Understanding Variations As A Climbing Instructor

When I run an RCI training course, one of the first points I try to get across to my students is “Don’t be a robot!”.

Being a good RCI is about understanding climbing and the variations of systems used. Its not about replicating one or two systems that you’ve been taught and using those all the time, without fully understanding the pros and cons of each system.

Multiple variations exist for nearly all aspects of climbing. Some climbers/instructors use the same methods all the time, others mix and match as to when they use one method over another.

Knowing what the subtle differences are and how they impact on the system are key parts of being a really good Rock Climbing Instructor.

Personally, I feel the old SPA had been dumbed down considerably and to the point where a person could be capable of an assessed level of safety, but perhaps not fully understanding of the why or when we use one system over another.

Thankfully, the newer RCI syllabus goes beyond this minimum standard and requires the candidate to not just be some automaton, but a more robust scheme, where the candidate should be an active climber, with critical decision making skills and the ability to teach and coach.

Thankfully, on the RCI training courses I’ve delivered, I’ve met candidates with a healthy appetite to learn variations and the reasons why we use them.

Bottom Rope Set Ups

I’ve picked bottom rope set ups as just one example of where variation can differ massively.

All of the pictures below of bottom rope set ups are perfectly safe. Some have enhanced safety, some have subtle differences, some have massive differences. All are appropriate to use and they’re many more variations possible too.

But the important thing isn’t that I have told you these are safe to use or that one is better than another, its that you understand for yourself that they are safe to use and what the pros and cons of each system are.

Some are quick to set up, some are easily adjustable, some have less stretch and some save on the amount of gear needed.

But this blog wasn’t written to teach you 9 different ways to set up a system, it was to make you think about the way you currently do something and investigate the possibility that there’s a different way to do it.

Personal preference is important as an Instructor. We all have different preferences on how we like to do something. The job of the RCI is not only to have a preference, but to understand why they prefer it.

I see new methods  in climbing all the time. Whenenever I do, I first try to fully understand the method and potential benefits/flaws, then I practice them, use them in a variety of scenarios and try and decide whether I like them or not, or if I can tweak it, safely, to suit me.

An RCI assessor asking you “why?” you’ve decided to set up using one system as opposed to another doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong or unsafe, it just means they want to see your justification for why you picked that particular method.

Assessments are pressure cooker environments at the best of time. Most of the pressure will have been created by you and not the assessor. You might read into their questioning tone wrongly and assume you have done something unsafe, when all they want is an explanation why you made a decision.

Trust me, if it is the case you’ve done something unsafe, you’ll know about it.

I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.

Mountain Skills: Consolidation And Assessment

On your Mountain Skills 1 & 2 training you will have been given a host of new skills. This course is designed to make you personally proficient in the Irish and UK hills.

Only through practicing those skills in your own time will you become competent at them.

Hopefully skills that will help you make safe choices in the hills, identify hazards, confidently navigate in poor visibility, manage yourself over complex and steep terrain, deal with minor emergencies and know who to call in the event of a bigger emergency.

But what next?

This blog is for people who have completed their Mountain Skills 1 & 2 training courses and are aiming to complete their consolidation period and perhaps even go for an MS assessment.

Consolidation

A minimum of 14 hill-walks must be logged before going for assessment and there are detailed criteria for what constitutes a hill-walk worthy of logging, which I list below:

To occur in a recognised hill/mountain environment of Ireland or the UK.  While low land trails and coastal walks can be rugged and require the use of hiking boots, they don’t meet the criteria. Perhaps as a guideline, aim to spend the majority of your day at an elevation of above 500 metres or more.

Not a repeat of an already logged walk. Don’t log the same walk twice or do the same walk in reverse and call it a separate walk. However plenty of mountains have many routes to the top, so if you climb and descend the same mountain via two totally separate routes and only share the summit or cover some of the same ground, this can be acceptable.

A minimum of 4 hours duration. Anything less than this isn’t really a full walk, allowing you the opportunity to practice your navigation skills and cover a decent amount of ground.

you should have personally played an active part in organising and implementing the day. If you hop in a friends car, take no role in organising the walk and follow them around for the day, it will teach you nothing. Going solo can be a great way to gain the logistical and navigation skills needed to be personally proficient in the hills.

The route should not solely follow a way marked way or path. While its often necessary to start and finish the route via a waymarked trail of path, it shouldn’t constitute the larger part of the day. The best part of this award is that literally empowers you to get off the beaten track. You will be assessed away from trails and paths, so logging walks on them isnt going to help you.

– the walks should present an opportunity to use relevant skills from the course. If your walks are all logged on perfectly clear weather days, on terrain familiar to you, then its very likely you wont have practiced navigation in a realistic way. Visit areas you are unfamiliar with and go out on days with bad weather, when its safe to do so. Go out at night-time and practice too, if even only for a couple of hours. Its on these days and nights that you hone your skills. 

In addition to the above you must log at least 4 of your walks in the two months prior to your assessment, you should have walked in a number and variety of upland areas and you must hold a valid outdoor first aid certificate.

How To Practice

  • Be sure to practice all the skills taught in the MS courses, they all have their purpose and place when they should be used. For example, don’t rely on pacing for every leg. This is common to see, but It gets tedious and is unrealistic on longer legs when timing might work better. Or know when to use an attack point technique, where you only have to pace the smaller leg.
  • Don’t set out to practice for navigation for the entirety of your 4 to 5 hour walk. Aim to drop in small bits of navigation practice as you enjoy the day out, or it may start to feel like a chore and will put you off practising. Closer to the assessment then, concentrated nav practice hikes are a good thing, to really polish off the skills, but for the most part get out and enjoy the hills.
  • When practicing, set yourself 3 or 4 navigational legs in a row, where you will only reach the target if you get each of the legs correct. That way if you make a mistake theres no bluffing that you got it right and you can self-teach as to where you made the mistake. Viewranger or a sat-map can be excellent tools for confirming where or how we made mistakes. Or for instant feedback confirming that we are correct!
  • Have an experienced friend give you regular mock tests on the hill, or if your friends are inexperienced, have them test you using viewranger or something similar.
  • Don’t forget to practice at night. You probably wont just figure it out on the assessment, but do it somewhere that its very safe to re-locate if you get lost. I used to practice for my MS on a hill near a telephone mast, I always had the safety net of knowing my car was parked beside a flashing red light if I was to get truly lost.
  • Read pages 14 & 15 of the Mountain Skills handbook, it lists clearly the types of navigational legs and tasks that an assessor will be giving you. Practice like you will be assessed. For example, one of the tasks is “You can select and follow a route of not less than 1.5km in length to a given destination using the map only?”. These are the kind of navigational legs you should be setting for yourself when practicing.
  • Visit other parts of the country and practice in unfamiliar terrain.

