Archive for December, 2012

Winter walking in Glen Coe, Scotland

Looking over to the approach ridge to Stob Dubh 958m

Looking over to the approach ridge to Stob Dubh 958m

The view from the col

The view from the col

View from Buchaille Etive Beag towards Stob Coire Sgreamhach


Stob Coire Raineach to Ben Nevis and Nevis Range


End of a perfect day as the sun drops over Stob Dubh

I have just returned from a four day trip to Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands for some winter walking practice. As you can see, the weather was spectacular! In fact with the temperatures well below freezing on all 4 days, the snow was deep, and crisp and even – sounds like a Christmas Carol! I stayed at the Glen Coe Youth Hostel (although there weren’t many youths!) for a very modest price. The accommodation was very clean, practical and the staff were friendly and very helpful with local knowledge. It’s right on the doorstep of some wonderful walking / climbing areas too.

Day 1 I drove north and arrived at the Glen Coe pass ready to walk by 1000 on Monday. My walk left the pass and headed up to the Buchaille Etive Beag and the snow. It wasn’t long before the snow from about 500m slowed me down as I climbed the slope. Once at the col though, the snow was hard although it was possible to kick steps up a steepish slope along the edge to about 902m. From here it looked as if the ridge to the top of Stob Dubh was icy and potentially not the best idea. So after a food stop, out came the crampons for the steep descent back down to the col to climb up to Stob Coire Raineach at 925m.

From here the view out over to Ben Nevis was clear and unobstructed – maybe later in the week if the visibility holds?

On Tuesday a short walk from the hostel after breakfast led to the foot of Sgorr na Ciche (Pap of Glencoe) and a modest 742m summit. Progress up the mountain was slow due to its steep terrain and numerous stops to watch the red deer in the morning sun. A number of groups led by a stag were all I needed to stop awhile and watch them as they watched me!  As the main part of the ascent was completed the ‘Pap’ looked down from its summit and presented a scramble over the snow covered boulders and crags for a 150m climb. Once up there, the wait was indeed worthwhile and worthy of a lunch stop to marvel at the 360 degree panorama.

The descent from the Pap was made a little more adventurous by taking a south east route towards Cnap Glas. A couple of steep snow filled rock gullies required ice axe use and careful foot placement to prevent a rapid, undignified, and potentially painful descent! At the col, a part summit of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh was achieved before light was starting to dictate a retreat across a snowy traverse before descending for the day.

Ben Nevis summit from Sgorr na Ciche

Ben Nevis summit from Sgorr na Ciche

From Sgorr na Ciche looking out over Ballachulish and Loch Linnhe

From Sgorr na Ciche looking out over Ballachulish and Loch Linnhe

The weather promised much for Wednesday, so as the Ben is only cloud free for 60 days a year, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. The day promised to be a long one – and it turned out to be so. The 1343m summit promised to be achieved through snow from at least 500m so the climb had to start early at 0900 to get up and down in relative light. The mountain track was extremely icy and made for tricky progress until the good snow line was reached at 550m. From here (Red Burn) crampons enabled safe and solid, if not quick progress up the mountain. By the time Macleans Steep was reached, I was feeling very ready for food and a brief rest. The visibility remained superb and the long walk (4 hours) was rewarded with great views although it was bitterly cold at the summit – as you can see from the rime on the covered shelter and the observatory remains. A quick lunch stop, a peer down over the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, Five Finger Gully and Gardeloo Gully and it was time to say adios and start a snowy descent.

The only wildlife I spotted on the Ben

The only wildlife I spotted on the Ben

Loch Linnhe from the Ben

Loch Linnhe from the Ben

Frozen shelter and observatory remains at the summit of Ben Nevis

Frozen shelter and observatory remains at the summit of Ben Nevis

Deep snow and blue sky makes the structures look surreal on the Ben

Deep snow and blue sky makes the structures look surreal on the Ben

The summit trig point at 1343m

The summit trig point at 1343m

Gardeloo Gully from the summit

Gardeloo Gully from the summit

No way in to the shelter today!

No way in to the shelter today!


