Winter walking, its pleasures, challenges and dangers!

I love every season for walking, each has its own beauty and each has its own challenges and dangers.
 
We tend to think that summer is the safest, but that too has its dangers, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and dehydration among many other things!
 
Somewhere in between: spring and autumn, they too have their dangers. But winter is probably the most challenging and inherent with danger.
 
Before I go any further, I’ll put a disclaimer in here, I cannot nor will I be held responsible for any incidents arising from this blogpost. This is purely a personal view of the pleasures, challenges and dangers that winter walking does have.
 
However, if you take the right precautions, take the right training from fully qualified people, there is no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy winter walking in relative safety.
 
Not one of us are free from danger while walking, it is up you the individual to ensure you walk safely and also as a group, it is a shared responsibility to walk safely.
 
Even professionals have accidents and need to be rescued, though it’s rare, and that’s where the training comes in.

A phrase I use as a guideline:
"If in doubt
Leave it out"

The hills and moors will still be there for another day, and even the chance of enjoying walking in the snow, will be there another day.

Now that nasty bit is over, I hope I’ve not scared you off?

Winter mountaineering with ice axe, crampons and helmets


As always, at the end I’ll leave a list of websites where you can seek the latest information. However, probably one of the best central points of mountaineering information and also where courses are available, both at home and abroad is the British Mountaineering Council, often just called The BMC.
 
Winter walking, is probably one of my most favourite times to be outdoors walking.
 
Winter is a time of year with many pleasures, challenges and dangers, of which many are hidden!

You get superb crystal clear views, or obscured low cloud, heavy weather and the time when you feel, perhaps being home by the fire was a better idea.
 
It’s a time to wear clothing suitable for the conditions prevailing, go out and experience nature at a wonderful time of year.
 
Yes, nature is still very much alive in in the harsh conditions winter throws upon our hills and moors. Grouse are often very active on our moors, mountain hares still race across the ground, evading predators and trying to feed….

Red grouse feeding on the Peak District moors in winter

I’ve yet to see a mountain hare in its white winter coat, so hopefully I will one day.
 
So, how to do this all as safe as possible?
 
I treat walking the hills and moors with the utmost respect, and winter walking probably more so.
 
Before I did my winter skills training, I avoided the mountains, hills and moors in extreme conditions, dreaming one day I’ll learn the skills to go out there and play as safely as I can.

Even today, if I've any doubt I'll avoid anything that looks like it has hidden or obvious dangers.
 
Cornices are often only be observed from the side or below. They are not something to be standing on, close by or even under. The ledge of snow, which you most likely cannot see while standing on, could give at any time!
 
If you're under a cornice, then it could easily collapse on top of you, burying you!

Incidentally, 'cornice' is Italian for ledge!

I just thought I would throw that bit of useless information in.....
 
A small example of a cornice, viewed from a distance
 
A close up of the same cornice I reckon was close to 12 foot tall (3.6 mtrs),
using the zoom on my camera
Even my old favourite, Stanton Moor, small as it is compared to many moors, has many nasty drops that can be obscured in poor weather conditions.

Throughout a lot of our National Parks, The Peak District, Snowdonia, The Lake District, The North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales to name a few, have been subjected to lots of mine and quarry activities over the centuries.

To add to that, many footpaths we follow are old pilgrim, pack horse and trade routes. So its going to stand to reason, these quarries could easily be close to many footpaths!

A scary thought?

Study that map closely, use Google Earth to view the terrain, plot on your GPS known and obvious unsafe areas, also those which might be inherent with danger, like anything using the following names;
  • Mine
  • Quarry
  • Pit
  • Hollow
  • Shafts
There are many more dangers out there, these are to name just a few examples.

Other examples most likely pertaining to natural phenomena where steep drops can appear;
  • Ridge
  • Edge
  • Clough
  • Hollow
Again, just to name a few.

The Cat Stone by day

The Cat Stone by night


Many of these names can be local derivatives, so it really is a case of, study that map and if possible, get to know some of the local terms. 

But, these names are not always mentioned!

Study those contours, how close are they, or even are they sitting on top of each others?

The other side of the Cat Stone pictured above and below, has quite a steep drop, which isn't obvious due to the foliage around it.

There are many small quarries on Stanton Moor, some of which are close to some of the paths which too can be obscured in low cloud.

The other side of this stone, called the Cat Stone on Stanton Moor,
has a nasty drop obscured by the foliage



This is one of the many small quarries on Stanton Moor,
which are close to some of the paths

Then in February 2009, we had some fantastic snow an opportunity arose to join a winter skills course from qualified instructors, learning how to use crampons and ice axe. The instruction didn’t end there, we learned about different types of snow. 

Winter Skills in Snowdonia


Yes, there are different types of snow that can have a big impact on winter walking and also, avalanches!
 
