Privatising Rescue – Surely not a good idea?

A sad day as the government privatises Search and Rescue and starts to retire the seeking. No reproduction without Permission

Well the Guardian has published a story saying that the government after waisting lots of money on the first botched attempt to tender for the Air/Sea rescue service in the Britian has decided not to continue with the current system and modernise the military helicopters and keep a system that has work fantastically and instead chosen to hand the contract to the private US firm Bristow.

I cannot help think that this is just a stupid idea, having worked alongside the RAF when on Llanberis Team, I have witnessed some of the finest flying in some of the most challenging conditions by Rescue 122 from RAF Valley. The governments argument seems to be that the Seaking is an ageing beast and rather than replace the RAF and RN fleet they have decided that privatisation was the way to go.

I have a good friend who train Prince William in Search and Rescue Flying at Valley and in conversations with him he raised a whole raft of potential problems. The most difficult is that at the moment there is no aviation law that allows low flying over land at night for civilian pilots. So the government will need to address this should the service be called to fly at night in the mountainous areas of the UK.

Similarly when on the team, the relationship we had with RAF Valley was strong and we would not only call on there helicopters but at times we would use there land based teams to supplement the volunteers. I don’t know whether the same mutual respect will extend to a private company who will after all be looking at their bottom line, where any additional flying costs money.

The present system is very effective and believe or not I have known seriously injured casualties make it to A&E in Bangor within the golden hour of an accident. All due to the hard work by the local rescue teams and the RAF. How a private entity will fit into this I don’t know, but I can’t see it being a step forward, instead it is more likely a step backward and possibly a thin edge of a wedge that may well lead to charging for rescues.

The only thing I can say is that the Seaking is getting tired, I remember going to get onto one and seeing red rain spouting from the winch. Which turn out to be hydraulic fluid, I have never seen a winchman run so fast in my life, followed by the pilots. It just seems ludicrous that they didn’t just replace the RAF and RN fleets, which one presumes they will have to if they expect them to head into war zones with them.

For me it is a sad day and one that may well lead to the unnecessary loss of life.

The Ethical Dilemma of Cash for Adventure

By the very nature of my work, I charge for adventure, I have no problem admitting that. I charge to give people a taste of what it is like to live a lifestyle I have followed for over 18 years. I use all those skills I have learnt, often the hard way to help people I work with climb harder and safer than before they met me. I generally specialise in summer rock climbing and mountain skills but a couple of years back I got my Winter ML award.

Ever since I have struggled to come to term with using this award, mainly because I don’t want to travel up to Scotland for three months of the year to work. Meaning that I really don’t have the experience to make the types of judgements that I have seen my friends and colleagues making everyday when they work up there. Instead I use the award in Wales, where I am much more confident with the local conditions.

The consequences of poor judgement in winter are more than apparent to me as several years ago a good friend was killed alongside his client on Buchialle Etive Mor, on one of the worst days for avalanches in recent history. Although arguably we are in an Annus horribilis for winter mountaineering tragedies at the moment.

The knee jerk reaction in the main stream media, provoked me to write a piece that is appearing in Climber magazine called ‘Dying to Climb’, and I’d like to think my opinion is slightly more educated than some of the journo hacks that offered theirs in the days following these human tragedies. I am motivated to write this piece based on a report hidden in a local Aberdeen newspaper, about another avalanche that in my instructor circles would be called a near miss, as despite 12 people being involved only three received minor injuries.

The incident happened on Friday and involved what I can only presume to be experienced and qualified winter instructors or leader, given where the group were based. As such it seems rather extraordinary as this is the second major avalanche incident this company has had this year. Although I do believe the first was nothing more than a tragic accident, as their activity was taking place on a safe area and one of their clients happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when another group arguably in a less safe place set off a slide that engulf their client.

Friday’s incident could well be different, as it illustrates to me the ethical dilemma that many outdoor instructors face from time to time. We take people’s money and promise an adventure and then have to deal with the weather. This weekend in Wales I had two enquiries to take people up Snowdon. Looking outside my window on Friday and it was apparent that a blizzard condition and heavy drifting was occurring from above 300m. I turned down the work mainly because I believed that the conditions meant that it would be unsafe to attempt to walk up Snowdon, in one of the cases it took me a long time to convince the prospective client that heading into the hills was a bad idea.

