What is your winter mountaineering instructor thinking?

Winter Mountaineering

As you watch your highly qualified winter mountaineering instructor glide seemingly effortlessly across the snow you might wonder what on earth they are thinking about. Are they planning their dinner for that night? Or wishing they were somewhere warmer? Chances are they will be thinking about the plans and route for the day and constantly checking whether their plans are the best ones for the current situation.   They are fully aware that the decision making process for a day in the mountains does not end until you are back safely at the end of the day. What seemed like the perfect plan for the day and your group can quickly become unsuitable when conditions change. A good mountaineer is asking him or herself questions throughout the day.

The thoughts in their head might go something like this:

What experience does the group have in the mountains, how recently has everyone climbed a mountain in winter and when was the last time everyone used an ice axe or crampons?

Is the weather as expected or are conditions changing?

Is the terrain as expected or is snow or ice having a bigger effect than expected? Does everyone have the ability to cope with the terrain ahead?

Along the route your instructor will be considering when and where key decisions need to be made. These might include: when to get out an ice axe, when to put on crampons, whether everyone should be wearing helmets, whether the route is taking longer than expected?

Are all of the group happy with the route and the conditions faced along the way? All members of the group should feel comfortable raising any concerns they may have.

Your instructor will be thinking about what time it gets dark and planning the day back from then. When do we need to turn around to get down safely? Days are often planned around total ascent and descent rather than distance – ten kilometres in Kent is a very different proposition to ten kilometres in deep snow in the Cairngorms.

Your instructor will know that it is very important to recognise and try to not to fall into the human heuristic traps of:

  • Familiarity (I’ve been this way a hundred times before…)
  • Acceptance (Well I’m here now…)
  • Commitment (I’ve been planning all year to climb to the summit today…)
  • Expert Halo (Uh Oh, everybody is looking at me?!)
  • Tracks/Scarcity (This is my last chance to get out in the snow this year…)
  • Social Proof (I saw on Facebook that Joe Bloggs went this way yesterday so it must be OK…)

(FACETS acronym was created by Ian McCammon in 2002.)

If you want to get out in the mountains without an instructor you need to be constantly assessing all of these things yourself. Get into the habit of recognising where key decision making spots exist on your mountain journey and try highlighting them at the planning phase. Reflect on your journey afterwards – were the decision making points where you expected them to be? Were there any unexpected situations that you had not planned for? How could you plan better next time?

Keep building on every experience so that you too can have fun, challenging and safe days in the mountains.