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The Scottish Highlands offer the very best winter mountaineering experiences in the UK.
CGR looks at the skills and equipment needed to transition from winter walking into mountaineering.
Winter mountaineering is a challenging and rewarding activity that requires a specific set of skills and equipment. If you’re a beginner looking to get into winter mountaineering in the UK, here’s what you’ll need to know.
First and foremost, it’s important to have a solid foundation of basic mountaineering skills. This includes proficiency in hiking, scrambling, and basic rock climbing. Additionally, winter mountaineering requires knowledge of snow and ice travel techniques, such as using crampons and ice axes as well as rope skills. These skills can be developed through experience, guided trips, and courses.
Winter walking is an excellent way to develop winter mountaineering skills, being cautious and taking on more challenge when you feel ready and conditions allow. You can expect to progress from ascending and descending steeper snow fields to climbing steep gullies and ridges where you can encounter occasional steep ice steps or some technical rock moves.
Skills you will need to develop include: walking in crampons and using front points; becoming proficient in using a map and compass (only use your phone to confirm where you are) and the critical skill in using an ice axe to arrest a fall.
In terms of equipment, a beginner winter mountaineer should invest in a good quality, insulated and waterproof boots, crampons, ice axe, helmet, and a set of warm and waterproof clothing, including gloves and a hat. Other important equipment to consider includes a map, compass, and GPS device for navigation, as well as a head torch and spare batteries for lighting.
Clothing choices become critical as you may be waiting around longer as technical ground can slow you down. This means that a layering approach works well with clothing that is easy to put on and take off.
Think, sweaty hike in and then cooling down when gearing up, climbing and belaying. Breathable and waterproof shells are crucial and you may have these already or want to invest in pieces that are more suited to mountaineering – lighter and with a more performance fit.
To be prepared for any situation, it is also important to carry an appropriate first aid kit including a basic repair kit for equipment – gaffer tape is a great addition and will repair most items temporarily, even taping the sole back onto your boot!. A good quality backpack, designed for mountaineering, is also a must-have item for carrying all of your equipment and extras such as food.
Winter mountaineering in the UK can be particularly challenging due to the unpredictable weather conditions. It is important to be prepared for the worst and to check the forecast before setting out. Always let someone know your plans, and be prepared to turn back or change your route if conditions become too dangerous.
As I said earlier you should not even attempt to journey into a winter environment without being proficient in reading a map and using a compass. Do not rely on your phone for navigation – it WILL let you down. I have found late season (March/April) to have more reliable conditions lately and the longer days mean that you can be more flexible with timings.
It is also important to be aware of the local regulations and to make sure you are aware of any restrictions or requirements for specific routes such as: environmental factors, rare flora and safety such as avalanche risk as many mountaineering routes climb gullies and these are prone to avalanches, especially early in the season.
Finally, it is important to remember that winter mountaineering is a physically demanding and potentially dangerous activity. It is essential to build up your fitness and strength gradually and to seek professional guidance if you are unsure of your ability to tackle a particular route.
In conclusion, winter mountaineering is a challenging and rewarding activity that requires a specific set of skills and equipment. As a beginner, it is important to develop a strong foundation of basic mountaineering skills, invest in appropriate equipment, and always be prepared for the unpredictable weather conditions in the UK. If your journey is anything like the journey CGR writers have enjoyed over the years, winter mountaineering in the UK will offer you some of the very best adventure experiences you can have and is the perfect investment in quality memories.
Always seek guidance and information from professional organisations or experienced mountaineers and never push beyond your limits. With the right mindset and preparation, you’ll be able to safely enjoy the beautiful winter landscapes and the unique experience of winter mountaineering.
What kit will you need to start winter mountaineering? Check out our recommended kit list.
Rab Latok Mountain GTX Pro Jacket
If there’s one item of clothing that can mean the difference between an enjoyable adventure and a miserable epic it’s a quality hardshell. The Rab Latok Mountain GTX Pro Jacket is a quality hardshell suitable for all mountain adventures and is sure to be a great investment for your journey into mountaineering. The 3 Layer Gore-Tex Pro is tough enough to take the punishment of climbing that awkward chimney as well as breathable enough for the push to the summit.
Although minimalist in style to keep the weight to a minimum it’s packed full of features that are useful for winter mountaineering. Water resistant YKK zips throughout finished with glove friendly zips pulls means you can stash gloves and food bars and even a modern XT40 map. The chest pocket even has a key clip which is perfect for clipping a compass or phone case lanyard to. The hand warmer pockets are sited higher so that you can wear a climbing harness and still access them
It has a helmet friendly hood and enjoys three way adjustment. It’s finished with a wired peak that will stay in place when adjusted to suit. The hood is rock solid and when adjusted to your head will stay in place even in high winds. There’s a velcro tab to roll away the hood if you are not anticipating using it. The reflective logos will help locate you on those dark descents back to the car as you charge ahead and lead the way.
