1 ‘The Mountain has no idea that you are an expert!’
I try and remember this phrase. Even if you have been climbing for years, or are an experienced leader, or have been to a particular mountain many times before, remain vigilant. A good leader will use intuition and observation before setting out and will continuously re-assess en route: always try and view things with fresh eyes.
Forecasts cannot be relied upon 100%. Mountains have micro-climates, and weather in the mountains can change quickly. So ask questions.
• Does the weather mirror what the forecast predicted?
• Is it raining instead of snowing or snowing more than expected? Are the rocks plastered in snow?
• Are the temperatures higher than predicted?
• What is the wind direction and its strength?
• Are there snow plumes blowing off ridges up high?
• Is there evidence of wind scouring some slopes and loading others?
• Is the visibility poor, so you can’t see much?
Simply walking on snow can give clues too. Windslab often squeaks underfoot and is a chalky-white colour.
Avalanche debris and points where an avalanche has released are important signs. Does the colour of the debris indicate it is a recent incident? If it was a slab avalanche, then there will normally be a crown wall where the slab triggered. Avalanches triggered by the sun or a falling stone may have a single release point before fanning out to a wider zone.
If approaching a climb by foot from the valley, altitude is gained gradually and changes can be observed in the snowpack. Using lifts mean you are essentially dropped into an environment where you may have no sense of the snowpack.
It is always good to check if the terrain you find matches that which you visualized from studying maps and images. Not all mountain ranges of the world have accurate maps – believe me!
As a leader, I always like to have a plan B, both for the ascent and the descent. On Ben Nevis, for example, some climbers use Number 4 gully to descend, but in certain snow conditions it might be better to take the longer tourist path. Cornices can form quickly at the top of Number 4 gully and the upper part of the gully has a slope angle that falls into the 25-45 degrees bracket – statistically where most large windslab avalanches are likely to occur. Conditions might develop during the ascent, meaning you need to adjust your plan for the descent.
5 Ground level
As well as observing aspect and angle of slope, try and understand what the snowpack is anchored to at ground level, via the map. Is the slope anchored to a scree slope, or simply lying on a rock slab or grass slope?
6 Safe route choice – understand the consequences
It is important to consider terrain traps. I often look at a route and think, if a slope avalanches above us, where am I and my team going to end up? Sometimes walking a flat river valley can feel benign, but if a slope above does trigger the debris may bury us.
Another scenario is where we are on a path above a steep cliff – even a small slide could make us lose our footing. The consequences are grave.
A good exercise on a nice day where you have time is to test each other by tracing a good, safe route and then justifying your choice. On more challenging days, discuss the decisions that are being made with the team. This engenders a sense of teamwork.
7 Should I stay or should I go now?
Often, there comes a point where, before continuing, you want to assess the snowpack structure and check for instability.
8 Snowpit & Shear test
A snowpit involves digging to the first reasonably thick layer of old snow and then looking at layers of hardness; very soft layers; groupel; faceted crystals and spaces. The idea is to identify any weak layers. For more information, see here.
You can then apply a shear test (you can use an ice axe). Isolate a wedge shaped block of snow and apply an increasing amount of pressure to see at what point layers shear away Of course whatever evidence you find is only useful for slopes of a similar altitude and orientation.
The following video of guru Mark Diggins from Scottish Avalanche Service is worth watching.
9 Keep learning
These are good exercises to perform regularly; with practice they don’t take long.
Finally, though focused on Scottish mountains, the SAIS website offers solid beta and is run by experts. And there is a good glossary and visuals at here.
10 Remember: ‘The Mountain has no idea you are an expert!’
Here, I have written specifically for mountaineers. While some points are universal, in my next blog, I shall focus on skiers.