Best laid plans are actually the ones you can change and adapt, always with a backup in place.
We recently had a group wanting to summit a mountain in Wales and in the preceding days we drew up a route, issued kit lists, arranged meeting points. Most importantly we kept an eye on the weather. It is vitally important to know what’s been happening in the area and what is expected on the day. In this case we knew that in the week before there had been a lot of snow on the ground, that the temperatures had remained too low for much of a thaw but that rain was coming in. On the day we had a forecast for wind speeds of 30-40 miles per hour, gusting up to 40-50 mph, coming from the south west as yet another band of stormy weather moved across the country. Poor visibility meant that from the carpark we couldn’t see if or where pockets of snow might still be lying.
Our original plan had been to follow the long, gradual ascent onto the ridge going from south east to north west. This would have given us 2 – 3 hours of climbing with the wind on this day cutting across our path. On reaching the summit we might have found our planned north-north east descent made dangerous by lingering snow and ice combined with the gusting wind.
Simply reversing the route gave us pretty good shelter as we followed the base of the ridge before turning onto that northern spur to climb towards the summit. With this approach we we could easily back off if the wind became too much or significant snow was across our path. There were in fact several deep, wind blown patches of snow but these were easily passed. The final push to the summit was steered well away from the sharp edge of the ridge and all reached the top.
We returned via our route in, the best alternative to an arduous, wind blown descent on the main ridge with wind speeds forecast to increase in the afternoon. This was now noticeable even lower down in the shelter of the valley. Team members were blown over or pinned to the ground in gusts of perhaps 50mph or more.
The Beaufort Scale is a widely used measure of wind speed, originally used at sea but also adapted to land to standardise otherwise subjective weather recordings. Rated from 0-12 going from Calm through to Hurricane.
It’s useful to know exactly what the forecasters mean when they talk of gale force winds or what effects speeds of 30mph might have on you. It’s also important to consider how that will change in upland or mountain environments. The Met Office and the Mountain Weather Information Service give mountain specific forecasts so use these to plan your day, consider wind speed and direction and relate that to your map.
What was interesting on our descent was how the wind was moving around. We were in what can be best described as complex terrain. Ancient glaciers had scoured the land on their final retreat leaving steep escarpments, a scooped out valley and high moraine deposits. The south westerly wind, increasing as it screamed over the higher ground, dropped sharply over the ridge before bouncing around the valley making it hard to predict its new direction. A closer look at the map, back home with a cup of tea, showed where these “eddies” might and did in fact occur and could have been anticipated in the planning.
After maybe 5 – 10 minutes in strong winds we dropped down and out of it all smiling because of the brush with mother nature and a great mountain day in the bag.