Working on Helvellyn through the winter months delivering Winter Skills courses for the Lake District National Park Authority has been a real pleasure over the last few seasons, and it got me thinking that it might be useful to put together a list of ten tips for winter hillwalkers and mountaineers based on general observations and questions that we typically get asked when delivering these courses.
It’s worth bearing in mind that these are sold as introductory courses for up to six people and experience levels can range quite significantly. People often join with some summer hillwalking behind them, but little, or no previous experience in the wintertime. Conversely, we also get people coming along who have done a fair amount of winter hillwalking and mountaineering in the past, but perhaps have had a long break or lost a bit of confidence. Some folk also use the courses as a stepping stone towards more advanced courses or ‘bucket list’ trips that they have their sights set on.
It goes without saying that looking after yourself in winter requires a broad range of skills and experience. ‘Tips’ lists such as this will never be a substitute for real hands-on experience, but with any luck it might help streamline your existing skills. So here we go…
The planning stage of your journey is probably where you make around 70% of the decisions about your day and should include contingency plans. Find out about your intended route, the group’s ability, as well as the weather and conditions you are likely to encounter. Is everyone fit enough and do they have the right equipment to keep themselves warm, comfortable and safe?
It’s a good idea to use a buddy system with a friend or family member so that someone knows your intended route and be sure to call or message them when you are back down safely. Do they have an action plan to follow if you don’t? Tracking devices and other similar technology with messaging capability are becoming more and more popular and are a good idea if you do a lot of activity in remote areas without phone signal.
If you’re planning routes in the Lakes, Weatherline fell top condition reports are updated daily throughout the winter months. It’s also worth looking at Met Office specialist Mountain Forecasts as well as the Mountain Weather Information Service. If you are planning routes in Scotland, the Scottish Avalanche Information Service produce avalanche forecasts for six different mountain areas through the winter months and these are an invaluable resource.
All too often the most experienced person in a group makes the decisions about the day’s objective based on what they want to do. If you find yourself in the position of impromptu leader, remember that it’s very easy to overestimate the ability of others and perhaps even yourself. Remember that your day’s objective must be suitable for everyone. If there are weaker or less experienced members in your group, involve them in the decision making process and be honest about what it will involve. This can be empowering for them, and you may end up saving a friendship or relationship!
Winter walking and mountaineering can be really faffy! With so many extra bits of kit to remember, it’s worth being well organised and packing your bag the night before. People often re-pack two or three times anyway so you’ll be one step ahead and it gives you more opportunity to remember everything without the added time pressure. It’s definitely worth setting your crampons so that they fit your boots at this point, rather than when you are out on the hill and it’s blowing a hooley.
It can be a battle trying to complete even the simplest of tasks when it’s windy. One useful tip that can make life easier is to have your jacket already half zipped up inside your bag so that all you have to do is pull it over your head like a smock. This saves lining up the zippers when your jacket is behaving more like a kite. It also works well with the buckles of leverlock (Petzl) and newmatic/cramp-o-matic (Grivel) style crampons. Simply put your foot in, clip the heel cleat, and tighten the pre-threaded buckles and all with your hands inside warm gloves!
On the subject of crampons, people on our courses often ask when they should put them on. Unfortunately, there’s no black and white answer to this, but it’s a good idea to get them on sooner rather than later. In some conditions, it’s possible to move quite safely simply with an ice axe and a pair of stiff mountaineering boots, however, this requires careful judgement. It’s easy to get carried away and end up on steeper ground than you were expecting, when it can often become very difficult and even dangerous to try and put them on.
Two questions I generally try to ask myself are: 1) If safety isn’t an issue because you’re not going to fall anywhere, then will putting crampons on make walking more efficient? 2) If safety is a consideration, then you’ve already answered the question and should possibly have put them on a while ago!
A winter walker putting crampons on in a nice flat area. Finding or making a knee-high platform in the snow makes this job easier. Be mindful of the potential for things to blow away when doing this. The gloves pictured here and even rucksacks are vulnerable when left lying on the snow.
If it’s your first time wearing crampons the likelihood of you tripping up will be higher than normal so plan an appropriate route, possibly avoiding steep ground where a fall would have serious consequences. It’s important to adjust your normal walking style and keep your feet further apart than normal in order to avoid catching your crampon points on clothing.
Gaiters are a great idea as they keep laces and loose clothing well tucked in… if anything, they become items of safety equipment in winter, rather than something that simply keeps your trousers clean in the summer months. Walking in crampons can feel counterintuitive as you apply various ‘flat-footing’ techniques where the emphasis is to keep as many points in the snow as possible. Take extra time to familiarise yourself with various techniques and practice them in a safe setting.
When walking or moving around on relatively easy terrain it’s best practice to hold your axe in the uphill hand with the pick facing backwards. Therefore, if you are zig-zagging uphill you need to swap the axe into the uphill hand at each transition. This makes it easy to steady and support yourself and time your foot placements which promotes methodical and therefore generally safer movement. There are caveats to this, for example if you are following a rocky ridge crest and it’s easier to use the odd rocky handhold with your uphill hand. Holding the axe with the pick facing backwards means that if you are unfortunate enough to fall, it’s generally easier and quicker to use the axe for self arrest.
On the subject of self arrest, the old mountaineering adage ‘just don’t fall’ is still as appropriate now as it was back in the Victorian period. Whilst it’s always time well spent, practicing self arrest in a safe environment (and without crampons on!), you are always going to be safer if your movement skills are solid. Even if you are well versed at stopping yourself in ‘practice’, the realities of a real fall are likely to be very different with injury being a possibility even in a best case scenario. If you are better at moving then it makes sense that you will be safer, and if you are fitter then you will be better at moving. It is therefore a good idea to do some conditioning work and build up your activity over the winter season.
We often have people bringing their own ice axe on courses and sometimes they have a wrist leash attached which is designed to be used when holding the axe at the bottom of the shaft and swinging it above your head when climbing. The danger here, is that for winter walking and general mountaineering we’re often carrying the axe by the head, and any leash hanging down becomes a very real trip hazard, especially when wearing crampons. It also becomes a faff when zigzagging and swapping the axe between hands regularly if your wrist is in a leash. It’s far better and safer to take them off. If you are worried about dropping your axe it is possible to buy an elasticated spring leash that attaches to the head of the axe and your harness or rucksack waist belt which should then be well away from your feet and eliminate the possibility of tripping.
There are sometimes days when I’ll carry and use both microspikes and crampons. If the snow has been compressed by lots of walkers, and is well frozen, or covered in verglas, microspikes will often give you more grip when crampons would be overkill, or simply too difficult to walk in if the ground is also very rocky. I pretty much always use walking poles in winter which often suffice in these conditions, but a set of microspikes can often make it more efficient. It’s important to remember that as useful as microspikes are, they do have limitations (no front points so not much good on steep terrain!) and are prone to breaking quite easily. It’s usually a good idea to switch to crampons when the ground gets steep and/or there would be serious consequences in the event of a slip or fall. The image below shows microspikes fitted to a pair of mountaineering boots. The chain and small spikes give great traction on snow and ice and they can usually be fitted to a variety of footwear.
I hope you enjoyed this article and please feel free to leave any comments below. Stay safe out there!