BMG Trainee Misha Nepogodiev finds out that you have to expect the unexpected in order to pass the Entrance Exams for the BMG Training Scheme.
After my application for the BMG training scheme was accepted last June, I was looking forward to the rock climbing, skiing and winter climbing Entrance Exams which you have to pass to be accepted onto the actual BMG training scheme. The exams didn't seem too onerous on paper but climbing or skiing while being assessed was going to be a new experience, so I was a bit apprehensive about it. Cue visions of tumbling down after a foot slipping, an axe popping or the skis catching an edge – bad enough at the best of times but all the more embarrassing under assessment. The idea of being told to come back the following year, or not at all, didn't bear thinking about…
In the end, it all turned out fine but the best advice I'd give is to expect the unexpected – and make sure your vehicle is roadworthy!
Rock Climbing Entrance Exam
"What do you reckon we're going to do if it rains?" I wondered as my fellow Registrant Tim and I drove to Tremadog to practise some slithering around in the wet in big boots the day before the Exam. The forecast was looking decidedly damp. "Guess we'll just go climbing," Tim replied. Turned out he was right.
It's a good idea to make sure your climbing is up to scratch in the run up to the Rock Climbing Entrance Exam. In theory, you're meant to climb an E1 in good style. In practice, you might end up doing an E2. Or it might be raining. Or both.
A couple of days before the Exam, three of us did Mantrap in Mousetrap Zawn. We survived, which was a positive outcome and proved that we could deal with shuffling up sandy chimneys and setting up belays in Swiss cheese. Climbing in the wet at Tremadog the following day completed our preparation.
Meeting our assessors at a Llanberis cafe in the morning, the atmosphere was relaxed but focused – after all, we were being assessed and the reason it's called an Entrance Exam is that it is an exam and you can fail it. The brief was to climb in good style, place lots of good runners and set up solid belays. Everyone needed to lead at least one pitch at E1 5b or above, preferably one we hadn't done before. Depending on timing and conditions, the Exam can also include leading or top roping a VS in big boots.
The feasible options were Gogarth (probably wet, slippery smears) or Tremadog (probably wet, greasy slopers). We opted for Gogarth because it would be more exciting.
On arrival at the South Stack car park, it was dry so we made a beeline for Main Cliff, but of course by the time we had geared up it had started drizzling. One team went to do Gogarth (the route) – of course it turned out to be greasy, but they got up it fine. Tim and I thought we'd be a bit cunning and avoid the worst of the grease by sticking to the Upper Tier. Thing is, it doesn't really matter where you are if it's raining! Tim optimistically took the lead on The Eternal Optimist. I had done the route before and knew that it was a solid E2 when dry, though at least with good gear. Tim pulled out a great lead – solid E3 in the conditions.
We abbed off and then it was my turn to do Fail Safe – another E2, but this time at the bold end of the grade. I was glad it had stopped raining! I proceeded to place lots of gear, partly mindful of the brief to climb safely and partly concerned about greasing off. Apparently these had been the worst conditions for the Entrance Exam in a long time… After this, we had some time left so headed to Castell Helen, changed into big boots and got lowered in to speed-climb Rap on top rope in one long pitch. This was actually really good fun, not least because the rock was dry!
Having passed the Entrance Exam, we now had two days of foundation training – a day focused on short roping and a day of crag rope rescue skills. The short roping day was cold, wet and windy – perfect for learning how to move quickly over scrambling terrain while using the rope in all sorts of imaginative ways to keep the team safe. We started off on some grassy slopes above Llyn Idwal to learn the basics in a relatively safe environment, then picked a scrambling line up random bluffs and buttresses before descending the stream path down the side of the Idwal Slabs.
Practice makes perfect and this is definitely one of the skills I will need to spend a lot of time practising. Of course I've done a fair bit of moving together in the Alps but short roping is a completely different skill – much more varied, dynamic and physically and mentally draining - but good fun! Short roping is a core guiding skill, so it's something we will get a lot more training on but it was good to make a start at this early stage.
That evening we did a couple of hours on rope rescue systems to prepare for the following day's crag rescue skills training, which was at Craig y Forwyn to escape an encroaching Atlantic storm – a good call as it stayed dry and warm for a change. You don't really want to be wet and cold if you're going to spend half the day hanging on a rope while your mate puts together a bewildering variety of knots, Prusiks and pulley systems to 'rescue' you. Due to the historically uncertain access situation, I'd never been to Craig y Forwyn, so it was great to discover a new crag as well as learning some new skills. It's an impressive crag but very accident prone – each team did a couple of HVSs over the course of the day and managed to have two or three different accidents on each one! Plenty more practice required to get slick at the rescues – there's a bit of a theme developing here!
