Keeping an Eye on Winter Conditions
By Instructor Dave Rudkin
As the first winter climbs of the season get ticked off, exciting thoughts of picks searching for cracks, edges, ice and turf blobs enter our minds, then our stomachs turn and get that sinking feeling with the thought of crampons scrabbling on verglassed rock and long run-outs above marginal gear, the winter psyche builds!!
Whether you are heading out this weekend or have a trip planned in March, now is the time to start checking on conditions. This ensures you can make educated decisions on where to head, to make the most of your trip. That been said, with fickle British weather, all the researching in the world can be thrown out of the window in an instant, as you arrive in a Cwm or Corrie to find completely different conditions than you expected, but that's the fun of winter climbing.
What I have compiled below is a list of resources that I use to keep an eye what's happening and what might happen.
There are a huge selection of weather forecasts available on the internet, fortunately some are mountain area specific. Below are some of the ones I commonly use.
Firstly I keep an eye on these forecasts throughout the winter months and just take a mental note of general wind directions and speeds, changes in the freezing level and any precipitation that passes through; this gives me a good overview of what's going on.
Closer to the time I look at these same things in more detail, to confirm potential avalanche safety, to help decide on what clothing to wear and equipment to take and finally, to decide which cliffs will potentially provide the best possible climbing conditions. I'm looking for cliffs with safer approaches and descents with regards to avalanche conditions, less committing routes if poor weather is coming in, technically less demanding navigation if visibility is going to be poor, cliffs that may offer protection from the wind, cliff that will be freezing, not too far if the snow is deep, if ice is needed, has there been freeze-thaw at the right altitude? For mixed routes it is important that the cliff has been blasted (not too much!) by a storm so that it is rimed-up and white. By considering these things, you will begin to narrow down your options; you will also weigh these options up against driving conditions or cliff popularity too.
Other weather information I may check is the Met Office Monthly Outlook, to see how things may shape up and the Surface Pressure Charts to get a bigger picture of what's happening, check what happens overnight and also note the 528 thickness line to help predict further snowfall, www.wetterzentrale.de 's 9 day air temperature forecast can also be very useful for the same infomation.
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service provides daily avalanche reports and next-day forecasts for 5 popular Scottish climbing areas (Lochaber, Glencoe, Creag Meagaidh and the Cairngorms; split into North and South) during the winter months (between the 15th December and the 15th April).
The daily report gives you information on local weather that was observed that day, in that mountain area (wind direction and speed, precipitation, temperature), as well as snow conditions (areas of accumulation/drifting, new snow fallen and snow-depth, the snow-line, the snowpack profile and any weaknesses within it). It also highlights whether any avalanches were observed or any other hazards like unstable cornices are present. Obviously this daily report is limited by the area that can be observed by the expert (less area observed when the visibility and weather is poor).
The information collected by the observer is then complied with a weather forecast (specific to that mountain area), the observers expert local knowledge, and, run through a forecasting computer programme (which has data from the last 20 winters to compare), to produce an avalanche forecast for the following day. It's worth noting again that the limitation mentioned earlier still exists and furthermore, if the weather forecast is wrong or it changes, this will decrease the accuracy more so. By no means I'm I suggesting that the forecast isn't useful, on the contrary, in general it is accurate, but it is better to be aware of its limitations and continually make your own judgements throughout the day.
The observers also go out of their way to note what climbing conditions were like during the day (which cliffs are iced or black, where ice is forming and sometimes which routes were climbed) on the forecast and on a separate area blog.
It is clear to see that the SAIS report is a massively useful resource for conditions information. I can find out local weather from that day and what weather is forecast, which approaches, climbs and descents might be safer or potentially more dangerous, and what the cliffs maybe like with regards to riming and ice. What you don't have are all the potential climbing areas covered, like the Northern Highlands, the Lake District and Snowdonia.
Webcam coverage continues to grow and some can be extremely clear and give you a snap shot of potential conditions on the mountain. It's not the same as chatting to someone who's climbed at the cliff that day, more like what you'd get by driving to the car park and looking from there, so you can at least save yourself a long drive.
Blogs can be a fantastic source of information of what's been happening, but by that same token they are limited, as all blogs are old news. If you make your decisions on where to climb by blogs, you'll always be on the back foot, as appose to the weather forecast and SAIS where you are thinking ahead. Use the information for inspiration but put it low down the list in aiding your decision making.