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Warning Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly. Summer routes may not be viable or appropriate in winter. See winter information on our skills and safety pages for more information.

A tough day for winter beginners

A tough day for winter beginners

Postby Ben Collins » Sun Dec 10, 2017 9:18 pm

Route description: Buachaille Etive Mor

Munros included on this walk: Stob Dearg (Buachaille Etive Mor)

Date walked: 25/11/2017

Distance: 13 km

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This is my first post, so forgive me for a little background! My friend Charlie and I are both reasonably experienced fell walkers. We grew up near the Lake District and have enjoyed walking since then, both in the UK and abroad. However, we have had very little experience walking in winter. A recent trip to El Chalten in Patagonia in the late winter there- where I was very lucky with the weather and the scenery was incredible- sparked my interest in starting to up the technical difficulty of my walks and heading out in winter. On that basis, we decided to head up to Scotland in late November.

Charlie and I had a good look at this website and decided that the Ring of Steall looked a great walk. However, conscious of the short days at this time of year and our inexperience in winter conditions, we planned an alternative, simpler walk in case conditions were any less than good. Predictably, as the week wore on, it was increasingly clear that conditions would be bad and the Ring of Steall would be beyond us. We opted for Buchaille Etive Mor as a much shorter and easier walk.

We prepared for our winter excursion as best we could. We both read the walk descriptions on this website together with blog posts here from fellow walkers. We poured over our copy of 'Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills' to see what additional skills and equipment we might need in winter, as opposed to other seasons. For the most part, we had the equipment necessary, but both added an ice axe and C1 crampons to our gear. We decided against investing in B2-3 boots (partly for financial reasons- ice axes and crampons having caused considerable damage to our bank accounts!). This decision proved problematic for me later in the walk, which I'll come to below. In terms of skills, we had never navigated in a white out, but both have reasonable experience at navigating in better conditions. We familiarised ourselves with self-arrest, self-belay and walking in crampons. We checked the MWIS and the Met Office forecasts for the weather. The forecast was for -14 with windchill atop the Buchaille with snow and poor visibility, so we knew that conditions would be challenging.

We arrived at the Altnafeath lay by at about nine and began the walk shortly after. With hindsight, we should have started the walk just before first light as we'd planned for the Ring of Steall, but we banked on the walk taking only around 5 hours. There had been heavy snow and there was thick covering on the ground. It was already snowing as we began the walk and while visibility in the glen was good (Glen Coe was utterly spectucular), the Buchaille was in white at the top.

We made good progress across the moor and began our climb up the gully. After walking for about an hour, a couple ahead of us stopped to put crampons on. We had been unsure exactly when the best time to do this was, so followed suit. There was a lot of snow and it seemed a reasonable decision. It didn't take long for my crampons to start causing me issues. The binding on my crampons that sets their length kept slipping out, meaning that they would increase in length beyond the length of my boot and come loose. I think this was probably due to the flexibility of the sole on my trusty Brashers. B2 boots for Christmas hpefully, and taping the binding in place, should fix this going forwards. We had to stop several times to try to fix my crampons and this slowed us considerably.

As we got further up the gully, the going became more difficult. The path was not visible, the gully became steeper with a mixture of scree and thigh deep snow. The weather was also closing in, with visibility worsening and wind increasing. Squalls of snow like mini-tornado would occasionally buffet us! However, both being reaosnably fit, we made it onto the top of the Buchaille in good spirits and turned left towards Stob Dearg. Although there was plenty of snow, walking on the rock field on the approach to Stob Dearg was very difficult in crampons. We should have taken them off, but- as I imagine more experienced users of crampons are alive to- having gone to the effort of putting the things on, the temptation is to keep them on to the bitter end! We reached summit cairn of Stob Dearg around 12.30-1pm. The couple ahead of us were now heading off the Buchaille, one of them having hurt their leg. The wind was really whipping in now along with the snow. It was seriously cold and visibility was poor at times, although intermittently much clearer, meaning we did at least get some good views!

