Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Equipment for Single Pitch Award – Making the right choices

This is the second in my series of “Making the right choices” articles on what equipment you should take for your assessment in a range of qualifications. This segment is for the Mountain Training Single Pitch Award (SPA).

After I completed my Mountain Leader, my SPA was the next qualification I wanted to work towards. I love climbing, I love the thrill of it, but what I love more is getting young people out on the crag. In my work with the Air Cadets I have been privileged to work with some truly talented young climbers, taking them out and getting them interested in climbing was only possible through doing my SPA. Whilst (in my opinion) easier than Mountain Leader, SPA still demands a huge amount of work and effort to prepare for your assessment, and in no other area is that more crucial than getting the right equipment. This article focuses on the equipment required for your SPA assessment:

For your SPA assessment you will to take a full climbing rack including everything you will need to lead and set up climbs (with the exception of ropes). Below is a summary of what I would recommend for your SPA assessment, and what got me comfortably through my assessment.
Nuts – 2 sets 1-11, also consider taking a set of DMM offset nuts too.
Hexes – 1 set, hexcentrics or similar depending on personal preference.
Cams – optional, range of sizes.
120cm sling – 3, each with a screwgate karabiner
240cm sling – 2, each with a screwgate karabiner

Quickdraws – around 8
Slingdraws (quickdraws with a 60cm sling instead of a standard quickdraw sling) - 3
Small screwgate karabiners – at least 3 for building belays.
Large HMS screwgate karabiners – 3, use for building belays, releasable abseils, and setting bottom ropes.
Prussik loops – 2, 1.5m of 5-6mm cord tied with a double fisherman’s  knot, with a screwgate.
Belay plate – 2, each with a screwgate.
Nut key – You will get stuff stuck.
Harness/Helmet/Rock boots – obviously

Whilst the above may seem straight forward, it represents a substantial investment of money, so getting it right is crucial. As with any equipment lists, this is my recommendation, that isn’t to say I am the foremost authority on this matter and you shouldn’t diverge from what I list, quite the opposite, I would encourage you to build you rack the way you want! I will now discuss a few of the items above….

DMM Alloy Offsets

Wallnuts vs Rocks vs Stoppers vs Curve nuts vs Spectrum Wires vs ProNuts….this debate is not new in the climbing community. But which ones are best? Simply? They are all good, and you need to decide which are best for you, based on cost, range of sizes, weight etc. However some facts for you:

Biggest range of sizes: Wild Country rocks are available in sizes 1-14 making them the biggest range available on the market, however you will need to buy these in 2 sets (1-8 and 9-14) costing you at least £60 a set (if you find an offer!). Black Diamond’s Stopper pro set is 1-13 and costs less at around £100.

Cheapest Nuts: The cheapest set of wires on the market are Zero G’s Spectrum Wires at £49. I have a set of this and really like them, the shapes are nice, and for the price you really can’t argue!
Lightest nuts: The lightest nuts on the market are Metolius’s Ultralight Curve nuts which come out at 360g for a set of 10. However there is not a massive saving on weight when compared to DMM Wallnuts for example, which come out at 429g for a set of 11, so whilst being 69g heavier, you do get an extra nut for that weight.

Strongest nuts: All similar really….most honest opinion I could give! There isn’t much point me discussing minor differences in operational limits.

Best nuts: Each to their own, I love DMM wallnuts and have 2 sets of them. I also have a set of Zero G spectrum wires which have never let me down!

DMM alloy offset in action
Anything else worth knowing: Yes, buy a set of DMM alloy offsets! They are the most incredible set of nuts you will ever buy. Buy them as a supplement to your full sets of nuts not instead of. They are a set of 5 wires that fit in places where other nuts simply can’t. The unique shape (based on the original HB design) fits into offset and odd sizes cracks, and are simply fantastic. I used these more on my SPA than ever before, and was so glad for having them with me! I actually own 2 sets now, which I have combined into 1 set, simply because I place them so much!


One piece of advice, if you take them, know how to place them, and certainly don’t use them for rigging. One lad on my assessment got a slating for placing them incorrectly, and was fighting against that negative comment in his head the whole assessment. Cams are useful we all know that, I am not going to go into detail on cams since I believe they are something people should make their own mind up on. Your options are wide in terms of brands and types. Personally I use DMM 4CU’s, they are cheap, and work well.


Hexes are very useful, and should always be carried. The larger range of sizes fit in bigger cracks and gaps, and learning how to place them to take full advantage of the camming action they provide is a crucial tool to the aspirant SPA holder. In terms of advice, again there isn’t much to offer here. You have 2 choices; Black Diamond Hexcentrics, and Wild Country Rockcentrics. The Hexcentrics are on wire, whilst the Rockcentrics are on sling. Decide whether you would rather have hexes on wire or sling, and buy accordingly. I own Hexcentrics since I have always felt the durability of wire outweighs the benefits of the flexibility of sling.

