Only ever hill walked in summer before? Welcome to big school. Here’s your heads-up to some of the most common winter walking mistakes and how to steer clear of them.
When the snow falls, it's fun out there in winter. Even diminutive British mountains take on a majestic Alpine appearance and while the challenges of being out there multiply, so do the rewards. But snow and ice increase the likelihood of error considerably and mistakes which would be minor in summer can have serious consequences. Here are some of the most common errors to watch out for in winter conditions.
The short days of winter mean less room for maneuver when it comes to timing. Whether through poor planning, navigational error or an unforeseen mishap, many get caught out and find themselves stuck on the hill when darkness falls.
How to avoid: Get an early start, plan your day properly and always remember to bring headtorches, even if you’re planning a short day out – because you never know. The solutions may be simple, but you’d be amazed how often people neglect or forget them.
In summer, a navigational error usually means, at worst, a longer, colder, more tiring walk than you planned. In winter it can be lethal, due to the risk of succumbing to exposure. The extra harshness of winter weather makes tiredness-induced errors more likely, while finding your way in the featureless vacuum of a whiteout is one of the most daunting – and accident-prone – navigational tasks there is.
How to avoid it: Many outdoor centres and providers run courses specifically in winter navigation. Check out the BMC's subsidised winter skills courses at Plas y Brenin to get the know-how you need at a cheaper price.
Heartbreaking though it may to those of us who aren’t annoying ‘morning people’, lie-ins in winter are generally a bad idea. Late starts mean a reduced margin of error and a greater chance of having to walk in the dark, which can contribute to accidents.
How to avoid: Rise and shine! Set the alarm and give yourself as much time as possible.
Accidents in winter often stem from poor preparation; things like people biting off more than they can chew or not having decent escape routes frequently lead, domino-like, to many of the other errors listed here. The odds of error are bigger, the consequences more severe.
How to avoid: Remember the British military adage concerning the 7 Ps: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Be mindful that things often take a lot longer in winter. Have a plan B, C, D and E depending on progress and conditions.
Winter presents more challenging and varied underfoot conditions – deep snow, hard névé, slippery verglas – often combined in unpredictable ways, making slips more likely. Forgetting you’re wearing crampons and tripping over your own spikes is another classic error, often towards the end of the day when people are relaxed, chatting and distracted.
How to avoid: It’s easy to let your concentration wander when you’re tired – don’t. Remember the gunslinging, wide-legged ‘John Wayne’ stance when wearing crampons.
Putting crampons on too late
Stopping to attach crampons can seem a faff, especially in sub-zero winds or howling blizzards. But don’t be tempted to put it off as long as possible – accidents often result from people leaving it too late.
How to avoid: Remember the words of Adam Potter, who fell 1,000 feet down the side of Sgurr Choinnich Mor, surviving but against all the odds. Immediately before falling, he said to his companions: “It's getting a bit icier now, let's get our crampons on and our ice axes out.”
Avalanche risk is a complex thing. Avalanche forecasters can anticipate where the biggest areas of danger will be, but on the hill these areas can be dynamic and changeable. It’s also possible to fall into ‘heuristic’ traps (such as blindly following a group or leader), or be deceived by benign-looking gradual slopes. All these can and do contribute to accidents.
How to avoid: Knowledge, preparation and constant assessment on the hill are absolutely vital when it comes to assessing avalanche risk. Avalanche forecasts for certain parts of Scotland are provided by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, but avalanches can happen anywhere (the most deadly recorded avalanche in Britain, killing eight people, happened in the South Downs.) Winter skills courses are invaluable to get up to speed on your avalanche knowledge.
The fickleness of the British weather means the transitions into and out of winter are rarely clear cut, and many get caught out in the shoulder months of autumn and spring by things they weren’t prepared for or didn’t expect.
How to avoid: Watch out for things like unexpected frozen terrain in the autumn, or snow patches in the spring. Even within seasons anomalies are common – dustings of snow in June, January thaws. In Britain we have to expect the unexpected.
The harshness of winter weather will expose any flaw in your equipment, however small. Forgetting or omitting items can also be very costly – not having goggles in harsh spindrift can effectively render you blind, while losing a pair of gloves can be disastrous.
How to avoid: Do you research to make sure your kit is up to scratch. Pack spares of lose-able items like gloves and hats. Have a comprehensive range of emergency equipment.
Reading this list might seem a bit onerous and scary. But the added dangers of winter go with added rewards: hill walking in the colder months can often be more spectacular, rewarding and memorable than its ‘summer’ counterpart. Stay safe, know your limits, and be prepared – but remember, above all, to enjoy it.
READ MORE: Essential winter know-how
Essential winter know-how: Heading for the hills this winter? Whether you're a seasoned winter warrior or just taking your first icy steps, we've got a mountain of essential skills and equipment advice for you right here on the BMC website.
GO ON A COURSE: Learn from professionals
BMC Winter Skills in Wales: Want to learn all the skills you need to be a confident hill walker in winter at a bargain price? These affordable weekends for winter beginners at the famous Plas y Brenin mountain centre in Snowdonia aim to give you the skills you need for less. Scotland's Glenmore Lodge also runs a wide variety of winter skills courses in the Cairngorms.
Hill and Mountain Skills: Looking for something more basic? The BMC's partner organisation Mountain Training has just launched its new Hill and Mountain Skills Courses. They aim to equip you with the fundamental knowledge and safety skills required to participate in hill and mountain walking in your own time and are run by providers all over the UK. More info here.
WATCH ON BMC TV: If They Only Knew: A film about the joys of the winter mountains
Cairngorms in Winter: Moine Mhor
BMC Winter Essentials DVD trailer
How to do an ice axe self arrest
The BMC's Winter Essentials DVD shows the essential skills and techniques for winter mountaineering. Order it in the BMC shop here.
Mountain Weather Information Service - www.mwis.org.uk.
Met Office Mountain Weather - www.metoffice.gov.uk/loutdoor/mountainsafety.
Scottish Avalanche Information Service - www.sais.gov.uk.
Lake District Weatherline - www.lakedistrictweatherline.co.uk.
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