Winter Skills with Trail Magazine

Desperate to walk in winter but scared off by ice axes, avalanches, blizzards and snowholes? Trail has the answer: book yourself on a winter skills course. Words by Oli Reed – Trail Magazine

There are many things I’m afraid of. Clowns, for example, and identical twins. Then there are moths, aeroplanes, that woman out of Misery, horses, the sea, London… and snow. In fact, forget all the others; snow has always been my ultimate fear inducer. I’m terrified of driving in it and, until recently, I was scared stiff of walking in it.

One reason is that I’m not a big fan of lingering outside in penetrating cold. Another is that the term ‘white-out’ sends multiple shivers down my spine. And, perhaps most importantly, I don’t have any interest in being swept away by an avalanche or sliding over an icy cliff edge. As a result, virtually all of my previous walking and scrambling has been limited to spring, summer and autumn, leaving my winters free to catch up on TV box sets, hone my PlayStation skills and do everything on page 50, twice. But this year I snapped. I was sick of seeing mates posting Facebook pictures from the summits of snow-capped mountains, so I decided to peel myself off the sofa and do something about it.

The key thing about going out in winter is preparation. I’ve read far too many mountaineering horror stories to know that even the most basic mistakes can end in tragedy. Something as simple as forgetting to pack spare gloves, not checking the weather forecast or taking one lazy footstep can turn a simple stroll into the kind of life-threatening situation that every hillwalker dreads. What I needed was professional help, so I signed up for a winter skills course, loaded my car with tools and headed for Fort William.

Despite the aforementioned misgivings, what’s always appealed to me about winter walking is the transformation snow brings to the UK mountains. Our green hillsides, rolling ridgelines and obvious footpaths are replaced by white slopes, icy arêtes and temperatures that feel like they belong to a distant continent. For a short spell each year, our landscape is replaced by a backdrop that wouldn’t look out of place in a Himalayan oil painting, and it really is an awesome sight. But for all the epic views and opportunity for adventure that snow delivers to our hills, the arrival of winter also creates a completely new set of challenges for walkers. You need sharp navigational skills, the knowledge and ability to use an ice axe and crampons, the awareness to avoid the lurking threat of avalanches and, because of the short days, the confidence to walk off an icy mountain in the dark. It’s safe to say I possessed none of those skills, but luckily I knew a man who did… Rob Johnson, an impeccably qualified mountaineering instructor, was waiting for me in the café of the Nevis Range Mountain Resort, ready to lead a group of seven winter wannabes on our first snow-fuelled adventure.

We were all there for the same reason: to gain the confidence and skill to go out by ourselves in the snow – and that’s exactly what Rob’s two-day course was designed to provide. Day one started over a cup of coffee with a jargon-free discussion about winter conditions and the dangers involved. With the benefit of a flashy iPad presentation, we were treated to a demonstration of how to spot avalanche-prone slopes and how to properly understand mountain weather forecasts and snow reports.

Then, after making sure we were all carrying the proper gear we headed for the lower slopes of Aonach Mor. By hitching a lift on the ski gondola we sneakily dodged a gruelling early ascent and kicked off our expedition above the snowline at around 600m. Today wasn’t about bagging summits; it was about learning new skills and techniques, so we settled into single file formation and headed for steep ground.

Having snapped up some shiny new crampons the previous day I was desperate to see what they could do, so I began badgering Rob about when I could lash them to my feet. “I have a basic rule:” he said with a grin, “In winter, always listen to your sphincter.” “Well, that chilli I ate last night wasn’t great, but I think I’m okay…” “No, what I mean is if you think you need to put crampons on, then you probably do.” Ah, that made more sense. Once we’d all squeezed our feet into crampons, we were swiftly taught the three main techniques. First up was flat footing (keeping all the downward points in contact with the snow), then front pointing (digging front spikes into the snow on steep slopes) and finally the American technique (front pointing with your leading leg and flat footing with the other).

