Mountain (bike) Safety
Mountainbiking safely beyond the trail centres, onto the high places
High in the Cairgorms above Glen Doll, a very rewarding place to be
PARAGRAPH 1: FROM ‘ENVIRONMENTAL MOUNTAIN ADVENTURES’
Mountains are amazing, and fun and rewarding, but serious environments, made all the more serious by the changeable and localised conditions we can find on them. Under-clothed, sudden downpours or snow showers can spoil a day by rushing you off the hill, or soaking you through and spoiling your comfort, but if you then combine these conditions with another commonplace incident, think about how much more serious things can get....
If the fact that you are in a group has meant that you’ve not bothered with a map, or a repair kit, or thought about the risks on the hill fully (people really do subconsciously believe in safety in numbers), then how scary can it be to realise you’ve got a mechanical, and everyone’s left you behind because they’re soaking wet, cold, can’t see you in the mist…? How alone and exposed might you feel then at the realisation that you’re getting very cold, losing the feeling in your hands, that you don’t know where you are, that your phone has no reception….
4 hours into the ride, the clouds cleared! The Wet Highland Way
HONESTY WITH OURSELVES
This is a pretty dark and lonely picture I’ve painted, but I make no apologies. Take even a most passing look at mountain rescue statistics, and you can see patterns of occurrences in our fellow mountain goers. And let’s be clear, just because we’re on a bike doesn’t mean we’re immune to the issues affecting walkers and climbers around us. We are still mountaingoers, perhaps mountaineers - Yes we have the capacity to get out of trouble (off the mountain) quicker, but we also have the capacity to get into trouble quicker as a result, and we’re often in the mountains wearing shorts and 'trainers' too.
Before we see everyone rush off to the nearest trail centre in fear for their wellbeing, please be assured that this article is definitely pro-mountain adventure – but to take care of ourselves in a realistic way we do need to make sure we admit to some of the things we're looking to avoid.
Many mountain incidents involve a smorgasbord of small mistakes and mis-placed assumptions. We make them all the time and get used to ‘getting away with it’. Not enough food, no phone charge, wrong map, forgotten repair kit, no spare inner-tubes, forgotten waterproof…… stuff we do all the time. (forgotten axle, wrong wheels..) Every-so-often we encounter the ‘Swiss cheese effect’. You’ll have experienced it when two of the above happen at the same time, and build on eachother.
An Illustration: You forget your pump and waterproof jacket, and freeze on a trail for ten minutes in the rain while you wait for the next member of the group or a random stranger to arrive to lend you their pump, something of that nature. If you’ve experienced two events together, then you’ve witnessed the Swiss cheese effect, as two of the ‘holes’ in your planning align to let a mis-event slip through and happen to you. These can be embarrassing or uncomfortable, often both.
Started out as a Beautiful day at the bottom
Many mountain rescue incidents involve multiple layers of Swiss cheese. People rarely need rescued because they simply got lost. Often there will be a catalogue of events that brought about the incident. Again a seemingly innocent set of circumstances as an illustration: someone forgot a map case, the map then got wet because with no weather forecast the rain was unexpected, so the map was brought out less often to try to keep it in good enough condition to be useable, an assumption was then made about a junction in the trail leading to a wrong turn being taken which wasn’t picked up on because the navigator was avoiding getting the map out, the party went downhill for ages before someone pointed out that they were supposed to be going uphill, an argument resulted which split the group, the group shelter went with one group….. etc. All small events as individuals, all leading to perhaps a small part of a group marooned on a hillside somewhere getting cold and wet and then trying a short cut to the valley……paint your own picture, watch the holes line up.
Although of course this could never happen to us (of course) this kind of stuff does happen. Where people get caught out is that each step of this tale of woe is a small one, fairly innocuous, and on its own relatively unimportant, and that's where these occurrences can catch us out, in the very banal nature of each step.
