Mountain Winter Skills Courses
In mountains around the world people are walking and mountaineering. Most only ever venture into the hills in the summer, but why would someone choose to go out in the winter and is it worth your while to enjoy a winter mountain day?
It is certainly a harder and more dangerous undertaking to walk in the mountains in winter conditions. The days are shorter, the temperatures are lower, the elements can be ruthless and your rucksack tends to be heavier. However, the satisfaction of reaching the summit is much greater and due to the clearer, colder air you can get much better views.
To climb mountains in the winter however, requires more skill and certain equipment in order to do it safely. This is where a winter skills course comes in handy. In the Scottish Highlands there are many such courses throughout the winter, provided by different companies. On these courses, people are taken out into the hills by experienced and qualified outdoor instructors. On a winter skills course, you will likely cover a number of aspects: navigation, equipment, kicking steps, cutting steps, using crampons, avalanche awareness and ice axe arrests. Each of these will be covered in turn below.
In winter, navigation can be trickier than in the summer. When looking at walking maps (1:50k or 1:25k) you will find features like paths, rivers, small ponds and more. However, in winter, all of these features will be covered with snow. You rely much more on contour lines (elevation) and distance. On a winter skills course you will learn how to read a walking map, how to walk on a compass bearing and how to measure distance.
To measure distance you will learn to pace your steps and to time distances. To pace steps you need to know how long your stride is at 100m. You can measure that by either using a GPS device or by walking a known 100 metres (like a running track). You only want to count one leg, either the left or the right so to make the counting easier. As a rough guide a person of 175cm (5ft9) would have about 75 steps in 100 metres. Usually when walking in the hills you would normally walk at approximately 3 to 4 km per hour. You can measure your speed by pacing 100 metres and timing how long it takes. At 3 km/h you will take 2 minutes to walk 100 metres and at 4km/h it will take you 1:30 minutes. Once you have figured out the speed you walk at you can time the rest of the way. It is, however, very important to break down your distance into smaller chunks depending on the conditions. On a nice clear day walking 500m in one leg would be quite normal. In white-outs you may want to consider breaking down the distance to 100-200m per leg. This can be quite intensive navigation, but it should be able to get you out of the cloud and off the hill safely. It is also extremely important to know how to use a compass. First you should find your current position on the map (good map reading skills will help), then find an easy point to navigate to. Align the edge of the compass on the map from A to B and then turn the dial until north on the compass points to the north on the map (usually thin blue lines).
This should get you on the right track. In a recent study by SportScotland it was revealed that the most common cause for incidents (23%) is navigation (or the lack of). This is followed by bad planning (18% of incidents).
You should always take the right equipment with you when in the mountains, but it is even more important in the winter. In addition to what you would usually pack in the summer, you will need extra warm clothing, an ice axe and crampons. It’s not enough to have the right tools; you also need to know what to do with them. On winter mountaineering courses you will learn how to kick steps with your boots, cut steps with an ice axe and how to walk safely with crampons attached to your boots.
Of course, buying the right tools will help greatly, particularly getting the right ice axe for you. In the past people were advised that if they hold an ice axe at the head with their arms straight down, the spike should touch the top of their boots. This is considered too long nowadays and a better measure is to measure it diagonally across your chest. This way you will find it better to use on steeper ground when you really need an ice axe. Of course ice axes and crampons are not the only things you should take with you. Below is a list of items you should always have with you when walking in the winter hills.
- 4 Season Walking Boots (best are B2 or B3)
- Waterproof clothing (Jacket and trousers)
- Suitable warm clothing for walking (no jeans)
- Rucksack (35-60 litres)
- Warm tops
- Packed lunch & hot flask
- Sun cream
- Warm Hat and balaclava
- Sun glasses
- Several gloves (wind and waterproof)
- Head torch & spare batteries
- Ski Goggles
- Ice axe
- Crampons (fitting to your boots)
- Climbing helmet (not essential)
- Compass (Silva Expedition Type 4 recommended)
- 1:50,000 map of the area you are walking in
- Waterproof Map case (Ortlieb Mapcase or A5 Document case recommended)
As you can see from the photo below the weather can get a bit dicey at times and that's when you will be glad you carried all the gear with you up the hill!
