How to plan a winter mountain day

Winter Mountaineering

The stakes are a lot higher in winter so whether you are going for a walk, mountaineering along a ridge or hoping to complete an ice climb it is important to put a bit of time and effort into planning your journey.

You should always check the weather forecast before you choose your route and use the forecast to help you make a sensible decision about where to go and what to do. If you choose a route before you look at the forecast it is all too easy to convince yourself it will be fine when really the information is telling you it is not a good idea.

The Mountain Weather Infomation Service (MWIS) provides an excellent, independent weather forecast that is written for the summits of Britain’s highest mountains. It gives a general summary for the weather affecting the mountains, a headline for the area you intend to visit and then breaks down the forecast looking at how windy and wet it will be, the chance of cloud on the hills and what the temperature will be. In the winter it is even more important than normal to note the wind speed and direction – both these and the freezing level can affect snow stability and the avalanche hazard.

It is worth comparing the foreast to another mountain specific forecast such as the one provided by the Met OfficeDo they agree or are there any major differences between the two? At the end of your day consider whether one forecast turned out to be more accurate than the other. The Met Office forecast has an hourly breakdown of the weather and a percentage chance of precipitation which may help to to decide if it worth starting the day early or sometimes even delaying it a short while to allow a weather front to blow through.

In Scotland the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) provide a daily forecast throughout the winter months letting you know the avalanche hazard in six different areas (Lochaber, Glen Coe, Creag Meagaidh, Norther Cairngorms, Southern Cairngorms and Torridon). It is very important to take the time to read the observed hazard to take note of where instabilities in the snow may lie and not just look at the charts. SAIS’s website statistics show that the average visitor to their site spends less than ten seconds on the avalanche forecast page. This suggests that they just look at the hazard rose and make a decision based on the colours rather than taking the time to read and understand what is being said in the forecast. There can still be avalanches even on low risk days so it is very important to read all of the information available.   In the Lake District the Fell Top Assessors’ report provided by the National Park offers an insight into the conditions on the summit of Helvellyn including wind speed, temperature and wind chill and the observed snow conditions on the day.

Before deciding where to go consider the experience of the whole group and think about how recently you used winter equipment such as ice axe and crampons. Be flexible with your plans and don’t get too committed into climbing a particular hill on a certain day. By monitoring conditions over the whole winter season you will be able to build up a picture of the snow cover on the ground and choose the right hill on the right day to enjoy the mountains safely and at their finest.