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.
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.
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.
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.