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Introduction Paths Navigation Accommodation Route Planning Weather Kit Cuillins

5. Safety & Route Planning

There is a need to be flexible with both the planning and execution of routes to cope with the vagaries of weather, ground conditions and fitness of oneself and any companions. This section is really about that.

Written route plans should be produced, left with someone who will raise an alarm if necessary, and should give enough detail, including an estimated time of return should the Mountain Rescue need to be called out, plus the contact details & phone number of where you are staying that night.

Lacking a suitable companion, I did all the walks on my own except some in the Cuillin and my last Munro. There are some safety issues with this, especially in the more remote parts in winter when daylight is short, blizzards can hamper progress and visibility, ice and snow may cover holes and streams but not protect against them, and one may meet no-one all day. However, I always kept exactly to my route unless it was expedient to make changes, (which certainly requires competent map reading and a good idea of one's walking speed when in mist). Whenever reception permitted I texted my progress and any alterations to my wife who also had a copy of my route, thereby reducing the search area should rescue have been necessary. In case of accident one cannot expect to have any mobile reception. For most of the time there is no viable reception and many tops have no signal for ordinary calls, but mobile phones will boost the signal and try other networks if necessary in case of calls to emergency numbers. At weekends and in summer I usually encountered other walkers at least on the standard routes of all but the most remote Munros. One might therefore expect some help if trouble arises, except that problems are more likely away from paths (and therefore people) where the ground is more difficult.

There are also dangers in walking with companions. Speed is always determined by the slowest so that walks must be much less ambitious. Furthermore, there has to be an accepted leader who will take total responsibility for everything, particularly route finding. It is too easy to assume someone else is checking directions and follow the person in front, or miss key features when chatting. I still remember descending the wrong ridge on Meall na Dige 40 years ago and coming out of the cloud with my friend to see Loch Voil instead of Glen Dochart because each thought the other was paying attention to the route.

High on my list of things never to do is wading over streams or rivers. Generally, it seems to be foolhardy and dangerous unless conditions are exceptionally good and the walk almost finished. The activity is usually unpleasant, resulting in wet feet for the rest of the day or painful and slippery if boots are removed to keep them dry. Some people have a couple of bin liners to keep most of the water out and avoid removing boots, or rubber diving or wind surfing slip-ons might be carried. If there are not enough boulders to hop across then there is usually a swift enough current to knock one over. Of course, one has to find boulders that are not green with slime before attempting a dry crossing. I always had a pair of walking sticks and always used them when crossing streams to ensure balance even if I were to slip.

I probably waded about three rivers altogether while doing the Munros, (the R. Lochy en route for Beinn a'Chleibh, one downstream from Loch Mhairc, N of Blair Atholl, and the Allt Cam-ban after climbing Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan) but the mountains can all be done without intentionally putting feet into rivers, even Beinn Teallach. I always check my route plans for potential river problems; heavy rain in the area can swell rivers enormously in an hour or two, and easily in the time taken to ascend a Munro, as was the case once when doing Stob Ban (Grey Corries) from Lairig Bothy. Note that rain melts snow much more effectively than the sun, and this combination puts rivers into their highest level of spate.

To cope best with the weather I usually plan routes to have ascent and high level sections going in a direction between N and E, and to have descent and low level sections going in a direction between S and W. This means the prevailing SW wind is behind me for the majority of the time, i.e. going up, when it helps with the ascent and the rain is not in my face. Also the strongest winds, which occur on the tops and cols, are behind me. On a circular route one has to walk into the wind at some point, so I make this the downhill section when I move more quickly, or the less windy valley sections, thereby reducing the time during which I have to walk into the rain, hail, snow or wind. Many of the SMC walks seem to be East to West without advice to try the other direction (e.g. the south Glen Shiel ridge). On the day, if the wind is blowing from the NE I will reverse my planned walk – you should confirm this wind direction on the spot from the direction clouds are moving even if you saw the weather forecast.

Different ridges for ascent or descent might be preferable if the planned direction is reversed. I like both to be fairly steep, but others may prefer steep ascent and shallow descent, or the other way round, and so will choose different routes for the two directions. Route planning is really pretty complex if weather is extreme. In high winds one might prefer valleys to ridges. Ground snow collects in corries and on the NE sides of mountains, so these might be avoided in the early part of the year for an easier life. Often there are large areas of peat bog to cross. Then I sometimes prefer a winter ascent when I know the ground is frozen hard so that the bogs are easier to negotiate. When there is a covering of firm snow, ridges can also be much more pleasurable to walk along. The snow can smooth out all the bumps in the rocks underneath. The penalty is that there is bound to be soft snow to wade through lower down, perhaps hiding a few nasties in hidden rocks, uneven ground and bogs. Remember that avalanches are possible in Scotland and they kill people. Usually the affected slopes face in particular directions determined by recent weather conditions. SAIS advises which slopes, altitudes and areas to avoid.

I found it most difficult to estimate the time a walk would take. There were too many unknown variables, such as fitness, weather and ground conditions. For me Naismith's formula (3mph/5kmph, plus 1 hour per 2000'/600m ascent) seems to apply only to very fit people on top grade tracks. When I used it, I reduced it to 3mph plus 1 hour per 1500' ascent. However, walks and terrain vary too much for it to work universally. The formula I use is this: 3.5mph along roads and good horizontal tracks (those suitable for vehicles); 2.5mph on good paths (ones for pedestrians only) up to shallow gradients; and 1.375mph over ridge ascents and descents without scrambling. So the allowance for ascent is in these different speeds.