We sat down in the summit cairn to eat our sandwiches. Now, in summer walking, this makes perfect sense- what better place to enjoy some food before carrying on. It was a mistake. Firstly, our sandwiches had pretty much frozen, so we couldn't eat them. The tube of my platypus had also frozen, so I was restricted to tea. Both Charlie and I took our gloves off to make eating easier and to adjust our gear. I took my crampons off and put my map case in my bag because it had been whacking me in the face for most of the walk and was driving me insane. However, neither of us appreciated quite how quickly your hands get cold in those temperatures. Within a minute, our hands were burning and then completely numb. Because of this, it was a real struggle to get gloves back on. It got to the point where Charlie considered pouring tea on our hands warm them back up. Eventually we got our gloves back on. Writing now from the warmth of my living room it sounds like a trivial incident, but on the hill it didn't feel that way and it felt as if much longer and frostbite would have been a serious threat. In any event, we were a bit rattled and cut short our stop. The glove incident also meant that I didn't manage to eat properly, which compounded our error of stopping at the summit cairn. Charlie somehow managed a (presumably half frozen) pork pie. He approaches pork based food with a near fanatic zeal. I once heard him refuse to ever consider moving to Australia solely on the basis that he'd heard smoked bacon was hard to come by there. Anyway, we pressed on.

We headed across the Buchaille towards the other side of the ridge, intending to follow the ridge, summit the munro at the other side and head down into adjacent glen, as shown in the walk description. However, going was tough. The wind was howling in and the snow was very deep in places, making walking slow and arduous. We reached the small col beneath Stob na Doire at about 2.30 and took stock. Having not checked the map for a while, I mistakenly thought this was the second munro Stob na Broige and that consequently we were now level with our route down. Charlie was concerned about the light, but I thought given that we were already level with our out route, it would be at least worth trying to summit the second munro before turning round at 3.15 wherever we had got to (we had headtorches, so walking in a glen in the dark would have been feasible). Inspection of the map put pay to this notion quite quickly. We saw that the peak in front of us was not Stob na Broige and that it- Stob na Doire- and another peak lay between us and Stob na Broige. Additionally, our out route was the other side of Stob na Doire. With the light against us and tired from walking through deep snow with not enough food, we made the decision to turnaround. We were equidistant on the map between the two routes down, but the route down in front of us was unproven and required us to ascend significantly.

On our way back along the Buchaille, we encountered a couple coming the other way, towards Stob na Doire. We stopped to ask them where they intended to go. They said the down route further along the Buchaille. When we pointed out this was the other side of Stob na Doire and that there was only around an hour and half of light left, they very quickly and sensibly decided to join us in turning around. The chap was a Wigan RFC fan though, so as an avid St Helens fan, I did wonder if I should have encouraged him to go on... :wink:

The descent was very difficult at the top. Snow on loose scree is not a pleasant combination to walk on at the best of times and we had to glissade for large parts. I was fairly miserable during this part of the walk. I'm not overly fond of heights, and consequently don't find steep descents much fun. I was glad of my ice axe during the glissading.

We arrived back at the car about 3.30pm, just as the sun was setting, feeling fairly battered and cold but having enjoyed the experience. The weather had (frustratingly) cleared a lot by that point and the Buchaille and Glen Coe were stunning. We repaired to Fort William, where we spent a very pleasant evening refueling with beer, whisky and chips. An advantage of winter walking, it would seem, is that it leaves long evenings for the pub!

While our walk had to be cut short, I feel we both learnt a lot from the experience. It seems to me that in winter conditions, even simple tasks like adjusting your gear can become difficult and even dangerous. While we prepped reasonably well, we are novices in winter conditions and consequently we made some errors that in the end probably prevented us from successfully completing the entire walk. Ultimately, though, safety is paramount and I think we made the right decision by turning around and we certainly made the right decision by not attempting Ring of Steall. Hope this helps any other novices and looking forward to the next one!