With the last day of my mini trip left, the weather looked ready to break so the destination on Thursday was back over Rannoch Moor to the Glen Orchy area to climb the 1074m that is Beinn Dorain. Starting from the Orchy Hotel on the A82 the walk over the Auch Estate to the col was icy, difficult and not at all like the past three days. The weather was inclement to say the least with heavy cloud, wind and snow this promised to be a test of resolve looking up to where the summit should be! Cloud cover came in at 750m and visibility ranged from zero to maybe 5m at times. Once at the col, the weather turned to persistent snow and whiteout conditions. Deep snow and ice made the walk towards the summit heavy work and slow. There are three cairns on the way to the summit ridge but locating them in the whiteout was difficult and at times tricky – especially so, walking along the 350m narrow ridge to the summit.

The weather was completely different today looking towards the col

The weather was completely different today looking towards the col

Cloud cover was getting thicker

Cloud cover was getting thicker

A temporary break in the cloud

A temporary break in the cloud

Starting the descent, and the cloud cover and snow started to break up

Starting the descent, and the cloud cover and snow started to break up

From the col looking back at the rock face and the summit plateau

From the col looking back at the rock face and the summit plateau

All in all, a brilliant 4 days of winter conditions and all that remained was to hit the A82 across Rannoch Moor back towards Cumbria and book the next trip! Tired but well pleased with the week!


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Weekend avalanche service kicks off as snow takes hold on hills


The SAIS reports give forecasts for avalanche risk on Scotland's mountains

The SAIS reports give forecasts for avalanche risk on Scotland’s mountains

Walkers and climbers heading for some winter thrills on Scotland’s hills will be able to check out avalanche conditions from this weekend.

The sportscotland Avalanche Information Serviceresumes its weekend service tomorrow for two of its areas.

Reports, including forecasts for avalanche risk, will be online on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the Lochaber area and northern Cairngorms.

A full daily report for those two areas plus Creag Meagaidh, the southern Cairngorms and Glencoe will start on 13 December.

The reports will be available on the SAIS website.

The Mountain Weather Information Service is forecasting snow showers and gales, particularly on Scotland’s eastern and northern mountains tomorrow.

A brief thaw on Saturday will see some rain on the mountains before cold weather on Sunday and beyond sees a return to snowy conditions on the hills.

  • A Lake District mountain rescue team appealed to the public not to attempt to drive over mountain passes in its area.

Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team said both the Birker Fell and Hard Knott Pass roads are closed due to snow.

“Please do not cause an avoidable callout to any of the 12 volunteer teams,” a team spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, strong winds prevented the Lake District’s felltop assessor from reaching the summit of Helvellyn today to report on ground and weather conditions.

Gusts of more than 40mph (64kph) were recorded on Swirral Edge at midday today, with windchill giving the equivalent of –9C at 830m.

Fresh snow was recorded falling above 400m, with drifts up to 30cm above 600m on the mountain, England’s third highest.

The assessors, who are employed by the Lake District National Park Authority, appealed to climbers not to use winter routes on ledges and gullies on the mountain until they are in full winter condition, to avoid damaging rare vegetation.

The felltop assessor also said: “Both Striding and Swirral Edge are covered with a considerable amount of loose snow and exposed rocks are plastered with rime ice.

“As is usual in these conditions, the steep final exit ramps from both these edges are guarded by large accumulations of windslab. Cornices are also continuing to form above east- through to south-facing slopes so please keep well back from the edge in these areas.

“Anyone heading onto the high fells should be adequately prepared, with clothing and equipment suitable for winter conditions. An ice axe and crampons are essential for those going above the snowline and tackling steep or technical ground.”

Forecasts and reports from the assessors are on the Lake District Weatherline.

Liz Roberts, Reporter
Thursday 06 December 2012 05:23 PM GMT
Last updated at Thursday 06 December 2012 07:18 PM GMT

Gear up for winter, say Penrith rescuers, after stranded health staff aided


Winter conditions are still to be found on many Lakeland felltops

Winter conditions are still to be found on many Lakeland felltops

Rescuers in the Lake District are urging hillgoers to be prepared for the conditions with many felltops covered in ice and snow.

