Saturday, 18 February 2017

Assessing risks in the mountains

Spontaneous avalanche off Mont Blanc.

We, as humans, have that instinctive ability to stay alive. From our commute to work to getting into bed in the evening, we are constantly and subliminally evaluating and assessing the risks which present themselves in our day to day lives. And when the time comes for us to venture into the mountains, we inevitably up the game in how we assess and manage the risks thrown at us. Unlike in our ordinary nine to five lives, where a minor misjudgement in our own assessments may only cause embarrassment at the very least, in the mountains this minor misjudgement may cause us serious injury, or worse.

When do you start to assess the risks in the mountains? From the car park? On the walk in? At the top of the lift? The question should be; when should you start to assess the risks in the mountains? The answer? From the moment you start to plan your adventure into our jagged playground. And we all do this subconsciously. We pick an objective, whether it is a climb or a ski descent. We check the weather, climbing conditions and avalanche risk. We select a partner and check our gear. The plan is coming together and we make our pilgrimage to the mountains. But none of this will keep you safe if you have skipped, or ignored, some key factors.

Yes, I hear what you are all thinking, there are factors in which we cannot control: Rock fall, serac collapse, broken gear, crevasses etc. But there are ways in which we can lessen the risks from these factors if we plan from the comfort of our own home. Or the pub. Start managing the risks by considering these four factors:

  • ·         Person
  • ·         Equipment
  • ·         Practice
  • ·         Place

  • ·         Are you and your partner competent?
Do you have the necessary ability, knowledge and skills to climb or ski the line? Looking at my personal experience, I wouldn’t plan to go and climb Divine Providence (ED+) on the Grand Pilier d’Angle on the south-east face of Mont Blanc. Why? Because I know that I haven’t got the ability to climb 7b+ at altitude, or that I haven’t got the knowledge of the climb, climbing at that level at altitude or the knowledge of that particular area. But as I have mentioned above, make sure your partner is competent in what you have planned too. Don’t be blinded by ego and selflessness and drag someone along who may not be up to your standard. You are not only putting them in danger, but yourself too. Also bear in mind your fitness. Are you and you partner physically fit enough to attempt your objective? If you are unable to complete a climb or ski tour due to fatigue or lack of physical ability then this could put you and your partner/group in a dangerous position. Many climbs may be difficult to retreat from, and made even more dangerous due to fatigue. Likewise, many ski tours put you in the high mountains, miles away from the warmth and safety of civilisation and escaping to there when tired increases the risk of an accident.

Having a competent partner really helps when it comes to leading thin ice!

And this leads me onto the next part…

  • ·         Experience
Competence comes from experience. It is all well and good saying you have the skills, knowledge and ability to climb or ski a line, but have you gained this experience? Another example: You know that you can climb Scottish grade VI,6 because you have climbed at that level before. You know that you are fit enough and have the skills to endure a long day climbing several winter routes. But do you know that you can sustain climbing at that level, after several days and at altitude on the North Face of the Eiger? Have you climbed several long routes in the Alps at an easier grade? Have you climbed at altitude before? Have you bivied on a route and had to climb the crux section first thing in the morning whilst cold, tired and hungry? Experience is something to fall back on. We draw from experience when things don’t quite go to plan or we need to get through a tough section and you can reflect on what you did last time when you were in a similar situation. And again, don’t forget about your partner.

Soloing Idwal Stream in Cwm Idwal. Is this an acceptable level of risk? For me and Tim it was as we both had the ability and experience.

  • ·         Are you mature enough?
Some of you may be reading this now thinking “blah blah blah, I could climb that.” Yet you have been to the Alps only once. Probably climbed the Cosmique Arête and the Chere Couloir. Maybe summited Mont Blanc, and have climbed Orion Face Direct on the North Face of Ben Nevis. But you have never stood underneath an alpine North Face in your life. And you may be saying to yourself “who is this guy and what does he know, he’s never climbed a North face before either”. No, I haven’t, but I have stood under the North face of the Droites, considering it for a future trip to the Alps and had decided that I’d be stupid to consider it just yet. Sure, I probably could climb the crux sections, but I haven’t built up that thing called experience in the Alps just yet. It is all about integrity, honesty. Be honest with yourself, don’t be a liability to yourself or someone else. Think about it this way: If someone on UKC was looking for a partner to climb your dream line; the Eiger North Face, Ginat on the Droites or the Colton Brooks on the Grandes Jorasses, would you feel confident enough to tie onto the end of their rope and KNOW through experience that you aren’t endangering them? What if you are the person asking? Wouldn’t you ask about the other person’s experience first?

When I had the opportunity to climb with Dane Burns from Coldthistle blog, I had to be honest that I wasn't as experienced as him so we picked a line that we would both enjoy and within our limits: The Chere Couloir, Chamonix. 


