Tactics Of Navigation 1

This blog is written primarily with the Mountain Leader (ML) trainee in mind, but can be useful to any person looking to refine their navigation skills.

One of the big challenges that faces a ML trainee is the transition from Mountain Skills (MS)  style navigation to ML style. The big difference between the two is that as an MS candidate you are tasked with thinking about your own personal navigation and safety on the hills, while as an ML you should be focusing not just on your own safety and enjoyment of the hills, but also that of your group.

To do this effectively, where possible, we should be aiming to spend less time with our entire focus on a compass, head buried in a map and pacing every metre of the entire day on the hills. A more “heads up” style of navigation allows us to cater to the needs of our group and respond to any changes in character from them that might signal discomfort, unease or nerves.

Most of the time it just allows us to be engaged with our client, providing an enjoyable day for us and them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying give up the tried and tested hard skills you’ve already attained. There is definitely a time and place for using every tool in the navigation “toolbox”, but if visibility is good and we have defined navigational aids to assist us with direction, we can train ourselves to not rely on pacing, compasses and timing as much as we might think.

A strong ability to interpret contours and their scale and proximity in relation to other features is as strong and important a tool as any.

Lets look at an example:

In the map above, we have parked at A and are going to attempt to find the spur at B. There are stepping stones at the carpark that allow us to cross the river straight away. Once crossed, we can have two “handrail” directional aids that allow us to walk in the correct direction. The first and obvious one is the river on our right hand side and then on our left hand side should be a reasonably steep uphill slope, as indicated by the three contour lines quite close together.

We will follow the river for approximately 300-400 metres and although we pass a few large bends in the river along the way, the point marked by the blue X on the map is the first point where the river creates a complete S bend, turning back on itself. As river bends can sometimes be obscured by banks or growth, we can also determine that we are at X because it happens at a close proximity to the uphill contour on the south side of the river. Prior to that the, two previous bends in the river were not in close proximity to the uphill contours to the south, with flattish ground either side of the river.

In addition, the 3 tightly packed uphill contours south of the river that we were using to handrail have started to open out and we should expect to see an easing of steepness of the ground, giving way to a series of uphill re-entrants.

Ideally and in good visibility, we don’t need a compass for a directional aid at this point either, as the re-entrants act as a funnel. We can ascend the mid-line (red dots) of each of the re-entrants by keeping the uphill ground on either side of us, and although wider at the start, by the third uphill contour line we should have arrived at a very defined re-entrant, indicated by a sharp v shaped re-entrant on the map. As this V is so pronounced, we should probably expect to be in a re-entrant no wider than 25 metres.

Continuing along the line of red dots,  we travel through two much larger re-entrants, circa 50 metres wide. These re-entrants are much closer together than the 3 previous and I expect this to mean a steeper uphill climb, before coming to a small plateauing of the ground behind them and a much more rounded or fizzling out of the overall re-entrant feature as it starts to turn into steeper uniform uphill contours.

We should be able to pinpoint the small spur like feature at point B as it is the same contour height as the last rounded re-entrant.

There are other similar small spur contours that seem similar to B, but they should have a different proximity to the various re-entrants we have already identified.

  • If we are standing on B, there should be 1 uphill contour to our southwest, before a short plateau and then multiple uphill contours.
  • If we progress too far uphill and stand on the spur feature one contour line higher than B, then we should have a short plateau behind us, but after that multiple contour lines. Distance wise we will also be too close distance wise to the multiple steep uphill contours to our southwest.
  • If we stand on the spur of the contour line below B, we would have a larger plateau southwest of us, but most tellingly we should have a two contour line large re-entrant to our south east.

There was a chance that having turned away from the river and without the use of a compass, we could have travelled in a more southerly direction (purple dots) into a small re-entrant 3 contour lines up from the river. At first this could even have been mistaken for the V shaped re-entrant we had intended to travel through, but by ascending this line our re-entrant would soon die out completely and we would be facing into a steep uniform uphill climb with no further re-entrants or spurs to tick off along the way. A failure to notice this would of course result in us being off route.

At first, this might even seem like too much detail to remember when pacing, timing and compass bearings are more straightforward.

