Rope Work Assessment

Over the last 18 months or so, Woodhead rescue team has gradually developed, tested and introduced ongoing competency assessments for all team members. This series of articles are a sort of personal look at the process, and how it feels.

We are to be assessed in 4 of our core skills, navigation, radio communications, ropework and search techniques. We have appointed assessors within the team for each skill, and the assessors are to be assessed externally by the leaders of our neighbouring teams. Other skills, such as medical, swiftwater and 4×4/blue light driving are covered separately as not all team members need all these skills.

The first test for me is ropework, to be assessed by Ian Bunting, leader of Edale rescue team. No pressure felt at all, after all, I am one of the instigators of the whole process and have been given the job of ropework assessor for the rest of the team. I also co-wrote the criteria and marking scheme for this module. Gulp!! I really, really don’t want to cock this up. More than that I want to come out with a perfect score in each criteria.

So, we meet at Langsett, above a steep slope down to the upper Don, on a lovely late summer evening. So lovely that the local midge population have turned out in force to welcome me, and as it turns out, to feast on my exposed skin. Suddenly, wearing shorts seem like a really stupid idea.

First up, to break us in (us being me and Keith Wakeley, our team leader, who’s doing his assessment at the same time) is a run through of the half dozen or so knots that we approve and use within the team. Obviously there are loads more we could use, but we have to cater for people with different levels of skill within the team, so we limit ourselves to;

Figure 8 or 9

Clove hitch

Alpine butterfly

Klemheist or French Prusik

Munter hitch

Stopper knot

All quick and easy to tie, effective and instantly recognisable at a glance, which is important when rigging ropes that will be used by other people. While I can tie them blindfold if I have to, (sad git that I am, I really can, and tie them behind my back) I make way more effort than normal to present each knot perfectly.

Somehow, I’m fumbling my way through, as my rope seems to have taken on a mind of its own, and refuses to lie properly for me. Pressure? No. Can’t be pressure. How can I be under pressure? I’ve done this for real, with a real person stuck somewhere below me needing help, sometimes in the dark and rain, even in a blizzard. So why do I feel under pressure now, in the sunshine, while there’s no one actually relying on me?

Ian reads a very familiar sounding briefing, and off we go. The task is pretty simple in itself, as the briefing says;

“You are to assemble a safe rope system, in accordance with team procedures and best practice, to enable yourself to abseil down a steep face. Use all safety measures as you would expect at a team incident….Carry out a personal abseil. You will be required to amend your rope system to enable a person or load to be lowered down the face. Carry out a controlled lower”

Team procedures demand safety, or backup ropes as well as a main rope, and we have to tie in to multiple anchor points. All of which adds a level of embuggerance that a typical climber wouldn’t bother with. It’s easy enough though, I’ve been a climber for 20+ years, a member of the rescue team for 13, and do this stuff as part of my job. I teach it to the rest of the team. I really, properly,  enjoy doing it.

For crying out loud, why am I not looking forward to this?

There’s a big pile of team crag kit and various lengths of ropes in front of me. I set out some hi-viz tape to mark the hazard/safety zone, and set to work. Langsett makes the first part easy, it’s a wooded area, so there’s loads of big trees to tie the ropes to. No need to mess about with ground stakes and stuff. I can’t help using a variety of knots and techniques though, just to be different. Because I can.

As the pile of kit starts to get used up, I stop feeling pressure and just get on with it. I’m still making an effort. All my knots look like a diagram in a book, all my ropes are exactly equal in tension, but I know I can do this without having to concentrate too hard. It does seem to be taking a lot longer than normal though. For some reason I glance across at Keith, who’s creating exactly the same system as me, 30 odd metres away.

Hell! He’s working working waaaaay quicker than me. He’s already arranging his ropes to clip himself into the system. I tell myself, it’s not a race, it’s all about safety, just get on with it in your own time.

A little voice inside my head says

”He’s doing better than you!!”

And it won’t stop, it repeats the same line, again and again, getting louder all the time. Shut up!!

A few minutes later, all my ropes are rigged just as I want them, and I’m clipped in to both my ropes. We use Petzl ID’s for all abseiling/lowering within the team. They’re a commercial rope access device, which offers extra security over the  Figure 8 plates or belay devices that most climbers or cavers would be familiar with. And we use SAR rockers as backup devices, rather than the more common tied Prussik loop. I am so familiar with both devices, I don’t have to consciously think about their use. So I’m rigged, clipped and ready to go.

I call Ian over, as an extra level of safety we always have someone else check all team rope systems, Karabiners, knots, slings, belay devices, helmets, harnesses, the lot. While he looks at what I’ve done I have another sneaky look at Keith. He’s at the same stage too, which quietens that annoying voice a bit.

Ian’s happy, so it’s time for a nice, controlled abseil to the bottom, stirring up more midges from the undergrowth as I go. Wish I’d remembered to bring some Deet. The abseil is easy peasy, and when I get back to the top, it seems to take no time at all to re-rig my ropes to create a lowering system.

So I’m finished, it’s time to strip everything down and neatly restow all the kit so it’s instantly available if we need it for an incident.

It’s time for Ian’s verdict. I know I’ve passed the assessment, I’ve easily done enough, but what was the score? It’s marked over 10 criteria, with a maximum possible score of 50. Anything less than a perfect 50 points is going to p**s me off good and proper, and I know Ian won’t be making any allowances, he’ll have marked us hard.

“No problems” says the man. Full marks in all criteria. I feel ridiculously relieved, relieved enough buy him a beer at the pub.

Next time, I’ll have to do my nav/comms assessment. And, I guess, I won’t be nervous about that either!!