Hill and mountain walking

Sooner or later you may want to walk over hills and mountains. You may get started by reading a book as I was

I was lured by Frank Smythe’s Spirit of the Hills and have been hooked ever since – or you may be inspired by seeing wonderful hills and wanting to know what is at the top or what is beyond them. I was lucky enough to get my first sight of British hills from the windows of steam trains: ‘he impressive slopes of the Vale of Edale from the Dore and Chinley line in Derbyshire; the sharp, sunlit ridges of Blencathra from a train rattling down through Threlkeld down to Keswick in the Lake District; the spacious Scottish Cairngorms and Speyside at four o’clock on a summer morning after an overnight journey; the Carneddau and Eryri peaks on a train journey to Bangor, Wales. Now I know them all so well that I am just happy to be among any of them, and I feel at home there, even when the hill tops are hidden above the cloud base and the rain sheets down in curtains through the valleys.

You may have an ambitious plan. You may want to walk over all 14 of the Welsh ‘Three Thousanders’, for example, or to go to Ireland and travel from the Wicklow Mountains (Lugnaquilla 926m/3039ft) to the Galtee Mountains (Galtymore 920m/3018 ft), and then on to Kerry for Mount Brandon (953m/3127ft) and Carrauntoohil (1041m/3414 ft). Take it easy, however, and make sure that you temper your ambition with caution, especially from the point of view of weather. It might be a good idea to serve an apprenticeship of map-reading skills on Ingleborough in Yorkshire or the Welsh Berwyns, and then to try some of the easier bits of Shropshire’s Stiperstones or easier bits of bouldering and scrambling below some of the mountain crags.

Get to know your capabilities in places where a short-fall does not matter much and where you are unlikely to get cragfast, because two of Snowdonia’s ‘Three Thousander’ peaks, Crib Goch and Tryfan, involve scrambling, even by the easiest routes, as does Helvellyn by Striding Edge in the Lake District. Get to know how steady you are and if you have a good head for heights. Keep clear of places like Sharp Edge on Blencathra until you are really sure of your capabilities, because the rock is smooth and very exposed. In rain or wind or with a touch of ice about it could be lethal. In short, get some experience before you push your luck.

One way of progressing from long-distance walking on way-marked paths is to plan and complete a route over wild moorlands and trackless mountains. Skye Treks from Loch Eil in Scotland partially achieve this objective by walking from Glenfinnan in Lochaber District to Glenbritde in the Isle of Skye. These summer treks began in 1979, and I have completed over 30 of them in the last 15 years. They have all been different, not only because of variations of route, often caused by caprices of the weather, but also because of the infinite variety of one’s colleagues and companions. A typical route lasts 11 days with 160km (98 miles) of walking, including 6000-7000m (19 685-23 000ft) of vertical ascent, with the same amount of descent, of course. Mostly the group follows paths that are often difficult to see.

By the time they reach Skye everyone is fit after five days of tramping, then there is free rein over the moors from Armadale or Kylerhea to Torrin, before the big challenges of Blaven and crossing the main ridge of the Cuillins. After the end of the trek there might be an opportunity to climb Sgurr Alasdair or the Inaccessible Pinnacle, which involves easy rock climbing.

Winter hill walking

By winter I mean any time when there is snow, ice or frozen turf underfoot; these conditions can apply during many so-called summer months, the only advantage being the longer daylight hours. For winter hill walking it is necessary to acquire an ice-axe and crampons and to learn how to use them.

Using an ice-axe

An ice-axe is not an ice-pick although it has a pick incorporated in it. I borrowed my first ice-axe in the 1940s and did the Snowdon Horseshoe, buying my first axe, a ladies’ model, soon after that.

I was badly caught out some years later, in March 1949, on a day of good weather and with not a trace of snow to be seen on all the west side of the Cuillin Ridge. I had seen no other climbers or hill walkers for a whole week. There had been snow on the ridges, but it all seemed to have been washed away by recent heavy rain. I left most of my gear, including my ice-axe, in Glen Britde, and walked around the rugged coast to Loch Coruisk. I knew most of the main ridge and decided to cross by Bealach Coire Lagan. Late in the day, and committed to the route, I found that the scree was topped by a 120m (400ft) slope of hard, glazed neve (hard snow), with a few rocks poking through. I managed to cut steps with a jack-knife I happened to be carrying, but it was touch and go, and I was relieved to survive to descend the scree on the far side into a colourful sunset.

