Is Your Belayer Trying to Kill You?

Now unless you’ve lost their newest bit of trad gear or run off with their spouse the answer will most likely be a no. Thankfully the vast majority of the roped climbing world is relatively switched on and can tell the difference between the dead rope, their pocket and their right nostril – places you’d most likely find their hands!

Having spent a full year working in a climbing centre environment I see bad belaying on a daily basis and it scares me, it should scare you too: Complete novices, performance squad, old boys, your mate – bad belaying can be found everywhere. It’s a rampant problem that needs sorting before more tears are shed, legs are broken and climbing careers shattered.
In the last month 3 belayers have been intercepted by myself or a colleague and the climber given an ear bending for attempting to have a novice belayer (first time ever in a climbing centre) keep them safe on the wall – this is after strictly being told that they cannot belay without supervision.

First and foremost if you are bringing a first timer to a climbing centre or outdoor venue you are not allowed to have them belay you unsupervised. They are first timers and will probably have no idea what you’re talking about. In all good judgement you can not put your life in their hands; regardless of how good a climber you are, if you fall they probably won’t catch you.

A common reply, accompanied with an almost offended look, is simply “But I’ve always belayed like this” or “Don’t worry mate, I’ve never dropped anyone“. What, you’ve always belayed without actually holding the dead rope in the locked-off position? Or always held the rope with the lightest of thumb and index finger ‘fairy pinches’? Poor form Mr/Mrs belayer. Poor form. In climbing instruction we work in what ifs – You may be fine now, but what if…?

My teaching style for belaying is through this rhyme:
Eye
To the Thigh
1
2
3
(Count in German to make it rhyme!)

The reason I teach this way is because with the usual V-Knee-1-2-3 I find that most belayers end up bobbing up and down as they belay, constantly touching their knee with the dead rope hand. Highly amusing for me, but complete waste of energy!

There are plenty of other iterations of the rhyme; V, Knee, 123 – Up, Down, Left Right Left – etc. but they’re all describing the same movement. Starting in the neutral position where the dead rope (DR) hand is at hip level and live rope (LR) hand  is at chest level, the DR hand comes up to form a V shape in the air pulling through approximately a foot of rope, the DR hand brings the rope down into the locked off position, LR hand comes down above the DR hand, DR hand now goes above the LR hand, LR hand goes back to the live rope, repeat until climber reaches the top. Using this routine there is always a hand on the dead rope and the rope is in the locked off position the majority of the time ready to catch any falls. It is worth noting that this method is suited to modern friction plate devices such as the Petzl Verso and DMM Bug, and not italian hitches or belaying in ‘guide mode’.

Safety offences I’ve called people out on include:

  • DR hand left in the V position
    • Dangerous because should the climber fall the dead rope will likely pull through the belay device, pinching the DR hand in the device resulting in a release of the rope.
  • Fairy Pinches
    • I call these fairy pinches – instead of nice firm grabs on both DR and LR the belayer simply pinches the rope with the lightest of touches. This won’t catch a lean 15 year old, let alone a 45 year old!
    • Most often seen on the ‘1’ of V, Knee, 123.
  • Releasing the Dead Rope
    • It’s called a dead rope for a reason – I know it’s named for passing the live rope through the belay device and so no longer holding the climber and thus being ‘dead rope’ – If you’re not holding it and your climber takes a fall then bad things generally happen.
    • Most common offence with belayers using a Petzl GRIGRI – Note it’s an assisted braking device, not an auto-locking device. There should always be a hand on the DR just as any other device.
    • A common occurrence whilst lead belaying. The DR is even more important in leading!
  • Excess slack in the system/Too slow
    • Risky but can be dangerous. The belayer can fumble in the slack rope and miss the DR. All that needs doing is tell the climber to slow down.
  • Not Paying Attention
    • As a belayer you are incharge of another person’s life. Don’t zone out by deeply talking to those around you or gawk at the guy that just cruised up that 8a on the competition wall.
    • Texting whilst belaying is an absolute no. Just…..no.

Climbing is an amazing sport that everyone should fully embrace, or at least give a go. It must be kept in mind that while the sport is becoming increasingly accessible through the rise of indoor climbing centres and availability of outdoor instructors and guides, it is still classed as an extreme sport – if things go wrong, they’ll go wrong quickly and in a big way often resulting in injury or even death.

