Five tips for getting into winter hillwalking

The clocks have changed, and winter’s almost here. Are you a fair weather walker? Maybe you already have a good number of summer hills and mountain walks under your belt. Or perhaps you’re more of an occasional or recreational hillwalker, but don’t want to have to wait until the end of winter before you can enjoy the hills again?

If so, this post is for you – the occasional or summer hillwalker with no (or not much) previous winter walking experience.

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A beautiful winter day on Cruach Ardrain, near Crianlarich, Scotland

Getting out in to the winter upland environment can be incredibly rewarding. The hills and mountains are transformed. Even just a light coating of snow and ice completely changes their character – from warm, green and accessible to fragile, bleak and starkly beautiful. But the mountains in winter demand respect and some sensible preparation, especially if you’re just starting out.

So – here are five tips to get you out there!

#1 – Layer up

This is an obvious one, but in winter the temperature can be colder than you might think. This especially the case when you think about the wind chill factor. Wind chill factor is all about how much colder it feels when the wind’s blowing cold air over you. For example if the air temperature is at freezing (0°C), a windspeed of just 16kph (10mph) is enough to make it feel 5 degrees colder – that is, -5°C.

On top of that, remember that the air temperature gets lower the higher up you go. And wind speed at the summit is usually higher than it is in the valley – so don’t underestimate the need for insulation.

As you may know, it’s normal to think of your mountain clothing system in terms of layers. The base layer is worn closest to your body. It’s a tight-fitting layer which serves the important purpose of wicking sweat away from your skin, to make sure that you don’t lose heat through conduction or convection. Today it’s all about synthetic materials like polyester which dry quickly and fit comfortably. Contrary to the old advice, cotton is not a good choice at all. It soaks up sweat and sticks to your skin without drying out! If you have a bit more to spend, merino wool underlayers are also a very good option.

Then comes your mid-layer – insulating material, like polartec fleece. In winter it’s a good idea to have several thinner mid-layers rather than one thick one, so you can layer off or on to get to a comfortable temperature. Personally, I like to have a couple of thin long-sleeved t-shirts to wear on top of the base layer, a polartec fleece, a softshell and a light down jacket.

Finally there’s your outer ‘shell’ layer. As mentioned, this is crucial to keep the wind out and to let your base and mid layers do their job! A good level of waterproofness and breathability is also important, to keep moisture out. Softshells (which are windproof but not fully waterproof) are best as a mid-layer in the wet and soggy UK outdoors.

#2 – Take a map, compass and GPS

Navigation in winter can be tough. Snow can cover footpaths and – when it gets deep – even cairns and streams. So take a map, compass and GPS. Despite the fact that GPS systems nowadays are extremely advanced, it’s my opinion that even if your GPS is top of the line, it’s not a substitute for knowing how to use a map and compass. A GPS should be used as a back-up, because if it fails for any reason you need to be confident that your map reading skills will be enough.

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Navigation in poor visibility winter conditions

#3 – Check the weather forecast, snow and avalanche conditions

Of course, checking the weather forecast is always a good idea when you’re heading into the hills. But it’s even more important in winter. The Met Office site is useful for more general forecasts, but for detailed and specific mountain forecasts you should check out the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS). It has forecasts for all major UK mountain areas and I’ve found it to be very reliable.

Another good site, if you’re walking in Scotland, is the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS). It provides a good assessment of snowpack conditions and associated avalanche risk for six Scottish mountain areas.

And if the forecast is bad, the decision is simple – don’t go out! Being on a mountain in a blizzard is not a pleasant experience so it’s far better to just wait for a nicer day.

#4 – Take an axe and crampons (and know how to use them)

Hard snow on winter slopes can be tricky. It can be easy to lose your footing, and a slip can rapidly turn into an uncontrollable slide. So it’s essential to be able to move securely over winter ground. To do this, you’re going to need a walking axe and crampons. If you don’t want to splash out and buy them immediately, it’s fairly easy to hire them in the UK.

We’re not talking about highly technical ninja axes here. A walking axe is really a cross between a shorter ‘technical’  axe and a walking pole. A walking axe has a long straight spiked shaft, which provides a means of steadying yourself on slopes. And the pick at the top of the axe means that you can self-arrest (i.e. stop yourself from sliding further) if you do happen to slip. Don’t be tempted to take walking poles instead of a walking axe (though walking poles are usually taken as well, because they are still useful in winter). Speaking from personal experience, walking poles won’t do a good job of stopping you if you’re sliding down a slope…

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Well equipped for winter walking with axes, crampons and warm layers

Crampons are metal spikes which attach to your boots via a sole-mounted plate. You can buy a pair of crampons designed for semi-flexible all year round boots, but if your boots are more flexible in the soles then you should consider buying stiffer and more robust ones for winter. Sometimes these are called C1 crampons. Whilst they’ll give you enough grip for walking, C1 crampons are not designed to be used to climb very steep or hard snow or ice.