The reading of contour lines, the characteristics of the shapes that they make and their scale and proximity to the shapes around them are not easy skills to attain and when attained they most be practiced to keep sharp. It was definitely the last part of the puzzle to fall into place for me and its something I continually work on and try improve.

However, once you start to read maps in fine detail like this it can allow for a style of navigation where the focus can be on your clients needs, an enjoyable pace and general conversation.

If you don’t understand the jargon or concepts discussed above, then you might need a more fundamental understanding of navigation. Perhaps consider booking into a Mountain Skills or bespoke navigation training course.







A bit more bouldering in Doolin

Last year during lockdown I wrote a blog about my local bouldering spot at Doolin.

In it I listed 7 boulder problems of varying difficulty, worth travelling to Doolin to try.

Hopefully some people found it inspiring and got some time on rock last summer.

At the bottom I listed a few other classics at the crag to try, but as I hadn’t done them, or was even close to doing them at the time, I felt it would be a little false to recommend them highly.

Well with a winter’s training under my belt and a spell of dry weather I managed to tick two of them and I’m making steady progress with one of them.

So as a nice follow up to last years blog I thought it would be cool to show some videos I took of the problems and some footage of Jono doing Gutbusters, that I’ve been using for Beta.

The Ramp, 6B+

Broken, 6B

Gutbusters, 6B+

Hopefully by this time next year I can write a third installment of Doolin bouldering blogs where I’m working on harder problems again!

If I do, then great, if I dont, well I’ll always enjoy hanging out at such a cool location climbing whatever I’m able for.

Training For Rockclimbing

This post is a long overdue thank you to Niamh and Andres at Sendero Climbing! If you’re a rockclimber and interested in training for rockclimbing, a training plan to progress your grade or to break through a plateau then get in touch with them, I’d highly recommend them as coaches! Find them on insta @senderoclimbing

Training for rockclimbing

I turned 40 last year and decided it was a good time to set some goals for the future. The previous 5 years had been pretty hectic, setting up my own company, obtaining my Mountaineering Instructor qualifications, buying a house with my partner Sinead and working on 15 foreign trekking and mountaineering expeditions for Earths Edge.

With so much achieved in my working life and with my business up and running, I turned my time and energy back towards my own personal rockclimbing, as it had started to suffer.

Back in 2015, I was climbing pretty well, I always felt strong and was steadily making progress into harder grades, but in 2020 I felt weak and lacked the confidence to push on.

I had never climbed E5 and always saw it as a great milestone goal to try achieve. I wasnt happy that I had become stagnant in my personal climbing and I was wary of the trap that alot of Instructors can fall into, where work life takes over and they stop pushing hard with their own climbing. I see it all the time and was sure it would never happen to me, yet here I was 5 years in and it was happening. I always thought of myself as a climber first, then an Instructor, but this had stopped being true and it was time to flip the script.

Getting in lots of mileage at work, but not pushing it hard

There’ll always be a reason why not to try hard, but mostly its because we fall into comfort zones. It can be safer to court the devil you know rather than put yourself forward to risk failure.

I also love bouldering as much as trad and wanted to push my standards on the small rocks as well as the big cliffs. So my training plan had to be build strength, power and endurance. The mental and skill aspects of climbing I’d have to work on too, alot, but this was made a whole lot simpler when my mate and total beast of a climber Jono Redmond moved in next door to me. I now had a regular climbing partner who was was able to give me encouragement, technique coaching and loads of abuse if I skipped workouts. And that he did.

Using newly found power on The Ramp

What Andres and Niamh designed in terms of a training plan really worked for me. From the outset I felt like they really understood what I wanted from a plan and also through consultation were able to make it fit into my other commitments. They checked in with me regularly, but not too much, making sure I was enjoying the workouts and not skipping them because I couldnt be arsed with some of the excercises.

The concept of designing a successful training plan shouldn’t have been so alien to me, after all I understand and know all the concepts myself, but I’ve always had a tendency to overdo it when designing a plan for myself and then get burned out or injured too quickly. Less can be more and all that.

Theres also nothing quite like being accountable to someone else when it comes to training and improving.

For me anyway it worked. I stayed the course, put in the hours and stayed true to the workouts. I was successful in headpointing my first E5, have two more in my sights, while also topping out on a number of boulder problems in Doolin that I lacked the power to send before.

