Lessons Learned in the Atlas

One of the highlights of my recent trip to the High Atlas was the chance to learn new skills, put into practice old ones and in general continue to grow in experience as a mountaineer.

On ice in a borrowed pair of Grivel G14s

1. Always fit borrowed crampons beforehand

I had brought my Grivel G10s, but the temptation to climb was too strong, so I ended up borrowing a pair of G12s. I only acted on the nagging reminder to test them the morning of the first day, when I realised that the metal adjustment bar was too short. What ensued was a 30minute delay of grunting, grimacing and fiddling, ultimately ending with me wearing G14s for the remainder of the week. Crampon fitting is a ever-present minefield, waiting to catch the unwary, and I vowed never to be caught out again in future. Lesson: be very careful if you borrow crampons!

It might look clever or practical to do this, but inevitably you will end up losing it - probably when you most need it

2. Secure your kit to yourself

More than once did I pay the penalty for failing to keep tabs on kit: sunglasses which I knocked off head unwittingly when removing my hat; another day I stuffed my hat down my top, later believing it to be lost – in fact it had worked its way round the back of my top. The results in both cases were unnecessary and tiring ascents to search for the items. In the second case, totally wasted, as the hat was still on me! The principal is the same for most small items of kit, especially gloves. Gloves that have a lanyard which attaches to your wrist will save much anxiety, or worse, should you drop them. Lesson: never put things on the ground in winter or in a place where they will get lost.

Hand over hand on easier terrain for swift progress

3. Old school ropework saves time and effort

Many times James and I resorted to the humble body belay and braced stance, especially on snow slopes and when we had to move fast on the climb of Tête d’Ouanoums. In the right place and with the correct judgement, a simple technique such as the body belay, belovedly learned by all MLs, saves time and effort, which can be wasted by pitching sections as climbs. Note that I mentioned judgement above, which is especially true for choosing anchors and when to deploy the ropework in the first place. Lesson: a through working knowledge of the basics is the foundation of a mountaineer’s repertoire.

I was pretty proud of this until I got bombarded by snow and ice...

4. Choose a sheltered belay

This will be pretty obvious for seasoned winter climbers, but I learned the hard way. Wanting to practise an ice screw belay, I chose a stance directly below the fall line of the pitch above. As such, I spent the 20 or 30 minutes dodging falling ice and nevé. A fairly sizeable chunk hit me on my head, making me even more thankful for a helmet in winter. It would have been much better to have built the belay out right and out of harm’s way. Added to this is the sheer value of presence of mind, even when tired, to consider the second leading through. The resulting ropework will prevent the compounding of any falling snow and ice with, for example, a cramped breaking hand and tangles. Lesson: be smart and keep the belay out of harm’s way.

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