  • ·         Is it well maintained?
Take your time to check over your kit and equipment. Are there holes in your clothing that could compromise its waterproofness or your warmth? Is your climbing rope frayed or the core showing? Are your ski edges sharpened and tuned? Do your carabiners have nicks in them and are your ski bindings set to the correct DIN? You may think that that dodgy pit zip on your jacket is a minor issue, but will you think the same again after you stuff your gloves into your jacket at a belay, whilst several pitches up an alpine climb in winter, only to find the pit zip has come undone and your gloves have now fallen out the jacket and tumbled down the climb. Now you are faced with the possibility of frost bitten hands, not being able to complete the climb, set up abseil anchors or even thread your own belay device to abseil with. Neglect of a simple fix can cause disastrous effects. So take your time to check over your gear.

Misjudgment in my own ability only lead to embarrassment on this occasion.
  •  Is your gear appropriate?
This is a hard one. I would walk up Snowdon in winter conditions with boots and crampons, yet a Fell runner may do it in Fell running shoes and micro spikes. Are they in the wrong? Do they have an elevated risk over myself? This is where experience comes in. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this, as such, but use your common sense. The basic principle is, you wouldn’t do the Haute route with Alpine piste skis and boots. Likewise you wouldn’t fell run in climbing shoes.

I forgot my harness in a hurry and had to improvise. NOT appropriate to lead in!

  • ·         Are you trained and/or skilled in the use of your equipment?
Do you know how to turn your avalanche transceiver on? Do you even know how to use it? How do you place an ice screw again? Can you talk me through which way round this harness goes? If you are unsure how your equipment works or how to use it, then the risks are heightened. If for example, only one member of your party doesn’t know how to use an avalanche transceiver and they are the only one who doesn’t get avalanched, how risky is it to have them in your group? I would say there is a severe risk. Would you chance it?


This connects the above two factors, person and equipment, together. Can you climb or ski with best practice? For example, is the turf frozen on your winter climb or is there a chance your axe could rip through causing you to fall? Is that ice route fully formed or will it collapse once you fully commit with your body weight? Are you skiing that gully knowing there are climbers ascending/descending below you and that you’re sluffing snow down onto them? Best practice is the safest. And best practice is usually gained through being adequately trained and experienced to begin with. Take for example glacial travel. Best practice is to rope up when crossing a glacier. This doesn’t reduce your risk of falling into a crevasse, but it does reduce your risk of serious injury or death. But this does also rely on you and your partner knowing the skills of crevasse rescue. Get trained in the discipline you want to do. Get on an avalanche course or a steep skiing course. Learn the basics and build on them. Start easy and gain experience.

A lean looking ice climb in North Wales, The Screen (IV, 4). We bailed after the first pitch due to crappy ice, running water and dodgy ice screws!


The mountains are far from safe. But if we can learn how to tip toe around their risks, both mountain and man can live in unison, without upsetting one another. The mountains pose significant risks: Rock fall, avalanches, serac fall, cornices, crevasses, altitude and weather, to name but a few. When managing risk, consider factors such as these (but not limited to) when planning your next climb or ski:

  • ·         Aspect of slope: What does the avalanche forecast say? Where was the predominant wind direction over the last several days? How much sunlight does the slope receive and at what times during the day? Does your intended ski descent cross many different aspects? Knowing the aspect of slope can give you an advantage when deciding whether to attempt a climb or ski or not. Not only for avalanche prevention, but also to avoid rock fall. I now know not to ski the Toula Glacier in late morning. A southern aspect slope that catches the sun all day, heating the snow and permafrost holding the rocks together until they inevitably thaw out and come lose from the mountain, crashing down on unsuspecting skiers below.

  • ·         Altitude: Look at the altitude of the base of your climb, the top of your climb, your intended summit and possible descent routes. Likewise for your ski tour and descent. Snow conditions can vary vastly in altitude. And consider the effects of altitude on yourself as well. Are you planning on going from the valley to the summit of Mont Blanc within a day of getting off the plane? I would hope not! Weather can vary vastly too from valley to summit. It may be a tropical 10 degrees Celsius in the car park at sea level but for every 100-150m in height, the temperature drops 1 degree C, meaning on the summit of Ben Nevis, the temperature could well be -3C. Take this into consideration when deciding on what equipment to take. Tourists usually get caught out by this when walking up Snowdon in the summer. It’s blazing sunshine and T-Shirt weather in Llanberis but when on the summit of Snowdon, it could well be 10 degrees cooler meaning a possible risk of Hypothermia if ill equipped. And add to that wind chill and you are forming a recipe for an accident.
Clogwyn Left Hand (V,5) looking lean in it's lower section...

...Clogwyn Left Hand looking better in it's upper section at a higher altitude.

  • ·         Previous weather: Keep an eye on the forecast at least a week before your intended trip. You will get a feel as to what may be in climbable and skiable condition, the nature of the snow pack, where to go to maximise your chances and where to go to minimise dangers. Get educated in how and why avalanches occur for a bonus safety point.

