Outdoor folk heading to the hills this winter have been urged to brush-up on their skills, as experts say: ‘This isn’t The X Factor - there are no shortcuts to the top’.
The British Mountaineering Council (BMC), the representative body for climbers and walkers in England and Wales, has teamed up with outdoor gear manufacturer Lowe Alpine to anounce a new series of lectures to run throughout November. Aimed at both beginners and those already with experience, the talks are designed to give people the confidence to operate safely in snow-and-ice encrusted peaks.
With more and more Brits venturing into the UK’s loftiest places in the coldest months, the BMC say it’s vital folks are properly prepared. And qualified mountaineering instructor Sam Leary, who’ll be speaking at the talks, says that while climbing in winter can be an incredible experience it can also be ‘ferocious’.
“The mountains in winter are wonderful, stunning, amazing places that offer some of the best days out imaginable. We don’t want to scare people or put them off going. You just need to go up there with a really healthy dose of respect. Some people don’t realise the Scottish mountains can be big and dangerous. They think, ’It’s the UK, it can’t be that bad’. But it can be ferocious and it’s not to be underestimated.”
"We don’t want to scare people or put them off going.
You just need to go up there with a really healthy dose of respect. "
Leary and fellow-speaker Mick Jones, an acclaimed climber and qualified winter mountain leader, have 60 years of experience between them and it's knowledge they’re keen to share. As well as the lectures, they’ve also helped create a series of winter skills videos available for free on the BMC TV website.
In the lectures they’ll be covering everything from choosing a route, understanding weather forecasts, observing avalance conditions and explaining winter climbing techniques. And for Jones, 49, detailed planning - and having a Plan B - is key.
“The lectures aren’t just aimed at beginners, they’re also aimed at people who’ve done a lot in the past and are just getting back into winter mountaineering, or just folks who want to refresh their skills. The big emphasis is on planning, even what you do on your journey on the way in. It’s about making the right choices. I get people who’ve been going out into the hills in winter for 30 years and will openly put their hands up at the end of one of my courses and say, ‘I don’t know how I’ve survived for this long because I’ve been doing everything wrong.’ I don’t think people are heading out into the mountains foolishly, it’s just that they’re not aware of the dangers.
"I don’t think people are heading out into the mountains foolishly,
it’s just that they’re not aware of the dangers."
“We’ve all had moments where things haven’t panned out the way we expected. I once topped out on a climb - Curved Ridge, on Buchaille Etive Mor - and the wind had increased dramatically, much more than forecast. It proved that even with good planning, the unexpected can and does happen. We had to work really hard just to get off the summit. And a few years ago, I was supposed to be taking clients up Curved Ridge but when we got up in the morning the weather forecast had deteriorated. We decided that it wasn’t a safe route that day and chose to do something else instead. When we came back, we learned that, unfortunately, there had been a great tragedy on that mountain where several people had lost their lives in an avalanche. It was extremely sad. And whenever there’s an incident like that it makes everyone realise the need to be aware of the risks. At the very least, we want to get people thinking.
“We go out as mountaineers with a Plan A to do a particular route. Even if it doesn’t feel right on the way in, and you’re wading through snow, it’s still very easy to get drawn-in to attempting it. Often the best thing is to turn around and do something else. That’s why you always need a Plan B.”
"Often the best thing is to turn around and do something else."
Leary, meanwhile, says it’s vital those new to winter mountaineering don’t go too high, too soon.
“I think society is more risk averse. And because some people are not used to making dynamic risk assessments, when they go out and play in these areas they can get properly stung. Help is not just a phone call away. This is not The X Factor, this is mountaineering - you can’t become a pro instantly. And you have to treat it almost like a mountain apprenticeship. You need to spend time getting the right knowledge, building up your experience. The BMC want to be help in this respect by equipping people with the proper skills.”
Leary and Jones say they’ve lost count of the times they’ve seen poor practice in the winter hills - acts that could have easily resulted in difficulties.
Leary explains: “You get people with tunnel vision - ‘it’s my only weekend off, I’m in the Cairngorms, and I’m going to do this route’. But if you sat people down and got them to explain the decisions they’d made, they’d think, ‘Well, that was stupid’. It’s not uncommon to witness people going up or down a distant slopes which have all the hallmarks of suspect terrain. You are often watching from a distance, hoping a avalanche does not occur.
"If you sat people down and got them to explain the decisions
they’d made, they’d think, ‘Well, that was stupid’."
“Then there’s ‘death roping’. It’s where climbers tie themselves together with a rope and then cilmb 50 metres apart, without any protection or belay. It is very dangerous both for those doing it and any one below them on the climb. It is very stressful for us to witness as instructors. The climbers feel safe as they’re attached to a rope, despite the fact the rope isn’t actually attached to anything else.”
Jones reiterates: “All the mistakes in winter are pretty much down to human decision making - 90 per cent of avalanches are triggered by mountaineers. It’s our impact on the snow pack that causes the slide.”
Andy Nelson, team leader at Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, Scotland, welcomed the BMC lectures and stressed the importance of brushing up on skills.
"We would really encourage people to learn from those with more experience. It is well worth soaking-up that knowledge from others. A lot of time risks can be mitigated, particularly when it comes to preparing for the weather. Reading up and doing lots of research is key. A lot of the time accidents can simply be a case of bad luck. It isn't necessarily the case that things happen because you are ill prepared. If the weather is bad quite often we are dealing with slips and trips. It's a numbers game - if there are a greater number of people, you get more accidents."
"Reading up and doing lots of research is key.
A lot of the time accidents can simply be a case of bad luck."
Chris Lloyd of Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue, North Wales, said he wanted to see more poeple heading to the hills this winter with the correct equipment.
"The rescue teams are getting busier and busier because there's more people on the mountains and sadly the number of people with the correct equipment is declining. Just this week, we brought two young people off the mountain who admitted they were ‘idiots’. They had no idea where they were going, no map, no torch, they just decided to go up the mountain. We ended up locating them using the signal on their mobile phones. If these lectures help reduce the number of incidents like that, than they’re welcome indeed.”
"Just this week, we brought two young people off
the mountain who admitted they were ‘idiots’"
Tickets cost £6 for BMC members and £8 non-members. There's a group discount: £4 when purchasing 10 or more tickets. Visit www.thebmc.co.uk/makewintercount or call 0161 445 6111 for tickets and information.
Over the whole of winter, the BMC and Lowe Alpine are running a winter competition. Share your winter journey online via social media with the hashtag #MakeWinterCount and you'll be entered into a fantastic prize draw worth thousands of pounds, with the winners to be announced next spring. Plus, at every lecture there'll be a free prize draw giving you the chance to win one of many Lowe Alpine goodies.