MIC - The Hollow Cheek Brigade

MIC Assessment 

I’d been up in Scotland for just over five weeks. Luckily the weather had been pretty good on the whole, with a few days of obligatory “pish” weather - you couldn’t have it all stella, that would be cheating. I had mainly been taking people out with a lot less experience than me, which had allowed me plenty of time to make decisions and practise skills. I had also been able to catch up with other mates to get a fair bit of personal climbing in. Tiredness was a constant but my legs felt like they could climb mountains all day every day. I missed my family and I was ready to return home, but I had one more thing to do before that. 


I turn up at Alltshellach at 6pm on Saturday evening ready to get on with the MIC assessment. Four days of fine scrutiny lay ahead. I’d been feeling restless about getting on with it but not nervous. Every other assessment I’d been through, nervousness was the overriding emotion I recall. Meeting the five other candidates over dinner was good and there was instantly a feeling of group support that made me feel at ease. Other than a sheet of A4 on the notice board outlining the four days, we were left alone by the assessment team that evening - “The calm before the storm” I heard someone say… The sheet made the four days look simple, I started to feel a little nervous. 


Even though I had been given a lovely room to share with another candidate, I had already decided to sleep in my van throughout the assessment. I wanted my own little space to clear my thoughts each evening and have time to think. In the morning, after breakfast we met the main assessment team. Keith Ball was Course Director, assisted by Tim Neill, Paul Warnock and Olly Saunders. Nerves grew stronger. An outline of the four days was gone through and what was expected of us. We were then partnered up 2:1 with an assessor and plans for the day were gone through. I was with another candidate and Paul and The Dragon’s Tooth in the Ballachulish Hills was our objective for our “mountaineering day”. Paul instantly seemed like a relaxed, chilled out guy - a smiling assassin I thought to myself.  


After a steady walk in, I was tasked with making a call on when and where to gear up and to lead the lower slopes taking us on to the route proper. Straight into short roping, with judgements made on sections to run the rope out on ground where holding a slipping client would be difficult, how to secure the client on a stance, back into short roping, back into a pitch and so on. When we gained the crest, the other candidate was asked to take over the lead - giving me a little time to relax. Questions about techniques, judgements and client care were thrown in along the way to get into our thought process. At our summit a simple section of navigation was called for as the cloud had lowered and I was tasked with getting the group down the slopes at the side of a subsidiary ridge. Short roping, into a Stomper lower. I was going to perform a second Stomper lower but was asked to demonstrate a West Coast Stomper, then a direct lower off a boulder. We were then asked to swap round again. Demonstrations of Bucket Seat Belays, with a Buried Axe reinforcement were done and we were asked about the key points in teaching these skills. Then, close to the bottom of the slope, Paul turned round and said “Ok guys, it’s every man for himself down to the bus”. I guessed those wonderful words signified that day one was complete. The feed back I received was good, with a couple of small things to alter but I felt pretty happy with day one. 