Walking boots are mostly considered to be just boots for walking but in the winter they should be considered a tool also. For this reason you should choose stiffer boots in comparison to flexible boots, because they you have the ability to cut with the edge and kick steps in névé (hard) snow. The edges of winter boots are also serrated which allow you to use the edge to cut in the snow. When kicking steps you should stand side-on to the slope and with a movement from the knee, kick small sideways steps into the snow. You can use the ice axe to support you. This is one of the fastest ways of cutting steps along a slope.
On steeper ground you would face into the slope and kick the toes into the snow. This is only possible if the snow is not too hard or otherwise it will be painful! If that is the case you may want to consider cutting steps with your ice axe or strap on your crampons.
When walking downhill you can use a method called heel-plunging. You face straight down the hill and plunge your heels straight down into the snow. This only works if the snow has some give. Otherwise it might get a bit scary and you may want to consider cutting steps or using crampons.
The ice axe is your number one tool in the winter. You should always have it handy when walking near ice or snow and should know how to use it. The most common and fastest way of crossing hard snow patches without putting on crampons is to cut steps. To do this, you hold the ice axe at the bottom of the shaft and with the adze you shave a little snow off to make small steps. This way you can walk diagonally up a hill. In the picture above you can see someone cutting steps going uphill in a zig-zag motion. He swings the arm mostly from the shoulder to get a lot of momentum and use less strength.
Another way would be to ‘pigeon-hole’ up steep hill. To do this, you pre-cut the snow with the pick in a small triangle to fit your boots and then cut the triangle out with the adze. This can, however, be very time consuming.
To cut steps going downhill you stand side on to the slope, bend your knees and with a swinging motion cut small steps with the adze below your boots. Just like in the photo below.
All of these methods can be quite time consuming and may take a lot of effort. The question is: how long are you prepared to cut steps? If it is more than a few hundred metres you may want to consider using crampons instead.
Crampons, just like ice axes, are essential winter tools. You have to make certain that they are fit your boots correctly and that you have adjusted them accurately before you head out into the hills. There are 4 different types of boots available:
- B0 - Summer boots, very flexible sole, unsuitable for crampons
- B1 - Basic Winter boots, may flex a little but can fit basic crampons
- B2 - Winter mountaineering boots, no or very little flex, small step in at the heel to fit some crampon designs
- B3 - Winter mountaineering/climbing boots, for winter mountaineering and climbing, small step at the heels and groove at the toe to fit some crampon designs
These different boots fit only certain crampons and you have to make sure to get the correct ones.
In comparison you will get 3 different types of crampons:
- C1 - Fully strap on crampons
- C2 - Semi strap on crampons with heel clip
- C3 - Fully step in crampons
Below is a table to show which crampons fit on what boots.
Once the crampons are fitted correctly you can use them on many different ice and snow slopes. They give you a lot more confidence in walking but also have some dangers you should be aware of.
How do you use your crampons? Let’s start with the French technique. This was invented at a time when crampons had no front points and you could only walk side-on to the slope. You need to make sure that your feet are flat on the ground and 90 degrees to the slope or pointing slightly downhill to get maximum grip (as soon as your toes start pointing slightly up-hill you start losing grip in the snow). Then you walk uphill in a zig-zag motion.
On steeper ground you may want to start front-pointing. You need to kick the front points into the slope and once the points bite in the ice or snow you step up without dropping your heel.
On steeper ground you can also use the American technique. With one foot you front-point and the other foot is 90 degrees out from the front pointing foot. You do all the hard work with one foot while you give the other one a lot of resting time. You can swap around when the front-pointing foot gets tired.
When walking downhill you can just face downhill and walk John Wayne style down the hill. The crampons will grip in the snow or ice. If the slope is too steep for walking downhill you may want to face in and front-point downwards.
With all of these methods you have to be careful not to get too close to your legs with the crampons. It is an easy mistake to make but should be avoided. You will not only rip your expensive outdoor clothing but also are in danger of tripping and falling.
Even the best mountaineers can get caught in an avalanche and it is one of the biggest causes of fatalities in the mountains. It is therefore important to know where to go when there is an avalanche risk, where to find the information about the risks and how to plan a trip. Also it is quite important to know what to do in case you get caught or a team member in your party gets caught in an avalanche. It is also important to understand that speed when rescuing someone in an avalanche is of essence. Statistics suggest that you have a 92% chance of survival if you have been buried for up to 15 minutes. This will decrease to only 30% after 35 minutes. That means a rescue team may not be in time to save someone and it is up to the people at hand to coordinate the rescue.
