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Winter - how did you learn?

Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby ChrisButch » Wed Feb 19, 2020 10:19 am

Mostly trial and error, although I did once go on a winter skills course at Plas y Brenin, mostly memorable for the snowhole digging and for a free demo by an exhibitionist border collie of how to get up a Grade II gully at speed (but he did have the advantage of 4 built-in crampons).
Also (much later) an Alpine skills course at Chamonix, where we learned the one most important lesson of all - that if there were only the two of us on a rope, I could get Mrs ChrisButch out of a crevasse without help from her: but Mrs ChrisButch couldn't get me out. In practice this meant the end of serious Alpine ascents for us.
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby spiderwebb » Wed Feb 19, 2020 6:34 pm

Having started hill walking back in the pre-internet days, much of first experiences were outwith of winter. I got lost once somewhere around Esk Hause with my pals, and after that unnerving experience vowing it would never happen again, map reading, compass work became second nature (no GPS then). That is to me the most important lesson regardless of the season, and it came easy to me, with my love of maps.
The following years were largely more and more experience across the UK, in different conditions, and this also helps one to focus on that navigation ability and the ned to be able to do it in the worst conditions, it is quite simply fundamental, whether you are continuing your walk or abandoning it :D
Sometime in the mid 80's I did do a weeks winter skills at Glenmore Lodge, together with much reading of various books, and although it was then on the back burner for many years, it is like riding a bike. However, with the various media available now, it would not be beyond anyone experienced in walking to pick up the basics, and I practised what I had learnt as soon as I began winter walking some years later.
Essentially, the key skills of axe. crampons have been debated here, the axe arrest is something you can practice safely on a suitable slope to ensure that you have the knowledge, it could save your life, it has mine. Crampons are NOT a substitute for axe arrest. Yes they may prevent a slip and are essential on ice, many a summit would not have been reached without them, and when you're only 50 metres away from the top, the last thing you need is to turn back because you simply cannot stand up or make progress.
Lastly, assessing the avalanche risk, I did receive some instruction on this on my winter course, but again some years back, but it too is also something that can be tried whenever you're out in winter. It takes no time to dig a test pit to assess the snow structure, and if used on your planned slope for your walk is the best way to confirm the conditions. Whilst the SAIS information is useful, it may not be specific to the exact area you are going to. This practice has also resulted in my turning back on several occasions, having dug a test pit to establish that the top layer of hard snow was not secure, the test resulting in the top slab giving way. Whilst this demonstrated only a small area, it was clear that ascending further, where the overlying pack would be more frozen higher up, to some point where it would be just perfect to break under my weight. In short, it'll be there another day. The day in question, as I walked out there was avalanche debris (that occurred while I was up the first Munro) on the west slopes. Similar facing slopes that I would have traversed had I continued to the second summit. The first summit was reached that day, as again a test of the snow on the opposite slopes proved secure.
You don't need to be an 'expert' on snow structure, dig a pit, try it, if it shows avalanche potential (and you can read up on what, how that shows), find somewhere else or turn back.
The one thing that repeats in the above, is the knowledge of your ability and knowing when to turn back. I have always been an advocate of going out whatever the forecast, for several reasons, 1: the forecast is often wrong, which can work either way; 2: It is only in the inclement weather that you will hone the skills that should be business as usual, regardless of weather, like navigating (we've all been tired, wet, fed up, and that's when the decisions can go wrong), so stop, think, confirm your position, it is a necessity); 3: You will also find out your limits, what is comfortable, what isn't, everyone is different, its experience :D
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby Backpacker » Wed Feb 19, 2020 8:11 pm

YouTube, books and practice
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby ChrisButch » Wed Feb 19, 2020 8:53 pm

Another main source of guidance back in the 70s was Langmuir's 'Mountaincraft and Leadership', which remained in print, with many reprints and revisions, until quite recently. For a long time it was used (for all I know still is) as a textbook for trainee MLTB leaders.
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby al78 » Thu Feb 20, 2020 12:45 am

