WINTER SAFETY FOR HILLWALKERS
Former National Park Ranger and Mountain Guide John White has spent the best part of 35 years walking and climbing on the Lakeland Fells and he has compiled a series of advisory notes to help you survive and thrive when walking the hills in the cold, dark days of winter. It’s not an exhaustive work on winter safety, but it highlights the key issues which John has seen walkers having problems with in winter on the fells.
WINTER SKILLS INSTRUCTION IS AVAILABLE FROM JOHN AND HIS FELLOW GUIDES - CONTACT US FOR DETAILS
About 25 years ago, I climbed the Red Tarn Face of Helvellyn with a couple who wanted to experience some basic snow and ice climbing. The conditions were amazing. The face was packed with perfect, hard snow right down to the tarn, and as the early morning sun hit the face, an azure sky promised a magnificent day. We topped out – in full winter gear with helmets, ice axes, rope and crampons - at about 11am to be greeted by people on the summit in shorts and trainers, on mountain bikes and in summer clothes. The date was May 22nd.
Some older local farmers recall the Red Tarn Face of Helvellyn being deep with snow right through into the middle of June, and my anecdote above illustrates that the winter snows of the new millennium are – so far – feeble compared with those of 25 plus years ago. It has been unusual for the winter snowpack on Helvellyn to last much beyond mid-March over the last 15 years, but since 2010 the winters have fought back!
The severely cold spell early in the winter of 2010-11 was as cold as any I can remember, with a lengthy spell of temperatures down to -19C every night. Thirlmere was frozen solid. 2013-4 saw bigger deposits of snow on the Scottish mountains than anyone could recall, and there is still snow from last winter on the Scottish hills as I write this in October! There may well be less predictability now, but the hills still pose just as many problems for the unwary. If you’re unsure about your ability to cope with hard winter conditions, learning from experienced friends or undertaking a course is a good idea. Winter is the best time of year for walking the fells – learn to do it safely and you’ll enjoy some truly memorable days.
GET THE RIGHT GEAR
It's essential to have the right equipment for winter walking. It's a huge topic area and there are plenty of shops, blogs and websites ready to provide good advice on choice of gear. I'll leave the final choice to you, but here are some useful tips:
- Boots need to be stiff enough to bite into hard snow and to take crampons - don't try winter walking in soft boots. Winter quality boots are much
lighter than they used to be
- Make sure your boots and crampons are compatible in terms of rigidity and fastening. Both are graded - B1 B2 B3 and C1 C2 C3, which helps
- Ice axes for walking need to be the right length, offering security on moderate slopes - 65cms is often a good length. Choose one with a gently
curved pick. Alpenstocks have seen their day and short climbing axes are no good for walking.
- Good gloves are essential - remember that mitts are warmer than gloves. A light pair of gloves plus a good pair of mitts is ideal for walking.
- Hat - you lose something like 30% of your body heat from your head, so to retain heat, a warm hat is essential. Look for something that the wind can't
blow off. A fleece headband is ideal for when you're walking and producing heat, but a full hat is great for when you stop or when it's windier. For
really extreme conditions, a balaclava is really good if you don't mind temporarily taking on the appearance of a robber.
- When choosing waterproofs, high waisted overtrousers or salopettes are much better than overtrousers, as they prevent you from losing heat from
around your middle.
- Gaiters are a must for winter in my opinion - getting snow down your boots is not a pleasant option and they keep your trousers tight in at the ankle
and help prevent getting crampon points snagged.
- I would never be without walking poles in winter - apart from the obvious uses for stability and aiding walking you can probe the snow with
them, use them to act as tent poles in your bivvy shelter, use them as side rails for a makeshift stretcher and they're great in a strong wind!
PROBLEMS WITH WIND
We're not referring to indegestion here! Problems walking in winter conditions are not limited to those associated with snow and ice. In some Lakeland winters, a significant proportion of accidents are wind related, with walkers being blown from ridges or simply losing their footing and being blown to the ground in strong gusts. If you’ve never experienced walking in a really strong wind, believe me, it’s tough and it’s dangerous so here are some tips to help you understand how to anticipate strong wind problems and how to minimize the effects.
