How to survive a whiteout
Bad weather, in winter in Scotland is common ground. We seldom experience sunshine, blue skies, the ability to see for miles around, and no need to use the map and compass. So, possessing the skills to navigate accurately, and confidently in whiteout conditions is a must in winter in Scotland. Or you may find yourself disorientated, followed by a feeling of panic. Then things may quickly escalate from bad to worse.
The ability to navigate safely through whiteout conditions, is very freeing. Meaning that on the days when the weather is so, that you would normally spend it in a café, wishing you were out on the hill. You would actually be out there, enjoying the crisp, blustery winds, plastering your face with snow and spindrift.
Weather/avalanche forecast and planning
Prior to going out on the hill, always check the weather forecast and avalanche forecast. Plan your route well, and always have several back up plans. Conditions out on the hill may always differ slightly from the forecasts. As it is only a forecast. Be flexible in your approach, and have several escape routes to suit the forecasts.
Route cards can be a very helpful way to plan a route. A safety measure for those times when you may get caught out, and a gentle reminder about where to go.
If you are forewarned of the possibility of a whiteout. It will come to no surprise that you will be having to intently use your map, compass, and be measuring distance.
For further information on avalanches and weather forecast, please see link below:
Avalanche safety and awareness
The Right clothing
Having the right kit will bring comfort and the feeling of security and enjoyment, in sometimes pretty harsh conditions. If you are warm and dry, it means you have the mental capacity to think clearly. One of the items in my winter kit which is indispensable (apart from most of it), are a good pair of goggles. I know, very obvious for most of you, but have seen people out without them. It feels like a completely different experience. Like a warm cosy room in chaos.
Note: Keep your goggles in a dry-bag, till you need them. That way they don’t tend to fog up.
Even if you are caught out by a whiteout, stop, stay calm and think about where you are, or your last know position. The worst you can do is allow fear to take over, then decisions can be made hastily. And mistakes are more likely to happen. Fear can be a normal response to situations that may feel uncomfortable or outside your comfort zone. But as you are in it, you will have to calmly navigate your way through it (to your objective, whether this is the route or your way home).
If it feels too much, settle down into your emergency shelter. Have some food and drink, and think logically about your plan of attack.
Map and compass
You have to be very comfortable with using a map and compass in winter. Navigation has to be very accurate. The consequences of walking off a cornice, down a gulley, or onto an avalanche prone slope are far greater.
In winter you must try and use large features to navigate to. Break up larger legs into smaller ones. Use features to navigate to, even if it means covering a greater distance. The smaller the legs, the smaller the element of error.
Calculate the bearing you need to walk on. Walk a distance which equals the distance of visibility. Then take a back bearing to see if you need to readjust yourself. Making sure you are walking in a straight line. If you are on your own, you can take a back bearing on the footsteps you left in the snow. If you are with other people, get them to stay where you are. Walk a small distance (keeping everyone within visibility), take a back bearing, get them to walk to you. And repeat. Or get one of the group to walk up in front (staying within visibility). Use them to accurately work out the bearing, utilise simple signals to communicate any adjustments that need to be made.
Two ways to walk on a bearing:
- Hold compass in front, and try keep the needle in the red arrow when walking. Make sure you do not have any metal objects near the compass (i.e. ice axe, or walking pole)
- Or throw a snowball in front so you have something to focus on
- Or using small features like rocks to focus on
Note: Always keep an element of safety when walking alongside a cornice, or boxing or dog-legging around a feature like a gulley, by staying further away from the edge than you think.
The white room
Also referred to as pacing. Pacing is the reference of walking a certain amount of paces (double paces, i.e. one pace or double pace equals each time your right foot hits the ground) over 100m distance over ground as the crow flies. As maps are a 2D representation of a 3D object, e.g. a 100m distance measured on a map, may be 130m traveled uphill.
So the pacing depends on the angle of the terrain. Pacing 100m on the flat on hard neve will be very different to pacing uphill on soft snow. Where paces would be shorter uphill anyway, and walking uphill in deep snow will feel like going backwards at times.
This is a tricky one to teach or learn, as practice makes perfect. Practice pacing in summer conditions on a variety of terrain. Once you feel comfortable with this concept. Take it to the winter conditions, when visibility is good. Once well practiced, you will be able to navigate to accurately in a whiteout on a variety of terrain, with a variety of conditions underfoot.
Keeping the navigation legs shorter, i.e. up to 500m, reduces the element of error. Use toggles to keep track of the distance traveled. Or write in the snow, every time you take a back bearing or change direction, of the distance you have traveled.
Use the lay of the land (contour lines) to judge over or underestimating distance, or walking off the bearing calculated. I.e. what is the ground under foot doing, and telling me about where I am/should be on the map.
Also make sure you adjust your compass for the Magnetic north variation:
Link to calculate Magnetic North variation
A watch that has a built in altimeter is handy to allow measurement for altitude. This can be combined with the use of a map to accurately plot where you are. Keep in mind that generally the weather pattern linked with whiteouts is that the pressure changes invariably. Meaning the altimeter needs to be updated at known points, to be able to calculate altitude accurately.
A GPS can also come in handy. But should not be relied upon, as batteries of most electronic items do not last as long in cold weather.
Be well prepared and practiced in map reading skills, the use of a compass, and pacing. Practice these in summer conditions, and build these up to using them in low visibility and/or at night. Once you feel confident in your ability, venture out in the winter environment. Please do be aware of avalanche prone slopes, the change in weather conditions, cornices, hidden features like gulleys, etc… These do not always show up on a 1:40k or 1:50k map. Go out and remember to have fun.