By Gabbi Armstrong
Communications Project Manager for the North Coast 500
Published: 7th May 2018

Will Copestake – Safety in the Hills

In the winter of 2013/2014, Mountain Leader Will Copestake completed a full round of the Munros in brutal winter conditions. In the winter of 2016/2017 he undertook a similar challenge and completed all of the Corbetts. Here he shares some of the lessons in mountain safety he’s learned from his time in the Scottish Mountains.

Will Copestake

Will Copestake
An enthusiastic instructor, Will has adventured all across the world including sea kayaking around the southern most tip of mainland Patagonia, walking across the highlands of Iceland and winning British and Scottish adventurer of the year in 2015 for his Machair to Munro project. He is an Ullapool local and now moving back to the North West Highlands to set up Kayak Summer Isles with Tim Hamlet of Hamlet Mountaineering.
Will Copestake Media

Photo: Hamlet Mountaineering, Alone in the hills

Everyday is a school day

Sometimes even the best laid plans can go awry. Occasionally I find myself considering how different many events could have been. In these imagined scenarios I often picture myself as the hero, defying all the odds, battling the elements and getting out of challenging situations unharmed. Like entering that reoccurring nightmare to change the outcome. The reality is when those disaster scenarios have occurred I’ve been far from the hero of my day dreams and there has been a lot more struggling, crawling, crying and generally beating myself up for my daft mistakes or bravado. Due to a few ‘rules’ I’ve always managed to get out of these less than perfect situations and get home to safety.

We are the sum of our experiences and through many exciting adventures with friend and colleagues I’ve learnt a few ways to in which I personally judge risk and calculate the decisions that have kept me safe so far. So I thought I would share them.

Know Your Enemy

Where am I going? Do the research, ask other people that might have been there before. Seek out some valuable local knowledge. Is there a path? What is the terrain going to be like? Is there snow on the hills will I need to change my plans?

Always take an appropriate map, compass and knowledge of how to use them. While GPS and electronic backups are useful and a good idea, a paper map is always essential – batteries fail, especially when cold.
One you have got a better idea of what it is your letting yourself into now it’s time to predict the weather. Use more than one website to forecast, and have a think about what the conditions will mean in reality. What does 60+ mph wind feel like? Do I really want to be on the hill in a possible thunder storm? Look beyond the time you are going out for you never know if you are going to be longer than you anticipate.

As an overview of weather forecasting there are there make sources the US, UK or Norway all run advanced weather models. Therefore I tend to use WindyTY (US model), MetOffice (UK) and NoAA (Norway) in conjunction with MWIS upland forecasts. In the UK during winter we also have an excellent avalanche forecast service at SAIS that must be paid particular attention to. It is worth looking back a few days with the avalanche forecast as well as the prediction.

Know Your Limit

During my winter round of the Munros and subsequently a winter spent rounding the Corbetts, I set a personal ‘safe limit’ of 60mph on the tops, beyond that I would not venture up. Only as my experience increased over time did I slowly rise this limit to what I felt comfortable with. This is different for all of us and needs to be learned carefully from the bottom up, not top down.

Do not neglect your experience, Have I walked that far before? Be realistic with yourself and pick your moments to be ambitious. I like to use the model Risk vs Reward. What am I risking to do this? How high is that risk? Am I ok with that level of risk? Is the reward worth it? We’ve all been out on days where we though twice about wanting to be there but felt rewarded by the experience later. Even if that conclusion takes a little time to get to.

Testing Conditions

Equip Yourself

Now you know what to expect, prepare with the proper gear. There is some truth in the popular cliche that ‘there is not such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment’, although I would argue that extreme weather can outdo even the most shiniest of gear on occasion. Read the label and pay attention to the gear’s maximum operational limits.
Learn how to use your equipment properly. Look after your equipment too if you look after it, it’ll look after you.

You’ll hear me talking about keeping your admin in order when out on the hills, what is the point in having a nice shiny pair of waterproof trousers in the bag if your too ‘lazy’ to put them on. This also applies to your nutrition, many people start making mistakes due to a low blood glucose level. Make sure you’ve got enough food not just to last the day but also a little bit extra just in case your caught out longer than you expect.

