Basic safety in the mountains: An introduction

Basic safety in the mountains: An introduction

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The two most commonly occurring incidents in the mountains are injuries due to slips, trips, stumbles, tumbles, and falls and getting lost. For those people who are unfortunate enough to be injured and unable to get off the mountain there is a risk of hypothermia. This not limited to winter months and the number of incidents of hypothermia is higher in summer than in winter.

From this it should be clear that having the right clothing and kit and being able to navigate are critical to mountain safety. In addition to this understanding something about the weather in the mountains plays a vital role in managing your safety.

When writing about clothing, navigation, and the weather the temptation is always to launch into technical ‘how to’ manual-type explanations without any real background. So what we’ve done here is focus on background understanding in the hope that when you get to the technical ‘How To’ stuff you’ll have some background or context for it. Wherever you choose to get it from.

Clothing

Wearing the right sort of clothing, including footwear, will make all the difference to both comfort and safety in the mountains. The two most dangerous items of clothing you can wear are anything cotton, especially if in contact with the skin, and the wrong sort of footwear.

You will freeze to death faster in cotton clothing than you will naked. This is because cotton does not retain heat and retains moisture. It cools the body, even in low temperatures. Any cotton clothing should be avoided when going into the mountains, including socks. There are now a wide range of suitable materials available for mountaineering, including hiking and trekking, that will serve you well. Merino wool is a classic material that has excellent thermal properties even when wet. There are any number of man-made synthetic materials available as well.

The key is to layer appropriately, starting with an underlayer followed by a wicking layer then an insulating layer and finally a waterproof/windproof layer. This obviously varies between summer and winter and you may need to experiment to find the best number of layers for yourself depending on the time of year and how energetic you are going to be. It is important to take off/put on layers as you don’t/do need them. It is easy to wait until you are too cold before putting on an extra layer in winter, or even summer, and similarly to wait until you are too warm before taking off a layer. I’ve experienced mild hypothermia in the summer when the mountain tops were damp and cold, but the valleys warm and gentle, and hyperthermia in the middle of winter from wearing too many layers and sweating profusely.

Over time and with experience you will come to know how to work your layering system in conjunction with the weather, although you should always be prepared for adverse weather conditions in the mountains. There is a difference, also, in being able to get away with inadequate and inappropriate clothing for a couple of hours if you are moving quickly on reasonably well marked paths in popular areas. It is a different matter if you are somewhere remote and get caught in bad weather for several hours. And the point of good clothing, apart from the risk considerations, is that you are far less at the mercy of the conditions with limited possibilities.

When buying kit it is best to stick with reputable brands from reputable sources. Some kit such as insulting layers and waterproofs can sometimes be acquired second hand in good condition so it’s worth knowing your brands and keeping your eyes open. Bear in mind also that waterproof layers will need to be retreated regularly and should never be washed in normal washing powder/liquid. You will need either a specialist washing liquid such as Tekwash or pure soap flakes. And, of course, there is no such thing as ‘waterproof’ unless it is thick plastic. It is all about how much water your waterproof layer lets in, how warm it keeps you, and how quickly it dries. Most manufacturers will provide details on this in their specifications and descriptions. Having the proper clothing could, one day, save your life or the life of someone else so it’s something you should pay careful attention to.

The likelihood of being able to find clothing that is suitable for most, if not all, weathers and conditions is vanishingly small. If you do happen to find a manufacturer of traditional, hard wearing, multi-seasonal, multi-weather, clothing please do let me know.

Footwear is a poorly understood item of clothing for many and the choice can be bewildering. Again, it’s important to find out what works for you. You don’t want to develop painful blisters, of find that the balls of your feet are excruciatingly painful, or twist an ankle, and so on. Footwear varies both for type of terrain and time of year. For example, in the summer I tend to wear mountain running shoes most of the time, with thin socks (and I carry a couple of spare pairs in my backpack). I have three pairs of boots. One for easier walking, which I tend to wear in the cold, wet, months on the softer hills. One pair with a fairly hard sole that I use when up in the rocky mountains, and one heavy pair that I use in the snow on high, rocky, ground. I also have a pair of approach shoes I use for scrambling and high rocky ground in the summer. And so on. And I’m needing another pair of boots! It is possible to get away with just one, perhaps two, pairs of ‘all round’ boots but they will limit what you can do in the mountains not least because they will limit your speed of movement over different ground, unless you are very experienced, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this.