You can only really learn how to do this by joining a winter skills course but the information is readily available at the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (for Scotland) or any other avalanche service throughout the world.
You should always read an avalanche report when you decide to go out hillwalking in the winter. Below is an example of an avalanche report from the 20th February 2016. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service uses the same rosette system as most other Avalanche services throughout the world. This one in particular shows you that at a height between 700 and 1100m there is a "High" avalanche risk at Easterly Slopes and "Considerable" at Northern, North-east, South-east and Southern aspects at the same altitude. There is also a "Considerable" risk at localised areas at Easterly slopes between 550 and 700m.
It is very important to understand what this means. "High" means that there will be avalanches in that area. So this is quite easy to understand and to avoid, but only very few avalanche accidents happen at a "High" risk. Most avalanches actually happen at the "Considerable" risk level. This means that natural avalanches are possible and human triggered avalanches are likely. When you know that over 90% of avalanche victims have triggered the avalanche themselves it means that extra care should always be taken.
Also make sure to read the text below the graph. This will give you an indication of where the risks are and what the outlook for the following days is.
By knowing where the avalanche risk is you can start planning your trip, but you need to address one other thing first. Where do avalanches occur and where not? Most avalanches happen at slopes between a 25 and 45 degree angle. At less than 25 degrees the slope usually doesn't have the angle to be able to slide and at more than 45 degrees the loose and unstable snow is more likely to drift off in spindrift and doesn't have a chance to build up to a full scale avalanche. They also occur more often in corries, gullies and shallow dips on slopes, recesses and cornices.
Where are you unlikely to see avalanches? Ridges tend to have less accumulation of snow as the wind sweeps them clean. Also plateaus and angles below 20-25 degrees will see no avalanches. Knowing this means you can always plot a way in the hills to avoid risky areas, even when the risk is high at certain areas. Just make sure you are not walking below a risky area!
While you are out walking you may get the feeling that there are unstable snow patches and you would like to test the stability of the slope, maybe because you have to cross a shallow gully. The easiest way is to make a snow pit. To do this, you cut out a 50x50cm block of snow down to a harder layer. You can use your ice axe to measure the size of the block and use it to cut out a slot around the block. Once you have done this, you put your hands to the top of the block and try to make the block slide with a downward force. If it is very easy to slide it might be time for you to head home. Also have a look at the surface of the sheared block. Is it smooth or rough? Are there several layers? The picture to the right shows a sheared block with several layers.
Ice Axe Arrest
The biggest focus on a winter mountaineering skills course is the ice axe arrest or self-arrest. There is always the chance that you may slip or trip when walking on a snow slope. Therefore it is important to understand and know how to use an ice axe to stop yourself from sliding too far or into danger. Having the correct ice axe will help (see the section above on ‘Equipment’. To undertake an ice axe arrest, you turn your body so you point your legs down the slope and you are on your front. Then you jam the ice axe with the pick away from you under your front and force the pick into the snow. This will slow you down and eventually stop you from sliding too far. Practice makes perfect and being taught by a professional instructor on how to safely ice axe arrest is key.
There are 4 different positions you could slide down a hill. One would be on your font, legs first. To recover from this, all you need to do is slide your ice axe under your front, cover the spike with your hand and force the pick into the snow. Another position is the classic bum-slide. To stop the slide, you just need to turn your body around to your front by turning in the direction of the pick and do the same as at the first ice axe arrest. The picture below shows someone doing that move.
You may also slide down head first on your front. Here, to arrest, you try to turn your legs to point downhill by using your ice axe. You should stretch your arm holding the head of the ice axe and use that as a pivot point to turn. Last not least but also the hardest slide would be on your back, head first. To recover from this one, you also stretch out that arm to use it as a pivot point. At the same time turn on your shoulder and swing your legs around to point downhill.
The video below shows all positions on how to ice axe arrest.
Ice Axe Arrest Video
Although the key points covered on a winter mountaineering skills course have been covered here, it is imperative that you consider attending a course such as this before venturing out into the hills in the winter. The knowledge and experience gained from such a course may just save your life!