Even in summer, the majority of hill accidents are caused by lack of adequate navigation skills. In winter snow and ice conditions and more extreme weather, coupled with shorter hours of daylight, make navigation far more difficult. It is often said that ‘winter hillwalking’ in Scotland is a misnomer: if conditions are truly wintry, going into the hills becomes no less than mountaineering.
The jury is out on when winter walking becomes mountaineering and the crossover point will no doubt remain blurred. One definition given is that walking becomes mountaineering when a walker needs to use technical equipment (like axe and crampons) to safely ascend or descend a slope. As winter conditions are often unpredictable and changeable, it is never wise to assume that you will not require axe and crampons: always carry them with you in winter, and of course also know how to use them!
The key to making the right decisions and having an enjoyable outing in winter is to develop the necessary skills, take the right equipment with you and plan ahead. You will also need to be fitter to walk in winter. Breaking trail in snow, carrying a heavier pack, walking in crampons – all these add to the need to be aware of your physical capabilities and limitations.
All of your summer navigation skills will be called upon in winter, and snow and weather conditions mean these will have to be far more accurate. Certainly micro-navigation, needed in tricky situations or bad visibility, are far harder when contours and features are disguised by heavy snow, or you need to detour around tricky features and slopes in the ice.
Preparatory tips to make it easier to focus on your actual navigation in winter:
You will find some good links to Winter Nav information and tips on our Useful Links page.
Winter Equipment: Axe & Crampons
A winter walking boot needs to have a stiff enough sole to take a crampon: summer boots will not do this job safely. The edge of a stiff boots also allows you to kick steps in snow. Crampons must be compatible with your boots: boot/crampon compatibility info can be found here:
https://www.thebmc.co.uk/crampons-for-mortals or through a quick web search. Get advice from an experienced walker before you buy. Ensure your crampons are adjusted to your boots before you get out on the hill!
Practice using axe and crampons on safe slopes with a safe run out initially; in fact this should be standard practice to refresh your skills at the beginning of each winter. Crampons will be odd to walk in at first, and it is very easy to trip yourself up or spike your gaiters. Practice walking with your legs wider apart (knees apart), and with your feet flat to the surface. In wet snow conditions, snow may ball up under the crampon sole and stop the effectiveness of the spikes: keep crampons snow free by regularly tapping them with your axe; or invest in a pair of anti-balling plates instead which can be left attached – it’s worth it! The key skill with crampons is knowing when to put them on; if you wait until you need them, it is usually too late/too difficult to do so. Learn to anticipate conditions as you ascend; and check out snow conditions and recent weather before you set off to aid your judgement. The same judgement applies to the point where walking poles should be put away in favour of the more secure axe: poles cannot stop a slide if you slip. Anticipate, don’t wait until the terrain is too difficult to gear up.
Your axe is your key piece of equipment in winter. It is essential for stability, cutting steps, an additional point of contact with the slope, digging (snow profiling; snow holes) and of course a brake in the event of a slip. Keep your axe in your uphill hand for maximum assistance. Practice arresting a fall with the axe until it becomes automatic – and remember a fall is always unplanned, so practice head-first, backwards, eyes closed…..on a safe slope with friends this can be tiring but good fun! For technique see Winter Skills on our Useful Links page; or watch it at:
Avalanche Risk and Snow Profiling
Stronger winds in winter, combined with low temperatures, leads to severe wind chill temperatures. Make sure you have really warm clothes – a layering system works the best – and spare ones in case of an emergency. Always check weather and avalanche forecasts, and keep an eye on weather conditions in the days prior to your hill outing. Temperature changes will affect the snowpack, which will affect your route decision (whether due to avalanche risk or simply for ease of walking!).
Avalanches are quite common in Scotland, hazardous conditions building up as the result of a combination snowfall and wind and temperature changes acting on it. Being able to make a judgement about whether a snow-laden slope is safe or not is a key winter skill.
Snow is deposited in successive layers as the winter progresses. These layers may have different physical properties and an avalanche occurs when one layer slides on another (surface avalanche), or the whole snow cover slides on the ground (full-depth). Avalanches can also be made up of dry powder snow (more common in the Alps than the UK), wet snow (usually thaw conditions) or Wind Slab (most common in UK) when one layer of snow is weakly bound to the one below and fractures/shears off.
Locations where avalanches can occur can be largely predicted, and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service is an excellent tool to help you plan your route in advance. The sportscotland Avalanche Information Service launched a new avalanche mapping system in 2011which presents a visual indication of avalanche occurrences throughout Scotland. Mountain users can now see the full extent of avalanches that have taken place and been recorded by the avalanche service since 1990. Up to 3000 avalanches have been placed on maps, which can be viewed on the SAIS website at http://www.sais.gov.uk/
For further information and how to report an avalanche online see http://www.mcofs.org.uk/news.asp?s=2&id=MCS-N10688&nc . SAIS are urging mountain users to report avalanche occurrences using this form. This helps to verify avalanche hazard, but most crucially, to provide important information to others who intend to go into the hills, helping with decision making and enabling good route choice in the winter mountains.
Remember that avalanches can happen anywhere in Scotland, not just at the 5 climbing areas covered, but SAIS gives information on slope aspects at risk, why and at what height, which you can apply elsewhere.
Planning is all very well, but once out on the hill you will need to be able to make your own assessment of the particular slope you wish to cross or ascend. Even with advanced knowledge of conditions, localised avalanche hazards can exist within a low risk area. Learn how to profile the snow by performing a slab test. This will enable you to assess the different layers of snow, and test how well they are bonded together. More good info at: http://www.mcofs.org.uk/avalanche-safety-advice.asp#snowpack
Cornices are another serious winter hazard. These are consolidated banks of snow which project (often for some way) over the edge of a ridge or plateau, which can be unstable enough to collapse under a person’s weight. Unfortunately possible fractures lines are usually some way back from the actual hill edge, so you must stay well back from the edge to stay safe, which can be harder than it sounds in bad visibility. If you are unsure, err on the side of caution.