The MIA Experience
Nowadays whenever I go to Plas y Brenin I always have the same breakfast: 2 hash browns, a tomato, a poached egg and two bacon. After all the courses I've done there, I've got some kind of routine going. The breakfast is always a highlight of my stay and I was determined to enjoy every one, since for this particular week I was about to put myself through some kind of hell: MIA assessment week.
On the morning your course starts (often and in this case a Monday) everyone meets in the lecture room, ready to split off and meet your instructor. Various courses are announced; never before have I so wanted to go on a family activities week or a white water course. We were last to be called out. We were Paul, Simon, Steve and me, all looking suitably scared.
We crossed the road through torrential rain to our meeting room and were teamed up – I was with Simon and Louise was our assessor. The only good thing about that morning was for once I didn’t have to make a decision on where we were going. It was throwing it down, one of those ‘there is no way this weather will get better’ days. Other than driving back home, which I would have been quite happy to do, Tremadog was the only option.
At Tremadog it wasn’t raining. On this first day of the assessment you have to show you can climb VS 4c and arrange some kind of descent. Easy you might think, but with a big dollop of brain melting pressure, that somehow doesn’t seem so straight forward. My turn first: find Merlin and climb it. Tremadog is a complicated cliff but finding routes hasn’t generally been a weakness of mine. Whilst searching for the route my brain seemed to empty itself of all previous knowledge and I had the sensation of doing a complicated maths puzzle and needing to save the world all at the same time.
Of course eventually I found it and I climbed it – things got back to normal, but just as I was about to move from under the overlap at the top of the first pitch, the heavens opened with incredible force, just to remind us who’s in charge. Rather optimistically I had set off with no waterproofs so I was in for a soaking. So after pitch one I set up an abseil retreat. On the ground I got into full waterproofs and the day wound on. I was reminded of much of my summer’s practice, of damp and wet days out in the countryside. How I was looking forward to pulling on some dry small crimps when all this was done. The day soon was over after 2 more routes. I survived day 1: slightly sloppy ropes on belays and some other minor bits, but generally ok.
Improvised rescue and problem solving: the day I had been fearing. We were back at Tremadog as faced with more rain in Snowdonia central. Straight away I was in full waterproofs, even though it was dry - so just to add to the mental stress of being hot and bothered, so too was the rest of me... all day.
Simon led off first and of course, when it was time for me to second, my belay carabiner wouldn’t undo. Of course also the rope got stuck and of course I got really tired and couldn’t do the move. These are some of the standard problems to ease you in. Simon dealt with them swiftly and I set off up the Micah finish on Christmas Curry. All of the screwgates on his belay were also unscrewable and he set off with a jangling mass of clove hitches and within 7 metres of the top his finger got stuck. I wondered if with his spare hand he was unable to release his finger. But of course, no chance, his finger was now splurting blood (obviously not really, this is only pretend) and I had no choice but to escape the system and abseil down to him where his finger magically released.
So this was the theme of the day where words like ‘unconscious’, ‘dislocated’, ‘stuck’, ‘rockfall’ and ‘falling’ are freely used. Simon and I both made mistakes but nothing that would have caused further dislocation or death and when Keith, our assessor declared at 3.20pm that it was over, Simon and I looked at each other not believing our luck. When you are on assessment, you have have to remember the assessors are also feeling the pressure and visits to the cafe remain an intrinsic part of the day.
Bolt upright I woke, moving from the comfort of deep sleep to the awareness that I was at Plas y brenin on MIA assessment. Butterflies and sickness were in the air. Where had this come from? The teaching was supposed to be my best day, why was I nervous? I slowly realised that pride and ego were in the way. Of all the days, I couldn’t fail this one.
On one side of the bar sat the guinea pig students and on the other side, us. Who were we going to get? Did they look easy going? I got Roe and Jane – a friendly climbing duo from the Peak. They had just started climbing as a partnership one month ago and wanted to get their teamwork sorted on multi-pitch. Where to go? It was wet and damp, but not raining. I'd got the 'avoid Idwal slabs' message loud and clear some months before; whilst the climbing is fine, many deferrals have been known to occur on the descent. It hit me as a stroke of genius – Sub Cneifon Rib a lesser known gem on a buttress just before the slabs. A 4 pitch VD with an easy walk off. Perfect. I’d not done it before, but from everything I’d heard this would work out.
