How to have fun – and stay safe – in the Highland mountains this winter
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Ben Gibson, mountain safety adviser at Mountaineering Scotland, encourages people who are planning to head to the hills this winter to think ahead
Winter – a time of year when mountain landscapes have a whole new feel and dimension.
Whether you’re like me, and can’t wait to explore the snow-covered hills again, or you’re excited for your first winter mountain experience, we both have the same thing in common – we need to #ThinkWINTER!
Now in its sixth year, #ThinkWINTER is a joint campaign between Scotland’s top mountain safety organisations – including Mountaineering Scotland, Scottish Mountain Rescue, Mountain Training, Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre Glenmore Lodge, Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland, Snowsport Scotland, Police Scotland and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service – who work together to share inspiration, advice, skills, and safety information, and help people get the most from winter in Scotland’s hills and mountains.
Conditions and planning
High winds and blizzards, white-out conditions, shorter daylight hours and avalanche risk are all very changeable weather and mountain problems that we need to plan for when we want to go out.
Keeping safe in the hills starts long before packing a bag and pulling your boots on – preparation and planning are key to having a great day out and returning safely.
Don’t be overly ambitious if it’s your first time out this winter. Even if you have winter experience, think about planning a day out in relation to the prevailing conditions (weather and snow conditions), your fitness and ability and the terrain you’re walking in, which can, at times, be challenging and complex.
Weather and conditions can vary widely across the country. By having several options in mind and heading for where the weather is best, you stand the most chance of having a great day. That doesn’t mean waiting until the last minute to decide – you should be checking the mountain weather forecasts and snow avalanche conditions for about a week before your trip, so you’ll have a good idea of what conditions will be and what precautions you’ll have to take.
For instance, heavy and wind-drifted snow will indicate a raised avalanche risk, while a thaw, or heavy rain, will mean river and stream crossings can be more difficult or even impossible. Wind direction will affect avalanche risk, and the force of the wind on the day can send you staggering or even make safe progress impossible.
Navigation is also more challenging in winter. It’s likely that at least part of any path will be covered by snow, perhaps so deeply that there will be no trace of the path.
Streams and even lochs can also disappear entirely under the snow. This means that, whether you’re using a GPS, an app on your phone, or a map and compass, you’ll need to know how to navigate and how to follow a safe route with no reference to a path.
Your route will need to be well-planned to help you recognise potential avalanche problems, such as windblown snow, cornices, weak layers within the snow, forecast for that day, and where you will find them – either localised or widespread throughout the mountainside – as well as what level of risk is forecast for them, i.e. low, moderate, or considerable.
All of this may sound like lot of hard work before you’ve even started packing your rucksack, but it can make all the difference between you getting to a summit to enjoy the views or going out unprepared, getting caught off guard and ending up cold, wet and miserable!
There are lots of great free online resources to help with that planning process, including mountain weather forecasts (a general weather forecast from the TV or news won’t cut it!) such as the Mountain Weather Information Service or Met Office and avalanche conditions and forecasts from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
Scotland’s top mountain experts behind the #ThinkWINTER campaign have launched a new landing page, which points people towards each organisation’s top resources for epic winter adventures. Information on kit, navigation, skills courses and more can also be on the Mountaineering Scotland #ThinkWINTER resource hub.
If it all goes wrong
Sometimes, even when you’ve done all the planning and preparation possible, things can still go wrong. If you have an accident or are unable to get off the hill, that’s when it’s time to call for assistance.
To get help in the mountains, call 999 and ask for Police. Once you are through to them, ask for Mountain Rescue and follow their instructions.
If the phone signal isn’t strong enough to make a voice call, you may be able to send a text message. This requires your phone number to be registered with the 999 service, which is quick and simple to do. Text the word 'REGISTER' to 999. You will get a reply and should then follow the instructions you are sent. This will take about two minutes of your time and could save your life.
Remember, your phone can be a lifeline if you need help, so look after it and plan to have enough battery to last the whole day and more. Mountaineering Scotland’s #SmartNAV guidance helps to highlight key points to remember when using your phone or GPS as part of your navigation.
Plan well, stay safe… and have FUN this winter!