Tips for a safer Winter in the UK hills
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
I have put together a few tips on things to think about as the first snows have started to pass through the mountains. This is by no means a definitive list but hopefully a few pointers on things to think about. Perhaps the most pertinent thing at the moment will be whether its even possible to get to the hills this season as the Covid pandemic continues to disrupt almost everything.
The winter environment can be harsh easily catching out the ill'equipped. Being warm and dry is essential, having the means to navigate, eat and drink are all vital so make sure to spend some time looking at the right equipment needed and what you might need should things get unpleasant. Clothing, waterproofing and footwear that can take some punishment while keeping you warm and dry on long days is vital. Unfortunately the cheap gear is far less effective so it is worth digging a little deeper for the often turbulent winter conditions but a good google search should throw up some bargains. Look for reputable companies with a track record in providing good quality mountain kit.
Its also pretty wet in the winter so be sure to have your sack sorted out with dry bags to keep things safe and ready for when needed. There is nothing worse than reaching into your sack to switch wet gloves only to find the spares are sitting in a pool of melting snow in the sack, or worse still the pork pie is waterlogged.
One of the most important bits of kit will be whats on your feet. A good pair of winter boots is essential. Ones which keep your feet warm and dry are important. The other vital element is to make sure they have a good stiff sole for stability on snow and ice and take a crampon. Your boots and feet are what attach you to the mountain so make sure they are comfy and fit for purpose. There are hundreds of reviews online so take some time to source the right thing for you.
This is a vital part of the day and will begin well before the day itself. A keen eye should be kept on the weather, snowfall (and Covid tier) well before your weekend out to give a good indication of what the conditions in the mountains are before you get there. This coupled with knowing your ability and experience level should be the starting blocks for planning any winter mountain day. The obvious weather sites, the avalanche information service and a good deal of chatter on the UK Climbing and UKHillwalking forums all serve as valuable reading.
Another great source of information can be to look and see who's gone before. There are a large number of blogs and social media accounts from those working and playing in the mountains. Their posts often daily gives a goo idea of current condition and all this helps in building that all important bank of information to aid with making plans for the weekend escape. Be aware on the blogs that a rosier picture can be painted than is actually the case. One thing I feel is important to point out is that all these sources should be taken into account to help build a picture and one source is not a definitive answer. The more information you're armed with the more the informed the decision.
Know how to Navigate
This can't be stressed enough. Trying to navigate back to the car from windswept summit in dwindling light isn't the time to learn. A prominent reason for many incidents and accidents is not being able to navigate. This leads people into difficult ground, the wrong way or just plain lost. People also tend to overlook one of the most fundamental skills by over reliance on GPS devices, phone apps etc. But the single most important skill is to be able to read and understand a map. Make sure that you have a good confident and solid understanding of the map and also what the effect on many of the features are blanketed in snow means.
A top tip would be too always make sure you know where you have come from and how long it took you to get to where you are. Its always worth, even in clear seemingly harmless weather to check regularly the time and your position which should enable you to retrace your route if the weather deteriorates. Of course these days there are numerous technological advances that are worth using but do have those basic skills in place for when the Americans switch off the GPS system or your iPhone meets an untimely end.
Be Avalanche aware
Many may think that avalanches are the preserve of the Alps and Greater Ranges and that the UK doesn’t generate the snowfall needed for avalanches. Those people would be wrong with that assumption and often at great cost. Avalanches do occur and although perhaps not the big thundering airborne slides you see further afield but burials can and do occur. But even small slides can be enough to take you off your feet over cliff edges and through nasty ground having just as deadly consequences as any big avalanche. These days there are plenty of information outlets to help gather knowledge before a winter day. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service puts out a daily report through the winter season in the main mountain areas of Scotland. This is an invaluable tool. The SAIS website also has numerous tools, games and information to soak up on the mechanics of avalanches. A basic understanding of weather and its effect on fresh and lying snowfall on the existing snow pack are all key skills for the winter mountaineer. Scottish avalanches are generally caused by the effect of wind on fresh or lying snow blowing onto the lee slope creating a bank of windslab. Get to know what windslab looks, sounds and feels like and how to tell where this might have built up.
Eat and drink and be merry
It's very important to be hydrated and have plenty of energy to get through a day of wading in snow while leaning into a strong wind. Eating serves to both give you the energy needed for what can be a very rigorous day of wading and battling the elements but also to keep warm. A water bottle can sometimes make a swig of icy cold water unappealing in a blizzard so its worth taking a flask of hot juice, tea or coffee. The important factor is that you are putting fluids in little and often. People often take a little extra food just in case the day turns out longer or something goes wrong and your out for a lot longer than expected. I think the days of having emergency bars of twenty year old Kendal mint cake at the bottom of the bag 'just in case' are gone. Better to just take plenty of food with you.
Axe and crampons
'There is no such thing as winter walking only mountaineering' Sir Chris Bonington
The obvious difference between summer and winter mountains is the covering of snow and ice and with that comes and the need to have axe and crampons. You don’t want to fall foul of the old adage ‘all the gear and no idea’. It’s not sufficient just to just have them with you its vital that you know how to use them. Make sure that you know which way to carry the axe and use it as a self arrest device in the event of a slip or slide. But prevention is better than cure and solid footwork is the key. You don't tend to meet many people who have had to make a serious self arrests and I should think largely that is due to it not working and sadly not being here to tell the tale. A self arrest in anger is a last ditched attempt to save your life. So ensuring that your stable and surefooted in crampons is essential. Scotland isn't all squeaking across perfect neve and can be over snowed up rock, ice, snow drifts, frozen turf and sometimes all within a few metres so being happy on your feet is essential. If you can find a safe spot which won't have serious consequences should you slip then its worth practicing on some different levels of steepness and terrain.
Be flexible and observant
As with all mountain adventures things change and its important that you change with them. All the planning and glossy images depicting what will surely be the best winter weekend in the last ten years can change in heartbeat. With all the observations in the bag and information gathered the most important time for decisions begins when you set foot on the mountain. Keeping eyes open and finding perhaps the wind is not what was forecast and one side of hill is scoured and the other not, rime hangs off the fencepost in a different direction to the one expected, people are heading back off the plateau early as they found the unforecasted wind too much, a dramatic rise and change in temperature making the slopes wet and heavy giving rise to thoughts of a slide should indicate a change in your approach. Those 'rolling risk assessments' are vital and not to be ignored. A mountain day is never set in stone and its dangerous to be singleminded in approach. Its best on occasion to just concede the day is not one for the hills but maybe not. Instead head into town and have a coffee and begin the planning process for another day, there will be plenty more days to come but not if a bout of summit fever kicks in.
Of course an obvious factor is that it should be an enjoyable experience. Years of fun and enjoyment can be had in the winter mountains with the right approach. Worth noting if your not enjoying yourself, then there may be something wrong and perhaps its a signal to return to the valley below. However with some of these tips you should begin to expand your knowledge and hopefully make that day a bit safer and as such more enjoyable.