Winter is not that far away now. Parts of the Highlands have already had some snow. Now, while we may not get as great a winter for being in the hills as the last one, there will invariably be some of the white stuff around for us to go and play in for at least part of the dark season, so here’s a few tips that will help to keep you safe.
- Keep an eye on the weather forecast. For most mountain walkers this means using the superb Mountain Weather Information Service http://www.mwis.org.uk/, or the Met Office, or sourcing a forecast locally – lots of hotels, shops, outdoor centres, even police stations post daily forecasts in their windows in the main mountain areas. The trick is not only in getting a forecast, but paying attention to it! If it says there’s going to be 120mph winds on the Cairngorm plateau, it’s probably not wise to ‘go and have a look’.
- Check the avalanche information. In Scotland the Scottish Avalanche Information Service http://www.sais.gov.uk/ is available to give up to date forecasts for the main mountain areas. Even if you are going walking in areas not covered by the forecasts, a glance at the nearest region will give you a bit of an idea of what snow conditions might be like.
- Use your noggin! Avalanche forecasts are prepared each afternoon/evening for the following day. They are based on site surveys by people experienced in evaluating avalanche hazards, and also on the weather forecast for that night and the next day. So, if the weather forecast turns out to be wrong, there’s a good chance that the avalanche forecast might be too! As an example, if the weather forecast is for falling snow and 35 mph winds from the south, the avalanche forecast might say that north-facing slopes could be loaded with all that fresh white stuff. However, if the wind veered to the west instead of the south, there could well be a greater hazard on easterly slopes. My advice is, get a weather forecast, and an avalanche forecast, then go outside and see what did actually happen.
- Go on an avalanche evaluation course. Glenmore Lodge http://www.glenmorelodge.org.uk/avalanche-information.asp run a series of courses, and this really could well be the most sensible way to spend a few quid to save your life. Don’t be fooled – avalanches DO occur in Britain, and they DO kill people.
- Don’t pack light. I’m often asked by my clients things like “should I take this extra fleece?” The answer is “yes”. Or, “I’ve got two hats, which one should I carry?” The answer is “both”. I think you get the idea.
- Plan a route, but don’t always stick to it. Remember the advice above about checking weather and avalanche forecasts, then making your own mind up once you get out in the hills? Well, if you get up there, and have a dig around in the snow using the skills you’ve learned on an avalanche evaluation course, and discover that the slopes you were going to head onto are avalanche prone, don’t be afraid to modify your route. You’d be stupid not to.
- Know how to select an ice axe and crampons. There are lots of fairly useless ice axes on the market, and a fair few crampons that should be avoided too. Remember, not all people who work in outdoor shops get out into the hills that often (because they’re busy working in shops), and these people are NOT always the best folk to ask for advice. A qualified mountain professional, and there are plenty around, is best placed to explain the pros and cons of winter technical gear. Go on a course using hired kit first. Then, once you know what works and what doesn’t, you can go to the outdoor shop well informed.
- Eat and drink plenty. Food is fuel, and liquid helps your body to digest it and make use of it. It’s as simple as that. In the winter I have a light fried breakfast, followed by toast and jam, washed down with plenty of tea. Whilst finishing packing I have more tea or coffee. Out on the hill I love honey and banana sandwiches, washed down with tea or some other hot liquid (yes, water will freeze in the bottle in the winter), and I always carry some home-made flapjack or brownie for later in the day. This is in addition to any emergency rations I carry – they are for emergencies!
- Know how to navigate. This is another one of those skills that will save your life. That’s as true in the summer as in the winter, but in the winter you want to know exactly where you are at any point, and that means using the kind of technology that doesn’t rely on batteries that will freeze and die remarkably quickly in cold weather – i.e. use a map and compass, NOT a GPS. It is oh, so easy to step through a cornice and fall down a mountain side, or to stray onto avalanche-prone slopes. Get a map and compass, and most importantly, get yourself on a course to learn how to use them correctly. This is important. Navigation is very much a practical skill. It can’t be learned from a book. You absolutely must get outside in the hills in crappy weather and learn how to do it properly.
- Have fun, have adventures, but always bear all of the above in mind at all times.
We run a range of skills courses that could help to keep you safe in the hills, and we’re also available for basic winter skills training too.Graham Uney Mountaineering – Winter Skills Courses