16 April 2008

Mountain Skills Training in Kerry


Let me introduce myself. This time last year the only trekking I did was the kind of hard slog one does when searching for the perfect shoes for that evening. Intrepid adventures among the aisles of stores and the satisfaction of the perfect fit and coordinating colours were my driving forces. Sweat would pore from my brow, adrenaline rushing as I contemplated the horrors of inadequate footwear. So you can understand that I am probably not the first one you would think of as a hiking partner. However this didn’t stop a friend from asking me to be theirs. Up Carrauntoohil, no less. With no concept of height, distance or the Devils Ladder, I was marched to the summit on a beautiful June afternoon and I was hooked.

Since then I have always been heavily reliant on aforementioned friend to lead me blindly up and down various tracks, hills and peaks. When a work colleague mentioned a Mountain Skills course I sat up and took notice. Independence! The importance of independence is not lost on me as I work at Irish Guide dogs for the Blind, where visually impaired people regain theirs. We spend a lot of time teaching guide dog clients how to work best in their partnerships with their dogs as well as dog welfare. The Mountain Skills course saw a sort of reversal in these roles. Guide dog mobility instructors, trainers and kennel staff found themselves back in the classroom not to teach but to learn.

Nathan Kingerlee was our teacher and could be compared to MacGyver. He’s the kind of person you would want around if anything got hairy (without the need to make bombs from chewing gum and duct tape). He runs an Adventure and Training company based in Kerry and specialises in hill walking, rock climbing, mountaineering, kayaking, canoeing and team building. When Nathan learned that he would be working with doggie types you wonder if he panicked that we would arrive with our own pets in tow but no dogs on the mountain is the MCI way and when you take into account that farmers are gracious enough to let us trek across their land the least we could do was leave our four legged friends at home.

Each day began with a quick presentation on the skills we would be practicing that day. Anyone who knows us understands that we can be a tricky bunch but Nathan successfully tackled our comments, queries and occasional unruly behaviour. During our mountain safety discussions we tried to imagine every possible situation that could arise on the mountain. To give you a general idea of our line of thinking: If the mountain rescue team is supposed to come get you and they are all voluntary ...what if they are all invited to a wedding? What if everyone on the mountain rescue team ate a really hot curry the night before and were indisposed? Send answers on a postcard to……

What a great way to start the day. After that we were whisked off to Glenbeigh or the Gap of Dunloe to practice our compass skills and map reading. It soon became clear that some of us can’t read maps and most of the group had little sense of direction (the group was 5:1 female) but with a little patience on Nathan’s part we soon got the hang of it. Although compass skills wont help you find your car in a busy car park, it proves immensely useful when your view is obscured by mist at the top of Seefin.

Among the group, physical fitness varied. I started as I meant to go on, at the back. As shameful as it sounded I was even out run by the vegetarians in the group. I was sure they would be hanging back, muscles weakened by the lack of protein and craving a slice of the lambs that frolicked nearby. Not at all! They found themselves buoyed by their trail mix and spurred on at the thought of their healthy fruit accompanied by wholegrain sandwiches for lunch. On that thought, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce everyone to the banana guard. A brightly coloured banana shape object, it protects the glorious banana from the hazards of the world. Two members of our group were full of the delights of the banana guard. Personally I think phallic symbols don’t come any more obvious than that! But back to the facts.

As part of the course, team safety is encouraged so nobody gets left behind (but I’m sure the veggies would have left me for dead ….one less carnivore in the world after all). Everyone is encouraged to look for the signs of hypothermia and to carry enough equipment to cope with the more common problems when mountaineering. Of course, a slip or a fall can happen anywhere but is not advisable at 700 metres. When a member of the group was queried as to what action she would advise during a fall, her answer was to curl into a ball and minimise the surface area. Nathan managed to nip this idea in the bud due to the velocity of this human cannonball but personally I see it as a massive missed opportunity for Kerry. ‘Cannonballing’ could be a huge hit with the adrenalin junkies of the world.

Nathan’s method of teaching mainly involved posing a question and then waiting for your response. He probably hoped that these would be well thought out, intelligent answers but was always left horribly disappointed. We would usually rush headlong into a response and then wait for the correct answer to be handed to us. Nathan would frustratingly dangle the answer above our heads until we could figure it out ourselves. Sometimes days later. To get revenge in the most childish manner possible I nicknamed him Mysterio. Fell free to address his post in this manner

Wandering around on the top of a mountain at night, you would think would be another ‘no no’ but part of the course is a night navigation. Take away all visible features and you discover pretty quickly how good your compass skills are. That and how useful Nathan’s helpful clues of ‘don’t head left over the cliff’ are. We all took turns guiding the group and towards the end we almost ended up in someone’s back garden. If you are reading this now I apologise for any inconvenience and no, there is no Kerry mountain cat so no need to contact the National Enquirer.

Another test of our skills took place on the Tomies. We were asked to drop other peoples bags at points on the mountain according to the map and it resulted in complete chaos with one particular bag MIA.I concluded that as a group we are far less talented than our canine trainees who can seek and retrieve with ease. Not one to be defeated, Nathan would go over everything step by step until every bag was safely planted on their owners shoulders and we would take off again.

I don’t want to give the impression that this course is all fun and games. It can be hard work and your muscles really feel it at the end of the day. You become a really cheap date and even a tea cup of wine (we were staying in a hostel so there was a shortage of Waterford crystal) could leave you slightly blurry eyed. But there is nothing like the sense of satisfaction at the end of the day when you are exhausted but thrilled at your achievements that day.

If you want to broaden your mind, stretch those muscles (or even try cannon balling) then look no further. I’m already looking at the next mountain to climb and I will be my own guide. After all there’s always the mountain rescue crew. Lets just hope no one got married or had a bad curry.

Eimear Daly


The Mountain Skills Scheme consists of three courses:
Mountain Skills 1
Mountain Skills 2
Mountain Skills Assessment

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