Penrith Mountain Rescue Team said crampons and ice axe are essential pieces of kit for walkers heading for the mountains.

The warning came after the team was called out to help two health visitors stuck in icy conditions in a remote area near Brampton.

The team was alerted at 1.30pm yesterday. A spokesperson said: “Unfortunately their vehicle had become stuck on an ice-covered road.

“A team Land Rover was used to drive the health visitors to their patient, and return them to their vehicle which was soon helped on its way.

“Three team members were involved for two hours.

“Now that the cold weather has arrived it is important to be prepared for snow and ice, whether making a journey or going on the hills.

“Warm clothing is essential; if you are driving ensure you have a shovel to spread grit. If you are going on to the hills don’t forget your crampons and ice axe.”

The Mountain Weather Information Service is forecasting heavy hail and snow showers for the Lake District, with winds on the hills near gale force.

Intermittent snow is likely throughout the week on Britain’s mountains, the independent meteorological service said.

John McHale, Reporter
Sunday 02 December 2012 09:42 PM GMT

Hypothermia can kill: how to spot it, treat it and prevent it


Severe weather increases the risk of hypothermia

Severe weather increases the risk of hypothermia

Ian Winterburn is a fellrunner. He’s also a qualified Mountain Leader and member of the Woodhead Mountain Rescue Team in Yorkshire, so he knows quite a bit about what happens when things go wrong on the hill.

Ian wrote the following article about the dangers of hypothermia with runners in mind, but its insights are useful for all of us who venture into the great outdoors, especially as the colder months have arrived.

It is well known fellrunners do not like carrying heavy spare kit. We want to feel free in the elements and be as unencumbered as possible.

For most of us keeping cool on a big climb is generally more of a concern than how to keep warm.

Ian Winterburn, Mountain Leader, fellrunner and rescue team member

Ian Winterburn, Mountain Leader, fellrunner and rescue team member

Red faces and sweaty bodies are nature’s way of regulating our temperature in such conditions but as we know they can only go so far and we sometimes need to provide nature with assistance to cool ourselves down.

Our bodies have converse methods to keep us warm when we actually reach the top of the hill or pause to eat. Again, while very efficient, and really quite a feat of engineering, our bodies can only do so much to combat the cold.

And this is where travelling too light can create a problem as we may not have the means to bolster our bodies’ inbuilt responses.

Hypothermia is the dominant cause in most fellrunner deaths.

It is also, if not the prime cause, then a secondary concern in many mountain rescue callouts.

On the hill the condition is generally seen as exhaustion hypothermia. This is an insidious condition: it creeps up so slowly that its victims do not notice the symptoms of its gradual onset. The alternative, immersion hypothermia, is brought about by sudden heat loss typically caused by falling in water – or a particularly large bog.

As humans we operate most effectively with a body temperature of around 37C.

When heat is allowed to leave our bodies without being replaced the temperature will drop. A very small loss is all it takes for the early stages of hypothermia to start to take hold.

This is something we will all have experienced at one time or other and is characterised by the shivering that we all recognise as our bodies’ way of telling us to put on an extra fleece, eat something sugary or drink something warm.

However, shivering while running is not reliable as it is hard to shiver and run, thus while running and losing heat the runner may lower their core temperature significantly and only start shivering when they stop.

Keeping cool on a big climb is important for fellrunners

Keeping cool on a big climb is important for fellrunners

Feeling cold, poor decision making, poor concentration – eg navigation errors, fatigue, and irritable mood are also all early signs.

The body’s energy needs also increase in mild hypothermia because the sugars are used to create heat, and by the muscular effort of shivering. Heart rate and breathing initially increase to help with the increased demand, but then reduce as shivering stops.

Shivering cannot be absolutely relied upon as an indicator of cold as pain from an injury may prevent it, so making sure an injured person is kept warm is important both in terms of preventing shock and hypothermia.

Once the body is down to 35C it is now suffering from mild hypothermia.

As your temperature drops the body decides that it is fighting a losing battle in trying to raise the temperature of the whole so concentrates its efforts purely on survival.

As the body cools further, shivering will stop. The body is now becoming severely hypothermic. You will stop shivering but not because you are getting warm. Blood will be drawn into the core. Heart rate and breathing will slow down.