Ice-axes may be used for cutting steps in hard, frozen turf, hard snow or ice; they are often used as third legs, or walking sticks, on summer as well as winter surfaces; but their primary safety use for walkers is not for any progress at all. On the contrary, its infrequent, but vital, purpose is to stop involuntary descents on slippery slopes.

Ice-axe braking

Thousands of lucky people have walked winter hills for many years without seriously practising ice-axe braking or self-arrest. True, they have ice-axes, and they probably carry them correcdy. They may even have drilled themselves to grasp the axe firmly in both hands in the ‘braking position’, but it is even odds whether they would be able to brake properly unless they have practised on real slopes of hard snow.

When a novice falls, the usual reaction is to shout or scream and throw both arms wide. The safe thing to do is to go almost instinctively into the braking position, holding the ice-axe very firmly and getting the pick of the axe into the slope almost before the slide has started. The reason for carrying the axe as shown is so that you can go immediately into the brake knowing that at least the carrying hand is in the correct position. Hill walkers who carry their axes wrongly (with the pick forwards when the arm is dangling in the normal walking position), could easily find that the pick of the axe would seriously damage their face or eyes when braking. Ice climbers, on the other hand, as distinct from hill walkers, often carry their ice-axes with the pick forwards.

Finding a place to practise self-arrest is not always easy. I have run week-long winter mountaincraft courses without finding suitable snow to cover this subject properly, and it should be thoroughly covered on the first day. A concave slope with a safe run out is needed, otherwise an unsuccessful practiser might crash into boulders or hurtle over a cliff. If you are going on the hill with the definite intention of self-arrest practice it would be a good idea to take your old neoprene waterproof top and bottoms so that you do not wear out your smart new breathables. Tuck the anorak inside the trousers to avoid collecting too much snow around your waist if you have no salopettes. It is also sensible to wear a helmet, and gloves are essential. Keep on the rubber bung that covers the ice-axe point, thereby reducing by one-third the number of lethal projections. The training session must be well controlled so that people are not sliding down until others are clear of the foot of the slope.

Ice-axe braking is great fun and becomes something of a sport in its own right, with points gained for all the correct positions: adze firmly into the shoulder; point completely covered by the lower hand; head forwards so that the helmet brim is scraping the snow; elbows tucked well in; body arched up between knees and shoulders and clear of the snow; knees bent and feet up in the air. Having your feet down and your toes digging in might stop you quicker if you were not wearing crampons, but your crampons digging in would make you cartwheel out of control and, at worst, could cause a broken leg. Although crampons should not be worn for training, I always teach the ‘feet up* position, in case you are wearing crampons when the real fall occurs.

Once you have mastered the basic position, slide down on your back, feet first. Remember to rotate your body so that the pick of the axe goes into the slope first when you are turning into the basic brake. Rotating the wrong way might cause the point of the axe to jab into the slope accidentally, forcing the shaft upwards and probably tearing it out of your hands.

As you gain confidence, learn how to brake from a fastish slide head first on your tummy. You may need help from others to get into position for the head-first slides. The axe must be very firmly held all the time. When a bit of momentum is gained, push the pick out at right angles to the side, before lowering it into the snow so that you swing round into the feet-down position. Your arms are now extended above you. Withdraw the pick completely while you are still sliding, then get back into the braking position before braking as normal.

There is even more to learn. Slide down head first on your back. Again push out the pick at right angles. Dig it in so that you are falling feet first, but you have to rotate your body to get face down at the same time. Again, withdraw the pick while you are still sliding, get into the braking position and brake as usual. Some instructors teach braking from rolling or even tumbling falls. These falls do happen, but for walkers the idea is to stop the fall almost before it starts.


