Following this week's fatalities in an avalanche on Ben Nevis, Scottish mountain safety bodies have put out a reminder to hill goers that enthusiasm should always be matched by caution.
This season's stop-start winter has been frustrating for walkers, climbers and backcountry skiers, but the urge to get out whenever winter conditions arrive shouldn't override sensible planning and decision making, say safety experts, in a joint statement issued today by Mountaineering Scotland, Scottish Mountain Rescue and Snowsport Scotland. In particular, hill goers should pay close attention to mountain weather forecasts and avalanche reports.
February's unseasonably warm conditions reduced snow cover to summertime levels, but winter has now come back with a vengeance. The recent sudden and heavy snowfall, combined with lower temperatures and high winds, has produced rapidly changing snow conditions, as well as sudden and extreme swings in the weather.
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) has recorded five avalanches in the West Highlands alone in the last 48 hours, highlighting the current unstable nature of the snowpack.
Heather Morning, Mountain Safety Adviser with Mountaineering Scotland, said: "Mountain conditions in February were unusually mild, resulting in the majority of the mountains being snow free. However, over the past few days winter has very much returned.
"When you're heading up into the hills, whether it's for walking, climbing or skiing, it's absolutely essential not only that you check the avalanche forecast but also that you understand what it's saying. Different slopes on the same hill may have completely different snow conditions.
"A careful study of the mountain weather forecast is also an essential part of your planning, and your planned route should be finalised with that forecast in mind. Something else to be mindful of is being flexible. Don't become fixated on achieving your original goal. As conditions on the hill change, then so should your decision making. Often I end up on Plan B, C or D as my journey on the hill progresses."
Kev Mitchell, Vice Chair of Scottish Mountain Rescue said: "We encourage people to make use of all available information, including weather and avalanche forecasts. It is important to plan your day taking into account the conditions, ensure you are prepared to make safe decisions based on the weather and environment you are in and the group you are with."
Trafford Wilson, CEO of Snowsport Scotland, added: "Back country skiing and boarding, whether in the mountains or through the glens, offers some amazing opportunities for unforgettable days out, and it's encouraging to see so many people taking up the challenge.
"But skiing or boarding away from pisted and managed slopes adds a considerable degree of seriousness and people must be sure they are properly equipped and experienced."
Challenging weather and winter conditions are expected to persist on the hills through this coming weekend.
- Scottish avalanche forecasts and explanations of how to interpret them can be found at sais.gov.uk
- Ground conditions reports from Helvellyn are available at lakedistrictweatherline.co.uk
- Mountain specific weather forecasts can be found at mwis.org.uk and at metoffice.gov.uk