A word on slingdraws

Carry a few slingdraws. For those of you who have a blank expression on your face when reading this term; a slingdraw is a quickdraw made up of a 60cm sling and 2 snapgate karabiners. The sling is attached to each karabiner and doubled up,  which leaves the slingdraws at 15cm, they can be used in this format as normal. However they provide a 60cm extension where you need to extend a gear placement out to counter rope drag (for example when moving up an overhang). Slingdraws are very versatile and many climbers exclusively use slingdraws for the flexibility they offer.

A final word on kit

By the time you attend your SPA assessment you should have done at least 40 leads, therefore you will already have a good idea of what kit you need. Make sure that you can justify every choice of kit, your assessor will scrutinise anything out of the norm. This may include GriGri’s, quicklock karabiners (particularly Magnetrons), safety lanyards etc. In addition to all this kit, it is definately worth getting a couple of books on the subject, I would recommend "Rock Climbing" by MLTE. I did a post on my SPA assessment back when I did it if you are interested in reading what SPA assessment is like click here

SPOT GPS: Big brother for DofE leaders

"helped initiate more than 550 rescues in 51 countries on land and at sea"

Whilst GPS messengers have been around for a while now, they have only recently (in the last couple of years) become commercially viable for the masses. In line with this new found availability, many Duke of Edinburgh’s Award groups have purchased these systems to allow them to keep track of groups on the hill. But how effective are they? Are they worth the large price tag and annual subscriptions?

My Air Cadet Wing recently purchased 8 SPOT trackers and the associated licences. I was therefore given the chance to test these extensively over the expedition season. This is a short review of the functionality of these devices for use on expeditions with young people.

'Remote supervision'

The way the units work is simple; they broadcast the position of the unit to a piece of mapping software such as Mapyx, allowing the instructors to track the group’s location. The unit also allows the group to send simple pre-programmed messages via the buttons on the front, request emergency help from the instructor, and request external search and rescue directly. The unit uses GPS satellites to send messages and therefore don’t rely on mobile signal. The SPOT units are small and easy to explain to groups. The units themselves have 4 front buttons, plus 2 buttons that have ‘safety catches’ to prevent accidental triggering. The 4 front buttons (clockwise from the top):

1. The Power Button; turns the unit on

2. The track button; broadcasts the unit’s position

3. Message button; sends a pre-programmed message, such as “we are at our checkpoint”

4. OK button; broadcasts a check in.
The software that comes with the units can be used to program what the message button sends. The unit interfaces with the Mapyx software, which has a web based interfaced, allowing instructors to log in to the website and view (on a 1:25,000 OS Map) where the group are.


The SPOT GPS unit itself will cost you £160 (RRP although they can be found for cheaper)
On top of the cost of the unit you need to pay an annual subscription. Subscriptions vary depending on how often you want the unit to broadcast the position of the unit, the more frequent the location updates, the higher the cost. You must pay £99 per year for the basic service and tracking, this can then be upgraded by paying the appropriate upgrade fee. Prices can be found below:

1. Basic Service and Tracking (Required)

Costing £99 Per Year - Required for all Spot devices. Package include unlimited predefined Custom, Check In, Tracking, Help and SOS messages. Basic tracking automatically transmits your GPS location every 10 minutes for 24 hours so you can share your adventures in near real time via SPOT Adventures or a SPOT shared page. You can track as long as you like, but after 24 hours, you will need to re-set your tracking.

2. Unlimited Tracking (Optional)

Costing £28 Per Year on top of the Basic cost- SPOT Gen3's enhanced tracking features allow you to choose your rate of tracking. Pre-set your SPOT Gen3 to send your GPS coordinates every 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes to suit the speed of your adventures. In addition, Unlimited Tracking will continue to track your progress beyond 24 hours, allowing you to set it and forget it (no need to re-set after 24 hours).

3. Extreme Tracking (Optional)

Costing £72 Per Year on top of the basic cost- Get all of the great features of Basic and Unlimited Tracking but with the added ability to vary your track rate down to every 2.5 minutes. Perfect for pilots and the ultra outdoor enthusiast.

GEOS Search and Rescue Benefit (Optional)

Costing £8 Per Year - The GEOS Search and Rescue member benefit covers up to £50k in search and rescue expenses, even coordinating a private rescue contractor, if needed.

The software

The software

The units use Mapyx mapping software (although they can be programmed to use others). The software is web based allowing instructors to log in from any web based device; tablets, phones, laptops etc. Any alerts sent from the unit i.e. Distress calls will also be sent to a pre-configured mobile number.

