Winter skills are an integral part of venturing onto the hills from November to March and mean much more than carrying an ice axe and crampons – you need to be able to use them competently. Analysis of mountain rescue statistics reveals that the majority of accidents are the result of a simple slip. Skills and preparation are key to enjoying the British hills safely. An essential part of the preparation is being able to navigate accurately in all conditions not just bright sunshine. It’s well worth considering an instructional course to gain the foundation on which to build experience.
For walkers, an ice axe with a straight shaft of between 50-70cms is not just about aiding balance in snow so walking poles are not a substitute. Technique can be learned that conserves energy and extends safety parameters through the knowledge of how to cut steps and use as an emergency brake. The latter self-arrest skill needs to be practiced until you can do it without thinking; short slopes with no chance of sliding into rocks are ideal and it can be a lot of fun. Tucking the adze end under your shoulder and the shaft under your body diagonally, the pick can be used to slow and stop a slide on snow and ice. That’s when experience gained safely allows you to judge the pressure required when it’s needed in earnest.
Boots for winter use need to have a fairly stiff sole that allow the edges to kick steps and can take a crampon. With your axe held on your uphill side, pick pointing backwards, you can make a tripod of three points of contact with the snow. When moving, keep two points of contact and try to move steadily to avoid becoming unduly tired. Crampons should be worn when you anticipate conditions that need them rather than trying to fit them on dodgy ground. Practice moving on easy snow slopes to get a feel for potential; problems of tripping, tightening straps and making sure the crampon points bite into the surface.
Competence in using map and compass in the hills means being confident in your skills in poor weather and visibility. Again, learning the skills properly and practicing them is a pre-requisite for heading off trouble. As is picking a route appropriate to experience and fitness as well as planning how to adapt the route if needs be through bad weather or tiredness. Before picking a route, check for any physical hazards, the weather forecast (wind, temperature, rain and snow), avalanche risk and estimate the time needed being realistic to ensure you can be back before dark.
Finally, don’t head off alone but go with others of similar fitness, make the plan together, don’t split up and leave info on your plans with a responsible person. It’s everybody’s responsibility in a party to keep track of progress and to be able to navigate safely. If you need to summon assistance, call 999 and ask for the police.
Kit and clothing – a simple checklist:
- Boots and warm socks
- Ice axe and crampons
- Map and case
- Waterproof jacket (with hood)
- Waterproof overtrousers
- Warm hat
- Gloves or mitts plus spares
- Thermal base layer – body and legs
- Fleece jacket
- Extra body insulation
- Warm trousers
- Head torch (plus spare bulb if needed and spare batteries)
- Food and drink for the day plus a little extra
- Survival bag, whistle, watch and first aid kit
- Rucksack to hold it all easily with a liner to keep it all dry.