I am writing this piece whilst listening to the wind, rain and hail batter against the windows of my house. We are in the early part of the winter and already I have experienced what I call ‘the etch a sketch’ moment where spring, summer and autumn are wiped clean and it feels as if I have always been in winter, my favourite season. The dark season, the cold season, the white season, the adventurous season - for some the only season.
This piece is about winter mountain safety and in it I hope to share and inspire folk to enjoy themselves winter walking this coming season…
Weather in winter is far more severe and has a much greater effect on our route choice, safety and enjoyment so it’s important to check what the weather is doing in the lead up to your outing. Be prepared to change your route or location - go east instead of west if it is going to be clearer and crisper in the Cairngorms instead of wild, wet and westerly winds in Torridon. I tend to use www.mwis.org.uk (Mountain Weather Information Service) and www.xcweather.co.uk when planning a route.
Avalanche awareness is something that all winter hill goers should be aware of. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service website - www.sais.gov.uk - should be your first place to visit. Their new ‘Be Aware’ page is excellent and takes you through the process that helps decisions to be made.
Winter walking should be a continuation and development of skills already mastered. I strongly believe that good footwork, along with careful route choice, should be built up on the hills in summer first. We can then take the good footwork and modify it to winter conditions e.g. using the boot as a tool to kick steps into the snow with the support of an ice axe. Make the transition to winter by perhaps getting onto a more modest hill where you can safely test out yourself and your gear rather than bashing straight onto some craggy Glencoe Munro for your first winter outing.
The ability to perform navigation with a map and compass is one of the most important skills to have. Do not even venture onto the hill in winter without a map and compass, along with a spare of each at the bottom of your rucksack. Laminate sections of map for the journey you are making and forget about map cases around your neck unless you want strangled in the wind.
Of course we now have the option of GPS and smartphone apps for navigation. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) had a very informative article about this which you can find here www.mcofs.org.uk/navigation-gpsandsmartphones.asp. By all means take a GPS or smartphone app out on the hill but don’t forget that batteries go flat and they run out even quicker in the cold.
When it comes to footwear and clothing buy the best you can afford here. Four season boots, jacket with over trousers and gloves are the most important parts of your footwear and clothing. Even better, try and support your local outdoor shops by buying from them instead of online. Learn what works. Wool or synthetic base layers are best as they work when wet, dry more quickly and don’t smell as bad on the second day out!
My preference is to start the day with a base layer and thin fleece which stays on all day. Then if it gets a bit windy or showery to start with I’ll put my soft-shell on too. When you stop put a light synthetic duvet on – mine is a gilet – and remove it when you set off again. Sometimes I’ll put my waterproof shell over the top of everything if it is still a bit cold, or if I’m not moving too fast. This still leaves my “big duvet jacket” for when it gets really unpleasant. Don’t forget other items such as suitable rucksack, head touch (or two), mobile phone and emergency shelter.
Winter specific items of equipment such as an ice axe and crampons are not a magic wand. Get properly trained on how to use them by a winter Mountain Leader, someone with a Mountaineering Instructor Certificate or a member of the British Association of Mountain Guides. The ability to move safely is of course by far the best thing but, if you do slip and start to slide, then ice axe braking or self-arrest must be done instantly. This will only be the case if you’ve been properly taught in the first case and practised it.
Here is a link to George McEwan of Mountain Training Scotland demonstrating self-arrest with an ice axe: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhvHg0IDS9Y
Carry proper food, i.e. sandwiches and a small 0.5l flask with a hot drink of tea or juice. Eat little and often. Put pieces of food in your pockets so you can snack on the go instead of having to stop, get your rucksack off, hunt for your sandwiches, or bars whilst all the time getting cold.
Plan your route based on the weather and avalanche conditions, gain prior knowledge of it from a guidebook or articles. Set off early, in the dark. That way you might walk off the hill in that beautiful winter light that our Scottish mountains give instead of stumbling down lumpy, bumpy or slippy slidey slopes in the dark by head torch.
Leave a route card with someone back at home or at the very least a copy of your route highlighted on a map. Have an agreed way of reporting back that you are off the hill safely. Bear in mind that many parts of the Scottish Highlands have poor, or no mobile signal.
Biography for Jim Sutherland
Jim Sutherland runs nineonesix-guiding, he holds the Mountaineering Instructor Certificate and is the Training Officer for Torridon Mountain Rescue Team as well as a national trainer for Mountain Rescue Scotland. nineonesix-guiding have been providing winter skills courses for the SYHA for nearly ten years now. These courses are based in Torridon and all staff working on them know the area well and are winter ML or MIC qualified. nineonesix-guiding provide guiding, instruction and adventure throughout the Scottish Highlands and beyond all year round: rock climbing, winter walking and climbing, ski touring, scrambling or mountain biking take your pick. Visit nineonesix.co.uk for more information.