For many of us winter is when our mountains come into their own. Dazzling white snow under blue skies, crisp underfoot with views stretching to forever with crystal clarity; the scrape and bite of crampons on ice, the thunk as a well-swung ice-axe embeds itself securely in perfect snow-ice. Even the white-out, the numbing wind and the face-shredding blizzard are part of the sensory treat that is a Scottish mountain winter. And we love it all.
But we have to be honest: many of Scotlandís mountains are serious undertakings, particularly so in winter conditions, and will require skills and equipment beyond those needed for normal summer hill walking.
Before starting on winter mountaineering you should first make sure your navigation and hillcraft skills are up to scratch under summer conditions and then look to develop those skills so that you are ready for the added challenges of winter. Mountaineering Scotland runs specific winter navigation courses, winter skills and avalanche awareness courses to help you gain or improve skills.
Time is a crucial factor in winter. You have fewer hours of daylight to begin with, and everything you do is most likely going to take longer. While rare conditions of hard-packed snow can allow for fast movement, itís far more common to be ankle to knee-deep for long sections of your journey, which is going to take longer and can be extremely energy-sapping. And if the snow is any more than knee deep for any distance you may want to reconsider your route or even your entire journey, for progress will be agonisingly slow and will be massively tiring.
When you get a good day in winter it can be positively ecstatic, but you also have to be prepared for many more days of bad weather. Itís not just a case of wrapping up against the cold. Low cloud or falling snow can reduce visibility to just a few metres Ė or even less Ė so far more demands are made on your navigational ability. Wind, too, is likely to be a factor, and as well as hindering progress or even blowing you over, it can whip up snow to produce white-out conditions even on a sunny day. The wind can also blow snow and ice directly into your face, making it impossible to see without goggles.
This is a genuine photograph taken during full white-out conditions. There is quite literally nothing to see. No difference can be seen between snow and sky and the outline of the hill and the mountains beyond are totally invisible.
Even where visibility is considerably better, it can be hard to pick out any useful navigational features.
Snow presents a range of challenges. Underfoot, it can range from powder snow over jagged scree or long heather, to soft slush which is slippery underfoot and saps your energy, to ice-hard neve which requires you to wear crampons for grip. As mentioned above, it can also be blown into your eyes by wind, but it can also blind you by reflecting the sunlight, making tinted goggles or sunglasses advisable. (Itís also very good at reflecting the UV light from the sun, so an effective sunscreen is another essential.)
Something else that snow does Ė which may seem obvious Ė is erase all trace of paths. In the photo here not only a well-trodden footpath, but also a whole loch have disappeared under the snow. That means your navigation skills need to be up to scratch, as thereís no easy option of just following a track. There may be a trail of footprints on the snow, but itís sobering to stand on a windy day and see how quickly those footprints can completely disappear.
Snow is also, of course, the raw material for cornices and avalanches, two hazards which present a very real hazard for winter mountaineers.
All journeys to the mountains require some degree of planning, but that has to step up a notch in winter, because of all the factors mentioned above. Indeed, it's a good idea to step back and look at the whole idea of winter mountaineering and how ready you are for it. Check out our planning advice here.