The festive period is a great time to to get outdoors and enjoy some time on the hill however cold temperatures, shorter days and snow & ice bring some extra complexities than the summer months.
Here Scarpa athlete and fully qualified winter mountain and climbing instructor Di Gilbert gives her advice on staying safe and essential kit you will need to carry with you.
“The winter season is without doubt my favourite time of year and everything I do during the summer months is preparing me for winter. Summer hill walking and mountaineering keep my body mountain fit and rock climbing trains my body to move fluently over technical terrain. I use the summer months to practice and sharpen up the necessary skills that will be put to the test constantly during the long winter months.
For people like myself, who can access the highest mountains all year round, the winter can start as early as September and continue right though until May. It can be a hugely rewarding time of year with big mental and physical challenges. In return the rewards are unforgettable. However, unlike the summer season where mistakes can happen with little long lasting negative consequences, the winter season can be unmerciful. To become a safe, competent hill walker in the winter season, there is a long road to follow with no short cuts, I call this the winter apprenticeship.
If you are somebody who has enjoyed roaming the hills in summer, you will finally want to see what the fuss about the winter season is all about. Thankfully the seasons are kind to us and we have a transitional season between summer and winter – the autumn. This is when the days start to shorten, the sun starts to drop and produce little or no heat, the ground starts to freeze up and temperatures drop. We start to get a dusting of snow on the ground, but this is mainly superficial because there is vegetation visible under it. For people living away from the highest mountains, this is often the most winter conditions that appear.
During this autumn season, or some call it early winter conditions, my attitude to the mountains change. The once relaxed summer hill walker is now alert to a much more complicated environment. What follows is 5 top tips for making the first tentative steps into early winter conditions
Use hills that are familiar to yourself but look at them differently. Don’t just do what you normally do – challenge yourself. Can you take a bearing from A – B? How long will it take you to get from A – B? What will the terrain be doing under your feet? Are you happy to walk wearing a head torch and follow a bearing? These skills should become second nature so that you can do them with confidence and fast. If you stop for a longer than normal break, ask yourself do you have enough equipment to stay warm? Go out in one of those days that you don’t actually want to go out in. If you choose somewhere that is local to you and that you know well if it all goes horribly wrong you know that the the consequences are minimal.
I know, the most overused word in the hill walking vocabulary. Ignore this word at your peril in winter. Icy driving conditions, short day light hours, bigger rucksacks, moving slower and unsettled weather patterns mean that you need to reign in your mountain aspirations. Start small and build it up as your confidence grows. Spent time looking at weather forecasts, maps, guide books and online resources to help you make sensible decisions.
Your summer hill walking equipment will now be supplemented by winter toys and will probably no longer fit comfortably inside your little summer rucksack. Flimsy lightweight waterproofs might have to be upgraded and more warm clothes added. Dexterous gloves are essential and I recommend putting them on in the shop when you are buying and try using your map and compass with them. Goggles are a good addition and spare batteries for the head torch. You might need to invest in a good pair of boots that are suitable for the winter environment if you have been using a lightweight fabric pair during the summer months. An ice axe and pair of compatible crampons will be essential additions to cope with the ever changing underfoot conditions.
Your summer navigation skills will need to be sharpened up and improved. Obvious features in summer such as paths and rivers can disappear in winter. Navigational cairns can get buried and friendly summer features such as corrie rims will become foes. Timing and pacing techniques will also need to become winter modified. The great thing about all your summer navigational skills is that they are transferable to winter with a few tweaks and modifications. Mobile phones with digital mapping are not good enough for the winter environment. Get an old school map and compass and learn to use them.
Snow & Ice
The essential ingredient for winter hill walking. This is a massive subject and there is a great deal of online and offline resources available. Snow and ice will effect the underfoot conditions greatly making conditions easier, harder or impossible. By having a better understanding of snow and how it interacts with the weather and the terrain will have a massive impact on your day.
Don’t be shy and ask for help. Purchasing equipment, transferring summer navigation skills to the winter environment, learning to use specific winter equipment and gaining knowledge for understanding snow packs and avalanches are all complicated subjects. There is a whole industry of highly trained professional outdoor instructors and guides who would love to share their knowledge with you.”
Di Gilbert is a fully qualified Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor based in the Cairngorm National Park. For nearly 30 years she has been providing training and instruction to budding winter hill walkers, winter mountaineers, winter climbers, alpinists and individuals training for 8000m peaks. For more information please visit www.digilbert.co.uk