Ensure your belayer knows what they’re doing before trusting them with your life, it’s really not worth the risk!

A British stigma is to see a wrongdoing, tut and mutter about it, but not actually act on it. This is just as true in climbing as it is seeing a dog walker not picking up their dog’s fresh turd. If you see something that worries you or is dangerous then tell a member of staff!

Some light reading (not so light):
BMC Belay Article
Recent Essex Belay Incident
Petzl World’s Worst Belayer
Unbelayvable
Fall Results in Broken Ribs
Acute Injury Risk and Severity in Indoor Climbing

Instructing: A Stumbling Block on the Road

Allow me, if you will, to set the scene: Upon returning to the UK from a full, draining ski season in Vaujany over in the French Alps nestled next to Alpe d’Huez I proceed to spend the following 6 weeks sleeping on a sofa at my parent’s house. All of my belongings stuffed into the loft and whatever nook and cranny was available in between the usual hodgepodge of family stuff, and also my sister’s, her partner’s and their bouncing baby daughter’s worldly possessions. In a word – cramped.

These six long weeks saw me job hunting to within an inch of my sanity: Instructing, Outdoor Retail, Travel Agent, hell – even a school cleaning job. I applied to them all, country wide too, being based in what feels like the retirement capital of Europe – Worthing, W. Sussex – made those rare interviews all the more difficult to get to. That hardest bit of that phase was just the sheer lack of responses I received from just about everyone whom I pelted with a CV; barely a we have received your application, let alone a sorry you have not been successful. That sort of silence is crippling for a job hunter!

But anyway. An olive branch was extended to me in the form of the Pinnacle Climbing Centre in the heartland of Northamptonshire and in June I became a full time climbing instructor! I’d relocated in record time to Northampton, a cushy 15 minute cycle commute making everything sweeter, and started settling in. The management even gave me the added responsibility of being an unofficial social media co-ordinator of sorts, keeping the Facebook and Twitter pages up to date and filled with content.

Now we bring ourselves to the first week of September: I’m called in for a meeting with the Centre and Duty Managers to iron out a few niggles such as being more of a team player (I wasn’t making enough cups of tea for my colleagues) and discuss the social media performance which wasn’t going as well as the Managing Director wanted. In short my probation period was extended a month and was given 2 weeks to buck up my ideas and see a marked improvement. A bit of a short time frame but alright, this is new territory for me.

I have a good fortnight full of good instructing sessions, plenty of social media stuff and I even offered several cuppas around. I took some pre-planned holiday for an adventure up to Scotland to bag our first Munros which was for the most part very successful – don’t think I’ve eaten that well in a long time! So arrives the Monday, six days into the trip, we’ve just driven from Glen Brittle campsite up on the Isle of Skye back to our adopted base of the Glen Nevis campsite in Fort William. As we got booked in for the night I checked my emails – 1 unread message from my HR Manager simply titled Letter Attached – I read the letter and lo and behold I’ve been dismissed from the company and given a week’s notice in accordance with my contract.

The reason: “…the main priority of social media postings has not improved, and the necessary reporting has not taken place, amongst other things”.
I’d been dismissed for an extra responsibility given to me by management, not for the actual duty for which I was employed. Surely just taking the responsibility away from me would have done the trick instead of cutting me loose entirely?

Just imagine that for a moment. Being sacked by email whilst on holiday. It’s like being dumped by a partner by text, a bit mean and not really the done thing.

I followed up the email when signal allowed and asked about my final weekend of work when I returned from Scotland, surely I’d have work to do being on a 40hr/week contract? Alas, no. I’d already been worked out of the rota and not given any hours to see me to the end of the notice period. The only reason to actually go into the centre was to collect my belongings and return my uniform. A sour experience let me assure you, even with the Duty Manager keeping it friendly and supportive when I dropped by.

So here I am, job hunting countrywide again with the timer ticking on my accommodation. I refuse to go back to that sofa! One benefit of being that little bit further up the country is that I can literally roll onto the M1 and be just about anywhere in England/Wales within 5 hours, especially missing out that god forsaken M25!
Plenty of CVs have been fired off near and far lately with some already promising leads, ideally something comes up that pays me more than minimum wage and considers the qualifications I’ve toiled long and hard to achieve.

