Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Feeling rusty on the rock? Are you dealing with Skill Fade?

I don't know how many times I've climbed Pinnacle Ridge at Polldubh. It's a classic solo for some personal exercise, a fun route I guide a few times a year and, as the closest route to the road one I teach on every week or so in the summer.
So why is my ankle wobbling like that on the wee smear and how come I can't find the piece of gear for my second runner without looking for it?

The answer is that I haven't been climbing for 3 months and outdoor Trad rock climbing for 6 months owing to the pandemic. I normally have an enforced layoff the rock over winter. Lets face it the Scottish rock season is done by the end of October at the absolute latest and (other than the odd freak winter like Feb 2019) the rock shoes only come out for indoor walls until some point in March. I do get the odd overseas rock trip to help feed the rat (digression November in the Ameln Valley in Morocco was amazing last year- highly recommended when we can travel again) and, crucially my ropework and protection skills are getting a thorough work out all winter long... usually.
So 2019-2020. My last rock route was a day of new routing on 26 November 2019. My last day at the wall was 3 March 2020 and my last winter route was 20 March 2020.
So over 10 weeks later setting off up a pitch on the 3rd of June 2020 was probably breaking the longest running period of no climbing in.... 30 years!

"Skill Fade" is defined as: "the decay of ability or adeptness over a period of non-use". Its a fairly well understood concept in the Medical, Military and Aviation worlds and is often noted after a break from work due to maternity or other issues. Its when you get a little rusty from lack of practise and some research showed that soldiers lost the experienced the greatest skill fade in the first 2 months.
How well you know something, what the 'something' is, how you learnt it, how recently etc. are all other factors that will contribute to how much skill fade you experience.

I knew there was the strong potential for some skill fade in my climbing so what can I do about it?
  • Keep it easy. Build up the difficulty again slowly. Harder Grades, unknown routes, dirty routes, poor weather, pushy partners etc. can all make things harder. So control the variables and make life easy for yourself so you have the space to focus and return to 'former glory'.
  • Immerse yourself in it again. Talk about climbing, read about climbing, watch videos of climbing. Research from the medical world showed that Doctors able to talk about work issues and procedures lost their skill at a slower rate than those who lacked those opportunities.
  • Use checklists and mantras. Now would be a really easy time to forget something you have done as second nature in the past... especially if you were 'unconsciously competent' or did things without thinking about them before. Build habits and ways of checking them. What belay building nemonic did you use when you were learning? "Check or Deck" sounds a bit twee but the importance of both buddy checks and double checking (knots, anchors, krabs done up etc.) is hard to overstate.
  • On the same theme climbing mindfully; staying aware of what you are doing and focussing on that rather than 'what ifs' or thinking to far ahead too soon at the expense of your current performance may help reduce errors.
  • Mileage. Getting out plenty, moving lots, placing lots of gear, building lots of belays and doing all of that with the other 4 points above will help.
For example. My first day out was 10 pitches of Severe climbing, well within my grade, on a perfect weather day, with 2 friends of a similar mindset all routes well known to me. We'd all agreed the purpose of the day and were happy to have a relaxed day out reconnecting with each other (socially distanced of course) and the rock. 
I think it would have been amusing to video my first pitch and watch the process. "That hold doesn't feel as good as usual". "Where is that No.5 wire?" "This all feels hard!"
That last is quite important. If you aren't expecting it the realisation that things aren't going as well as you expected them to can have a negative effect on your mental state. That can become the start of a 'spiral of doom' where you realise you aren't operating as well as you were, which makes you worried, which negatively effects your performance further, which makes you more worried etc.etc. Just knowing that skill fade is 'a thing'  and taking steps to manage it in advance can prevent this negative feedback loop, keep you safer and help you get back to where you were sooner.
As its not just personal climbing I'm thinking about but work too my kids have been taken climbing to help me re-perfect my tangle free ropework with 2 students and in idle moments on my daily exercise I've been thinking through teaching progressions at stances I know well mentally for different types of students.
I know. I don't get out much- but as lockdown eases on it I'll be working on it!