  • ·         Current weather: Check the weather the day before and the morning of your climb/ski. And keep an eye on it throughout the day too. As we all know, weather forecasts are not 100% accurate and can differ from one area of the mountain to the other and change from what has been predicted.
The forecast was for sunny spells in the afternoon. This was taken in the afternoon. That's a cornice by the way.

  • ·         Time of day/year: With a bit of forward planning, you can roughly gauge what time you will make the summit, make it back down to the valley, get to the top of your climb and avoid dangerous sections on the approach/descent. By now, everyone who climbs Mont Blanc via the Gouter routes knows to cross the Grand Couloir very early in the morning to minimise getting caught in rock fall. Likewise, most seasoned Scottish winter climbers know to start their ice route early in the morning to be in with a chance of finishing the climb before it starts to run with water in the afternoon. Also, do you really want to be pulling through the crux on your south facing rock climb in the midday sun? Is that alpine climb best suited to an early season ascent? Is it worth waiting until spring to ski that steep descent? What time do you need to be on the summit before the sun rises and warms the seracs above your descent route?

  • ·         Location: Considering the above factors as a starting point, are you better off valley cragging as opposed to a high mountain climb? Will you find better, more stable conditions at a higher crag? Would a climb/ski on the opposite side of the mountain be a safer option? Should you cut your losses and just go straight to the pub instead?
Went to the pub instead...

  • ·         Features: What are you planning on climbing? Gullies, Buttress routes, ridge lines, Ice falls? If the avi risk is high then the obvious choice is to avoid gullies and stick to buttress routes or ice falls (so long as your approach and descent route don’t cross avi terrain). If there are high winds then ridge lines are probably not the best option. Skiing wise, wind can have a dramatic effect on snow. One side of the mountain can be rock hard windblown sastrugi and the other side of the mountain can be creamy powder. If the visibility is poor or strong winds prevail, then tree skiing may be the choice for that day. Consider other features you will find in the mountains too: Cornices, cliff bands, terrain traps, rivers, bodies of water and slopes above you etc. Just because the slope you are on isn’t avalanche prone, it doesn’t mean the slopes above you or opposite aren’t.

Other things to consider:

  • ·         Be flexible with your plans
The mountains will always be there. Is it worth the risk to attempt that climb/ski just because it has been on your wish list for several years or because you had planned to climb/ski it this trip?

  • ·         Research your objectives and areas (mountains etc.)
By gaining as much information as you can about your climb or ski descent decreases the possibility of running into something unexpected. If you know that your ski descent requires an abseil then you know that you must pack a rope and have the skills to set up anchors and abseil. Get familiar with the approach and descent from you climb. Memorise key features of the approach and descent as you are more than likely going to be doing them in the dark when tired. Read up about the surrounding mountains and where they are located in relation to your objective. Do you know from what direction the main weather systems approach from and what type of weather they are likely to bring?

  • ·         Do you know what to do in the event that something does go wrong?
Do you have an escape route/plan? Do you know your location? What is the emergency services number? Do you know first aid/do you have a first aid kit? Does anyone else know what your plan is/have you left info about your planned climb or ski with a family member/friend? Don’t be naïve and believe that it will never happen to you. By planning what to do in an emergency, you will panic less and be able to think clearly about what to do.

  • ·         Have fun!
It goes without saying that we will all push our boundaries to better ourselves and put ourselves at risk. Whether it is to push our grade in climbing or to ski steeper lines. This all involves an elevated level of risk. But it is the way in how we, as individuals, manage this. Just head out into the mountains and have fun, but be safe!
80mph winds and a windchill of -22C. We had a lot of fun that day in the mountains! 

It would be impossible to list all of the factors to consider, but I hope the above list is a starting point for you to start thinking about ways to reduce your risks and play safe. What I have discussed here is a general consensus with basic examples. I have touched upon avalanche risks but take it upon yourself to get educated in how avalanches occur, snow pack and weather, avalanche terrain and avalanche rescue. And also take your time to book onto a mountain First Aid course, or even a skills refresher course. We all pick up bad habits or get complacent so iron out anything that could pose a risk in the future. Start thinking and make your own judgement.

But also be aware that things may still go wrong, even if you thought you had assessed all the risks. Even mountain professionals and experienced mountaineers get it wrong from time to time. You could be the most experienced mountain guide in the world with all the correct gear, a perfect weather forecast, aiming to climb an easy ice route that you have done many times before. But no amount of planning, risk assessing or experience is going to stop you slipping on that patch of black ice in the car park whilst going to the ticket machine and breaking your leg. And no amount of planning will keep you safe from a serac collapse.

When things go wrong in the car park

When the rock bites back

When your ego and lack of experience have a fight and ego loses...

A few terms to remember:

  • ·         Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance
  • ·         Be Risk aware, not risk averse
  • ·         ALARP: As Low As Reasonably Possible
  • ·         Failing to plan is a plan to fail
  • ·         Come home alive, come home friends, climb the route…In that order

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