Walkers use crampons, which are frames of incredibly strong steel spikes that are strapped or clamped to the bottoms of the boots, in climbing, descending or traversing slopes of hard frozen turf, hard snow or ice. I would feel far less naked on winter mountains stripped of crampons than I would without an ice-axe, but having said that, I have often retreated from hills because conditions warranted crampons and the party was not adequately equipped with them. I think the most dangerous situation is to have some members of a group wearing crampons and some without them. It is almost impossible to judge the difficulties of a mixed snowy, icy, grassy slope when you are wearing a good pair of sharpened crampons, it all seems so easy. But when the crampons are removed it is like wearing roller skates on a mirror. Some decades ago, a party of three were going up the icy Nevis Track near Fort William in Scodand. The one in front was wearing full crampons; one of the walkers had no crampons; and the third had instep crampons (a four-pointed compromise, which is not recommended). At the bend beyond the second aluminium bridge, the walker without crampons slid off the ice on Vibram soles and hurded down 25m (80ft). Fortunately the fall was stopped when a rope coiled over one shoulder caught on a rock projection, but not before a vertebral bone had been chipped. In the light of this and other incidents, I do not think I could approve of a group in which some were wearing crampons and others not, unless the members were roped together.

Walking in crampons

This is not meant to be an article on climbing, and I shall, therefore, discuss walking in winter on fairly gentle slopes. Stiff Vibram soles and sharp-edged heels give a good grip on many slopes, even on hardish, wrinkled neve, but eventually the slopes get so hard, even icy, that crampons have to be worn. The most dangerous places are when icy slopes are interspersed with slopes of wettish snow; you do not want to fit and refit crampons every time the surface changes because it is a chore having to fit them even once or twice a day. You need crampons for the hard surface, yet they ‘ball up’ on the wet snow (you can tell if the snow is the balling-up type by making a snowball with it). To cross such slopes safely, you must strike your boot sharply with the bottom of your ice-axe shaft at every single step; otherwise you end up with dragging weights, the size of footballs, on each foot. You feel like a clown in a circus, balancing on balls, but it is a serious and potentially dangerous problem.

The old nailed boots were bad in this respect, and, unlike crampons, you could not just take them off and walk in your socks but had to keep knocking the balls off all the way down. At least when you remove crampons the Vibrams are not nearly so bad for balling. Polythene bags over the crampons and boots help to overcome the problem, and special plastic sole plates may be available.

When you are walking in crampons keep your body absolutely vertical and get all 10 bottom-facing points on to the slope. If they are reasonably sharp, the points do not have to penetrate very far. Even on hard water-ice you do not have to bash them in – just place them and they will grip – but remember it has to be all 10 points. The technique is completely different from step kicking in Vibrams, when you use the edges of the boot. Your ankles must bend outwards, and until you get used to it, it can be tiring as the slopes get a bit steeper. If you want to vary the strain, you can walk uphill backwards, but your body still has to be completely vertical with all 10 points in for each foot, as in the direct descent position. A compromise is to point one foot down the slope and one across it.

The dangers of walking with crampons are several and the consequences of a trip on slopes are unthinkable. If you fall off in crampons you are in a worse situation than you would be without them, and you will be unlikely to be able to arrest a slide down icy slopes.

Crampons give a great feeling of security and you may quickly get overconfident. Use the following technique at all times. Keep your feet well apart to avoid tripping up with one crampon into the other; make sure that the front points do not slash into your gaiters or overtrousers; and watch for rugosities, or rocks poking through the snow, against which you can trip. Maintain this caution whenever you are wearing crampons.

Your boots must be stiff, and the strap-on crampons must be adjusted to fit the edges of the boots firmly even before the straps are secured. I never wear anything but expensive plastic double boots with Berghaus yeti gaiters on snow mountains. Having suffered from one frostbitten toe, I need the extra insulation, because I believe I am now more susceptible to frostbite. These boots will take step-in crampons, which are much more convenient to fit and remove in windy weather when ungloved hands get chilled. There is just one toggle-over clamp and a leg strap for each crampon.


Scree, or talus as it is known in the USA, is a mass of rock debris, mosdy split off by water freezing in cracks, which is a familiar sight on hills throughout the world, even though it might seem we have more than our fair share in Britain. Slopes lie at angles determined by the rock type, size of particles and state of erosion. Sandstone erodes rounder than quartzite, slides more easily and so lies at a lower angle. Quartzite forms some of the worst scree in Britain, usually largish and sharp edged, and it lies at fairly steep angles.