In the winter there is always a flurry of conversation about crampons. In three years I’ve walked every winter in the mountains, including in some difficult conditions. I don’t own a pair of crampons. I do have a set of micro-spikes. I’ve worn them three times. First of all, in the UK – Scotland aside – a pair of good winter boots will suit most conditions, especially if you use micro-spikes with them. For crampons not only to work effectively but also to be safe they need to match the boot and you need to know how to walk/climb in crampons. If you do wear them you will also spend a good amount of time taking them off and putting them on as the snow changes on your route.

Proper boots come with three gradings to their sole. B1, B2, and B3. These gradings refer to the flexibility and twist in the sole. B1 has some flexibility, B2 feels completely inflexible, and B3 even less so. Crampons match this level of flexibility with a C1, C2, and C3. You cannot, for example, fit a C2 crampon to a B1 boot, unless you want to risk your life. The ideal boot here is probably a good fitting B2 and this level of boot has served serious mountaineers for many years. It is said that there is nothing you can do in a B3 boot that you can’t do in a B2 boot, it is just that a B3 boot may make it a little less tiring (assuming you know how to move in a B3 boot).

A B2 boot can be used as a good all year round boot for the mountains but it is hard going on the feet if you travel long distances. On the other hand, there is something about knowing your feet are well protected on the rock.

If you do decide to walk in real winter conditions you will need crampons and you will need to learn how to use them and practice using them. Any good book on Alpinism should have a section on using crampons and there are numerous winter skills courses available in Scotland in the winter months.

Your footwear is a trade off between distance, pace, terrain, country, and time of year. Buying second hand is a bad idea unless they have hardly been used. And footwear has a short life span. Running shoes tend to last for 300-500 miles before, like a car tyre, they are worn out. The same applies to walking shoes and boots. They will wear out and when they do they will need replacing.

When I trained as a mountain leader I was told that as a group leader you should always were proper boots because, ‘if you need to walk out of somewhere to get help you have to know you are going to be able to do that.’ And good boots will protect your feet in all sorts of different terrain.

List of basic clothing for walking in the mountains

  • Good quality walking underwear
  • Base layer
  • Wicking layer
  • Insulating layer
  • Wind/waterproof layer (you may want separate windproof and waterproof layers but I typically have a ‘summer’ wind and waterproof layer and a ‘winter’ wind and waterproof layer)
  • Waterproof over-trousers
  • Walking trousers and shorts
  • Socks (‘waterproof’ socks are available and I have found they are good at keeping my feet warm in winter and while kayaking)
  • Gloves (usually at least two pairs)
  • Hat/s
  • Buff (scarves are not a good idea. They are clumsy and difficult to manage if you need to take them off/put them on)
  • Shoes and/or boots
  • (always carry at least one spare layer)

Navigation

You will need to learn to use a map and compass to navigate if you really want to spend any time in the mountains. With any other form of navigation tool your are limiting both the time you can spend out and risking your safety and the safety of others.

Using a map and compass to navigate in the mountains means learning to read and interpret contour features. Until you can do this you cannot navigate in the mountains. If you are used to following paths marked on a map you are going to have to ‘unlearn’ this in order to focus on the contour features. You have to learn to ignore all other information. Why?

The reason we focus on contour features is because they are the only reliable feature on a map. Anything else may, or may not, be there and may, or may not, be marked and may, or may not, change position. Paths disappear and new ones appear. Rivers and streams change course, dry up, or may not be marked. Buildings get built and knocked down. Forestry and woodland gets cut down and gets planted. And so on. Contour features don’t change.

Once you learn to ignore the other information reading contour features is relatively straightforward and may even be easier than trying to read and rely on other features. We don’t have space to go into this aspect of map reading here but the Ordnance Survey site has good, free, online instructions and there are numerous courses available (with the NNAS courses fast becoming the standard – but make sure you go for a course that is suitable for mountaineering and does not rely on being able to follow footpaths).

