Interview Series

Winter Workers Keeping Us Safe on the Hills

Britain's hills in winter are a stunning playground, but they can also be a harsh one. Ice and snow, wild weather and long hours of darkness all pose major challenges to the winter walker. In this hard season more than any other, hill safety is built on preparedness and self reliance. But we can all use a little help or guidance from time to time too. Hats off, then, to the hardy crew of outdoor winter workers who face the worst of the elements to help keep us safe and well informed on the hills, from the avalanche forecasters and safety experts to the Mountain Rescue volunteers prepared to head out in all weathers to help others.

Neil Woodhead, Deputy Team Leader, Kinder Mountain Rescue Team

Neil was inspired to join the MRT as a volunteer after seeing his local team in action during a residential first aid course. He says: "My course was based at the MRT centre and I thought the work looked fascinating. I volunteered shortly afterwards."

Neil in MRT mode  © Kinder Mountain Rescue Team
Neil in MRT mode
© Kinder Mountain Rescue Team

That was 12 years ago, and today Neil is an integral part of a busy team that serves the western side of the Peak District. It is an area popular with walkers and climbers.

Neil says: "As volunteers we are on call every day of the year. I try to go to as many as I can practically. Suffice to say, it is a huge part of my life and as I work full-time as well it can add pressures to the normal day-to-day."

While Kinder MRT is busy year-round, in winter the risks to the crew and walkers are often greater because of the weather, says Neil:

"At all times of the year the weather and landscape, including Kinder Scout at the highest point, can make rescues tricky. We do a lot of call outs on foot, although we do have access to Landrovers and sometimes the coastguard helicopters will be called in."

"In winter, the cold, ice, snow and the dark make it an even tougher job. We are usually going out on a rescue when others are coming back from a walk or a climb and that is the time of day when it's more dangerous to be out."

The team out in winter  © Kinder Mountain Rescue Team
The team out in winter
© Kinder Mountain Rescue Team

However, Neil thinks there are rewards to his MRT volunteering. He says:

"While rescues can cause anxiety and personal dangers because you don't know what you will find it is a great feeling when you are able to rescue people and they are genuinely grateful. It goes without saying that saving someone's life is very uplifting. We are also a great team that supports each other and works well together. We have a very good bond."

Neil would like to see people learning more about the winter environment before heading out so that fewer rescues are required.

"There is plenty of educational material and skills courses out there" he says, "so it would be good if people took this advice on board. People should also be prepared for the weather and turn back if things do not go to plan."

"Building up on your experience and going out with others who know more than you is the best advice I can give. In this way, there would be less accidents and incidents for us to deal with."

Heather Morning, Mountain Safety Advisor, Mountaineering Scotland

Based at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland's National Outdoor Training Centre, Heather instructs thoroughout the year. In winter that means several months in which she spends most days out, whatever the weather.

Heather on Patey's Route, Coire an t-Sneachda  © Heather Morning
Heather on Patey's Route, Coire an t-Sneachda
© Heather Morning

While Heather herself is experienced enough to cope with the most difficult weather, her clients will not be so prepared. She teaches a range of courses, including winter skills, avalanche awareness and winter navigation.

"When the skies are blue, it's much easier to teach and the participants will have a smile on their faces" she says.

"But the best conditions for teaching outdoors skills are when it is wet, snowy, cold or windy because these are the conditions that people need to learn how to deal with."

"It can be a struggle for people in challenging weather and they might be wondering what on earth they are doing, but there are ways to teach them so they learn a lot."

Winter navigation courses are a new addition to the skills programme. Heather says: "We start the courses at noon and teach through to 10pm so that people learn how to stay safe in darkness as well as daylight."

"It can feel like a very challenging environment when you are trying to walk and navigate at night, especially in winter, and everything can look different."

Heather teaching winter navigation skills  © Heather Morning
Heather teaching winter navigation skills
© Heather Morning

Heather says that people can enjoy the winter hills and mountains in greater safety if they make better choices.

"If people looked at the available information, such as avalanche forecasts on, for example, SAIS, other weather reports, and chose the most sensible routes accordingly, they would have a better chance of staying out of difficulty in the outdoors."

"Many MRT call outs would be avoidable if people could navigate better or avoid being caught out after dark."