Hillwalkers are at risk of exhaustion hypothermia

Hillwalkers are at risk of exhaustion hypothermia

As blood cools it becomes more viscous, takes more effort to pump round and is less able to carry oxygen. Without sufficient oxygen the body cannot metabolise sugars so energy levels drop further creating a vicious cycle. Being dehydrated will exacerbate the problems.

As the cooling continues the victim may become incoherent and display ‘the umbles’: grumbling, mumbling, stumbling, fumbling, tumbling, and become apathetic or irrational. Skin will become pale and clammy – remember to check under clothing as well as the exposed bits.

It may sound like a parody but lips and fingers really do turn blue. Blood should usually take two seconds to return to the skin on a fleshy extremity after pressure is applied with finger and thumb. If it takes longer than this it is an indication circulation is slowing down.

Stages of hypothermiaBelow 32C, consciousness is often lost and the heart beat can become irregular. The body no longer has the energy to make the muscles work to generate heat so stops trying and releases the blood it has managed to keep warm into the full circulatory system.

It is this that results in the phenomenon of a hypothermic person sometimes taking off all their clothes and complaining of being too hot. At 28C a cardiac arrest is almost a certainty.

So, how should we respond to a hypothermia victim?

Well first, remember you are the most important person there. Helping others is all very commendable but creating a second victim by getting cold yourself will help no one.

Prevent further heat loss by putting on dry clothing, find shelter, insulate from the ground and rewarm the body slowly. Don’t forget to remove wet clothing; the body cools much quicker when wet.

Get off the hill if possible. Do not apply direct heat, eg heat pads, standing in front of a fire, sitting on a radiator.

Mountain rescuers have a saying: 'victim is not dead until they are warm and dead'

Mountain rescuers have a saying: ‘victim is not dead until they are warm and dead’

Warm, sweet drinks, high energy food and gels will help replace lost energy and warm from the inside out if the casualty is able to swallow. Do not give alcohol or caffeine. Treatment and movements should be gentle as rough handling, rapid movements and vigorous rubbing can cause cold blood to rush to heart and brain.

This is likely to cause ventricular fibrillation – otherwise known as a cardiac arrest.

If the casualty is unconscious check the airway, but if you cannot find a pulse do not attempt resuscitation unless you can keep up cardio-pulmonary resuscitation until you can get to a hospital.

There is a mountain rescue adage that a hypothermic victim is not dead until they are warm and dead. Survival rates from hypothermia can still be quite high even for those found with no apparent signs of life.

Dressing for the conditions can help prevent hypothermia

Dressing for the conditions can help prevent hypothermia

Finally, never underestimate the value of encouragement and a good hug; a positive attitude and shared body heat can make a massive difference to recovery.

Of course prevention is better than cure.

Basic physics states that energy can be conserved and converted. In fellrunning terms that is: wearing the right clothes and eating the right foods.

Make sure you take on enough food before and during a run. Recognising when you need to take in more food and water, when energy levels are dropping and you are in danger of pushing yourself too far is key, not only to improving performance but, preventing hypothermia.

It’s worth bearing in mind that if you are recovering from an illness, particularly cold or flu, you are much more susceptible.

Make sure you understand the gradual effects of cold and make allowances for windchill. Warm, dry clothing is important in staving off both immersion and exhaustion hypothermia.

Pay particular attention to the extremities, especially head, neck and hands. When checking for a pulse, it is particularly important to keep these ‘arterial’ areas warm. They have a high volume of blood, close to the surface of the skin. Think how we instinctively tuck our chins on to our chests and hide in a high collar when it’s cold, but ‘expose’ our necks when it’s warm. These are examples of the body instinctively doing the right thing.

Dress for the conditions

We have all seen runners on cold days in vest and shorts that must use more energy keeping warm than keeping their legs moving. Minimum kit levels are decreed by Fell Runners Association race rules but consider whether minimum kit is sufficient for your needs and then use it.

In the 2007 Edale Skyline a number of runners were afflicted with hypothermia despite carrying minimum kit. In some cases it was because they were indeed carrying it rather than wearing it and eating it.

