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Keeping safe in the UK Mountains

Image for article Keeping safe in the UK Mountains

Skiing and ice climbing in the UK can be a hit or miss affair but when conditions are good, there’s no place many of us would rather be. Whether you’re in the Lakeland Fells or the Highlands of Scotland, the window for fun can often be a very short one so if you’re going to make the most out of it, you need to be prepared.

It’s all about having a strategy – an idea of where you want to go and what you want to achieve, the right partner and equipment to enable you to achieve your objective and most importantly – a strategy that keeps you safe out in the mountains. If you’re heading out for a day’s ski touring or winter climbing in the UK, you should  ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ which means having a strategy that not only will help you to avoid getting caught in a slide but one that will enable you to deal with the consequences should the worst occur.

From a winter mountain users point of view an avalanche is the result of the interaction between the three components of Terrain, Snow and People. All three key elements are required to involve you in an avalanche. On the People side of things there’s a lot you can do before leaving your doorstep to ensure a safe journey into the mountains.

  1. Get the Gear…are you properly equipped for your outing? Are you carrying a transceiver, shovel and probe if you’re planning to ski in the backcountry? And equally importantly, when was the last time that you practiced with that equipment?
  2. Get Educated. You don’t know what you don’t know. And if you haven’t done an avalanche course that involved getting outside with a qualified mountain professional and getting your hands into the snowpack then I guarantee that you don’t know enough. Take a course, learn something new, ski cool places that you’ve never been to before with a pro and enjoy the learning experience. We constantly tell our students that an avalanche course isn’t just about staying safe, it’s giving you a toolkit to find better snow to ski.
  3. Get the Avalanche Bulletin. So how does that work in the Lakes, right? Well… if you follow step 2 above and take a course, you will learn about a bunch of other resources out there that will help you figure out the current snow conditions. Scotland is blessed with a comparatively well funded avalanche service whose forecasters are out every day getting bulls-eye avalanche information for the very mountains you intend to climb or ski – so use it fully. The SAIS is the best resource you have; the information is multifaceted with lots of great hidden information on their Blogs and observered conditions page. Remember what I said about finding better snow? Well the SAIS is also a key resource for that. If some of it seems complicated, you don’t see the sense in checking out their daily snow profiles and you don’t understand some of the terminology they use, then again I refer you back to step 2…starting to get the picture?
  4. Get Feedback from the Mountain. For steps 4 and 5 we move on from People and what we can plan at home to what’s actually happening in the Terrain and with the Snow on the mountain. I constantly tell our students that we are always in information deficit when travelling through the winter mountains – that is to say, we can’t see into the snowpack to see any weak layers that might be lurking for us to collapse and trigger an avalanche. But the mountain does give us feedback that is of great value: sudden collapses under your feet, shooting cracks that feel full of ‘energy’ and signs of recent avalanche activity on slopes similar in aspect and elevation to which you intend to travel are all red flags that should send you hurrying to ridgelines and low angle terrain.
  5. Get out of Harms Way. A lot of people with a climbing and hill walking background have transitioned their winter skills to backcountry skiing in recent years as equipment becomes better and cheaper…and yes it’s awesome fun. But skiers and climbers interact with the mountain in very different ways. Skiers will actively seek out steep open slopes that are heavily loaded with snow while the tradition in the UK in the winter is to walk ridgelines and the flat tops of fells and mountains, but even then hillwalkers and climbers have to cross dangerous slopes, often as they descend from a summit or a route. A few simple rules in managing how you travel these key zones of hazardous terrain would save several lives in the UK every winter: only one person on a suspect slope at one time, don’t stop to gear up or rest in a place exposed to avalanche danger, and understand what terrain traps are and keep well clear of them.

Remember: ‘The mountains will always be there, the trick is to make sure you are too.’

Hervey Voge

Mike Austin runs Avalanche Geeks, who are a partner of Haglofs and provide internationally recognised certficated avalanche courses both in the Scotland and the Alps. They train approx 100 people a year from keen backcountry skiers and climbers to Mountain Rescue Teams and climbing instructors. A lot of the above advice is expanded upon in a leaflet created by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service called ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ that is widely available with more information online: http://beaware.sais.gov.uk/


18 March 2016 by Haglöfs UK

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