10 Things Nobody Told You About Winter Mountaineering

In 2006, at the tender age of 19, I went on a winter skills course in the Cairngorms. We had a great time pottering about in the Northern Corries for a couple of days, and learned important early lessons about kit selection, avalanche danger and walking in crampons. Our instructor watched with ill-concealed glee as we threw ourselves lemming-like down a snow chute to test our self-arrest skills. As the weekend drew to a close, I felt a lot more confident about heading into those scary winter hills on my own.

James Roddie wondering who's hidden the path  © Alex Roddie
James Roddie wondering who's hidden the path
© Alex Roddie

But of course, valuable as that weekend proved itself to be, it was only one weekend. For every nugget of wisdom gleaned there were many other things we could only hope to learn for ourselves the hard way. Our instructor's most valuable lesson was the last:

"Folks, this is only the start. Now it's up to you to get out there and start the real learning."

How right he was. A year later, on my first solo winter trip, I found myself sunk up to my knees in a fragrant Scottish bog, in the dark, suffering from beard icicles and thirsty because my water bottle had frozen into a useless brick. As I filled the air with expletives, a thought formed: "There are a few things about this winter mountaineering lark that people forget to mention."

Dancing on ice in Coire Mhic Fhearchair  © Rob Greenwood
Dancing on ice in Coire Mhic Fhearchair
© Rob Greenwood

There's no substitute for experience. But if you're new to this mad game and want to know what you're letting yourself in for, here are ten things nobody told you about winter in the hills.

1. Your pack will weigh a ton

At its full 60+15 capacity it's quite a behemoth  © Dan Bailey
At its full 60+15 capacity it's quite a behemoth
© Dan Bailey

Going on a winter skills course won't entirely prepare you for the grim reality of the winter rucksack.

While the added weight might raise an eyebrow on that first morning, chances are the walk-in won't be too extreme, and a heavy pack won't make much of an impression on a short day. But once you start heading out for more ambitious trips it becomes all too apparent.

In winter, you'll carry everything you'd normally take in summer plus a wide range of extras: ice axe, crampons, extra warm layers, emergency shelter, flask with hot drink, extra food, spare head torch, maybe even a stove. A winter day pack can feel more like a lightweight summer backpacking load – and a winter backpacking load can feel like something that should come with its own team of Sherpas.

2. Selecting winter hill food is an arcane art

You'll eat anything in winter just to get the calories in  © Dan Bailey
You'll eat anything in winter just to get the calories in
© Dan Bailey

You may have hill snacks dialled in for your summer trips, but you may need to tear the menu up and write a new one for winter.

There are two main challenges facing you: some foods freeze, and others are too much faff to eat wearing gloves. Take the humble Mars bar. It's loaded with energy so should make good winter hill fuel, right? While it's fine in milder conditions, trying to eat a frozen Mars bar is like trying to gnaw a stick of Cairngorm granite.

In winter, choose high-energy items with frustration-free packaging. Energy bars, chocolate and a big bag of trail mix is my go-to winter menu these days. Malt loaf is very handy in winter as it's surprisingly resistant to freezing. Make sure you pack enough food – you could burn 4,000-6,000 calories during a winter's day.

3. You need to be a night-walking ninja

Ben Lomond summit last night after evening ascent of Ptarmigan   © mjvw
Ben Lomond summit last night after evening ascent of Ptarmigan
© mjvw, Jan 2016

On that first solo winter trip in early 2006, I miscalculated the amount of time my route would take. On the way back down the Lost Valley, I missed the path in the dark and ended up floundering about in a field of massive boulders before falling victim to a semi-frozen bog. A brighter headtorch would have been useful – but more experience confidently navigating complex terrain after dark would have been even more useful.

For some essential advice on getting out after dark check out this article, Ten Top Tips for Walking at Night

4. There are about 25 different kinds of snow

Wallowing in deep snow near Helvellyn summit  © Sean Kelly
Wallowing in deep snow near Helvellyn summit
© Sean Kelly, Jan 2018

As a summer-only walker, you could be forgiven for thinking that there's only one kind of snow: the white, cold stuff that falls from the sky. As you build your winter experience you'll learn that there are practically unlimited varieties.

There's the lovely, near-mythical névé that only seems to be around for short spells when you can't get time off work. There's graupel: mini ball-bearings from hell that lubricate layers in the snow pack, multiplying avalanche risk. There are at least five different kinds of melting slush and at least eight different kinds of loose powder, each more unpleasant or potentially dangerous than the last.

