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It seems that this year has been a particularly bad winter for deaths and accidents on our mountains here in Scotland. Perhaps it’s the fact that the snow started early in November and was still going strong at the end of March, or maybe it’s something to do with the idea that the mountains here in the UK cannot be nearly as dangerous as higher peaks in continental Europe. The tragedy of many of the accidents which have occurred over last winter is that the people involved were experienced winter climbers, who knew what they were doing. But should the rest of us just be avoiding the hills at all costs?
Anyone who lives in the UK knows that it can be raining one moment, foggy the next and bright sunshine 10 minutes later. It is the very fact that the weather is so changeable that makes the hills dangerous. If a trail is covered in snow throughout the winter, walkers know what to expect and go prepared accordingly. However, a cycle of snow, thaw and more snow means that the conditions can be hard to predict and walkers get into trouble because a path they expected to be clear is in fact covered in thick ice. Sudden drops in temperature can also mean that wet paths turn into ice rinks in a matter of minutes.
The recent accident in the French Alps which caused the death of a father and son brought home just how important it is to go properly equipped. Even sturdy footwear like Mustang shoes aren’t strong enough for the winter climbing conditions. Leave the Mustang shoes for summer walking, and if you are heading out onto the hills or mountains in the UK over the winter months invest in a proper pair of solid soled hillwalking boots and if you anticipate walking or climbing over ice, then a good quality pair of crampons is essential too. Wind chill can be a major factor in people having accidents or developing hypothermia on the hills, so remember the rules about layering up your clothing and wear good quality outer clothing too.
There are many companies offering courses which will teach you the basics of mountain safety whatever the season and if you are a complete novice to hillwalking or climbing these provide to thorough introduction to everything you will need to know. There is a school of thought that says that no amount of classroom training or theory is a substitute for experience, and that the best way to learn is to go out on the mountains with an experienced guide who can point out potential hazards, teach you about where the most risky points are, and give you tips about what to do if you find yourself in an emergency situation. Never walk alone; if you are inexperienced on the hills always team up with a group with more experience than you have and make sure you brush up on your map reading skills and always take a fully-charged mobile phone too.