Topping out on Ice Queen

But why stop there! The guys at Sendero Climbing made a new plan for me and I’m working away on that steadily but surely, because why limit your goals. Jono will be moving house soon, but has promised to abuse me online if I slack off.

My onsight grade has always been shocking but as the country comes out of lockdown I’ll have more ability to put the psyche and strength to good use and push my comfort zone there too.

With Mirror Wall on my doorstep I’ll have plenty of opportunities to push that comfort zone nicely.

Thanks again guys!

Training for rockclimbing

Training for rockclimbing 

Earths Edge Guest Podcast

I recently spoke to the Irish adventure travel company Earth’s Edge, as part of their new podcast, which launched last December. I’ve worked with Earth’s Edge as an expedition guide on numerous trips, starting off with Kilimanjaro in 2016. Since then, I’ve led 15 expeditions in three and a half years, including many repeat visits to Kilimanjaro!

The Earth’s Edge podcast talks to some fascinating people within the adventure world, including mountain guides, expedition doctors, aspiring climbers and travel enthusiasts. You’ll find out what keeps them going back to the mountains, the adventures they’ve had on some of the greatest peaks in the world, and the challenges they’ve faced.

So far, the podcast has featured…


Debbie Mulhall, a trekking addict who has conquered Machu Picchu, Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp, Aconcagua, Stok Kangri and Elbrus. 


Stephen Ferris, the superstar Ulster rugby player who climbed Kilimanjaro with Earth’s Edge to raise money for injured rugby players.


Yoga teacher Rachel Kiernan, who tackled Mera Peak despite having no prior experience trekking at altitude.


Mark Willis, one of the expedition doctors who accompany every Earth’s Edge trip, who talks about his experience as a medic at altitude.  


Earth’s Edge lead expeditions to some of the world’s most incredible sights, like Machu Picchu, Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp. As well as these legendary locations, they run trips to some of the world’s more challenging and unique mountains, like Mount Elbrus in Russia and Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America.

They are the only company in the world who send an international guide and a doctor on all the expeditions, while keeping the group sizes small. This means there’s an unrivalled level of safety for every single one of their clients.


You can listen to the Earth’s Edge podcast in all the usual places, including Spotify, iTunes and YouTube. Click here to find out more. You can also read all about the expeditions they run on their website.


Training/Assessment Opportunities For Female Instructors

I consider myself very fortunate to be able to make an income from what I love doing. To work in an industry that has a love and respect for the natural environment and gets to encourage others to do the same.

Along the way Ive received excellent advice and guidance from mentors and those with more experience in the industry. I consider myself lucky that the door was never closed on me when I asked for help.

I’m a strong believer too that this courtesy should be passed forward to the next generation of Outdoor Instructors.

Perhaps one aspect of my industry that I don’t feel positive about is the lack of gender equality, with it still being a very male populated one. Some of my closest friends in the industry are some of the best climbers and Instructors I know, that they happen to be female is neither here nor there.

Gender doesn’t matter when it comes do doing a job, smashing out a tough route, leading a long day on the hills or imparting knowledge to others. What matters is ability and attitude. I can only see it as a positive that more women are encouraged to seek a career in the outdoors and even out the ratio.

With this in mind I’d like to play my part in redressing the imbalance and offer an opportunity to an up and coming female in the industry. Realising that courses can be expensive and mentoring opportunities can be hard to access, I’d like to offer a pathway for them to follow, to assist their progression.

Whats on offer?

I’m offering the following courses, assessments and mentoring opportunities, free of charge, to a female candidate looking to take that next step in the outdoors. You can apply for one or all of the places.

– Mountain Skills Assessment

– Mountain Leader Training (1&2)

– Rock Climbing Instructor Training

– Rock Climbing Instructor Assessment

– Climbing Wall Instructor Training

– Climbing Wall Instructor Assessment

– Mentoring opportunities from qualified female instructors working in the outdoors: (Angela Carlin MCI, Orla Prendergast MCI, others)

Ideally the candidate would already be working in the outdoor industry and have a career plan to become further qualified, however, applications will be considered from those not yet working in the industry or who are in a position to inspire those around them, such as a school teacher or club leader. The courses and mentoring could be held both midweek and weekend and those applying should be available to attend.