Pre-Assessment

How will you know when you are ready for the assessment? Some people will just know they are ready and will have the confidence to go ahead. If you’re not quite sure there are a few different options that can help you to decide:

  • Ask a more experienced hiking friend to go for a hike with you and be honest about what they see. Have them throw a few trickier navigation legs at you. Are you confident and assured and able to manage yourself? Then maybe its time for the assessment.
  • Examine the MS1&2 syllabus from the MS handbook. When looking at each part of the syllabus ask yourself do you really understand that skill or aspect of the course? If you really understand it that’s great. It’s a good sign you might be ready for assessment. But if there’s a particular aspect of it that you don’t understand or don’t remember being taught, then do some further training online, ask an experienced friend to teach you or go back to your instructor to ask for further guidance. I always tell customers that their MS course only finishes when they pass their MS assessment and up until then they are welcome to email me if a part of the course needs clarification.
  • There is an assessment checklist on page 33 in the MS handbook. Read it and be honest with yourself about the answers. This will give you a good idea of whether you are ready or not.
  • If its been years since you did your training or you really struggle with an element of the course, consider hiring an instructor for a short refresher course, either 1:1 or as part of a group. We can only absorb so much info at one time and we lose more over time, so its common to be rusty or completely forget things. A refresher course can be well worth doing and an element of “mock assessment” can be incorporated into it to give you a feel for the real thing.
  • If in doubt, do more. There’s nothing like booking and getting your assessment date to focus your mind. If you have an upcoming assessment and don’t feel quite ready then get out and practice more. Lots more.
  • Read over the sample written paper in the MS handbook. If you are struggling to answer the questions you may need further training or practice.
  • The above consolidation criteria are minimums. Don’t aim for 14 walks as a target. I know from my own personal experience that ticking the minimum requirements can start to feel like a chore, whereas its been on the additional walks I’ve done that the skills really sank in.  

On The Assessment

Its common for people to be nervous in the run up to and on the assessment. For some people it will have been a long time, or even first time, they were assessed on a set of practical skills.  The assessor will allow for all that.

Below are a couple of tips worth remembering on the day.

  1. The contour features you will be asked to navigate to are always the same. They will be big or medium sized features and not tiny obscure ones. At a mountain skills level they will be Spot Heights, Spurs, Cols, Re-entrants and major slope changes, either in angle or direction, covering multiple contour lines. If an assessor is asking you to find a small single contour line feature, hardly noticeable on the map, then they are either testing you too hard, or you can take it as a compliment that you have been doing really well and they are looking to challenge you. This would be appropriate to do a couple of times over the course of an assessment if you were preforming well, but you shouldn’t consistently be asked to locate difficult contour features. This would normally be the standard of the Mountain Leader candidate.
  • Assessors can get a reputation for being stern or austere, which can add to the pressure of the assessment, but before you judge them understand that their feedback to you generally has to be muted. For example, if an assessor praises you too much you could become complacent and make errors, affecting your confidence and adding pressure when its not needed. For this reason, assessors will rarely tell you whether you were right or wrong on a navigational leg. It should be obvious on the next leg if you weren’t at the spot you thought you were and it’s good to let your assessor know that you can correct a mistake.
  • If you do make a mistake on one of your navigational leg, it is not a big problem. Keep calm, think rationally and try do better on the next leg. It would be over-zealous to think isolated mistakes will affect the outcome of your assessment. The assessor will be looking for consistency, but will forgive the odd error. We all make them. If the pattern is that you consistently make the same mistakes, then this could lead to a fail or a deferral however. A pattern of mistakes shows you aren’t fluent with the skills needed.
  • Use appropriate techniques. If it’s a blue sky day and you are asked to navigate to an unmistakable nearby feature, which you can clearly see, then there is no need for any navigation technique other than using your eyes and feet. At the other end of the spectrum, if visibility is poor, use every tool at your disposal to make sure you can find what you are looking for. Be realistic with your legs, the assessor isn’t trying to trick you, they just want to see you use the appropriate tactic for the job.
  • Don’t be over eager to show how good your compass skills are. A lot of legs can be navigated by using a map on its own or for the most part. For example, if you are using an attack point as a technique, it can often be achievable to locate the bigger object by using the map alone, then using the compass to locate the smaller nearby object. This will be quicker, easier and show the assessor you are confident. You will be given plenty of opportunity to have your compass skills tested.
  • Concentrate! A two day assessment like this gives you ample time to show a range of your skills but also your ability to focus and concentrate. Snack regularly, drink plenty of water to keep your brain at full power and keep your concentration at all times. Don’t switch off when its someone else’s leg. Its an exciting challenge and welcome it as so, it’ll make passing all the more sweeter.
  • Make sure you bring extra layers and that your gear is up to standard for poor weather. An assessment is not like just going out for a long walk. You will stop and start a lot! Sometimes the stops can be lengthy and the weather can be atrocious at any time of year in Ireland. Dress accordingly.
  • Don’t take too long working out your navigational legs. It should only take a couple of minutes to formulate a plan and calculate your bearings etc. If you take an excessive amount of time to calculate a bearing or decide on a plan, it’s a clear sign you haven’t practiced enough and aren’t fluent with the skills. However, a good assessor will allow for nerves early on and to let you settle into the pace of the assessment.
  • Really understand what it is the assessor wants to see from you over the courses of 2 days. At the end of the assessment, he/she will want to be absolutely clear in their mind that you are personally capable of keeping yourself safe in the hills in a variety of conditions. They will be personally endorsing your pass. They don’t want to turn on the news the next weekend and hear you’ve walked off a cliff, so they are doing you no favours if they make it too easy for you.
  • Don’t try anything new on the assessment. If you haven’t practiced a technique you probably wont execute it correctly on the assessment, no matter how much you think it might work. The same goes for equipment, if you are breaking in a pair of new boots or haven’t tested a waterproof layer yet, its bound to go wrong.

To sum it up, the easiest way to pass the assessment is to have all your navigation skills sharp, turn up prepared and with the right equipment and have an enthusiastic approach.

Its a fantastic feeling to pass an assessment, to have an assessor validate your becoming self-reliant in the mountains and for all the possibilities and adventures that will allow in the future, enjoy it!

Self-Rescue For Climbers

Full disclosure, this isn’t so much an informative blog as an advertisement. Not just for me as an Instructor, but for my colleagues too.

Upskilling your self-rescue techniques should be a consideration of all climbers at some point in their progression.

In this post I mention just a few of the problems that might arise for climbers, but no solutions. For them I suggest you book onto a climbers self-rescue course.

If you’re interested in becoming more self-sufficient as a climber, then get in touch with me or another AMI instructor and schedule a training course.

I know I love teaching these kind of courses and I’d be stoked to run more.

Problem Solving & Self-Rescue Scenarios

The common answer from most climbers when shown a self-rescue method is that they would have “figured out” a solution or done something similar, given time.

Time is a luxury in problem solving and rescue scenarios though. Keeping a calm head and thinking many steps ahead are important too.

Lets look at some scenarios that can occur, some common, some less so, that climbers should be able to resolve in a timely and safe way.

