Preparing for European Mountain Safety Assessment - The Core Skills (2016)
Unlike most BASI modules, which combine training and assessment, EMS Assessment is that: an exam. Remember that the people who are running the exam have just over 2 ½ days to see that you're competent in a wide variety of mountain skills. The module covers everything in chapters 8 to 12 of the BASI Manual and more. They need you to be ready to deliver from day one, so it will make both your life and their job easier if you've practised the main skills before you turn up. On the upside, remember that this is one of the shortest BASI modules, so hang on in there, keep smiling and keep on trying because the pain won't last for too long!
In the previous articles in this series, we've looked at getting the right equipment and planning and going on the logbook tours. Many of the skills that are assessed for EMS are similar to those required for the MTUK Winter Mountain Leader, with a few sections omitted. Ski instructors can't use ice axes & crampons, aren't expected to navigate in the dark and happily, you're not expected to spend two nights living in a snow hole (though this could be a way to keep your accommodation costs down). If you follow this link to the MTUK WML homepage, you can download a Skills Checklist and judge how you're doing at the mountain skills that are relevant to the EMS Assessment.
This is fundamental to all mountaineering. If you don't know where you are, you have no base to start from to make good decisions about terrain, avalanche hazard, finding good snow to ski on or getting home before it's dark.
In the Alps, we rarely go out in poor visibility and we can often see for tens of kilometres. This means that we have a wealth of information to help us figure out where we are and shouldn't need to take compass bearings. GPS is banned on EMS but altimeters are allowed as they're essential for skiing down in poor visibility. In good visibility try to use your altimeter last, as part of the whole picture, rather than it being the first that you look at. Most of the time, try not to use your altimeter at all.
The most reliable information to use is the shape of the land. Where do slopes steepen or flatten? What aspect are those cliffs? What direction does that valley or ridge run at? Which col is that? Other natural features can be good to use but remember that streams and lakes freeze over and get hidden by snow. Man made features, such as buildings, roads and ski lifts can be useful. Unfortunately people can change or move these faster than the map makers can update the maps, so be careful. Can you gather four pieces of information to make certain that you're in the right place? This video is a good example.
You don't have go into the wilderness to practise using a map. Take your map out with you when you're skiing the pistes of your home resort and try to locate yourself. If it's a cold day find a cafe with a good view and sit inside by the window. What contour features can you spot, both nearby and far away? The "Olympic" self service in Verbier is a great spot for doing this, complete with discounted food and coffee for instructors. Remember that sitting inside a steel framed building will probably mess up your magnetic compass, so you'll have to go back outside to use it.
Compass bearings are great for establishing how far along a linear feature you've travelled. Having said that, if you can see enough to take bearings, you should be able so enough features to work out you position from those, which will be quicker. Practise skinning uphill and skiing downhill on a bearing, especially in poor visibility. Always pick a safe area to do this, where you won't ski off any cliffs or hit any other unseen hazards. If you have a data connection, free apps such as GeoPortail, SwissMobility or View Ranger can be handy to confirm your position when you're practising your navigation in poor visibility. Don't plan on relying on these apps though, as data connections can easily be lost in the mountains and batteries go flat very quickly in the cold.
If you want to learn more about navigation in the mountains, the MTUK book of the same name is a great place to start. It's up to date, well written and illustrated and covers extra topics such a using GPS in the mountains. Chapter 11 of the BASI Manual also has a brief summary of the techniques.
Snow & Avalanche
If your knowledge of snow avalanche is at the level of "Rocket" in this video by Mike Austin, then you probably shouldn't be going for EMS Assessment. Watch the other two videos in the series too, as they contain some great, fundamental advice. There are also some good, free online avalanche courses and quizzes in English from places such as Canada, Switzerland and New Zealand. However much you read, there's no substitute for experience out in the mountains.
Understanding what is happening with the avalanche hazard is very like first aid. You have gather a variety of information, symptoms and history so that you can make an effective diagnosis. Get into the habit of reading your local avalanche forecast and then seeing what this means out on the mountains. Even if you're spending the week teaching on a nursery slope, you can still see the snow changing and avalanches happening higher up in the hills.
EMS assessment takes place in La Grave. French avalanche forecasts aren't particularly well presented when contrasted with other countries. There is no archive of previous forecasts available either. If you're used to multi-lingual sites in Switzerland or Aosta or highly effective graphical presentations from North America or Scotland, you're in for shock. Get used to reading the French forecast and interpreting what it means before you turn up for the exam.
