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Staying Safe in the Mountains | Advice

In 2014, mountain guide Will Copestake completed a full winter round of the Munros in expectedly brutal conditions and achieved a similar feat more recently by topping all of the Corbetts. Here he shares some of the lessons in mountain safety he's learned from his big adventures

Sometimes even the best laid plans can go awry. I have occasionally daydreamed of those ‘what ifs,’ often portraying myself as the hero of an imaginary ‘nightmare’ situation where I’ve managed to survive, crawl and escape as the victor. On rare occasions, the situation has been a reality; be it getting lost on a hill, hypothermic, slipping down a slope or breaking vital gear… my list could go on. Each time something like this has happened, I can say that I certainly didn’t feel like a hero, however, thanks to proper prior planning for unexpected events, I have always made it home safe.

Over the course of several adventures and through friends and colleagues, I have learnt a few ways in which I personally judge risk and calculate the decisions that have kept me safe so far. So I thought I would share them.

Know Your Enemy

Before venturing out, thoroughly research what you are going into. Is the area remote? Is there a path, and how navigable is it going to be? Will it be snow-covered or faintly marked, rugged or smooth?

Always take an appropriate map, compass and knowledge of how to use them. While GPS and electronic backups are useful and a good idea, a paper map is always essential – batteries fail, especially when cold.

With a greater understanding of the terrain, now predict the weather. Use more than one website to forecast it, and ask yourself am I prepared to face what it predicts. Look beyond the time you are going out for you never know if you are going to be longer than you anticipate.

I tend to use WindyTY (US model), MetOffice (UK) and NoAA (Norway) in conjunction with upland forecasts. In the UK during winter we also have an excellent avalanche forecast service at that must be paid particular attention to.

Know Your Limit

During my winter round of the Munros and subsequently a winter spent rounding the Corbetts, I set a personal ‘safe limit’ of 60mph on the tops, beyond that I would not venture up. Only as my experience increased over time did I slowly rise this limit to what I felt comfortable with. This is different for all of us and needs to be learned carefully from the bottom up, not top down.

Paying attention to the avalanche forecast which usually predicted northern slopes to be of high risk I adjusted all of my intended routes to avoid these areas entirely and paid regular attention to the snow conditions to gauge the risk on the ground while on the move.

Equip Yourself

Now you know what to expect, prepare with the proper gear. There is some truth in the popular cliche that ‘there is not such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment’, although I would argue that extreme weather can outdo even the most shiniest of gear on occasion. Read the label and pay attention to the gear’s maximum operational limits.

Equipment should be appropriate for the discipline and the worst conditions expected. Just as important is the knowledge of how to use them properly, backed up with regular practice. A skill learned and never used becomes a fault surprisingly quickly.

Before setting out, inspect your gear, even if you put it away clean and tidy last time.

Know Your Escape

Know when to turn around. If you arrive and conditions do not match what you expected then do not hesitate to turn back home. There are countless days that I have turned back to leave it for another time because conditions did not suit. To carry on ignoring the risk is often sorely tempting at the time, but will often prove foolhardy in the end.

Before setting out, put in place an action plan for how to get home safe, then tell someone about it. Look at the map around your intended route and research possible hazard areas then potential escapes or alternatives. Leave a route card in your car window or with a trusted friend and with a time to call should you not return.

Whenever planning a journey always make several alternative options. I prefer not to refer to these as Plan B or C…etc, but as second or third Plan A’s – this ensures that in the moment of need you do not feel these other options are somehow lesser to the original intended idea.

Think Outside of the Box

People rarely come into serious trouble through a single mistake, and I usually refer to the theory of the Swiss cheese model of risk management to explain this. It’s an example of escalating factors leading to a much bigger problem with each mistake being represented as a hole in a slice of cheese. If a number of holes in the slices line up to form a channel then failure can be expected.

Most accidents can be traced to one or more of four key failure categories, these are: Organisational, Surpervisional, Pre-condtions and Specific Acts.

Specific examples for these may be poor equipment for navigating the terrain (Organisational) backed up with peer pressure to continue (Supervisional) leading to fatigue or hypothermia (Pre-condition) which causes the false bearing on a compass (Specific acts) that ultimately leads to a casualty situation. One by one they are a problem, together they can be a disaster. Be aware of this and act accordingly if you see holes lining up in your plan.

I am a huge fan of Ed Stafford’s recently voiced acronym which is based on a military rule. STOP: Stop, Think, Organise, Plan. In doing this we allow time to be rational after a mistake and therefore can reduce our likelihood of blindly ploughing into more mistakes.

One good example of this STOP plan in action was during a crossing from Monadh Mor to Mullach Clach a’ Bhlair in a whiteout on the Cairngorm Plateau. I was feeling reasonably confident with my compass bearings and paced timings…. right up until I was free-falling into a deep hollow some 8m-or-so deep. Picking myself up and retrieving my snow-shoes from the drift above I clung to a steep slope, as horror rose and confidence disappeared. I should be in the plateau, I remembered thinking, there should be no cliffs nor cornices to fall through anywhere near where I was?

Confused and scared I paused, sat on my pack and looked at my map. My last confirmed point was a small hill a few hundred metres behind me, by time alone I could be nowhere near a cliff.

Re-assured the plan then became a mission to relocate that hill and re-take the bearing. Retracing my bearing I found the hill, and deduced that I had not fallen down a slope but into a gigantic half-piped snowdrift formed in the deep snow by the wind.

Take Lessons

We all make mistakes. Learn from them. Whenever a near miss occurs and you end up back in the pub, talk about it with your friends – not just as a ‘that was lucky’ story, but as a debrief to yourself. Consider what you did wrong, and what could be done better should there be a next time. We all grow through our mistakes, not our successes in life, and even the biggest most accomplished adventurers have all been there before, mistakes are the foundation of experience.

By following these steps before any trip, from a mega expedition to a weekend wander we can keep mistakes as just that… experience.

For official guidance on safety in the mountains, including specifics on essential kit, head to Mountaineering Scotland’s website. If you have little or no winter mountain experience, it’s strongly advisable to book onto a safety course at an outdoor training centre like Glenmore Lodge in Scotland or Plas y Brenin in North Wales before heading out. 

Extra Resources

Glenmore Lodge
Plas y Brenin
The British Mountaineering Council
Mountaineering Scotland
Mountain Rescue

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