The key contour features on any map are:

  • Ring contours
  • Spurs
  • Re-entrants and valleys
  • Summits
  • Ring contours
  • Flat places

These are all shown by contour lines which are set at particular intervals depending on the map. In the UK mountain maps tend to use one of three scales: 1:25000 (1:25); 1:50000 (1:50), and 1:40000 (1:40). You should be familiar with all three scales and the differences between them.

Ordnance Survey maps, OS maps, tend to be either 1:25 or 1:50. Harvey maps tend to be mostly 1:40 and sometimes 1:25. Harvey maps are specialist walking maps and in some ways are a better fit-for-purpose than OS maps. They use a different contour interval and different colouring to OS maps, are printed on lightweight ‘waterproof’ paper, and are simpler and easier to read. OS maps have some advantages such as marking out all the Open Access areas and having more detail, which is sometimes a disadvantage. It is a good idea to use all three types of map regularly so you don’t get over-reliant on one type.

A compass is used in two main ways. One, taking a bearing, and two, following a bearing. A bearing can be taken in two ways, either from the map or from a feature on the ground. The most frequent and useful way of taking a bearing is from the map.

When taking a bearing from a map when you are walking it is always good practice to set the map first. That is, get the north of the map pointing north. That way when you take a bearing the map will be oriented to the ground and the bearing on the map will match the bearing on the ground. For instructions on how to do this see the notes at.

When following a bearing you keep the needle of the compass pointing north and the housing matched to the needle and follow the arrow on the baseplate of the compass. The issue here is how to keep moving in the right direction as you cannot always go across country in a straight line. Not only that, we all tend to drift and it is possible to drift while seeming to stay on the line of the bearing.

I’m introducing the use of a compass here, rather than explaining how to do it as it’s important to be aware of these methods just as much as it is knowing how to use them.

Once you can use a map and compass competently you need to get used to using them under adverse conditions. That means when you are wet, cold, tired, hungry, and fatigued and when the weather is against you and visibility is poor. It is under these conditions, when you are stressed, that basic, simple, navigation skills are most important and may one day save your life. Relying on an electronic device under these conditions can incur additional risks, especially if they fail or you rely on them at the expense of proper navigational and route finding skills.

Once you have developed your map and compass skills they can be supplemented with a GPS device and this can add to the fun of exploring the mountains. Mobile phone apps are not advised as navigational tools. Out of all the mobile phone apps OS Locate is probably the most useful and reliable, and is free. It gives a quick location and can be used as an electronic compass. Downloadable maps on mobile phones can be useful but do not replace real maps and have various shortcomings (such as battery life).

Unfortunately, it is increasingly fashionable to decry the use of a map and compass in favour of blindly following an arrow on a GPS or a mobile phone. This approach severely limits both your understanding and appreciation of the mountains and the country and your ability to explore them and is ill-advised. As I said earlier, GPS devices are useful once you know how to use a map and compass. Then they can be a supplemental tool and can be fun to use. And if you can use a map and compass properly then you will have no problem using a GPS, button pushing sequences and overly-complex menu choices aside. The reverse is not the case.

In terms of kit, you should always carry two maps and two compasses. In case one gets lost and/or broken. I tend to carry a 1:25 and a 1:50 map or a 1:40 and a 1:25. When the 1:40 is available for the area I generally find it a better map to use. I will often explore an area at home at the table on a 1:25 map and match it back across to the 1:40 and/or 1:50 map. Maps do become water logged, tear, get blown away, and so on. And I’ve had a compass break a couple of times and know of cases when people have put their compass with their mobile phone and the polarity of needle has reversed. I’ve also found it useful when I’m tired and confused to check the reading of my compass against my spare compass if only to reassure myself that I have actually found the correct route and my compass isn’t playing tricks on me. The only electronic device I’ve taken seriously are location readings of OS Locate and my GPS.

At the end of the day navigation skills using a map and compass are a cornerstone of mountaineering and critical to your safety.

Weather

Sometimes when talking about mountain weather there’s a focus on types of clouds. This baffled me and still does. If we could predict the weather from the clouds, apart from the obvious, we wouldn’t need weather forecasts.