The drawbacks

There are some quite big drawbacks to this system:

1. Unless you have access to the internet where you are (which will usually be remote areas), then the system is generally useless from a tracking point of view. Whilst the alerts will come through to a mobile, the tracking relies on the web based internet.

2. The web based net system on 3G internet requires a good connection, quite often you won’t have this in the outdoors. As a result trying to view locations on the internet system is difficult (ties into the point above).

3. Cost - £160 + £99 per year is expensive, simple! Is it worth it for peace of mind?

If multiple instructors are trying to access the web system to view the groups locations, it will log out the person who is logged into the web system when the next instructor tries to log in. The instructor who got kicked off will invariably try and log back in thus logging out the person who just logged in. This happened to me during an expedition, and was honestly one of the most frustrating experiences of my life.

The positives

There also some quite big positives to this system:

1. If you are in an area with good internet it’s an excellent way of keeping tabs on a group without smothering them with attention.

2. The group will ALWAYS have a means of contacting help in an emergency, which can provide peace of mind, although my worst nightmare is seeing Mountain Rescue storming past a checkpoint where I’m waiting for a group, and not realise they are running to the aid of one of my groups!

3. If you have someone at a “base” location, with steady WiFi, they can act as a point of contact and relay grid references and other information to the team in the field. 

The verdict

Expensive, but potentially worth it. They provide a means of contacting emergency services regardless of mobile signal, for leaders in the field the tracking can be quite ineffective due to poor internet signal, however if using a base location can provide an excellent means of keeping track of groups. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Easter climbing at Windgather

At the top of the first lead of the day
My beautiful girlfriend Emma is currently making her final preparations to attend her Single Pitch Award training. So to get some leading in we headed out for a spot of camping and climbing. We decided to head to Windgather near Buxton, a nice, small, group friendly crag. After giving Emma her Easter present of a set of Mammut crag indicator quickdraws, we headed out. Despite being infested with children (Emma had some thoughts on that here), we had an excellent day of climbing. I am so proud of how well Emma is climbing, considering how quickly she has learn to lead, place gear, build belays, she is an excellent climber. I watched Emma lead several routes, and was impressed with how smoothly she lead and
Em on High Buttress Arete (D**)
placed gear. Her gear placements were excellent (as you will see from the difficulty I had in removing some of them on the video!). Highlight of the day was seeing Emma on High Buttress Arete (D**), she confidently and professionally lead the route, having watched someone floundering around on one move for over 10 minutes. Considering the difficulty of building belays at the top of some of the climbs on Windgather, Em did incredibly well to build efficient belays after only been shown once, and I was so confident in her abilities that I didn't even feel the need to run around to the top and see what she had done. Overall an excellent day climbing, we got plenty done then headed over to the Cat and Fiddle for a well earned toasty and a brew.


Equipment for Basic Expedition Leader and Lowland Valley Leader – Making the right choices

This is the first in a series of articles on what equipment you should take for your assessment in a range of qualifications. This week is Basic Expedition Leader (BEL) and Lowland Valley Leader (LVL), and over the next week I will also be posted on both Mountain Leader and Single Pitch Award. I have also previously done articles on expedition kit, mountain leader kit, and winter kit for feel free to have a look at them too! Enjoy!

I am a qualified Mountain Leader currently working towards both my Winter ML and Mountaineering Instructor Award. I am also a course director for the Basic Expedition Leader Award and soon to be a Director for the Lowland Valley Leader too. I have a wealth of experience working with groups for over 10 years, and the recommendations made in this article are based on that experience. Choosing the right kit for taking groups out can be tricky. This is complicated by the fact that during assessment your choice of equipment will be scrutinised for suitability by your assessors. This article is meant as a ‘foundation’ on which you can develop your personal equipment choices, this list is not exhaustive and there may well be other items you wish to add to your kit. This article also focuses on the equipment required for a day walk as opposed to a multi-day expedition.


Choosing the correct rucksack is essential as it allows you to not only fit the required amount of equipment in, but also remain comfortable throughout the day. An ideal rucksack for your leader kit on BEL or LVL would be around the 40 Litre mark. In my personal opinion Osprey packs are worth considering, whilst at the top end in terms of price, they are also at the top end in terms of performance, providing excellent comfort and well-designed packs. 40 Litres is only a guide size, and you may wish to carry a pack that is either bigger or 
smaller than this.

Key things to look for:

When you buy your rucksack test it! Most reputable shops will have weight bags you can place into the bag to test it. Do not blindly buy off the internet!  Also bear in mind that many brands of rucksack now produce packs in different (fixed) back sizes, so do your research and make sure you get the right size for you!

