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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Skill Fade.

The past twelve months have certainly given us plenty of challenges and for some, no end of free time to plan, scheme or just dream of getting back into the outdoors. Were all hungry for things to go back to pre-pandemic times and get back to our projects, plans and ambitions. It's worth remembering though that any significant time away from an activity will lead to a reduction in performance and our skills will undoubtedly have suffered some fade. Recognising this skill fade is essential to avoiding big accidents or mishaps in the outdoors.

What is Skills Fade

Skill fade is defined as “The decay of ability or adeptness over a period of non-use” which is basically a more educated way of saying that with some skills you either use them or lose them. Many industries recognise skill fade which is why some jobs require retraining after a period away or re-assessment to prove competency. The military, Civil aviation authority, General Medical Council and many other professions recognise the risks posed by skill fade.

For those who enjoy the outdoors, skill fade could translate into a navigational error because we haven’t used our compass in a while or for the climber it could mean getting onto a route that we are not technically, physically or mentally ready for. No matter the activity the risks are still just as real and the consequences could be just as severe. It won’t come as a surprise to hear that after the lockdown ended in summer 2020, Mountain Rescue Teams had their busiest weeks on record with a higher percentage of accidents and more technical rescues. More runners, hillwalkers and climbers were getting into trouble on routes, walks or runs that would normally be within their limit.

So now that we know what skill fade is and what the risks are how do we address it so we can get back to normal?

  • Get back to the basics

Many of the skills we use as hillwalkers, climbers and mountaineers have become autonomous and require little mental effort to be done well. After so much time away these skills will now need more mental effort so taking time to familiarise yourself with good standards and making sure you do things right will be important. If you are a hillwalker you may want to practice taking a bearing or familiarising yourself with map features, climbers may want to practice belaying to ensure good technique. After lockdown 1.0 ended climbing walls noticed a large increase in belaying accidents and sloppy technique. Just one example of how skill fade was the contributing factor to accidents indoors.

  • Get mileage

In spring myself and fellow Mountaineering Instructors normally take some time out of work to get our heads away from axes and crampons and back into climbing shoes and small holds. The volume of climbing is often more important than the grade at this stage so ensure you keep the difficulty below your normal on-sight grade and slowly work your way up. It’s a great way of getting your head into using ropes, taking care of personal safety, and making good decisions. Getting mileage will also improve endurance and makes you less prone to injury.

  • Pick your battles.

Attempting a 6 pitch route at the top end of your ability at a crag you don’t know is probably not going to end the way you hoped and the faff, slow decision making and reduction in fitness will probably make it a longer day out than you think. Picking crags that you’re more familiar with can help you to get back into the routine of climbing and get your head back into the game. Be sure to treat everything with caution though as even familiar crags may have changed (Abseil tatt unsafe, loose rocks etc) familiarity is another heuristic trap that’s easy to fall into.

  • Remind yourself what it's like to have fun.

Its been a challenging 12 months with so many restrictions, worries about loved ones and employment concerns that you deserve to go out and have fun. Pick something that will be enjoyable and not stressful. Pick a route that’s in a beautiful position and will offer amazing views. Above all just have a good time and save the stress until later. With any luck, life will be going back to normal soon and you can carry on running up the grades.

  • Check your gear

Checking your climbing equipment should always be a priority but after so many months off its likely it's no longer part of your routine. Have you checked your rope in the past twelve months? Was it stored in a dark place or in daylight? Was anything spilt on it whilst it's in storage? Give all your kit a good check over and if in doubt, throw it out. Soft goods like slings, ropes and harnesses can be easily damaged by chemicals so check to make sure they look clean and have no visible damage. 

  • Reduce the need for rescue.

Mountain Rescue does a fantastic job of helping those in need but the pandemic has added a much more present risk to team members. If this summer is as busy as normal, Mountain Rescue teams will have to physically handle hundreds of people in difficult locations all around the country. This is likely to lead to an increased risk of teams becoming infected with Covid which they could take home to their loved ones. During the pandemic reduce your risk of an accident by taking on less risky objectives and make sure you have the emergency gear to look after yourself just Incase.


If you’re looking for a refresher with navigation, climbing or mountaineering why not check out our courses in the Peak District and Snowdonia. All our courses are delivered by qualified and highly experienced instructors who can help you take your ambitions to the next level.

Article by Matt Cooper - Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor (MCI)


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