Winter is when the Scottish hills mutate into proper mountains which need as much respect as 8000m peaks in the Himalayas. Every year there are reports of people going missing or dying in the Scottish hills. Though most people don’t realise it, it is relatively common for avalanches to go off in Scotland as well as in the Alps. Anywhere you find snow and steep slopes, there could be avalanches. Before you consider going out in winter you do need to be aware of the additional hazards and take them into consideration when making your plans. It is sensible to think of booking a winter walking guide.
If you are thinking about starting some winter walking it is extremely important to make sure you get some safety training. There are always deaths in the hills in winter. Safety training is not a guarantee that you will never have an accident but it does minimise the risk. It is important to realise though that as with all skills, you must practise. If you don’t, then the skill won’t be useful to you. For example:
on a winter skills course in the UK you are always taught “ice axe arrest” as one of the skills you will need to prevent a sliding fall. Can you imagine slipping on ice on a mountainside? The speed you achieve in a very short space of time will amaze you. Reaching for your ice axe and using it the correct way, needs to be instinctive. This takes practise as does assessing snow and ice conditions and knowing the local terrain.
Planning to go out winter walking? You’ll need to book a skills course or a guide to make a start.
Qualifications to look for:
If you are considering hiring a guide/leader you need to make sure that they have one of the following qualifications:
Winter Mountain Leader (WML) – lead groups of hill walkers in winter conditions
Mountaineering Instructor Certificate (MIC) – instructing the skills of snow and ice climbing
British Mountain Guide (BMG) – required to guide climbing (including the coaching of lead climbing) skiing and mountaineering on rock, snow & ice, and in alpine terrain
Unless you are yourself, considering leading groups in the winter mountains, there is no need to go to the extent of committing yourself to this level of training. The courses take a commitment of months or years and previous training. For pleasure, you would only need to consider a winter skills course or winter mountaineering course, which can be provided by the above instructors.
A skills course is not the solution for everyone. After all, just learning the technical skills is not the learning journey, you still need to know how to deal with the added challenge of navigating in winter. Many people prefer the security of taking a winter walking guide because of the added challenges of the winter weather.
Scot Mountain Holidays delivers a series of winter walking holidays, expeditions and challenges. We can also arrange a private winter walking guide for you (and your group) if you are unable to join an organised group.
The main difference between our 2 winter skills courses is that there is not enough time on the 2 day course to cover the essential skill of winter navigation. We do run a separate winter navigation course over 2 days.
If our dates or our format doesn’t suit you please use our directory below to find a course or holiday which suits your requirements
We’ve scheduled a new trip for winter 2018. We’re going to be based in Glencoe for a week in March bagging some tasty Munros. It’s a new venture for us so we’ve looked for some spectacular images to illustrate the trip. On a search of Flickr, we found John McSporran. John has kindly agreed not only to lend us some of his spectacular Glencoe images, but he’s also written a brief summary of why he personally finds Glencoe such a fascinating area to explore.
I first began photographing Glencoe about 20 years ago. It is one of those places where the weather is always changing, the light can be fantastic one minute and terrible the next. It can be mean and moody, mystical and magical, but always interesting and frequently awe inspiring. Even on horrible days, that fleeting moment when a beam of light strikes the mountains makes it all worth while.
About 10 years ago I realized that if I wanted the best photos of Glencoe I needed to get high. That’s when I began climbing its mountains. Then I realized that I needed to be ‘up top’ for sunrise and sunset (the golden hours). That’s when I climbed in the dark using a head torch. Then I began to camp out up top. Then I went ‘full on’ and climbed in the dark in mid winter using an ice axe and crampons – just for that one great photograph. Carrying 25 kilos / 55 lbs of camping and photography gear to the top of a mountain can be hard (particularly when in your late 50’s), but the experience of stunning sunrises and sunsets in Glencoe makes it all worth while.
I have met hundreds of people on the Scottish mountains, some I meet many times, some only once, but there is a community spirit amongst those who climb mountains, especially photographers – solitary committed people whose hard shell cracks as soon as we begin to swap stories.
My favourite Glencoe mountains are Beinn a’Chrulaiste and Buachaille Etive Beag. They are not the hardest or the tallest, but they provide the best viewpoints and give sweeping panoramas of the others.
Other favourite locations are:
There are so many great locations, you are spoiled for choice.
We have a saying in Scotland – if you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes, it will change. I hope you enjoy your visit to Glencoe.
