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First step to successful winter walking in Scotland's mountains is planning for a great day out


By John Davidson

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Ben Gibson, mountain safety adviser for Mountaineering Scotland.
Ben Gibson, mountain safety adviser for Mountaineering Scotland.

By Ben Gibson, mountain safety adviser with Mountaineering Scotland

Clear, crisp days live long in the memory in winter. Picture: Ben Gibson/Mountaineering Scotland
Clear, crisp days live long in the memory in winter. Picture: Ben Gibson/Mountaineering Scotland

Winter’s mountain memories are always etched crystal clear in the mind’s eye. Whether you recall the blue-sky days when the sun glints off endless snow-covered hills, or the heads down struggle into the teeth of a blizzard, winter days have an intensity that burns into the memory.

Think winter and it tends to be the snow and the endless views that come to mind. That’s what we all hope for. But mountaineering experts urge people not just to think about winter but to #ThinkWINTER.

#ThinkWINTER, now in its third year, is a multi-agency campaign led by Mountaineering Scotland, to help people get the most from their winter in Scotland’s hills and mountains without putting themselves at unnecessary risk.

With Covid-struck 2020 having cancelled so many foreign holiday plans, this summer saw a noticeable increase in the number of people taking to the hills – and it’s expected many of these newcomers will want to keep up their new hobby through the winter, making #ThinkWINTER’s safety and skills messages even more important.

Many will stick to lower hills and glen walks through the winter, but the higher tops have an undeniable attraction, so it’s important to be prepared.

Keeping safe in the hills starts long before you pull your boots on – even if you have already ensured you have boots, crampons and ice axe suitable for winter in Scotland’s mountains, not to mention adequate winter clothing.

All this may sound complicated and a lot of hard work – especially before you’ve even started packing your rucksack – but it can make all the difference between being the person who shares their great days out on Facebook and the person who ended up cold, wet and miserable, didn’t get up the hill and wonders why everyone else had such a good time.

First of all, don’t be too ambitious. Winter can be superb, but it can also be deadly. So start with easier goals and work your way up as you gain experience. And that applies for your companions too: you may be experienced, but don’t overestimate your friends’ experience or abilities.

Blizzard conditions can be a real test, even at relatively low levels. Picture: Ben Gibson/Mountaineering Scotland
Blizzard conditions can be a real test, even at relatively low levels. Picture: Ben Gibson/Mountaineering Scotland

And don’t just choose one hill or mountain. Weather and conditions can vary widely across the country, so have a number of goals in mind so that you can head for where the weather is best and you stand most chance of having a great day.

That doesn’t mean waiting until the last minute to make a decision: you should be checking the mountain weather forecast and snow avalanche conditions for about a week before your planned trip, so you’ll have a good idea of what you’re going to find and what precautions you’ll have to take.

For instance, heavy snow will probably indicate a raised avalanche risk; a thaw, or heavy rain, will mean river and stream crossings will be more difficult or even impossible. Wind direction can also affect avalanche risk, and wind speed on the day is a real game changer.

Now, what about the route up your chosen hill? Remember that in winter it’s likely that at least part of any path will be covered by snow, perhaps so deeply that there’s not even a trace of the path. So whether you’re using a GPS, an app on your phone, or a map and compass, you’ll need to be able to follow a route with no reference to a path.

You need to be sure that your chosen route avoids any avalanche danger, and be aware of any points where it might come close to corniced edges of snow. Have a good look at the map in the comfort of your home to identify any danger points such as river or stream crossings, or steeper sections which might prove too difficult in some conditions.

If there are such places on your route you will want to identify alternative routes to avoid them or at least to get back to your car or accommodation safely.

All this may sound complicated and a lot of hard work – especially before you’ve even started packing your rucksack – but it can make all the difference between being the person who shares their great days out on Facebook and the person who ended up cold, wet and miserable, didn’t get up the hill and wonders why everyone else had such a good time.

There are lots of great free online resources to help with that planning process too.

Mountain weather forecasts (the forecast on the television is not good enough) can be found at the Mountain Weather Information Service (www.mwis.org.uk) or at the Met Office (www.metoffice.gov.uk/weather/specialist-forecasts/mountain)

Avalanche conditions and forecasts are available from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (www.sais.gov.uk)

Information on necessary kit and skills for winter mountaineering is available from Mountaineering Scotland (www.mountaineering.scot/safety-and-skills/thinkwinter). Mountaineering Scotland’s website also has a huge amount of information on all aspects of mountaineering, as well as links to related organisations.

It’s time to get planning!

Traversing a steep slope in deep snow. Picture: Ben Gibson/Mountaineering Scotland
Traversing a steep slope in deep snow. Picture: Ben Gibson/Mountaineering Scotland

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