The cut is performance but generous enough to accommodate a fleece or insulated mid layer. And the Gore-Tex Pro is super breathable, more ventilation can be achieved with the generous pit zips. The wrists have velcro adjustment tabs to help seal out the cold and wet against gloves.
Rab understand that investing in a high priced hardshell can be a barrier for some beginners and so they offer a rental service-Rab Rental-where you can hire out the Latok Mountain GTX Pro Jacket for your trip.
The Rab Latok Mountain GTX Pro Jacket comes in an amazing 6 colour options and sizes S-XXL.
The SRP is £420 and it can be bought direct from Rab.
Please note that Rab have kindly sponsored the article and the following elements of the kit list have been kindly donated by other participants. Rab may also have similar items in their catalogue.
Trekmates Elkstone GTX Gloves
Everyone cuts costs or corners with gloves which all seems fine until the weather turns cold, damp and snowy! Then those cheap fleeces gloves become totally useless and your fingers go numb and you lose dexterity.
Investing in good gloves shouldn’t cost the earth, however, and the Trekmates Elkstone GTX Glove fits the bill nicely. You could easily pay twice the amount for not much better.
The highly durable nylon canvas outer will take all the knocks and scapes that gloves often do and the 80gm/m2 filling will help keep hands warm even when damp with snow. Although the snow should be kept at bay with the Gore-Tex Active lining which will help with breathability when amending that steep snow slope.
The palm is a mix of real leather on the high wear areas and soft, supple microfibre on the outer fingers. The fingers are pre curved to help with dexterity so you should find you have a secure grip on your ice axe or zipping up jackets.
Finally the Trekmates Elkstone GTX Gloves have a knitted cuff that really helps to seal in the warmth and help secure the gloves in place. A nice glove for a really good rice considering the spec.
The Trekmates Elkstone GTX Gloves come in sizes S-XXL.
The SRP is £65 and they can be bought direct from Trekmates UK.
Grivel G12 Crampons
Transitioning from winter walking into mountaineering will mean a change of crampons. Whilst it’s acceptable to walk up steep slopes with 10 point walking crampons or even walking spikes, winter mountaineering means venturing into more technical ground and therefore you will need front points and more security. You should expect to encounter the occasional steep ice step or even some technical rock steps and aggressive front points will be very useful for both.
The Grivel G12 crampons are an excellent, all round, crampon that will serve you well even as you transition into winter climbing, I’ve climbed plenty of Scottish Grade V climbs in mine! 12 well positioned spikes offer excellent security on all types of ground and the cro-moly steel is bombproof. You should only need to sharpen them occasionally, but more specifically if you are intentionally heading into steep ice. The length of the crampons is adjustable with the spring steel locator pin – don’t forget to do this at home with your boots so you’re not trying to do it with freezing cold hands!
The plastic toe bale fits all boot types and the nylon tape secures the crampon with a classic double D ring buckle. The Grivel G12 Crampon comes in three binding options. The versatile New Classic which is suitable for all boot types including more flexible B1 boots. The New Matic is more of a hybrid binding which has the plastic toe bale and a clip in heel bale. This is recommended for B2 boots which I think are more suited to mountaineering and my preferred boot, or the Cramp-O-Matic which is for full on ice climbing boots and not recommended for mountaineering.
Finally the soft Antibot footbed provides added security by shedding snow from the base of the crampon and helps stop them becoming skis! It pays to give them a helping hand by tapping the crampon with your ice axe handle regularly.
The Grivel G12 Crampon comes in one size and is available direct from Grivel UK. The SRP is £150.95
Suunto M-3 Global Compass
I cannot stress the importance of owning and being ale to use a compass. Most winter mishaps and even epics start with poor navigation choices. It pays to invest in a high quality one and I have used the Suunto M-3 Global compass for many years both personally and for running courses so it come totally recommended. The M-3 is a globally balanced compass which means it can be used in both hemispheres, it has a jewel bearing and has a 20DEG tilt margin which means you don’t have to have it perfectly horizontal to get an accurate reading. It has a large, easy to use bezel with a luminous protractor which has orienteering lines and east/west declination correction. It also enjoys 1:50k and 1:25k scales as well as cm and inch rules and a magnifying lens for searching out fine detail. It’s finished with a reflective lanyard for attaching to your pack or chest pocket zip pull.