I'm not a winter hill walker, but I did learn some winter skills at Leeds University, from their hiking society. They organised weekend camping trips to Scotland in winter, the places I went with them were Glencoe, Glen Etive and Braemar, and managed to get up at least one munro each time. I learned the requirement to have stiff soled boots to takle crampons, step cutting on slopes, ice axe self arrest, and avalanche awareness (testing the stability of layers of snow, identifying a weak layer). It was sufficient that if I felt inclined, I could have a go on one of the easier Munros (i.e. not one that requires technical scrambling) in winter conditions and feel like I knew what I was doing. One experience that sticks in my mind is on one of the Mammore summits, experiencing a true whiteout, where there was literally no contrast between the ground and the sky. Our leader paced out 20 meters or so and decided we'd found the summit when every direction went downhill. Whilst we were on the summit, the cloud suddenly broke giving an almost Alpine view of nearby snow plastered peaks. When descending back to base, we dropped below the snow line much earlier than expected. A warm front had come through which had raised the freezing level and thawed the lower slopes.
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby weedavie » Thu Feb 20, 2020 12:23 pm

dav2930 wrote:
weedavie wrote:What they did was irresponsible or ill-informed, but they nearly got away with it. Leaving the summit, if they'd located the path instead of drifting into the corrie, they'd have probably made it down and we'd never have heard of them. Mind you if they'd drifted off to the other side, they'd have plummetted down a gully and the search would still be on. I'm amazed at what they did achieve, a winter Nevis in gutties.


Glad you said "nearly" got away with it, because being forced to call out the MR and surviving only due to the MRT's prompt and expert response, is certainly not "getting away with it". In fact it's not even nearly getting away with it, is it? Locating a path buried in snow in blizzard conditions is difficult, don't you think? Without being able to take an accurate bearing I'd say it was more likely than not that they'd miss the path. So, saying that they'd have probably made it down if they'd located the path is a bit like saying I could probably retire if I won the lottery. :lol:

The guys got it wrong. On one of the other posts on this thread someone remembers being led seriously astray on a Welsh top. The leader responsible got a bollocking. These four made a serious mistake and deserved a bollocking not an internet crucifixion. They seem to have gone 90 degrees wrong leaving the summit. From personal experience, leaving the summit at a ludicrous angle is one of the easiest mistakes to make. Anyway I'd say there was a 10 degree arc through which they could have left and hit the path. Even if their departure was random that's 36 to 1 which is massively better than odds on the lottery.

Sometime last century I got given an ice axe but I didn't know how to use it. I decided to take it on a winter trip to Ben Vane and Beinn Ime. I must have got some funny looks as I used it overarm like a skyhook on some of the scrambly bits at the top of the Vane tourist path. Perfect visibility so far but it started snowing seriously. I was heading for the Glas Bhealach but somehow in descent missed Beinn Ime entirely. I'd guess it stemmed from a seventy degree error in leaving the summit. So I went up to the Bealach a'Mhaim from which unknowingly I started climbing Beinn Narnain. Just below the summit it stopped snowing and the cloud lifted. The undoubted presence of the Cobbler convinced me I was on the wrong hill.

Had something gone wrong, if I'd carried on under the illusion and tried to descend a'Chrois,I'd have had most of the right equipment and certainly a map but I was out of my depth. All I needed was experience. Pre-internet I wouldn't have attracted the universal condemnation that's descended this time. I'd just have deserved a bollocking.
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby al78 » Thu Feb 20, 2020 2:27 pm

weedavie wrote:The guys got it wrong. On one of the other posts on this thread someone remembers being led seriously astray on a Welsh top. The leader responsible got a bollocking. These four made a serious mistake and deserved a bollocking not an internet crucifixion. They seem to have gone 90 degrees wrong leaving the summit. From personal experience, leaving the summit at a ludicrous angle is one of the easiest mistakes to make. Anyway I'd say there was a 10 degree arc through which they could have left and hit the path. Even if their departure was random that's 36 to 1 which is massively better than odds on the lottery.


Enough has been said about the recent Ben Nevis callout, but comparison to the lottery is not reasonable. The consequence of not winning the lottery is you lose one or more pounds. The consequence of incorrect navigation on Ben Nevis can be death, and the risk of incorrect navigation is amplified by poor weather and absence of a map and compass. The two are not even remotely comparable.
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby OpenC » Fri Feb 21, 2020 11:52 am

Really interesting reading. I've always been a solitary walker so had to do it all myself through reading what I could and gauging conditions as best I could.

Discovered the need for winter equipment coming down off Scafell Pike one day when there had been no snow from bottom to top but coming back down the slope between Sty Head and Stockley Bridge discovered the slabs which the little streams go across were completely iced over and impassable. A forced reascent and roundabout descent got me looking into crampons, axes and boots which I duly picked up and carried with me between late August and early July (you know, just in case).