 #5 – Go with other people, and enjoy it!

As with so many new things in life, it’s more fun if you go with others. The best and easiest way to learn is to learn from those more experienced than you. Although walking solo can be amazing, it’s not recommended if you’re a winter hillwalking beginner. Go with a friend, or in a group, and you’ll pick up winter essentials like moving efficiently over frozen ground without the pressure that being alone can bring on.

Finally – enjoy it! Being out in the mountains in winter is exhilarating. If you haven’t tried it before, you can expect to see the hills in a new perspective. Yes, the mountains in winter are a serious environment to be in, but if you’re sensible then there’s really nothing to stop you enjoying the experience.

Faster and lighter? Part II – Five alpine lessons for Scottish mountaineering

What’s the difference between mountaineering in the 4000m+ peaks of the Alps, and Scotland? More importantly – what lessons can we take from alpine climbing to become better trekkers, climbers and mountaineers here in the UK?

Part I provided an introduction to Chamonix, where I’ve just spent a week, and summed up what I did. This post, Part II, answers the question: what lessons from alpine mountaineering can be applied to trekking and mountaineering in Scotland? In this post I’m mainly talking about winter mountaineering in Scotland, when applying lessons from the Alps is most important.

Moving together roped over glaciated terrain

Moving together roped over glaciated terrain (Col du Midi, Chamonix)

What is the ‘alpine style’?

In alpine mountaineering it’s important to manage both time and energy as efficiently as possible. After all, if you run out of time you’ll be finishing your route and/or your descent in the dark, which makes things much less fun and much more challenging. Worse, you may have to spend the night on the mountain and wait for first light before you can move again. If you run out of energy, needless to say, you’ll be in trouble. At best you’ll be burnt out and at worst you’ll risk exposure or exhaustion.

So ‘alpine style’ mountaineering is all about travelling fast and light. The idea is to make it to the top of a peak or a route as quickly and efficiently as possible before coming down again, and so avoid running out of time or energy. It emphasises self-sufficiency; advocates of the alpine style don’t take get out of jail cards like tents with them in case things turn bad (the extra weight would slow them down). The drive for self-sufficiency and speed means a deliberately frugal approach to heavyweight equipment (though weight can still add up on multi-day trips). In the Alps or the Greater Ranges where weather windows can be brief, speed is safety, so it’s no surprise that the alpine style is now the de facto approach for many modern mountaineers.

The alpine style was taken up by pioneering mountaineers like Reinhold Messner and Chris Bonington in the 1970s on expeditions to the Greater Ranges. In these cases they were applying an ethic, which had been developed in the Alps, to peaks of much greater scale than those in the Alps; peaks whose size meant that they weren’t obviously suited to the alpine style. Before the 1970s, expeditions had depended on the expedition or ‘siege’ approach to mountaineering, with fixed ropes and several camps being established as parties made their way laboriously towards the summit over many days. However, the likes of Messner and Bonington proved that the alpine style could be successfully  applied to very high mountains in the Himalaya. Yvon Chouinard’s 1978 book ‘Climbing Ice’ was one of the first popular books promoting the ethic. And much more recently, elite mountaineers like Ueli Steck have since taken the fast and light ethic to its fullest extent in speed ascents of the Eiger Nordwand and others. This is sometimes referred to as ‘extreme alpinism’.

So what lessons can we learn?

It should be pretty obvious from the above that the alpine style demands a healthy amount of experience to be able to apply safely! Alpine style mountaineers rely on their experience and skill to find the balance between placing lots of speed-sapping fixed protection and maintaining a good rate of progress.

But even if you’re not an alpine god like Ueli Steck, many alpine style lessons can be applied to Scotland and its piddly (by comparison) munros. Lesson can be learned from elite mountaineers and adapted for less extreme (but still challenging) Scottish winter situations.

#1 – Embrace minimalism (within reason!)

When it comes to speed, the most effective way you can help yourself is by cutting down on weight. Try to adopt a consciously minimalist approach to packing, and pack light. Ask yourself what’s essential and what’s an added extra. On a short day, can you drink an extra 500ml before setting off and so reduce the amount you need to carry? Can you take lighter food, maybe taking out that apple and replacing it with dehydrated berries? Do you need two axes for a Scottish Winter Grade II traverse, or will one do?

