Big Adventures......Big Decisions!

21st Jan 2015

So. Your ship gets trapped by pack ice enroute to Antarctica but you have no way of communicating your plight to the outside world.  You are the leader of a team of men so whether you and they live or die is all down to you.  Once you realise the ship is doomed you decamp to the ice.  Your men survive in squalid conditions and you try to formulate a plan.  You can hear the huge oak timbers of the ship creak under the strain of the crushing ice pack and within time they snap and the ship goes down.
Eventually your plan, as best as it can be given the million unknowns, is ready.  You get the team to drag a couple of the ships lifeboats to the sea and sail around to an island.  Another camp is set and you have more decisions to make.  Unfortunately your attempts to signal to passing ships fails and so you take a small crew and one of the lifeboats and set sail across the Southern Ocean heading for South Georgia.  Amazingly, after successfully crossing the earth's most dangerous ocean, you manage to land on the islands southern coastline.  On the other side of the island you know there's a whaling station.  All that is now needed is a traverse of the previously uncrossed mountains that in the mountains centre.  You make it across, summon help, sail back to the island and every single one of your crew is saved.  How many decisions did you make?
Ernest Shackleton faced this very situation and made these decisions on his ill fated Endurance expedition.  It's a classic tale of survival and his management of the life or death situation his team faced should be reeled out on every leadership course.  
It's hard to imagine facing this situation and luckily it's unlikely any of us we ever will.  But anyone in a decision making role either in the outdoors or in other contexts still has to make 100's of decisions every day - and these decisions come with considerable pressure to get it right.  In the context of a mountaineering instructor the way these decisions are delivered to the clients
will alter depending on the situation, but there should be lots of times where the instructor will be able to enable the participants to also learn from the decisions that are being made and maybe have some input into the process.  The aim is always to get the client into the same mindset as my own. I want them to share the process so they will become more independent.  Here's a completely non exhaustive selection of the types of decisions I'll be trying to get across on a typical multi-pitch climbing day........
The Weather
The weather plays a huge part in the decision making process for a climbing day.  What's the chance of rain?  What direction is the wind coming from and how strong is it? Is the visibility good and how will the temperature affect us?  Of course, I also want to consider not just what the weather is like now.  It is important to see the trend as well.  There are loads of good weather information sources available but the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) is always the place I tend to look first. 
Then, of course, using that information to inform your route and venue choice is vital.  If the wind is westerly maybe there are some good east facing crags I can choose?  If it could be wet perhaps a crag I can escape from quickly may be a good choice or maybe we should scrap the plan for that smeary extreme and head to a low grade mountain route that we can do in any weather.
What to take?
Too much kit and you'll spend the day weighed down with unnecessary clutter but too little and you'll struggle when that unexpected rain squall catches you midway up that remote 9 pitcher. Maybe you are going to leave kit at the base and abseil or scramble down or perhaps you are carrying everything and doing a mountain route enchainement.  The choice about what to take can be very tricky and is very dependent on what your objective is.  Sometimes, if I'm leaving most of my kit at the bottom (or abseiling into a sea cliff), then I might carry a small rucksack on the route in which I can carry essentials like the guidebook, a wind proof layer, abseil tat, small headtorch and some first aid supplies.  At other times everything gets left behind.  It depends.
The same decision making process needs to be aimed at your rack.  For a mountain route that is well within your grade maybe that 'everything including the kitchen sink approach' isn't essential and a stripped down rack will suffice.  If you are pushing your grade on long pitches maybe you need to add more to your standard rack.  What I don't do is always take the same kit for every objective.  Think about what you are planning to do.  Similar decisions need to be applied to the questions like one rope or two, comfy multi pitch boots or edging rock master shoes and chalk or no chalk.  Preparation is key.
Route choice
How obvious is the route line?  Does it get very slippy when wet?  How busy is it likely to be? What's the descent like?  Is it within your capabilities?  Can your partner manage it?  Is it tidal? Lots of consideration should be given to choosing a suitable route for your adventure and, if you feel out of your depth making those choices, maybe it's time to consider if your choice is going to be too much for you.  Everyone wants a challenging adventure but epics are so called because they get the idea!
Staying alert
You walk to your route and work out where it goes.  Time to climb?  Hopefully, but it still pays to look for information as you approach.  Is the weather doing what it was forecast to do?  Any sign of weather changes?  Are there other parties visible on your route and if so is it still a good option? If you took a long time to walk in do you still have enough time available to finish the climb?  Can you get clues about the descent route from here?  Quite often the best time to gather information is when you are some distance from the crag because you'll often be able to see your line more easily. 
Moving efficiently
Once you are on the route there are still, of course, many many decisions to make although all the things listed above apply.  As well as those you'll now want to use those hard won climbing skills to ensure you climb safely and efficiently.  Good belay choice, rope management, route finding, slick gear placements and a host of other tricks of the trade too numerous to mention here now come into play.  The more efficient you can be the better you'll enjoy the day, the more you'll get done and the safer you'll be.  If this all sounds like too many decisions then maybe it's time for that multi-pitch climbing course?!  
Posted by Paul