1:x What’s in a mountain guiding ratio?

1:x What’s in a mountain guiding ratio? 1:1, 1:2 Cultural norms, local customs, regulation and why small ratio groups are more important than you think.

The situation I found myself in was suboptimal. ‘Tower Ridge’ is normally climbed roped up, with one or two clients per instructor or guide, using the techniques of short-roping and short-pitching.

On this occasion it was rapidly getting dark, and the weather was deteriorating. The sideways gusts providing a relentless blast of icy pellets into the side of my face.

‘Tower Ridge’ on Ben Nevis had provided a suitable challenge. The client nearest me was now dangling exhausted on the rope.

Swinging slightly in the wind and unable to climb out of ‘Tower Gap’ neither of us were sure how we were going to get out of this one. The situation was getting graver by the minute and it was all my fault.”

The two remaining clients looked on slightly concerned that they too would struggle to climb out of the gap. The situation was difficult enough, but I had three people on the rope to manage and it was going to be a long night…

1:x what's in a mountain guiding ratio?

Local Rationality

Was it really my fault? Trying to understand why we do what we do requires perspective. If we think about our own performance, it is obvious that we do what seems reasonable to us at the time.

In short, we go to work with the aim of doing the rational thing. The other side of the coin is that if the situation did not make sense to us, we probably wouldn’t have done it.

This is the Local Rationality Principle, and you can read about it here at Skybrary.aero. When considering case studies or stories it is important to consider the person’s situation and knowledge at the time, not what they, or you as the observer may know in hindsight.

As a young and newly qualified Mountaineering Instructor (WMCI) I had agreed to cover for another instructor that was ill. It wasn’t until I turned up that I really understood the plan was to do ‘Tower Ridge’ with a group of six. This was to be as two independent ropes of 1:3.

It wasn’t the lead instructors fault either. They had worked with the group for a few years and had done a few easier routes like this, and the conditions on ‘Tower Ridge’ had been favourable up to this point. ‘Tower Ridge’ made sense to them on the day.

Arguably, in the previous days the route may have been relatively straight forward. And this was when the original instructor was due to work. Although I had my doubts I didn’t raise them. We both drifted into the situation where we were committed on the route and making progress inch by inch in difficult conditions. But at ‘Tower Gap’ there was no doubt that it was us, that owned the decisions that had put us there.

What do the guidelines say?

At a recent workshop I was facilitating the conversation drifted towards the instructors favourite: rates of pay and ratios. I listened intently as one newly qualified instructor told me it was common place, if not industry standard to work at 1:3 on a particularly craggy Scottish Island.

Without hesitation I suggested that the “gold standard” of 1:1 or 1:2 would be more appropriate. To me, with my experience on ‘Tower Ridge’ the answer was obvious. But it is important to take the perspective of those heading to the craggy island for the first time.

So what do the guidelines actually say in the UK? MTUKI publish the National Guidelines here at: https://www.mountain-training.org/Content/Uploaded/Downloads/MLT/d0ce4421-70b6-4325-8df2-8525f339802e.pdf

Here’s the rub. The information provided is broad to cover multiple scenarios. The provider or employer should ensure:

“The ratio between participant and leader ensures adequate control and safe conduct of the activity”.

While the leader or instructor should:

“Inform the provider or employer if the ratio of leader to participants is such that the safe conduct of the party is in question”.

Cultural Norms and Ratios

The reality is that instructional and guiding ratios are really cultural norms in the UK. In many cases they remain un-communicated. They form part of the hidden curriculum that we all navigate. We are left to work these out for ourselves in many cases, applying them to our daily work.

ratio noun. the relative magnitudes of two quantities (usually expressed as a quotient)”.

Of course the newly qualified person that I was speaking to, had come to their conclusion by making observations of others.

Look closely and the subtle cues to the “gold standard” are there, with many providers operating at 1:1 or 1:2. Take a look at the ratios for MCI or WMCI training and assessment and you will find “gold” again. But as a community we remain largely silent on the issue.

(Above) “Brown standard++” – 1:6 on the Inaccessible Pinnacle on the Isle of Skye, climbers unknown. Credit: Kev Rutherford

In contrast in Europe most routes have an accepted guiding ratio. In the alps these are usually set by local guiding companies and are known as “customs”. Alternatively, they may be found in legislation in one form or another. For example in the Val d’Aosta.

Non-standard Ratios

So there is an argument that 1:3+ is acceptable assuming that you have the right instructor/guide with the right clients, on the right terrain in the right conditions. Seems legit… In a small number of circumstances in simple uncomplicated terrain this “brown standard” might be ok.

But the problem is that as a provider or freelance instructor/guide, you have no control over the conditions at the time of booking. The clients ability will be difficult to judge on communication alone. This can only be confirmed by observation on the day.

As a result the risk of the enterprise is pushed down to the freelance instructor on the ground. Ultimately, they are expected to make a decision on the itinerary on the day. That might be ok, but whether we like it or not doing so adds to the pressure of decision making.

My challenge to the employers and providers out there who continue to offer courses at “brown standard” ratios is simple. Please help instructors and guides to do the right thing, support good decision making and work at the “gold standard”.

There is the additional consequence here that those operating unbound by the professional standards of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI) and the British Association of Mountain Guides (BMG) have the greatest flexibility to apply the “brown standard”. Arguably, they are by definition the least qualified in their technical field to make those judgements. Yet they are frequently observed working in this way, adding credibility to exotic behaviour.

The Technical Stuff

The context here is one of roped climbing and scrambling on rock and mixed terrain in winter. It is an unavoidable fact that three people on the rope results in a greater potential load, and therefore an increased risk of severing the rope. Increasing the pre-load from 80kg to 160kg reduces the cut resistance of a polyamide rope by more than 81%. [Personal communication – ‘Weight Matters’, Daniel Gebel, EDELRID].

In a short-roping scenario without intermediate runners on the rope, it is impossible to keep the rope to the third person tight enough for it to be useful.

There is some excellent information in EDELRID’s Knowledge Base here at: https://www.edelrid.de/en/knowledge-base/sports/index.php

“The overall conclusion here is simple and quite obvious. In order to increase the overall safety regarding cut resistance of a given rope system, one should try to reduce the weight that is applied within the system before looking for any other solutions!”

Edelrid – Knowledge Base, Cut Resistance of Ropes – Part II

Dogma aside you will find isolated situations where numbers on the rope will vary. Ski touring is a classic example in the alps, where small summits are accessed or cols crossed roped. But look closely and these examples will be different in context i.e. uncomplicated short snow slopes or well furnished with bolts.

What does safety look like?

Tower Ridge was a long day for my clients and one where we were all stretched beyond our comfort zone. I guess that’s experience, but if you find yourself in the same situation it is worth considering what safety might look like:

  • It is the ‘Gold Standard’ of 1:1 or 1:2.
  • Sticking to your values and being prepared to state where your red lines are when working.
  • Being clear about standards – talking about norms and acceptable practice.
  • Setting an example. If you are an instructor or guide you should be able to explain how you do your work and why.

If you liked this article you may wish to read Attentional Narrowing: Why mountain guides and pilots know it can put you in harms way. Check out Assured Training or E-Learning.