Look at your kit, too. It’s a simple fact that you usually get what you pay for, and lighter gear is more expensive. The amount you want to invest in personal gear is your choice, but there are some wise choices to be made. Instead of bulky crampon-snagging external gaiters, can you use winter softshell trousers with internal snow gaiters and reinforced hems? Is your rucksack a 2kg army surplus throwback to the 1940s, or is it a 900g clean-profile modern job? Can you upgrade your fluffy 11mm single rope to a dry-treated 9.5mm? There are so many considerations and it’s impossible do them all justice in one blog post. Fortunately, there are lots of more detailed info sources out there to help you with this – check out Dave MacLeod’s video here on what to pack for Scottish winter climbing, for starters.

There’s an important proviso here. Being overly minimalist, to the point of being underprepared, is dangerous and is never recommended. The Scottish climate is unpredictable (see #2 below) so it’s essential not to skimp on core essentials like a bothy bag, hardshells (i.e. full waterproofs), a GPS, a headtorch and spare food for emergency energy.

An unroped approach to Number 4 Gully, Ben Nevis - 3 March 2013

An unroped approach to Number 2 Gully, Ben Nevis

#2 – Check the forecast and conditions

In the Alps, weather systems are usually fairly predictable and forecasts are generally reliable. Nonetheless, Alpine climbing demands a healthy respect for the severity of bad weather at altitude. Alpine climbers will generally not venture out if the forecast is bad.

In Scotland, the situation is different. Uncertainty in the forecast is normal and frankly, if you want to wait for the perfect weather day, you won’t be getting out much! So check that forecast and prepare accordingly. The point is not that an uncertain forecast should have to stop you heading out because you’ve packed a super-light minimalist rucksack – the point is that what you pack is always a judgement call based on the best quality information you can get.

Check online sources too – the ukclimbing.com logbook pages and forums for beta (information) on route conditions is the best place to start. And always make sure you check the avalanche forecast and snowpack conditions at www.sais.gov.uk.

#3 – Start early and finish early

This is good practice at any time of year, and especially when a beer or an evening stretched out in a warm tent after a hard day beckons! But Scottish summer days are very long, so early starts are far more important in winter. When it comes to Scottish winter days you might only have seven hours of daylight to play with, and the first and last of them will be dawn and dusk. So an early start is essential. Winter lines like those on the north face of Ben Nevis, for example,  frequently have long walk-ins and you may have an hour or two of walking before you can even start climbing. It’s quite normal for climbers at the Ben Nevis North Face car park to set off at  4am. In the Alps, depending on the route, it may be as early as 11pm the night before! But early starts pay off – the certainty of knowing that time is on your side is priceless.

#4 – Work on your fitness

Although Scottish mountaineering can be extremely challenging, it doesn’t usually demand the wholesale adoption of an Alpine style ethic. Days out in Scotland tend to be short and single, meaning that you can afford to place more of an emphasis on thorough protection (more on this in #5 below). Not so in the Alps, where multi-day trips can really push you, especially because of the added challenge of being at high altitude.

Whether in the Alps or Scotland, if you don’t have the cardio fitness and stamina to keep up a good rate of progress then you’ll be letting yourself down. The key to this one is preparation. Build up your fitness in advance through long days out – cardio fitness and endurance training beats pumping iron in the gym. Upper body strength is important, yes, but if your legs are exhausted by the time you get to the start of a climbing or scrambling route then it won’t matter if you can do one arm pull-ups on a two-finger hold.

#5 – Move quickly!

Last and by no means least is the importance of moving quickly and efficiently. In the Alps, long routes mean that fixed pitches are often unacceptably slow. Alpine mountaineers will generally move together over easier sections of technical ground, either individually or roped together. In the latter case, it’s normal to use fixed protection in the form of running belays, which the leader will place and the last climber on the rope will remove. This is also known as simul climbing.

Traversing easy ground on the Aonach Eagach

Moving unroped over easy ground on a winter traverse of the Aonach Eagach

The benefits of moving quickly apply to both Scottish summer and winter, whether you’re trekking, climbing or mountaineering. In Scotland, the tendency is to treat every pitch on climbing routes as a fixed pitch with a belayer. Whilst this is secure, it’s very slow. Consider the possibility of simul climbing on easier sections well within your ability. As always, it’s important to use your experience to assess the suitability of a section for moving together. Simul climbing is better suited to winter climbing or summer scrambling than steep rock routes. For example, you certainly wouldn’t try to simul climb a multi-pitch VS (Very Severe) trad route! But on ridge routes like Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis where fixed pitch climbing would take ages, simul climbing is a necessity in summer or winter. Knowing when to run it out and move together (roped or unroped) comes with experience, but it’s important to keep in mind the need for speed and to avoid slowing yourself down where possible.