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All things hiking Skills tips Winter

Choosing an ice axe

winter skills

How to ice axe arrest


There are several factors to consider when choosing an ice axe.

There are 2 reasons why you might need to buy an ice axe:

Your reason will define the type of axe you are looking for


What to look for in a walking ice axe

How do you know if the axe you are looking at is designed for walking or climbing? Traditionally, one of the defining features is the length of the shaft.

The traditional method of choosing a walking ice axe

The traditional mantra: hold the axe by the head with the shaft pointing downwards. The point should be about 2 inches (5cm) from the ground.

Andy’s tip: I never really warmed to this line of thinking. After many years experience as a winter skills instructor, it quickly became apparent to me that this method was outdated.

A walking axe is very much a multi purpose tool with the user asking it to perform a whole number of tasks in a single outing. Some tasks may well be better served by having a longer shaft whilst others are not. It is therefore going to boil down to a bit of a compromise but I would suggest the shaft length for a walking axe should be no longer than 55 cm.

Winter Skills Course Scotland

5 day and 2 day winter skills courses in the Cairngorms

What’s good about a shaft of more than 55cm

Techniques where a shaft length of over 55 cm is advantageous:

  1. Cutting slash steps down the fall line of a steep slope
  2. Self-belay in deep soft snow
  3. Delaying departure down slope in an avalanche? – maybe


What’s good about a shaft of less than 55cm

Techniques where a shaft length of 55 cm and under is advantageous:

  1. Self-belay in anything other than soft deep snow
  2. The various self arrest techniques
  3. Cutting slash steps up hill
  4. Making slash steps ahead of you
  5. Cutting dove tail steps

I’ve found an axe with a long shaft is often ungainly to swing

Andrew Bateman

winter guide

Andy getting excited about snow in the Cairngorms

When you’re thinking about visiting the Pyrenees or the Alps or even the Andes, it would be a good idea before you go to give yourself a bit of a safety head start by learning basic safe movement in winter conditions – try a 2 day winter skills trip.

If you’re going on a guided trip a 2 Day winter skills course should give you enough skills to be safe with your instructor who will take care of the navigation and group management for you.

However you’d like to be more independent in the hills you may want to consider the full 5 day Winter Skills and Navigation course. You’ll learn how to deal with “whiteout” conditions as well as technical safety skills so that you can remain calm no matter what nature throws at you.

For more tips please check out our: Top 10 tips for winter skills or consider why you should want to book a winter skills course

For further guided walking holiday options try our main home page

Winter Gear: time to dust off the winter gear (maybe)

Andy Bateman a qualified Winter Mountain Leader of 20yrs experience gives his winter gear thoughts relative to the forecast for the Cairngorms  Fri 27 Oct  – Thu 2 Nov, 2017.

We are now approaching the end of October and the first bout of proper wintry weather has swept across our hills. There should be another one later this week.

Up to this point, there has been a notable lack of frosts so the ground is going to be relatively warm. Forecast precipitation doesn’t look as if it is going to amount to much. It looks unlikely you will be facing full on conditions. Having said this they are predicting high winds, blizzards and a wind-chill down to -10 deg C for the highest tops so it’s most definitely time to review the kit in your rucksack.

It’s worth noting also: a forecast is only a forecast. Things can change and so in turn can my thoughts below. It is of course imperative that an updated forecast is sort on the evening or morning prior to setting out.

winter boots

Which boots to choose for winter?


At this point in time the crampons are unlikely to be much benefit. They might make it into the boot of the car just in case but there could well be a chance of fresh dusting of lying snow so proper winter boots are most definitely a consideration (B2 or B3). Where you have the ground covered in a thin layer of fresh snow stiff winter boots rather flexible boot with a flexible crampon would be the most likely the preferred choice.

Although no substitute for proper crampon in full winter conditions in these conditions [amazon_textlink asin=’B0172G4S7U’ text=’Kahtoola microspikes’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’1603-8102-0783′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’e836781c-bd95-11e7-b79a-19be9ad20467′] might be an idea.

Navigating in winter

Winter walking in the Cairngorm Mountains, Aviemore, Scotland. 
photograph by David Mansell. Mobile 07831 559901 January 2004.


As is the case at any time of the year but especially now, the body is likely to chill pretty quickly once you come to a stop. That extra thick fleece or an overlay jacket for when you’re not active most definitely can justify its place in the rucksack now.

Hand could also benefit from gloves being thicker. It’s time to be swapping the summer gloves for the winter ones. Another thing to bear in mind is to make sure the rest of your body is adequately insulated. If your torso is warm you will be far more resistant to getting cold hands. Think how the body conserves the core temperature – it restricts the circulation to the extremities e.g. hands. Often folks say it’s just their hands that feel cold and only deal with the affected area. You torso won’t feel cold because the body has compensated but that’s not to say hands won’t benefit from an added layer to the torso.

Warmer leg ware is also a consideration. It might be a case of wearing leggings/long johns


Eye Protection

To state the obvious, eyesight is vitally import in the mountains. Trying to navigate directly into a blizzard can be at best purgatory, at worst nigh impossible. Even relatively light winds can cause snow to hit you directly on the eye ball. It’s not nice. In our damp cold mountain climate condensation is an issue so make sure you equip yourself with some proper anti fog (double lenses) ski goggles. A pair of safety goggles out of a workshop just doesn’t ‘cut the mustard’.



You of course you should be carrying these at any time of the year but now you maybe wearing them for their windproof as much as their waterproof qualities. A jacket with an integral hood is also a must.


Head Torch

It’s now getting dark at around 5:30pm and the clocks are about to go back. The days are now a lot shorter than they were a few months ago. Possibly an earlier start and less ambitious plans are the order of the hill day but most certainly a head torch with fresh batteries should be part of your kit. It should also be one that’s strong enough to navigate in the dark. A powerful beam makes a massive difference.

winter skills course and winter gear

Ice axe arrest on the snowy slopes of Cairngorm, Scotland

Ice axe

If I’m not taking proper crampons I may well at least be thinking about having at least one axe in the party just in case. The forecast is for 2 periods of sub-zero temperatures both lasting around 24hrs so there could be some ice build up where there is seepage emerging from the ground.


We hope to see you out in the hills soon getting ready for the full on winter conditions. If you’re signed up for our newsletter you’ll shortly be invited to join us to bring in the New Year. See you then – hopefully with plenty of the white stuff on the hill!


We run winter skills courses and winter walking holidays in the Cairngorms and across Scotland. We are also specialists in winter expeditions, especially the snowhole. Please see our video below to entice you to join us … some dates only limited availability.


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