Walking on scree is not taboo, thank goodness, or we would find some of our best hills out of bounds. It is fine to walk across, up or down all but the most obviously precarious slopes, but there are certain rules to observe. Alone, you will probably be safe if you make sure there are no others hurtling rocks down from higher up. If you are in a group it is best to stay close together, so that any fairly large rock that becomes dislodged can be stopped by the next person in line before it has gained any momentum. Another method, which is said to be safer although I am not sure, is to go up or down in arrowhead formation, or in line abreast so that no one is directly above any other person. I use a similar method, but keep the group very close together in wide zigzags. At the end of each zig, the whole group must gather safely together before the zag is started. Anyone starting a dangerous rock fall is supposed to sing out ‘Below’ very loudly. Party discipline is paramount, and the person you have to watch out for is the one who insists on going ahead.

Scree running is dangerous, and I try and resist the temptation of indulging. Riding down with a moving mass of rocks is undoubtedly exciting, but it tears your boots apart for one thing, and cuts on the hand from sharp-edged scree are common. Regular use by hordes of walkers has reduced the popular scree runs to dangerous, craggy boulder slopes. Most of the small pebbly stuff, accumulated over centuries, has disappeared in the last two decades. A big danger is that someone will get trapped by a very heavy, sharp edged rock.

If you are running down, more or less out of control, you must lean well out. The great danger is that your boots will get trapped in the scree, which will cause you to hurtle forwards into a head-first descent on to sharp stones. A dangerous combination is thin layers of smallish scree lying on smooth slabs of rock. Scree slopes form a good base for snow slopes at the start of the winter, as the snow has a jagged base, but later on the slopes consolidate into smooth surfaces. Subsequent snow falls are just as likely to avalanche as anywhere else.

Step kicking

Step kicking is necessary only on slopes of hardish snow that do not give sufficient friction for progess without kicking steps. If you are lucky, you may find slopes of ripply, hard snow that you can walk across safely, leaving no indentations at all, with much less effort than the roughnesses of summer. On the other hand, you may sink in above the knees at every step, which is even more exhausting than deep heather or bracken. It is also frustrating and tiring when the surface is ‘breaking crust’, and it is difficult to maintain a rhythm. The surface supports your weight for one or two paces but lets you through when you least expect it.

Stiff boots are essential for the winter hills to dig into slopes and give security. For step kicking up long slopes it is less tiring to keep the sides of the boots parallel with the contour lines -that is to go up half-inclined sideways – than it is to go up facing the slope and kicking in with the toes.

Do not attempt steep slopes, remembering that you are a winter hill walker, not a climber, and do not attempt any iced or glazed neve slopes without crampons. It is probably better to ascend in very narrow zigzags because wide zigzags waste a lot of time and energy. When on the leftward zig, hold the axe in the right (uphill) hand, using it as a walking stick if necessary, or to push you out from the slope if the slope steepens. Cross or uncross your legs at every step unless you feel very insecure, when you would need to use each step twice as in ski side stepping. Kick as gently as possible to save energy and try to keep a steady rhythm. Instead of kicking, make your action more like a sawing action with the edge of the sole and heel. Stiff Vibrams give surprising security and the steps do not have to be great gouges. Sometimes mere nicks about 3cm (just over lin) deep will suffice, but they must be stricdy horizontal rather than sloping.

Changing from the left zig to the right zag is something of a balancing trick. Until you are absolutely confident it is probably best to hold your ice-axe in the braking position, sinking the point (that is at the bottom of the shaft, remember) a little way into the slope for support while you kick a couple of deepish steps with your toes to use as pivots. Once launched on the right zag, carry the ice-axe in the left hand. When kicking (or more especially when cutting) steps uphill, they should be so close together that there is no need to perform acrobatic feats to get from one to the other.

Always consider that you may have to retreat down the same line. The steps need to be closer together for the descent because balance is more difficult and your body will be more tired, while the snow may be hardening and glazing over. More accidents happen in descent for these reasons, so always plan cautiously.