A great compass that should last you many years as long as you understand that it is a precision instrument and should be looked after carefully. Do not keep it by anything electronic or dry it out on the radiator! Customer service is second to none: mine developed a bubble several years ago which would not go away. I sent it back to Suunto Finland and they repaired it free of charge.
The Suunto M-3 Global Compass is available from Suunto direct and the SRP is £59.00 – which when you need it will be the best money you ever spent!
Scarpa Ribelle HD Boots
Yet another big investment that can make your day pleasant or truly miserable. I’ve seen it all in my time: soles gaffer taped back to the body, boots hanging off because the owner was too tight to buy new laces, howling in pain because they bought the boot ‘on sale’ or off a mate for cheap!
A quality boot can be an investment for life and the new Scarpa Ribelle HD should last you for many years of mountaineering adventure. A combination of years of bookmaking experience and a Made in Italy commitment offers what could be the perfect winter mountaineering boot. The B2 sole unit is stiff enough to take a crampon it has a heel lip so will take a New Matic type binding like the Grivel G12 crampons we mentioned. The Vibram sole is thoughtfully lugged so will handle snow well and the climbing sole should allow technical rock moves to be executed with confidence.
The Ribelle HD has a premium water-resistant suede upper and a laminated HDry waterproof membrane which has been laminated to the main body. This offers increased sensitivity for technical rock moves as well as offering a little more space for wider feet. The soft microfibre tongue is easy on the front of your feet and the boot has a natural feel as well as being lighter than an all leather boot so is comfortable for all day wear. A nice upgrade from a B1 all leather walking boot.
The Ribelle HD comes in sizes EUR 40 – 48 and half sizes 40.5-46.5.
They can be purchased direct from Scarpa UK with an SRP of £290
Berghaus Extrem MTN Seeker MW Synthetic Hoody
Synthetic mid layers have superseded the trusty fleece over the last 5 years and Berghaus and relaunched their iconic Extrem range to include the MTN Seeker MW Synthetic Hoody. Why synthetic you ask? Well you will see plenty of folk in the UK mountains wearing down jackets but UK conditions are more often damp and humid which often renders down useless. Synthetic, however, will offer some warmth even when damp and will dry out really quickly, often with just your body temperature. If I’ve sold you on the idea then the Extrem MTN Seeker will be the perfect investment. Well made, with premium materials such as blue sign approved outer with a PFC free DWR and body mapped Primaloft Gold Active+ insulation just where you need it and less where you don’t.
It has been designed with mountaineers in mind with higher hand pockets which don’t interfere with pack waist belt or climbing harness, a helmet compatible hood and a two way main zip for making those toilet stops a little easier.
The MTN Seeker jacket has a performance cut so will sit nicely with a baselayer either light or mid weight and is super lightweight and minimalist at 390g for a size M.
The Berghaus Extrem MTN Seeker MW Synthetic Hoody comes in sizes XS to XL and two colour options.
The SRP is £200 and it can be purchased direct from Berghaus UK.
Edelrid Attila Ice Axe
Most peoples perception of an ice axe is something that the hero protagonist uses to pit themselves against the never ending icefall up a mountain with snow and spindrift swirling around them. When they handle one, they grasp the bottom of the shaft and hold it aloft, wielding it like a mighty Excalibur.
The actual purpose couldn’t be further from that. For 90% of your mountain journey an ice will do little more than be held by your side and occasionally be plunged into snow or if you are having a particularly exciting day hacking out a belay ledge. If, however, your small stumble becomes a supersonic slide to the corrie bottom your ice axe will save your life. So choose your ice axe with care and attention, do not be swayed by sexy ultra curved ice climbing axes for general mountaineering use.
The Edelrid Attila Ice Axe is a lightweight mountaineering axe that is more than suitable for any terrain you’re likely to come across. The slightly curved shaft is smooth enough for plunginging into snow yet the subtle curve will allow extra reach for that occasional steep bulge. The wide adze allows efficient steps to be cut or belay ledge to the constructed.
The hardened steel pick is heavy enough to use in ice and comfortable in your hand when carrying. The aggressive teeth will bite quickly into snow if you ever need to use it for a fall arrest. The Attila also has a hardened steel tip that is useful for using it against rock for uphill aid or plunging into hardened summit snow for using as a stomper belay. Both the head and tip have holes big enough to take a carabiner if you want to attach a leash or slings. The Made in Germany mark ensure top quality.
The Edelrid Attila Ice Axe comes in two sizes 55 and 65cms.
The SRP is £95 and it available from specialist reatilers and Edelrid.
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