Runners have to carry minimum kit in races

Runners have to carry minimum kit in races

Marshalls reported having to dress and feed runners because fingers were no longer capable of opening a bum-bag or gel pack. Interestingly, this occurred more with faster runners, who presumably thought they were not going to be out long enough to get hypothermic or were generating sufficient heat through their running, than the slower ones.

In respect of other kit, survival bags are better than blankets for retaining heat. Plastic backed foil does not tear as easily as foil on its own whilst retaining a weight benefit over plastic alone. Remember however foil only works with reflected heat. If you are very cold, there is little heat to be reflected back. If you are going out as a group think about sharing the weight to include a group shelter and emergency kit, especially at night.

It can take experience and a brave decision not to push on, especially when in a group. Always work to the ability and condition of the weakest member of the group and perhaps arrange a buddy system to make sure everyone has an eye kept on them.

In any combination of wet, wind and cold be more cautious. These are the killers. As a general rule, if conditions are such that you have to ask whether to go on, the answer is probably ‘no’.

Our bodies have remarkable ability to generate and conserve heat but in extremes of environment we need to give a helping hand.

Many thanks to the doctors and medics of Woodhead Mountain Rescue Team for their input in verifying the technical details and to my fellow fellrunner for his honesty in providing the case study below.

Case Study

This incident happened at Tanky’s Trog as remembered by those who were there.

The runner’s story…..

Around Hey Moss before the first checkpoint I took a dunking in a bog. I went in over my waist but as I was running the momentum of moving forward caused my body to flop forward when I was already waist deep.

As a result all the front of my chest and neck became wet. I got out and carried on through checkpoint one over the road and towards Lawrence Edge.

As we started to climb up we were hit by the hailstorm. I started to feel a little cooler but not cold.

Cold and wet conditions can lead to hypothermia

Cold and wet conditions can lead to hypothermia

Once at the top we started running again. I started feeling tired and lethargic. I thought I was starting to bonk a bit so I had some jelly babies and an oat biscuit – during this time we (I was running with my mate Chris; we had agreed beforehand to stick together) slowed down to a run-walk. I was feeling OK apart from having no energy.

Chris was talking to me and said I seemed ‘normal’ but I couldn’t shake off the lethargy and get moving properly again.
We stopped for a minute and I put on my mountain windproof over my other tops. I already had on two long sleeved tops, club vest with my OMM smock over the top as well as a hat and tights.

We then saw a mountain rescue guy about 1km from Snake Pass.

We stopped and spoke to him for a minute and he gave me half a cup of coffee. After drinking the coffee I felt a lot better; unfortunately it didn’t last long. I then told Chris that I was going to retire at the next checkpoint as I didn’t feel up to it.

Once at Snake Pass I told Chris to leave me and that I would make my own way down the road to checkpoint two. By the time I got to Birchen Clough car park I felt lousy. Being a cheeky bugger I asked a guy in a Saab estate, who was supporting some other runners, if he would give me a lift to the Snake Inn which he did. Once there I retired from the race and went inside to keep warm.

In the pub I stripped off my wet tops and put a dry one on, got a coffee and some food from the bar – glad I didn’t get a pint or who knows what state I would have been in.

I stood next to the fire to warm through – this was a big mistake. Once by the fire I started shivering slightly; this was the first time I had shivered all day. The shivering became a bit more violent. I ordered another coffee.

Exhaustion during races can contribute to the onset of the condition

Exhaustion during races can contribute to the onset of the condition

Shortly afterwards one of the mountain rescue medics came in. The barmaid was a little bit concerned about me and asked if they could check me out.

I agreed to this. I then heard a voice say: do you realise your face and lips are blue? ‘No’, was the answer. Then someone asked me to stick my tongue out, and I heard someone say your tongue is blue.

I am not a doctor but I know that wasn’t a good sign. The MR medic and doctor put their hands in to my armpit and said I was very cold.

The next five to 10 minutes are a bit of a blur but I remember been asked if I minded stripping off my damp socks and leggings and putting some more dry clothes on.

