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All things hiking Explaining Scotland

Toast in the Cairngorms:

a word of mouth story from the Cairngorms (which may have grown in the telling)

winter munros

The northern corries of the Cairngorms in their winter garb

A guy headed up into the Cairngorms to go winter climbing. He slipped awkwardly and broke his leg. Fortunately he had his mobile phone with him. He rang mountain rescue, who ascertained that he had all the right gear with him and he know where he was; the forecast was good but they were unable to reach him at that time and would send the helicopter in the morning.

Unbeknownst to the climber, just over the brow of the hill, out of his line of sight, was another guy who planned to camp out over night. Each was unaware of the other. The camper woke up in the morning feeling a wee bitty cold so he decided to cook himself some toast over his camping stove.

As he was eating his toast he heard the unmistakable sound of the rescue helicopter. He watched the winchman descend and pick up the stranded climber and thought: “Oh dear, there must have been someone out there all night.” However, he didn’t really think much more about it.

The climber however, was very thankful that he’d been found at last. He said to the winchman: “Thank God you came to get me. I was beginning to hallucinate. I thought I could smell toast.”

Cairngorms mountain rescue helicopter

Yellow Whirlie Bird in action in the Cairngorms

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Be safe and be prepared when heading out in the hills at any time of year, especially winter.

If you are looking for some help refreshing your skills for winter, please don’t hesitate to contact us

 

Related blogs

1. The most amazing snow hole group

2. Why do we call it Hogmanay?

3. Where are the bears?

4. Why come to Scotland in winter?

5. How to prepare for a winter skills course?

 

Deciding to book a winter skills course is a matter of safety in the hills. You definitely don’t want to be the one who’s on the wrong end of a call to mountain rescue. Most rescue callouts stem from navigational error, but not being prepared for the wild conditions can be a contributing factor. The Cairngorms offer some of the most consistent full-on winter conditions for the aspiring winter walker. Learning here under the expert tutelage of experienced, qualified guides is an experience which will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.

 

– more than just learning how to use your ice axe and crampons.

 Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays gives you some of his experience as a result of 20 years of coaching winter skills and navigation in the Cairngorms.

 

As the first snows arrive on the mountains many hang up their hiking boots. They wait until spring to go out again. Yet if you continue to head out throughout the winter, you could have some sensational days out. Cold air holds less moisture so on a clear day the views go in forever, the horizon crystal clear. The wonderful Jack Frost creation that is rime ice marks the air flow aroundevery stone and boulder. This is all the result of freezing hill fog on the wind. Older lying snow is scoured by the wind to produce the wonderful flutings. These are called Sustrugi. All these natural sculptures interplay with the soft light of a winters day.

winter skills course scotland

All kinds of natural sculptures appear in the hills during winter

Photo caption & credit: The snow turns the Cairngorm plateau into a place of beauty (taken by Andy Bateman, Scot Mountain Holidays)

Of course this environment isn’t without its hazards. It is no place for the ill prepared. Once trained in the essential winter skills there’s a very special sense of privilege. This comes from being able to exist confidently and comfortably in this hostile yet pristine and beautiful winter wonderland.

Weather conditions in the mountains

The conditions on the British mountains in winter are often as varied as the weather that’s created them. You need a good variety of skills at your disposal. Your winter boot is just as much a tool as your axe or crampons. It needs to be of adequate stiffness.  On steep snow and ice covered ground good footwork is the watchword. Your approach should be from the perspective of prevention rather than cure. You should try step kicking and cutting or crampon techniques before resoring to the techniques of self-belay and self-arrest.

winter skills course scotland

Self-arresting on a winter skills course in the Cairngorms

Photo caption: Practising winter skills in the Cairngorms –  the classic feet first on your front self-arrest (5 day winter skills course with Scot Mountain Holidays)

Self arrest skills

Knowing though, that when all else fails, you can confidently and quickly stop a sliding fall, with or without an axe is a fantastic fillet to your confidence. Some of the self-arrest techniques are straight forward enough but others are not; sliding head first on your back is a case in point. Understanding the body position that is required for the forces of gravity to work in your favour is all important; in one fluent move you flip you’re yourself onto your front whilst swinging your legs beneath you – easy when the dynamics and body posture have been clearly explained.

Being safe in a whiteout

For many the step up in navigation standard that’s demanded by the winter mountains is often the biggest challenge of all. Here the right approach is crucial and accuracy comes in a number of forms and levels. Being totally reliant on the absolute accuracy in your compass bearings and dead reckoning techniques (timing and pacing) has been the unravelling of many an aspiring Mountain Leader.  In the often flat light conditions of winter, contour interpretation becomes even more imperative yet perceived poor visibility encourages folk to abandon this vital skill.

