Arguably, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Often seeking out adventure might involve heading north, no, not Manchester, proper north, Scotland. But as the ‘Beast from the East’ proved, this is definitely not always the case.
It’s the winter. It is amazing.
With just a little bit of a dusting, the upland environment takes on a whole new character, familiar but different, beautiful but hostile. Add a bit more snow, cold temperatures, wind, warm temperatures, more wind, a classic British winter mix up; all of a sudden the British hills and mountains turn into a potentially hazardous place to be without a little bit of thoughtful planning and carrying a bit more kit.
Weather; it dictates everything. Nowadays it’s so easy to check the weather before you head outside. The Met Office and MWIS (the Mountain Weather Information Service) both have mountain-area specific forecasts; heed the advice written within… If it’s going to be windy, stay low, if there’s low cloud, consider if can you navigate in those conditions. It’ll be difficult to follow a footpath if it’s covered in snow, and your phone battery will drain faster than you think in the cold.
Surprisingly the sun does sometimes shine so be prepared and put sun cream and sunglasses in your bag. Consider your group; what are their various fitness and experience levels? If there are novice members in the group remember to plan for them; winter can be physically more demanding, carrying more kit, and if you’re lucky with snow, post-holing through unhelpful powder. Always plan with every member of the group in mind.
If you are in Scotland, check the avalanche forecast and plan a journey that avoids slopes that have a risk of avalanche. Avalanches aren’t solely a Scottish problem. They will occur in environments where there are slopes, snowfall and wind. Avalanches are a real danger and an understanding of how to avoid them is important to keep yourself and others safe. There are plenty of good books to read about avalanche avoidance and you can find out more about avalanches and the ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ guide from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service. If you are planning on venturing out in the winter, consider getting some training in avalanche avoidance by attending a winter skills or mountaineering course. Knowledge is power.
Everyone loves a lie-in. However, start early. With shorter daylight hours you’ll want to make sure you are back before it gets dark. Make sure you have a head-torch and spare batteries in your bag in case you get delayed and end up walking in the dark. Make sure you are happy navigating at night too. If you keep on pressing snooze, that’s fine, but maybe have a shorter day out, save the big day for when you’ve got up earlier, it’ll still be there. Make sure you have a good breakfast: calories count in the winter. Porridge or fully cooked, whatever your preference, start well fuelled and well hydrated.
Be bold start cold. If you sweat too much in the winter your clothes will struggle to shed the extra moisture. By starting cold and warming up through walking it should be easier to regulate your temperature. Thermal base layers with a blend of merino and synthetic fibres are a good compromise, too many synthetics and you might be a bit smelly within minutes, too high merino content and the thermal might take longer to dry if you sweat too much. Take more gloves than you think you’ll need. If gloves wet-out and hold moisture your hands will get cold and you’ll lose your dexterity, then even simple tasks become really difficult. You can easily get through 3 or 4 pairs of gloves on a typical Scottish winter day. Goggles are essential. If blizzard conditions set in; snow, hail and graupel whipped up by the wind will sting your eyes. Squinting doesn’t work, trying to protect your face is laughably inadequate, but we’ve all tried it. Orange, yellow or pink lenses brighten up the snowstorm, give some depth to your field of view and will enable you to effectively navigate home. Don’t buy too cheap though, a double lens that has an airflow to help demist would be useful. Bring spare layers, more’s better. Synthetic warm layers are essential. Gucci down feathers stick together when wet and lose their warm properties. Save that coat for the pub. Carry a flask with warm squash or flavoured tea, much better than tea or coffee. If your flask doesn’t keep the liquid warm, cold squash is nicer than cold Tetleys. Keep your phone inside your jacket where it’s warm; the battery will not survive if it’s anywhere else.
Having an ice axe and crampons and knowing how to use them is a fundamental skill required when venturing out in the winter hills. If you head out into the hills and it’s frozen underfoot, you’ve got no real purchase on the ground. If you were to slip, your clothes are like Teflon, how will you stop? Simply buying an ice axe and crampons is not the solution; you must be familiar with how to use them. Your crampons need to fit your boots properly. You need to be efficient at putting crampons on with your gloves on so that you don’t suffer any cold injuries from exposing skin to the cold weather. You need to make sure you get your ice axe out before you are committed to steeper terrain. Walking poles are great for balance and support but they aren’t designed to replace an axe in winter.
If you are not sure about heading into the hills in winter on your own why not book on a Plas y Brenin winter skills course to develop your confidence and knowledge.
This article originally appeared in Summit magazine, published by the British Mountaineering Council, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.