Ski Entrance Exam
Time seemed to drag between the Rock Exam in mid-September and the Ski Exam in mid-January. Eeking out the last of the summer rock season, doing silly moves in dirty dry tooling caves and a single weekend of winter climbing up in Scotland while waiting for winter to arrive properly – autumn always seems to pass slowly but this time I couldn't wait until the Ski Exam and the months seemed to turn into aeons. I did put some of this endless time to good use by doing a two day navigation course at Plas y Brenin, which was really useful as navigation is definitely a skill I needed to brush up on.
Skiing is not my strongest suit (that would be rock climbing), so I made sure to spend some time on the planks before the Ski Exam, including some ski lessons. The BMG actually provide a three day ski technique course which, depending on scheduling, sometimes runs before the Ski Exam, but this time it was the other way round.
In the end, the Exam got brought forward a couple of days to take advantage of fresh snow (it's definitely worth building in some flexibility in your diary around the various training and assessment dates just in case there are any last minute changes). The assessor decided on Les Contamines, which proved to be a great choice as there was hardly anyone there, so we got to make fresh tracks all day, whereas Cham would have been skied out by lunchtime. I hadn't skied at Les Contamines before so it was interesting to find out what it's like.
Things started off well. Deciding to stack the cards in my favour, I took the skis to get serviced the evening before the Exam and then almost forgot to pick them up before the ski shop closed. With disaster averted by a few minutes, I arranged a lift in the morning from one of my fellow Registrants. We were both staying in Cham and needed to be in Les Contamines at 8.30am, so figured that leaving an hour would be fine.
In the morning, the car pulled out onto the autoroute and started making noises which you don't really want to hear when you've only got an hour to get somewhere important. Turned out the rear brakes had seized up from the cold. Visions of the other guys slaying the pow while we look for a garage, a blowtorch or a rental car… Fortunately one of the other Registrants was able to give us a lift. His van was also making suspicious grinding noises but he assured us it was fine.
The other guys are all much better skiers than I am, in fact one is so good that he is sponsored by a whole bunch of brands, so I was feeling a bit apprehensive (that word again!). The brief was to ski fairly steadily and in control. Once we actually got going, I relaxed and just enjoyed the skiing. We had nice powder all day, though with some nasty icy base coming through in places to keep us on our toes. The skiing was fairly mellow, nothing steeper than about 30 degrees, lots of open slopes, some trees and just a bit of combat skiing through the undergrowth. We stayed off piste all day, doing a bit of piste side to start with before a pleasant run down to Hauteluce, followed by a fairly gentle 400m skin up to the Col de la Cicle and a 1,000m drop back down to the valley. From what I've heard, the exact format of the Ski Exam tends to vary from year to year depending on location and snow and avalanche conditions, so some years there is more touring involved.
Throughout the day, the assessor discussed safety considerations, both generally in terms of avalanche risk and in a guiding specific context in terms of how to ensure client safety (choice of line, what instructions to give to clients and so on). We will get lots more instruction on this in due course, but it was good to start thinking about it at this early stage.
A couple of days after the Ski Exam we set off for the three day ski technique course sponsored by the Fred Harper Trust. This Trust was set up in memory of Fred Harper, a mountain guide who was very keen on skiing and improving the skiing standard in the BMG. The Trust covers the instruction, the accommodation and even a couple of evening meals, plus we got heavily discounted ski passes. We were all grateful for this financial support as the training scheme is not a cheap affair… The ski technique course is also open for Aspirants, as well as for qualified Guides as CPD, so it was a good opportunity to meet a few people as well as improve our skiing.
This course was held in Leysin, a small ski resort in Switzerland. The rear brakes on my mate's car had thankfully defrosted, so we made it to Leysin without any issues, despite over a foot of snow falling in Cham earlier that day. After getting to our allocated chalet at Leysin Lodge (a nice little ski in, ski out place), we waited for the other two guys for some time, went for a pizza and then waited some more. Turned out their van had gone off the road and into a snowdrift, then for good measure got hit by a speeding car. Somehow they still managed to make it to Leysin – I guess guides like to live life to the full!
Leysin is a small place, but there is some pretty good and fairly varied off piste and it isn't busy, which meant we got lots of powder to play in. We did spend time on piste as well to practise various technique drills. Our instructor was Alex Languetin, a top skier and coach who instructs Swiss guides and pro skiers, so we were in good hands. I learned a lot and, whilst a three day course was never going to turn me into an amazing skier, it provided me with the tools to enable me to get better with lots of practice.
