Looking after each other on a winter hill day.

It’s hard to try to pass a message about looking after each other on the mountains when I love going out alone. I always tell folk where I am going and have my own safety network of mates and family. We can all have a problem so no matter how experienced you are accidents can happen.

When out with close pals its fairly easy we all know each other’s strengths and abilities when you go out in an informal group as in my club its worth looking at a few points.

For many this will be there first winter. I remember as a young 17 year old being thrown in at the deep end in winter it was a quick learning curb. Simple things like being aware of what gear to wear and when to put it on, dropping gloves, maps blowing away and night descents in wild terrain were all part of my apprenticeship. I was training for a Mountain Rescue Team and had to learn quickly.

We all have a duty of care for each other in the mountains; each person should be able to help another. If you do not have the skills learn them!  If you have an accident it will take time for help to come maybe hours could you cope while you wait what would you do?

Planning :

What plans do we have for the day if its winter do we all have the kit and even more important the knowledge to use it. Ice axe and crampons are they all competent in the group? If not before you hit steep ground or snow and ice on the show them. You can notice things like how they put their ice axe on their bag and how they walk with it.   Every winter have a shakedown practise, practise is the only way.

Do we have the fitness as a group to complete the route? Look at the route in summer the guide book times can be very wrong for a winter ascent add in deep snow, wind and poor visibility lack of daylight. It all takes time and the last thing you want is coming off on unknown ground in the dark.  If you have medical problems we need to know. I have been out with several folk who needed to take medicine to continue. Most carry it it’s not an invasion of privacy asking its common sense. Ask I cannot be given a morphine based drug if I have an accident. All my climbing partners know this. I carry a Medi Alert necklace showing this.

Are our plans for the day possible in the weather we will encounter? A plan of 5 Munros in winter in deep snow and strong wind and limited daylight is it feasible?

We all have a duty to share responsibility map reading, breaking trail, carrying extra gear like a bothy bag, first aid kit what do you have?

In a large group in bad weather keep together, when it’s snowing and the hoods are up its hard to see what the group dynamics are. Stop and check regularly USE BUDDY, BUDDY CHECKS THAT ALL ARE WELL. I find that a few who are new do not want to stop to put on gloves hats or more gear. I always have some quick food in my pockets ready for the bad weather when you have to keep moving. If the weather is bad have a responsible person at the back checking the pace and your navigation. Please do not be a follower we are responsible for each other.    

  • Its easy to become an “experienced mountaineer” according to the media most folk who have a problem in the hills are “experienced”. A few days each winter does not make you experienced. At one time I was spending 120 -150 days on the hills yet every year I learnt something.

 Groups are their own creatures, and group members with the greatest charisma, authority or self-assurance will set the tone. Some groups are very cautious, while others are quite bold or reckless. Although the trip leader can be influenced like any other group member, he/she needs to quickly gain a sense of the group’s temperament to keep things running smoothly. It is important to recognize and understand the most common types of group behaviour.

False sense of security: The larger the group, the more secure each individual feels. The additional skills and energy of the collective provide an illusion of power/ strength. Responsibility for the group is not as clear in groups of four or more people. The group leader must   be lulled into a false sense of security; they should also keep in the mind the importance of delegating responsibilities. Back marker, navigation checker etc.

Responsibilities are not clearly defined: This frequently occurs when there are several group leaders or when multiple group members possess a similar skill level. Nobody assumes responsibility for decisions—everyone relies on the expertise of others. Decisions are ambiguous or not thoroughly discussed. The group follows the route haphazardly, which creates a situation ripe for accidents.

Group pressure: varies depending on participants’ goals and aspirations. This is difficult to avoid. Understanding each participant’s motivations from the outset allows the leader to recognize the group’s temperament and evaluate possible pressures (“Our friends summited last week,” “We always head out regardless of the weather,” etc.). Before making a decision, recognise group pressure.

Looking where you are!

Maintaining an ongoing pleasant atmosphere: a group naturally seeks to maintain an amicable atmosphere. However, some decisions may jeopardize this congenial mood. A leader must resist this pressure and be able to make decisions that ensure the group’s safety, even if he/she knows they’ll be unpopular. Time to head home due to weather, terrain,illness or time.

Buddy, Buddy checks: Keep an eye on each other at the end of the day walk off together or in pairs. I always ask what would the group do if I had a problem, it makes a good discussion. When you stop ensure that all eat and have a break look at the map know where you are. Talk about the snow conditions and escape routes if the weather comes in.

Look after each other.

There are so many other ways but if you look after each other you will be more fulfilled. We all have to start somewhere and I was well looked after by others. Let’s have a safe winter and enjoy these incredible mountains.

Any comments welcome. 

As Club members it’s well worth going to the Mountaineering Scotland website it’s an incredible source of information.


Top Tips:

Start the day with a good breakfast.

Check weather and avalanche conditions a must.

Learn how to use your ice axe and crampons.

Experience is gained through making sure you learn from your experiences both good and bad.

Always carry a protected map and serviceable compass. Ensure your head torch is serviceable and has spare batteries.


I’ve had many people comment on how many pairs of gloves I carry, only for them to borrow a pair on a walk or worse mid-route because theirs are now useless or dropped.

Every winter climber needs a good glove strategy and an army of gloves and mitts with which to carry it out?

Have you got one?

Be Flexible always be able to change your plan the Mountains will always be there.  

Walking Poles will not stop a slip in hard snow.

“I got blown over backwards once when walking with poles on a snow slope. I stopped only a few feet from going over a large cliff. It taught me a serious lesson and used up one of my lives.

Personal opinion; if you have an axe, don’t get distracted thinking you can stop with poles.”

The late Andy Nisbet the most prolific Scottish winter climber.

Winter is fun but be prepared for it.

Anyone wanting to learn some winter skills contact me I may be able to help. There are lots of courses and winter skills instruction about it will cost you but it will be money worth spending.

Heavy Whalley Oct 2019  

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Avalanche info, Equipment, Friends, Gear, Health, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Looking after each other on a winter hill day.

  1. Steve says:

    Timely reminder, well written. Thanks.


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