Scottish Winter Skills Courses -
An Introduction

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 centimetres long.

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, have fun.

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, Scotland’s National Training Centre. He is also joint author of the technical manual “The Mountain Skills Training Handbook”.