What is it about the first fall of snow that creates such childlike excitement? Softly falling flakes float down with the promise of conditions to come. Time for some ice climbs, a hearty winter walk, best of all, a mountain run, says Sarah Ridgway.
That's right, run! I'm not sure I've ever heard as many grumbles from runners over the last two winters, complaining that their training was compromised because of snow and ice. Yet I found that my spring racing fitness was boosted due to training on the white stuff.
Now, as daylight shortens, I find myself eagerly dusting off my lightweight crampons and ski-mountaineering axe, placing my headtorch batteries on charge and constantly scanning the skies for that tantalising just-about-to-snow colour. Without fail, I'll do a run on the first snow of the winter – even if it means running up to a peak to kick my running shoes in it! With a bit of snow running savvyiness, here's how you can do it too.
Know your level
Be realistic about your experience and fitness levels and don't plan a route of longer length and ascent than you have run previously. Accept that you'll be much slower and have to work harder in most snow conditions. Remember that for more serious routes you'll also need to be competent in judging weather and avalanche conditions, and if you intend on going over ridges or steep slopes then you should be confident with self-arrest and crampons.
Navigation is a major factor. If you're not confident, stick to routes you are familiar with. Keeping a good 'memory' of your run is important, especially if you suddenly hit whiteout conditions and need to maintain pace to stay warm. The greatest risk to the winter fell runner is hypothermia, so time lingering over a map could prove problematic. Finally, be very careful being drawn up a steep slope that you cannot get back down; it's much easier going up a steep icy slope than descending it. If in doubt, practice running down a section before you commit.
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Clever route choice can mean the difference between a frustrating slog and a quality run. In very deep snow, plan a run that follows tourist walking routes or even 4x4 tracks. During a particularly heavy snowfall in Snowdonia in December 2010, the Miners Track and Llanberis Path to Snowdon provided a fantastic run on a firm path compacted by summit baggers, when most other routes resulted in frustrating thigh-high battles.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast and wind direction when planning. Wind scouring can reveal a pleasant – albeit icy – route up to a summit or can strip a ridge or plateau to a manageable snow depth. The trick is to ascend the stripped slopes and descend the lee slopes, keeping in mind avalanche conditions. Be mindful of slope aspect: north-facing slopes tend to stay icier than the south-facing ones.
Don't forget that persistent freezing temperatures can vastly improve some routes, such as those over boggy terrain. The Peak District offers some wonderful winter running. You could also try running at night – an amazing experience with the added benefit of a harder surface crust.
Modern fell running shoes with aggressive grip – such as Inov8 Mudclaws – are fantastic on packed snow, so I rarely wear crampons except on large patches of ice. On steep snow slopes, kicking steps can help, even in fell running shoes. Use your good judgment when deciding whether to stop and put on crampons, but remember that they will not necessarily prevent a slip, especially when you are running; carrying – and knowing how to use – an ice axe is much more important. If you're on a steep slope or ridge then get your axe out and have it ready. On ascending a steep slope use the axe shaft like a walking stick to give you support and balance.
WATCH: Winter skills 1:9 Travelling in the white hills
On the go
Whilst you're running, constantly monitor your extremities to check your body temperature; you could be a lot colder than you realise. If ascending steep slopes you'll be generating a lot of heat, be aware that the reduced effort once reaching a ridge or summit can quickly chill you. If unsure, put your gloves, Buff and jacket on before you reach the summit or a ridge, even if you don't feel like it.
Likewise, if conditions or navigation result in you slowing down, put an extra layer on before you get cold. Stay hydrated, and make sure you refuel at regular intervals. You'll be churning through a lot of calories so try to get some food in every 45 minutes. Keep kit such as headtorch, gloves and buff in an easily accessible place in your rucksack – not hidden at the bottom of the bag.
Go for it
Okay, running in snow in the mountains isn't for everyone: you need to have some mountain experience, be prepared, know your limitations and – mostly importantly – know when to turn back. But it's an amazing experience, a great cardiovascular workout and, reading Summit, you've probably got the right mountain experience already. So don't hibernate this winter; put the mince pies down and dig those running shoes out. Then, when the first snow falls, try your first runs on routes you're familiar with and keep the distances short. You'll be flying to the summits in snow time.
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BMC member Sarah Ridgway is a pioneer in guided fell running. Sarah is also holder of the current women's record for the Snowdon Horseshoe. See www.runsnowdonia.co.uk for guided runs, advice and more.
My fave piece of gear is a lightweight ski-mountaineering axe; I don't leave home without it. Snow running works your stabilising muscles extra hard and puts particular strain on your calf muscles. In combination with cold, wet legs, this makes calf cramp a potential problem; gaiters can make a huge difference.
Neoprene cycling gloves can be handy if punching up a steep slope and winter mountaineering gloves (in addition to thinner running gloves) are essential on very cold days. There are some great lightweight belay jackets which make a fantastic extra layer but if something serious happens they won't buy you much time; we carry Blizzard Survival Bags.
Cut the heel off a pair of socks and wear them as wrist warmers. The grip on many aggressive fell running shoes is sufficient, but a set of crampons can get you across a tricky section and prevent cancelling a run. Microspikes can be handy but be careful: the added confidence could lure you up a slope that you would have trouble descending without an axe. Always pack a torch.
I keep a Petzl e-lite emergency torch permanently in my bag. Smear Vaseline over your face and lips to protect from wind chaffing. SealSkinz waterproof socks are fabulous and prevent frozen feet on long days out. Finally, consider doubling up. Pack two Buffs and two pairs of gloves, keeping the spares in small dry bags: punching your hands in the snow on an ascent can quickly render gloves useless, and two Buffs can be modified to create a balaclava.
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