Since the official start of winter on the shortest day of the year snow has been falling on the hills of Scotland more or less continuously. Above 400m or so very strong westerly winds and regular heavy snow showers are depositing snow in sheltered locations. The ground is scoured where it is exposed to the wind and has just a thin cover of snow. The accumulations of snow are patchy but deep and composed of wind slab that has built up very rapidly. The temperature is forecast to go up and down rapidly too. Needless to say, we have some challenging conditions to deal with at the moment!
So what is the best approach? How do we get out and enjoy the challenge while making sure we have every chance of coming back home with smiles and tired legs? Thankfully some very clever people have put a lot of thought into this and have come up with a process for us to use to stay safer in the hills in winter time. It's called Be Avalanche Aware.
When I first started out winter walking in Scotland I was taught to walk up to a slope underneath the gully I intended to climb, to dig a snow pit and assess the layers in the snow so that I could decide whether or not to climb the gully. Over the last 20 years we have worked out that this is not a good approach, mostly due to the human factors that we all fall foul of. If we were able to assess the snow and make a decision based solely on what we see in front of us we would have more of a chance. Even so, a snow pit does not represent the threat in the gully above so it's a pretty poor system. And anyway, none of us can make a decision based on the evidence in front of us and nothing else.
When you look closely at winter accidents (and indeed most accidents anywhere) you find that many of the factors that lead to the accident have nothing to do with the hazards faced on the day.
So how do we avoid these traps? It's not possible to avoid them completely but we can go a long way in the right direction if we use the Be Avalanche Aware process.
It says we should make most of our decisions before we set foot on the mountain by looking at the SAIS Avalanche Forecast and Mountain Weather Forecast. We should check out the avalanche hazard and where it is first and see what the weather will be like. Next up we should think about who we are climbing with and our own ability, experience, skill and equipment. Lastly we should start to look at routes that fit the conditions and ourselves.
When we walk in we should look for signs that the avalanche forecast and weather forecast were accurate (and if not we should be prepared to alter our plans) and that we are feeling as fit as expected. What we see should be no surprise because we spent a lot of time planning the day in advance.
Lastly, when we get to a crucial decision point during the day, we should already be 95% decided on what we will do and all we have to do is a last check that it's all going as planned.
We are very lucky to have SAIS avalanche forecasters and weather forecasters who will be working right through the holidays. There will be people out on Christmas Day checking the snow and avalanche hazard for our benefit. Raise a glass to the forecasters and do them the favour of planning your day based on their work. Be Avalanche Aware and enjoy the winter.
Happy Christmas from the team at Abacus Mountain Guides.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.