This article aims to be a helpful reminder focusing on how to make safe decisions when going out into the UK mountains this winter. Whatever your winter sport, be it winter walking, mountaineering, climbing or skiing, the same decision-making process will apply. This article takes a look at what we do before going to the hills and once we get there, based on the crucial 'Be Avalanche Aware Guidelines' (BAA), devised to enable people to make their own informed judgments at every stage of a journey.
"Think about the sort of terrain you will be crossing and remember that most avalanches occur on slopes steeper than 30°"
Safety begins long before you set foot on the mountain, and the planning stage of any trip is one which should never be skimped. There are three broad areas to consider: weather and conditions; you and your party; and the mountain landscape.
For weather and conditions you should read the avalanche reports at www.sais.gov.uk or for England and Wales www.metoffice.gov.uk for ground conditions in Snowdonia and the Lake District. You can also get a definitive mountain weather forecast at www.mwis.org.uk, paying attention to wind speed and direction, precipitation, and temperature. Check on the map where you intend to visit and, using the forecast wind direction, work out where windblown deposits of new snow will most likely build – which is on the lee slopes. And don't forget to seek additional information from others who know the place you are visiting. Blogs can be useful for additional information, but you should choose wisely.
Considering yourself and your party, make sure you all have a common objective and a shared ethos that it's okay to turn around if anyone is not happy. Remember: a party is only as strong as its least experienced member. Good clothing and equipment, plus the ability to use the equipment, is essential. The ability to navigate in poor visibility is also an essential winter skill and you will only be able to do this if your equipment is up to the test.
"The planning stage is the make or break of any day out. Don't underestimate the time that should be spent on this"
Regarding the mountain landscape, you must think about the sort of terrain you will be crossing and remember that most avalanches occur on slopes steeper than 30°. Use the slope gradient tool on the back of the BAA guidelines leaflet or, if using a 1:50 000 scale map, be aware that when the measurement between two index contours is less than 2mm then the slope will be over 30°. This will help you when considering the 3 A's of avalanche awareness – altitude, aspect and angle. It's also useful to be aware that wind will transport snow from speeds of 10 - 15mph and above.
And remember: longer planning time will be required if visiting complex mountaineering terrain. The planning stage is the make or break of any day out. Don't underestimate the time that should be spent on this. Make sure you have more than one plan which is equally well thought out before you go.
Constantly observe weather and snow conditions while you are travelling to your chosen venue and adjust your plans accordingly.
Pay attention to underfoot conditions and, as far as visibility will allow, consider wind speed and direction, the amount of wind blown snow and the temperature.
Before you set off, ask if you and your group are equipped as expected and how do the conditions compare with what you expected. Once you are underway, consider whether you and your group are coping with the conditions.
In terms of the mountain landscape, review whether the shape and angle of the ground is as you expected – and look to see where the fresh snow is lying and whether it will affect your planned route. Pay attention to what the temperature is doing too, and think how that might affect the stability of cornices for instance.
Through good planning nothing should come as a surprise once on your journey. But if, through your observations, any of the above are not meeting your expectations then stop and consider the most appropriate alternative plan.
Examples of a 'key place' to stop and take stock are the approach slope to a climb/route, or a descent of a slope/gully etc. A key place during your day should be as you expected through your good planning and observations while journeying to your desired location. If it isn't then don't ignore the signs, and live to fight another day! To learn more about the Be Avalanche Aware Guidelines, with a downloadable pdf advice sheet, visit http://www.beaware.sais.gov.uk/
Jon Jones is Head of Mountaineering at Glenmore Lodge. An active winter climber for 25 years, Jon lives in Aviemore with his family of winter enthusiasts!
Glenmore Lodge is Scotland's National Outdoor Training Centre and is based in the Cairngorms, just 8 miles from Aviemore, with access to iconic mountains, white water rivers, meandering water and natural trails. The Lodge run a wide range of skills courses and qualifications in 12 different mountain and paddle sports including scrambling, walking, navigation, climbing, skiing, mountain biking and sea kayaking.
Glenmore Lodge's specialist instructors are experts in their fields and tailor their training to individual needs with passion and knowledge. Their courses offer participants a hassle-free, all-inclusive experience including the highest quality kit, comfortable accommodation in en-suite rooms, a relaxing bar and nourishing food during their stay.
Each season Glenmore Lodge run a number of courses on avalanche awareness - for info see here
The Glenmore Lodge team also offer a wide selection of essential skills tips, advice and demo films in their popular Youtube channel
Find out more at www.glenmorelodge.org.uk