Rannoch Moor and the Buachaille
THE ADVANTAGES OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Checklists are a great way of planning out the holes. For instance: Making a conscious decision to perhaps leave a group shelter behind and telling everyone that you’ve done it might make complete sense, and having done so consciously will lead to subsequent decisions being less likely to be made having forgotten it isn’t there. The rather off-hand “well there was too much stuff in my bag so I dropped it” excuse so often heard then becomes a thing of the past ideally as on recognising the need for an item we make the conscious choice between “I’ll find a bigger bag” or “I'll take a space blanket and take it a bit easier” for instance. In essence we try to be aware of our decisions and how they will affect subsequent decisions too.
It was sunny when we started
The counter to the packing dilemma in the example above is of course the Alpinists response which is to travel light and fast, and get back quickly therefore being less likely to encounter the weather change etc. It has to be a valid point, and so overburdening yourselves with huge rucksacks must be recognised as increasing risk in itself; you must find a balance. The important thing here being that you are going through a conscious balancing process in preparing yourself, and this in itself makes you safer.
The conscious element of the above processes is the key. Being aware that you chose a steep mountainside to descend and therefore might have to step off occasionally prepares you to do just that, and makes it less likely that you’ll get to a point where you wished you had got off earlier, but now it’s too late.
Coire Chlash - you just have to ride it sometime - but make sure you're aware of what's below you!
One thing that can creep up on folks, because it literally grows continually as we move in the mountain environment, is our exposure to risk and hazard. Risk is the changeable likelihood of something going astray, while hazard is the consequence of that event happening. We, as bikers continually juggle with this equation and its counter balance; reward. We embark on a piece of narrow tree or rock lined singletrack at 30mph dressed in a tee shirt, a pair of shorts and a bit of polystyrene strapped to our heads. We’ve made the conscious (or subconscious) decision that the rewards to be gained from tackling this bit of trail are greater than the risk of the numerous hazards occurring on the way. But do we think about this differently depending on the location of this bit of sweet singletrack?
The danger is that as we move away from the valleys and trail centres onto the hills and mountains, we don’t reset our decision making processes for the new environment as we go.
We may be riding a piece of trail identical to that we ride in the valley, with the same risks of the same hazards occurring to us, but in this equation do we always consider the greater exposure from the environment were heading in to?
To be fair to the equation, the environment has even greater rewards too, so this shouldn’t stop us from heading out, but a bit more time thinking about the consequences from the exposure of the environment wouldn’t go amiss. Get me up a mountain a long way from home and I really do ride differently, but I'm really enjoying it.
3 hours into the ride, this happened
Venturing into the higher mountains, riders will often speak of riding to survive, rather than razzing as fast as possible. Riding conservatively is often a good descriptor of the style of riding folks use in the higher mountain areas. This doesn't mean the riding is tame, but that it is done with a mind to consequence, and this isn't always easy: After watching footage from a recent ride in the Cairngorms, a fairly experienced big mountain riding friend emailed me to say “I had no idea of the exposure and consequences of an off on that trail until I'd watched the footage” . Focussing on the trail when you are riding happens naturally – so to guard against this focus leading us into areas we don't really want to be, we should try to forearm ourselves by 'looking ahead', and asking ourselves a few “what if's” every-so-often.
I do own a full-face helmet, and I have ridden some downhill tracks, some alpine trails, a little chair-lift assisted plummeting, and the odd event where they are compulsory, but the time I wear mine most often is when I’m exploring in the mountains. To be fair, I’m probably as likely to be alone as I am in a group, but I recognise the more serious hazard of a face-plant in the mountains, as well as the uncontrolled environment raising the risk of it happening, and as a response to this in order to retain the rewards, I choose to wear a full face helmet. Many don’t. And this leads me to the next part.
Not destined for the trail centre, but dropping down a 400m hill instead - still got my good looks!!
SOCIAL PRESSURE, AND BACK TO PSYCHOLOGY, AND THEN EMPOWERMENT
In a group, there are lots of unspoken pressures, it’s a fact. You don’t want to be last ‘cos it feels like everyone’s waiting for you and you’re spoiling their fun, you don’t want to be at the front all the time because it feels like everyone always has to follow you, you don’t want the big repair kit ‘cos everyone takes the mickey out of the size of your bag etc etc. In making conscious decisions as encouraged above, you have to be prepared to make your own decisions. In an instructional or guided group it’s a bit different, the leader should help you make decisions by making you aware of the things you are developing, but in a group ride with your mates, then be yourself.