If the slope steepens for a short distance you may want to face in and kick steps directly up it. You can secure your balance at each step with your ice-axe in the braking position and the point into the slope. These steps are known as pigeonhole steps. After you have made about 20 steps, practise climbing down them, because you may have to use the steps in retreat and it is more difficult to see the steps from above. The slope may change considerably later in the day, becoming slushier or perhaps hardening up when the sun goes off it.

When you are descending gentle slopes you can run down ‘goose-stepping’ if you are confident of your self-arrest prowess. Keep your body vertical or even leaning forwards somewhat and your knees fairly stiff, so that your descending weight drives your sharp-edged heels into the snow with no conscious kicking action. It is good fun, a bit tiring, but exhilarating.

Step cutting

Step cutting is an alternative to wearing crampons. It is feasible that only a few steps will need to be cut during a whole day, just at one place where the requirement is not sufficient to justify the time (and cold fingers) spent fitting and removing crampons. The use of crampons has been so publicized in safety leaflets that their use has become standard and step cutting is now done far less frequently. This is unfortunate, not only because it is satisfying, but also because it may be dangerous not to know how to cut steps, especially when you are going downhill. A crampon can be easily broken or lost, so it is a good idea to practise cutting steps both up and down. I can remember several occasions when I have been caught out without crampons or rope on glazed slopes, which have been too steep or exposed to risk a glissade or a braking descent, and I have been forced to cut down long lines of steps to get out of trouble.

For everything that I have written about step kicking read the same for step cutting. However the snow will be harder, self-arrest will be more difficult if you do fall off, and you may feel less secure, so a security pause (with the axe in the braking position and braced against the slope) may be necessary between each step.

You can develop your own method as long as it is safe. I cut uphill holding the ice-axe in both hands, but other walkers use one hand only. Ensure the adze does not stick in the surface, causing you to lose your balance wrenching it out. It is best to cut a nick and then slash away from it to avoid this. Depending on the angle of the slope, it is often better to keep one or two steps in reserve. You still step up every time you have cut a step, to keep the timing, but leaving the reserve step(s) between the axe and the boots. A completed line of steps should look as regular as the rungs of a ladder, and they should be just as horizontal. Try to cut rhythmically and gently, conserving your energy as much as possible.

Cutting steps downhill is more difficult. It is one of the few times when a longer ice-axe would be advantageous. Facing sideways, you can only cut one step below you and you have to bend your knees to do it. Moving down, it is probably best to use each step twice to avoid the leg-crossover. Always step down onto the new step with the lower foot first, followed by the upper foot.


I hardly dare mention glissading – sliding down on your feet or backside while steering/braking with the point of the ice-axe -except to say how dangerous it is. Some people have even performed sitting glissades wearing crampons. This could be disastrous, for if a crampon point catches in the slope, it could result in a cartwheeling, leg-breaking fall. Glissading can, however, be glorious fun, swooping down the Hen Hole from the top of the Cheviot in Northumberland, or from Grindslow Knoll down into Edale in Derbyshire, at an optimum angle, saving half an hour in descent time.

However, a popular groove may wear with use so that sharp rocks appear in the trench, which do glissaders no good at all. There may be avalanche dangers, and melt-water holes may appear lower down the gullies. There are many ‘don’ts’: glissading in cloud down an unknown slope, which may end in crags; glissading without checking the run-out on the way up; glissading without checking the state of the snow.

A low-angled sun on a convex slope has little melting effect high on the slope, where the temperature is likely to be lower in any case, but will strike the snow more direcdy lower down, melting it. Late in the day, when you are finishing off with a glissade back to the hut, the temperature will have dropped below freezing again. The snow at the top of the slope is in perfect condition for glissading and the angle is reasonable. Lower down, as the angle steepens, the freeze-thaw has consolidated the snow and converted it into glazed neve, so that your glissade descent becomes uncontrollable.


Cornices, great overhanging masses of snow built out by wind saltation of snow flakes or particles over the crags, will obviously be dangerous to gully climbers if they collapse and sweep the climbers down the gullies, and they may be difficult to surmount or to tunnel through. But we are walkers and will not be climbing the buttresses and gullies of the leeward north faces. Before going out on the hill in snow conditions, we shall have taken into account any warnings of possible avalanche and deliberately avoided slopes facing in dangerous directions.

