Wind in the Mountains

Most people are a poor judge of wind speed, and its effects on a walker. Know your limits, says Helen Howe. Here are her tips for safer walking in the wind...

With storm after storm making its presence felt across the UK this winter, many mountain goers have got into trouble and had to call for rescue. The storm that periodically erupts on social media would make Storm Ciara fade into insignificance, as armchair warriors call for compulsory insurance, charging for rescues, naming and shaming and the like. As a rescuer who was out in Storm Ciara, among many others, I can safely say that those caught out recently just had no idea what a 70mph wind feels like. Do you?

Winds are a feature of the British hills year round. But though we can of course get strong winds in the summer months, the UK experiences more low pressure systems over the winter. British winter and gales go hand in hand.

Up in the hills, winds can be particularly hazardous. Some of the hazards include:

  • Being blown over and hurting yourself
  • Being blown over drops and off ridges
  • Difficulty navigating: being blown off course, hand shaking with the compass, making it hard to follow a bearing
  • Poor visibility, especially if there's spindrift
  • Exposure hypothermia, fostnip and frostbite
  • Losing kit including rucksacks
  • Not being able to move (pinned down by savage gusts)

When there's loose snow on the ground, wind means spindrift  © Helen Howe
When there's loose snow on the ground, wind means spindrift
© Helen Howe

So why do people get caught out?

On Sunday morning at the height of the recent Storm Ciara when both the BBC and Met Office were forecasting wind speeds of 78mph, I went out for an hour to walk my dogs in an exposed location near my village.

At no point during that time did the winds reach speeds of 78mph in my location. While I was out the wind speeds averaged 30-40mph. How do I know? Well through long experience, I know what a given wind speed actually feels like. At 30-40mph I get blown sideways and can take evasive action. At 45-50mph I get blown off my feet.

Higher up the mountains the wind would have been reaching the forecast speeds, and a lot more frequently, but down in the valleys where these speeds had been forecast, they didn't. It seems likely that people without wind knowledge would assume they had been experiencing 78mph winds, as forecast, and wondered what the big deal was, since they weren't being blown over. As a result some could then venture into the hills, not realising that they have yet to feel winds anything like that strong.

Here's a recent group experiencing strong winds on Drum. For the record, they estimate the wind speed at 'only' 40mph...

Ciara and Desmond were not the first storms to come with a heavy side order of media sensationalism; almost any significant storm gets a name to ramp up its importance, and becomes the subject of frenzied media attention. Many of these storms turn out to be damp squibs, but if the media has been trumpeting alarming wind speeds in the build-up then they are unlikely to correct the mistake after the event. If people believed the hype then they could be apt in future to underestimate the effects of a given wind speed.

Spot the dog: The effect of one five-second gust of wind!  © Helen Howe
Spot the dog: The effect of one five-second gust of wind!
© Helen Howe

So you want to go out in the wind and have some fun? Here are some tips to help you stay within your limits and manage your time out there better.

1) Know the effect of wind speeds on humans:

Effect of wind speed on a walker

MPH Effect of wind speed on a walker
4-7 Wind felt on exposed skin
8-12 Hair ruffled, loose clothing flaps
13-18 Hair disarranged
19-24 Walking inconvenienced
25-31 Steady walking difficult, knocked sideways by gusts
32-38 Walking with great difficulty and your foot not always landing where you intended. You may have to stamp your feet to walk.
39-49 People blown off feet, walking becoming dangerous
50+ You may be blown over, or blown several metres by gusts. Walking extremely difficult: progress may be crawling at times. Even lying down you may be blasted around by the wind. In these wind speeds it is worth linking arms as a group to keep smaller people anchored down.

Never mind the higher numbers - you can see that normal walking is already being affected at only around 20mph!

Windy summit  © john1963
Windy summit
© john1963, Dec 2009

Know what your limitations are. Smaller people will obviously be affected at lower speeds than heavier people. When I was checking wind speeds using an anemometer in the Cairngorms on a Winter Skills course, the highest gust we recorded was 55 mph. Any faster and even the heavier guys were being blown over.

It's worth noting that walking in gusting wind is harder than walking in a constant wind. For example, a constant 40mph wind is hard work but you can brace against it.On the other hand a 30mph wind with 40mph gusts is more likely to blow you off balance as the gusts may catch you out unexpectedly.

Staying warm also becomes a challenge. Increased wind speeds create windchill i.e. the temperature feels colder to our body than the actual air temperature. Hence you need more clothing to stay warm (see chart below).

2) Techniques for walking in the wind

  • Keep a wide stance as you walk, with legs further apart. This is to counteract being blown sideways. With wind coming from the side I also find it helps to walk with my body slightly diagonally away from the wind (closest shoulder into the wind and leeward shoulder away from the wind). This is because your rucksack sticks out from your back if the wind is coming from the side and acts more like a sail.
  • Listen to the wind gusts. You can hear stronger gusts coming: They sound like express trains. Crouch down, lean over or brace before it hits you.
  • Take smaller steps. Large strides mean that your feet are in the air for longer and so you are more likely to be knocked off balance.
  • Walking poles can be helpful although I do find in strong winds they are caught by the wind and it is an effort to keep them in the right position as the tips are blown sideways.
  • It can be very hard walking into the wind and you may make little progress, but a wind coming from behind will give you an unhelpful hand to propel you forwards out of control. It can be easier to try to turn sideways and walk like a crab.

