Why a winter skills course should be on every walker’s list of things to do
The winds blasting along the Allt aâ€™ Mhuilinn trail, as I walked towards the massive cliffs and buttresses of the north face of Ben Nevis, sped at up to 100mph. There was torrential rain, sleet and hailstones. Temperatures were around zero â€“ and often less. I struggled to see or hear anything much around me and at times I was blown off the path and to my knees.
This was my experience during a day of very challenging winter walking in Scotland â€“ and while it wasnâ€™t fun it taught me so much about how to stay safe in the mountains.
Fortunately, I was in the safe hands of Mike Pescod, a British Mountain Guide, during a Winter Skills Course with Abacus Mountaineering, Coaching and Guiding.
We had not ordered the weather conditions but as Mike said: â€œIf you never experience wild and precarious conditions how will you ever know how to cope? Being out with a guide and learning the right skills for winter walking will enable you to become more confident about your own wintry adventures.â€
What is a winter skills course?
There are a host of guides and outdoors companies offering winter skills courses for walkers. At Abacus Mountaineering the course covers:
- Core skills, such as what to wear and how to wear it
- How to use your winter boots, ice axe and crampons
- Avalanche awareness
- Emergency response
- A two-day course includes a snowholing expedition.
Questions to ask yourself before a winter adventure
Do you know how to pack your winter rucksack with â€œjust in caseâ€ situations in mind?
Can you make the right plans according to the weather or avalanche reports?
If the weather suddenly changes, do you think you could survive?
Can you navigate in a white-out, even if your GPS device or smartphone fails?
Do you know how to stay warm and dry for hour after hour in the hills?
Do you know how to walk in crampons and effectively use an ice axe to arrest a fall?
Can you call for emergency help if you get into difficulty?
The exhilaration of winter walking in Scotland
Walking in winter brings many new rewards when compared to the summer, including magical scenery and the thrill of completing a route (walking or climbing) in different conditions.
Instead of hanging up your walking boots in the autumn, itâ€™s possible to enjoy your favourite activity year-round, staying fit and healthy and seeing Scotland from a new perspective.
But walking in winter requires a skill set that isnâ€™t always called upon in summer.
Mike said: â€œI always encourage people to keep on walking whether itâ€™s summer or winter because Scotland is an amazing place whatever the season.
â€œBut I hear all too often that summer walkers are too scared to go out in the winter months. They fear avalanches or they do not feel confident enough to navigate themselves properly or walk in snowy conditions.
“I hear all too often that summer walkers are too scared to go out in the winter months”
â€œThatâ€™s why a winter skills course is such a good idea. Summer walkers can learn the skills they need to walk in the hills and mountains in winter.
â€œThe countryside is there to be enjoyed year round and the magic of a winter walk is hard to beat.â€
Above: Fiona and Mike on the trail of Allt aâ€™ Mhuilinn
What I learned on a winter skills course
Plan ahead: Use weather forecast websites such as MWIS and the avalanche reports site, sportscotland Avalanche Awareness Service, to plan where to walk in winter. Choose areas that will be safer according to weather and avalanche reports. See the blog Introduction of unified avalanche awareness courses
Be flexible: Be prepared to change your original plans so that your walk or climb is enjoyed in â€œsaferâ€ areas of the country. Donâ€™t think: â€œOh, but that was where I wanted to go and I only have today to walk that route.â€ Think instead: â€œBeing safe is the most important factor. Letâ€™s choose a walk where the weather will be better and where there is no risk of avalanches.â€
Walk with other people: Walking solo in Scotland in the winter is dangerous. If something happens you will need the support of a partner to call for help.
But donâ€™t bow to peer pressure: If you are part of a group that has its heart set on a particular walking route be brave enough to disagree if the weather and avalanche conditions do not look favourable. Going with the group opinion might end up with everyone in a difficult and dangerous situation. Come up with alternative plans and suggest these to the group.
Dress for winter: Make sure you have all the right winter weather clothing and kit. Waterproof jackets and trousers, baselayers, gloves, hats and winter walking boots are vital. Add extra layers, spare gloves and baselayers, as well as an insulated or down jacket, to your rucksack. Ski goggles can be a great aid when itâ€™s blowing rain or snow.
Food and water: Walking in winter can be physically challenging so you will burn a lot of calories. And while you might imagine that you will require less hydration this isnâ€™t true. You still lose fluid through sweat and breathing in winter so itâ€™s vital that you have enough water with you to stay hydrated.
Add survival kit: Make sure you also carry an emergency survival bag and a head torch.
Crampons: These are important tools of winter walking but they are useless unless you know how to use them. A winter skills course will show you how to affix crampons to boots (boots need to be three or four season and designed to take crampons) and walk in them. Knowing when and how to use crampons is important for winter walking safety.
Ice axes: An ice axe can be used as a snow prodder, and also as a short walking stick to maintain balance when hiking in snow. If you are on steep snow and you feel yourself slipping, an ice axe can offer a life-saving aid. But you need to learn how to use an ice axe as a form of self-arrest. Thatâ€™s why a winter skills course is so useful! As I found out, learning to utilise an ice axe on a snow slope is a great deal of fun â€“ and also a vital lesson in winter walking safety.
Navigation: A GPS gadget or smartphone app is a great idea but they can fail because of adverse weather or battery failure. It is important in winter that you can navigate the â€œold fashionedâ€ way by map and compass. A winter skills course will help you to brush up your navigation skills and show you how to read the map in often challenging winter conditions, for example when all you can see around you is snow.
It is important in winter that you can navigate the â€œold fashionedâ€ way by map and compass
Emergency calls: Know, before you go, what to do in an emergency situation.
How to keep on walking: There have been times when walking in the winter hills that I have felt so cold and vulnerable that I have simply turned back. Walking with my partner, who is an experienced winter hiker, means that we can safely navigate in all situations but I have suffered from being too cold or being blasted by high winds. Joining a winter skills course on a day of very high winds and bad weather showed me how to cope.
I learned to take better care when walking in winter:
- In high winds, you can steady yourself by holding on to each other, or stopping still when the wind is at a crescendo.
- Tucking the cuffs of my gloves into the arm sleeves of my jacket stops the rainwater soaking the inside of my gloves.
- Tucking all baselayers into waterproof trousers prevents the inevitable rising up of damp and water beneath a jacket.
- Knowing how to properly adjust the hood of a waterproof jacket can be the difference between staying dry and the discomfort of cold rainwater leakage.
- The advantage of waterproof boots and socks.
- The use of ski goggles when snow is blowing into your face!
- What it means to have extra food, snacks and layers when conditions turn against you.
See also “New avalanche awareness initiative”