Scottish Winter Skills
PETE HILL, MIC, FRGS
There are certain types of morning that are more noteworthy than
others. You know the sort of thing; a beautiful crisp morning, bright
low-level sunlight, not a breath of wind and everything sparkling under
a thick layer of frost. Today started in such a way and, tucked upstairs
in my office in the Highlands of Scotland with the heating on, one thing
is for sure - winter is definitely around the corner!
Winter is not only my favourite time of year, it is also the busiest
for business. We start running courses from the end of December right
through to mid April, pausing only for a couple of days at Christmas
« I even get to work over Hogmanay!
It often surprises folk that winter courses are busier than those in
the summer, but our geographical location has a lot to do with it. Although
there are many spectacular places in the Highlands for rock climbing
during the summer months, there are also many areas in England and Wales
that are able to provide a similar experience. In the winter, however,
you really do have to travel north to guarantee the best snow conditions
for both walking and climbing, thus the huge influx of visitors to the
Highlands during the period December to April.
The majority of those enrolling on courses are looking for training
in two main areas « efficient winter navigation, and the use of axe
and crampons on snow covered terrain. Although the basics of these skills
can be learnt over a weekend, it takes a long time for them to become
second nature, and people attending a week long course will have a far
better chance of practising the skills in a variety of conditions and
terrain. These courses are a joy to run, as you are dealing with folk
who wish to get out in the hills and are keen to learn, soaking up any
information that we put across. It really gives a feeling of satisfaction
to see them progress from a fair weather follow-the-path style of navigation
to being able to cope in foul conditions, and from being wobbly on snow
to competently making safe progress using axe and crampons.
The type of people on the winter courses varies immensely, and there
is no stereotypical winter course attendee, most turning up either alone
or with a partner. The degree of experience varies a lot as well, although
most of our courses are aimed at introductory level. As a cross section,
some will be OK navigating in fair weather in the Lake district, but
will never have touched snow or navigated under winter conditions. Others
may have been out in the winter, have had a complete epic, survived
it, and decided that it is time to learn how to do it properly!
Of the two most popular week long courses that we run, one involves
the use of rope-work (mountaineering), the other does not (walking).
The rope-work practised is not upside-down-hanging-by-a-fingernail sort
of stuff, but use of the rope in ascent and descent on ground of up
to Grade I in standard. You could equate the difference between the
winter walking and the winter mountaineering courses as being roughly
that between summer walking and easy summer scrambling.
Let me take you through a typical (!) week long walking course. The
first day is spent learning and practising a variety of navigation techniques,
and with a ratio of 1:4 we can vary the level within the group. We would
expect to cover skills such as timing and pacing, which give you the
ability to assess how far you have travelled across a variety of terrain.
Pacing works by having a known amount of double paces to one hundred
metres. If you know this (most adults will take something between 60
to 70) then, should you need to walk four hundred metres in poor visibility,
you simply count out four times your hundred metre total. For instance,
I take 60 double paces on moderate terrain. If I had to walk three hundred
and fifty metres, I would walk three sets of sixty, plus an extra thirty
paces to give me the fifty metres. Sounds complicated? It really isnôt
once you have tried it a coupled of times. If you then incorporate pacing
with walking on a compass bearing, you can navigate with remarkable
accuracy in the poorest of conditions. Timing works on a variation of
Naismithôs rule, which gives us an average walking speed of five kilometres
an hour, plus a minute for each contour line we cross on the way up.
There are a number of variations to Naismithôs and, like anything, practise
makes it work a lot better!
Other skills introduced during the may include using each other as markers
to take bearings on, attack points, aiming off, collecting features
and a number of other eminently sensible though often ignores techniques.
The evening of the first day is spent looking at and fitting technical
kit, such as axes and crampons. This session is an eye opener to many,
as the advice about technical gear is much and varied, normally gleaned
from people who never use the stuff! One of the most important is axe
length, and this subject causes much debate. The recommendation these
days for an axe that will be used for any general winter walking or
mountaineering trips is one with a curved classic shaped head, not too
steeply inclined or with a ìbananaî pick, and with a shaft length of
fifty or fifty five centimetres. The advice that to get the correct
shaft length you should hold an axe by the head and the spike should
just be a couple of inches off of the floor is both well out of date
and dangerous. A long axe is extremely inefficient at self arrest, step
cutting and stopping a slip from becoming a slide, and can in fact cause
a bad situation to become worse. Personal height makes no difference
« I am six feet six inches tall, and my general winter axe is fifty
The second day is the fun one (arenôt they all?!) where we spend a large
amount of the day rolling about on the snow learning a variety of techniques
which will help stop a slip from becoming a slide. The act of stopping
yourself with an axe, the self arrest which is so important, is in fact
your second line of defence. A skill called the ìSelf Belayî should
be the first, and this basically relies on your ability to hold on to
the axe in a static position once a slip has occurred. Of course, to
stop the slip from manifesting itself in the first place, we look at
good foot technique, and demonstrate the way to efficiently cut and
kick steps. Crampons are introduced as well, but emphasis is put upon
good boot skills as the use of crampons in the wrong snow conditions
is tiring, slows you down and can lead to a condition known as ìballing
upî, where snow sticks to the crampons rendering the points useless.
An essential session during the day is snow-pack analysis. This is basically
a method of deciding if the snow is likely to avalanche at any given
height or aspect, and relies on a variety of factors. One of these is
a test block dug in the snow, which is subjected to an increasing degree
of bodyweight tests to determine its strength.
And what about days three. four and five? These mainly concentrate on
the consolidation of skills already learnt, in a variety of areas, weather
conditions and terrain types, with other techniques being introduced
as appropriate. One session introduces the skills of building an emergency
snow bivouac, in case you have to sit the night out as a last resort,
rather than by choice! The hopeful outcome of this session is that you
promise to practise your navigation skills so that you never have to
spend a night in one!
The final evening will include a group debrief about the week, followed
by, if wished, individual debriefs where clients can hear how we
think they have done during the week, and where they should go from
here. To be honest, most have made up their minds where to go, and the
local bar seems to do a roaring trade!
Outdoor shops are full of fancy equipment and fancier advice these days,
and it is easy to pick up some gear and head for the hills. One of the
most important things that you can do to ensure that you walk away from
the hills at the end of the day is to attend a course run by a qualified
instructor, it will be money well spent and could save hours of frustration
by the rescue team!
Wherever you go and whatever you do this winter,
PETE HILL, MIC, FRGS
Pete has been climbing for many years, and has walked and climbed in
various countries around the world including the U.K., France, Switzerland,
Italy, Spain, across Africa, Nepal and India. He has led mountaineering
expeditions to the Indian and Nepalese Himalaya, and was leader of an
international expedition to Kashmir which made the first ascents of
three previously unclimbed peaks. Notable Alpine ascents include the
North Face of the Eiger and the North Face of the Matterhorn, both in
winter, as well as a lot of eminently more sensible routes! A writer
of articles for mountaineering journals and a prize-winning photographer,
he is a holder of the Mountain Instructor Certificate, the highest UK
instructional qualification, the Chairman of the Association of Mountaineering
Instructors, past-president of the Outcasts Mountaineering Club, member
of the Alpine Club, and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
He is a provider and course director for the Scottish Mountain Leader
Training Board, and is an associate instructor with Glenmore Lodge,
Scotlands National Training Centre. He is also joint author of
the technical manual The Mountain Skills Training Handbook.