You may have heard that the Eskimo peoples have about 50 different words for snow. In English, winter mountaineers mainly restrict themselves to "cracking snow" or "bloody snow…" Usually the latter.

There's a very serious side to snow - avalanches. Some basic awareness could literally save your life, so if you're new to the winter game then a good place to start would be this article, Be Avalanche Aware This Winter.

5. You will wish you knew how to ski

Wouldn't you rather be skiing?   © Rob Greenwood
Wouldn't you rather be skiing?
© Rob Greenwood

Skiing always struck me as being an excellent way to increase your risk of a painful mountain-induced injury – until, that is, I found myself fighting through thigh-deep powder and about two hours behind schedule on my way towards the West Face of Aonach Mor. Just as realisation dawned that I was going to have to cut my route short, a pair of skiers floated past at about 15mph. "Cracking snow!" one of them cried as they sped away into the distance.

I bought snow shoes a few years later, but there's no denying that in deep powder conditions ski mountaineers have all the fun while we mere mortals flail and curse in bottomless snowdrifts.

6. Spindrift will get in your pants

Spindrift and Sunlight  © Robert Durran
Spindrift and Sunlight
© Robert Durran, Jan 2015

In windy weather after or during fresh snowfall, spindrift – blown particles of fine snow – will get everywhere. In your pants, inside your boots, in all your jacket pockets, in your hair, even inside that last-line-of-defence drybag buried at the bottom of your rucksack liner. A ski mask can help keep life just about bearable, and goggles are absolutely essential, but if you want to keep items dry in your pack it's best to double-bag them.

7. Beard icicles are a thing

Grow a beard to protect your face with a shield of ice   © Dan Bailey
Grow a beard to protect your face with a shield of ice
© Dan Bailey

In winter, the bearded mountaineer can look forward to growing a heroic-looking carapace of beard ice that, at best, will make you look like Scott of the Antarctic, but at worst could result in an uncomfortable hour or so of thawing when you get off the hill. In the winter season, it's a common sight in mountain pubs to see one or two blokes holding their faces rather close to the stove as their beards gradually defrost and their friends tell them it's time they had a shave.

8. Wild camping in winter is completely different to summer

How do you like your tent? Powdered and battered please. 
  © tistimetogo
How do you like your tent? Powdered and battered please.
© tistimetogo, Aug 2016

A winter wild camp can be challenging in ways you might not expect. The kit requirements are a lot more robust: most lightweight summer shelters won't cut it high on a winter mountain; you'll need a much beefier sleeping bag, and your stove needs to cope with melting a lot of snow in low temperatures. Then there are the less obvious factors: how to keep your boots from freezing, coping with frozen condensation on multi-day trips, pegging out your shelter in a wide range of snow conditions. Everything takes much longer than in summer, too.

Fortunately, it's worth it: when it all comes together, a winter wild camp can be an unforgettable experience. For tricks and advice that will help make the experience more enjoyment than endurance see Top Tips for Winter Camping.

My home for the night - Beinn Fhada, Glen Coe  © Jamie Hageman
My home for the night - Beinn Fhada, Glen Coe
© Jamie Hageman, Mar 2014

9. There is always more to learn

While the same can be said of summer hillwalking to an extent, the wider variation of conditions to be found in winter – and the significantly greater number of possible dangers – mean that every winter mountaineer truly is a lifelong student.

Even those with decades of experience are always learning new things about conditions, weather, navigation, and how their bodies react to various challenges on the hill. When you're at the bottom of this learning curve it can feel daunting, but the good news is that those first few outings will teach you a lot. Experience builds more rapidly than you might expect.

10. At its best, winter in the mountains is indescribably good

Ben Lui  © Alan Hill
Ben Lui
© Alan Hill, Jan 2018

If you lack the skills and inclination to DIY it, a weekend course can ground you in those all-important fundamentals, giving you the ability to go out there and start building experience for yourself. It can help give you confidence too. But one thing it probably won't do is show you just how good winter mountaineering can be at its best.

Seeing a picture of a blue-sky snow day in Scotland or the Lakes on your Facebook feed doesn't really prepare you for the reality either. But when you've overcome the spindrift in your pants and done your fair share of falling into bogs in the dark, when you've carried that heavy pack up hill after hill with no view, to experience a really good winter day will feel all the sweeter – because you know beyond all doubt that you've earned it.

So don't be discouraged. There's a lot to be learned, there are risks – and you might wish you had skis from time to time – but winter mountaineering is absolutely worth every moment.

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