Some can happen in any terrain, some are easily solved at single pitch crags and some are made extremely complex by being in multipitch terrain.

Climbing above a runner

If your second climbs above a piece of placed gear it puts them in a similar scenario to a lead climber, in that they have gone from being top roped to being open to a dynamic fall.

If the second cant downclimb or reach down to fix the problem themselves then its up to the leader to solve the problem from above and the answer can differ slightly depending on how quickly the second needs to be safeguarded.

If they are comfy on a big ledge holding a jug then we have more time to solve the problem compared to if they were crimping on small holds and close to pumping out.

The answer is a reasonably straightforward one, but are you going to come up with it in a hurry under the pressure of time and a friend falling?

Ascending/Descending A Rope

I once abseiled in to sea cliff route which looked bone dry from above to find the bottom half soaking wet and it was going to be a nightmare, if even possible, to lead. Walking out wasn’t an option and as it was a traversing route, my friend at the top couldn’t drop me a top rope to climb it.

Using a fairly simple process with prusik and a klemhesit. I ascended the 25m abseil rope to get out of there. Simple if you know how I guess.

Ascending/descending the rope can be part of a simple solution or a smaller part of a much bigger and more involved scenario.

Either way, you’ll want to make sure you can do it safely, efficiently and with a good back up knot.

Hauling

For whatever reason, your second cant do a move, that you could do, to complete the pitch. If it were a single pitch the answer is straightforward, you could lower them to the ground and abseil down to clean the gear.

If it’s a multipitch though, then you may have to set up a haul system to get them past the hard crux move and on to easier terrain. Essentially a pulley system, but If you do it in the wrong order or get the parts wrong you could cause a very big and dynamic fall for your second and possibly a shock load on your anchor.

The problem can go from a minor one to a major one very fast.  

Even if you do set up everything right, did you know that hauls/pulleys create increased forces on the belay anchor? Do we need to beef up the anchor then? A good AMI instructor will know. They’ll also know all the other angles you may not have considered yet.

And what differs between using a belay plate in the conventional way or when its in guide mode? Or the difference between an assisted haul and an unassisted haul?

Escaping the system

You’ve just lead one of the lower pitches on a remote multipitch. You’re comfortably belaying your partner up enjoying the stoke of an amazing route so far, next thing you know the ropes dislodge a small flake and as its drops it hits your second on the arm. They’re fine, but they’re pretty sure the flake has broken their arm.

They certainly wont be climbing the rest of the pitches to the top and retreat downwards seems like the best option, but it’ll be up to you to get ye both out of there safely.

The solution isn’t going to be a quick one, but after you’ve tied off the belay plate and taken a second to think through the process, you come up with a plan. Part one of that plan is for you to escape the system you’re tied into, while remaining in your harness.

Would you know how to build a system of weight transfers and redirects to allow you untie from the rope and start the next part of the rescue, while keeping yourself safe?

As for the next part of the rescue, well that’s where it gets complex and best saved for a training course.

The really complex one!

So far a lot of the problems have been from the point of the view of the leader. But what about when it goes wrong for the leader and its up to the seconding climber to self-rescue?

Imagine a scenario where our leader has climbed up and traversed away from you on a multipitch route, to make it even more complex, lets say you are belaying them from a hanging belay. They fall, knock their head and are unconscious, hanging from the rope off their last piece of gear.

As in nearly all serious scenarios, I expect you will immediately call the emergency services, but they could be a while in getting to you. You have the potential to assist your partner, but every minute will count.

One wrong move and it could make the whole situation worse. For example, you cant even begin to move in an upwards direction as your hanging belay will start to lift up too. A simple fix, but have you ever been shown how to negate an upward pull on the belay anchor?

This is a real big scale scenario, hopefully the kind of thing that you will never have to experience and completely outside the realms of teaching someone on a one day course. But the bones of executing this rescue lies in mastery of the simpler methods listed above.

On the last professional assessment I did, I was asked to perform the above rescue. I knew exactly what I had to do, performed it near to perfectly and it still took me 40 minutes in total. I never stopped for a second of that, sweating profusely, while trying to exude a calm demeanour.

Not the kind of solution you figure out and execute safely if you’ve not been trained and practiced for it.

Problem avoidance

Its worth stating that the best way to solve a problem is to avoid it in the first place and experienced climbers do for the most part stay alert to hazards and pitfalls.

But problems do occur and small issues can become big issues quite quickly if we don’t know what we’re doing.

Being an experienced climber doesn’t automatically make you an experienced problem solver.

I hope the above post gives some food for thought, until next time.

Hypothermia In The Hills

Recognising Hypothermia

If you’ve spent any time walking in the Irish hills and mountains, you will be well aware of what mild hypothermia feels like, even if you didn’t fully recognise it at the time.

Hypothermia doesn’t Just happen in the depths of winter, in the upland it can catch us out at any time of year, especially with the rapid changes of weather we are used to.

Prevention is obviously better than cure, so when we are allowed on the hills again we should come prepared.

No matter what the weather is like when we leave the carpark, we should always be prepared to expect harsher conditions and carry the right amount and kind of equipment with us.

At the bottom of the page Ive listed an appropriate gear list for hiking in Ireland.

But we can all be caught off guard on the hills, so how can we recognise hypothermia as its happening and manage it efficiently, before it becomes more serious.

Below I’ve listed simple and concise explanations to help us in spotting its onset and managing the outcomes.

What is Hypothermia?

To simplify it, Hypothermia is when our body is losing heat faster than it can create heat.

What Causes Hypothermia:

Exposure to cold weather (wind, rain etc) or any condition that decreases heat production or increases heat loss (over exertion, lack of fuel) or a combination of these things.

Signs and symptoms:

Shivering, confusion, putting on clothes or even paradoxically removal of clothing.

Look out for “The umbles”: Mumbles, bumbles, grumbles and stumbles.

What are the stages of hypothermia?

Mild Hypothermia:

We can arrive at a stage of mild hypothermia quite fast and it can be as simple as having reduced circulation, shivering and feeling in grumpy mood, which may easily go unnoticed by others in our group. We are still able to move under our own steam, but we need to take positive action to prevent our condition getting worse.

Medium Hypothermia:

This will be much more noticeable as shivering stops and confusion increases. We will have a lack of coordination, slower breathing, weaker pulse, increased confusion and possibly feeling sleepy. We will be laboured in our movement and possibly not moving without assistance and we will need to take urgent action.

Severe Hypothermia:

We will probably not be able to move of our volition or even with assistance. A weak pulse and difficulty in breathing will be noticeable and we will possibly lose consciousness as our self defence mechanisms begin to shut our bodies down to protect the brain. We will be in need of urgent medical attention.

How do I treat Hypothermia?

Its not as simple as throwing on another layer and that’s it, but there is a simple formula to remember how to treat lesser degrees of Hypothermia

                Fuel + movement = Heat

While this might seem simple, its extremely effective, especially at the early stages, but one without the other is useless. If you give someone fuel but don’t get them moving, then they will continue to get cold. If you get someone moving, but haven’t given them fuel, they will burn more energy and lose more heat, possibly pushing them into a more advanced stage.