Thanks to Paul smith for inout and ideas on this piece.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Sublime on Solitaire

Haven't blogged in quite a while but today was so good I've got to put some pics up:
Its getting tough to find routes Claire hasn't done as we've been hitting the winter hills together for 6 or 7 years. Ken suggested Solitaire as I was bemoaning this fact and as its one of the few lines I don't know well on the West side of Aonach Mor I though we'd give it a shot. This meant that although there were many teams getting the 0800 gondola we didn't feel any pressure to rush. Several groups went to Golden Oldy, Ken and Scott W both did Western Rib and we were followed up Solitaire by a slightly misplaced team who thought they were on WR too. The start to Solitaire looks intimidating, steep rock and roofs... but a nice wee gully lurks at the RHS of the face. Today it reminded me of the start to Fawlty Towers- mixed crud, good turf and some really fat ice in steep bulges gave a good tussle for pitch one (definitely more at the III end of II though and no gear above half way). P2 Was thinly iced slab and no runners at all! Then the sun hit and we sought shade behind walls and in gullies wherever we could as we, the snow and the ice all baked in the heat. By keeping to the shade we found some more ice and pretty good turf but anything under the dampening snow in the sun was to be avoided. The route is longer than Golden Oldy starting low at the RHS of the clutch of summit ribs and the first 2 pitches pulled no punches today. Higher up its pleasant and meander with occasional easy steps and it was with relief that we stripped off layers on the summit and gulped down fluids. Don't get many days this beautiful in a season but after the slow start this winter I reckon we learnt this one.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Winter Part Deux

The blog has been quiet this winter as my 'hits' statistics show a drop from a high point of over 2500 back 10 years ago when there were only 4 or 5 winter blogs around to now maybe only 100 or so. I make lots of use of Facebook and Twitter now though. However this is a nice place for pieces like the one from February highlighting some issues with decision making for winter climbers or this wee 3 minute video of the second part of this winter.  
Its still winter up high but I'm all about rock climbing now! Pictures of teaching climbing and mountaineering, Winter Mountain Leader and Mountaineering Instructor Certificate Courses at Glenmore Lodge and Plas y Brenin and my own climbs. What a great season, thanks to all who shared it with me! Association of Mountaineering Instructors

Winter Part 2 from Alan Halewood on Vimeo.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

One reason experienced winter climbers get avalanched.

I've watched with interest the avalanche forecast and where climbers have been climbing this weekend. I've been winter climbing for just over 30 years now and have been in, on or in immediate proximity to friends in avalanches 4 times. More recently I've started trying to be very critically aware of why and how this happens.
The concept of heuristic traps is now becoming well known in relation to avalanches. Heuristics are the simple 'rules of thumb' we employ, subconsciously, to make sense of complex information. When we get the answer wrong this becomes a 'trap' with potentially negative consequences. The bodies that study avalanches and provide our forecasts The Snow and Avalanche Foundation of Scotland, The Scottish Avalanche Information Service and others (Instructors, Guides, Winter Mountain Leaders and other avalanche educators) promote the Be Avalanche Aware process as a decision making tool to reduce the chances of us falling into these traps. Many novices to the winter environment are being introduced to this planning tool from the outset of their winter careers. Its a structured routine, a habit to fall into if you will, that provides a better framework for walkers/climbers and mountaineers to employ their experience when making decisions about where to go in the Scottish mountains.
What's interesting to me is that I believe far fewer hill goers who are already competent and experienced are aware of or using the process and therein lies the problem. Rope work, use of crampons and axes,  placing ice screws, even taking care of yourself in bad weather are nice closed  skills that can be learnt and performed repeatedly and its relatively easy to distinguish when they are done competently or well. There is even often a 'right' or 'wrong' way to do them. Unfortunately the quality of decision making is a great deal harder to measure....
As I go to the mountains and journey around each time I go out and don't get avalanched adds fuel to the belief that I'm making good decisions. Unfortunately this may be erroneous (nonsense). I may well have just been lucky. A few metres to the right or left, a degree steeper, a little more or less snow, humidity or temperature and I might have been avalanched. But the fact that I wasn't becomes a form of attribution bias. This is where I dismiss luck and chance and attribute my success to my knowledge, skills, experience and ability; my Jedi like ability to 'read the snow'. This means I'll be inclined to repeat my actions again and again and often get away with it. Until the day I don't...

