Scrambling in winter: tips and tricks for efficiency

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 07/01/2020
The Snowdon Horseshoe with a dusting of snow. Photo: Rob Partridge

In winter, Britain's bristling ridges are transformed. The heart-stopping exposure remains but the crowds depart. The challenges are heightened – a changeable array of snow, ice, rain and wind – but so, too, is the beauty. Scrambling in winter is a step up in every way: here are some tips from the pros for getting it right.

If you're new to scrambling in winter, check out this article: Chill thrills: how to keep scrambling over winter. If in any doubt of your skills, you know the score, hire a Mountain Instructor or Guide.

Kit Tricks for scrambling in winter

The reduced daylight, increased cold and variability of winter scrambling conditions means that efficiency is paramount. Mountain Instructors Paul Lewis (based in the Peak District) and Matt Cooper (based in Snowdonia) have some clever tricks up – and even on – their sleeves:

“I put my watch on the outside of my coat so I can be reminded of the time throughout the day,” says Matt. He also brings plenty of gloves: a thin pair for the walk in, a thicker pair for the scramble itself and a spare pair. And you might want to bring even more gloves if the conditions may be wet, adds Paul, as even the most waterproof gloves can get saturated.

Perhaps you can never pack too many gloves in winter, but the rest of your kit needs to be streamlined for efficiency and packed so that you can reach what you need when you want it without leaking too much time and heat. There's an art to the balance between having the right stuff but not overloading yourself.

Make sure that you aren’t unnecessarily duplicating kit with others in your party, don't leave out the emergency kit and carry snacks in your pocket instead of bringing lunch so you can keep moving. Remember that some snacks, like cereal bars, become tooth-breakers in the cold - pack them in your chest pocket.

Another tip: if roped-up and swinging leads, “Consider a bandolier or a 60cm sling over the shoulder so that you can hand the gear over quickly without needing to rack it up on the harness," suggests Matt.

WATCH: Winter skills 1.2: kit and what's different in winter on BMC TV

The tried and tested APDD (Anti Pack Dropping Device)

If you are planning to be roped-up and multi-pitch scrambling, you might want to take your pack off off at belays. Paul has a clever trick here, to make sure you don't drop your precious equipment. Lark’s-foot a 60cm sling to the haul loop of your pack (if it’s a heavy pack consider incorporating one of the shoulder straps as well), put a carabiner on it and clip this to the bottom of your shoulder strap, so you can reach it. This APDD can then be clipped to the anchor before you remove the pack. 

In an emergency - say you're really struggling to make a move when you're on lead - you can also use this system to abandon your pack for your second to carry. "Seconds love that!" jokes Paul. Or your second could clip your abandoned pack onto a haul-line for you to pull up.


“Where is the freezing level - is your route likely to be frozen?” There's a lot more to think about in winter, says Matt. "You may have chosen a ridge which doesn’t hold much snow, but is the approach route to it avalanche prone?" adds Paul. Winter conditions of course carry a lot more variable risk and require a lot more planning so don't forget to check the live BMC Winter Conditions pages before setting out to climb in Snowdonia or the Lake District (see the foot of this article for links). If you're in Scotland, the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) is your friend.

What happens if you get to your route and it is packed with other people or you aren't happy with conditions? “Apply a holistic approach to your day and have a plan B and C," advises Paul. "Having alternative options may save you having to turn and head straight home." Don't forget to let someone know where you are going and when you will be back, too - and also make them aware of those alternative plans.

WATCH: Winter skills 1.5: conditions and weather on BMC TV


The walk-in is a good time to tune into your skills as a mountain detective. "Be hyper alert to everything," says Paul. "As you walk in you can gain a lot of information - is the wind blowing in the direction you expected? Is the freezing level as the forecast predicted? Can you gain information from that cloud formation? Everything tells you something - for example, if the freezing temps you expected aren't happening, will the rock on the scramble by well-bonded or looser?"

It is useful to have the avalanche and weather forecasts imprinted in your mind, printed out or maybe downloaded on your phone - but be careful of using up precious battery life if you keep referring to it. Batteries die faster in the cold.

One of the best tools you have as a mountaineer is your instinct,” says Matt. “When you arrive at your route does it look like you thought, or do the conditions look different? Is the weather how it was forecast or is it looking grim or colder than you thought?" However, your mind can be both a help and a hindrance, so pay close attention: is what it’s telling you due to experience or ego? Both instructors agree that you should never regret a retreat if it doesn't feel right.

Similarly, don’t let your decision-making be skewed by watching what other parties are doing. Paul advises: “Just because you've watched someone cross a snow-laden slope don't assume it's safe. They might not have the skills or knowledge to make safe decisions and you always need to consider and decide for yourself.”

Winter scrambling on Swirral Edge on Helvellyn. Photo: Duncan Andison / Shutterstock

On the route

With less daylight hours and more unknowns to contend with, it’s sensible to leave early and think carefully all the time about how you can maximise efficiency. For example, Paul advises: “Think about which side of your belay ledge your partner will need to leave from, where the rope is going to lie and what is happening above - are there other people on the line, are you sure of the route ahead are there hazards ahead that need to be considered?”

And a final tip from Paul:

“Consider the concept of ‘buying time’ - if you have a timescale in mind you can keep losing time or, with good management, can maybe buy time. If you are five minutes quicker per pitch then this might add up to 30 minutes. If you are slick putting your crampons on then you have another three minutes. It all adds up and can mean you have some contingency time … or just more time in the pub at the end of the day!”

WATCH: Winter skills 1.9: travelling in the winter hills on BMC TV


WATCH: Winter skills 2.4: walking in crampons on BMC TV

Check the latest mountain conditions

CHECK: Snowdon live weather

CHECK: Cwm Idwal (winter conditions)

CHECK: Helvellyn and Great End (winter conditions)

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Really there's no such thing as "winter scrambling". All summer scrambles become proper winter climbs under snow or ice, and deservedly get winter climbing grades. To still call them scrambles is misleading and potentially dangerous.
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