How to apply:

– Send an email to climbit.ie@gmail.com detailing your current level of experience and training in the outdoor industry and what aspirations you may have long term.

– Be a current member of Mountaineering Ireland

***** Update 11/1/21: applications are now closed ******

Initially, I had thought that I would award the prize to just one candidate, however, it was difficult to choose just one from the 10 candidates who applied and with this in mind I have decided to divide the prize up and provide a course (and/or mentoring) to each of the 10 candidates who have applied.
Having looked at the various stages of awards already held by applicants and taking into account the long consolidation process that comes with each award, I think this is the most equitable way in which to distribute the goodwill of this initiative.

The following is the total amount awarded to female instructors as a result of this initiative.

CWI training x 1
CWI assessment x 1
RCI training x 1
RCI assessment x 2
MS1 training x 1
MS assessment x 1
Mentoring x 4


Mountain Skills Training: A Basic Understanding Of Weather

Properly understanding the weather and how it impacts on our day in the mountains is an important skill for us to have.

The following blog will be useful for novice hillwalkers and those who are taking their Mountain Skills training. It should give a basic understanding of what they need to know to make safe decisions on the hills.

Strong westerly winds on Scarr

The three areas we will look at are:

  1. Where to get reliable weather information?
  2. How we can interpret that information to help us plan our route.
  3. How we can notice and analyse changes in the weather in real time.


Where can I get my weather forecast from?

Some sites are more accurate than others and some are more reliable for specific types of weather, rain, wind etc.

So if we are going to put our faith in the online forecast then lets make sure we use reputable sites and that we crosscheck a few of them rather than relying on just one.

Also, don’t just check the weather report for the local town, but for the summits of the local mountains too, as there will always be a considerable difference between the two.

I would use the following sites regularly for weather forecasting and find them to be accurate:




But don’t just take my word for it, get familiar with navigating these sites, screenshot them before you start your walk and then at the end of the day cross check what actually happened with what was predicted. This can give you confidence in using a particular site, but also allow you to learn some of the nuances of mountain weather.


How we can interpret that information to help us plan our route.

In short, it will be colder, wetter and windier the higher we go. We should make sure we are prepared for this and that we take it into account when planning our routes.


Wind Speed:

Of all the elements, wind is the most likely to stop us from completing our hike or force us into making a change of route in the first place. Cold and wet days can be mitigated for with better gear, but wind will stop even the most experienced hikers from making progress or staying safe.

Wind speed increases the higher you go. As the air is pushed upwards by a mountain it is squeezed and increases in speed, making it more difficult to walk and increasing the wind chill factor.

The wind speed on top of a 1000m peak can be two to three times faster than at low level, which on a 25 km/h day in Dingle, could be very unsafe on top of Brandon Peak.

Below is an extremely useful chart for understanding what wind speed means in real time:

We should be aware that some forecasts only give us the average wind speed and not the gust speed. Gusts are short and intense, but faster than the average wind speed. Gusty days can make narrow ridges spicier than we might like.

Wind Direction:

Nobody wants to walk into the oncoming wind all day, especially wind driven rain or sleet.

We can use wind direction to our advantage when planning, so that when we are on the higher more exposed ground we have the wind at our backs assisting us rather than impeding our progress.

We can sometimes use the mountain itself for protection from the wind. On Scarr mountain in Wicklow for example, where strong westerly winds are common, it is possible to approach from the south (red) and contour around the east side (red dash) of the summit ridge, needing only to be on top of the summit for a short period. A good alternative route would have been to travel from Glenmacnass from the north, with the wind on your back and gaining ground on a wide spur (purple).

It is worth noting, that contouring isn’t always a safe option due to the terrain encountered. It can also be energy sapping and ankle jarring to venture off the well walked path, such as the one on Scarr, for the heathery less travelled ground on its east and if overused can impact on a persons overall enjoyment of the day.

Air Masses:

We must also take in the origin of the wind when looking at the wind direction and how this matters. Winds from the north are cold, winds from the south and east can be warm and drier while winds from the west can warmer and wetter.  The graphic below is an excellent concise description of what we need to know about air masses.

