How to descend Britain’s highest mountain, in a blizzard

-image/”>Summit Ben Nevis

Dressed for winter on Ben Nevis

One of the key ingredients of climbing a mountain, as with any project, is getting the basics right. Outsiders may think that climbers are adrenaline junkies, enjoying risk for the sake of it; in fact, good mountaineers are obsessed with lessening risks and carefully managing those risks deemed unavoidable. In mountaineering, knowing how you are going to descend from the summit is an essential part of any project. Good mountaineers have a plan, often with options and contingencies.

Last month when reaching the top of Ben Nevis just before dark, a blizzard arrived. I felt even more pressure than normal. On the other end of my rope, I had Simon one of the directors of Webfactory, the company designing and building my new website. If I wanted it finishing, I realised, we must get down.

This descent is notoriously difficult in bad weather. Initially, the path is featureless and, in winter, buried by snow. To the right (north), there is a long face of near vertical cliffs, in places dropping 2000 feet to the ground. On the left, there is the infamous Five Finger Gully, gentle at first, but then treacherously steep.

So how do you descend safely? Firstly, before setting out, do as much research as possible and understand the descent options. What are the potential blackspots? It’s essential to know how to navigate, and to have the correct maps and equipment. If possible, do some calculations of bearings, timings and distance beforehand. As a precaution, I also kept our team roped together and we kept our helmets on.

I calculated the distance of each navigational leg in metres and then paced it. Four hundred vertical metres below the summit, we came out of the storm cloud and headed to the valley safely. And my website was completed!

Tragically, every year people come unstuck on this mountain. Often the error is a flaw in the plan. That flaw is that they don’t know how to descend by navigating in bad weather. They lack a basic fundamental skill. On a different outing on Ben Nevis caught in a similar storm, a man appeared and asked if he could follow my party down, as he didn’t have a map and wasn’t sure of the way.

“Sure,” I said, “but how do you know I will go the right way?”

Understanding which direction you are travelling and following a compass bearing to help you complete the journey safely is comforting in a storm. The parallels in business projects are many.

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