There remain the dangers to people walking the ridges and plateaux of actually falling through a cornice. The overhanging crests may protrude over 10m (33ft) and regularly completely obscure whole summits and summit cairns (Stob Ban in the Mamores, and Aonach Beag, are examples in the Scottish Highlands). At the heads of the great gullies cornices protrude even further, and they may change the whole geography of the area, obscuring pinnacles and promontories.

They are most dangerous in white-outs, when the sky and the ground are indistinguishable and everything appears white. A white-out can occur in good weather with just a few fleecy clouds covering the summits; it does not have to be during actual snowfall, nor even when spindrift is evident.

I discuss the use of a rope for walking later in this article, but a good time to rope up to your companions is when you are concentrating on navigating off a mountain when caught in white-out conditions. This is an emergency procedure for walkers. Actually walking through a cornice would be unthinkable. Even if you are roped up, there would be the enormous problem of climbing back up through the whole mass of the cornice after the rope had cut deeply into it while you are dangling on a rope that is restricting your breathing.

If you are forced to navigate in a white-out, a good tip is to throw about 10m (33 ft) of rope straight ahead of you. If you can see the rope extending horizontally into the whiteness, at least you know there is something there, even though it may be only the feathery fronds of a delicate cornice under the rope.

Most people feel a lot more secure when they are roped up to their friends, and it is a good way of keeping the party together. However, you should avoid walking parallel to a cliff edge or following a course that converges on the top of a cliff. Cornice accidents are becoming alarmingly frequent. They are most common when walkers try to follow the top of a cliff along a plateau edge that is shown on the map as almost a straight line. Navigators blithely take a straight line bearing from top to top, forgetting the insidious curve, which is obscured by its cornice, lying in their path.

Snow caves and igloos

Deliberately ‘surviving’ in a snow cave or igloo is becoming increasingly popular, and in some circumstances they can be more comfortable than tents. During a long sub-arctic day you may be glad to get into an igloo to sleep, away from the glare of the sun if your tent is white, or away from the wind noise of a flapping tent. As an emergency measure a snow cave can be a life-saver. It is amazing how quickly you can get relief from the wind-chill factor by digging in, even if your only tool is an ice-axe. Building a snow palace takes several hours, even with a shovel, and in this time you will sweat a lot, so you will lose a lot of heat later as the perspiration evaporates.

Do not build deep down in the drift or the roof thickness will be in danger of collapsing if it thaws. The optimum roof thickness is about 30cm (12in) so that you can poke an ice-axe through for ventilation. If the whole palace starts misting up inside or if your stove or candles fail from lack of oxygen, you had better start ventilating your shelter quickly. In blizzards, which is when you really need a shelter, drifts build up outside the blocks you have used to seal the entrance, so you may have to dig out in the morning. If you are occupying one of a terrace of snow palaces, it is a good idea to interconnect them with passages or to have a rope connecting them outside.

You do not have to spend a night high in the Carneddau to get experience of a snow cave. Try it in the safety of your front garden on a frosty night. You can even change into dry clothes after building it so that you can sleep more comfortably. After a reasonable fall of snow get a few willing helpers and shovel it into a pile about 1.5m high and 3.5m in diameter (5ft high and about 11ft diameter). Allow half an hour for it to setde; its weight will consolidate it, and then you can dig your cave.

Walking rope

I have mentioned the use of a rope for walking several times, especially for walking in the mountains. I feel ill-equipped if I go out without one, but the rope I use is thinner (and therefore weaker) and longer than most authorities recommend. I like to have a 7mm (’4in) diameter rope which is 30m (100ft) long. I carry it just in case.

Apart from the possibility of having to use it to help other people or groups, the rope might have several uses, all of which can be classed as walking, rather than climbing.

Uses of rope

– Confidence for a nervous companion

– Classic abseils on steep ground or from snow bollards

– River crossings

– Roping up, or throwing ahead in a white-out

– Making a rope stretcher (but not for fractures of major bones)

– Extra tent guy lines in gales

– Communication between snow caves

– Helping companions bogged in (infrequent, but possible)

– Swimming or lake-ice rescues

– Hanging bear-proof food caches (every night in some countries)

Not the least of the uses of a rope might be to tie down an injured friend you have to leave while you go to get help, and then to stretch out the rope to make location easier.