Once in a more developed stage, getting a person moving enough to stay warm might not be easy and I would be seriously considering calling emergency services if this was the case.

If the person cant move because of an injury or incapacitation, then we should definitely be calling emergency services and making the person as warm as we can while we wait. Click on this link to read a separate blog about emergency equipment we should be carrying on the hills with us as leisure users.

Treatment for mild hypothermia:

Warm sweetened drinks, food, shelter, warm clothing, physical activity.

Treatment for moderate hypothermia:

Heat blankets, fuel, less strenuous or gentle activity and movement.

Treatment for Severe Hypothermia:

The treatment will have to be administered by trained professionals. A gradual raising of the core temperature, warm IV fluids, peritoneal lavage (a warm fluid based washing of the abdominal area)

While the above is a concise explanation of Hypothermia I would strongly suggest all active hill users learn as much as possible about the topic. Early identification of the signs and appropriate treatment is so effective, just please don’t do the “it’ll be grand” approach and solider on.

Id also suggest gaining an outdoor specific first aid qualification too, it might just save a life some time.

I hope the above is useful and please get in touch if you would like to discuss any of the points made.

Gear Checklist for Hillwalking In Ireland:

waterproof jacket and trousers. No matter what the forecast is, waterproofs should always be carried. Mountains can create their own weather systems, different to that of the local lowland area. They can also be excellent as a windbreaker layer, even if its not raining. The two jackets I use are a North Face Summit Series Goretex jacket and a Columbia Outdry jacket and I really like both. I tend to spend a lot of money on my waterproof jackets and go slightly cheaper on my trousers.

hats, gloves, buff. and spares in a dry bag. I have both expensive items and cheap Penneys items. All will work, just some will work better than others, but cost doesn’t have to be a barrier.

Baselayer – again you can spend a lot of money or go cheap with generic items, once they are made from a material good for wicking sweat then they are good enough. Polyester/merino/bamboo are good, cottons are bad.

hiking boots. On Irish mountains we don’t get the perfect quality trails and tracks that you find in other countries so appropriate hiking specific boots with ankle support are essential and runners are just a bad idea. Don’t buy them online either as fit is everything and a good outdoor shop will be able to help you choose the best fit for you. I personally like La Sportiva boots, they work well for narrower feet, so aren’t for everyone.

warm breathable layers – again you don’t have to buy specific hiking clothing, obviously purpose designed clothing will perform better, but any clothing designed to be use for activity or the outdoors is appropriate, for women gym leggings are a great option instead of trousers. Like baselayers make sure they aren’t cotton or denim. Cottons and Denims don’t dry fast and you can lose a lot of body heat as your system works hard to warm up the cold fabric. This is an issue on a wet day as well as a hot day, when sweat covered clothing can sap at our energy levels stealthily.

Spare layers – a warm mid layer, either fleece layer or a softshell, stored in a dry bag is essential for if the weather changes or if we get cold while stopped.

Hiking socks. Specifically designed hiking socks are expensive, but they last a long time and will help prevent getting blisters and that’s worth any money. I like Bridgedale socks.

food/water/snacks Enough for a long day on the hills, but also consider bringing some “what if” emergency snacks too, in case you are out longer than you intended.

Backpack. A well designed backpack allows you to carry all the weight on your hips and is designed and cushioned appropriately. Its sore and frustrating if you carry the load on your shoulders all day and when we are sore and frustrate we make bad decisions in the outdoors. Bad decisions that can lead to incidents. I only ever use an Osprey Talon 33 Litre bag for day to day hiking and highly recommend it. It makes sense to buy a bag from a company that only design and make bags as all their research and development goes into that product.

– Trekking Poles. – I always carry a pair when Im in the outdoors, I don’t always use them, but I always have them with me. At first they can feel awkward to get used to, but once you are used to them they are excellent for moving efficiently and extending the lifespan of your knees. I use them a lot in descent to assist with a recurring knee injury. They can also be great to give to a nervous companion on steep descents, as a crutch for someone with a light sprain or to use as a splint for an injured arm or leg. I use Black Diamond Trail Poles. All of the above might take some time and cost to put together, so now is as good time as any to start preparing, so that we are ready in advance of needing them. The gear might also seem heavy and restrictive, but the extra weight will soon be forgotten about and will ultimately only make us fitter on the hills.

I hope the above is of some help and I’m happy to answer any questions, so please feel free to get in touch if you do.

5 Gear Choices For Increased Safety On The Hills

When the lock-down restrictions ease, the numbers going hill-walking in Ireland will undoubtedly increase, some will be experienced and returning to the hills, others newer and less experienced.

This extra increase in participation will no doubt put extra pressure on the mountain rescue services, all while they try to keep their own volunteer members, and their families, safe from harm.

Mountain Rescue teams have issued advice for people to be cautious in their return to the outdoors, to not take on more than they are able for, be it physically or navigationally.

They have also advised that those in need of rescue or assistance should prepare themselves for potentially longer response times or even the possibility of an overnight on the hills, while waiting for daylight to safely navigate home.

Nobody, experienced or otherwise, goes into the hills planning to have an accident, but accidents still happen. Now is a good time to plan and prepare for the possibility.

I have included at the bottom of the page a checklist of the everyday gear people should bring on the hills. To most it will be obvious what these items are but below I’ve listed 5 emergency items hillwalkers should consider bringing out too, but hopefully never need.

I’ve also recommended Irish based outdoors suppliers, as now more than ever its important to shop local.

Group Shelter:

Also called a bivvy bag or bothy bag, this is possibly one of the most important items any hiker can carry with them. Essentially a portable tent, without the bulk or weight, they can be stored in the bottom of your pack with convenience. They come in all sizes from smaller 2 person ones to larger 12 person sizes and are low cost.

They provide immediate protection from cold and biting winds or rain and within minutes of getting inside them, the body heat of the group will be keeping everyone toasty. Whether you are lost in bad weather or keeping an injured friend warm while waiting for rescue, the benefit of a group shelter cannot be overstated.

I think this should be mandatory equipment for all hikers and considering the present need for social distancing, perhaps each hiker should carry a small personal one instead of the norm of one between a large group.

Adventure.ie sell an excellent Life-systems 2 person option in their Glendalough Store and online.

https://store.adventure.ie/gear/hike-travel/hill-safety/

Headtorch:

Getting caught out in fading light or after dark is an easy thing to happen. Without the ability to see where we are going, we are faced with the option of stumbling around in the dark or waiting it out til the next morning. Neither are pleasant options. Tripping over a small divet can be more likely than walking off a big cliff, but both can injure you badly.

A cheap 5 euro generic headtorch isn’t a good option here, they wont stand up to the rigours of mountainous weather. Considering reputable outdoor brands like Black Diamond and Petzl have entry level headtorches from 20 euro, this should be again be a no brainer, just don’t forget the fresh batteries.

