Your ultimate guide to safe winter walking
Andy Bateman has instructed and guided for over 20 winter seasons in Scotland’s uncompromising mountains in the Cairngorms and beyond. Conditions can vary from blue skies and winter wonderland to raging blizzard, hurricane force winds and visibility of mere meters. Here are a few of his expert winter skills tips:
1. Carry your crampons in your rucksack
Unless your rucksack has a facility specifically for carrying crampons safely on the outside, they should be in a crampon bag inside your rucksack when not on your boots. They are heavy items of kit and can easily work loose when attached with exterior straps or bungee. Crampons carried on the outside can also be a source of injury for other members of the party.
2. Boots with good soles
At the begging of each winter season, check the condition of the soles of your boots. If they are worn it may be time to get them resoled or replaced. Having sharp(ish) edges to your soles means they will be effective at gripping and kicking into hard icy snow.
3. …and rigid boots
The snow and ice conditions can be as varied as the weather that creates them. Don’t limit the techniques at your disposal before you’ve even set foot on the mountain. Your boot is as much a tool as your ice-axe or crampons. B1 boots are often too flexible to effectively kick steps in hard snow; if you try to front point the toes they tend to bend up and drop the heel, causing the wearer to fall backwards. Wear B2, or fully rigid B3, boots.
4. Length of ice axe shaft
There are a few situations where a long shaft is an advantage but they are outweighed by the number of situations where a short shafted axe is your best bet. Go for an axe with a relatively straight shaft and no longer than 55cm.
5. Don’t be too ambitious
Remember in winter trekking your rucksack will be heavier, plus the extra weight of winter boots and crampons on your feet, the underfoot conditions and having to check the map more frequently all conspire to slow your pace. On top of this there are fewer daylight hours. It’s important that you’re not over ambitious with your route plan to prevent being caught out.
6. Is all that kit you’re carrying necessary?
Your rucksack is already heavier with all the necessary gear required by winter. Heavy boots, crampons and underfoot conditions will sap energy and slow you down. Don’t burdern yourself further with superfluous kit by considering whether an item is necessary for the day. At the same time, be sure you have everything you need.
7. Hydration bladders can easily freeze
Even with an insulated jacket around the tube, once the temperature drops below -3 deg C hydration bladders tend to easily freeze. You are better off with a water bottle on your sack.
8. Ice axe leashes
There are situations where an ice axe leash is an advantage but there are also a good number of situations where they can be a hazard. Have an arrangement where the leash can be easily add or removed from the head of the axe, i.e. tie a loop in the end of the leash and larks-foot it through the head of the axe.
9. Cold hands?
Remember, as your core temperature cools your body reduces your circulation to your extremities, like your hands. So if you have cold hands it may well be worth considering putting an extra layer on, as well as warmer gloves.
10. Take regular short breaks
Your body can burn up 40% more calories just by keeping itself warm. Winter conditions and heavy gear add to your bodies energy demands. Standing around for more than 10 minutes can mean folks start to get chilled. Schedule in regular breaks where possible. I find a 10 min break after every 80 min of walking is optimal.
Why do it? Because this is why it’s worth it.