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.

Ben Nevis weekend double

The weekend (3-4 September) saw a double ascent of Ben Nevis, a grandstand view of the annual Ben Nevis Race to the summit and back, plus a reminder (not that it was needed) of the Ben’s capacity for spectacularly grim weather.

On Saturday I led a decent-sized group up to the summit for Large Outdoors, a company with a good reputation for adventures which have a social side. Along with the capable services of two other guides, Iain Smith and Alan Cameron, the entire group of 27 made it to the summit for a well deserved photo at the trig point. It was a great day with plenty of conversation about whether or not mountains should be on TripAdvisor (verdict: they shouldn’t) and the merits of climbing higher than midges can fly.

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At the summit shelter

Despite being late in the season, the Pony Trail was still very busy and the damp weather hadn’t dampened peoples’ enthusiasm. Part of the reason for the crowds was the annual Ben Nevis Race. Held every year since 1951, the race sees some of Scotland’s best (and strongest-ankled) fell runners haring up to the summit and back down. These athletes are very good and very single-minded; we saw a few slipping and falling on the wet grass, only to bounce straight back up again and carry on their mad descent. This year’s winner was Finlay Wild, who finished in an impressive 1:28:45 – only 3 minutes and 11 seconds longer than the all-time record.

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Race runners on descent

I’d had Tower Ridge in my sights for a while before Sunday. It’s a classic Grade 3 scramble and one of Scotland’s iconic mountain ridge routes. Marie joined me for an early start, and we set off at 7.30am from the North Face car park in light drizzle. After an initial misstep (going too far up Observatory Gully in the mist) we gained the high ground and made good progress. Despite a ‘brief ridge’ of high pressure being forecast by MWIS, the mist clung to the crags all day and we were constantly drizzled on. The wet and slippery rock made for a slightly more challenging experience but we made good progress, enjoying the occasional views down to the Allt a’ Mhuillin and – further northwards – the Loch Lochy munros.

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Looking north, with Carn Dearg Buttress in the background

The rope first came out for a pitch at the start of the Little Tower, where the ridge steepens quite sharply. Good holds on wet rock saw us up and over this initial obstacle in good time. The next milestone, the Great Tower, was easily scrambled over and then around via the Eastern Traverse. It was a lot of fun, but sadly the view was hidden by the dense cloud.

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An atmospheric Eastern Traverse

The short wall up the eastern edge of the Great Tower was (unexpectedly) the only white-knuckle part of my day as I soloed it in the wet, and with a heavy rucksack, before toprope belaying Marie after me. Tower Gap – the grand finale and the crux of Tower Ridge – is fantastically exposed. There’s nothing like lowering yourself over an edge with nothing but 200 metres of empty space beneath your feet.

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Facing Tower Gap. Photo credit: Marie Cheung

The climb out of Tower Gap, on a blank wet slab in walking boots, was a sting in the tail but by then we were on a roll and cruised up to the top of ridge and the summit plateau. It was an excellent day made more memorable by good company and the claggy weather. And the sun finally came out as we reached the plateau!