At the same time a friend was walking off their winter ML in the Cairngorms (less than a mile from the incident), they reach the Ski area car park which had been block to vehicles for several days and had to continue navigating in whiteout conditions down the ‘road’. It was in these condition that Fridays avalanche incident happen, the avalanche forecast had many slope aspects where the risk was Cat 3. Although put that into the actual weather on the day and the risk was potentially higher than forecast due to increased snowfall and the high winds (Avalanche Forecast are just a prediction of conditions based on the weather forecast and observation of conditions the day before, if the weather forecast is wrong so is the avalanche forecast).

Which brings into question why go out? It is a growing issue in the financially tight times, where there is little slack in anyones bank to turn down or cancel work due to conditions. Disappointing clients as an independent business is both a horrible and expensive thing to do. However the decision is mine and mine alone, and I will prefer to bare the cost than take a risk. What happens when your employer expects you to head out come hell or high water because they potentially can’t afford to cancel courses?

There are too few details on this latest incident to make any judgements, however given the conditions that day, then was the incident reasonably foreseeable? The six biggest factors in Scottish avalanches according to the SAIS are:


  1. Visible avalanche activity. If you see avalanche activity on a slope where you intend to go, go somewhere else.
  2. New snow build-up. More than 2 cm/hr may produce unstable conditions. More than 30cm continuous build-up is regarded as very hazardous. 90% OF ALL AVALANCHES OCCUR DURING SNOWSTORMS.
  3. Slab lying on ice or neve, with or without aggravating factors such as thaw.
  4. Discontinuity between layers, usually caused by loose graupel pellets or airspace.
  5. Sudden temperature rise. The nearer this brings the snow temperature to 0 degrees C, the higher the hazard, even if thaw does not occur.
  6. Feels unsafe. The “seat of the pants” feeling of the experienced observer deserves respect.


If you like by taking cash and promising adventure are instructors and outdoor business falling into one of the heuristic traps we can warn people about when training them in winter skills, that is apparent in incidents not related to professional instructors, whereby a person travelling up from the South of England is going to head out into the hills come hell or high water?

I would be really interested to read something put together by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, Mountain Rescue or the company involved on the lessons learnt from not just this incident but the others this winter. Sadly businesses will prefer to keep these incidents ‘in house’ to limit the associated ‘bad press’, rather than share those lessons learnt by them or others. The SAIS or Mountain Rescue organisations will probably say it is not within their remit to pass comment. Instead it is often left up to a coroner in the case of fatalities, whose lack of a deeper understanding of these incidents means perhaps they are not the best people to be to draw anything other than a legal conclusion.

Occasionally the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres, make good reports into industry near misses, but these reports are limited only to centres that sit on this panel. So other instructors and centre potentially miss the oppotunity to learn from others mistakes and stop them from happening needlessly again and again.

In mainstream industry there is something call Heinrich’s Ratio, that says for every fatality there is around 27 serious accidents and 300 near misses, of those 88% were accounted for by human error. I you only learn from the 28 serious incidents you miss over 300 other learning opportunities. So do we need a way to allow anonymous reporting of incidents in the outdoor industry and even beyond that to a more recreational level? Or to put it another way given the press surrounding the recent events, do we as an adventure tourism sector need to tidy up our shop before the government wades in to do it for us?


North Wales Rock App: Major Update

The topo with clickable numbers to reveal the route descitions of your chosen route.

It has been just over a year and a half since the original app came out. In that time new iPhones mean that there is now a higher screen resolution, plus a trend towards high levels of storage. Mean that for this update, not only have we added even more climbing areas to the app, but I went through and updated the topos to almost twice the resolution that we previously had.

The new version has gone to the app store and is undergoing the Apple checks and balances as we speak. This usually takes around one to two weeks. I will keep you updated when it goes live. If you have the app already you should get an update notification.

TheSend team has also been busy with the Andriod app, after a bug meant that some of the topos got corrupted. They have managed to track down the bug, it was something that google has added with an update to their Play store and hopefully in a couple of weeks a update to the new topos and a fix for this bug will mean that Android users will be up to date and bug free.

In total there is over 750 routes, I think we are even approaching 800 routes and topos in the database now. For those that have brought into the platform we thank you for your support and hope you like the new topos and added routes and crags. You can download the app from links in the sidebar to the right. There is a free lite version covering Vivian Quarry for both Andriod and the iOS versions.

Be careful out there this weekend!

So having spent a few days climbing over the last month and avoiding the return of winter I thought I’d add a conditions report. There is a lot of snow on the tops at the moment, with some of it thigh deep in places. There is now a strong south-easterly wind blowing.

