Project Management for Hillwalkers – Part 3

What could possibly go wrong ?

In Part 2, I talked about the benefits of planning and how I do it, and in this third installment I’m going to talk about what happens when the plan goes wrong.  Of course, sometimes the plan doesn’t actually go wrong – sometimes I simply change my mind – so I’m going to cover that too.  And most important of all, how to minimise the chances of being in these situations.  So let’s start with that.

Looking ahead

In project management speak “what could go wrong” is called a risk, and whole books have been devoted to risk management.  Suffice to say that the idea is to try to identify as many of these as possible when planning a project, and then to decide which ones to do something about – as you simply can’t prepare for every possible eventuality.  So the technique involves scoring risks according to how likely they are to happen and how bad they will be if they do.  Clearly, the more likely and worse the impact a risk is, the more pressing is the need to do something about it.

When it comes to “doing something about it”, risk management has a number of strategies:

  • Avoid it – take some action that renders the chance of the risk happening negligible or non-existent.
  • Reduce it – make it less likely to happen or make the impact of it less bad.
  • Fallback – make a contingency plan for if it does happen.
  • Transfer or share it – try to pass it to someone else, in whole or in part.
  • Accept it – simply accept that it might happen and deal with it if it does.

Now in my hillwalking scenario, not all of these really apply – I can’t usually pass the risk onto someone else and avoiding it usually means not going walking.  So I’m left with reducing the likelihood or impact of it, making a back-up plan, or simply accepting it might happen and deciding I’ll deal with it if and when it does.  When something actually becomes a real problem in the present, whether or not I identified it as a potential problem up front, then it’s an issue.  Ultimately the distinction is not the important bit – the idea is to identify what could or has happened, whether it’s worth doing anything about it, and if so what.  So I’m now going to treat things that might go wrong (risks) and things that actually have gone wrong (issues) as one and call them problems.

The main problems I consider when planning a hill walk, or a whole trip are:

The weather.  If it’s crap or simply different to what I expected, then I could be in trouble.  The weather also has a habit of increasing the likelihood that other things might go wrong – from getting lost, through simply chickening out of a walk, to getting hurt.  So for me it’s the biggie.  Here’s how I tackle it:

  • I get as accurate a forecast as I can before I’m committed.  So I check the weather each day in the week leading up to a trip, and look at the rolling 5 day forecast to get a feel for the pattern.
  • In particular I try to get a feel for the temperatures and use that to inform my packing.
  • I use http://www.mwis.org for mountain weather forecasts and try to check it each day on the walk, subject to getting a mobile phone signal.  Or if I’m staying in a hostel, or some B&Bs they often pin the forecast up each day.
  • I can’t avoid the weather so I try to reduce the impact by making sure I have the right clothes for the temperature and the level of rain.
  • I make sure I have a backup plan for really nasty weather – escape routes when out on the hill and low-level alternatives in case I don’t even fancy setting foot on the hill due to the conditions.
  • If I can be reasonably sure about a change in the weather, and have the flexibility to do so, I try to plan more challenging walks for nicer weather and shorter, lower walks for the worse days.  If I’m staying in the same place for more than one night, I can usually choose the walks to fit the conditions as best as I can.

Injury.  The impact of this could be pretty bad, especially as I generally walk alone.  So I try to reduce the chances of this happening, or at least give me a chance if I do get hurt:

  • Carry first aid – ok, this isn’t going to help much for anything really serious, but I tend to work on the principal that things I take just in case often never get used.  The most used items in my first aid kit are Compeed, hay fever tablets and the occasional Ibuprofen.
  • Use main paths rather than go off piste all the time.  If I fall, I’m more likely to find a passer-by that can help.  I tend to stick to popular paths for descent, which is when I’m most dangerous.
  • Try to walk within my capabilities.
  • Wear brightly coloured kit.
  • Carry a mobile phone.
  • Not be afraid to back-out of a situation that looks iffy.
  • But in general, I accept the risk as something that comes with the way I like to walk.  And frankly, if my number’s up when I’m on the hill, there’s few places I’d rather be.
Navigational Issues.  We all get lost to some degree some time.  Sorry, it’s true, everyone does, so accept it.  Blame it on the fog or the sheep if you like.  The main tactic for this is to reduce the chance by research beforehand.  So:
  • I make sure I study the map before setting out.  This is where the 3 hour train journey from the south east to the hilly places comes in handy.
  • I also study any guidebooks I have (e.g. Wainwrights) alongside the map to try to build up a picture of the hill(s) in my mind.  Wainwright is particularly good for pointing out prominent rocks and for his descriptions of ridge routes.
  • As I walk more, I become more familiar with the area anyway, especially in the Lake District, so the chance of getting lost reduces.  But I’ve still been known to take a wrong turning and end up in the wrong valley.  Or simply to lose a faint path and descend too far whilst the path carries on around the hill.  I managed to do this on the Corridor Route earlier this year and had to work hard to cross small ravines as I tried to climb back up and to contour around to Sty Head.
  • The more hillwalking I do, the better my knowledge of hill features.  A love of geography, especially the bits on glaciation and erosion, helps a lot here.
  • Having escape routes and knowing about public transport in the area helps a lot.  In my early walking career, I once came off Sergeant Man slightly wrong intending to descend over Blea Rigg and found myself on Tarn Crag.  I missed the bus back from Langdale, but imagine my relief when I realised that Grasmere where I ended up is bus central.
Gear failure.  I suppose it could happen – I break or lose a pole, my rucksack falls apart and I can’t carry my stuff, or worse and more likely, a boot failure.  All I can do here is put myself in the position of being able to deal with it with a cool head:
  • On a long trip, I may have a spare pair of shoes or spare daysack.
  • I’m lucky that when out on the hill I don’t mind being wet below the waist, so boot leakage isn’t the end.
  • Some duct tape can work wonders, and until recently I had a roll around my single walking pole.  But now I have the Pacerpoles, I haven’t dared deface them with the tape and just carry a short length in my gadget bag (along with spare boot lace, knife, headtorch etc).
  • I make sure stuff’s in a decent condition to start with.
  • And then I simply accept it might happen, and remind myself that I’m never really that far from civilisation (and gear shops) in the UK.

I could probably go on for hours about things that might go wrong, but you’re probably getting the message.  Some of the things that I do generally when planning a walk, especially a multi-day walk, which helps to be ready for the unexpected are:

  • I try to have bus timetables for all routes in the area I’m headed to.
  • It’s worthwhile having a few local taxi numbers programmed into your mobile phone.  I learnt this one back in July when I missed a bus (because the sodding thing went early, grrrrrr), and the phone box the bus stop was next to didn’t have any of those little cards in, or a directory or anything.  Oh yes, and the phone didn’t work anyway.
  • I have backups for all of my critical items of kit.  That doesn’t necessarily mean another item of gear. It might just be the knowledge of where I could get it replaced or mended, or what other kit items could help as backup.  This is a useful exercise anyway as it can help to lighten the rucksack.
  • I make donations to the local mountain rescue teams in the area I’m walking.  This acts a bit like  charm to ward off evil spirits!
  • I try to plan walks according to my typical hill fitness pattern over a multi-day trip.
  • I work to a general rule of big hill days with light kit, and easier days when with full heavy kit.

Ok, so now what about when things change ?  Maybe the weather rules out a certain walk, or makes it sensible to amend it in some way such as staying lower or making it shorter.  If I have a day when I unexpectedly extend or cut short a walk, do I re-plan the rest so I can do it on another day or leave it for a future trip ?

Well the simple answer here is that I try to arm myself with enough information to enable me to re-plan if I need to.  That means maps, photocopies of Wainwright pages (or have them on my Kindle) and bus timetables.  Also, as I run out of Wainwrights to do, I now try to not leave odd fells out if I have to change things whilst out on the walk.  So if I have to cut a bit out of a walk due to tiredness or slow pace, I leave the bits for next time that are easiest to do logistically.  And as I often take my painting stuff with me, if the weather is really terrible, I can always stay indoors and convert some of my photos into watercolours.  Indeed this is what I did earlier this year when I bailed out of a day on Blencathra a mere ten minutes into the walk.

Eagle Crag
Eagle Crag in watercolour

That’s about it for part 3.  In part 4 I’ll be talking about something good project managers do – apply the lessons from past projects to future ones – and so will share some of the lessons I’ve learned from my hillwalking, and in particular how I apply them to my walks now.

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