Feel free to share your thoughts and advice on this little stumble of mine. If there are any suitable vacancies out there let me know!

At least Scotland was good!

At least Scotland was good!

Advice: Caring for Your Kit

This page is a guide on how to look after your kit. If, like me, you have redonkulously expensive taste in kit and will bravely dish out £150 on any ‘gucci’ piece of gear then you will want to look after and maintain it in order to get your money’s worth.

*Disclaimer 1: The methods or products I suggest are purely based on my experience through doing, or learning from my customers/colleagues/friends that have done it wrong.*
*Disclaimer 2: When machine washing any piece of gear with a specialist product please clean out the detergent tray and run a rinse cycle with a towel just to flush out any excess detergent residue. This way the products will treat your gear exactly how they’re meant to.*

Waterproofs:
Your first line of defence against the epic fury of mother nature. Any WP jacket or trousers worth more than 80 quid will require a level of care over its lifetime. The majority of items are pre-treated with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating and this, along with the fabric, is what causes the water to ‘bead’ and run off the garment. Over time this beading will soon be replaced by ‘wetting out’, this is where water doesn’t bead but seeps into the face fabric causing the dark, wet patches.
To care for your WPs you will need to wash them in a ‘pure soap’ such as Nikwax Tech Wash. Do not use any form of detergent wash on your WPs, detergents work by drawing water into and through clothing in order to wash them, this is very bad for a WP! Once washed, leave to drip dry, or tumble dry on a low heat if the care label allows.
If, after washing, wetting out still happens then you’ll want to re-proof the jacket using something like Nikwax TX Direct. Once washed, drip dry. A general rule is that for every 3 washes, do a re-proof.

Boots:
Your boots keep your feet in good working order. If your boot fails you then, ultimately, you fail.
Boot care is simple, but very often overlooked. If you don’t look after them then they will crack and/or fall apart. After a good muddy romp then be sure to take out the laces and scrub them in lukewarm water to get all the debris and muck off.
Once dried then it’s best to apply either a wax or cream for leather boots. If a wax then it’s best to rub in with fingers as the warmth speeds up the process of the oils seeping into the leather. Once applied then either give a quick buff to work it in or leave until they’re needed again. Should you go for an extended period in between using your boots then it is worth applying a good coating of wax/cream before storing the boots as this gives plenty of nourishment and hydration to the materials and keeps them from drying out, degrading or rotting whilst out of action.
A well kept pair of boots will give you many years of faithful and comfortable service regardless of what torture you may put them through.

If a synthetic boot with a waterproof membrane then after they’ve been washed leave to dry and they’ll be good to go again. There are gel products such as Nikwax footwear cleaning gel that help keep everything in good shape.

Rope:
REI has a great page on rope advice. In my experience it is best not to bung a rope in the washing machine as it can twist the sheath from the core and leave you with a knotted, lumpy mess

Sleeping Bags:
The easiest way to care for your sleeping bag is to use a sleeping bag liner inside it. This way you only have to chuck the liner in the wash instead of the whole bag.
For a synthetic fill bag then it is easy to put in the washing machine and put on a cool synthetic wash using Tech Wash or similar.
If it’s a Down filled bag however life gets a lot harder as once down feathers get wet, they lose their loft abilities (ability to capture air within them) and are difficult to dry them out properly. Down bags can last for atleast a decade if looked after properly, but washing them is a bugger. It is best to find a specialised Down Washing company.
Storage of your sleeping bag is equally important for keeping it warm and effective. Instead of having it tightly packed away in its stuff sack, it is best to have it in a storage sack of some sort, or even hung up in a wardrobe without compressing it at all. Most higher priced bags will have one with it, but something like a large pillowcase with work equally well. The reason for this is that when a sleeping bag is compressed for a long period, the loft qualities of the fill begin to degrade and you begin losing out on that all important warmth.

