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13 November 2014

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You are in: Cumbria > People > Profiles > Mountain Safety

Crampons

Crampons

Mountain Safety

The recent ice and snow on the high ground in the county has lead to a busy time for the mountain rescue services.

The volunteers of mountain rescue teams like the Langdale Ambleside have not seen much of family and friends in recent weeks – the best winter mountaineering weather on the Lake District fells for years has brought many thousands of people into the stunning snow-bound scenery. 

Unfortunately, some of them might have been better to have stayed in the valley as the weather, conditions or just bad luck has resulted in a number of accidents, including two fatalities.  Many have been the result of a simple lack of the right equipment

It took George Robertson, an international mountain guide and the man who teaches Kendal mountain rescue team their winter skills, less than an hour to demonstrate just how much difference crampons and an ice axe, properly used, can make. 

George Robertson

George Robertson cuts steps in the snow

Twelve two-inch spikes strapped to the bottom of you boots and driven hard into the ice, enable you to hang on a frozen slope as if you’re planted there.  An ice axe, swung the right way, will cut you steps.  Even a pair of boots with a stiffened sole, designed for winter use, will help you kick steps where with an ordinary pair your foot will just skid over the surface.

The skills seem obvious sometimes – but only after they’re pointed out.  Progress is safer sideways, so cut or kick your step across the slope, rather than into it, when you’re going uphill.  A sort of goose-step going downhill drives the heels into crusty snow.

But without the training the proper gear can actually be dangerous.  An incautiously held ice-axe can drive into your thigh, George told me, if you don’t use it just the right way to stop a fall.  And crampons can easily rip your trousers, or even into your ankles, unless you adopt the sort of gait produced by spending too long on a horse.

Knowing your snow is another skill – feeling the changes in texture as your boot sinks through the layers can tell you whether there could be a risk of slab avalanche.  A one or two-day winter skills course will show you how to investigate further.  You need to watch the topography too – cornices, the huge snowdrifts that form hanging off the crests of mountain ridges can give way beneath you, or fall on top of you, if the conditions are wrong.  

George Robertson

George Robertson

And remember too, that progress is slower in snow, slower still if you’re cutting steps.  The paths are hidden, so navigation is harder, the days are shorter.  

Mountain rescuers would be home for tea much more often if walkers and climbers didn’t take on expeditions that would be easy in summer, but are just too lengthy for a winter’s day.

The weather is that much more critical as well.  If blizzards are forecast for the afternoon, maybe it’s best to stay low on the hill in the morning.  Among the contents of George’s winter backpack, apart from the bivvy tent, the several pairs of gloves for when the first pair gets wet, the torch and all the other impedimenta, is a pair of skiing goggles.  Try looking into a high wind packed with ice particles without them.

It would be wrong to say all the casualties of the past few weeks have been ill-equipped and ignorant.  Some have been practised mountaineers, who were simply unlucky.  There will be an element of risk.

But none of this is to say you shouldn’t go into the mountains.  They are beautiful, exhilarating and exciting in winter in a way they never are in summer.  Just make sure you can deal with the conditions.  Take a winter skills course – in effect, a guided walk with added education – from one of the dozens of guides and local companies offering them,  spend the relatively small amount you need on crampons and an axe, and you’re away. 

Nick Owen, the leader of the Langdale Ambleside rescue team, was visibly exhausted – his volunteer team had dealt with two fatalities and a dozen or more walkers and climbers in a week, and he’d had an hour’s sleep in the past 24.   But he could still talk lyrically of the way the moonlight had shone on the ice of Bowfell in the small hours of the morning.   “You have,” he told me, “The best mountain days of your life in weather like this.  Just make sure they’re not your last.”

last updated: 13/02/2009 at 10:47
created: 13/02/2009

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