I got back home to find the battery in my van had died. We are cursed!
Scottish Winter Entrance Exam
With blazing sunshine and temperatures in the high teens in the second half of February, there was more ice in my fridge than in the whole of Scotland, so the Scottish Winter Entrance Exam was looking somewhat doubtful. Previously this Entrance Exam had been at the end of February, but this year it happened to get scheduled a couple of weeks later – just as well, as it was basically summer at the end of February. Winter did make a comeback though, so we had classic early season conditions for the Exam on 11 March…
With winter conditions being all over the place, the three of us who are not based in Scotland had not done much winter climbing that season, so we got there a few days before the test and tried to do what we could to get back into the swing of things. Tim and I did Bulgy, with Tim taking the crux pitch with the infamous offwidth roof crack. Hanging off a double stein pull in the roof crack while seconding, I figured we must have been in decent shape, despite the lack of practice. The Exam tends to be in the Northern Cairngorms and you have to climb a Grade V, which round there tends to be V 6 and pretty tricky in early season conditions. Still, double stein pulls aren't usually required on a V 6. A couple of days later we did Droidless, which again was good prep, featuring some sketchy moves on questionable gear. This was made even more engaging by one of our assessors unexpectedly popping up next to us while climbing with a friend.
There were five of us Registrants, so we got split up into three teams and by chance I was to climb with Tim again. The brief was similar to the Rock Exam – good style and solid runners and belays. The aim was to climb at or around Grade V, with everyone leading at least one pitch at that level, preferably on a route we had not done before.
We also needed to be back at Glenmore Lodge by 5pm, after leaving at the relatively late hour of 9am, so we had to be reasonably quick. This is something we will need to get used to as clients often have to be somewhere to do something by a certain time. Keeping on schedule will also be really important once we get to the Alpine stages of the scheme. It still felt a bit strange though, given that it wasn't going to get dark till 6.30pm and winter climbing in the dark is hardly unusual for me. Ah well, more time for food and beer in the evening!
The Exam day dawned clear and still, which was a promising start. The original plan was to do The Messenger but there was a bit of congestion on the approach pitch, so our assessor suggested that we do Hidden Chimney Direct into Technicoloured Dream Crack – a little known V 6 variation finish to Hidden Chimney. Tim took us up this combination route, which turned out to be a pretty good link up. Technicoloured Dream Crack is actually a chimney of jumbled blocks of the 'steep and hooky' variety – great fun! We topped out into blazing sunshine – what more could we wish for?
Another route was the answer! Now it was my turn and the assessor's suggestion was Honeypot into The Melting Pot. It was about 1.30pm by the time I set off but I figured there would be enough time. Straight away progress slowed as I had to execute some steep pulls on thin hooks and small gear – typical early season nastiness. Apparently there was an easier start over to the side but never mind, I like a challenge. I did two pitches, spending time placing gear as per the brief, which meant time was starting to run short, so the assessor suggested that I fire straight up the finishing pitch of Honeypot. With good hooks and gear, it would have been rude to hang around on this pitch, so I scampered up it pretty quickly for a change. We topped out around 3.30pm, getting up the route in two hours, which I imagine is a decent guiding speed. The other teams did Pot of Gold and The Lamp. We were back at the Lodge before 5pm, as per the brief.
The Exam was followed by two days of foundation training, covering basic snow craft such as self arrest, cutting steps and various forms of snow belays. This involved learning how to actually do these things (as the non-MICs amongst us hadn't come across some types of snow belays) as well as how to teach it to others in a logical and progressive way. Unfortunately the weather and avalanche conditions had deteriorated, which limited where we could safely go. However in a way that was not a bad thing because we got to learn how to make the most out of limited options. It's amazing how much learning you can get out of a small snow slope! These days were also great opportunities for us to get to know the assessors and quiz them on all things Scottish winter related.
Onwards and upwards…
So the five of us have passed the Entrance Exams to become BMG Trainees – now the hard work really begins! We have two four day courses focused on guided rock climbing, short roping and client care and teaching skills, then it's up to us to practise as much as we can before the British Rock Climbing Assessment in early September in North Wales. It won't be easy and I'm not taking anything for granted but I'm sure it will be interesting and good fun.
Misha used to be a typical weekend warrior, spending most of his weekends and holidays climbing or skiing. He is now taking a few months off from his office based 'day job' and spending the summer in North Wales to prepare for the BMG British Rock Climbing Assessment in September.
- ARTICLE: Becoming a British Mountain Guide 12 Dec, 2018