Again I agreed and before I knew it I had been stripped and redressed in dry warm clothes, moved away from the fire, my feet elevated and I was given two sweet cups of hot chocolate, had a gel pack squeezed in to my mouth and a temperature probe shoved under my arm pit. My core temperature was recorded at 33.4C – not good.

My pulse was checked and was 89bpm which I am told is fairly high. My details were taken and a log filled out.
In among all the above a brief discussion was held by the mountain rescuers about calling the air ambulance out – thankfully it didn’t come to that.

The MR team then monitored and chatted to me for the next 45 minutes until my core temperature rose to 36.9C
By this time Chris had finished the race and driven around to the Snake Inn. He retrieved my warm dry clothes from the car and I changed in to those before been sent on my way

On reflection hypothermia snuck up on me. Chris and I kept talking to one another and looking out for any symptoms as we ran but there were not the obvious ones like shivering, confusion, slurred speech. With hindsight other more subtle symptoms were there like coldness, tiredness and lack of energy but these can also be the product of a day out on a cold hill…..

The Medic’s Story

The casualty had already been seen by me in the car park and I had offered him a blanket which he refused. Interesting how he can’t remember talking to me and the team doctor after being dropped off.

He sat right in front of the fire which caused a rapid redistribution of warm and cold blood causing classic ‘after drop’. His two cups of coffee were espresso, the caffeine content of which would help along the hypothermia by stimulating him further. Caffeine, like alcohol, predisposes a person to hypothermia.

The lift in the car would have further added to the cooling process as he had stopped exercising. Humans are homoeothermic: we generate heat through exercise.

The lethargy he describes is the early onset symptoms of hypothermia. By the time he hit the pub he was probably heading into the second stages which had been helped by incredibly rapid rewarming in front of that fire. Being a fit fellrunner probably helped fight off unconsciousness; less fit individuals might not have been so fortunate.

He was given sweet warm food and drink, glucogel (23g 40 per cent dextrose), and changed wet for dry clothes and put into a casualty bag – a big fleece sleeping bag – at the back of the pub away from the fire.

The doctor will concur that the casualty was borderline severe hypothermia, and if left untreated would most probably have lost consciousness in the pub – it was his fitness that kept him fighting on so long.

By Ian Winterburn

Ash-dieback: advice to walkers and climbers

Posted by Ed Douglas on 09/11/2012
Ash trees: under a shadow.

The arrival of the fungus chalara fraxinea in Britain has cast a shadow over the future of one of Britain’s iconic tree species. Climbers and hill walkers can play their part in spotting the disease, but, as Ed Douglas reports, the government’s best scientific advice suggests access restrictions won’t help.

Following an unprecedented effort across Britain to identify areas where Chalara has infected trees in the wider environment, the Government last week brought together scientists, campaigners, charitable groups and woodland agencies to discuss what action should be taken.  The immediateplan of action was agreed at the Government’s emergency committee COBR, which Mr Paterson chaired on Friday 9th November.

The news about the latest threat to our woodland is grim.  A further six counties reported cases of ash-dieback last week, bringing the total to ten in England. A total of 129 cases have been reported. By tomorrow that figure will certainly be higher.

Our woodlands and forests provide unique places to explore and are popular with walkers and climbers alike,” says Dr Cath Flitcroft from the BMC’s access and conservation team.

“Across England alone, there are over 70 individual climbing crags situated within the Forestry Commission Estate and there are many more situated on privately owned woodlands.”

The BMC’s own crags, including Horseshoe Quarry in the Peak District and Harrison’s Rocks in East Sussex, are at threat from the fungus.

Choosing the best course through a crisis is never easy. But the government’s own information from its chief scientific advisor Sir John Beddington offers some clues.

The advice, drawn from relevant published research, suggests the disease spreads via wind-blown spores, which may be dispersed up to 30km, and that it infects ash trees through their leaves. Infection most usually occurs in July and August.

Longer distance spread occurs via infected plants, like those found recently in nurseries in East Anglia. There is also some evidence that it can be spread through wood products.

The advice to Defra is that the risk of dispersal on clothing and footwear, or via animals or birds, is low, although theoretically possible.