The Lapse Rate:

As we ascend in the mountains the temperature will get colder. We can quickly calculate an approximate summit temperature in advance by taking 1° degree Celsius off for every 150 metre of ascent.

To look at this in practice. You are parked at Cronins Yard, at an altitude of 140m above sea level and with an air temperature of 5°. You plan to climb Carrauntoohil which is 1040m at its summit.

We can divide the altitude gain (900m) by the approximate lapse rate (150) 6 times. If we take 6° off our air temperature at Cronins Yard, the temperature on top of Carrauntoohill summit will be approximately -1°, or below freezing.

This will obviously have an impact on how we need to prepare for our hike: the ability and fitness of the group, additional warm layers, extra gloves and hats, perhaps extra food and hot drinks in a flask and how the underfoot conditions on top might be.

Visibly below freezing on higher ground


As moist air is lifted over a mountain by the wind, it cools down, condenses and forms rain, known as Orographic rainfall. This type of rainfall creates a rain shadow on the opposite side of the mountain, with descending dry air. This side of the mountain can be drier and warmer than the opposite side. As per the drawing below.


With Lapse rate and Wind chill we looked at the temperature getting colder, but what about when the temperature is too high?

Overheating and over exposure to the sun are probably not our first thoughts when it comes to hiking in Ireland, but they have to be considered none the less.

On sunny days could we plan our routes to take benefit of the early morning shade from a north facing peak? Or aim for a ridge line walk to avail of whatever breeze is on offer? Or could it be as simple as an earlier starting time, to ensure the bulk of the walk is over by midday? Does my route pass a reliable clean water source during the day where we can refill our water bottles?

Rethinking what to carry on hot days is extremely important. Doubling the water you normally carry is good place to start. Suncream, rehydrating salts, blister packs, sun hats and sunglasses. We can pack and prepare quite differently for the rare sunny days we get, so don’t be on auto pilot when it comes to packing.

In this part of the world, the advice from the medical experts is that we should wear sun-cream if we plan to be outdoors any time between April and September, whether its sunny or not. We rarely think in the long term, but skin cancer is a serious issue and perhaps we should be more aware of the dangers of increased radiation at these times of year.


How we can notice and analyse changes in the weather in real time?


A basic understanding of clouds can teach us a lot. I find the Latin names and multiple varieties of clouds can be daunting and off-putting for those trying to learn, however, if we can understand the 4 main types of cloud, practically all the clouds we need to know are composites of them.

Nimbus: a cloud that carries Rain

Cirrus: high altitude, wispy, formed of ice crystals.

Cumulus: puffy, fluffy, cotton wool like, piles of cloud

Stratus: low level, layers of clouds


Using the 4 main types of cloud above, we can decipher the characteristics of other types of cloud and why we should know them.

Nimbostratus: for example, would be made up of multiple layers of rain carrying clouds, which will produce continuous rain and we shouldn’t expect to take off our waterproofs during the day.

Cumulonimbus: would be accumulated piles of clouds carrying rain. They can bring heavy rain, high winds and even lightning.

Cirrocumulus: these small, puffy and accumulated high altitude, icy clouds can be indication of stormy weather in the coming days.

Cirrus clouds  are high altitude, whispy clouds. When seen alone, they can be fine, however if combined with low stratus clouds, it could be seen as a sign that rain is on the way.

The extremely simple to use and concise “cloud guide” app is available to download for free and I highly recommend it.

Using it to identify the clouds and noticing how these clouds are changing characteristic is a valuable skill in the mountains.



Rainfall can have an impact on our route selection as much as our enjoyment of the day. If you have to cross a river as part of your route plan, could it be impassable due to heavy rain? Even if its not raining today, did it rain heavily yesterday or overnight and will this have an impact on the route choice.

A dry day, but recent rainfall making route progress tricky

Remember, rivers don’t swell in size at the exact same time as it rains, we have to understand the rate at which the rainfall runs off the land and into the river and this can have as much to do with the existing water content of the land as it does with the amount of rain that is falling.

For example, after a period of dry sunny weather, the ground can be hard and impermeable. This can mean that instead of the rain being absorbed by the ground it can run off it at speed on steeper slopes. This collects quickly in rivers and they can swell in shorter periods of time than if the water had “drained” into the river.

