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?

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 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!

Pre-Assessment

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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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 advice for safety on the hills

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 many 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 it’s 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 sells an excellent Life-systems 2 person option in their Glendalough Store and online.

 

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 won’t stand up to the rigours of mountainous weather.

Considering reputable outdoor brands like Black Diamond and Petzl have entry-level head torches from 20 euro, this should 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.

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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.

The Gaisce Award – working as a Mountain Leader

The Gaisce Award – working as a Mountain Leader

The Gaisce Award.

Ive just finished two days work in Wicklow, working with a transition year group from Lucan on the Gaisce award. What a brilliant scheme and great to work on too.

The Gaisce or Presidents award, is an award for young people in Ireland. Gaisce can be translated from Irish as “achievement”. This is the basis of the award, that the activities taken on by the young person should be challenging, both physically and mentally.

Through my work as a mountain leader I meet a lot of young people who are attempting to gain part of the award from completing an adventure journey.

While not all the award is based around the outdoors, its generally through the bronze award where I meet participants. Their goal is to take on a hike, walking between 25-35km over two consecutive days.

The students usually take up the challenge as part of transition year and for some it can be the first time they  ever step into the mountains or wild countryside. While the ground can be covered by taking tracks and paths, to me its a wasted opportunity not to get off the beaten track and enjoy the mountains or coastal paths of Ireland.

This is where my involvement begins. As a Mountain Leader my first and main obligation is to ensure that the hikes are safe, appropriate to the level of the group and meet the brief of the award. But I also have an obligation to the young people involved to make sure they gain the most from the walk, be it from involving them in route selection, navigation, awareness of the environment and group participation.

And therein lies the fun of working on the Gaisce award. Yes, at times the group can be struggling with the physical effort needed, but in general they dig deep and get on with it, push through the sore feet and tired legs and achieve a true distinguishable goal.

Some may never walk on a hill again. Some will. Some may even be inspired to get out into the hills on a more regular basis. Whatever they decide, through the Gaisce award they will have laid a foundation to future achievement through personal effort.

I hope the award continues for years to come, not only because it provides me with fulfilling work in an industry I love working in, but also because it helps add to the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in Ireland.

Gaisce Award Wicklow
Gaisce Award Walk, Wicklow

 

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