John : Climbing Instructor and Guidebook Author

Risk Assessment for Scottish Winter Skills Weekends, Winter Mountaineering and Ski-Mountaineering Courses

 First Written October 2004. Latest revision December 2021


This risk assessment has been compiled by John Biggar, who has nearly thirty years experience of operating similar courses in Scotland as well as operating expeditions in South America under the trading name 'ANDES'. He has experience of leading and instructing on over twenty-five Winter Skills courses for groups of clients with a variety of backgrounds and considerable experience of leading and/or guiding groups and individuals on climbs and ski-tours in the Scottish mountains in winter. John holds the MIC (Mountain Instructor Certificate) and also has over 400 days of personal experience walking, climbing, skiing and snowboarding in the Scottish mountains in winter.



This is an adventurous training course and by taking part in this course all clients will be exposed to an element of risk beyond that found in everyday life in the UK. While all reasonable precautions will be taken to reduce these additional risks it is neither possible nor desirable to completely eliminate additional risks.
For the purposes of this risk assessment the term skiing is used to include ski-mountaineering, ski-touring and splitboarding.


I have identified the following as the principal hazards and the additional risks they raise for our winter skills, skiing and mountaineering courses. This is not a fully inclusive list. Please note that as the courses are designed to be flexible to make best use of weather conditions it is possible there will be some variation in the locations used and the hazards to which clients are exposed.



Natural hazards. Severe winter weather could also cause road closures resulting in the group being delayed or trapped in the mountains for several hours or even overnight.

Driving. In winter roads may be in a poorer state of repair and there may be both snow and ice present.
Action -
When driving vehicles themselves leaders should drive with care, take rest breaks every two hours, and in bad weather and on snowed up roads adopt a more defensive approach to driving than normal. It is wise to always have a reasonable amount of spare warm clothing or blankets in any car.

First Aid
Action - All leaders should have a current first aid certificate and carry, or have quick access to, a first aid kit at all times.



Slips and falls. There is a very widespread hazard in winter form steep and/or icy terrain. All clients will be exposed to a considerable risk of slips and falls when participating in these courses. While in general these will be minor slips, in certain places slips and falls could be much more serious.
Action –
Leaders should remain alert to changing terrain and snow cover and lead or brief clients appropriately. Clients should be briefed to climb and walk with caution at all times and clients should only be taken onto steeper terrain when they have shown sufficient skill with ice-axes and crampons, (or skis) and sufficient care in general, on shallower gradients. The leader must ensure that clients wear helmets on any terrain that is steep enough for a fall or trip to lead to a potential head injury.

Instructional Sessions. During instructional sessions, (e.g. on use of ice-axe and/or crampons and ropes) the clients and leader may become distracted from basic safety procedures due to the amount of activity and unfamiliar equipment. As these sessions are often held in very safe areas there is also a tendency to switch off from safety concerns, but good group control may be important to avoid unnecessary risks. The equipment itself and other participants, can often be major sources of risk.
Action – The leader should remain focussed on client safety at all times and maintain a good overview of the activities being undertaken. Considerable group management may be necessary to ensure overenthusiastic clients do not pose a safety risk to other clients (e.g. during self-arrest sessions, or when using ropes). The dangers of using an ice-axe and crampons in training must be made clear to clients. Safe slopes with good run-outs must be used for any introductory activities, with progression to more exposed slopes only where necessary for training purposes and where the slopes are clearly within client ability. All clients must wear helmets where there is any possibility of injuring themselves or others due to the nature of the activities undertaken.

Climbing Hazards. All roped climbing must be very carefully planned and supervised.
Action -
A careful assessment of the leaders ability and current health, the weather, the state of the route and the clients abilities and fitness must be made before starting any climb. Particular attention should be paid to correct fitting of harnesses and helmets before a route is started and after any break in climbing. Leaders should brief clients carefully before the route and at each belay as to what is expected and any potential hazards, highlighting any areas they believe to be of greater risk. All standard practices to enhance client safety in the mountains, (e.g. belays to one side of a gully, etc.) should be used unless there is a clear reason to take some other action. Clients should be encouraged to climb cautiously, in control and with regard for the safety of the other client and/or others on the mountain.

Remoteness. Clients will be several hours from professional medical help for much of the time.
Action -
Expedition leaders should allow a higher than normal margin of safety for all activities undertaken in more remote areas and be aware of the quickest means of finding, or calling for, extra help. Leaders should be aware of areas which do not have mobile phone signal as this will greatly affect the speed of any rescue.

