A few months ago I completed the first of the bigger mountain guide tests; the British summer test. I’m happy to say I passed.
These tests, which include British summer and winter, Alpine summer, ski touring etc, all accumulate to make up the overall IFMGA qualification. Personally I have been taking the BMG scheme one test at a time mentally, as thinking about the whole thing is just too mind-blowing.
Anyway, here’s a run-down of the BMG Summer Test through my eyes. I’ll try to include information that might be useful for those who are thinking of undertaking the scheme, or those who have just joined.
The test was 6 days long, and consisted of:
Day 1: Personal climbing. Operating at a minimum level of E1 5b multipitch. Climbing in a way that inspires confidence. Leading all pitches and descents.
Day 2: Improvised rescue. Multipitch rescue scenarios involving hauling, lowering, prussiking etc.
Days 3&4: Expedition. Big boot climbing up to VS 4c carrying an overnight bag. Short-roping and general mountain skills and navigation, including an overnight bivvy.
Days 5&6: Client days. Taking a client out for 2 days on terrain appropriate for them, and guiding them up appropriate routes, and also teaching them appropriate skills.
My preparation for the course was very thorough, even though I hold the MIA award and I lived in North Wales for several years, and have climbed extensively on nearly all of the cliffs there. I spent a month in Wales prior to the exam, climbing everyday on classic routes, practicing navigation and short-roping, as well as guiding paying clients (which was the best part actually – cheers Rob, Hannah, Sylvie and Carl! Rob, your banter was top!).
In terms of preparation, every trainee will have their own strengths and weaknesses. For me I had no real concerns about the personal climbing, or the big boot climbing, and also I was confident that my client care was good, as I have been working as a paid rock guide for over a decade. The skills I really wanted to brush up on were short-roping, navigation, and general speedy rope-work, making sure that I would be slick on belays, and generally give a confident vibe to my guiding.
If you’re coming in to this scheme as someone who finds E1 5b challenging, I would seriously consider your position before committing to this test. E1 roughly translates to F6a, and I regularly take complete beginners on this grade of climb. For someone to have the depth of experience, the ingrained knowledge of climbing that you really need to have to get on well in this exam environment, it would be very unusual (but not impossible) for them to not be operating comfortably above the E1 level.
Anyway, here’s a day by day run down of the test from my personal perspective and experience (it will be different for everyone!):
Day 1: Personal climbing. I was partnered by Guy Steven (legend!) for this day and our assessor was Graeme Ettle. Prior to meeting Graeme I had heard he was a tough assessor, but having been out with him for a day the previous winter on the Scottish induction, I knew that we were in for a fair trial so to speak.
Graeme was brilliant, had a lot of good input for us, and assessed us in a fair and fun manner. You could tell that this wasn’t Graeme’s first rodeo, and he was relaxed and fun to be around, but make no mistake, he clocked everything that went on! This was definitely my favourite day of the week, and as both Guy and I knew our way around Gogarth fairly well, and were confident at the grades (Guy zoomed us up an E1, and I took the lead for an E2), we had high hopes that the day would go well.
We opted for Main Cliff, with solid rock, good belays and a walking descent. The tricky part of Main Cliff is the approach. We didn’t use ropes on the approach, but we did chat through safety considerations and Graeme was keen to see us take this part very seriously. The test starts when you step out of the car, not when you step on the rock.
A photo posted by Jack Geldard (@jackgeldard) on
In my opinion what you need to aim for on this day is safety, competence and efficiency. You should basically make the route look very easy, and you should be able to stop, chat to your belayer, explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, place gear that is easy to retrieve, and basically do a half personal climbing, half ‘guiding’ day. Don’t make the mistake of trying an E5.
This isn’t a personal climbing day in that sense, it’s an opportunity for the assessor to look at your movement, belay choice, and general level before they progress with the test. Crimp strength is not tested! In comparison to the MIA, this day is tougher, you’re climbing harder routes (VS on the MIA), and also you need to climb them faster and better than I witnessed when I did the MIA scheme.
Day 2: Improvised rescue. I was partnered by Ross ‘skier’ Hewitt and assessed by Tim Neill on this day, and as I count Tim as a good friend this was actually the most stressful day for me. I don’t know why, as following the personal climbing day, this is sort of the next ‘easiest’ day, but I think the added pressure of performing in front of a peer/friend, kind of weighed on my mind! I didn’t want to look like a dick basically!