And it did. But my reoccurring problem did happen: timekeeping. Basically the long and short of it is that I talk too much. I really wanted Jane to lead the last pitch, but time was ticking. We were supposed to be back at the bus at 4pm. At 3.50pm, Roe was still seconding, my jumar rope had got stuck and Roe couldn’t get a piece of gear out. I wasn’t in panic mode, but I was flustered. I went into auto-pilot and things resolved. By 4.30pm we had made it back to the bus. It seemed I had done well and had nothing major to worry about.
That night I started to relax, 3 glasses of wine were consumed (you need some kind of relief, surely). The next day was no sure thing, but now we were half way through.
Scrambling and short roping. Of all the days initially I was frustrated by scrambling. I want to teach rock climbing for goodness sake. But as I learnt more I began to understand why its so important. Whilst people can often climb ok, particularly if you’ve come from a climbing wall, suddenly moving on loose big blocks, just getting to or from the crag can be quite difficult. You need to be able to use a rope on the natural features of the ground to secure yourself and for the purpose of assessment 2 other people, either going up or down.
I had put a lot of effort into this side of things. My knees, following numerous dislocations, are barely held together by a couple of non-existent slithers of muscle. In essence I’m not designed for heavy days out on the hills. I figured if I practiced this enough it would be worth it to pass first time. Scrambling is one of the notorious stopper days on the assessment. Judgement and general mountain experience are the only things that will get you through – there are no short cuts.
The venue was Tryfan – a great triangle of rock. On the way up I seemed to do ok and my spirits were high when Stu, a floating assessor, gave me a few thumbs up in the background. On this day I was teamed with Steve, a geography teacher from Worcester. Now it was his turn: He took us to the top via a strange horizontal chasm. I faltered on the way down – too many coils in my hands. Keith, our assessor mentioned it, and I corrected it. Going down is awkward as you really have to think differently about using the ground. You often can’t see what’s coming up and you have to send people down first. Whatever the case, we got down. But walking back to the minibus I threw myself down a tunnel of self-doubt. This was combined with a major sugar low and the realisation I was absolutely knackered. The thought of Friday was impossible.
Navigation. By now I had almost stopped caring about the result. I was resigned to my fate. Just 3 hours now separated me from the end. I persuaded myself that there are more important things in life than being able to read a map – if I had to retake, well, I would have to retake… I just needed to try my hardest for one more morning. The first point, a sheepfold, I was off by about 30 metres, I felt a thin film of cold sweat on my face. Had I blown it? The second point I found fine. But things started to untangle on the next. We were given a 'mini-journey' – for me it was to find a ring contour. We had to describe our route in advance and say what we would teach about navigation along the way. I chose to follow a water course.
No matter how hard I looked, it wasn’t there. It had dried up. I was despairing. But the shape of the ground looked right so I ploughed on. But tiredness was now taking me over and could no longer be bothered to be precise, so I went for the nose sniffing technique. It’s much more fun anyway. I went to 2 false summits before I found the right one. If that was a fail, that was a fail. I knew where Plas y brenin was at least.
Back in the bar we waited for our results. When Simon, who had been so nervous all week, came out of the door announcing he’d passed I burst into tears (what?!!) - I felt such relief for him. I hadn’t even got my results yet. Anyway, I passed. It’s a strange feeling. It’s all done. No more scrambling, no more trips to Wales to not go climbing. For a few days after I was still mumbling in my sleep (I do sleep talk) about having to pick up clients or some such rubbish. A week on I’m now sleeping soundly.
Thank you so much to all the people I have practiced with: Janet, Jamie, Dom, Parisa, Hannah, Gill, Alyce, Nic, Jacki, Rhiannon, Jane and Trish. There's one missing, Angela, but I don't have a pic of her. I found most of them on either UKClimbing or Trail magazine internet forum!