First – check out the weather forecasts. Weather charts show wind speeds and direction – the closer together the lines, or isobars – the stronger the winds. Other weather forecasts such as MWIS and Met Office Mountain Forecasts (see links at end of feature) offer advice on expected mean wind speeds and gust speeds, sometimes with practical advice on how the wind speeds are likely to affect walking. Always check these out before your walk and consider how your route might be affected. For example, will you have the wind to your back on the uphill part of your walk or will it be in your face? I know which I’d prefer! Modify your route accordingly. If you’re on a ridge, does the wind direction cross it? If so, it could mean dangerous crosswind gusts. If the summit wind speeds are expected to be very high 50– 60mph plus, then think of an alternative, lower level route.
The topography of the land also has a big impact on the wind. Good examples would be Three Tarns on Bowfell, where the land shape means that the wind is forced through a gap, therefore increasing it’s speed. And Windy Gap isn’t called that for nothing! As you approach a ridge, even one with a gentle top, the wind from lower down gathers and compresses in the final wind zone, leading to much stronger winds in the top couple of hundred feet. Beware also of ascending onto summits from the sheltered side – Helvellyn is a classic example – you can be ascending via Swirral Edge in relatively calm conditions only to be met by vicious winds as you top out onto the plateau. Listen – the roaring noise above you is often a giveaway! Corries can also have big impacts on the wind, creating unpredictable swirls, eddies and gusts which can carry through to lower levels as well.
If you’re caught in dangerous winds, you can minimise the risks. Firstly, tighten compression straps and clothing, reducing your surface area as much as possible to give the wind less to get hold of. Second, keep low and in a stable position when you walk and thirdly, if you feel the wind gusting higher, go to the ground immediately – you can’t stand and fight the strongest gusts! If all else fails – crawl! Walking poles are also useful in windy conditions
KEEP WARM – ISOLATE AND INSULATE
Keeping warm on the hills in winter conditions is essential. The basic principles of layering will stand you in good stead, but here are a few additional points I’ve learned from experience. Consider wearing waterproof salopettes rather than overtrousers. It makes a huge difference having that extra layer around your waist, reducing the gaps for cold air to exploit and holding the layers in position well. Gaiters are very useful for keeping warm as well as for keeping snow, mud and water out of your boots. They’ll help keep your feet warm.
Always carry spare gloves and remember that mitts are warmer than gloves. A pair of fleece mitts with a windproof outer are amazingly warm, and if they get wet you can just wring them out.
Cut out draughts – make sure your wrists and neck are draught free zones, but don’t be afraid to ventilate if you feel warm. Always put on an extra layer and close the draught gaps when you stop for a while. Keep wriggling your toes and fingers and retain a bit of movement in your body to keep your metabolism going and produce some heat when you stop for rests or lunch.
If you stop for lunch or in case of an emergency remember that you need to INSULATE and ISOLATE. Insulate yourself from the cold air with suitable clothing, and isolate yourself from as many sources of cold as possible. For example, if you are using a bivvy shelter, you should use walking poles to stop the shelter making contact with you, use a sit mat to isolate yourself from the snow or ground you are sitting on, and also try and isolate your boots from the ground to avoid cold being transmitted through the soles. Key sources of cold are ground to foot contact, ground to bum/back contact when sitting and air or shelter to body contact. If you’re not using a bivvy shelter, use natural shelter such as keeping to the lee of the wind, large boulders etc, or learn how to create shelter using snow –which could be as simple as rolling big snowballs together to form a protective wall.
TRIPS AND SLIPS
Trips and slips on snow and ice are common and can be serious. How do they happen?
If your boots are not stiff enough for edging on harder snow they will flex and slip. You need proper winter standard walking boots and you need to learn how to use them to best effect in conjunction with your ice axe and crampons. The most common problem with crampons is snagging them on your overtrousers. Don’t wear baggy overtrousers when using crampons. Use gaiters and make sure they are snug round the ankles with no straps or loose material for the crampons to snag on.