Note I'm not advocating that people take no risks at all... that's up to them. Just that we become more critically aware of what we are actually doing and how we are actually making decisions. For more on risk acceptance -including some cold hard figures- see this excellent article by Mike Austin of Avalanche Geeks and find some though provoking ideas from Phil Ebert on understanding your own competence on Page 22 here:

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Winter so far...

My Scottish Winter started 10 weeks ago! here is a 2 minute video of some of the highlights of what is shaping up to be a great season:

First 10 Weeks of Winter from Alan Halewood on Vimeo.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

3 minutes of the best of 2017

Winter, summer and winter again... indoor walls and trips to northern Namibia and Eastern Greenland. Another great year. Here is a 3 minute video of some of my favourite images and clips from the last year. Have a cracking 2018 folks... see you on a crag or a hill!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Day 2 in the big white wonderland

Today I'd inveigled Jon into another esoteric (don't you love some words- let the 2nd half of it flip off of your tongue... no?) venue and we made the hike up to Mullach nan Coirean's easternmost coire. There are some steep routes on the main buttress and many years ago Jamie and I scraped up the only thing in nick that day a IV,4 called Kid Gloves. There is a very short Grade 3 scramble in the coire noted in Lochaber Scrambles and a couple of other ridges that Mike Pescod mentions in the Cicerone Guide might give sport. That's what I fancied today, pinning my hopes on an accurate freezing level.
Its a bit of a flog up the path cutting the zigzags next to the Allt a Choire Dheirg as forestry work has left lots of brashings and churned ground in the area but nonetheless just over 2 hours from the car and we had chosen the crest of the northern main buttress as our objective.
The rubble and flat turf wasn't great as we started so I suggested a steep groove full of thin flakes for some snowed up rock left of the crest (easy for me to suggest, Jon was leading). This of course turned out to be less positive than it looked from below but there was protection and Jon's incredible 'go-go' gadget leg levered him up onto a ledge 20m above me for him to endure an epic bout of hot aches as the rocks rimed in front of me. Not one to hog the glory he brought me up to get some climbing (and clearing) in up the last of the steeper ground. I headed on another 30m over a few small walls to where the angle really eased back enjoying plenty of better frozen turf and rimed rocks. We dropped the rope here and the last 80-100m of Grade II were very reminiscent of Golden Oldy's easier bits.
We topped out onto the ridge joining Mullach Nan Coirean to Stob Ban and were soon wading along its crest cursing as we stumbled on buried granite blocks. Finally rather than head up to descend Stob Ban's N ridge via its Grade I step we dropped into its NW coire, past the headwaters of the stream to traverse onto the ridge lower down pleased to be on more scoured ground now.
Has the ridge been climbed before? Quite possibly. The right hand side of the crest had an easier powder filled gully but our left hand start gave us some good sport and the feeling of the unknown that is what its all about-so I don't mind one way or the other.
 Walking in... better than expected
 Our route started at the toe of the closer buttress and climbed rocky grooves this side of the crest
 Jon sets off
 "Climb over there Jon, it looks good!"
 Following at exactly the same point as the last shot
 Above the fun bit Jon left for me
Weather socking in a bit, Jon just below where last shot was taken from, rime building
 Easier ground
 Rope away
 Tower at the top
 Stepping down
Our line on the crest of the closer buttress seen from Glen Nevis