What this potentially means is that if the forecast is right, and Blizzard conditions prevail above 200m tomorrow, that there will be a high than normal chance of avalanches in the area. I have already ready reports that there is fresh avalanche debris around the base of Glyder Fach.

If you are heading up this weekend then I would try and stick to the scoured slopes and ridges, although if the strong winds persist then even the ridges might not be the best place to be. You can find out more on the Safe Snowdonia Twitter feed and the met office snowdonia forecast.

There is also my ebook on avalanche awareness for mountaineers on iPad or Kindle.

North Wales Rock – Climbing Gallery

I have been coding up a way to display some of my extensive photo collection from rock climbing in north Wales. I have included a link and an example below. I have only added the Slate so far and then only a fraction of my images and I am already at 60. Feel free to link to the site if you like any of the images. If you’d like to use any your your site then please contact me for permission and guidance.

I hope you like the layout format, as each photo has some information and an advert, after all I have to try and monetize this somehow. The site can be found by visiting North Wales Rock and clicking on the climbing areas menu.


Running Up the Down Esculator

James McHaffie on Box of Blood, E7 6b, Craig Dorys.

For the regular reader, you’ll know I time for time get drag round the harder parts of North Wales rock climbing by Caff. Ever since he started climbing F9a though it has become a harder and harder to follow him up the routes he wants to climb. As such I become something of an extreme belay bunny, although I am obvious less pleasing on the eye than some.

A few weeks back Caff and I had tried to climb on the Lleyn and been partially rained off, although me forgetting rock boots may have had something to do with it. So when Caff picked me up for a Dorys Day today, he of course asked if I had packed my rock boots, harness and my big guns. Given yesterday I failed on a F6b+ at the beacon when climbing with the Long man, I declined to answer the last question.

The drive down was anything but promising, as the windscreen wiper struggled against the deluge, it seemed the cafe would be the only thing we’d be climbing into today. The rain hadn’t relented by Abersoch and continued all the way to teh car park, but undeterred we headed down to Craig Dorys.

Unfortunately the crag was dry, so caff got psyched for Box of Blood, a Leigh McGinley E7 that goes up the stigmata buttress. Which for those that don’t know makes most loose crags look solid. As Caff started going up the crag started coming down, at times it was a bit like a scene from Blackhawk Down, with lots of incoming to avoid. Somehow Caff kept levitating up albeit slowly. There are a couple of ledges low down followed by a steep section with a respite then a steeper section with another respite.

As he powered through the first steep section he was groaning a bit and that makes me worried, when caff groans climbing it mean I will be at my limit. He had already been climbing an hour and I wondered how his arms were still hanging in there and he wasn’t even half way up.

Above the really steep bit he took forever as he started going the wrong way, and eventually found the right way. Reach the final break he plugged in some very welcome good runners the first from the roof to be honest. It then took him about 30 minutes to work out the final 8ft of climbing, a desperate rockover onto a foothold that looks like it is held on by nothing other than hope.

Seconding I managed to make it to the first ledge at 30ft, this was achieved mainly by moving up faster than the hand and foot holds were falling down. A brief rest and I headed up to the next ledge, which despite look easy was actually horrendous, be warned it is probably harder now as I seem to continue remove the hand and foot holds at a rate that was only just beaten by my uphill momentum.

Another shakeout and I psyched myself up for the first steep section and just went for it on reasonable holds of which only fragments started on their downward arc. Bridged out I had another shake as my now tired arms, I lost a bit of energy as I had just done the age old trick of rip and roll with the gear. So there was a string of runners on the rope in front of me. As I bridged I managed to get my foot through the sling of one of the cams and whilst it seemed very easier to do, it would have been rather hilarious for anyone watching.

First I tried to kick it off, then shake it and eventually I had to find a position in which I could remove it with my hand. Bare in mind I am half way up and E7, bridged out across a roof so it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to achieve. The result was me being even more pump than when I arrived at the respite.

I eventually summon up the gusto to traverse out to the roof and through it, I was just shy of another place I could bridge when I gave the first of many ‘TAKE!!!!!’. I managed to climb the top in about three sections from there, although it took me a few attempts to get started on each.

The last move off a thin crack was the hardest move, having climbed the crack you end up with you left hand in a great finger lock and make a step onto the foothold of doom and pray, a massive press and rockover up and about as far right as I could go and you reach a flat edge. On my second of third try I got it, however the finger lock was so good, I got the fear that caff was going to have to cut my finger off in 127 hours style. Totally spanned out it took me a while to wrench it out and yet another ‘TAKE!!!’ despite caff being in whispering distance.