After nine years with Mountaineering Scotland, formerly the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, Heather still finds her job rewarding.

"When working directly with people you see them develop, even in a one day course" she says. "You know they will have better skills in a range of circumstances. It is great to be able to impart skills and knowledge to improve their self-reliance."

Mark Diggins, Co-ordinator, Scottish Avalanche Information Service

Avalanches pose one of the main hazards to outdoor enthusiasts in winter. Mark's job, as one of 16 members of the avalanche forecaster team with SAIS, is to produce daily avalanche information that enables people to enjoy the winter mountains with knowledge and safety.

Mark assessing the snowpack for the SAIS report
© Mark Diggins

For Mark, daily outings are made as part of a team in the Cairngorms to assess the areas of most hazard. Mark, who has been with SAIS for 15 years, says:

"As you would expect we are out in challenging conditions and have to consider risk as part of our daily process."

"We spend four to five hours each day on our feet, checking representative areas where the snowpack might have the worst stability. We are also looking at how the snow layers are building up and how this might affect avalanche potential."

"Whatever the weather throws us we have to be out there doing as many checks as we can."

It's not all blizzards and cold hands...
© Mark Diggins

Back in the office, Mark describes the report writing as mentally tiring:

"I have to compile all the on-the-ground information into an understandable and concise report" he says. "This is what the public will be reading and it is important that we consider carefully the words that are used. It is a taxing but very interesting job and one that is vital for the safety and enjoyment of people working and playing in the outdoors."

Mark's work is also rewarding. He says:

"When dealing with nature on a daily basis you learn to respect it. None of us take weather or safety for granted. You often see our country at its winter best, when clear, crisp days create a beauty that is breathtaking. And I have seen so many fantastic snow crystals. It's a magical place to be even if it can suddenly turn nasty."

Graham Uney, Fell Top Assessor for the Lake District National Park

From December to April, a Fell Top Assessor walks up Helvellyn every day to check the conditions at altitude, take photos and supply a report to the Lake District National Park's Weatherline forecast website. The report supplements the Met Office weather forecast, with the aim of giving walkers and climbers a range of contemporary information including ground conditions, so they can be properly prepared for their outdoors trip.

Fell Top Assessors Graham (right) and John, photo: LDNPA  © Lake District National Park Authority
Fell Top Assessors Graham (right) and John, photo: LDNPA

Graham has been an assessor for four years and this season he is working to a pattern of seven days of daily walks followed by seven days off. There are two other assessors who share the duties.

While many might see this as rather repetitive work, Graham relishes it and aims to walk one of seven or more different routes to the summit each time he goes out. He says:

"There are many different routes and combinations to reach the summit of Helvellyn and even now I find places I have not walked or climbed before."

His fastest ascent is around the hour mark, although he sometimes spends all day looking around the mountain and meeting people who are hiking.

"It's a rewarding job" he says, "and every day is different. The weather is changeable and this creates different challenges and views of the landscape."

"As well as taking readings for weather and wind speed on the summit, which is the main focus of the job, I will also test any snow for unstable layers so I can provide an avalanche alert as part of the report."

Another important part of the job is helping to maintain the footpaths that lead to the summit, such as noticing broken stiles, or checking that drainage channels are working effectively.

Graham also chats to other walkers and climbers he meets on the mountain.

"The role is not just about the fell report" he explains, "but also being public face of the National Park Authority on the mountain. I really enjoy this part of the job."

The "desk" part of Graham's work is to write the daily report.

"I try to use language that everyone will understand when describing the conditions on Helvellyn. We want people to understand what they will be faced with on the mountains" says Graham.

"It is a very worthwhile service because it means people can be fully informed before embarking on an outing."

"The Weatherline service has been running for 30 years and it has definitely saved lives because people can be better prepared and plan according to the conditions, even if this means not being on Helvellyn because the weather is not suitable for their experience."

As part of his work with the National Park, he will sometimes lead winter skills courses as well.

"Teaching people how to stay safe in the winter mountains is very important and also rewarding as an instructor" he says. "Because I am out most days as an assessor, it is a useful way to combine my work."

When not working for the National Park, Graham runs his own mountaineering company, offering skills courses for walkers and climbers, and also helps out in the Bampton Shop & Tea Room that he runs with his partner Olivia.

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