Day two was our “personal climbing day” where we were expected to climb at the modest level of grade three. Every MIC trainee knows that you would be very unlikely to do well if this is your maximum grade, so you need to be slick, quick and able to think about your client’s needs rather than fighting for grim death. I was with the same candidate as day one, and this time had Olly assessing us. During the morning meeting we had already decided that something like Minus Three Gully on The Ben would be a suitable route for the conditions and to demonstrate our competence. Olly agreed it would be a suitable choice, but then said “What about Crowberry?” Mentally throwing our plan out of the window, we boarded the bus bound for The Bauchaille. I was tasked with getting the team safely to the base of Crowberry Gully. I thought short roping up the North Buttress approach would be a good opportunity to demonstrate my abilities and decision making. Everything went really well until very close to the top and a small shaded gully was approached and the existence of a soft layer of Wind Slab was encountered. I stopped and got my guys belayed. I continued a little way into the gully. “This stuff isn’t going to go” I thought to my self, but wanting to show that I had made a judgment about the situation, I opted to climb a few meters up, out of the gully to get runners on the rocky side wall, which I did. This section of snow was in the morning sun, but the runners went in, I was being belayed and protected the seconds when they came up. When Olly got to me I said “I didn’t like that”. He agreed and explained that I’d left a cold shaded area to climb through a slight convexity, into a sunlit slope. My heart sank. Fuck! Deferred on day two… At the top of Crowberry Basin, we were asked to swap round. The other candidate then led a snow traverse into the start of Crowberry proper and then a further three pitches up the easy lower pitches, while performing pretty slick belay change overs. “Henry, if you could take over now.” Olly asked. Ahead of us was a slow moving party, so after climbing up below them they had taken the obvious belay. I magic’d up another a short way below them and brought the other two up. While re-flaking the ropes I noticed a twist - Fuck!! Quickly untying and retying I set off again - while thinking “definitely a deferral now…” Each time I led up to the obvious belay, it was taken and my magic belay finding abilities were tested. No more twists thankfully and I started to relax into the feeling of a deferral result and actually started to enjoy the climbing. “Oh well, I’ll get it next time” I thought.  After leading five or six pitches we had finished the route and swapped round again for the other candidate to short rope us up the short final section of easy ground. We were then tasked with navigating ourselves to the top of the Coire na Tulaich descent. This seemed pretty funny as we had great vis’, so we both put our maps away and bimbled down to it. Olly asked the other candidate to “Go over the edge and tell me if it’s safe to go down”. He did and kicked a few steps in the snow, coming back and confidently replying “Yes”. I could have laughed out loud but thought better of it. Olly asked him why it was safe and the candidate gave him some generic speel about snow slopes, and down we went. 


That night we met our “mock student” that we were taking out for the following two days. The focus of these two days is to find out where the person is at with their existing skills and understanding of winter climbing/mountaineering and progress them. I had a lovely lady called Jennie. She is a Summer ML and had done bits of winter stuff in the past and has seconded rock climbs up to Severe, although she said this was a while ago and clearly stated that she didn’t want to be pushed too hard. I came up with a plan of doing The Zig- Zags to get her familiar with short roping, taking out protection and belays and then winterising her Summer ML rope work on the shoulder of Stob Coire Nan Lochan. That evening Tim came up to me and asked me what my plan was - he seemed to think it was ok…


The following morning came and after the evening in the van coming up with a suitable lesson plan, we got on the bus. On the drive we looked at the map and I asked her to get us to the base of the route, breaking it down into legs and using the “5 D’s” to summarise each leg - this was cool because she hadn’t heard of this kind of break down of navigation before. A nice steady walk while stopping for short periods to go through nav’ led us to the base of The Zig Zags and the rope was employed. A bit of short roping coaching brought us to the first tricky bit - into a quick gear chat and a long pitch to the belay. Back into short roping, into a short pitch, back into short roping. During this time Tim floated about like some kind of un-intrusive mountain ghost, totally switched on to what was happening but never in the way. Climbing skills covered we looked at “timings” while navigating along the Gearr Aonach Ridge, throwing in a spot of Self Belay training if she was to slip while on a short rope. Dropping into the “Skills Slope” of SCNL we spent the last couple of hours going through Winter ML rope work - Bucket Seats, Buried Axes, Snow Bollards (and trying and failing to “test to destruction” the latter), South African Abseils, Classic and “Angel Wing Abseil” - or what ever it’s called… Tim put on his belay jacket, with hood done fully up and patiently sat on a rock and observed. It was time to head back down the hill and we arrived back at the bus a minute and a half late - I could live with that, I just hoped the assessment team felt the same! Tim seemed happy with how the day had gone during the feedback which was a relief. 