Both Adventure.ie and Alpinesports.ie stock excellent affordable options.

https://store.adventure.ie/gear/lighting/

https://www.alpinesports.ie/equipment/lighting.html

First Aid Kit

There are excellent ready packaged options out there aimed at outdoor users and all the leading outdoor shops will stock them, but sometimes they have apparatus included that we are unlikely to use. Even more likely is that we don’t replenish the commonly used items in our kit. Cuts, sprains and breaks are the common injuries.

If cost is a barrier or you don’t want to carry the bulk of an all purpose first aid kit, then just make your own. It doesn’t have to be complicated, get a waterproof dry bag or zip-lock bag and stock it with alcohol wipes, gloves, face mask, plasters, different types and sizes of bandages, an extra large bandage to control bleeding and a roller bandage. Also, a small roll of duct tape.

It will be easier to keep track of what’s been used, it will barely take up space in your bag and you’ll be more likely to carry it.

A whistle should be included too, by far the best way to get attention in the hills or to assist a rescue team in finding you in poor visibility.

Foil Blanket

Also sometimes called space blankets, there are plenty on the market at a low cost, low weight addition to your backpack. They are super efficient at retaining body heat for an injured person and their big benefit is that they can be worn by a cold or near hypothermic hiker while moving.

There are some very cheap pocket sized options, which are really useful, but its worth noting they pose a potential risk to helicopters in that they can be sucked up into their engines. So remember to pack them away if being approached by a helicopter following an incident.

This is less likely to happen with heavier and more robust (albeit costlier) emergency bivis blankets like this one offered by Great Outdoors.

https://www.greatoutdoors.ie/shop/emergency-bivvy

Map and Compass

Experienced hikers get disoriented all the time and its not an issue, its not knowing how to relocate and get back on track that can be the issue. So many hikers go into the hills, either without a map and compass or with a set, but without the knowledge and practice of how to use them.

Navigation is a tool that needs to be kept sharp in order for it to be effective. So if you’ve never learned how to or its been a long time since you did, you probably wont “figure it out” while under pressure on the hills.

Consider getting some navigation training or doing a refresher. Currently there are numerous providers offering online refreshers. While they aren’t a substitute for a full course, they are an excellent option for preparation that we can be taking in advance of being allowed on the hills again.

When full courses are allowed to run, The Mountaineering Ireland approved Mountain Skills course is an excellent place to start. While I am a provider of the course

climbit.ie/mountain-skills-training-courses/

there are also multiple other providers and with some research it’ll be easy to find an Instructor who teaches the course regularly and comes highly recommended. If in doubt as to who to choose, look for Instructors or Leaders who advertise the AMI or UIMLA badge. Trust the badges as a sign of a professionalism and quality in the outdoors.

https://i0.wp.com/climbit.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/AMI_logo_400x400.jpg


https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fc/Uimla.gif/220px-Uimla.gif?resize=85%2C85&ssl=1

Regular Gear checklist:

waterproof jacket and trousers. No matter what the forecast is, waterproofs should always be carried. Mountains can create their own weather systems, different to that of the local lowland area. They can also be excellent as a windbreaker layer, even if its not raining. The two jackets I use are a North Face Summit Series Goretex jacket and a Columbia Outdry jacket and I really like both. I tend to spend a lot of money on my waterproof jackets and go slightly cheaper on my trousers.

hats, gloves, buff. and spares in a dry bag. I have both expensive items and cheap Penneys items. All will work, just some will work better than others, but cost doesn’t have to be a barrier.

Baselayer – again you can spend a lot of money or go cheap with generic items, once they are made from a material good for wicking sweat then they are good enough. Polyester/merino/bamboo are good, cottons are bad.

hiking boots. On Irish mountains we don’t get the perfect quality trails and tracks that you find in other countries so appropriate hiking specific boots with ankle support are essential and runners are just a bad idea. Don’t buy them online either as fit is everything and a good outdoor shop will be able to help you choose the best fit for you. I personally like La Sportiva boots, they work well for narrower feet, so aren’t for everyone.

warm breathable layers – again you don’t have to buy specific hiking clothing, obviously purpose designed clothing will perform better, but any active wear or clothing designed for the outdoors is appropriate. For women gym leggings are a great option instead of trousers. Like baselayers make sure they aren’t cotton or denim. Cottons and Denims don’t dry fast and you can lose a lot of body heat as your system works hard to warm up the cold fabric. This is an issue on a wet day as well as a hot day, when sweat covered clothing can sap at our energy levels stealthily.

Spare layers – a warm mid layer, either fleece layer or a softshell, stored in a dry bag is essential for if the weather changes or if we get cold while stopped.

Hiking socks. Specifically designed hiking socks are expensive, but they last a long time and will help prevent getting blisters and that’s worth any money. I like Bridgedale socks.

food/water/snacks Enough for a long day on the hills, but also consider bringing some “what if” emergency snacks too, in case you are caught out longer than you intended.

Backpack. A well designed backpack allows you to carry all the weight on your hips and is designed and cushioned appropriately. Its sore and frustrating if you carry the load on your shoulders all day and when we are sore and frustrated we make bad decisions in the outdoors. Bad decisions that can lead to incidents. I only ever use an Osprey Talon 33 Litre bag for day to day hiking and highly recommend it. It makes sense to buy a bag from a company that only design and make bags as all their research and development goes into that product.

– Trekking Poles. – I always carry a pair when Im in the outdoors, I don’t always use them, but I always have them with me. At first they can feel awkward to get used to, but once you are used to them they are excellent for moving efficiently and extending the lifespan of your knees. I use them a lot in descent to assist with a recurring knee injury. They can also be great to give to a nervous companion on steep descents, as a crutch for someone with a light sprain or to use as a splint for an injured arm or leg. I use Black Diamond Trail Poles.

All of the above might take some time and cost to put together, so now is as good time as any to start preparing, so that we are ready in advance of needing them. The gear might also seem heavy and restrictive, but the extra weight will soon be forgotten about and will ultimately only make us fitter on the hills.

While I’m aware that the above might seem excessive or over-cautious, I genuinely can’t think where Id leave any of it out in normal circumstances, so I definitely don’t advise leaving any of it out for the near future, when our need to be self-sufficient and stay injury free in the hills will be more important than ever.

I hope the above is of some help and I’m happy to answer any questions, so please feel free to get in touch if you do.

Why A False Loop is Unsafe

A false loop is created when a sloppy stopper knot is tied to back up another not, most commonly in the case of climbers tieing in to the rope.

Often they are just small loops, which lessens the potential of what can go wrong, but as seen on a recent post online, some people do climb with excessively large false loops, which can lead to a whole new array of problems.

Lets look at when and why a false loop isn’t desirable in climbing:

Its unsafe: If a climber clips into the false loop instead of the rope loop for safety, lets say on a multipitch belay stance, it could be catastrophic. There have been recorded instances of this occurring and leading to accidents.

