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How To Prepare For Scrambling In Winter

Scrambling is a classic mountain climbing technique, where you use your hands and feet to navigate a steep section of terrain. The UK has hundreds of scrambling routes, mostly in Scotland, Wales, and the Lake District and Peak District in England.

They are a good challenge for people who already have some mountain walking experience under their belt, but are not quite ready to move onto rock climbing with ropes and harnesses.

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) classifies scrambling routes according to the level of difficulty, from grades 1 to 3. This is to help people choose a route which is well matched to their current experience and state of physical fitness. However, another important factor to take into consideration is the weather.

Scrambling in winter conditions can be a whole different ball game to scrambling on a sunny day in summer. Someone who has only completed the Aonach Eagach ridge hike in favourable summer conditions for example, will definitely need to do some extra preparation before tackling it in winter.

The UK weather is notoriously unpredictable, and some winter days can be dry and calm, presenting no great extra difficulties. In this case, the only major change you need to bear in mind is the shorter days—set off at first light, pack torches, spare batteries and extra food, and plan to be off the mountain by sunset.

Conditions which are wet, windy, foggy, cold, snowy, or icy present much greater challenges. In some cases, a typical winter day can contain all of these elements, turning a grade 1 scramble into a grade 3, and a grade 3 into something that should only be tackled by the most experienced of winter climbers, if at all.

Follow the weather forecast closely in the days before your climb, and if you have any doubts about your ability to cope, postpone it for a better day rather than overreach yourself.

Get comfortable with winter kit

In Snow and ice, two essential pieces of kit are crampons and an ice axe. Crampons are metal plates with spikes on them, which fit onto the soles of your boots. Walking in them can take a bit of practice, so don’t wait until you are half way up a mountain to try them out. Break them in on some gentle slopes close to home first of all.

In wet or icy conditions, even grade 1 scrambles may require ropes and other climbing equipment to navigate them safely, so make sure that at least one or two members of your party is experienced at using these.

Watch out for verglas

Verglas is a thin glaze of ice on a rock, which can be invisible to the human eye, but extremely hazardous underfoot. An experienced climber will know when to use ropes in this situation, but it may catch out a less practiced winter climber. The same goes for wet conditions, which can make rocks more slippery.

Consider the geology and geography of the scramble

The type of rock can make a big difference in winter. For example, the gabbro (a coarse-grained igneous rock) which is abundant on the Skye Cuillin range is a good grippy rock. However, some sections are made up of smoother and slipperier basalt.

Most ridges are very exposed, and this makes them extremely dangerous in high winds. If strong winds are forecast, consider postponing your hike, or look for more sheltered routes.

Windy conditions also increase the likelihood of avalanches. This can be an overlooked risk in the UK, because many people assume they only occur in higher altitudes, such as the Alps. However, they are also a hazard in the Scottish Highlands, and you should check the avalanche reports for your intended routes before you set out.

Peak avalanche conditions occur when snow has been lying on mountains or hills for several days or more, and wind speeds are over 15mph. According to the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, most avalanches occur on slopes steeper than 30°.

Warmer temperatures can cause rapid instabilities of the snowpack at mountain summits, while consistent colder temperatures at 900m or below causes instabilities in the snowpack.

It is therefore vital to plan your route carefully in advance, listen to the avalanche warning forecast, and make sure you have good navigation skills to avoid accidently straying into avalanche prone territory. This is especially important if you are tackling more complex terrain in typical winter conditions.

It is also helpful to talk to experienced local climbers who will have plenty of knowledge and experience to pass on.

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