As noted above, I’ve ridden with a full-face in the mountains because that’s my personal preference. I have also ridden with mates who were on the trail with me who were in cross-country helmets, but who also had elbow pads. We discussed the likely hazards and assessed the risks and then each made our own judgement of what to take and wear. On the same rides we have folks clipped in, running flats, riding hardtails and full-suss bikes, each making their own decision on their preparation. Together we decide on the number of spares kits, tubes, pumps, amount of spare clothing, shelter etc we take, and contribute to the collective decision making as equals. At the heart of this though is the recognition that anything goes, and that decisions may be questioned out of curiosity (i.e. doesn’t that full face make you sweat like a ….?) but bottom line is there is no judgement and we all make our own decisions.
3 and a half hours into the ride, this happened though
This allowance of individual decision making is also paramount when considering the terrain we may be embarking on, and the importance of confidence over ability. The unconfident person forced (consciously or un-consciously) to ride an exposed section of trail will be stiffer, will ride more on the brakes, and consequently will be more likely to fall off on a trail where falling off could hurt quite a bit. There is equal hazard to the rest of the party but increased risk.
So? Ride with people who are supportive, fun, relaxed (all these will increase your confidence and therefore boost your ability), experienced, involving (so you can learn from them), and non-judgmental, so you can make your own un-pressured decisions. Make a judgment of both what may happen if it doesn't go quite according to plan, and how likely that is, and be ready to ask yourself “so what?” - if I fall off here, where will I go? - so what?
MOUNTAINEERING & THE INVISIBLE STUFF
Having been a mountaineer in a previous life, for a while I took a skillset for granted until I started to look at the invisible stuff backing up the riding judgment, and abiltiy to ride the trail. For someone with a little or no hillwalking knowledge or experience the pull of the mountains could either be offputting (especially if I've got you thinking too much in the first half of the article) or potentially quite hazardous. The point being we all approach any situation with the skillset we've built and of course the bag of experience we have in the environment we find ourselves.
It's important that we take the mountaineering element of being in the mountains seriously. It is unfair to say that grabbing a quick mountain day with little preparation, navigation skill, protective kit etc is “getting away with it”, but sometimes it is easier to set out not knowing what you don't know, and with this 'innocence' not appreciating what skills you didn't take with you that today you didn't need, but so easily could have.
I'm really sounding like a harbinger of doom here – and definitely feeling that for the second time I should remind folks that this article is to encourage riding in the mountains, BUT to do it safely.
So, please do think of going hillwalking occasionally in poorer weather than you might choose to ride in – it can so easily turn into this on a mountain ride. Do develop your navigation skillset so that if the clag comes drifting up over the ridge ahead, you are able to find your way. Do prepare yourself for the extended stop that may come from a nasty off, prepare your skills also with a first aid course so you can look after a friend for the 2-3 hours it may take for help to come for you. While you're doing this you'll also be developing your mountain skills and judgement which will help you predict when the weather might turn nasty, or the visibility might drop, and the judgement that will not only help you make good decisions in planning and doing your ride, but will also help you no-end if plan A starts to come unravelled half way through.
THE BIKE MOUNTAINEER
Putting all of these parts together in recognising your limitations, and developing your skills and judgement, continually aiming to make conscious decisions, and making your own decisions, and bearing in mind your exposure and your distance from home you'll be able to push further, ride higher, and experience the amazing nature of our mountain environments, and be able to keep the only cheese on the ride firmly clamped between two slices of bread.
Now where to start?!
It would be remiss of us not to point out that if you wanted some help in developing the skills and/or judgement talked about here, or just want to get out and experience the bigger mountains for the first time, then Real World Guiding exists for exactly that purpose. Be it a guided day, a bike navigation course, or a bike first aid course, we can help you develop your skills to get you further and higher.