(If anyone can advise me in layman's terms how to post photos on here that would be very welcome. Mine apparantly have too many pixels?)
Buchaille (4).JPG
Charlie and me (2).JPG

our_route.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts

Last edited by Ben Collins on Wed Dec 13, 2017 8:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby SAVAGEALICE » Mon Dec 11, 2017 11:09 am

Sounds like you learned a lot from your experience.
I would highly recommend a ‘Winter Skills Course’ - they can range from 1-3 days.
I found it to be invaluable. :thumbup:
Hope Santa brings you some boots! B1s will be stiff enough for walking, so long as your crampons are compatible.
Thanks for sharing your experience- I’m sure it will be helpful to others intending to head out. Like you say about the walk times - that goes out the window in winter. Factor in to take twice as long in thick snow!
Sounds like you’ve got the bug now! :lol:
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby gaffr » Mon Dec 11, 2017 12:03 pm

Getting sorted out for winter hill-walking takes time and not to be rushed. :)

I guess there are several ways to get the images onto a WH report . For me it seems to work when using Windows 10 by loading the images to a folder in Pictures then by going onto Photo gallery I downsize the images ...Edit section....640 size. The downsized images should also be in Pictures and from there place them into the report etc.
Probably a long winded way of doing this but it seems to work. :)
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby Mal Grey » Mon Dec 11, 2017 1:00 pm

I think your planning and decision making was pretty good. The mistakes were recognised rather than ignored, and you correctly realised continuing was a bad idea.

You may get away with B1 boots with some crampon adjustment and fixing, but if you become a more regular winter walker I would probably go B2.

As for the a."when to put crampons on" and b."should we take them off for this rocky bit", even after 25 winter walking weeks worth of experience the answers are normally a."just a bit later than we should have done, so we're hopping around on a slightly too steep slope trying not to drop stuff, including ourselves, down it" and b." it might be better in a minute its easier to keep them on...repeated for an hour...." :D

Its a good hill isn't it?!

Rather than upload the images onto this site, I store mine on Flickr and use the Share Photo button there to get the "BBCode" which I then paste into Walk Highlands.
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby rockhopper » Mon Dec 11, 2017 1:36 pm

Challenging walk and good experience - as others have said, sounds like you made the right choice. Re gloves - I almost always wear liner gloves as well as outers and don't take the liners off which helps a bit with the cold - good to practise putting crampons on with gloves on. Re frozen tube - I generally blow the water in the tube back into the bladder after taking a sip which can help reduce the propensity for water to freeze in the tube - cheers :)
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby Alteknacker » Mon Dec 11, 2017 3:12 pm

A great, entertaining and useful report, that really captures the essence of how quickly things can go pear-shaped in winter! - and most timely :clap: :clap: :clap: .
Almost everything is so much harder, takes so much longer, and invariably risks one getting horribly cold. I've also taken to wearing full-on gloves as an under layer, and covering them with army-surplus winter Goretex mitts. The digits still freeze when shed them in order to take photies, but they warm up much more quickly afterwards.

One of my early lessons in winter conditions was the potential freezing impact on one's digits of trying to put on/take off crampons! Another lesson was the challenge of navigating in a white-out and undulating topography, fortunately learned under relatively benign conditions, so subsequently put to very good use. Another recent one was the importance of goggles if you're expecting 30mph+ winds. Luckily I'd thought to bring goggles on my last Highlands trip, but had I not had them I would have been in some difficulty in a white-out in pretty high winds.

I have - or at least my son has - also experienced the incompatibility of Brashers with crampons (again fortunately under benign conditions). I'd thought I had the most flexible boots on the planet until I examined his Brashers!

Anyway, it look like you made a lot of sensible decisions when things got a bit hairy, which meant you were subsequently able to reminisce about it in the warmth of a pub :D .