You should learn some knots if you do not already know them.

River crossings

I stress the importance of planning a route down from a saddle or watershed to make sure that you take the safest bank to descend a valley and that you do not get trapped at confluences. I know of several bridges that are unmarked on the maps and that are not obvious from rights of way. Local knowledge can be vital in remote areas, so carry out all the research you can in the planning stage. If you do get trapped between two spate rivers, and you do not have sufficient resources of food and energy to go far enough upstream to make a safe crossing, the best plan is to camp or bivouac until the spate abates, even if it means an uncomfortable night and people being worried that you are overdue. In Britain hill streams usually subside reasonably quickly, just as they rise faster than you expect.

However, rivers usually look easier to cross than they are, so if a crossing looks desperate you can believe it. In critical situations spend some time looking for the safest place. Avoid bends where water looks shallow over the gravel bank on the inside of the bend but flows deep and fast round the outside of the bend. Avoid despairing leaps between boulders and avoid narrow channels where the flow is speediest. Look for the widest, shallowest place where the flow rate is likely to be similar right across. It is best if there are very few boulders or other obstacles, which might snag the rope. Find a safe belay above the selected stretch. (The word belay means a tree, rock spike or a gap between boulders, round or through which the rope can be passed with guaranteed security.)

I can really only recommend one passably safe technique, especially if you are alone; it is called the pendulum method , and it requires a rope. You will find different ways advocated, but they usually require more rope than you are likely to be carrying or they are theoretical methods without a rope, which I have tested (although not in emergency situations) and cannot advocate.

The maximum depth of raging water you can expect to cross is about knee height. You must keep your boots on. Tie one end of the rope to the belay and tie into the rope yourself, about halfway along the length of the rope if the river is not too wide. Fully stretch the rope, by leaning back against it, while you are looking upstream. This stretching and pulling against the belay is important because this is your support against the flow of the river. Pendulum across. If you are swept off your feet, you should be swept back to the starting bank. Meanwhile, your companions will be feeding the tail of the rope, and they can help by pulling you back, sideways, if necessary. It is important that they do not use the main rope to try and pull you upstream, because this will tend to pull you underwater. When one or more people are across, retie the belay at the far side of the river. This will help because subsequent crossers will do so at a more downstream angle, which is easier. It is important, except for the last person across, that once the belay has been shifted, one end of the rope is available from each bank. Do not leave the weakest person to cross last.

If you are alone, or if your one companion is incapable of getting across unless tied into the rope with you, you will have to dispense with the luxury of a tail rope to pull you sideways out of trouble if you get swept off your feet. You will have to pendulum across on the double rope without a tail rope, with both of you tied into the double end of the rope together. You will have to decide how you can best help; with your friend tied immediately upstream of you, so that you can physically grab and pull; or tied immediately downstream, behind you, so that you take the full force of the current.

You will have to devise a system whereby you can retrieve the rope from the far bank. It would be untidy, and expensive, to leave it behind; and remember the first domino – you may get trapped in another tributary arrowhead further downstream. If your belay is a boulder or a rock spike, find the middle of the rope and loop it over the boulder or spike. Tie yourself into-the two ends making sure that they are both secure. Test the rope to ensure it moves easily round the belay, and that it will do so from the far bank when it is time to retrieve it. If the belay is a tree or a thread (a gap between two boulders) you will have to feed one end of the rope round, or through, until you come to the middle.

Whatever the belay, remember that when you are retrieving the rope from the far bank any knot is likely to jam, so make sure all knots are untied and that you pull the end through smoothly.


Avalanches happen when the entire snowpack slides off a hillside or when snow layers lying at angles of 25-45 degrees slide on each other. It is best to avoid walking on slopes at these angles, particularly convex slopes, unless you know that the snow is firm. All lee slopes should be avoided after snowstorms or after wind has caused drifting of lying snow. It is safer to remain on broad, gently sloping ridges that have been partially cleared by the wind. Remember that it is not just in thaw conditions that avalanches occur – they can happen when it is still very cold.

Information on snow conditions and avalanches can be obtained from weather reports in newspapers and on television and radio. There are notice boards giving this information in areas popular with walkers, skiers and climbers.

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