The avalanche forecast is just one part of the jigsaw. The snowpack in the Ecrins area can be very different to the rest of the Alps. It's worth arriving early and spending a day or so getting to know the snow that you'll be doing your exam on. What are the layers in the snowpack? Where have there been recent avalanches? What has the weather been doing? Are some aspects loaded with windslab? This video from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service is part of a series with great advice on this topic. There's also a good summary of planning and decision making with regards to avalanche hazard on the SAIS website.
Again, there's no substitute for getting out the hill and having to make real decisions in real environments. Hopefully, completing your EMS logbook tours in a variety of places and possibly over two or more seasons, will have given some experience of this. Six days is pretty minimal, with MTUK Winter Mountain Leader candidates required to have at least 40 quality winter mountain days in their logbook. The author had around 200 ski touring days in his EMS logbook and is still learning!
If you want to buy a book on this subject, then Robert Bolognesi's Avalanche! is a short, well presented and cheap book to get. For a more comprehensive guide, Bruce Tremper's Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain is up to date and easy to read. Its examples are nearly all from North America but the science and lessons can be equally well applied in the Alps.
Once you know where you are and you have some information about what the snowpack is doing, you can start to make some choices about how to travel safely through the hills. This might be at the planning stage, at home or whilst you're out and about. Remember that you need to be able to make good choices both climbing and descending. You also need to think about how you would manage a group of people safely in different types of terrain and snow pack.
This is where experience gained from the logbook days really counts but there are other ways of practising too. As you ski around your local resort think about some hypothetical situations. What would be the hazards of skinning up that side valley with a group? If there wasn't a piste here, what would be the off-piste hazards that you would have to manage? If the weather was different from today, how would the off-piste hazards change? Would they be in different places?
Another thing to bear in mind is that the high-performance skiing in the variable strand, required for the Technical modules, is inherently riskier than slower, low performance skiing. High performance skiing might not always be suitable in situations where the consequences of a minor accident might be serious. Choosing how you ski is as much a part of managing a group to travel safely through the mountains as terrain choice and avalanche awareness. There are also times when it's highly appropriate to open the throttles and have fun too!
Chapter 10 of the BASI Alpine Manual has some good ideas an suggestions about group management in the off-piste environment. IFMGA Mountain Guide, Bruce Goodlad's recent book, Ski Touring also contains some good advice, as well as covering all the other aspects of the activity, such as equipment, route planning, navigation, avalanche and skinning techniques.
There's more to skinning than just walking uphill on skis. Just like all aspects of skiing, ski mountaineering now has competitions and a World Championships. As with the other disciplines of competitive skiing, you need to be fit and have good technique. The same goes for passing your EMS Assessment. You don't need to be as fit as Killian Jornet, who won the +900m vertical race in Verbier in 39 minutes last year but it would help!
Sorting out your kick turn technique will make the climbs easier. It can also make things safer, as there can be times where messing up a kick turn and falling could have serious consequences. In this video, from the 2015 Skimo World Championships in Verbier, you'll see that the competitors barely break step when they do their kick turns. Like other aspects of skiing, the more your learn about it, the better you'll be able to coach the people in your groups too. Glenmore Lodge have produced this video, which has some good tips for getting your kick turns smoother and safer.
Mountain and Environmental Knowledge
This is an often neglected part of the module. Why do we go ski touring? To share an adventure with friends. To ski down untracked slopes. Hopefully also to enjoy the views and environment that we travel through too. You more that you learn about what is around you the more enjoyable and interesting your journey can be.
What type of rocks are these mountains made of? What sorts of plants are poking out of the snow? Which animal left those footprints and which way was it going? What is a Reblochon and how did it get its name? Why are there irrigation ditches across all of the off-piste in Verbier? Can you make noise like a ptarmigan? What is old man's beard? Which wood are these chalets made from? How long do marmots hibernate for? When was that mountain first climbed? What is transhumance and does it still happen where you're based? What is a rösti and is it legal to own one in Austria?
Some of these things will be specific to your local area or to the area around La Grave, where the exam takes place. Other things are the same across the western Alps or the whole Alpine range. It gives you a range of stuff to talk about on lifts with the people in your ski school classes and makes you appear to be a knowledgeable mountain guru. It's worth taking the time to learn this some of this sort of stuff, as it's part of the exam too!
If you don't speak much of the local language, it can be quite hard to find out about the history, geography and wildlife around you. However, apps such as Google Translate help and there's a lot to be discovered on Wikipedia. There is also a wide variety of mountain environment blogs out there in English. Many things that are found in the British hills are also found in the Alps. Plas y Brenin has a blog which covers environmental discoveries in Britain and the Alps. Another good starting point can be official tourist information sites, such as the Austrian Tourist Board or the Ecrins National Park.
In the next blog we'll look at some ideas for practising for what happens when things go wrong: transceiver searches and rope work.