Bottom roping: if running a group session in a climbing wall with novices, it would be easy for a novice to remove the carabiner from the proper loop and clip it to the false loop and again there are recorded incidents of this happening each year.

Leading: If the loop was excessively large, a lead climber could accidentally clip in to a quickdraw via the false loop and not the live rope. If this was on trad gear they could possibly lift out the trad gear and if it was on bolts they could be yanked backwards, causing a fall onto a false loop.

It just looks plain wrong: and If someone can be that sloppy with the simplest knot, then how sloppy are they with the rest of the aspects of their climbing, like building anchors.

Entrapment: Much like if you tie in with too big a loop, the large false loop can snag on protruding holds or create a suspension hazard, like in a climbing wall where there are large upturned holds. Its even possible for body parts to become ensnared or trapped in a loop. In the picture above it would be quite easy for the climber to catch a leg or arm in the false loop, creating an unorthodox fall. The potential for a choke hazard on a stupidly big loop is there too, were you to get your head stuck in the loop.

Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post or other skills and remember always buddy check and “dress & stress” knots thoroughly!

When should I Retire My Rope?

Is climbing on an older well used rope the equivalent of knowing you have bald tyres on your car and hoping you don’t skid on a slick road?

Ropes are expensive and we all like to get the most out of them, but knowing when to retire or assign them to an alternative use is an important decision.

RECOMMENDED LIFESPAN

Lets first look at some approximate guidelines from manufacturers about the life spans per usage of a rope:

Daily usage: less than 1 year

Weekly usage: approx. 1 year

Regular monthly Usage: approx. 3 years

Regular annual usage: approx. 5 years

Rare annual usage: approx. 5-7 years

Never used: approx. 10 years

The above guidelines make for interesting reading as I know ropes get used way past their recommended lifespan all the time.

With any guideline and approximations, there is a degree of vagueness and manufacturers will err on the side of caution. These are also “normal usage” guidelines and don’t allow for what happens to the rope during the lifespan, the abnormal conditions it experiences, or even how its been stored and cared for when not in use.

A rope getting heavily stressed over an edge on its first day of use could be dangerously damaged, way more than one that’s barely used by its owner over a 5 year period.

Lets look at two identical 10.0mm dynamic single ropes I have purchased:

Rope 1

Purchased in 2011, the rope was used a lot at first for leading on trad, then for bottom roping and now gets used solely in a teaching capacity for demonstrating set ups. It has no fuzziness or swollen lumpiness, no sheath slippage and through touch and bend inspection, no apparent damage to its core.

Its lost some of it dynamic quality, but for the eye to see, looks in great condition. It is no longer ever used to climb on

Rope 2

Purchased in 2016, the rope was used as an all rounder at first and used often. It saw a good amount of work and was used on a good number of occasions for roped scrambling. It was used on multiple occasions to direct belay off coarse rock. Its diameter is visibly swollen, it now measures 12mm with a calipers and has a fuzzy and rough exterior. There is no bunching or sheath slippage or apparent damage to its core.

Its lost some a lot of its dynamic properties and is visibly in poor condition and is no longer used in any capacity.

The point of the above two descriptions of rope is obvious, the latter had a harsher workload than the former and as such measuring its lifespan by time alone is a useless factor.

As climbers, we must be diligent to record the various uses and hardships that a rope goes through and be willing to absorb the cost of repurposing a rope when its time has come.

Storage conditions

The conditions we store our ropes in have a massive outcome on their lifespan. All manner of things can affect the quality and safety of the rope and often the damage can be hidden internally.

  • UV damage to the sheath from over exposure to the sun
  • Chemical damage from contact with solvents or corrosive materials
  • Collected dirt/grit/salt damage grinding on the inner core

We must be as careful when we store them as we are when we use them. Below are some of the common issues leading to rope damage.

  • Using regular ink to mark our rope rather than specialised marking ink
  • Leaving ropes on a floor in the shed as cement dust is corrosive
  • Oils and diesels left in the boot of our car coming in contact with the rope
  • Some powerful batteries can give off gases, so be careful if storing ropes near power tools

Guidelines for good rope maintenance

Below are some tips for extending the lifespan and maximising the safety of our ropes.

  • Regularly inspect your ropes by touch when coiling and flaking your ropes.
  • Fully investigate any irregularities to the touch or feel of the rope or if unsure, ask a more experienced person to also inspect anything suspect.
  • If you can see the core of the rope protruding from the sheath, its too damaged to use as a single piece of rope.
  • Likewise if you feel a flat spot in the rope, consider the internal core too damaged to risk using.
  • Wash them occasionally using just lukewarm water or manufacturer approved cleaning agents.
  • Dry them properly and don’t store them wet or damp where they wont dry out.
  • Use a rope bag when at a dusty/dirty crag to keep grit from working inside the sheath
  • Dont buy a second hand rope, you cant tell where its been or what its done.
  • Don’t lend a rope to somebody, unless you totally trust them to look after it and tell you how it was used/abused.
  • Store the rope in a dedicated bag/box/area, where you can seal the container and contact with a chemical is impossible.
  • Consider retiring any rope that has been subject to a fall with a very high fall factor rating. These types of falls are uncommon, but do occur.
  • If the rope becomes stiff and unworkable, its possibly time to retire it, as its properties have been compromised beyond their intended usage.

To sum up, if your gut instinct tells you a ropes integrity might be compromised, either by its uses, appearance, how it feels or how you stored it, consider retiring it and buying a new one.

We change our climbing shoes all the time when we notice damage to them and they are considerably more expensive than the average 10mm single rope.

I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.

The Benefits Of Double/Half Ropes

I try to use double/half ropes as much as possible when I’m climbing trad routes, unless I’m climbing at a very small crag like Ballyryan.

If you’re not used to using them, they might seem like extra faff and for new climbers theres a cost factor, but once you start using them you’ll never go back.

Half/Double ropes shouldn’t be confused with twin ropes.

As per the diagram below, twin ropes both get clipped to each piece of gear, while half/double ropes get clipped to alternate pieces.

So what are the benefits of using double ropes?

Your ropes run in straighter lines. Use one rope to clip pieces placed on the right and the other to clip pieces placed on the left.

This makes falling way safer than if you were just using a single rope.

In the event of a fall, it allows the pieces on each side to be pulled in a downward direction. If you had been using a single rope, the forces of pull on the gear could have been sideways and not downwards.

Makes long abseils easier. If you have to bail off a long multipitch route or you purposely intend to abseil from the top of a tall crag, then a lot of faff and hassle can be solved by climbing on double ropes. For example, using 60m doubles its possible to abseil down the main face of Glendalough, saving loads of time.

It reduces rope drag. On wandering climbs like Doolin Rouge or The Ghost, where the few bits of gear available are on opposite sides of the climb, it would create massive rope drag to just use one rope. While sometimes unsafe (point 1 above) and generally just annoying, if you were to use a single rope on a meandering climb a point would arrive where progression would probably be hindered.