Well worth posting - and if you can sort the piccies, it will be still more entertaining!
On this subject, I use exactly the same technique as Mal, and the quality of the pics in the report is much better than if you simply add pics to your report. The only additional point is if you simply cut and paste, your text turns out light blue and underlined. I just delete all the text outside the [img] text, and then you get ordinary text (there may be an easier way, but this is the only one I know). If you still want to add pics directly, you just use a standard pic manipulation package like MS Office Picture Manager to reduce the size of the file to below the limit specified by WH on the report page (no more than 690 pixels wide, no more than 4MB file size).
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby Dunblane Bagger » Mon Dec 11, 2017 3:54 pm

Well done you guys for getting out there and experiencing proper winter conditions !

Decisions are always key on the mountains, but in winter every decision is accentuated due to the lack of daylight, low temperature, spindrift etc... etc... and also due to not having a real idea of the conditions until you are actually climbing !

However, it sounds like you made all the right decisions on the day as you got off the mountain still alive :clap:

There has already been lots of great advice from previous posts, but something I do on every winter climb I go on, is to find an area on the ascent where you can practice self arrest with your ice axe, practicing all kinds of different "falls". Head first on your tummy, head first on your back, etc.... as if you do slip, it won't necessarily be in the most convenient of self arrest positions :lol:

I would also recommend the more shorter, "easier" mountains to gain some more invaluable experience/confidence as even they in winter can be awesome days out. However you did pick an absolute belter in the Bookle ! :crazy:

Happy climbing and thanks for sharing. :clap: 8)
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby prog99 » Mon Dec 11, 2017 6:08 pm

B1 boots are fine, B2/3 are not required for Scottish winter hill walking despite what some folk may say otherwise.
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby Scottk » Mon Dec 11, 2017 8:44 pm

You could also look at a 2 person emergency shelter which is great for breaks and lunch stops. Warms up very quickly with 2 bodies inside.
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby spiderwebb » Mon Dec 11, 2017 8:53 pm

I'd concur with much of what has been said, well done, you made the right decisions. :clap:

Choice of boots and crampons is always going to be a personal one, but to throw in my 2 pennys worth, I have B2 winter boots (Berghaus Kibos) and they are very comfortable on me at least, and stiff enough for a B2 crampon. Winter boots also (usually he says as someone will have a different experience :lol: ) are more insulated, and mine together with a set of Yeti insulated gaitors is for me a winning combination for toasty toes. The other factor re crampons, and it maybe that you can find a C1 to go with a B1 boot, but the ones I have are used with the 'Crampomatic' heel, which clips onto the top of the heel on a small rib (not all boots may have this, and I would guess but can't remember, they are a C2). I can't comment on other fittings but this combination means that the crampons have only one strap through the toe bail and back into a double O buckle and they can be easily fitted whilst wearing mittens, as long as you havn't cut the strap too short (they usually come too long for you to cut to length.)

I didn't catch what you wore on your hands but in winter I'm a mitten fan.. I find mittens keep my hands warm and given the above I don't need to take them off, except for photos etc. Gloves would be harder to get on when cold, they are hard enough when wet.

On the topic of the sandwichs on the summit, as your're now aware, is to stop prior to summiting and stock up on food intake, drink etc. I also use this 'stop' to ensure I'm in summit gear before I go into the 'death zone'. Therefore I'll have any extra layers, mittens on if not already, balaclava or hood, windproofs etc. basically whatever you need bearing in mind it could be a lot colder and rougher on top. The key is to find a suitable spot to carry all this out, it could just be behind some rocks or even several hundreds of metres before the top, it doesn't matter, but you want to avoid any clothing changes, possibility of losing gear in the wind, or being hungry or thirsty when you least want to stop.

I tend to have mittens on when the axe is out, as they haven't come up with a centrally heated ice axe, yet :lol: and if you do slip its protection for the hands from objects and cold.

But its all part of the learning but as you said these things that can be trivial in summer, are accentuated in winter.

The early nightfall whilst needs to be considered, but again a personal preference, if prepared or at the very least in the event things do delay you, in itself shouldn't be a show stopper. But that depends on the route out, terrain etc and what your're comfortable with.

