With Scotland now in Phase 1 of the journey out of lockdown, the presumption against climbing and hillwalking that most people have adhered to for the last two months is finally relaxing. Provided it is kept as local as possible, and within the official guidelines on social distancing, there is now greater leeway for outdoor activities. While for the majority of people in towns and cities the slightly nebulous five-mile guide will still rule out serious hillwalking, overnight camping and long distance climbing trips, climbing on local crags with a partner from another household is now within the law.
Of course this is nothing like a full return to pre-Covid normality. Measures to reduce the virus risk, limited travel and a consideration for rescue services will all affect what people feel able to do. In the general keenness to get out it is also worth being aware that key skills might have grown rusty for lack of use.
"We are all eager to return to the glens, lochs, trails, and hills as soon as we can" say Scottish Mountain Rescue.
"It will be a delight to get out adventuring again, now the Covid-19 situation and its necessary restrictions have eased. But we also do not want to go head over heels (or handlebars) into the outdoors, as this may lead to injuries or accidents, which would be a shame having spent so long waiting for our outdoor freedom."
To help climbers and walkers in Scotland navigate the new normal, advice on safety and general conduct has been issued today by Mountaineering Scotland. The idea is to provide a set of detailed guidelines, so that those who are within reach of hills and crags are aware of additional considerations under the current health measures.
Separately, Scottish Mountain Rescue and Glenmore Lodge have published a joint article today on The Importance of Planning for Your Adventures, which provides a framework for decision making, based on the Be Avalanche Aware model, that is potentially applicable to all outdoor sports. We'll look at that below.
First, Mountaineering Scotland:
Stuart Younie, Chief Executive Officer of Mountaineering Scotland, said:
"While welcoming this step forward, it must be stressed that an easing of lockdown does not mean a return to normal, and we urge everyone heading out to enjoy the outdoors to be mindful of how their individual actions reflect on the whole outdoor community."
With no official Government line on what to do and what not to do on crags and hills, Mountaineering Scotland are emphasising individual responsibility and considered decision making.
"The key will be for individuals to take a sensible approach to their activities" said Stuart Younie, "use your judgement to manage the risks, and to consider the social responsibility we all have to each other, to protecting our emergency services and to minimise the transmission of COVID -19."
For this stage, walkers and climbers are being reminded to stay local and follow the current public health guidance for Scotland. Remember, say Mountaineering Scotland, that many car parks, toilets and other facilities will remain closed, which may affect any plans.
In addition people should "plan ahead and stay well within their limits - whatever their activity - to avoid the need for rescue and involvement of the emergency services." Hand hygiene and social distancing are being emphasised, too.
During Phase 1 Mountaineering Scotland's suggested activities are hillwalking to Munro level, low-level bouldering and top roping - all within the travel restrictions of course. Single pitch climbing, both trad and sport, might be best waiting for Phase 2, they suggest. The reasoning is to avoid the potential of leader falls, and the increased risks around handling of equipment (i.e no leader placed gear to take out).
This attempt to create a hierarchy of risk is unlikely to find favour with all climbers, and arguably runs counter to the general principle of individual judgement calls. However, it is just a suggestion.
"Think of this phase as an extension of your daily exercise rather than a time for adventure" they say.
For the full Mountaineering Scotland document see Guidance for a return to hill walking and climbing during COVID-19
Here's the advice from Scottish Mountain Rescue and Glenmore Lodge:
The Importance of Planning for your Adventures
The return to the outdoors will likely need to be gradual, keeping in mind government guidance on social distancing and considering the safety of others. Scottish Mountain Rescue Teams remain active, however with adapted procedures that may mean a longer rescue time and additional work for the teams, such as the need to decontaminate all equipment post-rescue.
In order to mitigate the risk when we do return to the hills, we should plan our journeys thoroughly to ensure our adventures are, to the best of our abilities, safe and enjoyable, and with an awareness of easing your way into it, not overdoing it!
What to consider when planning an adventure
Many winter mountaineers and skiers will be familiar with the Scottish Avalanche Awareness Service's Be Avalanche Aware planning framework. This basis of this framework is encouraging comprehensive planning for a winter hill day, taking in to account the following:
- The Avalanche Hazard, weather, and mountain conditions
- The individuals involved, their skills, experiences, and aims
- The landscape intended to visit
Whilst the Be Avalanche Aware framework was created with winter hill days in mind, it can be adapted for any adventure planning. The Avalanche Hazard may not apply currently, but the weather and mountain conditions still do, or, for example, the river levels or the inshore forecast for paddlers.
Have a look at several sources for weather information and compare them for a comprehensive picture of what to prepare for. Some options include the Met office, Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS), yr.no, windy.com. Look at the weather on not only your target day, but the general trend. The weather ahead of your day may affect the condition you have, and be aware of the weather following your day in case it arrives early, such as increases in wind speed, changes in its direction, an oncoming storm etc.
Consider all the group's skills, experience, and aims and communicate them. Different aims within the group can complicate decision making. Check the group has the correct equipment and the skills to use it.
Look at the terrain you intend to travel through and consider the terrain alongside the forecast you have. More complex terrain requires good navigation skills, especially in poor visibility. Or the wind speed/direction might mean it is better to do a circuit in reverse. It can also be helpful to use local knowledge, ask folk who have been there recently, check online forums and social media. Remember to check the date of someone's report/ photos and be aware of the author's bias; 'good enough' conditions for them might be unpleasant for you!
An important aspect of the BAA framework is the use of these factors in the decision-making process not only in the planning stage, but also on the journey, and at key places during the day. The framework emphasises looking ahead and considering all the options, and not falling into the trap of commitment.
It can be easy to relax on the journey, especially if you are chatting with friends! But keeping vigilant is important, as we all know how quickly conditions can change in the Scottish mountains. Ask yourself on the way; are the conditions as you expected? Is the group acting as expected?
Decide on key places for your journey before you leave. A key place might be in the run up to a route decision – doing one summit or two, scrambling or climbing, etc. Having set key places gives you the space to make the decision before committing. Key places may also be somewhere, for example, you know to have a snack before a challenging section. Or it could be a time; at 17:00 you put your headtorch in an accessible place.
A framework such as the BAA model provides a structure that can be applied to different sports, just by changing the relevant environmental factors, not the process. The structure helps prevent overlooking essential details; it encourages looking ahead and considering all our options so that we do not overcommit but plan conservatively with the option to extend. It promotes clear and open communication within the group, empowering all the individuals involved.
It is good practice to reflect on our adventures and use our experience to prepare for other journeys. When we reflect, we often focus on the parts that stood out, perhaps discomfort from cold weather, or if equipment worked well or not, etc. It is easy to overlook other aspects of the adventure in favour of these more immediate aspects. The framework can provide a structure for your reflection, so that we thoroughly consider the adventure, consolidate the experience, and learn from it.
As we look to those first hill days, keep in mind the importance of good planning and be aware of safety. Err on the side of caution for now; it is not the time for unnecessary risk. It will still be an adventure and an absolute joy for all of us when we can get out again into the fantastic Scottish outdoors.