Mountain Safety

Air ambulance

Both times I went on a longer mountain tour in Norway I got close to having an accident that could have led to at least a serious injury. Both situation involved rocks falling or sliding in my direction. Knowledge on mountain safety is important for mountain hiking. Having the proper first aid equipment with you, carrying proper gear and knowing about emergency response procedures can make the indispensable difference on how bad an emergency situation turns out.

The most recent accident happened last weekend when a rock slide set off on the edge of the Folgefonna glacier exactly at the time when we were about to descent onto the ice. The slide was caused by a small meltwater stream running underneath a pile of small pebbles. These pebbles were supporting a large boulder. It was one of those places where you could see that it would all come down at some point, but you sort of assume that this won’t happen the second you walk by. Until it does.

Rock slide
The large boulder that came sliding down and the small stream that set it off

I was on a guided tour to cross the Folgefonna glacier. Our guide had warned us about the danger of loose rocks on this slope and urged us to avoid setting them off. We were walking in the back and everyone was very careful not too get any rocks to start falling down. Suddenly I heard a noise right behind me and from the corner of my eye saw that something was on the move. I jumped to the side, and so did my boyfriend Pj who was walking ahead of me. The boulder just missed us and one other person ahead who managed to avoid it. For a slight second I thought that everybody would be fine. But then it grabbed an older lady whose escape was blocked by a bigger rock. She got clamped between both and as the sliding boulder grabbed her backpack, she was dragged down,fell backwards and disappeared behind the corner.

She was evacuated from the mountain and miraculously got away with no severe injuries. After the accident both the guide and the rest of the group reacted extremely well to the situation. We listened to the guide’s instructions and as soon as they put her in a safe zone on the snow everyone started handing in out clothes and sleeping bags. While the guide was arranging medical help many of us assisted in keeping her warm, comfortable and safe. Everything was arranged very efficiently and professionally and there was no panic.

In spite of the good ending to a bad situation I still feel very shaky by the thought of it. Pj and I have been talking about it a lot, also about the previous incident where a large boulder fell off a cliff and came bouncing towards me. For me, this weekend proved that you can never guarantee safety and that going high up into the mountains always involves a risk. In a snap second a situation can turn around entirely. What you should do is plan and prepare for the worst and keep some ground rules in mind.

Basic rules for safe mountain walking

Descent to Folgefonna
On the way down to Folgefonna, before the rock slide

It all starts with planning. Look at your route: analyse both the distance and the height difference and think about whether or not you are physically fit for it. Try to find as much information as possible about it as you can. In all honesty, this is a point where Norwegian tourist information offices can improve a lot. Information is sparse, not thorough and sets unrealistic goals for inexperienced hikers. As we were descending from Folgefonna, a steep 1500m down, we met four people who were on their way up. They heard that it was a simple trail up to have a look at the glacier. Really? Parts of the trail were very badly marked and above 1100m involved going across many snow fields. We met them at half past 6 in the evening, and at that point they had at least 2,5 hours to go up and another 4 to 5 to come down again. They had no warm clothing with them, nor shoes that were fit to walk across snow. Luckily our guide convinced them that it was a better idea to go down again.

Check weather forecasts and always let someone know where you are going and when you should be back. Calculate some extra time in order to have some error margin in case something goes wrong (and carry some extra food). The extra time will avoid that your friends/family members start freaking out while you are just sitting in a cabin waiting for the weather to get better. Avoid going out alone. If bad weather inhibits visibility just wait it out and take shelter in a cabin or find a natural shelter to shield you from the worst wind and precipitation. If you pass by cabins, use their logbooks to write down your date of arrival and where you are heading next. This is one of the main starting points for search and rescue parties. Generally, listen to your instincts: if you have an uncomfortable feeling about the situation then think about whether it is worth taking the risk.

Helicopter Svalbard
A helicopter descending to evacuate one hiker in our group with severe muscle cramps on a tour to Trollsteinen on Spitsbergen. He had never been hiking before and underestimated the trip.

Pay attention on steep trails. Avoid setting out on them when conditions are slippery. Just last weekend there has been an accident here in Flåm. Keep enough distance from one another and avoid any loose rocks. If something would start falling or rolling always shout “ROCK”. Even if you don’t immediately see anyone you never know who is further down the trail. And finally, think about buying your hiking gear in bright colours. They make it much easier to spot you and it’s easier to keep track of each other while on trail.


Make sure that you have a means of reaching out to someone at home. Take at least a cellphone that it well charged. Today many of us have smartphones, and their batteries don’t hold up for too long. In Lapland I used a Samsung X Cover phone, whose battery lasts for up to a month (even in that cold). In many place in the mountain however  there is no reception, so you might want to consider taking an emergency beacon (a Personal Locator Beacon like SPOT) or a satellite phone if you are far off from civilisation. You need to be able to alert someone in case something goes wrong.

First Aid

first aid

It’s always good to go through your first aid kit before every hike. I believe the following items are essential:

  • plasters and disinfection
  •  bandages
  • sports tape
  • compression bandages
  • pain killers
  • antihistamine
  • emergency blanket (to prevent overheating/hypothermia)
  • In winter: a showel and a mountain blanket

Besides of these items, it can also be good to take:

  • water purifier
  • Imodium
  • Motilium
  • Something against a sore throat
  • blister aid
  • insect repellent and after bite cream
  • rehydration salts

Emergency response procedure

Image by Bupa,

If you find yourself in an emergency situation, the first thing you need to do is breathe. There is no point in a panicking person trying to help an injured one.

Get an overview and control the situation. Make sure that neither the injured person, nor any other people nor yourself are still in a potentially dangerous place. Prioritise and get other people to help you if you are in a group. Call the emergency services if needed (113 in Norway, 112 in the E.U.).

If the injured person is unconscious, check his or her pulse and check breathing. Start CPR if something is wrong. If both are fine, put the person in the recovery position. If the injured is conscious talk to them and figure out if they are in shock. Check for blood. If they have neck or back injuries try to move the person as little as possible until help arrives. And while you are waiting, make sure that the injured stays warm and dry. Additional hypothermia is best avoided. If they are conscious give them something to drink, but never do this on an unconscious person.

Helictoper signalisation
Image by C.A.R. (U.S. Army Central Army Registry)

Have a look at the helicopter signs above to know what to do in case one needs to show up. Hopefully you will never need it, but it’s always better to come prepared. Remember that making three fires in a triangular shape is an international emergency signal, and that you can send an SOS signal by using the following light signals: three times short, three times long, three times short. Repeat  signal with a one minute break.


2 thoughts on “Mountain Safety”

  1. Yes!! Great post! I am always so amazed by some people who don’t really know at all what they are doing. Going hiking on a glacier with short shorts and tank top for instance…..or some young guides here who have no common sense at all…to even let someone with no raingear go hiking in short shorts and a tank top on a glacier.

    Although I am usually pretty stupid too….we have no or spotty cellservice in our watershed….and the satellite phone doesn’t really work, and we still go out there….driving around with ATVs without helmets….hiking long distances without any backup communication if something happens…in a watershed full of wolves, grizzlies and black bears….oh and Moose…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.