I tended to alternate long and short days when possible to allow for being tired after the longer days. I added or subtracted a bit from the result of the formula to compensate for this. I was reluctant to cover more than a maximum of 6000' and 15 miles on one day and did some training beforehand if that was required: about two hours jogging per week regularly, plus a couple of days on the hills several days earlier whenever a big walk was approaching.

Ground conditions were the biggest nightmare, and usually affected route times most. OS maps do have signs for cliffs and for boggy and rocky terrains. They all add to time for walks. In the case of extensive sections of scrambling, it is difficult to estimate this unless you've done the route before. However, for Munro bagging, that is limited to some of the Cuillin, Aonach Eagach and Am Fasarinen. Overall it was the peat bogs that were most time consuming. So many walks involved wide bealachs with several hundred yards or more of deep peat hacks. I single out the S shore of Loch Mullardoch as the worst imaginable terrain in the whole of Scotland – it includes ravines, high heather, fallen trees, exposed tree roots, and slippery shore rocks. Rocks and boulders can be difficult – they are widespread in the Cairngorms, for example. I like boulder-hopping, but many don't, so the times in my notes may not be typical for such sections. However, one of the main purposes of these notes is to identify terrain problems because they are not always apparent from maps, and where they are apparent their severity is difficult to guage.

Winter conditions frequently make a difference to time and effort. Frozen gound can make bogs easier to cross, and firm snow can make boulder fields easier. Generally, snow and ice can add time, and their severity is not easy to determine from low levels. Crampons usually solve the ice problem satisfactorily and should be carried if there is a chance of ice underfoot. I don't possess snow shoes for deep, soft snow, so that was what slowed me up most (on Meall nan Ceapraichean in March, in particular). Even a single short gully of very deep snow can take ages. An ice axe is generally only required to break a fall, such as descending from Carn Liath, or on the knife edge pinnacled south ridge of Mullach Fraoch-choire. But once or twice I've used one also to give firm handholds on steep ice, e.g when contouring round the corrie above Loch an Fhraoich-choire on Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. I've never yet had to cut ice steps. Try to avoid routes where a slip would result in a lengthy fall.

I don't usually stop for a break for more than a few minutes, and certainly only enough to check the map and text my wife if I'm on a top. The reason is obvious: the windiest places on mountains are the cols and tops. Wind funnelling up valleys is compressed to higher speeds when crossing bealachs, and wind forced up mountain sides becomes fastest on the ridge where the same volume of air has to pass but has less vertical space to move in. This is maximised on tops where air is pushed up most. Dropping slightly down below the crest of a ridge on the lee side usually provides shelter. However, if you go too far (measured in terms of only a yard or two) you can be hit by another wind on the lee side which is being sucked up from the corrie below. This wind rotates vertically, going along the corrie floor in the opposite direction to the main wind, rising up the wall of the corrie, and then following the main wind when it leaves the ridge. Particularly when the wind is strong, water vapour will condense into clouds in this secondary rising air current where pressure is low, creating a magnificent spectacle, and you can see a pronounced top edge to this cloud where it meets the main wind coming over the ridge. Of course, all this happens on a very miniature scale on an aircraft wing, creating lift and leaving plumes of condensation behind it.

Lastly, try to guarantee several hours of daylight after the walk should be finished, just in case. Sunrise and sunset times are given by sunrisesunsetmap.com, timeanddate.com, the BBC and yr.no, for example. There is normally at least half an hour before sunrise and after sunset which is walkable without a torch. The same sites often also provide moonrise and moonset times, usually including the phase of the moon (but not the BBC). A full moon on a cloudless night provides easily enough light for walking along a road or track, but not for rough ground and clouds are usually a problem. However, if daylight hours might be an issue, ensure the terrain is easy (such as a road) so that it can be walked reasonably safely in the dark, and take a head torch. (This is very useful for identifying position in the event of a rescue.) At any rate, have an escape plan in the form of various alternatives in the written route plan so that it can be shortened to cope with any eventualities, such as bad weather, tiredness or lack of time. GMT takes over from BST at the end of the fourth Saturday of October (the actual date can be found here), and this has the effect of giving an hour less available daylight – sunset is an hour earlier over the winter if one is tied to clocks, as one is with a guest house breakfast. BST returns on the last Sunday of March. One can start a walk before sunrise, using such hours for the walk-in along a road.

Furthermore, in winter I might pick an area in Scotland with more daylight. It isn't the same everywhere! See here or the links in the previous paragraph. The sun sets noticably earlier in winter the farther north one goes, the effect being greatest at the winter solstice (Dec 21st or 22nd). On the other hand, over the summer, between the equinoxes, the days become longer as one goes north, with the most pronounced difference being on mid-summer day (June 21st). One can also make sunset later by going to western mountains rather than eastern ones – specifically head in the direction of sunset on the day in question. At the latitude of Fort William, one minute of longitude is just over 1km, which translates to the sun setting one minute later for every 10 miles further west one is. The difference that makes over the width of Scotland is not much – you could save that time by eating one less slice of toast for breakfast! However, just finishing on the west side of the mountain with lower ground to the west will clearly help – as on the west coast.


Copyright © 2007, 2012 & 2016 Colin Walter