Started proper winter walking in the Cheviots after a couple of years but quickly discovered that the real issue with winter walking in Northumberland isn't so much the condition of the hills as the possibility of getting to the car parks since they and the access roads are inevitably obliterated to the point of impassability when the snow and ice arrive - so I went straight to Drumochter instead, and made Geal Charn my first winter Munro on a day of deep and soft snow which needed snow shoes more than it needed crampons. Felt much better knowing that they were there if I needed them, and I'm pretty sure I used them but they were probably more of a risk than a benefit given that I was through to the tangled heather below the snow most steps. It was amazing, though - that view toward Ben Alder was absolutely stunning with everything white and blue.

Winter walking really is an experience that's not to be missed and eventually I started to head for the bigger and steeper hills (Stob Dubh on Buachaille Etive Beag was my finest, on a sparkling day of white snow and blue skies that I'll never forget) but ultimately I discovered that I was too lazy for the much, much harder days which winter gives (not to mention the additional weight of the gear) and the majority of my winter days were spent under leaden skies or in thick clag, so the enjoyment waned for me.

So, I got rid of all my winter stuff again and for the last three or four years have just left the winter hills for others. I'm still not entirely sure how many days I would actually have been completely fine without any of the equipment - I can count on one hand the number of times I ever really needed the crampons, and I never used the axe as anything other than a walking stick. When I see "that" forecast in February, of full sun over Glencoe and I know the hills are blanketed, I still miss being able to get up there - but I don't see that forecast very often, and I'm usually at work anyway :)

Last year I followed a family of walkers clanking with all the winter gear up the tourist path on Ben Nevis. They got to the snow line, needlessly put on their gear, posed for some pictures, took off their gear again and headed back down. I've always had the impression that most of the folk carrying winter gear on the hills are carrying it because they feel they should be seen to have it, rather than because they know how and when to use it. I was almost certainly one of them :)
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby Phil the Hill » Fri Feb 21, 2020 2:13 pm

My mate and I got Martin Moran's Winter Mountaineering book when it first came out, and thought it looked great but resolved we'd never do anything like that. Then we went up Pen Yr Ol Wen on a wet Autumn day and got thoroughly soaked, after which we upgraded our gear to the latest Gore Tex tech (for the time). We stayed in a private bothy in the Rhinogs with some friends of friends that winter and went up Rhinog Fach in deep powder (which made the Rhinogs deep heather and boulder terrain interesting). Our gear worked, but after that we resolved we definitely weren't doing Winter Munros!

Two months later we were (of course) booked on a proper Winter mountaineering skills course in Fort William, which we greatly enjoyed despite some dodgy weather. After that we went up to Scotland to bag Winter Munros for a week every February. We had some excellent big Winter days on the hill, highlights being parts of the South Cluanie Ridge, The Five Sisters, the Ben by the waterslide route and the Ring of Steall.

We eventually stopped the regular trips a few years ago, when I started a family and couldn't spare the time any more. One day I'll get back up a proper Winter hill again, but it's difficult when you're based in London.
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby Alteknacker » Fri Feb 21, 2020 11:51 pm

One day winter mountaineering course, then, being a solo walker, by careful trial and error, augmented by studying videos to remind me about what I learnt on the course.

A couple of things I learnt by experience, that I think are worth emphasising, are:
1. in a white-out, pacing from a fixed point in a fixed direction, and then back again to get a sense of the contours (someone mentioned that above) - and of course always taking frequent careful bearings.
2. Most important though: even if it means having a very heavy pack, ensure you have enough gear with you so that, if you put it all on, it would be hard to get really cold, and you wouldn't be blinded. I include in this a sleeping bag, a silvered thermal bivvy bag, and goggles. I've never had recourse to these expedients, but I've never regretted carrying them. It's so easy to cool down once you stop moving, and as a solo walker, there are many ways in which you could be forced to stop moving. Then... it would be purely about survival.
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby Caberfeidh » Sat Feb 22, 2020 10:31 am

I notice no-one has mentioned cannibalism yet. Back in the Donner Party we used to regularly draw straws to see who would get devoured by the others. Nowadays you mention cannibalism and people totally freak out. Snowflakes! :shock:

Glen Coe climb#3r.jpg
Cave high above Glen Coe, scene of cannibalism...probably...
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Re: Winter - how did you learn?

Postby Alteknacker » Sat Feb 22, 2020 6:28 pm

Caberfeidh wrote:I notice no-one has mentioned cannibalism yet....


A pretty compelling reason to walk solo, methinks....

(though I think I recall your having at least nibbled on your own limbs in extremis....)
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