A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO WINTER WALKING, MOUNTAINEERING
Walking in the winter hills might seem daunting, especially from a cosy bed - but it can be one of the most rewarding adventures to take. Elfyn Jones, BMC Access and Conservation Officer for Wales, says: “Snow and ice can transform mountains completely, adding an extra dimension of spectacle ... but they can also introduce hazards and dangers you don’t find in summer."
Don’t be put off, though – with the proper planning and equipment, it’s possible to enjoy the mountains all year round. Here’s everything you need to know...
Warm clothing is a must! And don’t think you can get by in your favourite faded denim jeans – they’ll get wet, you’ll get cold, and at best you’ll be uncomfortable and miserable.
Use an appropriate layering system for clothing. The classic package of a wicking base layer, insulating mid and weather-proof outer works well for most conditions in the UK. Read the BMC’s clothing layers guide for a more in-depth analysis, or check out Snow + Rock's HERE.
What to pack for winter
Save bags of time by bringing all the essentials in your backpack. What you bring will depend on how long you expect to be out and what activities you’re heading out for. Aside from specialist winter equipment, don’t forget to bring a well-stocked emergency kit – essential in summer or winter, but it should be tailored to the season.
ESSENTIAL EMERGENCY KIT
Light up the night! Winter days are extremely short, so the risk of benightment is even greater. It’s prudent to pack more than one torch or headtorch since the night comes on much faster, and don’t forget to bring spare batteries for both.
Second spares. It’s a good idea to bring double the spare socks, long-johns, thermal tops, and gloves. And something to protect your face is often useful, like a buff, balaclava or even goggles.
Remember to bring some form of shelter, even if you’re only out for the day. Instead of a single person bivvy bag, it can be better to take a group shelter – then you can share body warmth for extra comfort.
SPECIALIST WINTER EQUIPMENT
A slip in winter can be more disastrous than one in summer, as it can be hard to put the brakes on a slide down snowy slopes. To help prevent unexpected slips and trips when walking on snow and ice, extra stability can be provided by axes and crampons: the badges of a winter mountaineer.
Your choice of crampons will be dictated by the type of boot you’ll be wearing. Check out the video below for a full explanation of boot-crampon compatibility, and if you have any questions speak to a member of staff in your local Snow+Rock store.
Climbers might use two short, technical axes, but walkers and more general mountaineers can do with a mountaineering axe. Watch ‘How to choose an ice axe’ on BMC TV.
Don’t forget, learning how to use an ice axe is imperative to keeping yourself safe when on wintery terrain. Check out our instructional video for tips on perfecting your self-arrest skill.
Not only do you need to have a handle of your specialist winter tools, you’ll also need the right skills for those wintery hills as conditions will be quite different. The combination of short days and changeable weather can present challenges to the unwary mountaineer, be sure to always pay attention to the terrain underfoot.
Winter conditions can be defined as any time when the ground is covered with sufficient snow and or ice to make the use of crampons and axes a necessity. Learn about snow pack and avalanche awareness, either from books, the BMC’s winter skills videos, or sign up for a course.
Always check weather and avalanche forecasts before you set off, and become adept at deciphering what they mean.
Mountain Safety Adviser Heather Morning said: “There are some excellent resources for mountain weather information. Check the Mountain Weather Information Service and the excellent new Met Office mountain pages.
“If there is snow on the ground, then check the sportscotland Avalanche Information Service (SAIS), which provides free daily reports on snow conditions and an avalanche forecast for six mountain areas of Scotland.”
It’s even more important in winter to plan your route and review it before setting off, as poor visibility and snow-covered terrain can easily confuse and disorientate the less experienced. Have a look at the map and break the journey into sections, so you can estimate how long each section should take to complete. Then identify any potential hazards or navigational challenges you might encounter along the way.
On some days navigation might be a doddle, when the skies are blue and conditions are perfect. But sometimes winter days out can give the ultimate test of your navigation skills – when in a white out with no visible features handy, so be prepared!
You need to be confident on your ability to use a map and compass, and be able to walk along a bearing, measuring how far you’ve gone, and interpret contour features to locate yourself as you go. Make sure to practice on less serious terrain on good weather days, to ensure you’re ready when bad connies hit!
There’s a heap of skills to master to make your winter mountaineering days safer and more enjoyable, and the first one is learning how to walk! It can be unsettling the first time on steep snow or ice but with stiff boots, steps can be made in the hard packed snow. And with crampons frozen snow or ice can be negotiated. Balance is the key, and that is where the axe comes in very useful. It can be used as a third leg on steep slopes, and should always be carried in the uphill hand.
