Safety in British Mountains

by frankbeswick

Here are some hints for staying safe in British and Irish mountains, and they are transferable to mountains anywhere.

Like all of you I read with horror the account of Jo and Ember's brush with death on the Black Mountains, and as I have done a few articles on walking in Britain, I was inspired to write an article on mountain safety. British and Irish uplands are relatively low, but they are subject to changeable weather conditions. Thus there are times when they are thronged with happy walkers of all ages, who often greet each other as they pass, but there are other times when they can turn nasty.I am writing this article with Jo's blessing.

Photo of Snowdon taken by Michael Shannon

October Dangers

One October I went with Cahal, my long term friend, to ascend the northern end of the Carnaddau Ridge. Like all Octobers it was pleasant enough down below, yes, there had been some winds, but we were men in our thirties and confident of our strength. The path took us towards the top of Drum, the first peak, but as we reached the summit at 2500 feet or so, the wind strength soared. I am physically sturdy, but the wind used my haversack as a sail and spun me round, while the lightly built Cahal was thrown to the ground. Fortunately, Drum is a reasonably flat summit with no cliffs, but we were forced to abort mission and descend via a sheltered valley. You must know when to abandon a climb or walk.  

It is not that October is bad, but it is a time when human judgment can be at fault. While September is still summery, and November is cold and dark, October is deceptive.There are glorious days when the sky is clear and the wind speed is zero.  To amble or hike on the Autumn hills then  is a wonderful experience, and you think that all is fine; but there are times when the wind becomes strong and there is thick mist that can envelope you suddenly. Furthermore, the equinox is now past and the days are shorter than they were. This is particularly the case in Scotland, where summer days are longer than they are in more southerly England, but the winter nights are correspondingly of longer duration. You can underestimate how much light you have left, and this can lead to your being stranded on a dark hillside. The situation worsens when mist suddenly descends, and mists are in that month common. Then you can become lost and in for a long night on a cold hillside.

What Cahal and I experienced was the Autumn gales. October is a month when gales can come. They don't happen all the time, but they do sometimes. What is more, the wind speed at ground level is much lighter than the wind further up. What is mildly gusting at a 100 feet can be a strong, cold wind at 2500. The problems come when you are walking against the wind, which saps your energy and can lead to exhaustion. There is also a serious problem with wind chill. This is when a cold wind flowing across your body draws the heat from you. It can and sometimes does kill. The victims die of exposure/hypothermia.  I read of some hikers who went up from their sheltered South Wales valleys, where there was no wind, only to meet an icy wind searing across the flat summits that sapped their energy and led to an emergency descent. Fortunately, they survived, but had a nasty shock. 

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Welsh Mountains

Photo by Veneratio
Brecon Beacons
Brecon Beacons


There are surfaces that are a walker's dream. Britain is a land of sheep, and many surfaces are close cropped turf that is springy underfoot. In the North Carneddau I have seen wild horses cropping near a 2900 foot summit, and their grazing adds to the quality of the lovely, springy turf.

Yet there are more difficult surfaces. One time I was in County Leitrim, North West Ireland, trudging over the lower slopes of the Glenfarne Plateau, trying to find a route to the top. I struggled across the bog, my human body lumbering heavily as I tried to keep my balance. Then a mountain hare shot past me, shaming my human clumsiness as it sped lightly over the bog and disappeared into the distance. This showed me that I was in terrain that was not the natural home to humans. I belong further downhill, and the bog is unfriendly land into which I must venture as a visitor. Boggy land can sap your energy quicker than terra firma can.

I was in a land where the bog is merely difficult, but at times bogs can be dangerous. There are some areas where it is deep enough to sink into.  One place that has some lethal bogs is Dartmoor in South West England. It also in has hidden mine shafts into which the unsuspecting can stumble. Whatever you do in places like this, stick to the paths.

In fact it is safer to stick to paths in all circumstances, as the paths have evolved through time to take the safest and easiest routes. An example is the tourist path up Ben Nevis, which is perfectly safe as long as you stick to it, but there are terrifying cliffs that threaten those who stray off route, and one dangerous place in them is Five Fingered Gulley, which has taken many lives. Do not stray along this path in the dark, and do not stray off it in daylight

Some mountains have stony sections that make for heavy walking. The Glydrs of North Wales have a name that means clutter; and below you see a section of Croagh Patrick, Ireland's holy mountain. It is not only steep and prone to mists, but has paths that are often rocky. There is no wrong in walking rocky paths, but realize that an ankle can be turned and that they can sap the energy if you walk on them.  

Similarly, there are area covered with thick heather, which can look beautiful but can drain your energy if you try to walk for long distances across it. The thick heather of the Brecon Beacons is used for training by the SAS, the elite special forces unit. They have to run across it to build fitness. But these are ultimate fighting men. They have to handle terrain like this, you and I don't. Stick to the paths. 

