Wes Hunter is a local Mountain Instructor (MIC) who provides outdoor activity courses all year round. In this blog, Wes talks us through some of his tips and tricks for winter climbing in the UK. From how to read the weather and stay safe, to advice on the equipment and staying open-minded!
Of all of climbing’s great disciplines, winter climbing has to be one of the most fulfilling and frustrating! Fickle winters combined with work and other life commitments can scupper the plans of even the most ardent climbers. However, there is still much you can do to better improve your chances of having dream days out in winter. The key is to stay flexible and open-minded. Here we aim to give you a few pointers to help improve the odds.
A crucial skill for any self-respecting winter climber is the ability to interpret weather forecasts and understand how weather patterns will affect mountain conditions. By regularly checking weather reports (even when you aren’t going out on the hill) a bank of knowledge can be built that might span large portions of the winter. This ‘weather history’ can help you make more informed decisions about where to go and what to do, and equally importantly, where not too! Two staple providers of this information that I use regularly are:
The mountain weather information service ‘planning outlook’ videos are particularly good. They explain the general trend and help viewers understand weather systems in far more detail than standard weather forecasts.
It’s also worth remembering the six principal weather systems that affect the UK and how they might impact conditions in our mountains. The diagram below provides a good recap, and a more detailed description of each airmass can be found by clicking the image.
Another useful source of information is the plethora of social media posts and blogs that are out there. Whilst this information could be entirely relevant, it’s also important to remember that company blogs and social media posts will always try to make themselves look good! Take things you see online with a pinch of salt and make your own decisions based on all of the information available.
Social media posts of this nature are often posted during the evening (once people are back from their day enjoying the mountains). Conditions the following day could be very different from the previous day. What’s more, routes that are reported in ‘good nick’ are likely to be mobbed the following day. Better to use the information but make your own decisions rather than following regardless.
In general, it takes more than a couple of days of snow and cold temperatures for the majority of routes to come into condition. Some routes take weeks, even months to come into condition and some only form once in a decade or more. In the Lakes we often experience snow falling on unfrozen or partially frozen ground. This isn’t a great recipe for good climbing conditions and it’s ‘not cricket’ to climb routes that aren’t in condition. It can be detrimental to the environment and to your health!
The BMC’s White Guide is a free download that provides some really useful information for climbers in the Lakes. It’s also really good for helping climbers build a better understanding of what constitutes winter conditions.
Most moderate winter climbs require periods of snowfall combined with a series of freeze/thaw cycles to allow conditions to build. Snow that has fallen on unfrozen ground can be frustrating as a new blanket of snow might make routes look like they are in condition; however, the snow can insulate the ground and prevent it from freezing properly. Climbing any routes in these conditions can be detrimental to rare arctic/alpine plant species that are often present on the high north facing crags we often seek out when winter climbing.
Winter climbing is full of objective dangers, from avalanches, cornice collapse, and rock fall among lots of others. It’s important to always be a self-critical. Reflect on your experiences. Ask yourself if what you did was safe, or did you simply get away with it? Where possible, try to adopt a systematic approach to risk assessment rather than a random one.
There are many resources out there which can help with this. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service provides daily avalanche reports for six regions in the Scottish Highlands throughout the winter. They also have a load of other really useful information on the website, including the Be Avalanche Aware guide which is available to download onto your smartphone. This guide outlines a very useful decision-making process that will aid planning your days out and help you make safe decisions when out on the hill.
For climbers heading out in the Lakes, the Lake District Weatherline produce Fell Top reports during the winter (usually from the Helvellyn area). These reports often contain useful information relating to winter climbing conditions as well as any objective hazards which have been identified.
As with any forecast, there is scope for variation so always use your own judgement. Take some time on the approach to your climb to observe the weather. Does the wind direction and speed match up with what is forecast? Is the forecast freezing level about right? These are good observational questions that you can answer!
What to take with you in winter is one of the eternal dilemmas of the winter climber. The staples such as a crampon’s, ice axe/tools, harness & helmet, first aid kit, group shelter, as well as warm and waterproof clothing are simple, but knowing what hardware to take with you can be tricky. The following is a rough guide to the kind of rack I might take with me for mixed routes in the Lakes in the grade III/IV region:
• 1 rack wires size 3-11
• 4 - 6 extendable quickdraws
• 2-3 Large hexes or equivalent
• 2-3 125cm Dyneema slings
• 1 240cm Dyneema sling
• 1-2 drive-ins’ (warthogs/Bulldogs)
• 2-4 ice screws
• spare abseil tat
For harder routes, I’d take a couple more quickdraws and a few more medium size wires. 2-3 medium size cams may also be worth considering. For hands, I tend to take 2-3 pairs of medium weight gloves and change them as and when necessary.
When considering what equipment to take with you, it’s also useful to think about what gear might be useful if plan A doesn’t work out. If the route you had in mind doesn’t look like it’s in condition or is unsuitable for whatever reason, it’s good to have a few other bits of gear available to suit other types of climbing.
Keeping an open mind and choosing an objective that is suitable for the conditions is often a better approach than cracking on regardless, even if that means just going for a walk! With careful planning however, every winter climbing day can be positive and successful. You might just need to move the goal posts a bit!