Travelling through the British hills when they are plastered with snow is incredibly rewarding, and can offer some of the most memorable days out of the year. But the combination of short days and bitterly cold arctic weather systems can present challenges to the unwary mountaineer.
If you’re thinking of setting out into the mountains this winter then read on.
What are winter conditions?
It’s not a trick question. UK winter conditions can be defined as any time when the ground is covered with sufficient snow or ice to make the use of crampons and axes a necessity. Years ago this would have been most of the season, but recently our winters have been very changeable, with warm spells interrupted by cold arctic weather. The key point is to pay more attention to terrain underfoot than the time of year.
It goes without saying that a selection of warm, layered clothing is required. There’s a lot on the market these days, but there’s no need to get too hung up on the technicalities. A good waterproof jacket and trousers are the main essentials. It’s the accessories that make all the difference in winter; gaiters, gloves, spare gloves, hat, head-torch, some sort of emergency shelter like a bivi or bothy bag, a flask of hot drink, and lots and lots of tasty treats to keep your energy and spirits up. Then there are the badges of the real “mountaineer”, the axe and crampons.
Your choice of crampons will be dictated by your current pair of boots. If you’ve already got a pair of stiff 3 or 4 season walking boots, then take these along to a shop and get a suitable pair of crampons fitted. The importance of this cannot be overstated - boots and crampons must be suited to each other and adjusted accordingly. Then it’s time to get an axe. Winter climbers use two short, technical axes, but for more general use you’ll just need a “mountaineering axe”. Again, take advice in retailers for the best length for you.
Accidents and incidents in our winter mountains are often due to people having insufficient knowledge or experience for the objectives they undertake. Take time to educate yourself in the comfort of your own living room. Learn about the snow pack and avalanche awareness from books such as Chance in a Million? Watch the new DVD Winter Essentials to get a feel for what to expect. Read Scotland’s Winter Mountains – it’s filled with stories and advice to inspire and put you in the picture. And don’t forget to give your equipment a once over before setting foot on the snow – put on those flashy new gloves and see if you really can still take a bearing. Put those crampons on, and try and knock them off!
With poor visibility and the ground covered in snow it is all too easy to become disoriented, so it’s very important to review your planned route before setting off. Have a look at the map and break your journey into sections, you can then estimate how long your journey should take and identify any potential hazards or navigational challenges you will encounter. Check weather forecasts, and avalanche forecasts - if available.
Planning is great, but inflexibility is not. In winter the weather and conditions can change incredibly quickly and you must be willing to alter your plans accordingly. This does not have to mean turning back, but may involve taking a different route if a slope is avalanche prone, a ridge too windy, or if your start time has been delayed. Better to have a short, enjoyable day than biting off more than you can chew.
Just when you’ve got this sorted in your head and along comes winter, the ultimate test of your navigation. In a white out with no visible features, all you have to rely on is your map and compass. You need to be able to walk confidently on a bearing, measure how far you’ve gone, and interpret contour features to locate yourself as you go. It hardly needs to be emphasised just how serious a mistake could be – for example walking off a cornice, or ending up on the wrong side of the mountain. Practice your navigational skills on less serious terrain and on good weather days since you need to be confident in your ability when the chips are down.
There’s a whole host of skills to master to make your winter mountaineering safe and enjoyable. Hazards are always there, but that’s part of the attraction. First off learn how to walk! It can be unsettling the first time on steep snow or ice but with stiff boots, steps can be made in the hard packed snow. And with crampons frozen snow or ice can be negotiated. Balance is the key, and that is where the axe comes in very useful. It can be used as a third leg on steep slopes, and should always be carried in the uphill hand. Slips are always possible; so learn how to use the axe to arrest your fall. A simple slip can lead to a serious accident, so have your axe in your hand whenever walking on steep slopes.
Exploring the mountains in winter is exhilarating, and having the skills to get around confidently allows you to visit truly wild areas. The keys to success are preparation and practice. Do some research before you head to the hills, and practice the essential skills in a safe environment. And if you’re still uncertain, consider enrolling on a course or hiring a guide for the day to boost your skill level.
