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All things hiking Skills tips Winter

Winter navigation & water features: 3 lochs, 3km and 3 different responses to winter!! – the perils of navigating to water features in winter

winter navigation

Photo Andrew Bateman, Spot Lochan Buidhe! Looking across the Cairngorm-Ben Macdui plateau towards Cairn Toul.

Come the winter months, one might be forgiven for thinking that lochs, lochans, tarns, lakes, etc would at least indicate their presence by a flat surface. Some do but don’t bank on it! High in the Cairngorms there are 3 lochs, all within 3 km of each other and all behave differently in winter. 

Lochan Buidhe – winter navigating and water features

Starting with the highest, Lochan Buidhe. It is perched on a broad shallow saddle at 1125m on the Cairngorm – Ben Macdui plateau close to where the Curran Hut once sat. Its high elevation and shallow nature mean it can pretty much freeze solid! Its bed is of raised granite blocks set in gravel. The blocks support the ice whilst allowing the ground water to drain out and so it can support no end of drifted snow thereby losing its dead flat surface.

Pools of Coire and t-Sneachda

At around 920m we have the pools on the floor of Coire an t-Sneachda. Again these are fed by ground water and drain out through the blocks and moraine to the north. Their water levels can vary considerably over time depending on the recent rain/melt. Frequently they will freeze over and then the water drains out from underneath the ice. The remaining ice sags under its own weight and the boulders punch through, again losing the flat surface. Any evidence of the pool can then be obscured by further snowfall.

Loch A’an – winter navigation & water features

Loch A’an (Avon) on the other hand self-levels since it’s much deeper. Remember water’s density is greatest at 4 Deg C so the warmest part of a loch is the bottom. Any snow drift on top of the surface ice will push it down into contact with slightly warmer water and melt it. The buoyancy is lost and over time the drift simply levels with the rest of the surface ice thereby maintaining a flat surface.

These tips and plenty more insights are covered on our 2 day winter navigation course

Further reading

30 winter navigation tips

Understanding navigation


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

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