For more information on walking in the Highlands
Scotland – “the most beautiful country in the world” as voted by Rough Guide – it’s now on a lot of bucket lists, not that it wasn’t before. In autumn, the whole of Scotland can be particularly beautiful. The trees start to turn the most amazing shades of red, brown, orange and yellow which contrast beautifully with the deep green of the pines. Unfortunately, in general, there are just not as many people around wanting to tour or visit the Highlands. A lot of businesses up here start to close up shop and think about maintenance or their own holiday. So if late autumn is your time to visit to Scotland, you might have to consider some compromises.
Here are some of our top tips:
Timetables start to change after the end of September and you’ll find that some bus services might cease altogether. Ferries are also a lot less frequent.
If you want to hit all the places on your bucket list, particularly if you want, to head out to the islands it would be a bonus to hire a car. If you have to rely on public transport you could end up using a lot of your valuable vacation time waiting around for the next bus or ferry.
The hire car companies certainly don’t suffer from timetable changes in the autumn. In fact, it will probably be easier to get hold of the car you want as there will be less of a demand. You won’t need to plan so far in advance if you want to hire a car.
Points to remember:
Remember your driving licence and check that it is acceptable to the hire company. We have had guests who have had to amend their entire planned itinerary when the hire company didn’t accept the international driving licence they’d arranged.
If you’re not confident about hiring a car it might be worth your while investigating a tailor-made tour with a small company like Scot Mountain Holidays, it will be more expensive than a DIY tour but you’ll get to hit all the spots on your bucket list and may even have time for some surprises. Travelling with local guides also means that you’ll be able to visit places you haven’t heard about which may give you more of an insight and end up being the highlight of your trip.
You could also try booking with one of the minibus tour operators like the Wee Red Bus or Rabbies – but even they tend to travel less frequently in the autumn and you may not be able to get over to places like Skye unless you time your trip very carefully.
You’ll need to pick and choose your attractions carefully as a lot of places start to close in October including the Highland Folk Museum. But on the plus side, you’ll probably pick up some bargain entries as well. Dalwhinnie distillery, for example, are now offering free tours all “winter”.
The hills are never closed. There are good weather periods throughout the autumn though September is renowned for being the best month for sunshine. It is still possible to strike sunny days in October and November. The only thing to be aware of (which most people come prepared for) is that blue skies in autumn also mean cold days. Finally a chance to wear the woolly jumpers (sweaters) which have been gathering dust at the bottom of your wardrobe.
Clear, cold air also brings excellent photo opportunities
Don’t forget: headtorch
The natural tracks are never closed but be aware that some trail centres might close up. This year (2017) Glenlivet mountain bike trails have had to close for the winter due to a fungus in their lodge pole pines. A huge area of the centre will have to be clear felled to protect the remaining trees from the fungus. Autumn is in general an amazing time to go biking in Scotland and particularly in the Highlands. You can just cover that bit more ground when cycling and with the shorter days, it makes sense to go out on the bike and make the most of the day which you might still be able to finish in daylight.
Main disadvantage would be that the temperatures can get quite uncomfortable for biking, especially at the beginning and end of the day but all you need to do to combat this is to dress up warmer than usual, particularly on your hands and feet. (Check next week’s blog for top tips on how to keep warm on your bike with input from our local biking companies.) The views and colours will be a reward in themselves – and you can justify the hot chocolate(s) and cake(s). The cafe stops will help to keep you warm!
Lights, gloves, warm footwear.
Sitmat and thermos flask
It might seem mad to go and deliberately get yourself wet at this time of year, but as with all outdoor activities in autumn the light and colours nature provides are a reward in themselves. The water temperatures are also some of their warmest too after a whole summer of above freezing weather. (Cairngorm swimmers are still swimming in Loch Morlich – but perhaps they are hardier than most of us.)
It is of course much easier to book a slot to kayak or go on the zip wire and you can afford to be a bit more spontaneous rather than be tied to a slot no matter the weather.
It will generally be much quieter everywhere you go, than the height of the summer season, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. You will probably find most people, including the staff at any attractions you visit, more prepared to spend time chatting to you.
The days will be shorter, but you’ll really appreciate a log fire at the end of the day.
Traditional Scottish cuisine comes into its own at this time of year as this is the weather hearty food was designed for. You won’t really get to enjoy the wonderful Scottish soft fruits unless you’re here a wee bit earlier, but wild mushrooms, venison and wild cowberries will be in season.
Walking comes in many different guises from dog walking to marathon walking. Perhaps then there’s a reason why “hiking” is becoming much more common usage for wild walking, long-distance and mountain walking. Hiking in summer and walking in winter can almost be classed as 2 different sports.
