Friday, 2 March 2012

Walking on the Wild Side: The White Room

This article from a series of articles published in the Voice for Arran, a community magazine for Arran.

There is no doubt about it, white-outs in the mountains are scary, but they are not dangerous on their own if your navigation skills are up to scratch. 

 Navigating in a white-out on the summit of Ben Nevis.  Image credit: Stuart Wallace

In the White Room there is nothing. You can blink, strain your eyes and try to shake the dizziness from your head but the blank screen in front of you will not flicker.  Looking down at your rime encrusted compass you watch the needle settle on North and take a few stumbling steps forward on a surface that your eyes don’t register. Your quads pump. Your legs at least tell you that you are walking uphill. Ahead, a scrap of windblown lichen tumbles across the snow and helps your own internal compass to settle.

Being the navigator on point in a “white-out” is a lonely business. You can turn to look at your friends in bewilderment who will in turn offer words of encouragement, but while they have your reassuring footprints and rucksack to look at, they can’t fully comprehend the dizzying vertigo that comes from seeing nothing.  The experience goes from bizarre to hellish when strong winds and stinging spindrift are added to the mix. A cocktail of agony and blindness only slightly eased with ski goggles (now you enter the marginally cosier “Pink Room”).

To experience the true White Room you need a thick blanket of snow, removing any sign of surface details. All rocks, blades of grass and footprints are erased and the horizon mingles freely with atmospheric mist and snow. It is impossible even to see which way the ground dips, and I’ve seen people rolling snowballs out in front of them just to judge the gradient before they step on it. The disorientation of navigating in a full white-out can lead to compelling urges to lie down on the floor to confirm that gravity and the earth still exist.  

Knowing how to navigate in Scotland’s mountains at any time of year is very important, as our weather is so changeable and bad visibility or lack of concentration can easily lead to route finding errors.  In winter, white out conditions make navigation exceptionally difficult and the stakes are increased with more hazards and greater consequences for mistakes.  There is no doubt about it, white-outs are scary, but they are not dangerous on their own if you know how to deal with them when they overtake you, and practice your micro-navigation skills regularly so that when you need them they are right there at your fingertips.

Learn how to walk on a bearing. Sighting on objects such as rocks or tufts of heather just in front of you will work in summer and even in the dark, but in the White Room you have nothing to sight on so will have to take it really steady. Try sending people out in front of you and using the compass to sight on the line ahead rather than staring blankly in to the mist. You can also turn around and take a back bearing along your snowy footprints to check how well you are doing.

Calculate the distance you have travelled using timing.  Calculate your speed, and add about a minute for every 10m vertical height gained. If you can’t do the maths with a cold brain, try laminating a little cheat card with timing calculations already worked out for everything from 100-1000m, and at 2, 3, 4 and 5km per hour, and attach your cheat card to your compass.

Count every pace.  Pace counting is very useful for distances under 500m. Experienced navigators know how many paces they take when walking for 100m on easy ground.  Usually each double pace is counted, for example, every time the left foot hits the ground. Experience helps you learn how many extra paces to add in deep snow, uphill or with a heavy pack.

Avoid Hazards. Avoid cliff edges, gullies and steep ground.  These are often concealed by deep snow and cornices, and could be invisible in a white-out.

Don’t skimp on equipment: A map, a spare, a compass, a head torch and ski goggles are essential winter equipment, and should be included along with your ice axe and crampons.

If you are new to navigation, you may wish to start with a book to introduce the basics- there are lots of great ones on the market, but my favourite is a small publication called Mountain Navigation,  by Peter Cliff, which has been in print for a while but is still widely available. There is also no substitute for practical experience, and while the winter days are claggy and dreich, there is certainly plenty of that to be had on Arran’s hills!

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