5 Beginner winter walks with a pub finish
What better way to ease into your first winter walk than to know it ends with a roaring fire and a glass of the good stuff?
BUACHAILLE ETIVE MOR and THE CLACHAIG INN
It’s easy to link a fabulously frosty frolic with a fine ale-stocked tavern in Scotland, but here’s one of our favourites. The spectacular 13km tramp up Buachaille Etive Mor, the vast triangular chunk of mountain which stands sentry at the eastern end of Glencoe, tempts walkers from afar with its lofty height and pleasing proportions.
On your way down, keep yourself warm with the thought of an open fire at the famous Clachaig Inn, a haven for knackered hikers just a short journey away, west along the valley from the descent. Boasting an impressive real ale selection and sumptuous meals, maybe you should book in and spend the night too!
GREAT CABLE and THE WASDALE HEAD INN
If you’ve been to the Lakes, you’ve probably heard about the legendary Wasdale Head Inn, where the whitewashed walls are steeped in local history, as early rock climbers celebrated daring first ascents here and notable guests included the likes of Charles Dickens and Nicholas Monserrat.
A huge variety of walks can be travelled to and from the Wasdale Head, with a thrilling way taking in the snow-dusted fells of Great Gable before heading back to the pub. If that’s not enough, the route can be adopted to suit all levels; if you’re feeling brave try taking on the mighty 18km trek with around 5,300 feet of ascent, ticking off Great Gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar, Scoat Fell, Steeple and Red Pike.
THE LANGDALE PIKES and THE DUNGEON GHYLLS
On a winding narrow road beneath Stickle Tarn, a mountain lake in Langdale, two welcoming walker’s bars can be found: The Old Dungeon Ghyll and the New Dungeon Ghyll hotels, both within a mile of each other. Fortunately, there’s no need to choose between the two, as a winter circuit of the Langdale Pikes links both.
The route starts at the Old Dungeon Ghyll, following the stream east, until branching off uphill to Stickle Tarn. Tackle the Pavey Ark peak from its eastern side to attain the fabulous viewpoint from its summit, before bagging Harrison Stickle and Pike of Stickle – turning this short walk into a superb classic – and descend via Loft Crag to the New Dungeon Ghyll.
SNOWDON and THE PEN-Y-GWRYD HOTEL
Start at the Pen y Gwyrd hotel to tackle the classic Pen y Pass summit circuit, crowded in summer but often tranquil under a light dusting of snow. The slate-roofed inn Pen y Gwyrd hotel was once the basecamp of Hillary and Tenzing during the depths of their training for the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953.
The ascent via the Pyg and Miner’s tracks is around 15km from the Pen y Gwryd hotel, and moral is kept high on the descent by the thought of returning to mouth-watering roast and pint of your favourite.
CHALLACOMBE DOWN and THE WARREN HOUSE INN
Wildly beautiful in winter, the undulating moorland of Challacombe Down in Dartmoor gives a steady intro to hill walking in the cold months and is home to the highest pub in Southern England – the Warren House Inn, an isolated watering place that once served the local tin mining community.
Walks can be found criss-crossing the moors in all areas around the inn, but the most scenic is hands down the 8km circuit of Challacombe Down, winding downhill from the Warren House Inn before meandering up the slopes of Headland Warren from the south. Curve around the heather-covered sides of the Down before trekking back to bask in the warmth of the open fire and fill your boots with home-cooked food and ales.
All in the numbers: Mountain Rescue Stats
WATCH YOUR FOOTING!
You might think that Mountain Rescue only get called out in extreme circumstances, but actually last year the number one cause for callouts were slips and trips! The second-most common cause was due to becoming lost and navigational errors.
Following on, it turns out that the vast majority of mountaineers rescued are actually uninjured!
Saturday is actually the busiest day of the week for Mountain Rescue, followed closely by Sunday. No relaxed weekends for these volunteers!
WALKING VS CLIMBING
What might the most dangerous activity be? Surely it’d be ice climbing and rock climbing? Actually, the data shows that the number of Mountain Rescue call outs from hill walking and running incidents increased over the last three years, while climbing and scrambling incidents are actually decreasing. Don’t assume that your chosen activity is relatively risk-free and always be prepared
GREAT KID, DON'T GET COCKY!
According to the latest statistics, nearly two thirds of incidents in the Scottish mountains were people deemed to be ‘experienced’, with the most at-risk group being ‘experienced males’ (almost half of all incidents).
Based on 2016 data from Mountain Rescue England and Wales, and Scottish Mountain Rescue.
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