True Highlands Blog
Getting to the top of a snowy winter peak can be one of the most rewarding and satisfying moments in the hills. But it can feel like a deep plunge into the snowy unknown if you are just starting to get your head around the Scottish winter environment. There are many additional elements that you need to be safe and successful in addition to your summer walking skills.
This article touches upon the basics of the key skills that need to be focused upon on any winter day out but it is by no means complete, there is a long literary list out there for extensive reading (during those few stormy days!).
The first 4 areas mentioned are the most important but are also the hardest to learn as they are based mostly upon experience and physical application to learn and improve, rather than repeating what can be described in a book or on a YouTube video.
The questions that I pose are considerations that you should be asking yourself and others before and during your time in the hills. The answers are almost always grey but it is important that you try to gain as much information and knowledge to help push the grey answer towards more black or white!
What peak do I want to go up? is normally the 1st question that a day out is based upon. However, in winter it should be more along the lines of ‘what have the conditions been doing?’ and therefore ‘which peak or area is the safest to head to?’ Once these have been answered then get the map out and start planning the physical route.
A good starting point for gathering information is the Mountain Weather Information Service and Met Office websites. These give summit weather forecasts for people going into the hills and is best done over a long period of time leading up to your day out, rather than the night before just looking at the next day.
• What is the summit temperature?
• Wind speed and direction?
• What type of precipitation?
• And have they been changing?
This all affects where snow falls, builds up, re-deposits and how stable it is, ‘is it becoming more or less stable?’ Therefore which is the safest way up the hill?
The other area of information to focus upon is the snow pack already on the ground.
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service publish daily reports in key regions throughout the winter, describing the observed conditions on the hill and then forecasting the risk for the next day, as well as a weekly summary of the change in the snow pack.
There is now also a long list of mountain blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter tweets, photos and webcams that can be invaluable in filling in the blanks of what the very current conditions are like and how they felt. Some in more arduous detail than others!
The key to navigating in the hills in winter is practice and confidence in your ability. Using a map and compass is a constant skill that is used, even if you have been to an area many times before. Every time I take people to the top of Ben Nevis I have to navigate, to the top and back. The difference is the consequence of getting it wrong and the accuracy that is needed compared to summer. Some skills that are key to be confident in are:
• Taking a bearing
• Walking in a straight line on that bearing
• Taking a safe route
• Having a navigation strategy that you can reverse if you go wrong
• Knowing how many paces you take per 100m, in different snow depths
• Knowing your walking speed so you can time yourself over navigational legs
And doing this normally in a blizzard and white out conditions with big gloves on. The way to get good at these skills is to practice; when the weather is good, in summer conditions, when you are out on the hill, when you can learn off someone more knowledgeable. You will feel a bit silly walking on a compass bearing in good visibility with other people strolling around but when you have to do it for real, who’s going to be strolling past everyone else into the white out, in a straight line and in the right direction?
With extensive time already sat over the computer planning the safest way up the hill you should already be confident with what conditions you are about to encounter on your journey.
Sport Scotland have produced a ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ flyer and website that incorporates the key elements to be considered and when. Along with key warning signs in the snow pack to look out for.
There is a statistic that 70% of your knowledge should be based upon the planning stage, 15% when you are actually walking along:
• ‘Is the weather doing what it was forecast to do?’
• ‘Is the snow pack what I thought it would be like?’
• Are there any changes to where I thought the snow build up would be?’
• ‘Are there any indicators that I can use to confirm the safe planned route?’
And then 15% at key decision making points in the day:
• ‘Is the corrie still safe to walk up or descend into?’
• ‘Are the group/friends still fit enough to complete the planned day?’
• ‘Is that slope still safe to cross?’
• ‘Do I have skill to navigate in this visibility?’
I ask myself constant questions when I am out leading people in winter. The information gathering on the people I’m with and the conditions under foot never stops.
When you are out on your journey you need to keep switched on to what is happening around you and to the other people you are with. Your judgement through the day can make it go smoothly or get you into unnecessary difficulty.
• When to put crampons on?
• Should you have an axe in your hand?
• What is the safest, most efficient way to get from A to B?
• Are the people I’m with tired, cold, fit enough?
• Are we on time to complete the route in daylight?
• Does the goal of the day need to be changed?
It is important not to grasp the goal of the day to hard and push on blindly regardless of the facts. Try to keep yourself separate from your emotions, the mountain will be there another day.
If you find out that progress is slower than planned, visibility is worse, the slope looks more dangerous than anticipated, the weather is changing quicker than forecast, then these are the facts that should not be ignored. Even if you have travelled up from the deep South and it’s the last chance this season!
These are the easy elements to learn, find out about and practice. Although important it is easy to focus upon these hard skills too much. In any winter skills course you will be taught how to put crampons on, how to have good footwork, use an ice axe and how to slide down a slope head first and stop with a flourish. But throughout a day or a whole winter season you may only need to put your crampons on or ice axe arrest once.
But knowing when to anticipate putting your crampons on before the icy slope on the ridge because the forecast suggested that it would be scoured of snow is more important, and may stop you slipping and having to remember how to then stop yourself.
Current conditionsavalanche information, how to plan a mountain walk in winter, map reading, mountain guide, mountain safety, mountaineering, outdoor safety, Scottish mountains, scottish winter, walking in snow