This issue the winter walking expert is Mal Creasey. Described as “the voice of god” by Trail magazine, there’s nothing about the hills that he doesn’t know. Mal works as Development Officer for Mountain Leader Training England, and was involved with the production of the BMC Winter Essentials DVD.
Q. Should I attach my axe with a leash or wrist loop?
A. It’s a question of personal preference but you should weigh up the pros and cons. A wrist loop should ensure that you don’t drop your axe but makes it very inconvenient if zig zagging up a slope. Your axe should be in the uphill hand at all times so taking the loop off and swapping hands can be a real pain. Leashes will avoid this but then you’re fixing a sharp object to yourself, ready to chase you down the hill. Personally, I don’t think there is any substitute for simply getting used to having the axe in your hand at all times, but if you must use something take removable wrist loops.
Q. How do I make sure that I don’t lose my map or compass?
A. Attach the compass with the cord and keep the map folded, ready prepared in a map case in a convenient pocket. You can’t actually guarantee that you aren’t going to lose it in a howling gale so you should carry a spare or have at least one other similarly prepared in the group. Another useful trick is to practice taking bearings with your gloves on and become familiar with the technique of squatting down on one knee using the other as a table to support the map as you do so.
Q. If I’m caught in a blizzard where’s the best place to dig an emergency shelter?
A. This depends on the terrain. If there are short lee slopes, shallow gullies or embankments above small streams, you could try digging in at the top of the slope so any snow you remove falls away from the entrance. But be aware of hidden streams and any snow hole that involves steep ground could avalanche. If you’re on open terrain you could try building a “shovel up”. These can be more time consuming but are inherently safer. Remove your sack, cover it with a poly bag, then simply bury it with snow to make a mound, then tunnel in on the leeward side until you can remove the sac. This takes a little practice and as with all new skills it’s worth finding out how long it takes to get out of the elements and consider whether the amount of energy you are about to expand could be better utilised by really trying to get of the hill.
Q. With global warming, are our winters getting safer?
A. In a word, no. What we often get throughout the season now are typical early winter conditions with minimal snow cover and long rock or scree slopes in the corries. Less snow cover should minimise the risk of avalanche but the majority of accidents start with a simple slip or trip. Under normal snow cover this may result in nothing more than an embarrassing slide, but in minimal cover the unfortunate person may well be pitched headlong into steep rocks. In addition routes can be technically more demanding under lean conditions, and rock fall has increased.
Q. My navigation is poor- but I know I’ll rely on my GPS in a white out, so is that really a problem?
A. The only thing I’d say is don’t just rely on one technique. The worse the conditions, the more techniques you’ll need to apply. In this case the GPS will help you identify where you are, but there’s no substitute for pacing, timing, and accurate reading of the ground. By all means confirm your suspicions with the GPS but it’s worth remembering that whilst it will tell you where you are and where you need to be, it doesn’t know anything about the bit in-between that’s gleaned from the map. And of course, don’t forget that batteries can be adversely affected by the cold.
Q. How do I walk on a bearing in a whiteout?
A. With practice it’s often not as difficult as one might imagine. With a party of two or three people make sure you all have the same bearing and with one person out in front, generally by three of four meters max, the person following should be able to see if the leader drifts left or right by sighting down the direction of travel arrow. In really bad conditions it easier, and safer to use a rope and in extreme conditions this can be used to measure 100 meter sections. The worst conditions I’ve ever encountered were when I had to fill a helmet with snow, and dangle from my waist on two slings - it was the only way I could tell which way was up, and which was down.
WATCH: The BMC Winter Essentials trailer on BMC TV:
Conditions Apply: Winter Climbing Ethics on BMC TV:
How to perform an ice axe self arrest on BMC TV:
If They Only Knew: A film about the joys of the winter mountains
Cairngorms in Winter: Moine Mhor
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