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Winter Hillwalking

Terry Adby Stuart Johnston
By Terry Adby and Stuart Johnston
8 minute read

Summer hillwalking and winter mountaineering are worlds apart, with virtually every dimension of the environment transformed in the latter season. The risks – and, arguably, the attractions – are multiplied many times over in winter, when the mountains become both wonderland and danger zone. In this first extract from their book ‘The Hillwalker’s Guide to Mountaineering’, Terry Adby and Stuart Johnson highlight some of the issues to consider and offer their top tips for choosing winter boots and using crampons successfully.

Because the effect of winter conditions (which, in Scotland, can commonly occur at any time from October to May) is so great, the difference in hillwalking tactics, techniques, approaches and equipment is also significant. We cannot cover all these differences here but one thing is clear. The appeal of the winter hills is so great that any ambitious hillwalker will want to get out there and experience them; if you fancy the Aonach Eagach in summer, you’ll probably happily take a bit of the Cairngorms in winter too.

These skills and techniques are those traditionally associated with winter hillwalking, although (as with scrambling and rock climbing) the difference between this and winter mountaineering can be a grey area. Whatever the distinction, all the evidence from Mountain Rescue teams shows that the majority of winter ‘shouts’ are to bail out ill-prepared hillwalkers. For the purposes of this article, our concern here is with safe travel for winter hillwalkers in particular.

A well fitting crampon

How the hills change

It’s worth considering exactly how winter conditions affect the hills. This brief answer is ‘in just about every way’. The weather is generally harsher, usually colder, often less predictable. Daylight hours are shorter, and route finding and navigation in snow-covered terrain much more difficult. It can be much more difficult to judge times and distances, not least because conditions underfoot are transformed. Snow and ice can cover everything from paths to cairns to streams. You might be skating over it or sinking into it; surface conditions in the same spot can change in minutes as temperatures rise or fall, or snow or rain comes in. For the ill-prepared ‘the white stuff’ can penetrate boots, and get into clothing. If flat ground can become difficult to walk on without assistance, slopes can be impossible. Gentle inclines can be completely unforgiving in the event of a slip, and even the spring scrambler, especially in Scotland, may find ridges and gullies pasted in old, hard snow. Even a mere smattering of ice can cause real problems on a grade 1 scramble, or less. Given the right (or wrong) combination of slope aspect, angle and conditions, avalanche is also a real and constant threat. And so it goes on. But it is also this very transformation of the hills in winter garb that makes them exhilarating, challenging and uniquely beautiful.

Planning a winter day

As with any trip, the most important aspect of a successful winter outing is planning and preparation, and all the same rules apply. But bear in mind the limitations that winter conditions impose. You have less time, and will be moving more slowly. You will use more energy, so will need to carry and eat more. Hazards will be generally greater, and in some cases hidden. Many navigational features will be harder to spot, and a route suitable the rest of the year might well not be possible under snow. Route finding may, in any case, be difficult. In the event of an accident, rescue will almost certainly be more problematic, and possibly more urgent. There’s a greater risk of getting caught out in the dark, which would provide a serious test of survival. Whatever your plan for a day in the winter mountains, your margin for error should probably be even greater than it is at other times, and should take very serious account of the levels of strength, fitness and ability within your party. On the plus side, you might well have to carry less gear as you will be wearing more of it for longer.

Buying the right winter boots

In an average British winter the mountain terrain from around 2,700ft (824m) is likely to be covered in hard snow and ice, with areas of bare rock. These conditions are most consistent in Scotland, but are also quite normal elsewhere. Four-season boots are essential to operate safely and effectively. These will support your weight without bending the toes or flexing at the heel, and should be comfortable, lightweight, completely waterproof and have a rigid sole. For winter hillwalking, a leather boot is the best choice in terms of comfort and performance.

When you are buying boots think of them as a multi-purpose tool. Getting them right is every bit as important as choosing the right ice axe – perhaps more so. Winter boots should have a good square edge to a Vibram sole, and ideally a protective rubber rand around, if the boot is made of leather. The rand protects the boot from wear and tear when constantly kicking through hard snow and ice.