The course involved detailed kit and clothing requirement, and one thing that surprised a lot of us, we were recommended to have FOUR pairs of suitable winter gloves!
 
Yes, FOUR!
 
Why four I hear you ask?
 
Well, you’d be surprised how easy it is for snow to fall down that gap where you put your hand in when you’re walking, climbing or even worse, take a tumble!
 
Did you know ice axes, like boots and crampons, come in different sizes and types?
 
Well they do, and just like humans, we too also come in different sizes.
 
There are different types of ice axe are basic and technical ice axes.
 
What’s the difference?
 
Basic is mainly for hill and mountain walkers while technical is for serious climbers.
 
Don’t just buy one because it looks good; seek proper training and advice first!
 
The next part I strictly recommend is only carried out with proper professional instruction under controlled conditions!
 
Now, have you ever tried to throw yourself down a slope?
 
Well, one of the things we had to do, was to effectively launch ourselves down a snow covered slope, keeping our feet in the air and then arrest the fall (stop the fall) by forcing our ice axe in to the snow.

Learning to arrest a fall
Note the feet are up!


Not easy, trying to keep your feet in the air, but if you don’t, and your crampons catch in the snow, or ground, then you risk being catapulted in to the air and the consequences could be more than catastrophic!
 
There were four basic types of fall we learned to arrest;
  • Head first with back to the ground
  • Head first with face to the ground
  • Feet first with back to the ground
  • Feet first with face to the ground
 
There was learning the different styles of walking with crampons. A handy tool to maintain grip on snow and ice, but nasty if you miss use them. Those steel spikes can do a lot of damage if you slip!
 
You also learn how to use the ice axe correctly according to the conditions you’re likely to face, not just for stabbing the ground to arrest a fall, or help climb a slope, but also how to cut steps in snow and ice to make the walking easier.
 
I’ve only really glossed over what you will take away with you from a winter skills course with a professional instructor, but it is one thing I would seriously recommend to anyone who wants to enjoy the hills and moors with greater safety.
 
REMEMBER, IT WILL NOT AVERT DISASTER, merely reduce the risk.
 
Until you undertake such a course, you can’t visualise all the aspects that can make a walk safer, (NOT SAFE) or damn right dangerous!
 
This course was based on the fact we all had good navigation skills, in all conditions. If your navigation skills are not very good, then you MUST address that first.
 
These courses typically can take between three to five days, depending on the skill level required and the skills you start off with.
 
Due to the higher guarantee of snow and harsher winter conditions, these courses are generally held in Scotland, though not all, mine was in Snowdonia and the weather and snow conditions were ideal.
 
It was the hardest outdoor work I’ve ever done; my legs ached for a couple of days afterwards. But it was a real pleasure.
 
Something else to share with you, if you’re a hardened hill and moorland walker in good conditions, you will have an idea what your average walking speed is. When walking in snow and ice, that speed will be greatly reduced. The deeper the snow, the slower your pace will be.
 
So when you’re planning your route, consider halving your walking speed and shortening that route considerably.
 
It’s far better to finish early and safe, than to become benighted and needing help!

Returning from a winter climb, in the dark!

It was not even 5:00pm and dark when we finally arrived back at our cars
While winter walking, you will be relying on batteries to power your headtorch should the light fade earlier than you had planned. Also, if you're relying on a mobile phone, or GPS for navigation, they to rely on batteries to power them.

Batteries are heavily dependant on working in an ambient warm environment, for optimum performance.
 
Too cold, or too warm,
and batteries will fail prematurely!

I do mention about premature battery failure in another blog titled: Modern technology vs. traditional methods! where I cover some of the technical benefits and pitfalls of battery powered technology, in a non-technical form.

So,what challenges have you got?
 
Here are some to get you started:
  • Shortened daylight hours
  • High risk of low cloud and adverse weather conditions
  • Greatly increased risk of slips, trips and falls
  • Hypothermia
  • Disorientation
  • Avalanches
  • Ice falls (falling ice)
  • Slips and trips
Among many more risks, depending on your skills, abilities, including the ground and terrain conditions, and of course, the weather.

A tear in a gaiter from my crampons, after a fall


 
So armed with that extra knowledge and skills, I was able to push my boundaries further with winter walking, packing my ice axe and crampons, but also using my already honed navigation and survival skills, enhanced yet again from my winter skills course and really enjoy as safe as I can possibly do, those hills and moors.
 
You don’t need to be on top of a mountain to enjoy winter walking, the lower summits can herald fabulous views, moorlands plateaus can provide just as good a walk, so can low land areas. But remember, to keep your walk safe and if necessary, change our route to avoid disaster.