First Aid Kit:

As a group leader you are responsible for ensuring you have the correct equipment to deal with a range of emergencies on the hill. One of the key items in your emergency kit is your first aid kit. Your kit must be big enough to deal with multiple injuries to multiple casualties, but also take into account the fact that you need to be carrying it around with you all day. The result needs to be a balanced kit comprehensive enough to cover all scenarios, and light enough not to be a burden on the hill. My kit began life as a Lifesystems Mountain Leader first aid kit. I added several items to the kit and removed items such as painkillers (as leaders we cannot administer these to young people). I added; foil blankets x 2, small GPS, incident card, blister plaster pack, tick tweezers, and extra gloves. Adding these items is not required to make the kit usable, but I have found these are the items I use most frequently and aren’t included in the kit, and therefore top up the kit to provide everything I need. You may wish to add extra items not mentioned above, or add nothing. I also like the Lifesystems First Aid Kit layout because it splits the sections of the kit down into usable areas like “breaks and fractures” and “Bleeding” which means anyone can know where the items in your kit are stored in the event you are incapacitated, or need someone else to use it.

Key things to look for:

When buying a first aid kit make sure it is big enough to cover everything you need. Some people prefer to buy an empty first aid kit bag and add their own equipment. Don’t overload yourself with kit, you have to carry it all day remember!

Group Shelter:

A group shelter is an essential and sometimes overlooked item of emergency kit. It provides a temporary emergency shelter for injured parties, provides a temporary respite from poor conditions, or even a convenient place to hide during a lunch a stop. There are various sizes and brands of group shelter available. When choosing a group shelter bear in mind the potential size of your group; a 2 person shelter is no good if you plan to be working with groups of 8-10. Group shelters can be found in sizes up to 20 person. Personally I carry an 8 person shelter (Terra Nova Bothy  8), which will work for around 10 young people. All the brands of shelter are broadly equivalent and will generally work for 2 or more people than the size stated (i.e. a 10 person both could fit 12 at a push). Group shelters are a balance  between size and weight, the bigger they are the more they weigh, so consider what size you want to carry to provide shelter in an emergency without burdening you with extra weight.

Key things to look for:

There are 3 main brands of group shelter; Outdoor Designs, Vango, and Terra Nova, all produce shelters of varying sizes. Terra Nova sell a “Superlite” version which costs a lot more but weighs less (the 4 person standard shelter weighs 600g and costs £45, the superlite weighs 400g and costs £120). In my opinion such a huge difference in cost does not represent value for money where the saving in weight is only 33%.


In the modern world it makes sense to take advantage of current technology. I believe all leaders working with young people in the hills/mountains should carry, and know how to use, a GPS handset. In a pinch these provide simple, one touch access to a pinpoint location which can be provided to emergency services. This also takes the pressure off you in an emergency, allowing you to focus on treating the casualty, rather than needing to work out an accurate location. There are several dedicated GPS handsets below £100 on the market, with the Magellan eXplorist110 and Etrex 10 being 2 of the most popular – both reviewed on this blog if you search back. On a budget? There are a wide variety of apps available for android and iOS that use the GPS functionality of your phone to provide accurate fixes. Before using one of these make sure you check whether your phone has a GPS antenna or just uses an internet fix to provide location. Failure to check this could mean you think you have access to GPS in an emergency, when in actual fact it relies on a solid 3G or H+ signal to work.

Key things to look for:

Keep it simple, there a wide range of GPS sets that have OS map functionality etc. Do you really need access to these features? Or do you need a simple set that provides a quick and accurate read out in an emergency? Consider this when buying a GPS. Also check that the handset is fully waterproof, this may come in handy for UK weather!

Spare kit:

When operating with groups it is often prudent to carry spare equipment in case of drama on the hill! This can vary depending on the leader. Most leaders carry spare hats and gloves. Personally I carry spare hats and gloves x 2-3 pairs, in addition I carry spare socks, and spare laces, along with a spare warm layer such as a down jacket or belay jacket. The equipment you choose to carry is completely down to you, but also consider the time of year, the location you are operating in, and the weather.

Key things to look for:

Your spare kit doesn’t need to be expensive!

Consider conditions when packing your leader kit
Personal Kit:

  • Waterproofs
  • Warm layer (down jacket etc)
  • Map and compass
  • Water + Spare water (consider a hydration system of some description)
  • Walking poles (can also be given to a group member in event of injury)
  • Penknife or similar

This article contains recommendations for equipment to be carried, however I stress that choosing YOUR leader kit should be based on personal preference. Your equipment will constantly evolve, as you gain more experience what you carry will change. Consideration also needs to be given to your group size, conditions, time of year, which may mean you carry more or less of certain items.