Knowledge of how to stay safe in the hills is crucial all year round. Here, with the help of some mountaineering safety professionals, we look at how to prepare, and how to manage risks
Questions we all should ask ourselves
Kevin Rutherford from the national outdoor training centre Glenmore Lodge recommends you ask yourself a few questions before heading out
It’s the summer and you’re escaping into the hills for a day, planning to tick off a couple of remote Munros in north-west Scotland. The weather is playing ball and, after a brief stop for some lunch on the first summit, you start to descend to a col on rough loose rocky ground… when your friend slips on loose rock and falls heavily. On most occasions such as these, we dust ourselves down and get on with it, although there are of course situations where a small slip or trip can result in something more serious. But run through the same situation in winter, when the slope you are descending is ice snow and névé… the outcome could be very different.
It can be difficult to pinpoint the reasons why specific accidents happen – it could be something as simple as the small slip defined above, but sometimes numerous reasons come together in a domino effect. And one of the underlying reasons for that is the human factor – it’s us! In order to manage the risks inherent in a day out in the hills, you need to make sure you ask yourself (and answer) the right questions about your route, your fitness and your skills before you have even set foot on the hills.
Questions to ask about your fitness
- When was the last time I was on the hill and how ambitious was that route?
- Have I been keeping myself active?
- Is the plan for the day it achievable with my current level of fitness?
- How far am I walking and how much altitude will I gain?
Questions to ask yourself about the route
- What speed will I be walking at?
- What time will it get dark?
- Will I be walking with the weather or fighting against it?
- Have I identified possible areas to escape or shorten the route?
- Can I compare this day with my previous days out or will this be my most challenging day yet?
- Have I left details of the route plan with the relevant people?
- What happens if I don’t turn up at the end of the day or I’m very late?
About your skills and knowledge
- Do I have all the relevant skills to pull out on the hill, depending on the type of ground I am on, weather and conditions underfoot?
- Do I have some basic map and compass skills to get the correct Direction (setting the map), Distance (interpreting the scale, measuring distance), Detail (from A to B what will happen to the ground or what will I see?) and what is my Destination (what will it look like on the ground)?
- Can I pace 100m and walk on a straight line bearing in poor visibility and in winter conditions?
- Will I know when to decide I’m out of my comfort zone and need to change my plans or reverse my route?
Kevin Rutherford offers advice on how to deal with challengingly vertiginous terrain terrain underfoot
Any steep ground on your route can easily be identified at the planning stage by looking at the map. Outcrops and crags are obvious features on the map that as walkers you will generally try to avoid, possibly along with scree slopes and boulder fields. But if you end up on unexpectedly steep terrain, don’t try to take shortcuts through it; get your map out and try to work out where you’ve been, the direction you have been walking in and where you could now be. The safest option is to reverse off the steep ground until your last known point and hopefully then you’ll be back on route.
Be aware of places on the map where contour lines are squashed together, an obvious sign that the ground is steeper, or where the contours between the index contours vanish. Remember that there are usually four contour lines between the darker index lines; if there’s not, then you’re on or looking at going onto ground that is at an angle of 25 degrees of more. Hidden within this ground may also be small outcrops of up to 5m that aren’t quite big enough or multiple enough to be marked as outcrops on your map. Using the magnifying glass part of your compass can help identifying these areas
Steep wet grassy or heathery slopes
“Standing tall” and edging your boot becomes a must (standing tall also works well on rocky slabs). Leaning into the slope changes the position of your core; ideally you want the heavy core directly above your feet, pushing down into your boots.
Short, rocky steps
Sound rock climbing movement is required. Keep three points of contact on the rock and really concentrate on your footwork rather than looking for handholds (handholds are for balance). If a step is around head height, be prepared to use team work and ‘spot’ each other, using a braced stance with knees bent and hands up ready to support the weight of the other person.
It’s always easier to go up than down but don’t go up if you think you can’t reverse it, especially if you are not 100% certain of your route choice. If you are descending, a defensive position will always feel safest, fighting gravity rather than going with it. Reversing the previous techniques will help: turn in and face the rock or step; stick your bum out and then you can see where you need to put your feet, using your hands again for balance.
If short, exposed rock climbing moves aren’t your cup of tea, there may be an alternative route: look out for small paths underneath or around the step that you might be able to follow safely. And remember that snow or ice on this steeper terrain will turn your day from summer walking straight into winter climbing: a huge jump in skills and experience. If in doubt, sign up for a course.
Building up experience
Going on a course can provide valuable training, particularly if you want to increase your skills quickly, says Kevin. But nothing beats time on the hill
Your mountain experience is ideally gained in short small steps – on your own, with friends or as part of a club. Jumping straight into the winter environment, missing out on summer hillwalking, could have dire consequences but could be bridged by attending training courses. Although you can quickly gain lots of skills on a course, you still need the experience and judgement of when to use them rather than being told when to do so. Having the base line summer experience will help with your decision-making and “hill sense”.
Glenmore Lodge mountaineering department offers courses in scrambling, climbing, mountaineering, walking and navigation. For further information visit www.glenmorelodge.org.uk or call 01479 861256.
Heather Morning, Mountain Safety Advisor with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, takes a look at five mountain locations in the Scottish Highlands that are the scenes of frequent accidents, and offers advice on how you can avoid falling victim to them.
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Kit to keep you safe
Obviously we all hope we won’t find ourselves out of our depth or in treacherous conditions, but it could happen to anyone. Always carry safety equipment in your pack, even though you hope you’ll never use it
Either a single-person bivi bag or a group shelter.
Pictured: Lomo Emergency Shelter
The international distress signal is a series of six blasts, repeated after a minute’s interval.
Pictured: Lifesystems Emergency Whistle (£5.25)
Crucial for navigation in the dark; can also be used as an emergency signal (six short flashes followed by a minute’s break before repeating). Lifesystems also now produce a new product called the emergency strobe (£36.99), which is visible up to a mile’s radius.
Pictured: Alpkit Viper (£12.50)
First aid kit
Ideally in a tough pouch with equipment for tackling wounds, sprains, blisters and pain relief.
Pictured: Lifesystems Trek First Aid Kit (£13.50)
Spare hat and gloves
Carry several pairs of gloves in winter
Pictured: Extremities Storm Glove GTX (£40) and Lowe Alpine Classic Mountain Cap (£30)
- Map, waterproof case and compass
- Quality footwear and waterproofs
- Ice axe and crampons in winter
- Fully charged mobile phone
- GPS or mapping on a smartphone to help with relocation
- Sufficient food plus emergency food
- A warm drink in cold weather