Winter ML assessment: Top Tips

Posted by Sam Harrison on April 9, 2015 at 14:40.

 Mountaineering and climbing

aviemore cairngorms mta snow hole winter ml winter skills

If we thought that picking the last possible date in the season that was available to do our winter ML (WML) assessment would bring us settled weather and stable snow, then we couldn't have been more wrong! Last week's assessment was gruelling and trying, and a fitting testament to why the award is regarded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority as being worth the same as a Bachelors degree. I'll spare you the details - actually, Imogen's written a blog post about the week if you're interested - save to say that Lorna, Imogen, Darren and myself all passed. Phew, what a weight off our minds! Instead, I'll list a few "top tips" that hopefully you'll find useful if you're heading for the assessment yourself.

Disclaimer: I don't profess to be an expert on WML assessments; I've only been on the one and this are just my observations for that particular assessment! Different assessors have different ways of testing you and there's no substitute for experience and thorough preparation. Our assessment was with Pete Hill.

Group management

  • Be a leader! Don't forget you're meant to be guiding a group of (paying) clients on what's meant to be a fun and enjoyable day out. It's all too easy to get wrapped up in the navigating, especially in poor conditions, so make sure you make an effort to engage with the group and tell them all the interesting information you know about the mountains in winter.
  • Following on from the last point, it's useful to have lots of little nuggets of information to entertain the group during the day. We talked about everything from grouse lekking to tree planting, with plenty of wintry facts thrown in there as well.

Steep ground and emergency shelters

  • Expect realism! If asked to build an emergency shelter, don't expect a nice pristine snow bank deep enough to carve a sitting bivvy out of. Accidents can happen anywhere and the assessor will test that you're capable of cobbling together at least a rudimentary shelter in any depth of snow. Be imaginative, e.g. use your survival shelter as a roof.
  • Similarly, the steep ground work might not be on the perfect snow slopes you practised on in your training, but in a more realistic situation such as a client's crampon dropping off halfway up an icy step.
  • Make sure you're as comfortable on grade I ground as you are walking on the flat.
  • It goes without saying, but make sure you know your belays and in what conditions you should use them. They should be textbook. Try out different belays in different snow packs beforehand (on slopes without consequences) to get a feel for how effective they are. It's invaluable to know what kind of snow a snow bollard is likely to fail in before your assessment!
  • Be slick with your rope work, it will impress the assessor if you're completely fluent when building a belay. It shows your experience.
  • Don't forget about your summer rope work skills; if there's a huge solid boulder sat at the top of your steep slope then use it in your belay, after all that's what you'd do if you were actually out with a group!
  • Given the conditions, using a snow bollard as a direct belay with an italian hitch is invaluable. It's quick, easy and you can get yourself down afterwards by abseiling off the bollard. If need be you can attach yourself to the bollard as well. A buried axe can be used similarly, and don't forget about it if you discover a convenient boulder as previously mentioned.
  • Look after your client. Make them comfortable ledges, tell them what you're doing and coach them down the slope. Build your belay far back enough so that they're not teetering over the edge when you're tying them in.
  • If you're on flat ground, you might have to get them to crawl to the steepening so they're not pulling up on the belay. Similarly, you may have to crawl the first bit of your abseil off a snow bollard to make sure you're not lifting the rope off it. Pushing the rope down to the snow infront of you with one hand helps and there's a good video demonstrating that here.

Navigation

  • Get out and practice. Make sure your navigation is spot on and, importantly, make sure you trust yourself and can navigate with confidence and conviction.
  • WML navigation isn't just pacing on a bearing! The most useful tool I employed during the assessment was being able to read the terrain and contours accurately. Often with a blanket of snow over everything, the terrain is all you have to convince yourself you're in the right place. Indeed, a good deal of our nav points weren't features on the ground at all, e.g. snow-covered lochans or non-existent stream re-entrants. Timing is also a useful but often-forgotten tool.
  • The ability to correct errors and relocate yourself is far more important than never making mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes and the assessors are looking to see that you remain calm in light of getting a bit lost, and importantly, that you can get yourself un-lost.
  • Don't forget about that "be a leader" point. Get used to chatting to your group whilst pacing.
  • If the weather's good, put away your compass and navigate as you normally would in the hills. The assessors will become a bit suspect if you're still following a bearing with bright blue clear skies.
  • Get used to 1:25 and 1:50 OS maps, we used both during our assessment. Bring a spare map, just in case yours blows away.
  • Bring two (or three) compass. Both of mine got a bubble in them, which made things considerably more stressful when trying to follow a bearing.
  • Ultimately, how you chose to manage your map is up to you, but I'm a big proponent of having either small laminated sections or, as I did, cutting your maps up and folding them in an A5 map case. This means they can easily be stashed away in your pocket when not needed, and are less flappy in the wind. I opt for the cutting-up-bought-maps option rather than printing and laminating as, no matter how good your printer is, you'll never quite get the quality OS can when printing. Furthermore, putting them in a map case means you can attach this to yourself to stop it blowing away, whereas laminated sheets can be all to easy to accidentally let go of. In general, cutting them up gives them less bulk and means they're less likely to tear when folded. The main disadvantage to an A5 map case is, if navigating on 1:25 maps, you'll probably have to re-fold a few times during the expedition.
  • A powerful head torch will make night nav much easier, but might make you unpopular if the rest of your group don't also have powerful head torches!
  • Bear your group in mind when choosing routes; avoid unnecessary ascent or exposing them to howling gales for too long. Oh, and make sure your route doesn't cross avalanche-prone terrain!

