Saturday, 18 December 2021

Guiding ratios in the mountains, what it really means for you, as a customer.

How many people can a guide/instructor/leader look after safely whilst in mountaineering terrain? What do I mean by mountaineering terrain? Scrambles and easy rock climbs, somewhere that your guide/Instructor may choose to or be expected to use a rope at times to safeguard you.


There have been many discussions about this over the years and although there are so many nuances around this topic, such as the chosen route, are the group members known to each other or strangers, weather conditions, customers fitness and comfort levels in different conditions, how well your guide/instructor knows the route, commercial and contractual pressures just to name a few. Though, in my mind, it is a pretty clear cut when we start to talk about your safety.


Let’s talk about pies


Let’s say the above pie represents your guided day out in the mountain, how about ‘ticking off’ three Munros on the Skye Cuillin Ridge. As a single customer, you might think that the price for that guided experience is a little on the pricey side so you invite 3 friends along with you and the guiding company says yes. This reduces the cost to each person and makes it seem more affordable, so affordable that you may not mind paying just a little bit more per person for the same experience. Sounds great, doesn’t it? A great day out in the mountains achieving 3 more mountain tops that you are looking to summit and at an affordable price.


Now let’s imagine that pie is the guide/Instructors ‘available brain space’ for their day of guiding. Not only are they responsible for keeping you safe but they need to be looking after their own safety in exposed and very serious terrain, making hundreds of small decisions each day. Now, you have at best only a quarter of the guides attention. Doesn’t sound so good, does it? You might be the last person in the line in which case you are so far away from your guide/instructor that most of their attention is on the people closest to them. Quite often it might be that the person furthest away from the guide/instructor might be the person struggling the most. Imagine if that was you?


So, just paying for your ‘portion of the pie’ doesn’t mean you are getting the same experience as if you bought the ‘whole pie’ for yourself. That ‘whole pie’ might have seemed too expensive, to begin with, but if you buy the ‘whole pie’ you know that you have the full attention of the guide/instructor, they are by your side making decisions based solely on your needs and wants and can do their very best to keep you safe and help you achieve your objective in this hugely dynamic and serious environment.


Why not just stick us all on a rope and then we will be safe?


It isn’t as simple as that, I’m afraid. The more people on the rope, the greater the ‘faff’, the longer things take and then you as the customers start to lose out because you aren’t getting the objectives or full experience that you paid for. Some guides/Instructors may feel they have to take shortcuts, to help them achieve the objective for the day, which might compromise your safety.


So maybe you don’t book with that guide/instructor or company again. Not only that but I can promise you, if you are the last person on that rope, even if everyone in the group manages the rope perfectly, given rope stretch etc you are still going to fall a long way, potentially bouncing off every ledge beneath you on the way down before you do stop.


So why do guiding companies offer higher ratio courses?


There are many reasons for this and again it isn’t a simple answer but one is ‘bums on seats’. The more of you there are the more money they make. The other may be that the guides/instructors or guiding companies may well think that they can keep you safe at a higher ratio because they have never had an accident and it gives them a false sense of confidence/security.


Most guiding companies will not pay a higher rate to the guide/instructor for looking after more people. On the flip side, many guides/instructors may well be working as subcontractors for these guiding companies and want to continue getting work so say, yes, ensuring that they continue to get work. All guiding and Instruction awards that I can think of (BMG, MCI, WMCI etc.) are trained and assessed at a maximum of 1:2, so why are they working with 3 or sometimes 4.



So in conclusion, the fewer customers the guide/instructor has to look after, the easier it is for them to do a better job of helping you to achieve your goals safely. Does it cost a bit more? Yes, but how much value do you put on your life? No guide/instructor or booking agent can guarantee your safety in the mountains but what they can do is manage risk by doing a number of things, like picking the right route for you in the right conditions but also managing ratios and keeping them low, so your guide/instructor can focus as much of their time as they need to, to keep you as safe as they can.


At Kirkhope Mountaineering we value your safety and want you to get the most out of your time with us so, we will be working at a maximum ratio of 1:2 for our roped climbing and mountaineering courses and guiding, year-round.

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