Be Avalanche Aware this winter
How knowledgeable are you on avalanches, how to read the terrain and weather conditions to help avoid them? Would you know what to do if you were caught in one?
This article is a reminder focusing on how to make safe decisions when going out onto the UK mountains this coming winter. Whatever your winter sport, be it winter walking, mountaineering, climbing or skiing, the same decision-making process will apply. We will look at what we do before going to the hills and once we get there, based on the crucial ‘Be Avalanche Aware Guidelines’ (BAA), devised to enable people to make their own informed judgments at every stage of a journey.
Safety begins long before you set foot on the mountain, and the planning stage of any trip is one which should never be skimped. There are three broad areas to consider: weather and conditions, you and your party, and the mountain landscape.
For weather and conditions you should read the avalanche reports at www.sais.gov.uk or the mountain forecast from www.metoffice.gov.uk You can also get a definitive mountain weather forecast at www.mwis.org.uk , paying attention to wind speed and direction, precipitation, and temperature. Check on the map where you intend to visit and, using the forecast wind direction, work out where windblown deposits of new snow will most likely build – which is on the lee slopes. And don’t forget to seek additional information from others who know the place you are visiting. Blogs can be useful for additional information, but you should choose wisely.
Considering yourself and your party, make sure you all have a common objective and a shared ethos that it’s okay to turn around is anyone is not happy. Remember: a party is only as strong as its least experienced member. Good clothing and equipment, plus the ability to use the equipment, is essential. The ability to navigate in poor visibility is also an essential winter skill and you will only be able to do this if your equipment is up to the test.
Regarding the mountain landscape, you must think about the sort of terrain you will be crossing and remember that most avalanches occur on slopes steeper than 30°. Use the slope gradient tool on the back of the BAA guidelines leaflet or, if using a 1:50 000 scale map, be aware that when the measurement between two index contours is less than 2mm then the slope will be over 30°. This will help you when considering the 3 A’s of avalanche awareness – altitude, aspect and angle. It’s also useful to be aware that wind will transport snow from speeds of 10 - 15mph and above.
And remember: longer planning time will be required if visiting complex mountaineering terrain. The planning stage is the make or break of any day out. Don’t underestimate the time that should be spent on this. Make sure you have more than one plan which is equally well thought out before you go.
Your mountain journey
Constantly observe weather and snow conditions while you are travelling to your chosen venue and adjust your plans accordingly.
Pay attention to underfoot conditions and, as far as visibility will allow, consider wind speed and direction, the amount of wind blown snow and the temperature.
Before you set off, ask if you and your group are equipped as expected and how do the conditions compare with what you expected. Once you are underway, consider whether you and your group are coping with the conditions.
In terms of the mountain landscape, review whether the shape and angle of the ground is as you expected – and look to see where the fresh snow is lying and whether it will affect your planned route.
Through good planning nothing should come as a surprise once on your journey. But if, through your observations, any of the above are not meeting your expectations then stop and consider the most appropriate alternative plan.
Examples of a ‘key place’ are the approach slope to a climb/route, or a descent of a slope/gully etc. A key place during your day should be as you expected through your good planning and observations while journeying to your desired location. If it isn’t then don’t ignore the signs and live to fight another day!
To learn more about the Be Avalanche Aware Guidelines, with a downloadable pdf advice sheet, visit www.beaware.sais.gov.uk/.
Consider doing an Avalanche Awareness course. We run 2 levels.
We have a full playlist of safety and skills videos on our youtube channel.