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Inspired to get out in the Highlands' beautiful mountains? Remember to #ThinkWINTER

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By Ben Gibson, mountain safety adviser with Mountaineering Scotland

Devil's Point and Cairn Toul 3 by Neil Reid
Devil's Point and Cairn Toul 3 by Neil Reid

Anyone with a social media account and an interest in the hills is bound to have been inspired already by photo after photo of beautiful snowy mountains under a blue sky – and perhaps with the added attraction of a sea of cloud filling the valleys, or a fog-bow arching across the heavens.

The images are certainly stirring, and no-one could be blamed for wanting to get up there amongst the snowclad hills themselves.

Experienced mountaineers dream of such scenes too, but they know that there’s a flip side to the picture postcard scenes – winter is also the time of tearing blizzards and zero visibility. They know that when they think about winter they have to #ThinkWINTER.

#ThinkWINTER, now in its fourth year, is a multi-agency campaign led by Mountaineering Scotland to help people get the most from their winter in Scotland’s hills and mountains without putting themselves at unnecessary risk.

#ThinkWINTER means having your winter head on, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, reining in ambition with a measure of caution, knowing that conditions underfoot can slow progress to a crawl and that weather can literally knock you off your feet.

Conditions must be taken into account when planning a winter outing.
Conditions must be taken into account when planning a winter outing.

But it doesn’t mean you have to sit at home. And preparation and planning are key.

Keeping safe in the hills starts long before you pull your boots on – even if you have already ensured you have boots, crampons and ice axe suitable for winter in Scotland’s mountains, not to mention adequate winter clothing.

First of all, don’t be too ambitious. Winter can be superb, but it can also be deadly. So start with easier goals and work your way up as you gain experience. And that applies for your companions too – you may be experienced, but don’t overestimate your friends’ experience or abilities.

Don’t just choose one hill or mountain as your goal. Weather and conditions can vary widely across the country, so have a number of options in mind so that you can head for where the weather is best and you stand most chance of having a great day. That doesn’t mean waiting until the last minute to make a decision – you should be checking the mountain weather forecast and snow avalanche conditions for about a week before your planned trip, so you’ll have a good idea of what you’re going to find and what precautions you’ll have to take.

Using equipment including ice axes is all part of a winter's day in the hills.
Using equipment including ice axes is all part of a winter's day in the hills.

For instance, heavy snow will probably indicate a raised avalanche risk; a thaw, or heavy rain, will mean river and stream crossings will be more difficult or even impossible. Wind direction can also 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 difficult in winter. It’s likely that at least part of any path will be covered by snow, perhaps so deeply that there’s not even a trace of the path. Streams and even lochs can also disappear under the snow. So whether you’re using a GPS, an app on your phone, or a map and compass, you’ll need to be able to follow a route with no reference to a path.

You need to be sure that your chosen route avoids any avalanche danger, and be aware of any points where it might come close to corniced edges of snow. Have a good look at the map in the comfort of your home to identify any danger points such as river or stream crossings, or steeper sections which might prove too difficult in some conditions.

If there are such places on your route you will want to identify alternative routes to avoid them or at least to get back to your car or accommodation safely.

All this may sound complicated and a lot of hard work – especially before you’ve even started packing your rucksack – but it can make all the difference between being the person who shares their great days out on Facebook and the person who ended up cold, wet and miserable, didn’t get up the hill and wonders why everyone else had such a good time.

Blizzard at Bob Scott's Bothy, by Neil Reid
Blizzard at Bob Scott's Bothy, by Neil Reid

There are lots of great free online resources to help with that planning process, though, and even make it part of the anticipation and fun of the day itself.

Mountain weather forecasts (the forecast on the television is not good enough) can be found at the Mountain Weather Information Service or at the Met Office.

Avalanche conditions and forecasts are available from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.

Information on necessary kit and skills for winter mountaineering is available from Mountaineering Scotland. Mountaineering Scotland’s website also has a huge amount of information on all aspects of mountaineering as well as links to related organisations.

It’s time to get planning!

Navigation is more difficult in winter.
Navigation is more difficult in winter.

If it all goes wrong

Sometimes, even with the best of preparations, things do go wrong. If you do have an accident or are unable to get down off the hill under your own steam, that’s when it’s time to call for assistance.

To call for help in the mountains you should call 999 and ask for Police. Once you are through to them, ask for Mountain Rescue and follow their instructions.

If the phone signal is too poor to make a voice call you may be able to send a text message. This requires you to have your phone registered with the 999 service, which is quick and simple to do. Simply 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.

Ben Gibson, mountain safety adviser for Mountaineering Scotland.
Ben Gibson, mountain safety adviser for Mountaineering Scotland.

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