Winter Skills and Safety
On Scotland’s mountains, winter is the season of ice axes and crampons. And, crucially, knowing how to use them properly.
But there’s a lot more to winter than the kit; your whole mind-set needs to change – hence the advice from experts that you need to “get your winter head on” or, in the words of the safety campaign, #ThinkWinter. Remember that route descriptions on Walkhighlands are written for summer conditions, and routes are likely to be much more challenging - and take far longer - in winter conditions, requiring more skills and equipment.
Time is a crucial factor in winter. You have fewer daylight hours and everything you do is going to take longer and be more tiring. Walking through snow can be energy sapping and, even though we do sometimes get those perfect blue sky days, the weather can be a major factor, with winds making further demands on energy levels and poor visibility meaning you have to navigate every step of the way. When i'’s good it's great, but it IS hard.
Snow can act as an obstacle, but it also acts to hide. Features such as paths and streams - even lochs - can be completely covered over and obscured, making navigation in winter that bit harder. The consequences of a navigational error are also likely to be much more serious.
The tools of the trade
For winter you should always have ice axe and crampons when heading onto the hills. The ice axe is the basic tool. You can use it as a support, for security, to cut steps or dig shelter and, of course, to stop a slide if you trip or fall.As well as acquiring an ice axe and crampons you will also need to expand and upgrade your normal hillwalking wardrobe. Boots need to have rigid soles for wearing with crampons or kicking steps; you’ll need additional thermal layers, a spare headtorch or at least spare batteries for your main headtorch, sunglasses and/or winter goggles.
Learning the skills
Using ice axe and crampons effectively and safely takes practice, so don’t get too ambitious the first time you use either. Practice on safe terrain.
Remember always to carry your axe in your uphill hand and move methodically and rhythmically, avoiding spurts and stops which lead to poor balance, instability and wasted energy. Use the edge of your boot to kick a step. It is essential that your boots are sturdy and have stiff soles. Wear crampons whenever your boots don't create steps easily and remember to put them on before getting onto ground where you will be insecure.
The following winter skills videos have been prepared by Glenmore Lodge and offer a useful introduction to equipment and skills required for heading to the Scottish mountains in winter:
Ice axe braking
Kicking steps in snow
Cutting steps in snow and ice
Cutting a stance in snow
There are many ways to learn mountaineering skills, summer or winter. You may learn through a club or from more experienced friends, hire a guide or book onto a winter skills course (you can choose from a list of areas at the bottom to find more local to you).
The winter hills provide endless opportunities for exhilarating and satisfying experiences. Choose a route that will be a challenging adventure but not a fight for survival. Think about:
- The weather forecast
- The prevailing avalanche risk
- How long will your route take and whether you will have enough time to complete it before dark
- How your proposed route compares with the last one you did. Is it much further? Are you as fit as you were then?
- Whether there are likely to be any particular hazards on the route. (Steep ground or crags, rivers, difficult navigation, deep snow or icy paths)
Remember you should always be prepared to change your plans if the weather deteriorates, and don’t be afraid to turn back.
Winter weather can turn a relatively straightforward day into a frightening struggle to reach safety. The main factors to consider are:
- wind direction and strength
- precipitation (rain, snow and hail)
The wind strength at Munro height is at least double the sea level strength. Winds of 45 mph and above are difficult to walk in. The windchill factor can make it feel very cold (+ 5° in a 30 mph wind is equivalent to -12°). Winter rain can freeze you and fresh snow can make progress difficult or dangerous.
It is essential to check the weather forecast while planning your trip and again before you go. The two principal weather forecast sources are the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) and the Met Office mountain weather forecast.
Avalanches can (and do) occur frequently in the mountains and people do sadly get caught out. With careful research and planning using the information on the SAIS website even on a 'high' avalanche risk day, a safe route can be planned.
It is also worth bearing in mind that as your day on the hill progresses, snow distribution and avalanche risk may change due to further snow fall or windblown snow.
Find out more about avalanches and to check current forecasts, visit the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
This page has been produced in association with Mountaineering Scotland.