That evening the forecast predicted a fair bit of fresh snow and the avalanche risk was raised to Considerable on North, through East, to South East aspects above 800m. Not ideal. Even though it felt like a bit of a cop out on the last day of my assessment, I made a plan to do the West facing Dinner Time Buttress on Aonach Dubh - I am supposed to do what is suitable for the client after all… I had the plan clear in my mind but at about 9pm, I started to worry it wasn’t enough. At that point Tim came through the main entrance. “Tim, can I have a word?” I highlighted my plan and reasons for it. “No, do something bigger.” was his response, at least that cleared that up for me! Back to the drawing board. 


The next day I had changed my plan to The East Ridge of The North Buttress of Stob Ban - a particularly “in vogue” route of this season! Keith Ball was my assessor for the day and we headed out. It was a fabulous day, with pretty clear skies but the evidence that a fair amount of fresh snow had fallen. My main concern was the exiting snow slopes, being high and East facing, they could cause some issues. I had been there before and remembered that there were areas on the exit slopes that had boulders and spikes poking through and acted as anchors for the slope. I just hoped the same would be true today. 


During the walk in I talked about visual signs to pick up on regarding avalanche assessments and on we went. Keith had stated in no uncertain terms that we were to be back at the van by 4pm. I tried not to pay too much attention to this, as I could only go as fast as I could with Jennie and part of the “progression” on day two was looking at efficiency while on belay changeovers! And so the climb started. There was soft Wind Slab about and I did my best to avoid the worst of it. Pitch after pitch with fairly quick change overs. I looked at my watch, there was no way we were getting back to the van for 4pm. "It didn’t matter" I tried to tell myself. The final slope filled me with dread. I couldn’t see it going but there was always a chance. I ran the rope out to a boulder poking through the snow, surely there’d be a belay there to dig out - there wasn’t. After a while Keith shouted to come back and take a belay 15m above them and bring them to that. He asked me what I thought of the slope and I said that I thought it was ok. He then told me to get on with it, run the rope out, put slings over spikes and get everyone climbing the short distance together as the ground was getting easier and easier. At the top he said “There’s lots for us to discuss, but it was ok.” - It was too late in the day to bother reading too much into that comment, so it was straight into a small section of short roping down the North Ridge. When we took the rope off and continued walking, Keith booted it down the hill leaving me to walk down steadily with Jennie. We got back to the van at 5pm. My assessment was over, I’d done all I could do. It was a pretty quiet journey back to base. 


The other candidates were already back, sat by the fire, drinking coffee. You might have been able to cut the atmosphere with a quality chain saw. Three and a half hours after the assessment team went in to discuss the outcomes, Keith came out and knelt down beside us all. He basically started by saying that the standard of the MIC is a high one and if we don’t get the result we were all hoping for this time, then ten years down the line we really won’t be worried about what happened today - Fuck, had we all failed?!! A feeling of dark inevitability crept in like water filling a sinking ship. I was up first for the result. Walking into the living room area I closed the door behind me and took a seat opposite the executioner. Keith’s face looked serious, my heart sank further. Keith started with the facts. He said that there had been small things on each day that needed to be talked through, which he did. He then got onto the feed back from today. I had run too many long pitches, shorter 30m pitches utilising simpler belays would have been more effective and saved time. There were a couple of extra little things he pointed out, but by this stage, everything was starting to sound like white noise, I had been deferred, I would have to come back in a year, a year of feeling like this. I would have to explain all this time and time again to all my mates, my wife, my parents… Gutted. 


Keith continued. I can’t remember the exact words he used but it went something like “You’ve met the standard, you've passed the MIC, well done”. Like the stomach churning feeling of free falling from the top of a roller coaster, I’d swooped down to the bottom and was now thrust back in my seat as it sores back up the other side. I’d passed?! “Fuck!” I blurted out pretty loudly. Not the most intelligent statement to make but I couldn’t really process anything more. Keith said it a second time “You’ve passed the MIC.” and held out his hand to shake. I left the room in shock. Holy shit, what a ride!