Bit breezy on Pike O Blisco  © john jennings
Bit breezy on Pike O Blisco
© john jennings, Feb 2016

3) Know the effect of terrain and altitude on the wind

Winds at UK summit altitudes are often two or three times stronger than at sea level. Sometimes on high upland plateaus such as the Cairngorms, this effect can be even more marked.

High exposed ridges catch the wind; avoid in high wind speeds.

Cols, bwlchs and bealachs such as the aptly named Windy Gap between Great and Green Gable in the Lake District funnel winds and so can be subject to higher wind strengths than the slopes on either side.

Valleys running the same direction as the wind can also funnel and strengthen winds so these can sometimes have higher wind speeds than higher up.

Walkers on Fiachaill a' Choire Chais  © Nicholas Livesey
Walkers on Fiachaill a' Choire Chais
© Nicholas Livesey, Jan 2011

4) Route choice is everything

Even on a very windy day some routes may still be possible. But you do need to take the wind direction into account. One route up a mountain may be totally exposed while another is sheltered almost all the way to the summit. For example, with a south westerly wind (i.e. coming from the south west) the Pyg Track and Miners paths on Snowdon can be quite sheltered until they meet with the Llanberis path on the ridge. Having said that, there may still be some strong gusts due to eddying.

It hardly needs to be said; avoid exposed ridges such as Bwlch Main and Crib Goch.

Also avoid rocky mountain tops such as the Glyderau as it is easy to be buffeted and blown around and end up twisting or breaking an ankle in between rocks. If I have to go out on a rescue to a rocky location in strong winds I will wear a helmet to at least protect my head; most blown-over rescue casualties I go to in windy conditions have a head injury. Wide grassy ridges may be more exposed but at least it is a soft landing!

Remember though, that in winter conditions the sheltered lee slopes may also be where all the snow has been blown to, creating the risk of windslab avalanche.

How wind chill is calculated

5) Be organised

Make sure that anything you may need in a hurry is easily accessible. For example, carry your gloves in your pockets or top lid of the rucksack rather than deep in your pack.

Keep snacks in your pockets rather than buried. Sometimes once on a ridge there may be no shelter for several hours (especially in winter when the sheltered ledges and slopes may be corniced or have windslab build up) and it may be too windy to stop on the ridge, so you want your food handy.

Cold winds  © john1963
Cold winds
© john1963, Jan 2015

6) Equipment

In strong winds it is easy to lose equipment. Gloves blow away, and maps are easily lost. It is worth getting gloves with wrist loops (or sew elastic wrist loops on for yourself like I did with some of my old Dachstein mitts). Have spares of everything: at least two if not three pairs of gloves, two hats, two compasses, two paper maps and a technical back up (GPS devices and phones blow away less readily than paper). Although map cases keep the map attached to your body, they can act as excellent garrottes and in strong winds anything flapping around can be a definite inconvenience and at worst, a danger, catching your eyes! Small maps (extracts from maps) which fit in your pocket are safer and more handy.

Keep your compass attached to your person.

Make sure anything which can flap is tied down and secured eg. long rucksack straps'.

Consider wearing a helmet if you're out on rocky ground. Many wind-related casualties receive head injuries.

Wear wind proofs and/or waterproofs and take plenty of insulating layers. Windchill does as it says on the tin: It chills! Looking at the graph below you can see that a 20mph wind at 0 degrees takes the effective temperature well below freezing.

Exposed flesh can freeze in minutes in the wind chill. Take plenty of gloves to keep your hands covered and warm.

Kneel down and use your knee to stabilise compass bearings  © Helen Howe
Kneel down and use your knee to stabilise compass bearings
© Helen Howe

Keep the compass attached to your person  © Helen Howe
Keep the compass attached to your person
© Helen Howe

7) Navigation in the wind

Navigating in the wind can be more difficult, for a number of reasons:

  • In winter conditions the wind picks up snow in spindrift, reducing visibility and sometimes leading to whiteout conditions which can be very disorientating.
  • The wind can blow you off compass bearings, so to counteract that, make sure that if you are blown sideways you make a definite attempt to step back a pace, or however many you estimate you were blown off by.
  • When taking a bearing you may be being buffeted, causing the compass needle to sway. Kneel down and use your knee to rest your map and compass on. Smaller maps are definitely easier to handle and act less as a sail to catch the wind.
  • The wind will also affect your timings. For example, recently in strong winds I took double the time for part of the South Shiel Ridge compared to my summer times. I was having to stop and brace against gusts. At points I was dropping to the floor before gusts hit me. I was fighting the wind all of the way. This needs to be accounted for in your planning.

Finally, be aware that very intense low pressure systems can move faster than forecast and arrive early. Factor this into your plans for the day with escape routes and timings.

You needn't always let a windy forecast stop you heading out and enjoying the hills. But above all know your limitations in the wind, how to plan for it, and when to turn back.

About Helen Howe

Helen Howe head shot  © Helen Howe

Helen runs Snowdonia First Aid and Snowdonia Mountain Skills with her husband Steve.

Each have over twenty years of Scottish winters and are qualified Winter and International Mountain Leaders. They run Outdoor First Aid courses and Mountain Leader Training and Assessments as well as mountain and hill skills courses.

Both Helen and Steve are active members of Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team and have served on the Medical and Training Sub committees running some of the team's winter training.

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