Walk Skills: The tips of winter

Posted by Peter Burnside on 14/11/2023
Incredible views across to Ben Nevis. Photo: Shutterstock

How to plan for a successful season of hill walking in frost, ice, and snow, by Matt Stygall, instructor at Plas y Brenin.

Winter’s nearly here – I can’t wait! I can remember pretty much every day I’ve spent in the hills in winter; walking, climbing, or skiing – they’re special. More time, energy, and thought are invested in winter days than summer; success is never guaranteed. Conditions underfoot, avalanche risk, and the weather can vary wildly within 10 metres, there’s a lot going on. Whether or not the plan succeeds or fails, unforgettable memories are forged- this is what winter is about.

Do some (proper) research

I met a mate in Penrith, we’d agreed we’d make a plan as we drove north. We wanted to go winter climbing. Things were looking good – it felt cold and snow carpeted the Lakeland fells. Our friend Lou had posted a picture of amazing-looking ice at Beinn Udlaidh – we were surprised it had already formed, what a winner! We spent a cold night shivering in the van, wandering up to the crag next morning. The top of the ice falls glistened in the sun, they looked perfect. More walking revealed a fuller view of the ice, our faces dropped: only the top half was complete, the lower half was dripping wet, rendering it unclimbable. We couldn’t believe it – Lou's post had only been the previous day, and it had stayed cold. We checked it again; her post had been the day before, but the photo was actually taken one year earlier – what a pair of suckers!

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is! Had we paid attention to the weather forecasts and avalanche reports we’d have known it wouldn’t have formed – the freezing level wasn’t low enough for long enough. We should have just phoned Lou to check. She obviously found it hilarious when we told her.

I’d suggest using these resources for planning:

  • The SAIS website (Scottish Avalanche Information Service) – for avalanche reports and the forecasters’ blogs.
     
  • Met Office Mountain & MWIS (Mountain Weather Information Service) forecasts.
     
  • Chasing the Ephemeral, Scotland’s Winter Mountains with one axe, Scottish Winter Climbs, Scottish Offpiste Skiing & Snowboarding, and Scotland’s Mountain Ridges.
  • Fatmap is an online mapping tool, users can change the settings to reveal how steep a slope is, making it easy to identify avalanche terrain. I’d use this in conjunction with a current avalanche forecast to see which areas are safer, and which are more dangerous.

Be wary of avalanche terrain

I triggered an avalanche once and was extremely lucky to walk away uninjured; some don’t. There’s not enough room to go into detail, but the key statistic for me is that 90% of avalanche victims trigger their own avalanche. Avalanches most commonly occur on slopes of 30-45°. Avoiding being on, or below, snow slopes of these angles (avalanche terrain) is the simplest and best line of defence.

It’s worth knowing that England and Wales don’t have avalanche services as they’re not as reliably wintry as Scotland. Avalanches still occur though, and people trigger them most winters. I’d suggest attending a winter skills or avalanche course for anyone who wants to enjoy the UK’s mountains in winter, but doesn’t have any avalanche understanding. The maxim ‘if you don’t know, don’t go’ is a good one to remember.

Lots of useful information is available on the SAIS website. Their app, Be Avalanche Aware is a must-have. I’d also recommend Bruce Tremper’s books; Avalanche Essentials or Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain.

WATCH: Avalanche and Route Assessment on Approach on BMC TV

Know who you’re out with, and what you’re aiming for

I agreed to climb with a friend on our first winter day of the season. Mike suggested a route, and I said yes, having no understanding of that style of climbing (hard mixed) back then. He was very patient, it took us (me) the whole day to climb half the route, a mere 50 metres! Darkness arrived and we retreated. It wasn’t the warm-up I was expecting and Mike assumed I’d been mixed climbing before.

Regardless of the activity, I’d encourage people to confront the elephant in the room straight away and take joint ownership of the day. Talk openly about aims, aspirations, concerns, past experience, ability and fitness. Plan a day that suits everyone, taking the team’s strengths and weaknesses into consideration.  

Keep it real

Enthusiasm’s a wonderful thing, but at the start of the season, whether you’re walking, climbing or skiing, it’s good to keep it real, as I finally came to realise one day on Aonach Mor. I hadn’t skied for two years, but thought that skiing a steep, out-of-condition gully to get my legs back was a good idea. It wasn’t.

Having learnt my lesson from that little epic, I now accept that after the summer lay-off I won’t feel as confident walking in my crampons, swinging my axes, turning my skis, or assessing snow conditions. I know it’ll come back given some mileage and practice, as will winter-specific fitness. By the time I feel confident and fit again, I’ll be ready to try trickier and more demanding things, and I’ll be mentally and physically prepared to do so.

Pack carefully

It’s gutting when someone realises they’ve left their crampons in the car, but they’ve already walked to the snow line... it happens every winter during our staff training. It cracks me up, and I always feel smug it’s not me. Only this winter, it was me – the shame! I’m going to use a tick-list from now on, it looks something like this:

Personal kit

  • Waterproof jacket and trousers
  • Fleece / synthetic mid layers
  • Synthetic belay jacket
  • Thermal base layer and leggings
  • Warm hat & Buff / neck gaiter
  • Several sets of gloves, and mittens
  • Dry bag for spare kit
  • Ski goggles
  • Plenty to eat and drink
  • Main, and spare headtorch, each with fresh batteries
  • Boots (check crampon compatibility)
  • Fully charged mobile phone
  • Blizzard bag / jacket
  • Map and compass

Activity specific

  • Helmet
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Climbing kit; harness, rack, ropes
  • Skiing; skis, skins, crampons, poles
  • Avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe

Shared across the team

  • First aid kit
  • Repair kit – duct tape, zip ties, multi-tool
  • Group shelter
  • GPS / personal locator beacon (if available)
  • At least one spare headtorch and map & compass

Winter kit is expensive, but there’s a big second-hand market for it online, it’s worth a look.

WATCH: Kit and What’s Different in Winter 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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