Winter Hill and Mountain Safety
Seasonal Safety: Winter Hill & Mountain Safety By Rich Pyne
Winter is a fantastic time of year to be away from it all. From snow settling on the branches of the tree in your garden, to a full-on blizzard on Ben Nevis. There is something for everyone lower down, but up high things can be very different. Fresh snow can drift covering all signs of manmade structures like walls and footpaths, shorter daylight hours giving a larger sense of urgency than in Summer, and old snowpacks, windslab and cornices, coupled with impending darkness, makes travel a lot less straight forward.
I love winter for these reasons. The personal challenges are much harder than summer, but, I believe, the rewards are greater. There is something to be said about navigating your way up a snow slope in the early morning, to arrive at a summit just as the winter sun is rising, giving you a vista similar to the greater ranges.
This article is aimed towards Summer Hillwalkers that want to experience our wonderful UK Mountains in relative safety. The skill sets involved are the same if you are heading out to ascend the Pap of Glencoe or Am Bodach in The Mamores. So, here we go…
WINTER WALKING SKILLS–
Learning how to use an ice axe and crampons correctly are essential skills that need to be practiced. The ability to self-arrest and cut steps with the axe, and use crampons effectively make a large difference to your personal safety and confidence, removing some of the stresses involved in winter.
It is also worth considering carrying a walking rope. This may not be used very often, but you will be glad you have it when needed. I have carried on for a long time, never used it for myself, but for hillwalkers in difficulty, usually because of inappropriate kit, ie no axe or stiff boots, or because they were uncomfortable and insecure on frozen snow, I have even been fishing for a walker stuck under a cornice, that was a close call…
Of course, good navigation will help avoid any unwanted situations.
It is well worth the effort to spend time early in the season refreshing the skills. These can be learnt from experienced friends, but I do recommend taking a one or two day course by a qualified Winter Mountain Leader, MIC or Guide to give you current best practice as some techniques may be out dated.
THE INFLUENCE OF WEATHER–
Which direction has the wind been blowing and how strong? What temperature is it and how much precipitation? What shape is the land that I am planning to travel through and where would the loose snow have blown to? These are the types of questions you need to ask as you are planning your journey in your living room.
Being able to answer these questions will give you an idea of where the snow will lie, and an indication of the type of snow you will encounter (old frozen snow (stable), powder snow (difficult walking), windslab (compacted loose snow, wind driven (unstable)). This should help you plan your journey to make good use of the conditions expected, and help you to avoid avalanche conditions. While you are out, you must be able to make dynamic route choice decisions to allow for changes in underfoot conditions.
There is a huge amount of information available today, with excellent websites like Mountain Weather Information Service and The Met Office, but also the Scottish Avalanche Information Service gives you access to up to date information on avalanche conditions for different areas. The majority of pubs, Outdoor shops and Tourist Information Centres post weather forecasts on a notice board. Now there is no excuse not to be clued up.
Winter navigation can be testing to say the least. Contour interpretation and belief in your compass are key. A lot of features that are obvious in summer (footpaths, streams, hollows) can be blanketed over. Following linear features like ridges makes it easier, but you need to be aware of potential cornicing and windslab deposits.
Practice makes perfect, so get out to somewhere you know quite well, and practice, practice, practice. I have found that going out in bad weather or darkness helps with confidence, so if you end up in something unexpected, it is not quite so bad.
FITNESS & FOOD–
Often overlooked, being “hill fit” will get you a long way. Plenty of hill walking before the winter season kicks in will give you a head start, as dealing with deep snow, heavy rucksacks and the cold can really sap the energy from you. Have a great breakfast and eat plenty of food and drink throughout the day. It is worth putting your favourite cheeky snacks (chocolate, sweets, etc) in your coat pockets where you can access them all day long. Having frozen Mars Bars in your rucksack is pretty rough on the old nashers.
Dehydration is a bigger problem in winter than you think. Often folk complain that “the water is too cold to drink” or they “don’t want to pee too much as it’s cold”. Never miss an opportunity to drink. Your body slows down and feels colder without fluid on-board, exasperating the cold problem around you. Why not take a flask with your favourite hot drink inside? You can at least dip your frozen chocolate into your coffee or tea. Feeling warmer and stronger already?
SPECIALISED WINTER KIT–
Winter demands some extra kit which will make life safer and more comfortable. The basics are:-
Winter Walking or Mountain Boots– something with a stiff sole is worth its weight in gold. They are generally mush stiffer than summer boots, warmer and more waterproof. The sole unit will not flex in the hands, with no torsional twist, and the pattern will have deeper cleats, and a positive square edge all around. This allows the boot to be used with a sawing action to slice positive steps on old snow. They will also be rating for crampon compatibility, with B1 ok for occasional crampon use, to B3 for all day comfort and a very strong and secure binding. If you are unsure about your requirements, go see a specialist retailer. They will be able to give you good advice, help with boot fitting, and compatible crampon choice.
Walking Axe– Absolutely necessary for safe mountain travel. This is your working safety tool. For use as a walking stick on easier terrain, cutting steps on hard, angled snow, and your “handbrake” to stop a slide turning into a fall. I personally prefer a shorter length (I’m 5ft10 and use a 53cm axe). I find this much easier to deal with than a longer one (60 to 70cm), as the extra length can prove difficult to work with whilst cutting, and self arresting.