People also trip with crampons because they effectively make your foot longer and your sole deeper than normal. Walk like John Wayne when he’s just come off his horse! Get used to swinging your feet in a slight curve past each other to avoid trips, and place your feet carefully on mixed terrain as stepping a crampon point on a rock under the snow can turn your ankle or trip you.
Frozen ground causes many slips, with boots not being able to break the hard surface to grip and it can be necessary to wear crampons even though you’re not on snow. Verglas is a common cause of slips. Moisture on rocks freezes, and with no air between the ice and the rock, it’s like black ice on the road. Beware especially of stream crossings when the damp looking rocks may in fact be coated in hard black ice.
Finally, beware of icy patches beneath light coverings of fresh snow, or hidden beneath and amongst vegetation such as reeds and grass.
STOPPING A SLIDE ON SNOW
The first thing to say about self-arrest using an ice axe or any other method to stop a slip on snow, is don’t slip in the first place! Prevention is way better than the cure in this case. Why? Because in any slip on steeper, packed or icy snow, your chances of reacting quickly enough to enable you to stop effectively are less than 50:50 – especially if you don’t get the opportunity to practice self-arrest very often. Everything happens very quickly, and before you know it you can be out of control and moving too fast to stop. This is especially true for trips and stumbles – slides from slips are easier to halt. So how do you prevent slips on steeper snow slopes and what do you do if you’re the one slip sliding away?
First, take a look at the section on why trips and slips on snow happen and learn from this.
Next, you need to consider your clothing. Sounds strange at first, but some materials are so much faster sliding on snow than others. While teaching people to ice axe brake, I’ve seen some people fly down a slope, whereas others couldn’t slide down the same one no matter how hard they tried. Ripstop nylons and other similar fabrics are very slick indeed, whereas some of the rougher fabrics found on modern jackets are much more resistant to sliding. If you walk in winter, ditch the shiny clothing and go for a rougher finish.
If you slip without an ice axe, spread out into a star shape facing the snow, feet downhill, and quickly but progressively dig your toes in, while pushing away from the snow with your arms – with practice you can end up stopping quickly and finishing in a standing position. Sometimes just spreading into a star shape is enough to stop.
If you have an ice axe, learn how to perform self-arrest – do a course if you need to - and practice at the start of every winter until it is a natural series of movements. To practice any of these techniques, don’t wear crampons, and choose a short safe slope with no rocks and a safe runout at the bottom.
It is possible to perform basic self arrest with a walking pole but it’s very difficult, and if you’re in a position where the slope is steep enough to slip, then you should have your ice axe out anyway. If you do stop after a slip, remember to make yourself secure by kicking steps and consolidating your position before trying to move, or you may slip again. Try and assess the danger presented by a slope by assessing it’s angle and the type of snow – some windblown snow is very grippy as is deep, new snow, whereas older snow, icy slopes and especially hard neve is very fast.
DON’T GET CAUGHT OUT
Don’t get caught out in bad weather - it can be a killer in winter. Check the weather forecasts and particularly the estimated timing of weather changes. Modify your day accordingly – you’d be amazed at how many people don’t. You want to be the ones settling down to a pint in front of a warm pub fire when the storm sets in, not the ones just reaching the summit! Learn to look for signs of the weather changing as bad weather can arrive earlier than predictions. You might be able to access rainfall radars on your smartphone – if so, sites such as Meteox provide a 3 hr rainfall radar forecast which might provide useful updates.
ROUTE FINDING AND ROUTE PLANNING
Planning routes in advance is well worthwhile in winter, and to do this you need a map, or better still one of the computer based mapping systems such as Memory Map. It’s well worth making a simple route card for yourself with the key information for the trickier bits of your route - for example, bearings and leg distances. It’s so much easier to have these recorded rather than try and do the measuring in the teeth of a gale when your fingers are frozen!
Use the map to help you visualize the terrain you’re going to be in and make a note of any relevant escape routes in the event of bad weather or other problems.