Gear

  • Practice so you know exactly what you need to take to be comfortable in the worst that Scottish winter can throw at you.
  • Be organised, know exactly where everything is in your bag and put stuff that you need to grab quickly near the top. I find compartmentalising things in dry bags useful for this, but others prefer a large rucksack liner. Don't faff, you need to be ready to go before your group so that they're not waiting around getting cold. Your assessors won't be impressed if you re-pack your bag on every stop.
  • Know your gear; the helmet/goggles/hood system in particular can take a bit of getting used to managing. Test out your goggles with a helmet and hood on, and without a helmet and just a hood, so that you're not faffing around trying to get it perfect out on the hill. If you've got a head-mounted battery pack for your head torch, test it with goggles, hood and helmet. Be able to put your crampons on in a matter of seconds.
  • Take stuff to fix stuff with. This should go without saying for an aspirant WML anyway, but make sure you have supplies to be able to deal with all eventualities, e.g. duct tape for taping up torn waterproofs, cable ties for fixing broken crampons, shoes laces, etc.
  • Take lots of gloves.
  • Invest in some warm boots, e.g. plastics. I used a pair of Scarpa Mantas and to be honest I wished I'd had something warmer as my feet spent a considerable amount of time being too cold.
  • Don't forget the sun cream and sunglasses. Seriously!
  • Take a spare head torch, not batteries. With long-lasting LEDs these days, it's much more likely that you head torch itself will give up the ghost rather than the batteries going flat.

Snowholing

  • Practice at least the entrance so you know what your plan is before getting stuck in. I'm a fan of digging a human-width entrance tunnel and then blocking up with slabs at the top so you crawl in along it, to minimise spindrift entering your hole. Build your sleeping platform on a step up from your entrace so the cold air sinks out.
  • Smooth out your roof so you don't get drips.
  • Mark it from above with an avalanche probe or similar. Glow sticks attached to your probe are a great idea for relocating it after night nav.
  • Take lots of gloves. Some people use marigolds (or similar industrial-style rubber gloves) but my hands would get too cold in them and so I opted for my normal gloves with waterproof overmitts, which worked well. Re-proof your overmitts beforehand.
  • Build it nice and big so you've got plenty of space to sort out gear; you'll regret it otherwise.
  • Keep your gas canister and damp gear in your sleeping bag overnight. Damp gloves etc. should dry out nicely with your body heat, but definitely have spare pairs of gloves/socks in case they don't.
  • Take something to look forward to, e.g. some nice food or a wee dram or two of whisky!
  • Gear considerations:
    • Seal Skinz waterproof socks were brilliant for when my Mantas became wet on the inside on the second day of the expedition.
    • Take a nice warm sleeping bag with plenty of loft, you won't regret the extra weight.
    • A separate foam sit matt is handy for sitting on or extending your roll mat with. It's also useful to insulate your gas canister from the snow.
    • Don't forget to take candles!
    • Make sure you've got a snow saw. Alpkit do a good and relatively inexpensive one.

Avalanche awareness

  • Know your stuff. Go out and dig lots of test pits, hasty pits, Rutschblocks. Compare them to what the weather and snowpack have been doing. Make your own predictions, compare them to the SAIS forecast, and see if they hold true. You're not expected to be an avalanche expert, but you should know the basics and, importantly, what kinds of conditions bring out the avalanche demons.
  • Talk to your group about the snow. For example, point out any windslab you come across and tell them why it could be dangerous, observe how the wind has deposited snow on lee slopes and how this affects route choice, teach them the difference between powder and nevé, how the latter is formed and why it's important. You can do this continually on your journey, adding little nuggets of information here and there.
  • I read Staying Safe in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper before the assessment. Whilst this is definitely overkill, I was glad I had as I felt much more confident in my knowledge after doing so. Even if not using the knowledge for WML purposes, it's a great book and an absorbing subject. I would recommend it regardless. (Be warned, it is rather Americanized and there is a lot of information in there aimed primarily at backcountry skiing which you have to wade through - pun not intended! - to get to the useful bits. The technical elements such as snowpack and weather considerations are definitely worth the wading though.)

General

  • Be fit, really fit. Don't let your fitness hold you back at all, because you'll have enough other things to think about. Carrying a heavy rucksack around for five days takes its toll, so get used it!
  • Prepare lesson plans for teaching novices a progression of winter skills; the boot as a tool, step cutting, using an ice axe and crampon work. Know a few little games you can introduce when ice axe arrest practising, e.g. getting them to mark each other's arresting ability out of 10.
  • Make sure you can do everything without taking your gloves/mitts off.
  • Get used to suffering.
If there's interest, I'll post up a kit list of what I took. Otherwise, if you've got any questions, just pop a comment below and I'll answer ASAP.

Good luck!

Great views in Corrie Domhain.
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