Looking across Llyn Idwal to the Devils Kitchen

Looking over Kinder Low End to Kinder Downfall

Above an inversion, looking over towards Hayfield from Kinder Low End
So, where have I been and what have I done out in the winter?
 
Not as much as I would like, but then, as a family man, I have to work to earn the money and also spend time with my family.
 
But, I’ve done some absolutely fabulous walks and not all mountain climbs.
 
I generally spend my time in the Peak District, it’s nearer to home, only a two to three hour drive each way, though Snowdonia is also another favourite of mine, but that can be a four hour drive each way in winter!
 
I have enjoyed walking in Snowdonia, but nowhere near as much due to the distance involved for travelling. Rest assured, it’s on my tick list to do more in Snowdonia, one day, or more….
 
One day I might be lucky enough to spend some winter time in the Cairngorms!
 
One of my favourite haunts is Stanton Moor at just over 300 metres, which is a small, but exposed piece of moorland in the White Peak. It does get quite a good covering of snow at times and can be on a par with many places higher.

The Cork Stone on Stanton Moor

 The Nine Ladies Stone Circle on Stanton Moor

A large exposed expanse of moorland on Stanton Moor


I’ve also enjoyed walking on Kinder in the snow, using Microspikes and also crampons.
 
What are Microspikes?
 
Microspikes are small spikes that attach to your boots or shoes, to aid grip on shallow snow and ice. They must not be used as a substitute for crampons in deep snow, the spike s are only about 1 cm in length rather than substantially longer and stronger, spikes on crampons.
 
There are other types available in the UK market, but they were my preferred choice when it was shopping around at the time.
 
One blog I’ve written which gives you some idea as to what I carry in my pack is: What's in my pack?

Almost like a junk yard, my kit after returning from a winter walk


Another blog worth reading is Modern technology vs. traditional methods! This looks at modern technology, from a non-technical perspective along with its pitfalls to walkers.
 
I do like my gadgets, but it’s understanding their strengths and weaknesses before using them, and most certainly before relying on them!

 

I like my gadgets.
The Kestrel 2000, great for letting you know what the temperature is!

Here are some of the winter walks that I’ve done in recent years and written about:
 
White Peak Walk from Monsal Head Sunday 18th December 2011
This was my second blog, where I enjoyed a full winter walk in the White Peak Dales, on some icy ground. It shows that you do not always need to have lots of snow to enjoy a good winter walk, but it does detail some of the perils of winter walking, like the slippery conditions, rivers overflowing and footpaths under water.

Challenging walks need not have a lot of snow!

Somewhere alongside that rock face and under water, was my foot path!

Castleton’s North Ridges Sunday 19th February 2012
There was hardly any snow, but it was cold for this walk. Castleton’s Great Ridge, Mam Tor topping a mere 517 metres, which can be just as exposed as many mountains.

Looking along the route to Lose Hill

 
Kinder, Kinder Downfall and the Sabre…..
Again, no snow, but lots of low cloud and increased use of navigation skills to ensure a safe return home.

A misty view of an old jet fighter that crashed on Kinder







Low cloud will present its challenges!
 A Peak Winter Meet, a Bunkhouse and Kinder
Brilliant, a shared walk with friends across a delightfully snow covered Kinder Plateau.
 
Warning, Kinder, and Bleaklow, both only just about 600 metres and very exposed, are partial to extreme conditions and navigational challenges, being very featureless areas!

Moorland walking can be very quiet and almost lonely



 
Derwent Moor to Highshaw Clough from Cutthroat Bridge
Easter 2013, many parts of Britain were gripped in snow!
 
This particular day tested the winter clothing with bitter easterly winds topping 20 mph and a wind chill of -8.4ºC!


Looking over to Win Hill from Derwent Edge

Even in England we can get deep snow drifts
I stand almost six foot tall!






Bamford, Hope and Win Hill
Another example of winter walking without snow, but, harsh weather conditions could have prevailed!

The need to be aware of your terrain, good navigation skills and how low cloud can obscure steep drops that are close to your path!

Win Hill, in the Peak District, under low cloud.


Superb views were enjoyed a lot lower down looking up to the hills around
 
Mill Hill, Kinder and Kinder Downfall
A winter walk, but this time under extreme windy conditions while on an exposed plateau which can be a navigational challenge on the Kinder Plateau.
Kinder Downfall, where the wind was taking the water back up the waterfall!


 
Axe Edge Moor Winter Walk and I’m a BIG kid at heart
It was a brilliant day on Axe Edge Moor, clear skies, lots of snow, crystal clear views and hardly any wind!
 
I used my Kahtoola Microspikes, though my crampons and ice axe were packed should I have needed them.

Axe Edge Moor

The road to Buxton, near Tinkers Pit

 
Mam Tor and the Great Ridge, an old classic
This walk was during a thaw, but one where I set out to trial my newly bought Scarpa Manta boots.
 
