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Which Winter Skills Do You Need For Mountaineering?

Walking in the mountains in winter is incredibly rewarding, with otherworldly snow-covered landscapes, which test your mettle and give you a glowing sense of achievement. There is nowhere better to see the UK countryside transformed to a magical white wilderness than the Scottish Highlands.

However, these beautiful winter landscapes can also be treacherous, so it is important to be well prepared before embarking on hill and mountain walking during the colder months. Learning winter skills is an ongoing process, which takes years of experience to build up to an expert level.

It’s a huge topic, but there are some basic starting off points to set you on your winter walking journey. The first step is simply to realise that walking in the Highlands in winter is not just a matter of donning a woolly hat and a pair of gloves; it is a wholly different environment which requires specific skills.

Understand the climate

The weather in a typical UK winter is changeable, with frequent high winds, rain, mists, ice, and snow. Many people don’t realise that avalanches are a hazard in the Scottish mountains, because they are not on the dramatic scale seen in the Alps or Himalayas. However, they can be sudden and deadly, so it is important to know how to assess the risk.

Winter days are short, and even small delays can result in walkers being out in darkness, which is known as ‘benighting.’ This carries the obvious risk of falls and getting lost. To avoid this trap, it’s important to be able to navigate well, as paths may be hard to spot in the snow, as even small errors can add an hour or more to your walk.

Pack emergency gear

This brings us to another important point: pack your rucksack with emergency kit, including a headtorch and spare batteries, a bivvy bag or group shelter, plenty of spare food and a thermos for warm drinks, and spare warm waterproof clothing. Take extra gloves, and a balaclava or goggles to keep the wind and snow off your face.

Avoid wearing cotton fabric next to your skin, because it will soak up moisture, but take a long time to dry, making you feel chilled and uncomfortable. Instead, wear breathable layers of sweat wicking fabrics.

Programme the mountain rescue service number into your phone before you set off, and register with the SMS text emergency service in case you have a weak signal.

Learn how to use some basic winter kit

Ice axes and crampons are the two mainstay pieces of equipment for mountain walking in winter. Crampons are a frame with metal spikes, which attach to the sole of your boot. The spikes give you extra grip and traction on snow and ice. Be aware that crampons need boots with a firm sole, or you will have trouble getting them to stay on.

Walking in crampons is a technique that takes a little practice, so it is helpful to read up on some tips, or take a winter walking skills course before your first big climb. This will help you to use them to best effect, and avoid any awkward stumbling around on your first attempt.

At first, you will have to think carefully about the angle at which you place your feet, which can slow you up, so allow for some extra time if you are unused to crampons. You may find that they place extra strain on your ankles and knee joints, so if you are prone to pain in these areas, try a shorter distance first.

Also practice putting them on and taking them off until you are really familiar with the process, because you want to avoid fumbling around in cold, wet and windy conditions for long when you are out on the hill.

Ice axes are used for extra support during ascents and descents. Again, it will be beneficial to learn some techniques in the proper use before setting out. They can also be used for clearing snow and cutting steps, for example.

This article is just touching the surface of a huge topic, so it’s important to do plenty of independent research, talk to experienced mountain guides, and find out as much as you can before embarking on a winter mountaineering adventure. The unforgettable experiences which will reward all your preparation will make it all worth it!

If you are interested in finding out more about a Ben Nevis guided walk, please get in touch today.

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