Chill thrills: how to keep scrambling over winter

Posted by Carey Davies and Jon Garside on 16/11/2016
Winter scrambling on Swirral Edge on Helvellyn. Photo: Duncan Andison / Shutterstock

Got hooked on scrambling over summer? Here’s what you need to know to keep tackling those airy arêtes and bristling ridges over winter.

As anyone who’s seen the GoPro-sporting crowds on the likes of Crib Goch  or Jack’s Rake will attest, scrambling is winning new converts all the time.  

You might be one of them. Perhaps, under warm and sunny skies, you experienced the breathtaking exposure of the Aonach Eagach or the thrilling volcanic jumble of Tryfan’s North Ridge, and became hooked on the combination of freedom of movement with heart-pounding exposure.

But when winter arrives, those airy arêtes and bristling ridges become conspicuously quieter. Scrambling, like any mountain activity, steps up a notch in terms of difficulty in winter. New hazards descend on the hills: snow, ice and verglas in the coldest conditions, or simply wet, wind and indeterminate British slush the rest of the time. All of these can complicate scrambling considerably – but they don’t knock it off the menu completely. Here is our rundown on the extra knowledge you need and the hazards you’re likely to face when scrambling in winter.

1. The weather: It's complicated

Thanks to our unenviable position as part of a North Atlantic archipelago, our weather can be unpredictable. Sometimes our upland areas are plastered in snow and ice. But often, particularly south of the Scottish border, the hills can be largely snow-free for long periods of time over winter. Crisp, cold winters of snowy Alpine majesty are the rare exception rather than the norm, and the likes of Tryfan, Crib Goch or Blencathra can go long periods with barely any white stuff to be seen. 

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that snow-free scrambling is necessarily straightforward; like summer but a bit colder. While it’s possible – though rather unusual – to get winter days that are clement, calm, snow-free and barely present any more difficulties for scrambling than good summer weather, the reality is that, wet, wind, verglas are as common hazards as ice and snow when it comes to scrambling in the winter months. And at times you can get all the above jumbled together.

But remember that whatever the weather throws at you, the reality is that winter scrambling will probably be a tougher challenge than its summer counterpart, and the deciding factor is the experience of you and your group. Working out what is within your safety margins can be complex. But the usual rules apply: plan carefully, adjust your ambitions for the conditions, don’t overreach, and take each step at a time. 

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

2. Gear and grades: know what you’re getting into

The first step when contemplating scrambling in winter is to understand its potential seriousness. Whatever the conditions, winter scrambling is best understood as mountaineering. In full winter conditions (i.e. fully covered in snow and ice) summer scrambles can become Grade I, II or even III winter climbs. Read more about winter climbing grades here.

Then there is the question of equipment. In summer, working out when you need to rope up or use gear to protect a scramble is very subjective, and many harder scrambles can confuse the distinction between ‘scrambling’ and ‘climbing’. Generally speaking, it’s useful to define scrambling as something where you don’t necessarily set out intending to use ropes or protection, but may take it just in case. The calls you make here depend entirely on experience and vary between individuals.

In winter, the same applies, but the threshold for that point where you pull out the ropes and gear is likely to be lower. Even classic summer Grade 1 scrambles like Crib Goch can feel incredibly serious in full winter conditions. Anything summer Grade 2 and above in winter conditions should generally be assumed to be a winter climb.

The same principle applies when thinking about the gear you should take. If you need two axes then you’re a climber not a scrambler; if two axes are required, then so too will be ropes, climbing equipment and ascending the route in pitches. One curved-pick walking axe should suffice for ascending summer Grade 1 scrambles in winter conditions – but, as ever, only if appropriately skilled.

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

3. Full winter conditions: experience essential

Ah, the Alpine dream! Winter conditions – the mixture of ice, snow and rock – provide plenty of purchase for axe spikes and crampon teeth, while moving across the combination of frozen and non-frozen surfaces can be an immersive challenge – but ONLY if you are well-prepared.

‘Full on’ winter scrambling should never be attempted unless you have full confidence in your winter mountaineering basics first. Confidently moving in crampons is a skill in itself; get plenty of practice on non-technical slopes before you graduate to complex terrain. Just as it would be silly to attempt a summer scrambling route without a decent amount of experience in summer hill walking under your belt you shouldn’t be contemplating going near iced-up ribs and ridges without being confident and proficient in the winter skills fundamentals: ice axe and crampon use, winter navigation and avalanche awareness. Don’t winter scramble before you can winter ramble. See the BMC’s Essential Winter Know How for a mountain of advice.

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

4. Verglas: the hidden hazard

Whilst frosted breath, deep blue skies and the crunch of frozen ground often make for the most memorable days out, beware the hidden hazard of verglas (a thin glaze of ice on rock), particularly during the seasonal shoulder months when many scramblers are still in ‘summer’ mode. Slipping on ice-covered rock steps and steep ground can result in serious injury.  Verglas can be especially treacherous when scrambling on cold days, moving in and out of direct sunlight. Whilst rock basking in sunshine should be ice-free, this may not be the case when scrambling in shade. Whilst the hills can present more obvious challenges when gleaming white, snow-free summits do not mean frozen water hazards are not lurking to catch the unaware.

5. Wet: watch your step

This is Albion not the Alps, and quite often scrambles are snow-free. But if this is the case, you’ll probably still have to contend with wind, rain, or some kind of indeterminate Great British slush.

Wet or slushy conditions do not necessarily mean scrambling is off the menu, but once again it depends. Different rock types provide varying degrees of friction when wet. The volcanic rock found in most of Snowdonia or the central Lake District is relatively grippy, but Blencathra’s Sharp Edge, being made of the Skiddaw Slate found in the northern Lake District, is treacherously slippery when wet. Even within the same hills, the picture can vary; the gabbro that makes up the majority of the Cuillin on Skye provides relatively good grip, but it is intermixed with basalt, which becomes notoriously greasy. Nature is a fickle mistress.

But the bottom line is that whatever the rock type, wet conditions are guaranteed make scrambling trickier and more unpredictable; do your research into what you’re attempting beforehand and check conditions reports provided by the likes of Lake District Weatherline to know what to expect. Above all, consider the experience of you and your party and adjust your plans to match. Even a Grade 1 scramble that seemed like a pushover in clement, sunny conditions could turn into a monster when the clag is down, the holds are slippy and the wind is lashing your every move.  Speaking of our friend wind…

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

6. Wind: the scrambler’s nemesis

Would you feel safe standing up on a motorbike seat at 50mph? It goes without saying that strong winds, particularly with unpredictable balance-throwing gusts, can be one of the most problematic challenges for scrambling. Ridge scrambles like Crib Goch, which are for the most part highly exposed walks open to the full brunt of the elements, become particularly hazardous in strong winds. Others, like Jack’s Rake, are more enclosed gullies that can sometimes feel quite sheltered on windy days, but it depends on the behaviour and direction of the wind; a cocooned gully can just as easily become a wind tunnel, and even Jack’s Rake has sections which are completely exposed to the vertical face of Pavey Ark. As always, the experience of you and your party is the crucial deciding factor, but for many scramblers it will be safer to save it for a calmer day.


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Watch and learn: BMC TV's Winter Skills Videos

Become a winter warrior with BMC TV's skills channel. Watch the first in our series of educational winter videos:

Series one: The Basics

Series two: The Basics Part Deux

Series three: Climbing Grade I/II

How to find the right climb

READ: Essential winter know-how


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