When considering whether your boot is OK for winter simply apply the flex test. Take the boot in your hand and place the toe on the ground with the heel pointing upwards, then compress and attempt to fold the boot. If you have more than a 10% flex the boot will not perform on hard snow and could lead to you slipping. Also, if your boots have too much flex any crampons you fit will not stay in place. It’s very unnerving when a crampon pops off unexpectedly, and it can also be very awkward to get them back on again. Good boot and crampon compatibility is essential for you to travel safely in the mountains.

If your boot fails the flex test you should consider using different ones, because a stiff, hard-edged boot is essential for support on firm snow. If the boot lets you down when kicking across a hard snow patch you are likely to slip.

Getting to grips with crampons

(L to R) 12-point with a binding fitting; 9-point with a strap heel; 10-point with a plastic heel.

Wearing crampons enables the winter hillwalker to walk easily on snow and ice, on terrain that would often be difficult, treacherous or impassable without them.

There are basically two different types of crampon: articulated or fully rigid. For winter walking and mountaineering an articulated pair is the best choice, and they even work quite well for low-grade technical climbing too. Rigid crampons are generally the preserve of technical winter climbers. Either 10- or 12-point crampons are appropriate for winter walking; 8-point crampons are also available but, having no front points, are not much use on steep snow slopes. The 9-point crampon, a more recent innovation, does have front points and is worth considering.

When selecting which type of crampon, you may choose either a step-in crampon (binding style) or a plastic toe-and-heel bail. A step-in crampon can only be used on a mountain boot, but is fast and easy to fit. Plastic bails will fit any mountain boot but can be slow to strap on. They can also be used on a robust and reasonably stiff-soled walking boot. Whatever system you choose you should ensure that your boot is compatible. Even winter walking and mountaineering boots will have a very small bit of flex, and a good articulated crampon is designed to bend with your boot, without falling off.

Putting crampons on quickly

Always put your crampons on as soon as you think you need them, or even earlier. Pop them on before ascending or descending a steep slope that looks icy, even if there are plenty of rocks showing through or, say, when walking on broad but exposed areas close to gentle, snow-covered slides into oblivion.

Do not sit down to put on your crampons as you may slide off accidentally. It is also, even at the best of times, very awkward to fix your crampon on to your boot while sitting down. The following simple technique will have your crampons on quickly and easily:

  1. Find a small clear area of ground or hard snow. Remember you have a left and right crampon, each identified by the final tie-off buckle being located to the outside of your boot. If you can use a small upward incline when stepping into the crampon, it’s much easier to balance.
  2. Standing up, place one crampon on the cleared spot and face the front points away from you.
  3. Maintaining balance step your foot gently in to the crampon – commence the strapping and repeat the process for the other foot.

Walking with crampons

Flat footing (photo 1) enables you to place all vertical spikes into the hard snow at the same time (not including your front points). It is commonly used for walking on flat or easy-angled descending terrain. When flat footing your feet should be shoulder width apart. Front pointing (2) is a technique used for both ascending and descending. You must keep your boots at a right angle to the slope, and using your knee as a hinge, swing your front points into the snow, progressing with short steps. American technique (3) is a combination of flat footing with a flexed ankle on the downhill boot, and front pointing with the uphill boot. It is important to keep a good distance between boots to prevent catching the crampons and tripping over. American technique can be used for ascending or descending. Anti-balling plates fitted to crampons (4) are extremely useful in preventing large balls of snow forming on the base of your crampon, causing them to lose grip. This can happen when the snowpack is warmer and there is more moisture around.

Carrying (and fixing) crampons

When not in use, crampons are just a cluster of annoying metal spikes assembled in an inconvenient manner injurious to health and property. It’s wise to defeat their nastier habits by securing them in a special carrying bag – at the very least it could avoid some holes in your rucksack. Once in the crampon bag, carry your crampons inside your rucksack. Some people strap them to the outside of their pack, but this can unbalance your rucksack, and they might also fall off. It’s also a good idea to carry some plastic ties, a strap, and a small threaded nut and bolt in the event that your crampon fails. An emergency repair will get you through your day unscathed.

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