Or why have lovely waterproof zips on your expensive jacket if you’ve forgotten to close them after that last energy bar 2 hours ago. I have a bit of an ethos that if you feel like you should, then you should. Take a lesion from all those nursery rhymes, don’t let yourself get too hot, don’t let yourself get too cold, make sure your body temperature is just right. Sweeting in the winter can leave you feeling very cold later and by the same rule heat stroke on the hill is horrible, yes it does even happen in Scotland trust me.

It is Scotland so make sure you plan for the best but prepare for the worst, and yes I have seen 4 seasons in one day.

Photo: Hamlet Mountaineering, map reading

Know Your Escape

Know when to turn around. If you arrive and conditions do not match what you expected then do not hesitate to turn back home. There are countless days that I have turned back to leave it for another time because conditions did not suit. To carry on ignoring the risk is often sorely tempting at the time, but will often prove foolhardy in the end.

Does anyone know your out here all on your own? It is a sensible idea to leave a plan with a home based contact. Make sure you show them on a map and let them know what time you plan to be a each location. Let them know of any alternatives you might take or emergency escapes routes you might take. Most importantly give them a cut off time at which they should call if contact has not been made.

Whenever planning a journey always make several alternative options. I prefer not to refer to these as Plan B or C…etc, but as second or third Plan A’s – this ensures that in the moment of need you do not feel these other options are somehow lesser to the original intended idea.

If the worse does happen and you have an accident then the Scottish Mountain Rescue operate a voluntary service 24/7. To contact the local mountain rescue team, call 999 and ask to speak to the police, then ask for the mountain rescue. It will speed up the process if you have the following information:

Location – 6 figure grid reference ideally

If you need to text an emergency include the following:

Assynt Mountain Rescue

Think Outside of the Box

People rarely come into serious trouble through a single mistake, and I usually refer to the theory of the Swiss cheese model of risk management to explain this. It’s an example of escalating factors leading to a much bigger problem with each mistake being represented as a hole in a slice of cheese. If a number of holes in the slices line up to form a channel then failure can be expected.

Most accidents can be traced to one or more of four key failure categories, these are: Organisational, Surpervisional, Pre-condtions and Specific Acts.

Specific examples for these may be poor equipment for navigating the terrain (Organisational) backed up with peer pressure to continue (Supervisional) leading to fatigue or hypothermia (Pre-condition) which causes the false bearing on a compass (Specific acts) that ultimately leads to a casualty situation. One by one they are a problem, together they can be a disaster. Be aware of this and act accordingly if you see holes lining up in your plan.

I am a huge fan of Ed Stafford’s recently voiced acronym which is based on a military rule. STOP: Stop, Think, Organise, Plan. In doing this we allow time to be rational after a mistake and therefore can reduce our likelihood of blindly ploughing into more mistakes.

One good example of this STOP plan in action was during a crossing from Monadh Mor to Mullach Clach a’ Bhlair in a whiteout on the Cairngorm Plateau. I was feeling reasonably confident with my compass bearings and paced timings…. right up until I was free-falling into a deep hollow some 8m-or-so deep. Picking myself up and retrieving my snow-shoes from the drift above I clung to a steep slope, as horror rose and confidence disappeared. I should be in the plateau, I remembered thinking, there should be no cliffs nor cornices to fall through anywhere near where I was?

Confused and scared I paused, sat on my pack and looked at my map. My last confirmed point was a small hill a few hundred metres behind me, by time alone I could be nowhere near a cliff.
Re-assured the plan then became a mission to relocate that hill and re-take the bearing. Retracing my bearing I found the hill, and deduced that I had not fallen down a slope but into a gigantic half-piped snowdrift formed in the deep snow by the wind.

Take Lessons

We all make mistakes. Learn from them. Whenever a near miss occurs and you end up back in the pub, talk about it with your friends – not just as a ‘that was lucky’ story, but as a debrief to yourself. Consider what you did wrong, and what could be done better should there be a next time. We all grow through our mistakes, not our successes in life, and even the biggest most accomplished adventurers have all been there before, mistakes are the foundation of experience.

Learning is import so why not learn properly and book an instructor for the day. It will be a very valuable experience and you will learn loads to help you on your journey onwards.

By following these steps before any trip, from a mega expedition to a weekend wander we can keep mistakes as just that… experience.

Photo: Hamlet Mountaineering, celebrate every summit!

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