Winter Skills

Although the mountains of Britain are small when compared to the Alps or the Himalayas, conditions are more unpredictable and they must be treated with respect - especially in hard and icy winter conditions. Every year statistics show that the most common cause of winter mountaineering accidents is a simple slip. Many of the people injured are well equipped and experienced, but are not adequately prepared for the conditions they encounter.

Of all the equipment used by a winter mountaineer, an ice axe and crampons are the most important.  You should consider carrying them whenever there is snow on the ground and if you carry them you must be able to use them confidently and correctly.

As 50% of fatalities in winter result from head injuries, the wearing of a helmet may give added protection.

Use of the Ice Axe

An ice axe is the basic piece of equipment needed for moving on snow and ice. It can be used as an aid to balance, for support, for purchase when climbing, for digging and step cutting and as an emergency brake. The choice of axes available is enormous, but one of between 50-70cm is suitable for general mountaineering. Long axes are more suitable for walking; short axes for climbing.

Holding the Axe

The axe should be carried in the uphill hand with the pick pointing backwards. This allows it to be used for support and balance and is also the best position should it be needed as an emergency brake.

Self Arrest

Self arrest, or ice axe braking, is the name given to the technique used to stop a slide. If you are prepared and have practised using your ice axe, it is possible to stop even on very hard snow. The following method is based on the basic axe holding position as described above.

In the event of a slip, the adze of the axe is positioned under your shoulder so that the pick can be applied to the snow slope, with the axe shaft braced across your body (see diagram). Your feet should be raised so that your toes don't catch in the snow causing you to somersault. Only experience will allow you to judge the amount of pressure you need to apply to the pick: too little and you won't stop; too much and you risk losing the axe.

For ice axe braking to be effective it must be practised regularly – until it becomes an automatic reaction. The need for this cannot be overstated. When practising, choose a slope with a safe run out and no protruding rocks. Avoid slopes over 40°, those which are icy or whose run out cannot be seen. Always wear a helmet when practising and cover the axe spike to prevent injury.

Video demonstration of Ice Axe Self Arrest

Movement on Snow Slopes

When ascending snow slopes choose a zig-zag route that links patches of soft snow or areas of easier angle. Remember always to carry your axe in your uphill hand and move methodically and rhythmically, avoiding spurts and stops which lead to poor balance and instability.

As you place your feet use the edge of your boot sole to kick a small step to stand on. Using the edges of the boot is less' tiring then using the toes. It is essential that your boots are sturdy and have stiff soles: if you can flex the sole in your hands it's too soft for winter use.

Pay particular attention when changing direction, and try to plant the ice axe firmly in the snow for each step. Always have two points of contact with the snow slope - either both feet (when you move the axe) or one foot and the axe (as you take a step).

Use of Crampons

When the snow becomes too steep or hard for step kicking, crampons should be worn. These should be fitted according to the manufacturer's instructions and must be the correct size and fit for your boots. Accidents frequently occur as a direct result of crampons coming loose or falling off. Boots for winter walking or mountaineering should have a stiff sole for correct crampon fitting and step kicking. See boots and crampons page for more info. When walking in crampons avoid baggy or loose trousers on which they can snag, and beware of anything hanging down from your waist. Try to adopt a gait that has the legs farther apart than normal, and again practise using your crampons in a safe, controlled environment.

You should flex your ankles so that all of the downward points bite. Avoid stamping or dragging your feet. Instead develop the technique of placing them firmly and confidently with each step.

Avalanche Hazard Assessment

The danger of avalanches is often underestimated in Scotland. In winter the nearest available Avalanche Forecast should be consulted before departure. This can give a general impression of the expected avalanche risk, however as conditions can vary widely over very short distances, it is important to know how to perform your own assessment of the risks. The skill of digging a snow pit to identify snow layers and stability is covered in theory at our Avalanche Safety Lecture and in practice at the Winter Experience meet. The following paragraph describes the Threshold Sums Method of Avalanche Hazard Assessment, which is largely based on this skill:

Avalanche Hazard Assessment Using the Threshold Sums Method

If the answer to any of the following questions is "yes", it is given a value of 1:

  • Overnight and today, have snowfall and drifting caused new accumulations >20cms? (i.e. is it or has it been "snowing and blowing") OR
    Is it raining or has it rained at 900m today or last night? (Ignore light drizzle or occasional showers)
  • Does a snowball formed with moderate pressure from the wettest layer in the snowpit give "dry glove"? OR
    Can water drops be squeezed from a snowball made from the wettest layer?
  • Do adjacent layers in the snowpit show a hardness step of more than 1 on the hand hardness scale?
  • Is the maximum temperature gradient between any two points (at vertical intervals of 10cm) 5 degrees C per metre or more?
  • Is the foot penetration at the snowpit site 20cm or more (average of 3 tests)?

Now add the total. As long as the snowpit is representative of the highest hazard areas for the day, threshold sums of 4 and 5 are highly correlated with avalanche incidents (91/103 results, 88.35%).

Sums of 0, 1, 2 and 3 are highly correlated with non-avalanche days (93/106 results, 87.74%).

QUIZ: Glenmore Lodge have put an avalanche awareness quiz on their website (PC and Mac versions available).

Key Points to Remember

  • Have the correct equipment for your day out and know how to use it
  • Always consider the need for ice axe and crampons when venturing onto snow covered terrain.
  • Be realistic about your experience and set your objectives accordingly
  • Carry your ice axe in your hand - it's no good strapped to the back of your rucksack
  • When on steep or icy ground consider wearing a helmet
  • Know how to navigate and always leave details of your route with a responsible person
  • Be aware of avalanche risk and check the avalanche forecast for the area you are visiting
  • Remember - equipment is no substitute for practice and good judgement