Important things to remember about windy days in the mountains

Important things to remember about windy days in the mountains

Blustery days

After the calm of Summer, we’re heading into that time of year where the reds, oranges and yellows of fallen leaves mirror the colours of weather warnings frequenting our forecasts once more. 

With the right equipment and skills, inclement weather doesn’t have to stop play. Rain, fog, a chilly nip in the air, even snow might make the day more unpleasant but shouldn’t necessarily prevent us from getting into the hills. But strong wind is a different beast. It can stop you in your tracks and knock you off your feet. Not what you want when your playground consists of steep drops and pointy rocks. Even calmer breezes can make it feel that much colder and can lead to a miserable day.

That’s why a basic understanding of what the wind is going to do forms a vital part of your toolkit for staying safe in the mountains.

Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to avoid being caught out by surprise gales. With dedicated mountain forecasts readily available, the hard work of interpreting synoptic charts and anticipating weather fronts has been done for you. Even basic forecasts give an indication of wind speed and direction. But remember, these tend to refer to the valleys, so expect it to be at least twice as blustery when you reach even halfway up the mountain.

To keep you on your toes, the wind can play tricks in the mountains. So don’t blame the weather forecasters when the conditions don’t quite match your expectations! The very topography of the landscape can alter the wind speed and direction and create localised variations. Summits and saddles are prime candidates for funnelling the winds. The saddle between Great Gable and Green Gable in the Lake District is called ‘Windy Gap’ for a reason.

Wind speed

These complexities make things, well, rather complex. So it’s sometimes best to keep things simple and ask yourself, ‘how strong is too strong?’ when it comes to the wind. The Beaufort Scale is a traditional way of estimating wind speed. It was dreamed up by Admiral Beaufort in the early 19th century for use at sea. And while the observational cues it refers to are of limited use in the mountains, it’s still a handy guide for determining the limits of what you are prepared to endure when it’s blowing a hoolie outside.

Here’s my interpretation of what wind speeds mean for walkers:

Up to 30mph Shouldn’t halt your progress too much but the wind chill can make it feel considerably colder than you might expect.
30mph plus Things start to get hairy. The wind can affect your balance and makes walking difficult. Not a day for trying out exposed and spiky ground. Stick to lower routes with wide run offs.
45mph plus Making any sort of progress becomes difficult and even dangerous. Do you really want to be up a mountain in this?

Make a habit of checking the wind speed from a good mountain forecast to stay one step ahead of the wind. And once you’ve got to grips with the basics, then you can start to use forecasting, experience and local knowledge to your advantage. Perhaps planning a route on the more sheltered side of a mountain. Or using a tail wind to help you along higher ground.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out more about how the wind affects your days in the mountains, check out these resources:

Future Learn – Learn About Weather

Mountain Weather Information Service

Met Office Mountain Forecasts

Shaven Raspberry – Wind Speed Calculator Reference Card 

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