This suggests that the government’s advice to wash children and dog’s paws after visiting woodlands may be unnecessary.

It certainly indicates that a proposed access ban reported by the Daily Telegraph and denied by Defra would be a waste of time and unnecessarily damaging to the rural economy.

The BMC continues to advise its members to comply with the advice of the Forestry Commission while the spread of the disease is better understood.

The BMC urges members and supporters to report potential sightings of infected trees to the Forestry Commission in the hope that the impacts of this disease can be minimised.

If you have a smartphone, you can download the new Ashtag app to submit photos and locations of suspected ash dieback and help map the spread of the disease.

In the longer term, the BMC will continue to campaign with other outdoor bodies to deliver the recommendations of Independent Panel on Forestry report, including the Tree Health and Plant Bio-security Action Plan.

There is huge potential for England’s woodlands to contribute to a sustainable economic revival, to improve the health and well-being of the nation, and to provide better and more connected places for nature. Access must be right at the heart of that.

Winter climbing: conditions apply Posted by Rob Dyer on 06/12/2012


Brian Seery out in well frozen conditions. Photo: Rob Dyer

The first snows of the year have fallen in England and Wales. But before you head off to the mountains, here’s a reminder from access officer Rob Dyer on the importance of minimising winter climbing’s impact on the cliff environment.

Snow. A magical medium that has even the most jaded climber rushing around like a kid. Once again, the annual frenzy of checking online conditions reports, sharpening tools and planning for the weekend is underway.

Winter climbing is fantastic and as anyone who has swung a tool in the UK will tell you, the adventures you can have in our hills when they’re plastered in snow, rime and ice stay with you for a lifetime. But before you get started, I want you to take a quick look at how we interact with rare plants when climbing with ice tools.

Winter routes often follow drainage lines and vegetated rock, which also provide habitat for some incredibly rare arctic alpine plant species. We are fortunate in England and Wales because our mountain crags hold some of the most southern populations of these plants.

We’re only now discovering some of these precious populations. Thanks to overzealous Victorian plant collectors and upland sheep, they’re very scarce. Many remaining populations are only found in inaccessible places where they have been safe from hungry sheep and greedy collectors – steep rocky crags.

Conflict between winter climbing and conservation is a real possibility. If a route is climbed when its turf is out of condition, the areas inhabited by arctic alpines are sometimes so small that an entire population could be destroyed in one ascent.

The traditional conservation view might have been to ban climbing on any cliffs holding these rare plant species. So all credit to Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales for recognising that this conflict can be easily avoided by following a few simple guidelines.

The most important point to remember is that routes relying on turf or frozen vegetation should only be climbed when they’re frozen hard. Providing the turf is fully frozen, environmental damage will be minimal.

Fully frozen turf has long been considered by winter climbers to be crucial for the obvious reason that unfrozen turf can be ripped off and the character of the route may change drastically. So if the turf is soft or loose, if your tools rip through it or remove chunks, or if there’s dirt on your picks after removing them – don’t climb.

Some of the common locations for arctic alpine plants include the shaded sides and bottoms of gullies, cracks, seepages that form into thin ice smears and cushions, and hummocks of turf on rock slabs and faces. Be extra careful when using turf in these locations to ensure it is well frozen.

Snow can sometimes insulate turf and prevent it from freezing, while making the crag appear to be in full winter condition. This often happens if there isn’t a significant period of cold weather to freeze the ground prior to snow falling. Don’t assume that turf will be frozen if the crag is plastered in the white stuff – check first before committing to a turfy line.

On gully lines, unfrozen turf will not be a problem, providing conditions are banked out and any vegetation is buried underneath plenty of protective snow or ice.

After a long journey to the mountains or waiting all winter for conditions to come good, it’s easy to get sucked into doing the route you wanted to do in marginal conditions – we’ve all been there at some point.

Hopefully this article will encourage you to pause for thought next time conditions don’t seem quite right. Unfrozen turf doesn’t have to mean a wasted day. Flexible plans are the key to making a success of marginal days.

Routes that aren’t reliant on turf or a day of winter walking are both excellent alternatives. Paying heed to the simple points above means that turf and frozen vegetation will survive undamaged and winter climbing and conservation can happily co-exist for future generations.

