The Winter Mountains
Due to accidents throughout Scotland in the 2012/13 winter, never before has there been such a demand of winter walkers, climbers and mountaineers looking for training and guidance whilst out on the hill. Many factors have contributed to this however a number of high profile rescues have highlighted that the winter mountain environment can easily chew up and spit out the unaware and inexperienced.
Prolonged lengths of cold weather last year combined with heavy snow fall saw the avalanche forecast (which can be found at www.SAIS.gov.uk) go through the roof. The usual freeze thaw cycle that binds a snow pack together wasn’t happening. This being said Avalanches weren’t the only reason for accidents, route finding and navigational skills were leading to mistakes being made. The winter environment in the mountains is a dynamic and ever changing beast, a fickle mistress! The margin for error is reduced significantly from summer to winter and one bad judgment sometimes paired with another can have dire consequences.
When leading or teaching a group in the winter mountains the first job is to kit the client out with specialist gear that will allow travel to become easier; Ice axe, crampons, helmet and rigid soled boots. Not only this but the “faff factor” must be reduced prior to setting foot on the mountain. Survival in extreme temperature relies on being organised and slick, you will know yourself that after exercise in the outdoors if your stopping and starting frequently how cold you can get, if you add minus temperatures and wind chill factors to this hyperthermia sets in rapidly. Therefore finding a system whilst packing your bag for the day should be honed and refined with experience, to avoid stopping and starting.
For myself personally, being self-sufficient in the Mountains is the biggest reward. To be able to travel in a hostile environment knowing that I will be able to cope with almost anything the mountains have to throw at me is what Mountaineering is all about. Yet you cannot just turn up on the mountain and expect everything to go as planned. The mountain environment is frequently different from sea level when it comes to the weather. Setting off from the car on a sunny winters day, can rapidly turn into a fight for survival when up higher, never underestimate this factor. Prior to heading out you should check the weather, my preferred site is www.MWIS.org.uk . This service gives upland weather reports for many of the mountain regions in the UK. Remember it’s OK to change your initial plans if the conditions are looking rough, many accidents are caused by ignorance of signs such as weather or avalanche warnings. If in doubt turn about, discretion is often the better part of valour.
There has been a number of interesting articles recently released by the Mountain Leader Training Association (MLTA) regarding decision making in the mountains. One of these was regarding the use of Heuristic decision making. Put simply if you had to make minute decisions about everything, everyday then your head would be overloaded analysing. Heuristics are “short cuts” and include stereotyping, rule of thumb and common sense. Although these can be useful “shortcuts”, when coming to a decision they can lead to misinterpretation of a situation; “you can’t always read a book by its cover”. Examples of Heuristics that you may face on a mountain day could be being faced by a steep avalanche prone slope that have footprints up it, you would be excused for thinking that if the slope were to avalanche it would have been triggered by the party in front of you. Another scenario could be being familiar with an area and thinking there’s not usually a cornice there, so there won’t be one now. Your Heuristic findings do not take into account the dynamic nature of the snow pack or the historical weather patterns prior to setting out.
As they say, “theres no substitute for experience”, learn the basics, consolidate what you’ve learnt and make everything subsequently a gradual progression.