first good opportunity that presents itself, on say an acclimatisation day, and persuade your party to practise it. Instead of using several prusik knots, why not investigate the use of modern pulley-jammers, which are light to carry, very much quicker to set up and with much lower friction than the traditional set-up? As well as the basic single-rope z-rig, do you remember the various multi-rope alternatives? Do you carry a short auxiliary rope for rescue purposes? Or do you rely on the brawn of a large party?

Remember that mountaineering skills can be lost very easily
if left unused and not practised from time to time.

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This webpage was first web-published in 2009 and was last updated 16th May 2018.