Tents:
Your primary shelter, look after these things and they will serve you for years to come. There are countless shapes, sizes, material types, pole materials, and uses.
I won’t cover the fabric army 9×9 style tents as nobody is stupid enough to go hiking with one of those bad boys strapped to your back.
UV is a particular killer of tents, leave it exposed to the sun for too long and the materials will start to degrade and their waterproofing and strength will be compromised, as with any pitching site be sure that its sheltered from the elements as well as offering some shade. Tent materials can be washed according to care labels, Nikwax Tent and Gear Solarproof should be used in the same fashion as TX Direct (see Waterproofs) it keeps tents and gear well maintained for the environments that we will exposed gear to. For standard washing then Tech Wash is perfect.
If you have forked out for a fairly basic tent that uses fibreglass poles then take care with them as they are by no means as strong, lightweight or durable as the anodised alu poles that are commonplace with many higher-end tents. Should they snap they can be replaced but not repaired. A temporary fix can be fashioned using the repair kit usually provided but will not provide a long term solution. Fibreglass pole replacements are becoming harder to find and so in the long run it is better to for out a little extra for a better quality tent.
A key maintenance tip for any and all tents is DO NOT STORE IT WET. A wet tent stored will just rot and become a useless waste of money. Once you have finished your trip, stand up the tent in your bedroom/living room/wherever and leave it over night to dry out, then pack it away when dry.

Feel free to contribute methods and tips that you have found particularly useful throughout your adventures. Everyone has a little gem for dealing with their beloved equipment!

Review: Osprey Mutant 38

As a fan of the Osprey range and in need of a comprehensive, yet relatively simple, mountaineering pack I opted for the Mutant 38 2nd edition. The main change for the 2nd edition was the gear loop change on the hip belt – instead of a karabiner loop for every letter of the word OSPREY on each side it was reduced to 3 karabiner loops and a general gear loop each side. This is presumably because if a climber/mountaineer has that much excess gear on the outside of their pack then they’re doing something wrong!

This pack has seen me through the last 2 years involving numerous climbing trips up and down the country, hiking in the highlands and Snowdonia, general kit haulage and my first ever ice climb – practically everything that the pack was designed for!

As with shoes and boots it is crucial to get a well fitted pack. It needs to keep you comfortable when carrying load by effectively distributing load between your shoulders and hips in an approximately 30/70 split respectively. Your pelvis is the key load bearing part of the body that distributes all the weight of the upper body down to the legs so getting as much of the pack weight on your hips is vital. The great thing about Osprey packs is that most of them come in small, medium and long back lengths, any pack will fit any body! Unfortunately I did the rookie error of selecting the medium back length which gives the full 38L, whereas I should have selected the small back length and sacrificed a couple of litres. The result is that the shoulder straps hover ever so slightly above my shoulders and creates extra movement in the pack when loaded up and moving over uneven terrain. This problem can be rectified using the adjustment straps but I’ll come to that in a bit. It is also strongly recommended to be skilled in the art of packing a rucksack and knowing where the heaviest items go. For example if a climbing rope is bunged on the top between the pack and lid then it creates an uncomfortable bow in the backpiece as the top section juts away from the back, whereas when stowed in the bottom of the pack then there’s no problem and it’s nice and comfy.

The Mutant is a very capable rucksack with plenty of useful features  to keep even the most accomplished mountain guide happy. Please bear in mind that my pack is the 2012 variation, the 2014 pack has some slight feature and material changes:

  • Chest strap with integrated whistle (whistle is upside down – annoying)
  • Ice axe retainer each side with scratch resistant pad on front
  • Floating and removable lid for expansion
  • Security pocket
  • Bladder pouch
  • Trekking/Ski pole attachments
  • Compression straps
  • Hip Belt stowable by wrapping it around pack
  • 4 Haul loops – 2 main front and back, 2 small on either side
  • Removable back ‘bivi pad’

    Strap Overlap

    Strap Overlap

Time to discuss a sticking point I have with Osprey packs – adjustment straps. Osprey love them, all over their packs! They’re just too long, and in the case of the floating lid of the mutant just plain badly thought through. The lid is set up a bit like a simple pulley system with the strap starting on the lid, through a loop on the main pack and then back up to the buckle on the lid – a great system that really lets you tighten the lid down to compress excess space. The main downside is that it directly overlaps the shoulder adjustment straps and constantly traps the buckle loosening off the shoulders. As it’s all stitched in place there is nothing that can be done about it except fish out the buckle from the tangle and yank the straps tight again after opening up the lid during a snack break or whipping out the waterproofs. With the strap length I’m still considering chopping a good amount of excess off; too many times I’ve picked up the bag whilst stood on a loose strap and tightened it right up as I chuck the bag over my shoulders

With the comfort and practicality of the pack it holds up very well. It does a good job of not trying to bunch up whatever jacket/top you’re wearing and although it doesn’t provide much airflow for a sweaty-backed person such as myself, when paired with a suitable wicking layer or good jacket such as the Paramo Velez Adventure Smock the experience becomes quite comfortable. It holds load very well and the hip belt does an excellent job of keep weight exactly where it needs to be without sliding all over the place or buckles slipping open as can happen on some brands. Bear in mind the pack offers no form of waterproof protection and so drybags are key not only keeping essentials like your sleeping bag dry but also for organising the contents of your pack.