Anyway, there’s no right or wrong answers to solving improvised rescue scenarios, as they are, well, improvised, but I did quite a lot of practicing to get my systems sorted in my mind prior to the test, and I think it was worthwhile. I’m actually quite good with knots and rope systems, and am pretty confident I could get myself out of any situation whilst climbing, even without any practice (eventually!), but with a little bit of added ‘assessment pressure’, and a need to be slick and get it right first time, it’s really essential to nail a few key points, namely hauling people up, and lowering them down/abseiling with them.
As that is all there is to this day, the answer will either be bring them up (hard work) or take them down (awkward but easier than going up!). This sounds easy, and it is pretty easy when you practice it, but in reality you will have to do this on overhanging ground, with the full weight of an ‘unconscious’ casualty hanging from you on the test, so that’s the best way to practice.
Tips include; having the mantra “Prussik+backup” as leaving someone on a prussik knot that isn’t backed-up is a test fail, and also nailing ‘abseiling past a knot’ with an unconscious casualty hanging on you. It is a lot harder!
All in all though, as long as you are safe, slick-ish, and show a level of logical thinking, then this day should go ok. I’d say this day was actually similar in standard to the MIA I thought.
Days 3&4: Expedition. I was teamed up with James ‘Airtime’ Clapham and assessed by Andy Teasdale, who was also overall in charge of the rock assessment. This is clearly the crux of the week, if for no other reason than time of exposure to an assessor. You are being watched for 2 continuous days with very little sleep in the middle, so it adds up to a lot of hours under the microscope, and just like a driving test or any other practical assessment when many variables are out of your control, the longer you are watched the more time you have to make a ‘mistake’!
The weather was poor for the start of this trip, and we started on a damp Milestone Buttress with me leading the classic VDiff Direct Route, James took over and we did the continuation scramble, contoured round to Heather Terrace on Tryfan where I took the lead again and we climbed Grooved Arete to half-height. James took the front again and took us to the top of this in greasy conditions. For those thinking this doesn’t sound too bad, remember we were in big boots and had overnight rucksacks, and it was wet (and greasy). I’m pretty confident my climbing CV speaks for itself, and I’m telling you this was pretty tricky!
From the top of the route I took the lead again and navigated us to Bristly Ridge in poor visibility (mist) and then when we arrived it got dark. I then short-roped us up Bristly Ridge in the dark and handed over the reins to James.
Things that helped so far were: knowledge of the area (visibility was at times poor so having a handle on a few key landmarks was really useful), confidence on wet rock (it will be wet!), and decent water-proofs. I’m super lucky to be supported by Marmot and had brand new shell kit for this test, and it did two things. Firstly I looked pretty smart, and that makes a good impression, and secondly I knew 100% I was going to stay dry, and I did. You don’t need brand new stuff for this test (in our year the group were obsessed by everything being new), but good waterproofs (wash them prior to the test) and nearly new ropes (bed them in a little bit) will make a difference, and make sure if you have a polystyrene helmet it isn’t dented. Remember this is a bit like a job interview, and you are going to be a mountain professional.
Okay – James took over in the dark at the top of Bristly Ridge, and navved us around to the Gribin, where he started short-roping us down. Tricky navigation here led him to continue down the False Gribin instead of hitting his target of the actual true Gribin. By this point it was getting very late and we were all pretty tired. I’d been tied to James so hadn’t had much opportunity to look around at features but had been keeping tabs on my map where we were and had picked up that we’d dropped too low.
However when Andy turned round to me and asked me where we were, the fact that I had seen where James was supposed to have taken us, played on my mind. I was 99% sure we were not where we were supposed to be, and Andy asked me to pin-point our position without going to look around, and I did, and I’m glad I studied the map before James started short-roping us, as when you’re tied on, there’s not much time or room for map work.
So my advice is this, even when you are not in front, and even when you are being ‘guided’ around on the rope, make time to check your map. Have tick-off features in your mind and just ask to briefly stop occasionally if you want to tick them off. I actually used a red marker pen on my map and physically ticked-off bits and made dots where I thought we were at key intervals, as the whole thing was pretty fast-paced, so they were quick reference points for me when I pulled the map out again.