In winter, route finding is a real skill, and we’re not simply talking about navigation here, but how you use the terrain to minimize effort and energy expenditure, and to avoid hazards. Winter conditions can make changes to the landscape with snow filling in hollows and gullies and often making lee slopes steeper as the snow builds. Soft, unconsolidated snow, or snow with a wind crust can be heartbreakingly difficult to walk in. To make your route easier, let others go first and beat the trail – just make sure they are going your way! If the snow is soft, learn to look for routes where the snow is shallower and easier to walk through.
Mountain streams can quickly become covered with drifting snow, and in the springtime the water beneath thaws the snow to create a thin bridge. Look out for this and avoid – wet feet is probably the least you’ll get away with. On bigger fells when there has been substantial snowfall, snowfall accompanied by strong winds, or a sudden thaw, you will need to consider the stability of the snow and be aware of avalanche risk. I have seen significant avalanches – certainly big enough to bury people - across ordinary walkers paths to Raise and to Blencathra.
GPS v MAP & COMPASS
So many people ask me about the pros and cons of using GPS for navigating, so here’s my view. You can now get amazingly sophisticated mapping systems to use in conjunction with your GPS or Smartphone and they are excellent, and a valuable addition to your armoury of navigation tools. Even the simplest systems will perform one key skill – telling you where you are. The more complex devices can be pre-programmed with a route and can lead you safely through difficult terrain. However the drawbacks are significant enough to make me always advise walkers to ensure they have sound conventional navigation skills. The classic scenario in winter is that the low temperatures mean GPS eat batteries at an alarming rate – this is perhaps more significant on the more complex devices which use more power. No spare batteries – no GPS.
In order to use a GPS you need good map skills to enable you to select the right routes, and you need a combination of this and good practical outdoor skills to enable you to steer clear of potential dangers and obstacles such as avalanche prone slopes, snow covered rivers and bogs, deep, soft snow and steep slopes. In short, you need to be a competent navigator with conventional map and compass equipment to supplement the use of GPS. Complain to a Mountain Rescue Team that you got lost because your GPS batteries went flat and you’ll get short thrift!
LET THERE BE LIGHT!
You would be surprised at how many people struggle to get off the hills in winter because they have been overtaken by darkness – this applies especially to the early winter after the clocks have changed. On a dark mountain night, especially in mist, you can’t see anything and without a torch you will be stranded until it becomes light again or until a rescuer stumbles into you! So, carry a torch. Not just any torch though – the best by far is the head torch, leaving your hands free. There are many excellent head torches available, with Petzl still being the most popular choice. Some of the very lightweight LED ones are great as an emergency tool, but if you are walking bigger routes in winter and perhaps expecting to descend in the dark regularly, opt for one of the top models which may feature rechargeable batteries and adjustable beams. Look at the light output and battery life, plus the type of beam and adjustment available and choose one to match your type of walking and budget. In winter, always carry a torch and most would consider it very wise to carry spare batteries.
AVOIDING COLD AND HYPOTHERMIA
Winter brings cold and often wet conditions accompanied by strong winds – difficult conditions in which to maintain an even temperature. Getting warm and staying warm is important, and understanding how hypothermia starts and progresses is equally so.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia, or ‘exhaustion-exposure’ as it is sometimes called. You may also be vulnerable if you are ill, or have not been eating or sleeping well.
Hypothermia in the mountains is generally caused by a combination of heat loss and high levels of energy expenditure, rather than the cold on it’s own. When the body is exposed to low temperatures, it uses the energy you create from movement to keep you warm. Shivering is an involuntary movement designed by the body to create heat. When you’re walking on the hills you are not only exposed to low temperatures, but your energy levels are being constantly depleted by the effort involved in walking – a double whammie!!
In many cases, inadequate and wet clothing are major contributory factors, wet clothing in particular being a major problem as the cold water removes heat from the body very quickly indeed.