Irish mountains

Photo by Banner
Croagh Patrick
Croagh Patrick


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The challenge of Scotland

Scotland contains the wildest land in Britain. It has the highest peaks, and the distances to walk are correspondingly greater than they are down south. It is more northerly than the rest of Britain is; and it is colder. Its winter nights are longer than England's and it can be subject to strong winds. To walk in Scotland is to encounter wonderful beauty, but there are dangers in its wilderness. 

Many accidents in Scotland are to rock climbers and winter mountaineers, and as I am writing this article for hikers I will not dwell upon the dangers specific to more advanced mountaineering. The danger in Scotland is underestimating the physical challenge of the hills. Thinking that the land will be easier than it is constitutes a  grave mistake that can cost life. Underestimating the coldness of the Scottish winter is a serious error; and to be unaware that winter days are very short is to seriously err to the point that you may find yourself stranded in the dark on a hillside. 

Yet of all the challenging mountains in Scotland Cairngorm stands out. After Ben Nevis Cairngorm is Britain's highest range, and unlike the Ben, which is close to the sea, which has a slight warming effect, Cairngorm is inland. In Winter its climate at 4000 feet is Arctic. Often snow-covered, it suffers strong winds blasting down from the pole, and on its plateau there is no shelter. The mistake made by some walkers is to think that Spring in Cairngorm is like Spring further south. It isn't, even in April to May it can be very cold. When I was in Scotland in 1989 there was a tragic incident when a German tourist thought that at only 4000 feet Cairngorm was less challenging than the Alps, so he took his eight year old son a twenty mile hike across the plateau. The child died of exposure. The father had underestimated Cairngorm. 

Scottish mountains ought to be loved and respected. It is a land of  lovely scenery and much grandeur, but it needs walkers to be careful as they go. 


Photo by cmoffat

Going Prepared

I am assuming that you are walking rather than climbing, which takes a distinct kind of gear. Taking a map and compass is essential, as is knowing how to use them. You should always leave word of your route and stick to it. A mobile phone is always useful to summon help, and you can take a whistle to alert rescuers to your presence. The distress signal is six short blasts. You also need a torch and spare batteries to help you find your way and to alert rescuers. 

It is vital to be warm and dry, and so you should ensure before you set off that you have sufficient warm clothes, including a spare jumper and spare socks, the latter being lest it rains and your feet get soaked. Wet feet can drain heat from your body. An anorak and a cagoule/waterproof are essential, and over-trousers never go is amiss, as otherwise you might have a dry body and soaked legs. Strong boots are vital.Much heat is lost through hands and head, so gloves and head gear,ideally a balaclava, are important. 

Sufficient food is important. You should have enough for the day and an emergency supply, which should be of high energy foods, such as chocolate or Kendall mint cake. Many hikers take a small stove and a cup with them to brew up a warming drink, but don't forget the matches/lighter. A thermos flask containing a warm drink is worth having

Some form of overnight protection is useful. A bivouac bag, which is a large sack made of strong polythene coloured red/orange to be noticeable, is light weight and will fold easily into your haversack. Properly equipped and clad, most people can survive a night in the open, after all, humans slept outdoors for thousands of years, but you do not want to have to. One important trick, though, is huddling together. Two or more people cuddling can be warm indeed. After all, it is probably how humans survived the Ice Age. 

Updated: 10/20/2014, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


frankbeswick on 10/30/2014

Thanks Derdriu. I think that age matters in making decisions as to when to go and when to abandon. A year or two back I stumbled climbing Snowdon, and a gentleman helped me up. I did not need help, though I thanked him. But then I realized that he had seen an elderly man fall over and so had a natural urge to assist. I had noticed some time before that the bodily flexibility which I used to have when scrambling over jumbled rock was not there any longer. I have to accept that in my sixties I am more limited than I once was.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/30/2014

Frank, This is sound advice, especially emphasizing the importance of knowing when to abandon a climb or hike and of staying on paths. As part of their training, special forces such as Navy Seals in US chalk up skill-refining experiences by surviving expected and unexpected challenges which would be daunting, to the say the least, to those with lesser fitness levels. Aficionados and amateurs, in addition to extensive experience as climbers and hikers, tend to emphasize the value of preparedness through tips such as you've provided.
Yes, October is a deceptive month here as well.

JoHarrington on 10/23/2014

Thank you so much for writing this. It's more than with my blessing, it's with my extremely active encouragement. I didn't know that the SAS trained on that heather. I can certainly see why.

frankbeswick on 10/20/2014

New England got its name from its similarity to the colonists' homeland, so it is inevitable that your conditions, Nelda, will be like ours.

WriterArtist on 10/19/2014

I love mountains but I have never been caught unaware. These tips are certainly very useful for people who are adventurous.

Nelda_Hoxie on 10/19/2014

Very interesting and helpful article. I hike in New England and walk along stretches of marshland. Many of the same conditions exist here.

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