Mountain weather has certain characteristics that distinguish it from valley weather or lowland weather. It also has risks associated with it. The wind is stronger in the mountains and can be up to three times stronger on high ground, especially on summits and ridges, than it is at lower levels. That makes it important to understand what effect the wind will have on you as well as being able to judge windspeed.

Rain on low ground can be soggy and unpleasant. On high ground it can be dangerous with decreased visibility, increased risk of slips, trips, stumbles, and so on, and an increased risk of hypothermia. Temperature decreases by roughly 2 degrees centigrade for every 300m of height gain. So a temperature of 0 degrees C at sea level could be -7C at the top of Yr Wyddfa. With a strong damp wind you may have an additional windchill factor of, say, -10C, meaning it’s going to feel like -17C to your body unless you are protected from the wind. Add some light rain at sea level that could be heavy rain on the summit and suddenly you have a potentially dangerous situation if, say, you slip on wet rocks, are imobilised, and don’t have proper clothing. Hypothermia can set in very quickly and it can take a long time to recover.

The same applies to hot weather, of course, and I know from experience that being up on the high ground in the baking heat with no shade available can quickly lead to dehydration and the risk of hyperthermia. Not only that, on many of the rocky high tops there is no water if you run out and it can take a while to get back down.

When going into the mountains you need to take account of:

  • Temperature
  • ‘Feels Like’ temperature (what it feels like when wind chill is taken into account)
  • Moisture (rain, fog, drizzle, mist, snow)
  • Wind speed (including gusts)

Fortunately, if you have access to the internet, in the UK the Met Office now does mountain weather forecasts that are as good as you are going to get. They give the right amount of easy to digest detail and provide ‘summit specific’ forecasts which give a good idea of how the micro-climate is varying between summits. Other sites are available such as MWIS and yr.no but they use the same data for their forecasts and the Met Office has refined its predictions over the last couple of years.

If you don’t have access to the internet then you are going to have to rely on developing your weather sense and knowing what to do when things change. This is really little more than common sense and experience. South Westerly winds tend to bring in the frontal systems which usually means rain of some sort of another. Strong winds will be stronger higher up. It gets colder the higher you go. And so on.

To assess windspeed there is a useful method known as the ‘Pint Rule’. One pint (of beer) = 10 mph of windspeed. A 10mph wind feels like you’ve drunk one pint. There is little effect. Thirty mph has some effect. Sixty mph and you are in danger of stumbling badly and falling. 100mph and you cannot stand. This works both ways. If, for example, you are up on top and find yourself stumbling about in the wind then its probably gusting at around 60mph and you need to take account of the associated risks. On the other hand if you know the wind is going to be gusting at 70mph on top should you be going up there? (Answer: no).

Over time as you pay attention to the weather more and more you will get to understand it more and more and learn how to manage yourself and others in different weather conditions.

It is a good idea to learn how to read a synoptic chart at a glance, but unless you are an expert weather person it can only ever be used as an indicator or broad brush overview. It’s helpful, for example, to know that there is a set of low pressures coming across the Atlantic and have an overview of the frontal systems coming with it (overcast, mist, rain, winds). In the same way it’s helpful to know if a high pressure system is sitting over the UK (stable, clear, weather). In winter if we have early easterly or north easterly winds consistently they can keep out the low pressure systems resulting in long periods of exceptionally cold weather. And if the 528 isobar settles over the UK it will almost certainly be ‘arctic weather’ for a while.

A good appreciation of the sorts of weather we get in the mountains, how to understand and deal with it, and where to find relevant information is essential. If you are having to ‘play it by eye’ then be cautious about how high you go, the type of ground you are on, and be prepared to escape quickly and safely. And that is where you navigation skills are essential; you may need to find a safe way down a mountain in poor weather under difficult conditions and the option to retrace your steps may not be available.

Conclusion

We’ve provided a simple overview of three important elements of safety in the mountains and avoided the technical detail and jargon as much as we could. Our purpose was to provide some background context for the actual ‘How To’ knowledge, skills, and understandings you will develop with time and experience.

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