Likewise, an extended period of cold or freezing weather can harden the ground and not allow rainfall to soak in, again creating faster than normal run off into the rivers.

Being familiar with the response rate of rainfall to river flow is an important skill to learn. Will the stepping stones you crossed to get up the Hags glen still be above water when you come back that way 4 hours later?

If we fail to analyse or prepare for these possibilities we may be unnecessarily forced into an incorrect choice or action plan.



The MWIS forecast in the UK is great at informing the level of cloud cover. In Ireland we have no equivalent resource. Forecasting fog and cloud clover is not a simple process and probably not one we plan for like we do for rain and wind. Sometimes we wont know what the visibility is like until we arrive at the base of the mountain.

How we react to fog and low visibility is important however, If our route plan was to cover a large distance and/or lesser known ground then we may have to factor in the additional time we will spend navigating throughout and entire day. We may no longer be covering ground at the speed we had planned and erring on the side of caution might be a better option than trying to link up that last peak.

low visibility on Carrauntoohil


You could write a full book about the change that real snowfall and frozen ice makes to our general hiking in the hills, but for the most part a light dusting isn’t going to make that much of a difference underfoot to a regular hiker, but I would ensure my route plan doesn’t cover ground where snow has fallen on steep short grass as it can be extremely slippy underfoot.

Frozen sleet and snow near the summit, but not presenting much difficulty to the group

My main aims in planning a route over light snow would be to stick to wide spurs and gentler inclines when possible and limiting the time spent on rocky terrain where they may have become iced over. We must also take into account where the snow line is on the mountain. Is it just a light dusting on top or is there an inch of snow at the base? Obviously a small amount of snow lower down is an indication of much greater amounts up high.

If in doubt or unfamiliar with the route, play it safe and plan elsewhere.

The planned use of crampons and/or an Ice Axe is a different matter, but best saved for a separate blog.


In summary

We all love to be optimistic in the car park when it comes to the weather,, but we should never become complacent. How often have you started a walk in perfect sunshine only to be soaked by lunch?

Furthermore, if we are changing the route plan because of the weather, either before starting or mid route, we must be sure we can back up our logic and reasoning for doing so with confidence in our decisions.

I hope you find the above information useful. I’ve tried to keep it as basic and uncomplicated as possible. If you are extremely familiar with the above information, then I recommend taking your understanding a step further as part of your ongoing development of mountain knowledge.




Mountain Skills Training Courses – FAQs

I wrote the following post to cover some of the more commonly asked questions from clients looking to book in for Mountain Skills training.

What is a Mountain Skills training course?

Mountain skills 1 and 2 are Mountaineering Ireland approved training courses.

The main focus of the courses are to teach people route planning, navigation and relocation, but there are also parts of the course that teach about equipment, the mountain environment, hazards, how to manage yourself in steep mountainous terrain and how best to respect the mountain environment.

Navigation is when you know where you are and know where you want to go.

Relocation is when you aren’t sure of where you are and need to figure it out so that you navigate effectively.

Who are the courses aimed at?

The courses are open to everyone. They are aimed at those who wish to become more self sufficient in the hills and have the confidence to get off the beaten track, explore more and help relocate when you lose track of where you are.

How long is each course?

Mountain Skills 1 and Mountain Skills 2 are both 2 day training courses. Mountain Skills 2 has a 2-3 hour night navigation section as part of it

Where do they run?

I usually run my courses in Wicklow, Clare, Kerry and Connemara, but I’m open to teaching the courses in new locations if they are suitable to teaching the course.

When can I do it?

A lot of the courses run at weekends but I often run midweek courses too.

How many can do it?

The course can run on a minimum of 1:1 but no more than a maximum of 6:1. Usually there are 4 or 5 on every course.

How much is it?

The cost of each course is EUR 150 per person.

What equipment do I need to come on the course.

– There is no requirement to bring a compass for MS1, but if you have one do bring it.  For MS2 you would need a Silva Type 4 compass.

– an ordnance survey map for the appropriate area of the course.

– waterproof Jacket AND Trousers are essential

– lots of warm layers, hats, gloves, backpack etc,

– appropriate hiking boots with ankle support (no runners)

– food/water for a long day on the hills

I don’t know if I’m fit enough?