But well done, and I'm sure looking back you'll realise you enjoyed it, and you should take comfort that you did make key decisions correctly :D :D :D
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby dav2930 » Mon Dec 11, 2017 9:59 pm

Yeah, as everyone agrees, you made the right decision to turn back when you did. You got back to the car in daylight, which is great. Wading through deep snow is exhausting and very time consuming; there's no shame in shortening the agenda in such circumstances. Personally I would have aimed for an earlier start for what is quite a big winter walk, even if that meant starting in the dark.

I agree with prog99 that B1 boots with C1 crampons are adequate (and more comfortable) for the majority of winter Munros. The problem with Brashers is that they're not designed for winter conditions and are not crampon-compatible.

I'm also with rockhopper in wearing liner gloves underneath thicker ones. You can keep the liners on all the time, so your bare hands wont be exposed to the elements. I generally take two pairs of over-gloves, one pair more heavily insulated than the other and both windproof. The more heavily insulated pair are reserved for really cold/nasty conditions, while the lighter pair do for the rest of the time and give me enough dexterity to put on crampons, eat sandwiches and even take photos without needing to take them off. I also take a pair of goretex over-mitts to keep gloves dry in damp conditions.

As for Platypus style hydration systems, I don't think they are appropriate for winter. I always carry a plastic bottle of water (inside the rucksack so it doesn't freeze) along with a flask of hot coffee or tea.

No doubt you'll find out what works for you as you gain experience. As gaffr says, it does take a few seasons to work out how to make things comfortable for yourself. :)
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby Ben Collins » Wed Dec 13, 2017 8:22 pm

Wow, thanks for all the responses! There's a lot of really helpful information in them and I'll take it all on board!

I am planning on going on a winter skills course. I go to the Cairngorms most years with family so I'm minded to go for Glenmore Lodge.

We definitely should have set off earlier. I like to set off at dawn or earlier for any substantial walk, irrespective of the season. We had planned to, but we drove up from Manchester the night before and only arrived at 1am- when we decided on the shorter walk, the temptation to stay in bed for an extra couple of hours was too great!

Re my boots, I imagine B1s would be suitable for most Scottish winters, but as has been pointed out, Brashers don 't seem to be. This seems to be purely because of their flexibility. In all other respects they were excellent- both warm and dry. I think I will opt for some Scarpa B2s.

On my hands, I wore silk inners and sealskin hellvelyns (maybe a dud purchase, but they seemed ok). With both layers on my hands were fine. I did intend to keep inners on at all times, but when we stopped at the summit and I took off my crampons, the inners got very wet. I thought it better to take them off. Difficult call. Carrying mittens definitely seems to be a good idea.

Definitely a good hill, will be doing again to complete the other munro!

I've done my best with photos, but I've only managed to shrink two enough so far.
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Re: A tough day for winter beginners

Postby NeepNeep » Thu Dec 14, 2017 9:57 am

Good report Ben and some good lessons learnt.

Agree with most of above. For me B2 are my winter boot and like SpiderWeb, gaiters keep my feet and toes warm and dry from the powdery snow. I have large feet (UK14) and find the additional lever arm from my clown sized boots means a B2 can feel a little B1 after wearing in. You decision making seemed good - the main point is you were logical and noticed that things were not quite going to plan.

Despite the desire to roll over and go back to sleep - early starts are all part of winter walking - especially when there is less than 7 hours of day light.

For me a few key items go in the bag during winter in addition to the normal summer kit;
Belay jacket (synthetic) that will fit over all your clothes that I don't necessarily intend to wear.
Googles - makes navigation and walking in wind/snow/sleet much more pleasurable and allows you some comfort to navigate with due care, time and consideration.
Bothy shelter - great to get out of the wind for food/moral boost and for emergencies.
Spare gloves, and another pair of spare gloves - oh and maybe another.

Good effort BTW - look forward to your next trip.
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