Group management for winter walking

Group management for winter walking

Group management issues relating to other walking activities such as hill walking or rambling are equally applicable to winter walking but in winter the importance of pre-planning, weather interpretation, composition of the group, equipment being used, etc. are exaggerated by the higher degree of risk.

Leadership

More often than not, leadership issues in winter revolve around individual competence and basic skills. In winter, far more than in summer, groups tend to be have an identifiable leader, as differences in experience are more clearly identified and leadership is naturally in greater demand, so decisions about the group and the route chosen must be robust. In winter it is particularly important that the group is compatible in terms of speed, experience and equipment. If someone is struggling and decides to return to their car, allowing them to turn back on their own could be a serious leadership mistake.

On average, temperature falls by 1.5 degrees Celsius for every 300m (1000 feet) of ascent. Winds are often 2 - 3 times stronger on the summits compared to lower level valleys

Plan ahead

Remember, most weather forecasts give sea level temperatures and wind speeds, so in terms of pre-planning, extrapolating the weather to higher altitudes is very important. On average, temperature falls by 1.5 degrees Celsius for every 300m (1000 feet) of ascent. Winds are often 2 - 3 times stronger on the summits compared to lower level valleys. Plan to keep the wind behind you over the highest ground, especially if going up hill. You'll be quicker going down hill and you'll use less energy fighting the wind, so there's less chance of frost nip or exhaustion.

In this planning phase you have to be aware of avalanche conditions and the identity of all the likely avalanche slopes, based on the local avalanche reports plus knowledge of the wind direction, precipitation and temperature over the past week or so, perhaps gleaned from a local guide.

Accidents
 
Some people talk about winter accidents in terms of climbers falling off and hill walkers getting lost. I often think it is the other way around.

In the winter of 2000-2001, in Cairngorm, there were a number of incidents where climbers finished their climbs in the dark (or even daylight) and then could not navigate back to the car park! And it seemed that hill walkers were regularly walking into avalanche terrain, or slipped and fell when negotiating steep but even snow slopes. Over 40 people were reported being avalanched in Scotland within the first two weeks of January. Remarkably, only one died, but many had minor injuries. The rescue teams often found them with their axe or crampons attached to their rucksacks. Other common causes of accidents were: crampons being worn on inappropriate boots, or ski poles being used instead of using an axe, or a combination of pole and axe, to stop a slide. The slide down the slope is often of little consequence - it is hitting the boulders at the bottom that causes the injuries. A good leader should be aware and experienced in these issues and provide an example, as well as advice, to the group as they journey along their route.

Equipment

All group members should have a good pair of boots with compatible crampons and an appropriate ice axe to demonstrate a duty of care to themselves and their companions. All too often I have seen a group endangered by a poorly equipped team member - yet if the group leader had taken a more firm line in the first place such an issue would not have arisen. Leadership can be a lonely experience at times.

More than in any other mountain activity, quality training either with a well qualified climbing instructor or at one of the national centres, is  worthwhile

Training

Training to walk safely on snow slopes goes a long way to resolving these problems. That is a leadership issue at the planning stage. Should you allow some time at the start of the day to teach and practise these skills prior to needing them later in the journey? If someone does not appear to be competent on the terrain, the group leader must decide whether they should be allowed to go on, or if the journey should be amended to less serious ground.

More than in any of the other mountain activities, quality training either with a well qualified climbing instructor or at one of the national centres, is a really good and worthwhile investment. Your navigation also needs to be a good deal better than in summer. Those winter training courses lasting longer than a weekend are an excellent way to get this additional and essential safety training.

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