You might be a keen walker. Alternatively you might have started to develop an interest in walking later in life. You might be walking for health reasons or you might be Munro bagging. Whatever the reason, once you turn to hiking in the mountains, sooner or later you might want to extend your season so you can continue to hike all year round. You’ll want to go walking in winter.
Hiking in winter has its own distinct rewards from unending views in crystal, clear air conditions to solitude and glistening fresh snow, unblemished by evidence of other people. There are however also obvious hazards and also some aspects to winter walking/hiking, which you might not have considered.
In Scotland the winter mountains will almost invariably have snow on them for at least part of the winter. We live in hope that the season will be longer and the snow will remain, but this year, 2017, even the most stubborn of snow patches melted away completely. It’s nearly the end of October already and there’s as yet no sign of the white stuff returning. Still if you are considering some winter hiking, make sure you have received some formal training in the skills you need to remain safe in winter conditions. There is nothing more sapping than cold weather.
There are a surprising number of avalanches in Scotland but most of them go un-witnessed and hence unreported. Fortunately we do have a very good avalanche information service, especially in the Cairngorms. Throughout the winter they produce a daily report of the avalanche risk. With formal training and a bit of experience, you can learn to interpret the report so that you pick the safest route for the day.
Making sure you have the proper boots for winter is essential. “Your boot is as much as tool as your crampons and ice axe” is a sentence often repeated by our own Andy Bateman when he is talking to winter novices. You must have stiff boots rated as B2 or above. However, the problem with the boots is that they weigh a lot more than boots you will be used to walking in and they are so much stiffer that they force you to walk in a slightly different gait from usual. Over the course of a couple of days, the difference in the boots can take its toll on you. You legs and feet will feel a lot more tired than they usually do for the same amount of summer walking.
Take care when wearing winter boots. Try to baby your feet a wee bit and if you have the opportunity a little bit of simulation will stand you in good stead, even if people give you funny looks when you clump along the beach promenade or up and down the city streets in monster boots.
Your pack, whether for an expedition or a day walk, is inevitably going to be bigger in winter. Not only will you need more in your lunch, but you’ll also need space for the additional gear: your ice axe, your crampons, thicker, warmer gloves etc. You’ll need to be ready for the extra weight.
TOP TIP: always try to pack your crampons within your pack as if you have them tied to the outside of your pack, you run the risk of losing one or both of them quite easily.
In winter Scotland’s hills become mountains due to the severity of the weather conditions. There are regularly winds over 100 miles an hour in storms and though you might not plan to be out in conditions like that, even experienced mountaineers can get caught out. A friend of ours was once out in the Cairngorms when the weather turned. He and his party ended up almost crawling out as they were getting blown over when they stood up. The wind was even strong enough to take a head torch off one of their heads.
It’s not only the colder weather which helps to burn up more calories. You do have to carry more stuff with you when you go out hiking in winter. The additional weight will help to burn more calories at the end of the day. But always remember, if you put more calories in than you consume you won’t be losing weight. Just heading out for a hike is not a guarantee that you will lose weight – if that is your aim. You need to balance out keeping warm with the number of calories you consume. You don’t want to be cold, but neither do you want to overeat.
Cold air carries less moisture than warm air and therefore produces better visibility. It is warm air streams which bring precipitation. There is some truth to the statement that it is too cold in the arctic to snow.
Fewer people enjoy going out in the cold weather despite the fact that we have amazing gear now which can keep us warm in virtually any conditions. However, this means that those of us who do go out can enjoy a real sense of solitude and space.
There’s nothing better than sharing the story of the day. The warmth of a fire and a cup of tea at the end of the day will be appreciated so much more after being out in cold conditions.
When people come back after a day out in the snow, they almost always have a novel story to share. The risks are greater than in the summer, but then this enhances the benefits too.
If you stop going out in the colder weather, it may be more difficult to get back to your regular hiking than before. The risk of losing your fitness over the winter is greater as you get older. Walking on the treadmill isn’t really an adequate substitute, but if there’s no other choice …
I don’t know why the mountains seem so much more spectacular when covered in snow, but they do. Maybe it’s because they look more pristine. Maybe it’s because if gives them more shape. Whatever the reason, a little snow seems to add some “je ne sais quoi” to the mountain scene.
If you’d like to leap in to winter at the deep end, why not think about a snow hole expedition: not an igloo, a snow hole; not an emergency shelter but a deliberate night out in a purpose built shelter. Check it out: