Starting out in winter walking
International Mountain Guide Bruce Goodlad explains the skills and equipment required to safely explore hills and mountains in winter conditions.
Winter walking and mountaineering requires different, more advanced skills that those required in summer. Specialist equipment is also a necessity to ensure the safe enjoyment of this challenging environment.
As winter's snowy mantle descends on the hills, the pleasant green peaks of summer transform completely. The change of season brings with it a raise in the level of seriousness and commitment needed to travel safely. It also brings with it new rewards for those prepared to learn the skills and challenge the semi-arctic environment.
In winter, simple slopes that could be crossed with your hands in your pockets during summer can become icy death traps to the unwary. A change in wind direction can mean that a slope you ascended on the way up your mountain is too avalanche-prone to descend, and you need to find an alternative route home.
In winter, simple slopes that could be crossed with your hands in your pockets during summer can become icy death traps to the unwary
The winter mountaineer must be able to make sound judgements about the weather, avalanche conditions, navigation, route choice, fitness and equipment. He or she must also be prepared to turn round far more readily and leave the mountain for another day if any of these factors are aligned against him.
If you are prepared to gain the skills and the experience required you will be rewarded with much quieter hills than you could ever imagine in the summer months. Snow covered hills have a magic all of their own and the clarity of the winter air allows unforgettable views.
So what skills, knowledge and equipment do you need to walk safely in the winter mountains?
The most common accident in winter is the simple slip, which if not arrested becomes a fall. If there is nothing to hit this is not a problem but if you are above boulders or a drop the whole incident can become far more serious. So learning how to move securely on snow is essential. This involves using an ice axe to provide security and prevent a slip from becoming a fall. As the snow becomes firmer crampons will be needed, and the use of crampons involves another completely new and different set of techniques.
Avalanches in the UK are generally not the village-swallowing events that you see in films, but you don't need a huge amount of moving snow to knock you off your feet and carry you into some boulders or over a drop. So the skills of avalanche awareness are an essential tool for safe travel, as is the interpretation of weather forecasts and the ability to relate the forecast to what is actually happening to the snow on the ground.
The overhead weather conditions can greatly affect how easy it is to navigate. On a clear sunny day it's no more difficult to navigate in winter than it is in summer, but when the cloud comes down and it starts to snow, white out conditions (when the horizon vanishes and all sense of perspective is lost) regularly occur. In these conditions, the ability to use a map and compass accurately are essential, together with the ability to measure distance on the ground and relate the terrain you are walking over to the map.
In addition to avalanche danger, the snow carried by the wind can build large cornices on the sides of ridges. In good visibility these can easily be avoided but in bad visibility when you may be using a cliff edge or a ridge line to help navigate, the danger of walking over the edge or having a cornice collapse under you is ever present. A danger that can be minimised by some simple rope techniques.
When choosing your objectives, don't be too ambitious. You will be very vulnerable until you have mastered necessary skills that will allow you to travel safely in the mountains - and even when fully competent you should never underestimate your environment. Think carefully about how fit the members of your party are, and the type of terrain your chosen route may cross. What is an easy scramble in summer may become a graded climb when covered in snow and ice.
There are many walking guidebooks and websites available to give you route ideas. Bear in mind that times given will be for summer conditions, unless you're looking at a specific winter walking guide. In winter your rucksack will be heavier and the quality of the snow under your feet will greatly affect your speed of travel. If the snow is firm the walking may be easy, but if you are wearing crampons your pace will be slowed. If the snow is knee-deep your intended peak may be unattainable. If you decide to battle on in worsening conditions remember that the summit is only half way on your journey.
It's obvious, but it needs to be stressed that the equipment you need for winter mountaineering must be warmer and more protective than that used in summer conditions; your shell clothing needs to be fully waterproof and your rucksack large enough to carry your extra gear. Your boots need to be stiffer and warmer than those worn in summer and you will need an ice axe and crampons.
Fortunately, there are a number of specialist shops in most parts of the country that can advise you on what equipment is most suitable - though you do tend to get what you pay for. Shops local to the area you're walking in can, of course, provide better information about the best gear for the local conditions.
There are a number of excellent texts that can get you started in the necessary skills for winter walking, but they are no substitute for practical experience and interacting with someone more knowledgeable. Many people head for the hills with a group of friends and learn by a combination of trial and error. This is great fun but can lead to a lot of near misses and lost weekends if you chose the wrong objective for the conditions.
Alternatively, you could join a mountaineering or hill-walking club. Almost every major town in the UK has clubs of some description. Most clubs organise meets in mountain areas and will often organise trips for new members, or you may be able to tag along with a more experienced group. The obvious risk with this is that you have no idea of the competency of the party.
The third method is to sign up for a skills course through a mountain centre (Glenmore Lodge in Scotland and Plas y Brenin in North Wales are the best known) or more directly through a guide or an instructor. You can find one through the Association of Mountaineering Instructors
or by browsing the web.
Guides hold the highest qualification in mountaineering, which allows them to guide and instruct mountaineering skills across the world. A qualified Guide will display the UIAGM (International Mountain Guides badge) logo in any advertisement. Instructors in the UK generally hold the Mountain Instructor Certificate (MIC), which allows them to instruct mountain activities in the UK. Centres such as Glenmore Lodge and Plas y Brenin are staffed by guides with these qualifications.