Winter Mountaineering in Scotland: Learning Points

2017 is my year for learning and development and to kick things off I attended a 5 day winter mountaineering course at Glenmore Lodge.  In 2018 I am aiming to attend my winter mountain leader training, but I have very little winter scrambling experience and decided it was the perfect opportunity to take a course.

The week began with meeting our instructor Alan Halewood and introducing our previous skills and aspirations.  Alan then tailored the next 5 days perfectly to our needs, creating a structure that pushed us out of our comfort zones with completely new skills and developing the skills we already had.  We were also lucky to be in a group of 3 rather than the usual 4, which resulted in more opportunities for personalised learning.

 Alan assured us his icy beard provided extra insulation.

Alan assured us his icy beard provided extra insulation.

Of course you can learn a lot from reading relevant literature, blogs, chatting to more experienced peers and just getting outside but I am definitely a Kinaesthetic learner, which means I learn best through physical action with feedback in context.  As a result, I love attending courses and as a teacher myself, I appreciate the value of an excellent educator.  Alan certainly fulfilled that role!  I felt I was consistently improving over the 5 days and Alan's facilitation also brought our happy band of 4 together as a great team, enabling us to help and advise each other.

We all started with different aims and objectives and although I can't speak for the other participants, mine were definitely met.  Here is a summary of my key learning points from the course and also from the following days when I put some of what I had learned into action on a couple of solo walks.

 Curved Cornices above Coire an T-Sneachda.

Curved Cornices above Coire an T-Sneachda.

Planning and Preparation

As a summer ML I am confident route-planning and using the forecasts to aid my decision-making process but Scotland in winter is entirely different. I already had experience using SAIS, MWIS and the Met Office to cover all the potential conditions out on the hill but my decision-making based on these certainly improved throughout the week.

During the course I was introduced to FatMap, which provides detailed terrain guides to help you assess avalanche risk.  I also honed my skills using the Be Avalanche Aware (BAA) process for my winter planning, and as a result feel much more confident navigating well away from potential avalanche sites.  

Another skill that I will be taking forward is setting more key points than on a standard summer day.  These are positions at which something within your walk might change, for example (using BAA) the snow, team condition, or the terrain.  By pre-planning key points we are able to make more educated and informed decisions and avoid falling into one of the heuristic (human) traps, such as commitment to a pre-planned route.

On my solo walks I planned much shorter days than I ordinarily would to allow me the space to think about the terrain and conditions on the ground more carefully and to account for issues like deep drifts of snow that can significantly hinder progress.  I also planned backup options and potential escape routes in more depth. 

 Navigating in Scottish winter is tough! Having very clear plans in advance makes a huge difference. Photo:  Alan Halewood .

Navigating in Scottish winter is tough! Having very clear plans in advance makes a huge difference. Photo: Alan Halewood.

Equipment and organisation

In the summer we can generally afford a little faff time.  In the winter faffing is not an option.  We were out in 70mph winds, which leaves very little room for error!  Getting equipment prioritised and organised in the same way for all your outings can help to minimise this.  I have now permanently moved my compass, pacing card and A6 map case to my right coat pocket and all except the map are tied in.  My left coat pocket has my goggles and maybe extra gloves.

For walking this is my winter rucksack system:

  • Hip pockets: sugary sweets and snacks (stuff that won't freeze!) and my phone.

  • Bottom of pack (has access zip): crampons plus climbing gear if needed.

  • Main pocket: Extra layers, more food, hot drink, spare map and med kit.

  • Hood pocket: headtorch and spare batteries, spare gloves, maybe more snacks!

  • Ice Axe: My axe is slipped down the back of my pack with the pick hooked over the shoulder strap for easy access.

For mountaineering I found that my rucksack has too much bulk and extra cords/ties/pockets and so I had to attach my hip belt around the back to ensure I can access gear on my harness efficiently.

Clothing

I am a big fan of merino wool and so my layering system usually consists of a merino vest and leggings, base layer, mid layer and soft-shell jacket, waterproofs and a warm insulated jacket to pull on over everything.  Down is not great for Scotland so get yourself a synthetic belay jacket.

I have mild Reynauds, which affects the blood flow to my fingers and toes in changes of temperature.  As a result I have tried many, many gloves types over the years and I now feel like I have the perfect system, All-Mitten!  I chose Montane primaloft mittens, which I wore under my Dachstein woollen mitts and my hands were toasty warm all-week.  Because Dachstein's are made of shrunken wool, even when they are wet they stay warm and the snow gathering on the outside also adds extra insulation.

I think everyone was a little bit sceptical at the beginning of the week about whether I would handle the ropework, kit and general management on the hill in my mittens but I made it work!  Of course dexterity is reduced, but if you practice enough, you can tie all the knots you need in mittens, place gear and put your crampons on.  I did stitch on some mitten minders, just in case I needed to take them off!

 Leading a pitch in my Dachstein mitts. Photo:  Alan Halewood

Leading a pitch in my Dachstein mitts. Photo: Alan Halewood

Scrambling

As winter scrambling is pretty new for me this was one of my biggest learning areas but I will try and keep it to the key points.

  • Ropework: Efficiently managing a rope in the winter was a big one for me. We covered bucket belays with and without horizontal axe anchors as well as carrying coils and moving together in a ridge context. We briefly touched on snow anchors but my main areas for learning were in a scrambling context.

  • Gear: I am looking to start a small scrambling rack and over the week I developed my understanding of how this might look with just using 10 rocks, 4 hexes and a small range of different slings and extenders.

  • Route-choice: Of course this can only be learnt through experience of picking lines. But over the week I gained confidence visualising the routes and choosing appropriate gear placements and setting up belays. As a sport climber who occasionally seconds on trad I was very happy to start placing gear and lead pitches in a winter context.

Camera

My usual camera of choice is my Fuji XT1, which is perfect for backpacking, hiking and summer scrambling.  However, in the winter I found it too bulky with all my other kit for scrambling and so I am now in the process of looking for an advanced compact system with weather-sealing and RAW capabilities that will fit inside my jacket.  It's a lot to ask for but I'll provide another update when/if I find one!