Not only will progress be hindered but a zig-zagging rope will be more likely to “walk” your cams and lift placed nuts from their original placement, which could lead to the piece failing in the event of a fall.

It can make building anchors simpler. If you’ve done a long pitch and are running short on rope, it gives you twice as much rope to play with and can be the difference in making a straightforward quick anchor.

Reduces potential deck outs. The potential for deck outs or larger falls can be avoided by alternating the ropes you clip in on, a good reason to use doubles on straight vertical cracks.

When using a single rope, the moment you pull slack up to clip into gear can be the most dangerous.

Safeguarding the second climber: If the person seconding you is nervous or not psyched on seconding traverse sections, then you can place additional high runners, not so much to protect you on lead but to protect their potential to swing while following you. Doing this with a single rope uses up a lot of extendable quickdraws or creates a ton of rope-drag

Dissipation of force under load. If you fall, using two ropes can spread the force of the fall between the gear on either side, but this can also be down to having an attentive belayer.




Teams of 3 can move faster. If you’re climbing as a team of three, then the leader can bring both following climbers up at the same time in parallel (albeit slightly staggered).

Are there any disadvantages?

Belaying. It can initially be a bit of a faff to get used to, but you’ll soon learn a system that works for you and be cruising with it.

Cost, weight, storage. Everything is twice what is with a single rope, but I think the advantages trump these inconveniences.

Clipping both ropes. If you clip both ropes to the one quickdraw, you could possibly damage or burn the ropes as they abrade against each other during a fall. So make sure you don’t clip two ropes into the same QD or learn more about using triple rated ropes.

I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.


Understanding Dynamic Ropes

Considering the importance of the rope in climbing, its surprising how little most climbers understand about their construction and ratings.

Below is a brief explanation of what the markings on the packaging of a new rope mean.

It would be easy to write at length on each of these markings and at times its been harder to make a concise but sufficient explanation.

This particular rope will serve me well for climbing single pitch routes in the Burren during the summer but of less use to me at Dalkey, Glendalough or Scottish Winter. Lets see why:


The 1 indicates that this is a single rated rope.

Single rope: designed to be used on its own.

Half/double ropes: designed to be used as a pair, with only one rope clipped into each piece of protection.

Twin ropes: designed to be used as a pair, clipping both ropes into the same piece of protection.      


Triple rated ropes are designed to be used as single, twin or half ropes. As such are the ultimate multipurpose tool and are priced accordingly.

UIAA Falls: 7-8.

This does not mean that after experiencing 7-8 standard lead falls, your rope is no good and should be retired. A common misconception.

Modern ropes don’t generally break, they cut or abrade.

The kinds of forces used in testing are extremely severe and not generally the kind of forces the average lead fall can create.

All UIAA certified ropes undergo a similar test process. To pass, it must survive a minimum of 5 simulated falls without breaking. This rope has failed after 7-8 of those test falls.

Delving into those fall factor forces is separate a blog post in itself, so while its safe to say that this rope is perfectly strong enough to withstand a lot more than just 7-8 “normal” lead fall scenarios, maybe if I have had a couple of big whippers in a row then I’ll take a break from using this rope and allow it to shrink back to normal size.

If I was to have the kind of fall simulated in the test, I’d probably not be going for a second attempt at the climb.

A higher fall rating can however indicate a better quality of rope, with increased durability and lifespan.

Impact Force, 8.4kn.

This is the force transmitted from the rope to the climber under a fall, essentially, the ropes ability to absorb the energy of fall.

The lower the number the more pleasant the fall.

Again, it is tested using high fall factors and doesn’t allow for the forces being absorbed by the climbers and belayers bodies, rope slippage through the belay device etc, which would occur in a real life fall and would also contribute to a comfortable “soft catch”.

This rating can be a consideration for the trad climber as the lower the IF number, the better the dissipation of the forces created during a fall and the less force transmitted into the placed protection.

A sports climber taking multiple lobs on a project might appreciate the comfort of a rope with a low IF number.

In the case of bottom/top roping, you ideally want a higher IF number as the forces created during this type of fall are low and we probably want less stretch, to avoid the climber hitting their ankles off a ledge or the ground.  

Elongation in Use, 6.5%

This is the amount of rope stretch created when hanging a static weight from the rope. In testing they use a static weight of 80kg.

So if an 80kg person was to hang on the full length of this rope, it would stretch to become a 42.6 metre rope, or 6.5% of the ropes length.

The thinner the rope, the more likely it is to stretch further. A rope will stretch more when wet but it will lose its elasticity the more it is used.

Proportion of Sheath, 40%

This is how much of the construction of the rope is made up of sheath and how much of it is made up of the inner core (60%).

The core is where the primary strength and elasticity of the rope is, but the sheath determines its ability to withstand abrasion and its durability.

Remember, ropes generally don’t break, they cut, so this is an important rating to take into consideration.

This is why I have one set of ropes of working with (these run over more edges and take more abuse) and a different set for personal climbing (these have less wear and tear but bigger falls).

UIAA water absorption, 46%

Wet ropes stretch more, get heavier/harder to use and can make using ascenders and gri-gris difficult, so it can be important that they are water repellent, especially in snow and ice conditions.

This particular rope has a high absorbency and wouldn’t be much good for ice climbing, but will be just fine for use at a short single pitch crag on dry summer days.

As per the UIAA test, a true water repellent rope should have a water absorption rating of 5% or less. Some “Dry” ropes dont achieve this as they are only dry treated. Like your waterproof jacket, the treatment wears off over time.

Elongation at 1st fall, 31%

This is the percentage of stretch in the rope the first time a dynamic fall or load is applied to it. Like the elongation in use test above, an 80kg weight is used and replicates a severe fall scenario.

While a maximum 31% stretch may seem like a very high and worrying number, it will always be less in reality, where we wont achieve the forces created in the UIAA test.

However, it might just make you think about not using your brand new ropes on a short lead climb where the crux is at the bottom of the route.

The elongation percentage will reduce over the life of a dynamic rope.

Sheath Slippage, 0%

The less slippage between the core and the sheath of the rope, the more durable it is.

We’ve all seen the ends of a rope in a climbing wall get bunched up and fat from this, or feel a thin spot on a rope where its been damaged, so you would think 0% is an ideal score here.

However, ropes with less slippage can be less pliable and soft to handle. Some sheath slippage can even be a good thing if the rope is running over a sharp edge as the load is spread across a greater area.

Any visible damage or alteration to the rope from sheath slippage should be treated with caution and cut from the rope or retire the rope completely.

Other markings

While length, diameter and weight per meter of the rope are self explanatory markings, they are helpful to let us know what category and preferred use to put a rope into.

So what rope should you buy then?

Theres no point spending a fortune on ropes if your style of climbing doesnt need all the design features possible for a rope.

A low price doesnt mean low quality, it could just mean less options to use it.