All three were surprisingly simple, so after around half an hour of heading uphill, it was time to figure out how to get back down. “Before we start descending,” said Rob. “Get yourself in the wet nappy position.” “I stopped wearing nappies a few years ago.” “Not literally – just bend your knees slightly and lean backwards into a squat position, so you look like you’re wearing a big wet nappy.” The name may be ridiculous, but this technique is brilliant. With our weight on the back foot and by plunging our heels into the snow, we were soon descending even the steepest slopes with surprising ease. What struck me at this point was how much fun the course actually as. Despite having met as a group of strangers only a few hours earlier, we’d quickly built up a strong camaraderie by supporting each other through tricky activities like step cutting, testing slopes for avalanche risk and using our axe to ‘dagger’ on steep gradients. Despite the seriousness of the subject, it was important to remember we weren’t on the course to do anything terrifying; in fact, quite the opposite.

It was all about learning how to stay safe while enjoying the winter mountains, and if anything the real enjoyment was just about to begin. A disclaimer before I start writing this paragraph: ice axe arrest is a very serious business. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to perform it for real – and I truly hope you never do – it will mean you’re sliding at high speed down an icy hill with nothing but the pick of your axe to slow you down, which probably makes it the most vital of all winter techniques to master.

But it’s also tremendous fun to learn. To practise properly you obviously need to be hurtling down a snow slope, so we picked a spot with a safe run-out and prepared for launch. This technique basically involves using the weight of your shoulder to ease the pick into the snow. It may sound simple, but it’s actually incredibly hard to get the hang of. First you practise sliding down the slope feet first on your stomach, then on your back, then headfirst on your stomach, and finally headfirst on your back! It was, in fact, so hard that one member of our group promptly vanished 100m down the slope screaming, “Help! Which side do I stick the axe iiiinnnnnnnn…….??????” Thankfully he finally came to rest on a soft snow bank, but it was a stark reminder of how quickly disaster can strike. Still laughing to ourselves, we squeezed back into the gondola before darkness fell and hitched a ride back towards the bright lights of Fort William. Having learned a multitude of key skills on day one, we gathered the following morning (with a few sore heads) at an A82 layby in the heart of Glen Coe.

Our target for the day was Stob Coire nan Lochan, a 1115m beast that only misses out on Munro status because of its close proximity to Bidean nam Bian. The mountain’s north face is home to an impressive array of gullies and cliffs, and its pyramidal summit cone is well-defended by airy ridgelines. In fine summer conditions it would be a doddle, but it’s a very different proposition when cloaked in its winter coat. The next lesson I learned was the vital importance of sensible layering. After ignoring Rob’s advice to “start the walk cold” I headed uphill wearing two pairs of socks, mountain trousers, gaiters and overtrousers. After 20 minutes I was ready to internally combust, and when I finally began removing layers my shins were literally steaming. As we forged uphill we stopped routinely to monitor the weather and snow conditions. The temperature was mild but the cloud had dropped, the wind was up and visibility was receding, so navigation was becoming key. Fortunately we’d planned our route carefully before setting off, and although the obvious paths soon dried up there were still enough distinctive landmarks on display to keep us moving in the right direction. When we finally hit the summit ridge, our crampon skills were tested to the max. With a mixture of deep snow, sheet ice and bare rock beneath our feet, the importance of staying alert and taking great care with each footstep became apparent. Snag a spike on your trousers here, and the penalty could be fatal. But with Rob’s calming influence alongside us we soon topped out to claim our first ever winter summit. The view from the top consisted of little more than grey mist and giant snowflakes, but the sense of satisfaction among the group more than made up for it. The nervous energy we’d all felt at the start of the course had completely dissipated and we began descending towards our cars with regret that the weekend was coming to an end, but with our eyes already firmly fixed on our next winter adventure. In less than 48 hours we’d mastered ice axes, crampons, avalanche awareness, winter navigation and a nervy piece of ropework – that involved me being lowered into a frosty gully by a handful of my fellow novices – and we’d loved every second of it. The course was mentally draining and physically tough, but it was also one of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve ever spent in the mountains. If you’ve never been on a winter skills weekend, get it booked today. It’s your golden ticket into a magical new world.