Crampons for Mortals, by Alex Messenger


What should you look for in a pair of crampons?

Anti-bot, Rambo, mono point, air tech, strap-on, front-points, spurs, 10-point, 12-point.

How can crampons be so confusing – after all they’re just artificial claws for humans who’ve forgotten how to sharpen their own toes.

What should you look for when heading to the hills – and shops – this winter?

Sharp shopping You’re in the shop, gazing at the sharpest and most extreme looking crampons on display. Stop! Before you go anywhere near the shelves you need to ask yourself two questions: what boots will I be wearing with my new crampons and what are my walking aspirations. Which boots If money wasn’t an issue for us mortals then we’d all have a dozen pairs of boots for every conceivable outdoor situation.

Most of us have a summer pair of walking boots and a heavier pair of winter boots. Potentially both can be used with a pair of crampons but if your boots and crampons are not compatible, then they’ll part company very quickly. Crampons generally fall into three groups (flexible, semi-rigid and rigid) and the more flexible your boots then the more flexible your crampons will have to be.

Stiffness test Instead of picking your boots up to test stiffness, compressing them like some cobbler’s arm trainer, why not use your body weight instead? Put your walking socks and boots on and find a sharp stone step. If you can balance, feet horizontal, with only two cm of sole on the step then your boots are pretty stiff (boots this stiff are often referred to as B3). If you can only stand on the edge of the step by moving your boot in further then clearly they are more flexible (mildly flexible boots are referred to as B2). If you can only balance with around five cm on the step then you’ve probably put your slippers on by accident (think B0/1).

This test will help you when you go to the shops, equally you could always take your boots shopping. Right tools It’s not all bad news if your boots are not as stiff as you thought – flexible boots are nicer to walk in and a winter walking day is often split into thirds: one third walking in without crampons, one third walking up and down the snowier bits of a hill with crampons, and one third walking out again. You just need to match the crampon to the boot.

A very stiff pair of crampons would probably ping off at a crucial moment, so you’ll probably be looking for a semi-rigid crampon that will flex slightly as you walk. Look into crampons that fall into the C2 category – these are the all-rounders of the crampon world, great for walking and easy climbing. If your boots are very flexible then you’ll have to go for some very flexible crampons (C1), these are often strap-on as opposed to clip-on. They can be very comfortable but will take far more energy to use on steeper ground.

Get to the point Years ago crampons only used to have eight downward pointing spikes, but folk quickly discovered that you had to have incredible ankle flexibility to go up slopes; front-points were added and the modern crampon was born. Now you get all sorts of combinations but more points equals more weight and for walking a ten-point crampon will do you fine (they lack a secondary set of points immediately behind the front-points to provide stability when climbing). Your legs will thank you for saving the weight.

Don’t wait too late I once saw a climber walking down the stairs in a posh Scottish hotel with his crampons on – the staff didn’t look best pleased and walking to the van wasn’t very pretty. Put your crampons on when it increases safety, otherwise leave them off, but deciding the exact spot takes experience. With a semi-stiff pair of boots you should be able to kick a small horizontal step as you walk in compacted snow but once it gets harder to do so then it’s time to stop and find a flat spot to put your crampons on. Keep looking ahead and checking what the ground is like – you never want to get caught out and have to reverse over icy ground.

You may well find yourself putting your crampons on and off again several times during the day – this takes time but with practice you should be able to put your crampons on in under three minutes.

Once this is mastered, you’ll not get cold and other folk with you will not get frustrated; there’s nothing like waiting in a blizzard to test your friendship. Don’t ever be afraid to stop and crampon-up, even if others around you are not. Home time Planning when to de-crampon on the descent is not easy but unlike walking up a hill, walking down is going with gravity; it’s always easier to fall over going down a path than up. It’s easy to catch a crampon point or misplace a foot so plant your feet carefully and take your time.

Don’t leave it too late though; driving in crampons is very difficult!

Ed Chard (MIC) is a self-employed Mountain Instructor and Development Officer for the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI), the representative body for all professionally qualified mountaineering instructors in the UK and Ireland.

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