If you climb exclusively indoors you shouldnt be concerned about ratings like weight or water repellency and should go for a thick robust and competitively priced rope. The Beal Wall master perhaps.

If the majority of your climbing is on smaller single pitch trad routes, then any single rated 50m rope will get you through most days in Ireland and will be super affordable. Something like the Tendon Smart 10mm.

For sport, any single rated rope will do once its sufficiently long enough to let you climb AND lower off the route. If it’s a particularly long route then definitely thinner lighter ropes are better.

But if you intend to or do a lot of multi-pitching in Ireland then get a set of 60m half/double ropes as well as the above 50m rope and mix and match between the two sets. I use DMM Crux 9.1mm ropes and they are class.

If you intend to go to Scotland in the winter, bring doubles and make sure your ropes are proper dry ropes or at least dry treated.

However, if money isnt an issue and you want simplicity and a great all round option, get a set of triple rated 60m Beal Joker unicore Golden dry ropes and have the solution to all the above climbing scenarios.

Well all scenarios apart from a 30m+ sports climb that is.

I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.

Sleeping Systems For The Outdoors

A reliable sleeping system for the outdoors can be compared to a chain, only as good as the weakest link.

Why prioritise buying an expensive sleeping bag and not prioritise the mat you are sleeping on, or think by just having a good quality tent, you can skimp on what to use inside it.

Wild camping in Kerry

For most comfort, put some thought into all the parts of the system.

This blog is aimed mostly as those who go hillwalking in Ireland or the UK, or trekking abroad and not so much aimed at the needs of alpinists.

Obviously the approach to sleeping systems taken by alpinists can be extreme to suit their needs for fast and light, while on Irish and UK hills we can afford to carry a little extra weight without it being too tasking on our objectives or safety.

Lets look at the parts of the system.

Sleeping Bag

Whether you choose down or synthetic insulation it doesn’t really matter too much, there are pros and cons of both. Down will pack and compress to a smaller size, but requires greater care and will be less effective if it gets wet. Synthetic insulation will take up a larger space in your backpack but isn’t as costly as down.

My personal preference is for a down sleeping bag and the one I have been using since 2012 is the Rab Ascent 700. It didn’t break the bank especially considering how many times ive used it, has always performed and can be paired with a liner layer to increase its warmth.

Most bags come with a three part rating, comfort, limit and extreme. Personally, I base all my opinions about a bags warmth on the limit rating and I view the extreme rating as a complete work of fiction.

The Rab Ascent 700 has a limit rating of -12c. Ive used it all over Ireland, the UK and on approximately 150 different nights spent at high altitude in the past 4 years, albeit sometimes paired with a liner. Id highly recommend it to anyone serious about spending overnights in the outdoors.

It weighs about 1.3kg, which is light enough for Irish Hillwalking needs. Yes you can get bags as warm that are half as light, but they are three times the price and Id imagine nowhere near as durable.

Ultralight gear can seem important, but shouldn’t be a massive consideration unless you’re going to the Alps or greater ranges.

Liners

I once bought a 16 euro sleeping bag in ALDI as a liner and paired it with my Rab bag above and successfully used it on a 23 trip to the Himalayas to do Island Peak. At the lower tea houses I just used the cheap bag, and mixed and matched between the two for the trip as we ascended. Our highest tented sleeping altitude was 5500m.

This is hardly applicable to the Irish hills, but the point is that a liner can give you versatility and a layering system that can work effectively for you, while protecting and elongating the lifespan of your sleeping bag.

There are all types of liners on offer. Very thin silk ones only marginally increase the thermal properties of a system, but are great for keeping the inside of your sleeping bag clean.

A fleece liner can be a bit bulkier but is cheap and offers a good return in terms of heat retention.

Sleeping Mat

A good mat is essential. It doesn’t matter how good a bag you have, if you cant insulate your body from the ground, your heat will be leeched from you and you’re destined for a poor nights sleep.

You can choose a fold/roll up mat or an inflatable one. Again each has their pros and cons, a fold up is cheap and simple to use, but has loads of bulk.  An inflatable can be punctured and a good one is relatively more expensive.

You can make all the arguments for or against which type is your preference, just make sure you bring one.

Ive been using a Thermarest pro lite for a good few years now. I bought it the same day as I did the sleeping bag, from Nigel at Alpinesports.ie. Its never been punctured, but then I’m careful when using it. Carrying a simple repair kit will solve any issues.

Tent

Sometimes picking the right tent for you and your needs can be confusing and its easy to think price is good indication of value.

The tent that I use most often for the Irish hills cost me 50 euro in a sale. Its cheap, generic and basic but its heavy, 1.5kg heavier than I ideally want. It has stood up to many nights of high winds and desperate non stop rain though.

Heavy, but it works

On foreign, expeditions, I use a Mountain Hardwear Trango tent and love it too, but it costs 800 euro and I wouldnt want to have to carry it every day. Its too heavy and oversized to carry in a backpack for the hills at home.

The Trango 3 at 5500m advanced base camp, Island Peak

The point is that the price differential between the two isn’t a factor, they have different characteristics to handle different scenarios, but essentially they both fulfill their primary function, they keep a barrier from the wind and the rain off my head.

I do keep meaning to buy a lighter tent for use on the Irish hills. I used a Marmot Limelight 2p tent for a week long trip recently and would strongly consider buying one, but apart from the excessive weight, my current one works well and will do me for a while yet.

Bivy Bag

I have a lightweight waterproof RAB bivy bag that I will sometimes bring for an external layer to my sleeping bag if heavy rain is forecast. It also adds another thin layer to retain warmth, but I often leave it at home too.

It doesnt take up too much room when compressed and protects the sleeping bag, but its not always essential.

There are heavier bivy bags on offer, more like a 1 person tent, which would have obvious weight and space saving options in place of a full tent. It’d be a bit grim to use though, as they lack in space or comfort and for me take away from the fun experience of camping in the outdoors.

I considered this approach for my ML assessment, to go light, but was so happy I didnt afterwards. I trialed it as a system on a multi day hike in The Mournes, but I didnt enjoy it, so went with my tent for my ML instead.

The comfort of being able to sit up, organise your gear and get a bit of headspace on a tough weekends assessment was invaluable and worth carrying the extra weight.

Dry Bags

I like to put all the gear in my rucksack inside dry bags, it makes packing and finding things in a hurry super efficient, but mainly its to guarantee a dry sleeping bag at the end of the day.

A night sleeping in a wet bag would be grim.

Use heavy black plastic bags if you havent bought dry bags yet, but dont rely on the compression sack from you sleeping bag to be waterproof enough.

If you’re confused as to what best suits you then maybe dont just buy online, speak to someone like Ronan at Adventure.ie, hes active in the outdoors, a qualified International Mountain Leader and an outdoor gear shop owner, so he knows what works and chooses to stock good quality items.

I personally like the look of the Salewa Micra II Tent they are selling at the moment, for that price, weight and waterproofing it looks like a great deal.

The Mournes

I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.