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Hypothermia and Avalanche Risk For Walkers and Photographers

Posted on January 21 2017

Hypothermia and Avalanche Risk For Walkers and Photographers

Have you ever shivered when out taking walking or taking landscape photos? Well believe it or not you were suffering from the first signs of hypothermia. People often associate hypothermia with extremely cold countries but in fact many people in the UK have suffered from mild and even more extreme cases in winter.  Many cases of hypothermia in the UK occur at temperatures closer to 0 and even slightly above it as we do not dress for the conditions and our damp climate adds to the chilling effect. 

Hole of Horcum in Winter


Hypothermia is a lowering of the bodies core temperature, below 35c, that’s to say the internal temperature of the body where all your important organs are held, in mild cases, as mentioned above, shivering occurs, this is the bodies response to getting cold and it's automated, there is nothing you can do about it, the shivering is uncontrolled as it is the muscles attempts to generate heat, to do this they burn glycogen very quickly. Glycogen is your bodies main store of glucose and, therefore, energy. During shivering  this glycogen is quickly used up and if something is not done to prevent further chilling then the body core temperature lowers even further. When body core temperature lowers and the bodies store of glycogen is used up you will become disorientated and confused this leads to bad decision making, maybe this could only be bad photo taken but a worst case scenario is an accident or trip, alternatively you could make a simple navigational error leading to an accident or getting completely lost. In extreme cases particularly at altitude sufferers hallucinate and often remove clothing believing they are too hot!

Winter Walkers in Scotland


So how can you avoid getting cold or hypothermic? The most obvious solution is to take plenty of clothes with you, we tend to be guilty of getting overdressed when we leave our nice warm car and walk off into the hills only to find that within minutes  we experience overheating, this can lead to sweating, which, whilst in summer can be uncomfortable, in winter can lead to rapid chilling once exercise has stopped. In winter try and avoid this by setting off from your car slightly colder than you would like to be, because within 10 minutes the exertion of walking will increase your body temperature to a more comfortable level. Alternatively when you feel yourself warming up stop and take off a layer you can always put the layer back on when you find that great photo opportunity, slow down to avoid sweating.

Scotland in Winter


In winter I always take at least one extra layer with me, this will generally be a synthetically insulated jacket or gilet, whilst not as warm as down it certainly doesn't react the same way as down does when it gets wet and will keep much of its insulative properties even when it does experience damp conditions.


Three places to keep well insulated are; the head, the neck and the wrists, there are many blood vessels close to the surface, in this area, I prefer buffs for my neck and Extremities wrist gators for my wrists these great little items stop you getting that annoying gap where your gloves finish and your cuff starts.


If you or someone you are with does get cold and certainly if they start shivering you must take immediate action, get them out of the cold soon as possible, a bothy or group shelter is great for this, it takes the wind chill away, make sure you get inside with them that shared bodily warmth is very important. If you are wet try and get some dry clothes on, then, a hot drink is good, plus something with sugar in it like a chocolate bar, this replaces the bodies glycogen very quickly and can help enormously particularly if the sufferer is confused. Once the sufferer is warm and dry it's best to forget photography for that day and get back inside to where you can get properly warmed up and properly dry. Just chalk it up to experience and next time take more clothes, a hot drink and something to eat.


Although in recent years the UK has not experienced much of a winter there are certain parts of it that always do, one of those is the Highlands of Scotland. Photographers flock to the highlands to take advantage of the great landscape photography opportunities, at every corner and every turn you could spend many hours getting those great shots. In these areas you will often have to battle through snow to get to that great viewpoint but how many of you I never thought about the risk of avalanche? Most years in Scotland someone experiences the terror of an avalanche which can lead to a fatality, being avalanche aware is another key thing that landscape photographers should know when heading into these environments.


Fortunately the Scottish avalanche information service and the Mountain weather information service give daily avalanche reports for key high risk areas. When planning a trip it's a great idea to keep your eye on these reports on a daily basis because it's not just the day that you're going to be there that will affect conditions but also the days leading up to it, so it's a good thing to get the history in your head before heading out, and remember when heading out into areas that are likely to have avalanche hazards it should be part of your decision making process to consider three important factors; the weather and the mountain conditions, your individual skill and experience levels, and the type of landscape you intend to travel in. 


If you're sticking to the lowland parts you don't have much to worry about if you intend to venture up into the hills then please, please, gain experience and skills preferably from an instructor at one of the many outdoor centres around the country.


The Scottish avalanche information service provide a weather report and also give you indications of the snowpack condition and how that varies with height, they also tell you what direction of slope is most likely to avalanche. This is all summarised, by area, in a handy circular diagram or rose, broken up into quadrants with compass directions and heights, coloured lines show avalanche risk. It is a great idea to learn how to interpret these roses, there is a handy guide on their website, they also produce a fantastic leaflet which you can pick up in most of the mountainous areas entitled “Be Avalanche Aware”.


The avalanche reports are very localised and generally just a good guide, it's up to you as the person on the ground to make the final decision. Before heading out into the hills, particularly in Scotland, make sure you have a clear plan of where you're going that day and what you going to do, make sure you know what the weather forecast is for that day, what the weather has been like in the days leading up to your day out, check the avalanche forecast, download a copy of that rose, know which slopes and their aspect are likely to be the most dangerous. Make sure someone knows where you're going, when you're going to be back, try not to deviate from the route you set yourself because after all that's the one you've planned, if you go off the plan you may have no idea what the conditions are like in that area. If you think there are likely to be avalanche issues make sure you know where they are and stay well clear of them.


This may all sound a little like overkill but, as I said, no-one intends to be involved in an avalanche, the most experienced mountaineer or skier can get caught out, but information is king so please use this service and get used to the way that it reads and get used to those roses.


So when heading out this winter please do so in a knowledgeable and safe way, after all, Mountain rescue teams are unpaid volunteers and whilst they do the job without question they do not really want to be looking for you buried in an avalanche or frozen to the side of a hill.


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