You’ve done the winter skills course and now you’re looking to explore the hills alone - but are you really ready? Here’s how to take the next steps.
Making the leap from winter skills pupil to solo explorer is rarely straightforward. Taking on winter conditions under the aegis of a good instructor and going solo in the snowy mountains are two completely different prospects. A course might give you the tools to unlock the world of winter hill walking, but one thing even the best teacher can’t pass on is experience.
“You should cover a wide range of skills during a good winter skills course - still, the key thing about being out and about in winter is that all these skills need to be pretty ingrained,” says Keith Ball, an instructor at Plas y Brenin.
So how can you make the transition from skills course graduate to seasoned winter walker without risking your neck?
When one course isn’t enough…
Every aspiring winter walker needs to do a skills course - but not all courses are equal. One issue, particularly if your instruction took place in Wales or the Lakes, is that you probably haven’t experienced the full range of winter conditions yet.
“If you’ve only had two or even five days out with an instructor then you may not appreciate the fact that conditions vary a lot in winter,” explains Keith. “You could have had good weather that whole time, the snow might have been lean on the ground - or perhaps you were walking in really fresh snow and you’ve never experienced hard névé.”
He points out, too, that everybody is different. “Some folks might be up and running after a couple of days of winter skills tuition and others could need a month of it. If you haven’t experienced full winter conditions, or if you don’t feel confident with what you’ve learned, then I’d recommend going back and doing a second winter skills course - perhaps in Scotland where things might be more rugged or involved.”
If it’s been a good while since you were out in the hills during the winter and your skills set is a little rusty, it could also be worth booking a refresher.
Even some experienced winter hill walkers are reluctant to tackle big winter days alone, and it’s even more important for beginners to find a snow-loving buddy.
“Once you’re confident with the basics, try and find some more experienced people to go out with,” advises Keith. “Joining your local mountaineering club is a great way to meet other hill walkers, and you might even find some people on your winter skills course who fancy getting out in the hills with you.”
Taking a mate along on those first few snowy expeditions will bolster your confidence and help consolidate your winter know-how. It’s also important from a safety perspective. Find a BMC-affiliated club near you here (https://www.thebmc.co.uk/map).
Put in the practice
Getting plenty of experience on easier days out before tackling anything spikier and more challenging is essential. Remember, too, that the conditions will shape your experience almost as much as the route you pick.
“A lot of folks go back and repeat the route they did on their winter skills course, but that might not necessarily be appropriate under different conditions,” says Keith. “Study the forecast and choose days with nice weather and good visibility to start off with. There should be good conditions on the hill with low avalanche risk.”
He recommends setting yourself manageable objectives to begin with. “Look for smaller summits and more gentle routes than you might normally attempt. Journeys where you approach and return via the same route are ideal, as you’ll have the chance to judge the conditions on the way out. Always start off by focusing on controlled, solid movement in a safe environment before tackling more serious objectives. Remember, turning back is always an option.”
Climb when ready
Once you’re moving around comfortably in full winter conditions, you might want to think about ramping up the adrenaline factor a little. Scrambles that most hill walkers could tackle in summer transform under a covering of snow into full-on graded winter climbs. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a more advanced winter skills course before grabbing your ice axe and bee-lining it to Crib Goch.
“If you want to step up to graded winter climbing then it’s important to get some experience in after your intro winter skills course,” advises Keith. “Some summer climbing or high-end scrambling experience would help as well. After you’ve got plenty of winter hill days under your belt then you should be ready to do a ropework course that will prepare you for tackling some more serious winter routes.”
The BMC is offering a series of subsidised winter skills courses in February and March with a few places still available. The courses are held at Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia, and you can find out more here.
GO ON A COURSE: Learn winter skills from professionals
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