The best way of avoiding Hypothermia is to be very practical in your approach. Eat well the day and night before your walk, and take plenty of food with you – a mix of slow and quick release foods rather than a diet of energy bars. I tend not to take much in the way of emergency foods, relying on a good old-fashioned diet of fresh food, with snacks of nuts and raisins and chocolate. Everyone’s metabolism is different, and you need to be aware of your own and other group members metabolism – and identify those who need to eat regularly – some do and some don’t. Ensure these people eat as often as possible, whilst those without the normal requirement to eat regularly should try to do so to ensure the maintenance of even energy levels.
Hot drinks are great in cold weather and they provide psychological comfort, but you can’t beat calories, so in terms of countering hypothermia, high calorie foods which release energy quickly are equally effective as hot drinks.
Use your layering system to maintain a constant, comfortable temperature. Too cold and you’ll be losing too much heat. Too warm, and you’re soaking your clothing with sweat, which will start to drain the heat from you. Modern combinations of wicking layers and breathable fabrics such as Goretex do keep you drier than old fashioned materials, but remember that in wicking away moisture they are also wicking away heat.
Recognizing hypothermia is usually not too difficult, but it needs to be identified early. As the body cools, it naturally retains warmth in the core, at the expense of the extremities – feet and hands for example. Look for tiredness, lagging behind, lack of motivation, feeling cold generally, cold extremities, not feeling one’s self and abnormal behaviour. As it progresses you will find shivering, potentially aggressive behaviour and confusion.
Action has to be quick and decisive. The normal advice is to stop and provide shelter using a bivvy shelter or natural shelter (involve others if you need to). Isolate and Insulate the casualty (see previous section), feed and provide warm drink but not alcohol. Convention dictates that wet clothing be left on and other persons huddle up to create more warmth. I believe that if the person is very wet, warm, dry clothing should be used if it is available. Do anything possible to create a warm and dry environment. You have to decide if the casualty can recover and walk down themselves or if you need assistance from a rescue team – a difficult decision to make if you don’t have experience. You need to consider the weather and conditions and the walking distance remaining.
If you are close to the valley and the casualty is not in too bad shape, then you might descend to warmer and more sheltered terrain, offering physical help to the sufferer, then make another assessment. The thing to beware is trying to get a hypothermia sufferer to walk a longer distance in inclement conditions – this can cause a deterioration and even kill them.
COPING WITH ACHES AND PAINS
Do you have aches and pains, dodgy knees or hips, back or ankles? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Walking in winter does tend to highlight any medical issues you might have due to the cold and wet, and the extra effort involved. I have had my fair share of problems so here is my advice based on my own personal experience.
First, make sure your equipment is as light as possible and take as little with you as you can while remaining safe. The less weight you have on your back (and arguably on your tummy as well…) the less stress goes onto your aching joints. It’s worth being quite obsessive about this as it makes a huge difference.
Secondly you need to make sure your footwear is as light as possible while remaining suitable for the type of walking you’re undertaking. Shock absorbing insoles are well worth trying. Combined, these measures will reduce the impact on your joints.
Thirdly, although I have always tried to take as few painkillers as possible, if you are able to, taking a mix of Paracetamol and Ibuprofen can dramatically reduce joint aches. A surgeon friend suggested taking Ibuprofen three times during the day at 4 hour intervals, starting a couple of hours before your walk, with Paracetamol being taken two hours after the Ibuprofen and also 3 times. This sustains the maximum level of pain relief during the course of the day’s walking. I have tried this and it does work, but you should always obtain advice from a doctor or pharmacist relating to your personal circumstances.
Lastly, the use of walking poles can also reduce the amount of loading placed on your body, especially lower limbs, by sharing the forces through your arms and upper body. Use two poles, buy really good quality lightweight ones and learn how to use them effectively by setting the length correctly for ascent and descent. They are also invaluable in winter for many other purposes, such as crossing streams, walking in deep snow, balancing in windy conditions and holding your bivvy shelter in shape.
These measures combined can make your day not just less painful, but significantly more enjoyable and indeed safer.
INSTRUCTION AND COURSES: