Training Novice Club Members Weekend

Plas Y Brenin, 14th - 15th May

Graeme Stanford

Organised by Jane Thompson, Clubs and Partnership rep, from the BMC, the aim of the weekend was to give clubs support with the niceties of introducing novice members to the hills. Answering questions such as “what support and advice is available from the BMC?”, “What do other clubs do?”, and the obvious question “where do I stand legally if leading novices in the UK’s hills?” Not to mention all the ‘soft skills’ of dealing with a group of beginners.

The weekend was held at Plas Y Brenin, the national mountain sports centre, and all the physical outdoor activities were run by Plas Y Brenin instructors. The BMC heavily subsidised the event as the cost was only £50 per person, full board. We were housed on site in Moelwyn Cottage, which is normally £16 p.p.p.n. Hiring an instructor for the day at PYB is around £250 and we had five of them. Not to mention the food which is always top notch at PYB. All in all, fantastic value. Dave Jones and I were representing WBMC.

Saturday morning began as it should… with a hearty breakfast and collection of packed lunches. Food first is always a good drill. Once the vittles were consumed it was into the lecture room for everyone. PYB always begin the training week with a briefing about the centre and then various courses are introduced to their instructors who then lead them off to their respective locations for their courses.

We were handed over to Kath James who was taking the lead in our small team of instructors. We headed off to the Gwynant room for introductions etc. The day began with talks about case studies and support from the BMC. Reviewing the experiences of other clubs regarding training, the benefits and the challenges they face. We then had a very informative presentation from Andy Colbourne from Perkins Slade, the company providing insurance services to the BMC. This session dispelled many of the myths surrounding experienced but unqualified walkers / climbers passing on their knowledge to novices. How many of you, for instance, are familiar with the term ‘Volenti non fit injuria’? I certainly wasn’t. Translated from Latin “to one who volunteers no harm is done”. For this to apply you must ensure that the ‘trainee’ ‘freely and voluntarily enters into an agreement to undertake training’ and does so ‘in the full knowledge of and understanding of the risk’. As long as you are appropriately experienced in the subject you are teaching (and you’re not being paid to teach it) you are fully covered by the BMC’s £10m liability insurance. There was a great deal more about informal risk assessment, Participation statements etc.

Once we’d had a break for coffee we split into smaller groups. Some went off to do single pitch climbing and the rest of us were off to do navigation. Those of us on ‘nav’ split into two syndicates, with an instructor each, and headed off towards Moel Siabod. The afternoon that followed saw us meandering across the terrain around Capel Curig (we walked a massive 3.5 miles) running through various scenarios and methods of teaching novices the basics of navigation using a process of progression through the skills. We absorbed some very useful tips on how to structure training so that the information goes in and more importantly sticks. The afternoon passed at a steady pace and at 5pm we found ourselves back at the centre for the customary ‘tea and cakes’.

After dinner, at 8pm, there was a lecture at the centre. This is very common at Plas Y Brenin. The bar is public and the lectures are also open to the public so if you’re down at the hut on a Saturday evening with nothing to do give reception a ring and find out what lecture is on. In this case it was our own instructor, Kath James, doing a talk about her climbing adventures on big walls in Yosemite and her ascent of the north face of the Eiger. Very impressive stuff. After a couple of beers, it was ‘up the stairs to Bedfordshire’ ready for the next day.

A hearty breakfast (again) and a short minibus journey saw my small group to the foot of Tryfan preparing for a day scrambling. Another group had gone to tackle multi-pitch climbing and Dave’s group had gone to do hillwalking skills on Moel Siabod. Back on Tryfan our instructor was a lass called Sabrina (Sabby as she preferred) and we had brought helmets and a rope to practice low level rope skills. Once again the emphasis was on the scenario of leading a group of novices on a grade 1 scramble. Route and kit choice, fitness and health issues, route finding etc. etc. We progressed up the familiar North Ridge assessing each leg with lots of discussion about what would or would not be appropriate to teach novices accepting the premise that, although safety is paramount, you are trying to give an interesting, enjoyable and challenging day.

We stopped at ‘the canon’ for the ubiquitous photo session and then continued upwards to the north tower. Once there we went through basic rope skills. This was at ML summer level and mainly to show how confidence can be given to a nervous novice with the use of a rope. No slings, karabiners, harnesses or any other kit just a rope. The emphasis is on simplicity as it’s not a pre-requisite to be an ML or a climber to guide novices up a scramble so the only knot used was an overhand knot. Simply put you secure the rope to an anchor (spike, thread whatever) and create a loop for yourself to step in to. Make sure your loop means you’re tight on the rope when sitting in your chosen belay stance then tie another loop in the end of the rope for the novice and throw the rope down to them. Then you use the ‘body belay’ technique to bring them up. For nervous descents we practiced the ‘South African Abseil’ which is a very stable high friction method. I wouldn’t want to do it on a vertical cliff but on a scramble its safe and effective. Once we’d touched the summit we headed back down the West Gully and so back to the road.

Back at the centre it was more tea and cakes, of course, before a course de-brief. Jane asked for our opinion on whether a similar course but aimed at winter skills would be welcomed. We all said yes.

Paul Brindley and Oliver Stephenson have also been on this course and it makes sense for the club to send more members on it in the future. With that in mind if you are fairly experienced in either hillwalking, scrambling or climbing but have little experience of imparting that knowledge to others and would like to pass on your experience to newer or novice club members please let me know so I can be ahead of the game the next time one of these courses comes up. As you can imagine they sell out fast. In our case and possibly in future cases the money can be found from the clubs training budget so all you’d need is petrol and beer money. Obviously we’d like you to use the skills you learn for the benefit of the club. We have a huge amount of experience throughout the club and we could be tapping in to that experience to give essential skills to new and novice members. It’s often said that one of the best ways to get in to climbing / mountaineering is by joining a club and it’s certainly an enticement to get potential new members ‘through the door’.

This article was written by Graeme Stanford and published on this website on the 29th May 2016