Many good mountain navigation techniques come in under the heading of “error management”. Some of these techniques will be familiar to the experienced: aiming off, collection features and attach points but these are just a few of the techniques that can be used to make life easier in the winter mountains. Good winter navigation skills could be the difference between stay on safe ground and straying onto that that is prone to a slide.

navigation

Highly skilled micro-navigation in practice

Photo Caption: Winter micro-navigation using Andy’s patented timing and pacing chart (winter navigation course with Scot Mountain Holidays)

Avalanche prediction and risk

Evaluating Avalanche hazard is another subject difficult to get a handle on. There are though pertinent points that, when borne in mind at the planning stage, can already be starting to reduce your chances of ever being caught in an avalanche. Yes, you could start avalanche hazard evaluation in the summer months long before the snow has arrived! It is of course though, an ongoing process of monitoring right through to the end of the trip and not least of which is viewing and understanding the avalanche forecast.

If you would like to discuss any of the points Andy raises in his article, please don’t hesitate to call him on 01479 831 331

Remember that Andy’s experience has been gained over 17 years of living and working in the Cairngorms. He aims to give you as much knowledge as he can while you’re here but it’s only in practicing the skills he introduces that you’ll gain proficiency yourself.

 

RELATED BLOGS

Top 10 winter skills tips

Which winter boots to choose for winter skills and winter hiking?

How to choose a walking ice axe for a winter skills course?

Why go walking in winter in Scotland?

How do I prepare for a winter skills course?

 

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?

Footwear

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.

Clothing

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’.

 

Waterproofs

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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Walking Ice Axe leashes – to have, or not to have.

Many gear shops will automatically sell you a leash as an essential and permanent accompaniment to your ice axe. Here we look at the pro’s and con’s of having a leash on your walking/general mountaineering axe. We discuss when and where it is appropriate to use one.

 

The fear of losing an Ice axe

There is at least one recorded instance where loosing grip of the axe during a sliding fall resulted in head injuries due to the axe flailing uncontrollably at the end of a leash. Rather than relying on a leash to retain possession of your axe, the emphasis is on instilling the mental capacity of not letting go.  The hand holding the head of the axe can pivot around the head but the grasp should remain the same. It’s also about developing that mental ability of properly securing your axe should you need to put it down.

 

Trip hazard

Except when cutting steps down slope, you should always carry the axe in the up hill hand. On a zig-zag ascent or descent, the axe is repeatedly swapped from one hand to the other to maintain it in the uphill hand. Having to swap the leash from one wrist at every turn is cumbersome and time consuming. Wrapping the leash around the head of the axe isn’t a secure solution either. There is the risk it can start to dangle with resultant hazard of a crampon point catching and causing a trip.

Winter_Skills_-_Cutting_Steps.jpg

Photo caption: cutting steps in the Cairngorms on a winter skills course with Scot Mountain Holidays

Step cutting

This is where a leash is desirable especially if you are cutting into hard snow or ice. Wet gloves, cutting the steps too vigorously, etc can all increase the chance of loosing grasp and this is where a leash comes into its own.

Conclusion

For winter hill walking, a leash should be minimalist, light weight and quickly attached and detached from the head of the axe. The simplest way is to make a loop in the attachment end of the leash. Thread the loop though the hole in the head of the axe. The other end of the leash is then threaded through the loop (Larks footed) and pulled tight. Store the leash in an easily accessible place like a jacket pocket and attached to the head of the axe when required.

 

Useful links:

Have fun in the snow: http://www.wikihow.com/Have-Fun-in-the-Snow

Snow related activities for kids: http://www.parents.com/fun/activities/outdoor/snow-activities-kids/#page=7

Family fun in the snow: http://powertochange.com/family/snow/

Free mountain weather service: Mountain Weather Information Service

Met Office forecast for the hills: Met Office Mountain Forecast

Scottish Avalanche Information service: Scottish Avalanche Information Service

USEFUL BLOGS

How to ice axe arrest: https://scotmountainholidays.com/blog/skills-how-ice-axe-arrest/

Best practice: how to build a snow hole in Scotland: https://scotmountainholidays.com/blog/best-practice-building-snow-hole-scotland/

How not to get lost – the art of navigation: https://scotmountainholidays.com/blog/hiking-how-not-get-lost-art-navigation/

Top 10 winter skills tips (for Scotland): https://scotmountainholidays.com/blog/top-10-winter-skills-tips/

How to prepare for a mountain challenge: https://scotmountainholidays.com/blog/classic-ridges-and-horseshoes-hiking-tips/

Which boots to choose for winter: https://scotmountainholidays.com/blog/which-boots-choose-winter-walking/

How to choose a walking ice axe: https://scotmountainholidays.com/blog/how-choose-walking-ice-axe/

How to predict snow: https://scotmountainholidays.com/blog/how-predict-snow-uk/

 

EXPEDITIONS FROM SCOT MOUNTAIN HOLIDAYS: https://scotmountainholidays.com/activities/mountain-challenges/

 

SKILLS COURSES FROM SCOT MOUNTAIN HOLIDAYS: https://scotmountainholidays.com/activities/mountain-skills-courses/

 

WINTER WALKING HOLIDAYS FROM SCOT MOUNTAIN HOLIDAYS: https://scotmountainholidays.com/activities/walking-holidays-uk/

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