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Winter walking

written by Sam Harrison in March 2011

Whilst walking in summer can be challenging and exciting, winter walking is a completely different ball-game. The onset of snow and ice can make well-trod paths lethal and navigation tricky at best. It does, however, bring new opportunities and pushes the grassy hills and rocky mountains we know and love to a whole new stunning and often exhilarating level.

We at the club love our winter walking and want you to enjoy it as much as we do. To do this in a safe and comfortable manor, take heed of the points below which aim to outline the key elements that you need to familiarise yourself with, along with extra gear you may need and external sources of information to read more about the subject.
  • Experience in the summer is essential. If you're new to hiking then starting in winter conditions is definitely not a good idea. Getting comfortable with the hills over the summer is essential before tackling the more challenging season of winter.
  • Bring lots more gear. It's amazing how cold it can be on the summit of a mountain compared to at its base. Extra gear you'll need includes:
    • Plenty of layers. The key to comfortable winter walking is lots of layers that you can adjust when needed. Always take spares, just in case. To expand on this, you'll generally find 4 use cases for layers: Standing around camp in the cold, starting your hike and warming up, taking off a layer when you get hotter, then putting a layer back on if you have a break of more than a few minutes.
    • More than one pair of gloves. The most common complaint by far over the winter is cold hands. Make sure you have a nice thick pair of gloves (or even better, mitts) in case you start to suffer, or your other pair get wet. Mountain guides on the Winter Skills course often use Snow Shepherd Gloves (from as little as £15) as a main pair, and Dachstein mitts if their hands get cold. Dachsteins WILL warm your hands up, they're probably the best glove investment you could make.
    • Buff up. Buffs are all the rage at the moment, and quite rightly so as they provide a versatile way to protect the exposed areas of your face from a chill wind. Of course you don't have to buy a buff, but at least a hat and balaclava of some sort is recommended.
    • Head torch. As we don't start our walks until quite late in the morning (due to time constraints with the minibuses), during the winter it's quite common to be walking into the dark. It's essential you bring along at least a torch, and it'll make your life a lot easier if you invest in a head torch (Starting as low as £5 on amazon, but some of the best lights can be found on websites such as Gearbest, from brands like Fenix, Nitecore, Skillhunt, Convoy, etc. Torches can be found in the £15-£50 price range that will light up a room.) Oh, and don't forget the spare batteries!
    • Ice axe and crampons. The club will provide these so don't worry about buying your own.
    • A nice hot drink. Not on the essential list, but you can't go wrong with a nice warm cup of smoky tea on a cold winter's day.
    • Goggles. Until you're in a full on blizzard you won't appreciate what a life-saver goggles can be. Highly recommended if you're planning on doing a lot of winter stuff.
    • Crampon-compatible boots. Not all boots are designed to be worn with crampons, and having the wrong kind of boots can not only make walking harder work, but also put your life in danger. The occasional snow field shouldn't pose any problems, but if you're planning on doing any steeper ascents then having a stiff soled boot to match your crampons is essential. This guide explains the boot and crampon grading system very well.
  • Work your way up the grades. Take it easy at first and do some simple winter walks to get used to using crampons and ice axes. Don't jump straight into winter scrambles or narrow ridges until you're confident on flatter ground first.
  • Navigation on a whole different level. We're very fortunate at the club to have a great team of dedicated leaders, so unless you fancy becoming a leader yourself, you won't have to worry about navigation. However, if you do plan to go out on your own over winter, be sure you're completely confident with a compass and are happy pacing out and estimating times in the case of a white-out.

Crampons and ice axe

These are two items of gear that you don't want to be without during the winter months - but don't worry, as the club has a large supply which we lend out to our members on club trips for free!

An ice axe is used on steeper ground, firstly for support, but also to "self-arrest" yourself should you slip and start to slide down the slope. If you've never used an ice axe before, then ask one of the more experienced members on the walk and we'll be happy to demonstrate how to hold it and how to self-arrest. You should hold the ice axe in the uphill hand to make self-arresting easier.

Crampons are those pointy things you attach to your boots, that dig into the snow and ice and make traversing icy slopes possible. It is important that you have the right kind of boots for crampons, and for this reason boots come with a crampon-compatibilty grading which is explained well here. If you're not sure that your boots are crampon compatible, bring them along to Faraday Foyer and we'll check for you.

Grading system

Certain ground can be deemed tricky enough to warrant a winter climbing grade, which is expressed in Roman numerals in ascending order of difficulty. Grade I is a great starting place for ambitious walkers with a head for heights - it's definitely not a great starting place for those without at least a small amount of experience with crampons and ice axe however. Grade II, although only one numeral higher, is a big step up. Picking a grade II for your first winter walk would be reckless, but with a few grade Is under your belt it becomes much more achievable. Some notable examples include:
  • Grade I - Striding and Swirral Edges. A great place for your first winter ridge scramble, these edges only just make it onto the grading system, being sufficiently wide enough to make you feel comfortable.
  • Grade I - CMD Arete. Pictured above, this ridge links Carn Mor Dearg to Ben Nevis and is arguably one of the best ways up "The Ben". Like Striding and Swirral Edges, it is also sufficiently wide enough for those not-so fond of heights, and makes a great introduction to winter scrambling.
  • Grade I - Crib Goch. Moving up the grade a bit, Crib Goch is a must-do on most winter mountaineer's lists. The ridge is narrow and exposed, making it trickier than the two examples above, but again it's technically easy and a winter walker with a modest scrambling background shouldn't have any problems. Best enjoyed in good firm snow conditions.
  • Grade I/II - Sharp Edge. This classic scramble up Blencathra offers a great way to start moving up the grades. More technical than those listed above, this ridge is achievable by those with a few grade Is under their belt.
  • Grade II - Aonach Eagach. Often described as "Crib Goch on steroids", the (in)famous Anoach Eagach is a contender for the most spectacular ridge in mainland Britain. In winter the Aonach Eagach has a hint of Alpinism about it and should certainly be treated as a major mountaineering expedition.

Useful links

Weatherline - daily weather and snow condition reports for the Lake District during the winter months.
High Trek Snow Report - snow condition reports for Snowdonia during the winter months.
MWIS - Mountain weather forecast for all areas of the UK.
Met Office - The Met Office's own mountain weather forecast for most areas of the UK.
SAIS - sportscotland Avalanche Information Service, providing avalanche forecasts during the winter months.