Weather - There is a general and very common hazard from bad weather on the course. The most likely hazard is a combination of prolonged cold and wind putting clients at risk from hypothermia. Other hazards will arise from high winds and blizzard conditions, with the potential to make walking and navigation extremely difficult.
Action –
Leaders should obtain up-to-date weather forecasts from at least three sources and plan activities and venues taking these into consideration. Leaders should watch out for deteriorating weather and be prepared to change plans if necessary, possibly moving the training venue to a less remote area.
Warm clothes, (including fleece jacket(s), waterproofs, hat, gloves & mitts) should be carried by all clients themselves at all times and checked by the leader at the start of the day. Leaders should carry goggles or similar if there is any chance of having to navigate in high winds or blizzard conditions. Leaders should personally carry a bivi bag and/or a sleeping bag in case of bad weather combined with some other problem. Leaders should be alert for the combination of weather conditions that might produce hypothermia and take action if necessary.

Rockfall & Icefall - At various times during the course there may be a hazard from rockfall or ice falling, whether from natural causes or caused by clients within the group or other groups on the mountain.
Action - Leaders should remain alert to this hazard and assess all areas. Clients must wear helmets in areas where there is any possibility of falling rock or ice. In group hazard areas clients may need to be briefed to move carefully with respect to dislodging rocks or ice onto other clients, (e.g. zigzagging on open scree slopes) and good group control will be necessary.

Navigational Errors - Navigational errors are possible but are not expected to be a serious hazard due to the quality of maps and modern equipment available.
Action - Leaders should use GPS, compass, maps, etc. as appropriate. Leaders should be particularly aware of rapidly changing weather and/or visibility and the hazards posed to navigation by this. Extra care should be taken when moving on skis, particularly downhill, as navigation is potentially more difficult in these circumstances.

Avalanche. There may be a general hazard from avalanche in the mountain areas used throughout the course, both from client or group triggered events and the danger of being hit by an avalanche from above.
Action -
The leader should obtain up-to-date weather and avalanche hazard forecasts on a daily basis. The leader should assess any slopes to be used for whatever purpose and take into account recent weather and snowfall patterns. All routes and venues must be carefully assessed for the safety implications in case stormy weather increases avalanche hazard and makes retreat more difficult. The leader must be prepared to modify or abandon plans if necessary.
The leader must manage the group to ensure the safest possible descent of any potentially hazardous slopes. Rest stops must be sited away from any potential avalanche run-out. This is of particular importance for ski and snowboard groups.

Electrical Storms. These are rare but possible.
Action -
During such storms all ridges and high plateau areas should be avoided (or abandoned as quickly as practicable).

Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding. There is a particular hazard of the group becoming splintered in these situations. This becomes a much more serious hazard in poor visibility when clients may not have the ability to navigate if they become separated for the group.
Action In good visibility clients should be well briefed on both the ultimate rendezvous point at the bottom of the slope and the expected next re-grouping point on mid-slope. With two leaders one should keep towards he fort of the group, the other remain behind all skiers/boarders.
In poor visibility it is likely that very good group control will be necessary, using “leap-frogging” with only one skier moving at a time.

Other Mountain Hazards. Other mountain hazards may be encountered. All such hazards should either be avoided or reduced using recognised procedures.


Good leadership and communication can significantly improve the safety and will of course increase the enjoyment of a group in the mountains.

Action - The leader must be clear that their primary duty on the course is to look after the health and well-being of the clients. The leader must be prepared to make changes to the itinerary and activities, or even abandon the course, if this is necessary due to the safety of any participant.
The leader should operate only well within the bounds of their own (current) fitness, experience and ability. The leader should also operate only within the abilities and fitness of the clients present. The leader has the power to remove a client from the course if their fitness and/or ability fall far short of that necessary for such a course, and this problem is interfering in any way with the safety of other clients, or in a larger way with their enjoyment/benefit.
The leader will take responsibility for the course content and activities and actions of the group as a whole. The leader should give clear instructions to any other persons or any client temporarily given charge of any subgroup. In the mountains normal practice will be for the leader to be with the clients at all times. However, minor operating problems (e.g. fitness, toilet), may result in clients being remote from the leader at various times. This should only be done for very limited periods, never more than an hour, in good and stable weather and with clients in good health, and with clear instructions about when and where to regroup (preferably in the same place).
While the group is mobile leaders should encourage a clear system of regrouping as frequently as necessary in order to assess the group as a whole and any individual needs. Leaders should also have a clear system for monitoring the last person in the group, preferably by visual contact. These systems need to be extremely robust in event of high winds, poor visibility and blizzard conditions.