'Proper Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance' or so they say (actually some use a different P for extra emphasis)
Being prepared for a trip in the winter hills need not be an arduous task, a small amount of time spent planning your trip can ensure that it goes smoothly and is more enjoyable. Gathering all the information together to come up with the best plan for a mountain adventure can become an integral and enjoyable part of the whole trip.
There are three elements to be looked at in the preparation of any excursion: the route, the conditions (weather and snow) and the equipment you will take with you.
When planning any route in the mountains it is always best to have a couple of possibilities up your sleeve. For example, if you are planning to climb Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms starting from the Cairngorm ski area, there are a number of reasons why you may need to come up with a plan B, C or even D. On reaching the Cairngorm plateau you may discover that there is so much fresh snow that it would take too long to reach your summit. You may come across a slope that you decide is too avalanche prone to ascend and a detour will take too long. It may be so windy that you decide to cut the day short. Or the ski road may be shut and you can't get to your start point in the first place.
If you have thought about alternative objectives before you set foot on the hill you are less likely to waste the day. With the example of Ben Macdui; if you got part way there and decided the going was too tough you could climb Cairn Lochan then descend back to the ski area via Coire an Lochan; if you didn't want to go that far you could turn left and climb Cairngorm. Alternatively if the road was closed you could climb Meall a Bhuachaille above Glenmore. It is also worth carrying a number of maps to other areas in the car in case you didn't even make it to your intended destination because the road was blocked with snow.
When deciding which route to climb you need to consider the fitness of your party and the length of the proposed route. The difficulty of the route should also be considered, as less experienced members of the party will be slower on awkward or exposed terrain. Consider also the length of the route in relation to the amount of daylight available; in December or early January if you are planning a long route it's worth considering a pre-dawn start to give yourself some contingency time at the end of the day. It's much easier to navigate in the dark at the start of the day than at the end when you are tired and the weather may be closing in.
The conditions that will affect your day out are the snow conditions on the ground, possible avalanche conditions and the weather.
The quantity of snow on the ground and how easy it is to walk on will greatly affect the length of your day and how tiring it will be. Calculate that you will walk much more slowly if you are wearing crampons. Work out roughly where the greatest accumulations of snow will have fallen by watching the weather forecast on the days preceding your trip. Snow will generally be deposited on the leeward side of obstructions, whether this a ridge or an entire hillside. It will also form cornices on the leeside of edges - generally narrow ridges or cliff tops.
The most up to date information on the snow can be gathered from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service. During the main winter season observers go onto the hill daily in the five main mountain areas (Glencoe, Lochaber, Creag Meagaidh, Southern Cairngorms and Northern Cairngorms). The observers record the snow and avalanche conditions and make a prediction of avalanche conditions for the following day. This information can be readily accessed on SportScotland Avalanche Information Service
The avalanche forecast may influence your eventual route choice though it is useful to look at the snow conditions on the ground when you start walking to see if they fit the forecast.
The weather forecast will also influence your decision making, whether you go out at all or as to where you think will be the best mountain area for the given forecast and conditions. Good quality forecasts are easy to come by. Use the Internet, newspapers, television or radio. There are also a number of premium rate phone numbers that offer up to date information.
See also winter kit but it is worth looking at items of kit that you may not have considered or used in your summer walking.
On any winter excursion your ice axe and crampons will be constant companions but a greatly overlooked piece of equipment in the winter environment is the packed lunch. A winter's day will place far greater demands on your body than a summer's day, so you need to make sure you are carrying enough food to fuel your engine. In addition to the food you plan to eat it is worth carrying some extra food in case your route takes longer than planned, or you are caught out in poor weather, or even overnight. Consider taking a flask of hot drink; hot juice is better than tea or coffee as it doesn't have the diuretic effect of caffeine.
When the weather turns nasty it can be very difficult to see where you are going with wind blown snow stinging your eyes, which can make it difficult to see the ground, read a map or a compass. The answer is a pair of ski goggles, like all equipment you get what you pay for, more expensive models are less prone to fogging and give better vision.
In damp snowy conditions you can't avoid getting your gloves wet so it is worth having more than one spare pair
If the worst-case scenario happens and you are caught out by the weather and have to spend the night on the mountain, a bivi bag will save your life. The plastic models are better than nothing but the best solution is a nylon group shelter. These come in a variety of sizes and allow all the members of the party to share warmth and they are also better for morale.
Rather than trying to remember all these things, make a checklist
of the information you need and what equipment you are going to take.