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Top Tips for Winter Mountaineering

Prior to joining the rest of the Antarctica team at Badagusih this February, Joe headed up to the Cairngorms early to complete his Winter Mountain Leader training.

Based at Glenmore Lodge, one of three National Mountain Centres in the UK, the centre provides training and assessments for instructors as well as coaching course for the general public in a variety of sports. Over the six day course Joe learnt the skills and decision making tools to safely lead groups in winter conditions. This included many different navigation techniques, security of steep icy ground, as well as an overnight expedition in a snow hole.

Given the winter conditions still being experienced across some mountain ranges, we asked Joe to share his 10 top tips of how to stay safe in the mountains;

  1. Have a plan of what you want to do – heading out into the mountains with no plans can cause you to drift into areas that are potentially avalanche prone without you even realising. Just as importantly, it also means that you won’t be able to give anyone a description of where you are going… just in case you have a problem!
  1. Check the avalanche forecast – knowing what slopes are avalanche prone will allow you to make an informed decision about where to go to complete your objectives, without the risk of endangering yourself or others.

cairngorms_avalanche

  1. 30 – 45o slopes are the biggest triggers for avalanches – knowing this means you can mark up your map with hazardous areas before heading out, stopping you wandering onto these slopes and realising you’re in the danger zone.
  1. Check you have the right kit – a winter bag is heavy! Normally, in addition my normal summer hill walking kit, I will have an ice axe, crampons, helmet, a flask of hot drink, extra warm layer, lots of gloves (I take three as a minimum) and ski goggles. Making sure your crampons fit your boots the night before is essential, as doing this on a steep slope in howling gale and blowing spindrift is not the place to find out they don’t fit!
  1. Practise operating with thick gloves on – taking gloves off to put crampons on, take a bearing or open a bag is not ideal and, in extreme circumstances, can lead to frostbite on your fingers. Try doing these activities at home beforehand.
  1. Put your goggles on quickly – once they’re on your face they’ll likely be on for the rest of the day, or at least until it clears up again. Taking too long to put your googles and they’ll rapidly fill up with snow. This can quickly melt, leaving you with annoying water droplets on your lenses, or worse, completely misted up! In really foul weather consider taking two sets of googles, with at least one set of clear lenses ones which are ideal when using a map.googles
  1. Hydration tubes are prone to freezing – any water which is left within the hose can freeze, blocking the tube and stopping you from getting a drink. Having a thermal protector can help, but the best thing to do is blow back the water once you’ve had a drink.
  1. A 1:50,000 map is better than 1:25,000 – in winter you don’t need to see the detail of a 1:25k map. When the ground is covered in snow most of these features will be buried, so you have to rely more on the contours and what the ground is doing under foot. This is more easily defined on a 1:50k scale map.
  1. Be well practised in your compass skills – you will be using a compass a lot more in winter. White outs are quite common, reducing your view of the world to a few feet and stripping your concept of up and down. Navigating in these conditions is really hard, and knowing how to use compass quickly and efficiently is critical to make good onward progress on your journey… and more importantly reduces the risk of you walking off a cornices!white-out-820x547
  1. Having ice axes and crampons are cool – but know how to use them. There is nothing worse than putting a hole in your waterproof trousers because you can’t walk in your crampons or you lose an ice axe because you did not know how to self-arrest correctly. Practise these skills in non-consequential environments before heading out into the hills.

With the margins for error reduced in winter, it important that you have the necessary skills to look after yourself. If you’re new to winter mountaineering then it worth gaining the necessary skill from a qualified instructor, who can teach you all you need to stay safe in the mountains this winter.

Hopefully these tips will make your life much easier and more enjoyable in the UK’s winter conditions, and remember there is nothing wrong with turning around if the conditions don’t feel right!

Feel free to comment with any of your favourite tips, or leave any questions for the team and well get back to you.

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