This walk had a good mix of some snow, plenty of water and a chill factor to add to the testing. The boots were perfect; I’m just waiting to use them properly with my newly bought C2 crampons, when I can walk again.

Still some snow in places....

 
Kinder Low and Kinder Downfall, a Winter Wonderland
This is my last walk to date; only a short while afterwards was that dreadful day when that driver knocked me down.
 
Again, it ticked all the boxes:
  • Snow
  • Clear skies
  • Sun
  • Inversions
  • Winter clothing
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
Kinder Low in her winter robes


Kinder Reservoir engulfed in a cloud inversion

To summarise

Just to recap, winter walking can be fun, very enjoyable, but it is fraught with many challenges and dangers.

Just because I’ve had the training doesn’t mean I’m infallible, far from it, I’m still at risk and many more experienced winter climbers have fallen to serious injuries or in some cases, their death!

Hopefully what I have done is reduced the odds and made getting out there more pleasurable.

One thing I’ve found is some of the skills I’ve learned for winter mountaineering can be used any time of year, like how to walk up and down steep slopes in a zig zag fashion.

At the end of this blog, I’ve included some detail regarding boots and crampons form the The BMC.

This information was up-to-date at the time of publishing, though I fully recommend visiting The BMC website to ensure you get the latest information.

Whatever you do, stay safe, enjoy your winter walks and be prepared to curtail your plans if you’ve any doubt on your safe and timely return.

Remember my quote from quite early in this bog:

"If in doubt
Leave it out"
 
The hills and moors will still be there for another day, and even the chance of enjoying walking in the snow, will be there another day.

Finally, happy rambling and thank you for reading,
Peak Rambler
Twitter           @PeakRambler
Photo Album Peak Rambler Flickr Photo Album
YouTube       Peak Rambler on YouTube

Links to some of the items I’ve mentioned and written about here:
What's in my pack?
Modern technology vs. traditional methods!
White Peak Walk from Monsal Head Sunday 18th December 2011
Castleton’s North Ridges Sunday 19th February 2012
Kinder, Kinder Downfall and the Sabre…..
A Peak Winter Meet, a Bunkhouse and Kinder
Derwent Moor to Highshaw Clough from Cutthroat Bridge
Bamford, Hope and Win Hill
Mill Hill, Kinder and Kinder Downfall
Axe Edge Moor Winter Walk and I’m a BIG kid at heart
Mam Tor and the Great Ridge, an old classic
Kinder Low and Kinder Downfall, a Winter Wonderland
Modern technology vs. traditional methods!
Kahtoola Microspikes
The BMC
The BMC Hill skills: your first axe and crampons
Essential winter know-how

BOOTS & CRAMPONS
NOTE; THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION WAS CORRECT AT THE TIME OF PUBLICATION.

The author will NOT be held responsible for any accidents or injuries from the following information, so please, check for any changes, please visit The BMC website for up to date information.

BOOTS
  • B0 Unsuitable for crampons. Most walking boots are designed to flex for comfort and do not have sufficient lateral and longitudinal rigidity in their midsole. Additionally the upper is often made of soft calf leather or a combination of suede/fabric which compresses easily under crampon straps causing discomfort and cold feet.
  • B1 Suitable for the easiest snow and ice conditions found when hill walking, using crampons more for emergency or for crossing a short patch of snow or ice, rather than setting initially fitted for a full day's walk. They have a reasonably stiff flexing sole and the uppers provide enough ankle and foot support for traversing relatively steep slopes.
  • B2 A stiff flex boot with the equivalent of a three quarter or full shank midsole and a supportive upper made from high quality leather (probably over 3mm thick). These boots designed for four season mountaineering, can be used all day with crampons, whilst easy alpine terrain and easy Scottish snow and ice climbs can also be covered.
  • B3 A technical boot regarded as “rigid” both in midsole and upper. Used for mountaineering and ice climbing.

CRAMPONS
  • C1 A flexible walking crampon attached with straps, with or without front points.
  • C2 Articulated multi-purpose crampons with front points. Attached with straps all round or straps at the front (ideally with a French ring system) and clip-on heel.
  • C3 Articulated climbing or fully rigid technical crampon attached by full clip-on system of toe bar and heel clip.

Boots in the B3 category are ideal for C3 crampons and will also take C2 and C1.

At the other end of the spectrum a B1 boot could only be recommended with a C1 crampon.

It should be stressed that this is only a guide and should be used as a supplement for good advice from experienced shop staff, experienced mountaineers or mountain guides.

NOTE; THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION WAS CORRECT AT THE TIME OF PUBLICATION.

To check for any changes, please visit The BMC website for up to date information.

No comments:

Post a Comment