Winter safety in the Scottish mountains

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Scotland’s mountains are a winter playground for thousands of hill walkers, climbers and mountaineers, with a wide range of experience levels. Examination of the fatal accident statistics for the last year shows it isn’t just novices getting into difficulties.

Sadly, 20 people have lost their lives so far in the mountains this year. Ten of these were either approaching, or on, a technical climb. Three died as a result of avalanche. Three of the others who died had literally spent a lifetime enjoying the hills.

With snow on the mountains, Mountaineering Scotland reminds everyone heading out to enjoy the hills to pause, think and prepare for the challenges that face us all in winter.

Heather Morning, Mountain Safety Adviser with Mountaineering Scotland advises: “Shorter daylight hours, dropping temperatures and the first snow on the hill are all good indicators that it is time to think about extra kit in your rucksack.

“Routes will take longer than expected in winter conditions and many people will end up finishing in the dark – so a head torch, and spare batteries, is crucial. In fact, better still is to carry a spare head torch – as anyone who has tried to change batteries in the cold and dark will testify!

“If you are heading out on the higher tops, now is the time to add crampons, rigid boots to accommodate them, an ice axe and spare essentials such as hats and winter gloves to your essential kit list.”

With temperatures at 1000m at least 10°c lower than sea level at this time of year – and feeling even lower through the effect of any wind chill – many underestimate how quickly they can feel the cold, which can turn to hypothermia within less than an hour. Extra layers are essential, such as a synthetic duvet jacket, and an emergency ‘bivvi’ bag stored in the bottom of a rucksack is highly recommended, just in case you have to be stationary on the hill for any length of time.

Those who head to the hills with friends or as part of a group are advised to invest in a lightweight, nylon group shelter. This can provide a snug spot for lunch if the weather is poor and a vital refuge if someone in a group is injured and they have to wait for help to arrive.

Want to learn more?

Every winter Mountaineering Scotland reaches out to the wider mountaineering community; teaming up with outdoor shops across the country to offer a series of free winter mountain skills talks. 11 talks are held at venues from Inverness to Edinburgh, designed to give a taster of essential skills for novices and a refresher for seasoned mountaineers.

Heather explained: “We find that an effective way to get the message out to less experienced mountain lovers or those who want to progress from summer hill walking to winter mountaineering, is to reach them through our free talks.

“Dealing with winter conditions and avalanche avoidance isn’t just a case of buying all the right gear: the right knowledge and experience is crucial.”

Mountaineering Scotland also runs a number of subsidised winter mountain skills training courses, and provides further guidance and skills videos, together with details of free talks, on their website at www.mountaineering.scot/safety-and-skills