Winter Hill Walking: Decision Making in the Hills
By Jon Jones, Head of Rock and Mountain, Glenmore Lodge, sportscotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre
As we write, the hills surrounding us in the Cairngorms are currently in winter mode. Snowfall, rain, high winds are all forecast for the period ahead. The first early season climbs have been made and we’re officially psyched for the season ahead. For hill days with the crunching of snow and ice under our crampons. Mountaineering exploits, followed by hot chocolate in front of the fire. For skinning in on skis, earning our turns as we go.
View of the snowy Northern Coires from Glenmore Lodge 23/10/23
As glorious as they are, those first early season trips out, especially with fickle weather or conditions, are the same for all of us. It doesn’t matter if you are new to hiking during the winter or a seasoned munro-bagger, we are all faced with the same decision making process when we’re out.
All good days out start in the week before you head out and continue on the day.
So what does successful decision making for a winter hill day look like?
You’ll discover on our Winter Mountain Skills courses, planning is fundamental! In the days leading up to your hill day, you’ll be looking at the weather and where possible avalanche forecasts, building up a picture of what the weather and conditions might mean for what you’ll encounter underfoot. The Met Office Mountain Area Forecasts, Mountain Weather Information Service and Scottish Avalanche Information Service will be high up your online favourites lists in the winter!
The night before you’ll want to compare your plans with the reality of what you could expect. But it’s not just the weather. The key focus areas in the planning stage are: the landscape you intend to visit, and you and your party.
Top Tip: Having good mapping software or app on your tablet or smartphone is really useful when planning. (FATMAP App is good at showing angle of slope as well as many other useful resources).
Give everyone you are heading out with a chance to express their thoughts or concerns. Do all your ambitions line up? Are your friends anxious about their fitness or their kit for example?
Watch out for this heuristic trap: Sticking to a planned route when weather and conditions aren’t right. This is easy to do, especially if you’ve booked accommodation already. So this is when you will want to consider what is right or appropriate in this particular location and just be mindful of this.
The more flexibility you have, the better, but if you are committed to a location, just be really flexible and open minded with your choices.
The Night Before:
There’s a time pressure in winter. Days are shorter. You want to have used the evening beforehand to refine your choices and packed. Don’t try and make informed decisions in the dark in the morning. So I’ll be thinking:
o Is the weather doing what you expected?
o How are you feeling in yourself?
o What about your friends?
On the Day:
Your observations on the walk in should ideally fit with what you were expecting, or had concluded from your planning. For example correct interpretation of the risks you might face in winter on your chosen route. Icy paths, snow bridges over burns, cornice build up, wind blown snow. These are all risks that planning would allow you to manage on the day.
Based on weather forecasts and patterns leading up to your day out, where would you expect to see wind blown snow building up? As you journey on the hill seek to affirm your expectations. At this stage I’ll be checking that everyone is still happy, that the kit being carried or used is working and that everything aligns.
When conditions encountered are icy will everyone with your team be happy, have the right kit and know how to use it?
If you find on your walk that conditions or the weather are not as expected, then you’ll be looking to change tack. Maybe a different route, or perhaps a different descent route. Or if the weather has changed, you might decide to shorten your day out. You may decide to return by the same route because you’ll know what to expect from the conditions.
Heuristic trap: If you only have the one plan and you are sticking with it despite all the signs telling you to turn back. This is why it is important to have a few options in mind. Don’t think of these as lesser options, simply an array of options that will deliver a good day out!
Another heuristic trap: Just because other people are carrying on, or going up a slope that you judge to not be appropriate, don’t fall into the trap of following them. Follow your own agenda.
Also consider Expert halo. Make sure that everyone is buying in to the adventure and is not staying quiet because they don’t want to ‘challenge’ the perceived expert. Everyone, especially the quiet person not speaking, should have a chance to express thoughts. Avoid falling into the trap of ‘they know best’.
Key decision place: Have an agreed key place to decide as a group to carry on or turn around, to ensure you can get home in time. Remember to check on energy levels of the party.
It’s all about prevention. For example, it’s always better to start your day in the dark and walk into the light! It is always more challenging to start in the light and finish in the dark making navigation much harder. So decide to set your alarm early and don’t hit snooze too often!
Better to start early and avoid walking into the dark!
Glenmore Lodge is Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre. For 75 years we have run winter skills courses, winter navigation, avalanche awareness training, mountaineering and climbing courses throughout the winter months. www.glenmorelodge.org.uk