How to survive a mountain blizzard

RECENT storms have highlighted only too clearly how dangerous bad weather can be.

Even in seemingly unextreme climates like the UK, ferociously high winds and freezing temperatures have already demonstrated this year that the threat to life from such conditions needs to be taken seriously.

This was brought home unequivocally this week when mountain rescue teams risked their own safety to collect a group of four students – wearing little more than they would to head into Glasgow for a pint – who had decided to hike up Ben Nevis as Storm Ciara unleashed its wrath over Scotland.

You know things must have been bad when even the rescuers choose words like “stupid” and “idiots” in the aftermath of an operation which endangered the lives of four young men who had made the inexplicable decision to ascend Britain’s highest mountain, and 22 volunteers of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team.

Luckily, no one was killed during what became a desperate rescue mission as a biting blizzard created white-out conditions amid a wind chill factor of around -20C.

The four stricken walkers were able to find a location with enough phone signal to dial 999 before using the app What3Words to give their accurate location. What3Words cleverly divides the entire world up into three metre squares – each with its own unique, three-word code.

However, as fortunate as the group were, and as clever as What3Words is, the painful truth is that none of this should have happened. Why? Because the four walkers simply should not have been on Ben Nevis, entirely because of Rule 1 of mountain survival – common sense.

So, what are the guidelines you should follow if you find yourself in unexpectedly bad conditions on a mountain? Here’s our guide to survival in areas with difficult terrain…


Rule 1: Common Sense

Simple. If there are weather warnings urging you not to climb a mountain or access certain terrain susceptible to extreme weather changes and meteorological conditions then do not go.


Rule 2: Check Out, Check In

If you’ve assessed that it is safe to head out, then make sure you let someone know where you are going and what you are doing (this should also apply in good weather). Check in with them at regular or agreed intervals, ensuring you give them your current location and where you intend to go next.


Rule 3: Clothing

Assuming you’re heading into inclement weather, make sure you are properly clothed. Proficient mountaineers and adventurers wear highly technical clothing designed and engineered to deal with extreme conditions.

They will ‘layer-up’, ensuring each item of inner and outer wear is playing a specific role in maintaining their body temperature and keeping them protected from the elements.

The right kind of specialist socks and boots are also essential. Trainers are simply inadequate at both supporting your ankles and providing enough defence against the onset of frostbite which can affect your feet with alarming speed.

When it comes to outer clothing, try not to be drawn into the trap of blending in with your surroundings – that’s a fashion choice you may end up regretting in an emergency.


Rule 4: Equipment

While it might seem like a great adventure to head out into potentially dangerous terrain without so much as a map or a magnetic compass, it would be a particularly foolish decision in wintry conditions – especially when considering the high-tech – and often inexpensive – equipment available.

A decent GPS tracker can be purchased for as little as fifty pounds, which is a small price to pay when you consider how easily lives can be lost.

While satellite phones weigh in at several hundred pounds and, therefore, are often an expensive luxury, at least check your own mobile phone’s network coverage for where you are going. Using maps, data etc will drain your phone battery, so consider having a booster pack with you – there are plenty of good power banks on the market for under £20.

Other essential items of equipment – aside from the obvious water and provisions – include a torch/headtorch, firelighter (even a cigarette lighter), map, compass, spare clothing and a first aid kit.


5) Hydration

The importance of staying hydrated – even in wet or cold weather – can’t be understated. Dehydration can lead to poor decision-making and body function. In extreme cold, the risk of frostbite is increased when dehydrated.

Always make sure you have enough water for your journey. If not, make use of the resources around you – springs, rainwater or even snow.

With snow, it is important that you attempt to melt it first. Don’t eat snow as it will lower your core body temperature significantly enough to cause harm.


6) Survival kit

Always carry a basic survival kit. While it’s unlikely that fishing line and hooks will be your priority in a mountain blizzard, other items such as painkillers and waterproof matches might just improve a survival situation.


7) Attracting attention

Assuming you adhered to Rule 2, the alarm should be raised for you. However, there are plenty of things you can do to attract the attention of rescuers.

Firstly, your phone is an obvious choice. Look how the four people stranded on Ben Nevis were able to find a signal (remember – dial 999 and ask for mountain rescue) and also utilised an app to provide their location.

If your phone isn’t an option, you need to draw eyes to your position.

Bright clothing, a reflective survival blanket, spreading your items out to cause a visual disturbance to anyone looking will always draw attention.

Noise – a whistle can often still be heard in a blizzard, and will help rescuers know they’re in the right vicinity whether in daylight or darkness.

In the dark, the best way of attracting attention is light. Intermittently flashing a torch (this also helps preserve battery) is a recognised way of calling for help. But, where possible, a fire too has plenty of benefits other than giving off a noticeable light.


While these guidelines are merely a handful of ways to assist with preparation and indeed help in a survival situation, they are by no means the extent of the skills you might require. This is why Rule 1 is so crucial – if the conditions are unsafe, and you have little or no experience, do not attempt to hike up a mountain.

As cliched as this article may conclude, it is always worth remembering that the single most important tool you could ever possess in the outdoors is your brain. Use it wisely.

Mountain survival 2

Darren Parkin is an outdoors professional and bushcraft instructor specialising in wilderness survival.

1 Comment

  1. My partner and I climbed Ben Nevis in August 2018. When we started the climb the weather
    was warm and sunny, a good August day. When we reached the top we couldn’t feel our
    fingers because of the massive drop in temperature. Should have taken gloves!
    On the decent we had to closely follow other climbers who were wearing hi- visibility gear because of the lack of visibility, could only see 2 metres ahead.
    So do not underestimate Ben Nevis and please take Darren’s advice.

    Liked by 1 person

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