21 February 2014 by Helen Todd
One of the great things about walking is that it can be enjoyed at any time of the year. Pity the poor skiiers, waiting for the snow to arrive, or the sailors hauling their boats out of the water at the end of the summer.
Each walking season has its specific pleasures. Spring brings trees and hedges back to life, and shy primroses appearing at the side of the path., A clear autumn day, with a nip in the air and golden deer grass on the hillsides, makes wonderful walking weather. Of course summer is lovely too and the endless evenings in the far north mean you never have to worry about getting off the hill in daylight - but the Scottish midges can certainly ruin a picnic and there’s little shade from relentless heat and sun on top of a mountain!
For many people, winter is the season they long for. There’s nothing more inspiring than an icy, clear day of blue skies and snowy mountains stretching as far as the eye can see. When we spend so many winter days cooped up behind a computer or tucked up at home, it feels especially good to stretch the legs and get outdoors.
The short daylight hours, high winds and snow and ice on Scotland’s mountains can mean a real mountaineering expedition and a chance to test yourself against the elements. It’s not just Scottish hills to be wary of; I speak as someone who was once forced back from a hill above Grasmere one winter by the strong gusts and spindrift, and thinking: “But this is only 400m!”.
Coastal or woodland walks really come into their own in winter, but you can’t gain essential experience without getting up high. And if you do head to the hills, you’ll need full winter gear and the skills to navigate your way out of a white-out by using a map and compass. Mountain weather is notoriously changeable and that lovely sunny morning can easily deteriorate into a full-blown blizzard by the afternoon.
The media often concentrate on the accidents that happen on winter mountains, but the truth is that thousands of people enjoy the hills perfectly safely each year. Nevertheless, conditions should not be under-estimated, and a winter skills course could be a good investment.
My winter pack is substantially heavier than in the summer, and planning the route is a lot more important, as there is less room for error. You need a plan B - and possibly a C and a D as well - and to be prepared to turn back. The mountains will still be there another day.
Check the mountain weather forecast and the avalanche forecast before heading out. For navigation, a plastic case for your map is essential - maps can easily get soggy and disintegrate in the rain, or even blow away. While a GPS is extremely useful in thick clag or white-out conditions, you shouldn’t rely on this, since batteries can run out and even fail in severe cold. Likewise, mobile phones don’t always have a signal and shouldn’t be relied upon.
So what is in my pack? I always carry an ice axe and crampons when there’s snow on the ground, even if I don’t often need to use them. Yes, they are expensive to buy (though there are second-hand or rental options), including the rigid winter boots you also need to fix crampons to, but when you do need them, there’s no argument – and how much does it cost to potentially save your life?
I also carry substantial warm and waterproof clothing, though fortunately this gear is continually getting lighter in weight as new technology is developed. I almost live in my synthetic down jacket in the winter (even indoors!) as it gives more warmth than the thickest fleece without the weight and bulk, and it’s also windproof and showerproof. It’s great to throw it on over your waterproof jacket when you stop for a break. My pack also has a variety of spare gloves and hats – I learned this lesson one December when I set off to climb Carn Liath near Blair Atholl only to realise I’d left my gloves at home. My fingers did survive but it wasn’t much fun.
You really burn up the calories in winter, which is great for someone like me who loves to eat! Along with my sandwiches, fruit and cake, any spare corners in the pack are stuffed with bags of nuts, chocolate and flapjack bars. I tend to take a water bottle since the tube from a bladder can often freeze up.
It never ceases to amaze me how fast the body temperature plummets once you stop for lunch, and how long it can take to warm up again afterwards. So keep breaks short, and it’s absolutely crucial to take a flask of something hot, this can literally be a lifesaver. When I stop, I first pile on all my spare clothing, wearing two or three hats and my extra layers before starting on the sandwiches. Elegant it ain’t!
Finally, in the pack there are the usual first aid items, a spare map, compass, head-torch (and spare batteries) and a large plastic bag which I can use as a shelter. If I’m with a group, one of us will have a bothy bag for us to get inside on windy days for a very noisy lunch if there’s no natural shelter.
This might sound like a lot of equipment and preparation, and it’s true that a whole season can go by without my using most of it, but the best accidents are those which are avoided. A bit of planning and experience can go a long way to making sure you have a winter walk to remember. And the best thing about walking in winter is coming off the hill and into the nearest warm café or bar – you’ve really earned it!