Crampons– These help massively on hard packed snow and iced rocks as an aid to progression. They will save time and energy, but do take some practise to use safely. They must be securely attached to an appropriate boot they are rated for their chosen activity, whether walking or climbing, with 3 different binding attachments.
A full strap on crampon (C1) will fit most boots, usually 8 to 10 points on the bottom, but can take longer to fit on the hill. C2 crampons will have 12 points, often a heel lever similar to ski bindings, and a “French bail” on the toes. This is faster to put on, and will give no pressure across the upper foot, leaving your feet warmer. And all day comfort. C3 crampons are more suited to winter climbing, being more rigid, but some models are difficult to walk in.
Goggles and Sunglasses– I carry both. I use both often. The sunglasses are obviously great for the sun, but also useful for keeping a little windblown snow out of your eyes. The goggles do a similar job, but are essential for strong winds, which carry loose snow (Spindrift), making it impossible to see when you are walking into the wind. I like to use a Cat 2 lens, usually yellow or orange as this gives better definition to the undulations on the ground in low light.
Torch-Must be reliable, with warm spare batteries or carry a spare lamp. Trying to change batteries with cold hands can be hard and painful work.
Group Shelter– More useful than a plastic Bivi bag. Can be used as a lunch stop shelter. I tend to carry a 4-6 person shelter. This gives me more options than a 2 person shelter. You might not plan to use it, but you may come across a situation that it will save lives.
Snow Shovel– Great for digging emergency shelters, and walls to get you out of the wind, and worth carrying if you are out with a group.
Avalanche Probe-Useful for prodding into snow banks to find out if it is deep enough to construct your shelter. Also great for finding avalanche victims too, if everyone on the hill carried one.
A big subject. Something that is appropriate to the weather conditions. I find that soft shells are great in cold dry conditions, but not so good in “Scottish Conditions”. Only on a handful of days in The Highlands have I not needed descent waterproofs…Just remember that if you are cold and uncomfortable, you may not be able to operate effectively, leading to navigation errors, hypothermia, etc.
Mountain Waterproof Jacket– This is your weatherproof layer. Constructed from a fabric that will keep you as dry as possible, with a good sized hood that will accommodate hats, googles, etc. Summer type jackets are not usually substantial enough, with flimsy hoods. There are plenty of choices out there. Most of the better brands use the same fabrics and technology in their jacket, with the only real difference being the cut, where they put the pockets, etc. Try on different ones until you find one that fits you, and has the pockets where you need them.
Winter Waterproof Trousers– There is a good chance you will have them on all day, so a good fit is required. I’m afraid there is no such thing as cheap ones, so go out and try them for sizing and just get what works for you. Often they have heavier fabrics, braces to keep them up, “kick patches” on the inside legs (To reduce on damage with crampons), and full length side zips. Often people skimp on the trousers, but good ones do make all the difference to your overall comfort.
Insulated Jacket– Essential item. To put on when stopped. The trick is to put it on 5 minutes before you get cold. Down jackets are fantastic for the warmth to weight ratio, but become useless quickly in damp conditions. Modern synthetics are generally not affected to a large degree by wet weather, even when soaked. I have my synthetic jackets large enough to go over my waterproof shell so I do not lose heat from my clothing from putting it on underneath.
Mid layers– Fleece still has its place, but try to avoid the really thick variety. It’s either on and you are hot and sweaty, or it’s in your bag. Several thin ones work much better, and it’s nice to have one with a hood. Each thin fleece will add around 3 or 4 degrees, so you can add and remove as needed. My favourite fleece fabric at the moment is powerstretch. Close fitting and warm.
Don’t forget about your legs…a good pair of fleece tights work wonders. Keeping your legs warmer will help keep the blood warm as it travels down to your feet. Try to avoid cotton leggings as they retain no heat when damp or sweaty.
Base layers– Loads of different ones available. Long sleeves and a long cut are nice in the cold. Usually made from Polyproperlene (dries fast), Polyester (cheap) and Merino Wool (least smelly!). They all seem to work from what I have tried over the years.
Hat-”Must have” item.
Gloves– A huge choice out there, from thin liners to High Altitude Mitts. Just keep in mind that there is no such thing as a close fitting glove that is warm. The best combination I have found (For warmth) is a pair of liner gloves (which stay on from the moment I get out of the car), and a larger “Mountain glove” which can be taken off and put on easily and quickly over the liners. It can be difficult and sometimes frustrating trying to work things with big gloves on, but it is preferable to having icy cold hands for a time, then a serious bout of “Hot Aches”(When warm blood returns to the cold hands, making the nerve endings flare….ow ow ow!!!)Remember to carry spares, most gloves become fairly useless when saturated, so gloves to change into are priceless.
Socks– Woollen , sometimes with liners. The right socks make all the difference to the comfort and fit of your boots. Too thick and your feet get cold as the blood flow is compromised. Blisters can be more of a problem due to the stiffer boots, so be prepared by trying boots and socks together before winter kicks in, so if there are any issues with “hotspots”, you know to patch them before you leave the house. Once again, avoid cotton. Your feet will be soggy and cold in no time.
I have been involved with the winter mountains for some time now, with winter mountaineering being my favourite past time. I have held the Winter Mountain Leader Award now for 3 years, instructing and leading groups in Glencoe, Ben Nevis and the surrounding area, along with my previous life in The Lake District, teaching and guiding novice and experienced walkers alike. I find it very rewarding to take people out to the places I love, and to teach new skills that will help them push their personal goals, without exceeding their “Adventure Threshold”.
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