A key part of reducing a team’s exposure to risk on a climb is the quality of the information about the mountain and the conditions they are likely to encounter.
Whether it is a day climb in Scotland or a Him
an peak, time spent researching is an investment. Climbers are good at setting clear goals; successful ones are masters of making the right decision in view of conditions.
Three types of information I require when planning a trip are snow conditions; weather conditions and local knowledge. Of course when we actually arrive, things may be different as conditions change, but as we gathered as much information as possible beforehand, we are in strong a position to respond.
Today’s access to the Internet via mobiles provides mountaineers in remote locations with critical data on snow conditions and weather, as well as forums where other climbers report on recent conditions they’ve experienced.
In Scotland during the winter, the Scottish Avalanche Information Service provides daily reports online from five key locations. This is a superb service, which when viewed carefully alongside a weather forecast, allows a leader to choose an appropriate route. I value the fact that the report is written by an expert who has been on the mountain that day. They often have images too. For specific climbing conditions, there are also a number of excellent blogs.
Climbers should always seek local knowledge where possible. In the Alps, for example, there are known black spots where, during certain conditions, history has shown that climbers and skiers get into difficulty. The approach couloir to the refuge on the ascent of Mont Blanc is a case in point. Knowing how dangerous it is beforehand means you can plan to climb it early when the ground is hopefully frozen and to climb it quickly! Many of the guardians of alpine mountain refuges are retired mountain guides and can advise you on the conditions on your planned route – it would be churlish not to ask an expert who lives at the base of the mountain. I am fortunate to have a network of mountain guides and leaders who are out in the mountains most days. Speaking with them is useful before I lead my own team.
On large-scale expeditions to the greater ranges, leaders may well have access to the Internet via satellite phones: on smaller, lightweight expeditions that is not always possible. To show how critical accurate weather information can be, I have a story. In 1998, we attempted a mountain in Patagonia called Fitzroy, which sometimes will receive no ascents in an entire season. The weather in Patagonia is so unpredictable that even if you wake up to a still, blue sky day, you always dread that hurricane winds are just around the corner. This is what happened to us; halfway up, the weather closed in and we descended. A few years ago, we returned and instead of basing ourselves right beneath the mountain, we made our basecamp much lower in the town of El Chalten. As well as having bars and restaurants to relax in, it meant we had access to the Internet, specifically to the NOAA site where we could extract data and make predictions on wind speed and direction and then plan our ascent. We strategically placed all our equipment beneath the 4,000 foot wall and waited patiently in the town. The climb was very difficult, but we made it, getting down just before a scheduled big storm. Without that information we would have been relying simply on luck and may not have even had the confidence to set off.