A good level of fitness is desirable as it’ll help you enjoy the course and will be more conducive to learning, but you don’t have to be super fit or anything like it.  While each day of the course might be long, it is not consistently walking all the time. There is a lot of stopping to learn and practice and we need to dress appropriately for moving at this relatively slow speed.

Do I need to do both MS1 and MS2

In general I would recommend both, however you can do one without the other. Of the two I strongly recommend doing MS1. I always say if you learn the skills from MS1 properly you may never need to use the skills learnt on MS2.

On MS1 you will learn the fundamentals and foundations of navigation. Without an excellent grasp of the fundamentals, the skills learned on MS2 can be harder to understand and of little use in a real life scenario. There is no substitute for knowing the basics really well.

What will I learn on MS1?

There are lots of aspects to the course but the primary focus of MS1 is to learn how to navigate or relocate while using a map and not needing a compass. To attain this a lot of the course will be spent on the following key areas:

  • Contour Interpretation (what they mean and what they look like in real life)
  • Using the contours to plan routes and navigate effectively
  • Understanding the scale of features on the map (and why that’s important)
  • Navigational techniques and tactics
  • Setting the map (and its importance)
  • Basic understanding of the compass
  • How to give a grid reference
  • Learning to measure distance through Timing and Pacing

What will I learn on MS2?

Again there are a lot of elements to the MS2 course, but the core elements that we will focus on are:

  • How to use a compass to follow a navigational bearing
  • How to use a compass to relocate by taking bearings from the land
  • Compass based navigational techniques and tactics
  • Night Navigation
  • Efficient movement skills and techniques for steep ground
  • Hypothermia/Emergency scenarios and how to manage them

“I cant come to your courses, can you recommend another provider of the MS courses?”

Absolutely, I’m always happy to recommend other providers around Ireland. I strongly advise looking for providers who are qualified Mountaineering Instructors and members of the Association Of Mountaineering Instructors.

Some providers of the Mountain Skills courses are only trained and qualified as Mountain Leaders, the clue is in the name.


I hope the above info helps answer some of your questions, if you are interested in MS1 or MS2 and would like more specific information or to make a booking, please feel free to contact me here.




Understanding Variations As A Climbing Instructor

When I run a Rock Climbing Instructor 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.

It’s 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.

Understanding variations as a climbing instructor

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 setups as just one example of where variation can differ massively.

All of the pictures below of bottom rope setups 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.

Understanding your preference

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. Whenever 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 of 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.

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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 practising 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.

When can I apply for my Mountain Skills Assessment?


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 waymarked way or path. While it’s often necessary to start and finish the route via a waymarked trail of the 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 isn’t 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 it’s very likely you won’t have practised 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. It’s 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 the 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 practise 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 practising, 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 there’s 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 won’t just figure it out on the assessment, but do it somewhere that it’s 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 practising.


  • Visit other parts of the country and practice in unfamiliar terrain.Enjoy your day out!


How will you know when you are ready for the Mountain Skills 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 it’s 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 it’s been on the additional walks I’ve done that the skills really sank in.  

The Mountain Skills Assessment

It’s 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 performing 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 it’s 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 to 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 overeager 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 opportunities 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. It’s an exciting challenge and welcome it as so, it’ll make passing all the 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 practised 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 practised a technique you probably won’t 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, it’s 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.

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

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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.

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

Self-Rescue For Climbers

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.

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I know I love teaching these kinds 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.

Let’s 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 multi-pitch 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 it’s 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 into 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 a 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.


For whatever reason, your second can’t 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 multi-pitch 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 led one of the lower pitches on a remote multi-pitch. You’re comfortably belaying your partner up enjoying the stoke of an amazing route so far.

Next thing you know the rope dislodges a small flake and as it drops and it hits your second on the arm. They’re fine, but they’re pretty sure the flake has broken their arm.

They certainly won’t 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 it’s up to the seconding climber to self-rescue?

Imagine a scenario where our leader has climbed up and traversed away from you on a multi-pitch 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 can’t 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 really 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 the 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 perfection 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 practised for it.

Problem avoidance

It’s 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.


Are you interested in taking a Self-Rescue For Climbers course? Click here to read more about the courses I run.

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