Preparing for Winter

cropped-sam-heading-into-coire-an-lochan-11.jpgA guide to that best of climbing seasons by our resident expert and Mountain Guide – Andrew Mallison.

I’m not ashamed to say it, and no amount of Amy Winehouse style rehab is going to alter the fact…. I’m an addict….

A complete and utter Scottish Winter addict…..

I’ve climbed all over the World – India, Nepal, Pakistan, Morocco, France, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, and even Wales…..but for me, nothing beats Scotland in winter.  The sheer mental and physical challenge, together with astounding beauty and harshness in equal measure, is so magnificent as to be almost overwhelming.  As an experience in which to immerse yourself, it doesn’t get much better than this…..

And it’s the size of that challenge, the nature of that experience, which can place huge demands on us as mountaineers….and there are only mountaineers in winter…I don’t think  there’s such a thing as winter hill walking, only winter mountaineering. ..and as some Chinese General or other once said, 90% of battles are won before they are fought.  So what can we do to be ready?  To ensure we have an awesome day out in the cold/wind/snow/ice/sun of a Scottish Winter?

We’re all different and I refuse to be in any way prescriptive, but what I thought might be useful is to tell you the things I do to tip the odds of a brilliant day on the hill in my favour….and I’d say my success rate is about 8/10 so I must be doing something right.

Some of this you’ll think is rubbish, some just plain stupid…great stuff…don’t do it.  But maybe the odd thing may just help you….so, in no particular order…..

  1. Start early in your prep….like now….don’t wait until the first snow falls.
  2. Leave the central heating off as long you can…start getting used to being cold.
  3. Same applies to the car heater….leave it off.
  4. Get out walking….a lot…and I mean a lot.  Days of 10, 12, 15+ hours a day, regularly, every weekend.  Notice that I say hours and not miles – time in the saddle is what’s important here as winter days can be long.
  5. With time under your belt, fill your sac with ropes, climbing gear, the kids, whatever you have, and walk the walks again.
  6. Did I mention doing lots of walking? Even if you’re climbing, the majority of your day is actually spent walking.
  7. If you can’t get out on the hills, walk from home….lots… reason not to do at least 1-2 hours every day….if it’s dark get a head torch on.
  8. Start wearing your big winter boots on walks.  You may look a right wally but your feet/ankles/calf muscles work in a different way with big boots so get used to them.
  9. Similarly, start carrying a full winter sac on walks….you can always hide your axe & crampons inside the sac…or just add an extra rock…it’s all about getting used to the weight.
  10. Do your crampons fit your boots?
  11. Do you know where your axe & crampons are?
  12. Check all your gear for wear and tear….are my gaiters shagged out?
  13. Where is all your gear?
  14. Fix what needs fixing now….not on the hill on your first winter outing.
  15. Put super long tags on all your zips.  The ones already on jackets and the like when you buy them are crap….too flimsy and too short.  Get some para cord and put new ones on…about 5cm in length so you can get hold of them with gloves.
  16. Buy what needs to be replaced…is your head torch knackered by leaking batteries you left in there last winter?  Get a new one….now.
  17. Buy a shed load of AA batteries.  Most head torches and GPS units use them, so buy a stack and keep them in the house, ready.
  18. Old bicycle inner tubes.  Get one and cut it into long strips to make rubber bands.  You can use these to wrap around your folded waterproof map case (with map inside) to make it a manageable size for handling and squeezing in a pocket, as well as reduce the chance of it being blown away.
  19. Practice your nav.  Practice navigating between contour features, to the exclusion of everything else, until you’re comfortable doing it.
  20. Go out at night, even if it’s just local to your house in the local park or round the streets walking.  Some people find night time daunting, but in the winter you’ll spend a lot of time in it.  Get used to it.  Work out what looks bigger, what looks smaller, what looks closer and further away in the dim light.
  21. If the weather is crap, get out anyway – develop some mental toughness.
  22. If the weather is crap, get out and navigate in it, even for just a couple of hours.  If it’s crap and dark, so much the better.
  23. If you don’t know anything about avalanches, get some books and start reading.
  24. Start following the weather on an obsessive level – if you don’t understand meteorology get a book and start reading. The Countryfile forecast on BBC1 on Sundays is excellent for a longer range view.
  25. Find the websites for MWIS and SAIS and bookmark them on your computer and smartphone.
  26. Work out how far your head torch beam shines on full batteries – you can use it as a way of gauging distance for short navigation legs.
  27. How many double paces do you take for 100m?  Is it the same in your big boots?
  28. Sort out your winter partner/s.  I have some friends who I can’t go on the hill with in winter…because they have long legs and I’m a short arse….ever tried following someone with long legs through deep snow?
  29. Learn to get out of bed….early.  Every hour you start early in the morning will save you twice that amount of time in evening/night when it’s pitch black, blowing a hoolie and you’re completely knackered having been on the go for 14 hours…
  30. Chop wood and hammer nails….it helps hand/eye co-ordination and replicates using an ice axe.  It will improve your step cutting and axe placements and has the added benefit of using the same muscle groups.
  31. Shovel shit – by that I mean never pass up an opportunity to do some digging, in the garden or elsewhere.  Whether it’s bucket seats or snow holes you can spend an awful lot of time digging in winter.  So get some practice…
  32. Squeeze balls – tennis balls.  Grip strength can really help in winter.
  33. If you haven’t got any ski goggles, get some…..they’re essential for winter navigation.
  34. Make the decision about whether you’re going to buy & carry avalanche transceivers/shovels/probes….know why you’re making it and agree it with your partner.
  35. Always have your winter sack packed and ready at home…you should be able to head out the door in 30 mins…..if the weather’s suddenly good you need to be able to take advantage of it.
  36. Get a watch with a stop watch function on it…timing navigation legs is crucial in winter.
  37. Go rock climbing at your local crag in the dark with your head torch on.  Initially a scary experience, it will really help when you get caught out in winter and have to do it for real!
  38. I really struggle to eat early in a morning, (I’m usually a 10am man), but in winter the one thing I can manage is porridge with Golden Syrup…Try to get into the habit of eating something…
  39. Go on some walks that have no paths just lots of deep heather – lifting the legs all the time and the drag effect on the feet will mimmick wading through snow.
  40. Get some winter guide books and plan some adventures – get prepared and get excited !!  Have a great winter season !!


To see more of Andy or to find out about guiding or training in the mountains visit Mountain Summits