James then sorted us out and took us to the true Gribin, and I then did an easy navigation leg to a ring contour close by to our chosen bivvy spot. We took fresh pasta, some nice pesto, bits and bobs of extras like cheese and seeds, and made a quick but fairly tasty pasta salad type affair, and followed that up with James’ homemade brownies and instant custard. Don’t go mental on this dinner stuff. Have something that is easy and fast to make because by the time you eat (2am for us) you won’t want to be pan frying fillet of duck, believe me.
I made the mistake of asking if I could bring a small single-skin tent instead of a bivvy bag (these days the weight difference is so marginal, I thought it would be a good idea), but that was a big no-no, so suck it up and take a thermarest, sleeping bag and bivvy bag, or like some foolish trainees in the past, take nothing at all! Error!
Day two was I felt a lot easier, and we navigated in good weather back to the car, then drove round to the Llanberis Pass where we led a couple of VS’s on Carreg Wasted in our big boots still carrying our big bags (which were a fair bit lighter due to eating all the food etc). At this point my arms were pretty knackered and I was impressed by James’ lead of the steep Ribstone Crack – good effort James. Again, this wasn’t that easy, let me tell you. I took us up Shadow Wall to finish, and actually as I knew that was the last part of the expedition, I really enjoyed the route, as I felt I’d done fairly well, and just wanted to savour the last moments of what had been a really positive experience.
Andy Teasdale was a balanced and fair assessor, had great banter, and didn’t dwell on any mini-mistakes, and had a really positive and upbeat approach to what could have been a real stress-fest. I didn’t know Andy very well beforehand but felt like we had a good time, hopefully he’ll be involved in some more of this process in the next year and a half.
Days 5&6: Client Days. I had Phil, a great client for the two days, and again good banter! The first day I was assessed by Steve Long, and the second day was Tim Neill again.
I got really lucky on my client days in that the weather was really great the first day, and pretty ok the second day. This can make a huge difference, so make sure you have some poor weather options up your sleeve.
Phil had led some routes up to about Severe, but just wanted to get as much mileage in seconding at Severe to VS as possible the first day, and then wanted to try and lead some Severes the second day. We had a superb first day at Carreg Wasted ticking all the classics. The weather was blue skies and quite hot, and the crag had a few other teams on it, but I felt that it was worth dodging around the other climbers as the routes were the perfect grade and top quality.
The day didn’t pan out exactly as I had expected. The first thing was that I left one of my 60m ropes in the car as Steve had brought his own rope. Unfortunately for me this turned out to be a 30m rope, so we made do for a few routes but there was one route I really wanted to do with Phil that needed a 40m rope. Steve kindly agreed to run round to the top and abseil in and assess that way – but the moral of the story is make sure you carry all essential gear, all of the time. This is also important when teamed up with another trainee – don’t rely on them to bring the stove/map/whatever.
Final guess the route for a few days. Tough one this, can you get it? Fantastic climbing in an exposed position with bomber gear. Duncan posing down for the lens. Any ideas @lifeinthevertical ? A photo posted by Jack Geldard (@jackgeldard) on
Also I had kind of switched out of role-play mode on this day and just concentrated on giving Phil the best day I could – treating Steve as a competent climber – so when Steve switched it up a little, asking me to short-rope him on some sections, that was something I wasn’t expecting, so my advice would be to be ready and don’t drop the client care role-play with your assessor even on these final client days.
Steve had another trick up his sleeve too, and when I topped out on one of the routes that had scarce belay anchors, Steve was already at the top and hadn’t de-rigged his abseil rope, which he offered me as a belay anchor. I took the time to scramble up to it and double check it, as it just didn’t look quite right, and behold it was a duff belay on a loose block, so I didn’t use it and built my own anchor. Moral of that story is to alway double check every anchor, whether it was built by yourself, another trainee or by an assessor.
Day 6 was again with Phil, and this time Tim Neill. We went to Bochlwyd Buttress, which was thought of by some as quite esoteric, but having used it in the past I knew it had some cracking well protected and positive Severes, which would be perfect for Phil to lead. I felt this day went really well, and I have quite a lot of experience in getting clients on the sharp-end. Tim pointed out a couple of ways that I could improve my set-up, but overall things went smoothly, and most importantly Phil had a good day (I think!).
The tip from this is that if it is safe and appropriate, don’t be afraid to teach leading. Get on a rope next to your client, and get them on the sharp-end.
Big thanks to everyone on my intake and to al the assessors. looking forward to Scottish winter just around the corner now!