Mountain Incidents – how to avoid them

Heading into the mountains means different things to different people. It can involve escapism, physical challenge, camaraderie or perhaps freedom. Whatever our motivation we want to enjoy the mountains safely. As a member of the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team (one of the busiest teams in the UK) I get to see my fair share of mountain incidents. These range from people lost & frightened through to serious injuries and fatalities.

It is worth remembering that the mountains can be hostile and dangerous places as well as offering some of the most beautiful and peaceful wilderness available to us. In the mountain skills courses that I run as a Mountaineering Instructor I place the emphasis on incident avoidance. Lets have a look at the most common incidents and how to avoid them.

Getting Lost: The most fundamental mountain skill is the ability to navigate with a map and compass. A large proportion of mountain incidents that we see here in Britain stem from a lack of navigation skills. If you want to enjoy the mountains safely then you will benefit from being able to plan a route, interpret contours, use a compass, estimate distance and follow your planned route in any weather. Many of the phone calls that we get on the rescue team are as a result of people going the wrong way, either onto serious ground that they never intended to place themselves on or simply getting misplaced so that they no longer know where they are.

Once you have planned your route let someone know what it is and give them a time that you are likely to be back and then a time by which they should summon Mountain Rescue if they have not heard from you. If you use mapping software you can simply print off the route for them. Otherwise you can use tracing paper or a photocopy or simply a written description of the route you will take.

It is a good idea to have a couple of different route options to allow for the weather, however make sure that the person who has a copy knows which option you have taken.

The simple slip: The most common injury that we see in the mountains is the lower leg injury caused by a simple slip. This can be a twisted ankle, a dislocation or a break. The best way to avoid this is to wear walking boots that have a good grippy sole and some ankle support. You can also learn to walk steadily using small steps that maximise efficiency and balance, placing feet carefully and thinking about your body positioning with each step. Watch how somebody who is experienced moves and copy them. When was the last time you saw a shepherd run? You could also consider investing in some First Aid skills. These can be invaluable in all walks of life, I seem to use mine more often in Road Traffic incidents than on the mountains – perhaps that says something about my driving!

The weather: People are often surprised by the ferocity of mountain weather. Wind speeds will often be 3 times that of the valley once you are on the summits and on a clear day the temperature will drop by 1 degree for every 100 metres of height gain. That can mean that it is 14 degrees colder on the summit of the Ben than it is in Fort William. Check the weather forecast before you go. The Met Office and MWIS do mountain specific forecasts that will tell you summit temperatures and wind speeds. I try not to be too specific about my plans until I read the forecast in the morning. If the wind speeds are above 35mph I will avoid exposed ridges. In winter I need to know where the freezing level is so that I can pack axes and crampons if necessary.

Winter Hazards: When snow and ice cloak the mountains they offer far more challenge. The daylight hours are shorter, the days more physical, temperatures are obviously a lot lower, the potential for a slip much greater and the weather more ferocious. There is also the added risk of avalanches across the UK.

Benightment: Its amazing how often during the autumn and winter months we are called to help people who have been benighted. It should not be a surprise when it gets dark, it happens every night! Plan your route realistically allowing for plenty of time to get back before it gets dark and carry a headtorch in case you do get it wrong. This will mean that you still have your hands free to navigate, sort out gloves etc

What kit to carry: You can reduce the likelihood of being caught out by carrying some kit with you that will help you deal with any weather that the mountains might choose to throw at you. Get into the habit of carrying emergency kit. In summer conditions I carry a good quality waterproof jacket and trousers, spare warm layers, a couple of pairs of hats and gloves, food & drink for the day, a first aid kit, a group shelter and some form of emergency warmth. Choose your clothing so that you wear wicking layers next to the skin, avoiding cotton such as jeans. Make sure you have a map of the area and a couple of compasses (one as a spare) plus a head torch and spare batteries in case you get caught out at night. See Tech Skills for more info on shelters, torches etc. You can be pretty sure that your kit will get wet and rucksacks are not waterproof so put it in drybags. I like a range of sizes, say one for hats and gloves, another for first aid etc rather than one big bag that will get wet inside when I open it in the rain.
Calling for help:
If you carry a mobile phone this will make it easier for you to summon help if you need it. You should call 999 or 112 and ask for the Police and then Mountain Rescue.

Even if you have no phone signal it is worth making an attempt to call as your phone may be able to patch onto another network. If this happens then the Rescue Team will be unable to call you back so it is important to give as much information as possible in the first call. Useful info includes:

Your location
The nature of any injuries
Your equipment
The weather
Number of people in your group and if children are present

You can register your phone with the emergency services to allow you to text 999 in the event of a poor signal or poor weather.

Keep your phone on and try and have an accurate position as to where you are. If you are lost then the team will ask you to describe your location and then when team members are nearby you will be asked to make lots of noise. A whistle is handy for this as are a good pair of lungs! Don’t be afraid to ask for help from passing walkers – they might be able to save the team members a long walk!
Enjoy the mountains
I am a firm believer in the need to serve an apprenticeship in the mountains. If you take the time to start off small and progress onto larger wilder mountains as your skills increase then you can enjoy the mountains without scaring yourself! If you are confident walking the main paths then you can consider getting off the beaten track, perhaps progressing onto scrambling or winter walking. Above all have fun and enjoy where you are, Britain has some of the most diverse and beautiful mountain scenery anywhere in the world.
Further Reading:

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