The copped-on guide to winter walking

Many people put themselves and rescuers in danger by heading into the hills ill-equipped

Hiker walking along Leenane Hill after snowfall with Killary Fjord and Mweelrea mountain in background.

Hiker walking along Leenane Hill after snowfall with Killary Fjord and Mweelrea mountain in background.

 

About a year ago a walker set out to climb Ben Nevis, which is the highest mountain on these islands, while unprepared for the challenge. Without proper rain gear he got soaked near the summit.

In the apparent expectation that a rescuer would climb the mountain with dry clothing, he contacted the local Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team for help saying he was too wet to go on.

They refused assistance, with team leader John Stevenson explaining: “We are not here to go up and walk down somebody who is okay, but just wet. If he’s wet, he’s wet. He can come off himself. We are volunteers, not full-time professionals.”

Last year marked a significant increase in mountain rescue activity

Proving once again that must-do is a great master, the walker did make it safely off the mountain.

While there are no reports of Irish mountain rescue teams refusing to respond to a call-out, Scotland has, however, no monopoly on grossly unprepared climbers. In Ireland there are many people who put themselves in danger and keep volunteer rescue teams busy by heading into the hills grossly ill-equipped.

Last year marked a significant increase in mountain rescue activity with teams responding to 371 incidents which represents a 30 per cent increase on 2017. This upsurge is partly accounted for by the more than 60 call-outs associated with The Beast from the East, a significant snowfall that occurred at the beginning of March. It led to many unprepared “snow tourists” heading into the hills to witness the great drifts and then needing to be rescued.

In 2018, Ireland’s mountain rescue teams dealt with 22 fatalities and 72 serious injuries, which is a sobering fact for those of us who have regular recourse to the hills.

A detail from the statistics for 2018 is that, while the majority of call-outs to the 11 teams were because of upland injuries, more than 20 per cent were to walkers who had simply become lost – mostly due to a lack of preparation and planning.

While some injuries arise among walkers unprepared for the mountain environment – for example, not wearing the correct footwear – most injuries occur by accident in what is a challenging and unpredictable environment.

We have now reached the time of year when the shorter evenings and lengthening shadows remind us that winter is on the way. Temperatures are set to plummet and darkness can extend beyond 15 hours as the sun goes off-duty early and becomes a tardy riser. It is the season when the odds are most stacked against hillwalkers, with the uplands at their most unforgiving and laying many traps to snare the unwary.

Problems facing walkers intensify the higher the altitude: wind speeds are greater, temperatures much lower, poor visibility is far more common and in winter the terrain is likely to be slippery with ice or snow.

Bloodthirsty midges, luxuriant vegetation, energy sapping heat and holiday hordes all disappear

But this shouldn’t mean we abandon the hills and spend our time cooped up indoors until spring comes calling again. Our least loved season can be the time when the hills are at their most enticing, and there is great joy to be obtained from upland walking. Bloodthirsty midges, luxuriant vegetation, energy sapping heat and holiday hordes all disappear, as the weight of summer abundance is lifted and the landscape becomes barer, browner and in many ways more atmospheric.

With the coming of the first cold snap, our hill country offers an intensity of beauty that just isn’t possible in summer. Muddy mountain paths crunch satisfyingly beneath our feet, familiar rocks are resculpted into weird frosty contours while otherwise dull stands of Sitka spruce are transformed into bottlebrush white tapestries.

It’s all good clean fun and ideal for family outings assuming, of course, that everyone comes back in one piece. But as we see from the figures above, this is not always the case. So what do we have to do to ensure a happy ending to our wintertime upland outings and that we take off our own boots at close of day?

According to Matt Joy, safety officer with South East Mountain Rescue Association, the single most important rule is planning: “Have your route planned out well in advance, know the weather forecast and be prepared to turn back if the weather deteriorates.

But what of technology, does this have a role to play in mountain safety? 

“It is also important to have proper clothing and equipment. Dress in a way that is adequate for the conditions and carry spare clothing and food along with a map and compass that you know how to use. It is also essential to have a head torch in case you don’t make it off the mountain before the light fades.”

But what of technology, does this have a role to play in mountain safety? “By all means make use of technology such as a GPS and a mobile phone, but do not rely on them totally since these are vulnerable to cold, damp and the rough and tumble of a mountain environment.

“In the past, we have found in rescue situations that the walkers have been using their phone all day to navigate. Then, when they get into trouble, the battery dies before we can establish their exact position. If you are using your phone for navigation or photography, set out with it fully charged and make sure to carry a power bank which can be used to charge your phone in an emergency.”

Alan Wallace is an experienced rescuer with Kerry Mountain Rescue Team. He agrees that those heading out on to the winter mountains should have the skills to navigate competently even in the poorest of conditions which, he adds, can include dense mist or total darkness.

This will protect you from the elements until help arrives

“Many accidents occur when walkers stray off the trail and on to steep ground and then become crag fast (unable to move up or down). Training in navigation skills, which most walking clubs provide, should keep walkers safely on the route. It is also important to have a shorter escape route planned in case of a rapid deterioration in the weather, but if the worst happens carry a survival bag. This will protect you from the elements until help arrives.”

Wallace is at pains to point out, however, that people should not be put off experiencing the joy of the hills by warnings about the dangers. He believes it is important to be aware of the risks and hazards, but to remember also that “most people who spent a lifetime in the mountains are never involved in any kind of accident,”

  • John G O’Dwyer’s latest book, Wild Stories from the Irish Uplands, is published this month by Currach Books.
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