A pop for a massive pocket and then a crank for the top and I had done it. Not very well but I had managed to climb all the moves. Given my poor performance at the wall yesterday I’ll take that as a good thing, given the nature of the crag and route.

Caff tackling the final roof before he has to deal with the headwall on Box of Blood, E7, Craig Dorys

Futura Rock Boot Review: Am I a Meat and Two veg Guy?

The Futura - The Future?

I went to the wall this evening and Pete from Lyon Equipment was there giving a Rock Boot Demo for La Sportiva. So I took a pair of Futura for a spin on the bouldering wall. These are a new ‘no egde’ concept, although there is no real edge on the toe, there is still an inside and outside edge.

Before I continue I should say that I am a five ten man. I have used them since the 1990’s, I was a total anasazi ‘Pinks’ fan and now make do with the whites. As such I have never really tried any other boots for a long, long time. It means my shopping for rock boots takes about 30 second, have you got some five tens in 42. Yes they have and I buy them, no the haven’t and I have to call back in a month or so. As such my comparison is with five ten whites.

Looking down at the Futura after getting them from Pete who recommend I try a size 40, I am immediately fearing the worse as I stare at a pair of aggressive boots that look like they’d give any pediatrist a seizure. I instantly doubt whether my feet are going to fit and if they do, I am wondering whether I should call the fire brigade or an ambulance to help me get out of them. I paused for a while psyching myself up and gritting my teeth as I lunged my foot into the shoe.

What happened next was a big shock. No searing pain, no wince, my foot slid into one of the most comfortable performance rock shoes that have ever adorned my feet. Why that is I don’t know, I have tried some toe down boots before but none felt anything like this. In fact very few rock boots have felt like this.

How they performed on the wall is something I am struggling to give a real impression of. The best thing I can say to explain this is that climbing in these felt like I had to re-learn a few highly ingrained habits. Don’t take this the wrong way, as it really did feel totally different, but not neccessarily in a bad way. If you like it would be like taking sports car out for a spin, it’s going to handle totally differently from your average car, which can be scary as you take a while to learn just what it will stick.

The no edge idea, is at the root of this, although there is an edge, or in my mind there is and it even seemed like there was an edge when I stood on a hold, because my foot stayed in place. I even managed to smear in them. Where they seem to come into there own was on the steeps and in my short trial run it wasn’t the boots that were the weakest link but my arms.

The problem I think I had with them was over the years I have become so accustom to my normal shoes that the proprioception I have for exactly how I should place my feet on a hold has become well defined to the extent that I perhaps have a sense of my shoes down to the millimetre. Rather than less rubber between my toe and the wall it felt to me like there was more. Yet when I hand to stand on a tiny edge it somehow felt secure, although it was my big toe that was doing most of the work rather than the midsole.

My guess is that if I had three days to trial these shoes then I would have gotten used to them and maybe found them even better than my Five Ten’s. However I unsure of how they’d perform on real rock, especially since I climb a lot on Slate and mountain rock which is edge dependent and usually not too steep.

I only tend to have two pairs of rock shoes on the go at once, one newer set for hard routes and an older pair that have stretch for working in and using indoors. As such this natural progression from hard to easy made me wonder whether I would ever want to work in a pair of Futura’s, which would involve wearing them for 6+ hours at a time. As for price tag, £140 RRP is as steep as the rock its design to handle. I remember only a couple of years ago that I winced when the first pair of rock climbing shoes started retailing at over £100. I guess though it will be like fuel prices we were all up in arms when petrol finally broke the £1 a litre mark, now we are all used paying close to £1.40. Of course the manufacturers of rock boots blame the same price hike in petro-chemicals for the cost of the rubber, why then does a car tire only cost £70?

Don’t get me wrong these rock boots seem like they would really help me in a quest to climb hard sports climbs. However I am a polymath of climbing, yet at the same time a cheapskate who won’t have a different pair of boots for bouldering, sport climbing, edging routes, smearing routes, etc… Instead I go for something more traditional and more suited to the multiple disciplinary approach the climb that North Wales dictates.

I would be really keen to try them outside on the routes that I climb a lot to see how they felt after three days of use. However I doubt I am going to get my hands on a free pair to try before I buy.

So for me climbing shoes are like food, personally I like my meat and two veg and yes I do dabble in the finer foods of life but it is only dabbling, as Michelin star restaurants are thin on the ground in North Wales and as nice as it might be I am not sure snail ice cream at £30 a scoop is for me?