Overall the Osprey Mutant is a great all round mountain pack that will see you through just about any adventure you can throw at it. The new model Mutant appears to have trimmed the excess and added a few extra features like a helmet retainer, ski straps and reduced weight. Well worth trying one on and be sure to ask staff about putting weight in the pack to really get a feel for it and get the sizing right.

RRP: £100
Weight: 1.6kg (Medium)

Mutant 38 on Sgurr Dearg

Mutant 38 on Sgurr Dearg

Review: Paramo Aspira Trousers

I have been using and abusing a pair of these Paramo Aspira Trousers throughout my BASI instructor course out here in Val d’Isere. When I’m finished in mid-March they’ll have had a full 10 weeks of solid, almost daily use.

I must admit straight off the bat that these are the 2009 model that I managed to pick up from my previous place of work when I found them in the original packaging at the back of a cupboard and so several features have changed from the current season’s model.

These trousers have held up very well throughout their ordeal; keeping me warm, dry and comfortable in temperatures ranging from +8C right down to -25C. Regardless of what the weather was doing the only baselayers I wore were either a Patagonia Capilene 3, or 200 weight Icebreaker GT leggings. The 2 layers combined with copious amounts of skiing were more than enough to keep my legs toasty and dry.

For those that don’t know the brand too well, Paramo is very unique in the way its waterproof products work. The best way to describe it is that is mimics otter fur by actively drawing sweat away from the skin and pumping it to the outer surface to be evaporated. Unlike plastic based membranes such as Gore-Tex or eVent there is no limit to how breathable or waterproof that it can be, the harder the wearer works – the harder the fabric operates. Ideal for all snowsports and any other mountain sport you can throw at it.

With a very well planned range of features these make for a durable yet practical pair of trousers:
Reinforced and padded knees and seat and reinforced shin/calf area stand up remarkably well to freshly serviced skis and any other pointy things that might come into contact with your legs, crampons for example.
Full length, poppered, storm baffled side double zips allow for extra ventilation where you need it most.
A practical sized zippered fly is useable even with the coldest of hands, and 2 generous pockets perfect for wallets, phones, keys, piste maps.

Stitched in suspenders are comfortable and secure once properly fitted – I was forced to uncross them and then re-cross them over my head due to one side constantly slipping down my shoulder and coming loose. Although they are stitched in they are barely noticeable once fitted, the overly elaborate buckle can be fiddly but once in place won’t shake free.

The trousers are fitted slightly loose and allow for a great range of movement whether it be a tight and fast shuss, or a complete cartwheeling ‘yard sale’, they neither bunch up nor restrict movement anywhere on the legs or waist.

A money concious point worth making for these trousers is that although it is a large up front cost for a pair of these, as with all Paramo outerwear, the fabrics can be infinitely washed and re-proofed making for a garment that can (an in a lot of cases, have) last for upwards of 20 years. A high end Gore-Tex Pro Shell piece from Arc’teryx or eVent piece from Rab may reach a decade of use before needing a well earned retirement.

With all Paramo outerwear items, they do weigh slightly more than their competitor counterparts. I feel that the added breathability, comfort and slight warmth benefit of thicker materials outweigh this and make for a solid pair of snowsport/high-mountaineering trousers.

Overall a great option for those wanting to get the most out of a pair of ski/mountain/freezing weather pants. Ideal for the sweatier or hotter ones amongst us that will appreciate the extra venting and breathability of the fabrics, and also the financially concious ones that want top quality kit that lasts as long as they do.
The full salopette version is also the outerwear of choice for the chaps on The Coldest Journey Expedition currently underway on the Antarctic continent.

RRP: £200
Weight: 864g (Size M)

Paramo Aspira Trousers