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Ice axes and unbelievable cold: a beginner’s guide to winter skills by Dan Aspel

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Ice axes and unbelievable cold: a beginner’s guide to winter skills by Dan Aspel

Winter adventures require a few extra skills and tools to tackle safely, but the rewards far exceed the effort.

In a previous blog I shared a few pictures of a trip to the Lake District in which myself and some friends tackled a pair of winter gullies. But, given that the first step towards enjoying winter is by far the hardest one, this time around I thought I’d take a step back to give a broader look at the season as a whole. If you love roaming in the hills in summer, but have yet to translate those same hobbies to the winter arena, then hopefully this post might provide some small inspiration, and help explain a few of the basics along the way. So...

At the risk of sounding stupid…

It’s really cold out there. This is possibly the main issue that you’ll face in the winter. It’s also why you’ll hear regular winter folk and guides etc. use the term “layering” so much. Layering is important in the summer, but even more so in the winter. It means dressing in a way that will wick away sweat, keep your body heat trapped within your clothing, and deflect wind, rain and snow. This means wearing baselayers against your skin, thermal layers (like a fleece) on top of them and then a shell jacket and trousers over the top. In winter you might even want to add neck tubes, balaclavas, down or synthetic jackets and a seriously hefty pair of gloves to the mix. If we bear in mind that the temperature drops by roughly 1 deg C for every 100m you ascend, you can imagine that the top of a Lake District fell is a fiercely cold place to be when it’s hovering around zero on the porch of the valley pub. So, a large volume of good clothing and plenty of high energy food is the first step to tackling winter in safety.

Strong winds and spindrift high on the mountains of Snowdonia.

The wind makes it even colder

What’s true in summer always seems doubly true in winter. Have a look at this wind chill chart and you’ll realise just how biting even a modest wind can be. Let’s say it’s an ambient 0 deg C as you’re reaching a windy col between two hills. Not so bad without a breeze. But throw in a 20mph gust and suddenly the effective air temperature is -13 deg C as all that air quickly strips away the heat from your rapidly cooling body. Easy to deflect with windproof shells and gloves on. Hellish (and potentially dangerous) without them.

Contrary to appearances, ice “riming” forms towards the direction of the wind.

Looking towards the coast from the northern reaches of Snowdonia in a landscape plastered with ice and snow.

Cold water makes ice and snow

Again, I know we all know this. But this is key to why winter appears so intimidating when you’re first starting out. Snow means avalanches, and ice means slippery rocks and frictionless slopes and falling blocks of the stuff. None make for a happy ending. It’s because of ice and snow that double-tough alpinists wouldn’t leave the hut without...

Axes, crampons and all that jazz

… which are probably the reason why winter seems so unapproachable from the outside. Seeing people wander the landscape dressed up like Space Marines from the year 40,000 is - after all - intimidating. But, leaving aside ropes and all the metalwork that climbing demands, learning how to use an ice axe and a pair of crampons is well within any walker’s abilities, and will unlock the whole world of winter for you quicker than you think. Crampons will strap to a suitable pair of winter boots in minutes, and will then allow you to walk on fields of ice without fear of slipping or falling. And the axe will allow you to stop, or “arrest”, any fall you do have before you gain enough speed to get into real trouble. For all the intensity of their appearance, winter tools are actually very simple things designed to keep you safe.

Navigation is even more important than in summer

And the final point to make is that getting lost is not an option in winter. There are far fewer hours of daylight to light the way and keep you warm, the risk of blizzards or “whiteouts” is very real, and wandering too near mountain edges - where overhanging cornices of snow and ice may have developed - is a quick way to end your outdoor career in the most tragic of ways. So, learn to use a map and compass with unquestionable confidence, tell people of your group’s plans for the day before you leave, make sure you’ve got a sat nav device, a pair of working mobiles and a fully charged headtorch to hand and stay safe whilst you enjoy the grandeur all around.

To illustrate a few more points about winter in the outdoors, here are some captioned images from my last few seasons in the British hills...

The northern Carneddau - with the sudden transition from winter mountain to snowless valley jarringly apparent.

Crampons in action.

Surveying the snows already climbed - this pose would be impossible to replicate without an axe and crampons.

The “Black Ladders” on the northern side of Carnedd Dafydd, a winter climbing playground for the most hardcore of hobbyists.

Don’t get blown away.

Stopping to adjust crampons and laces can be a tough job with big winter gloves on. However, it’s still preferable to frostbitten fingers.

When the winds get too much… you can always huddle in an emergency shelter, or “bothy bag”.

A landscape not to get lost in. Near the Cairnwell in the Scottish Highlands.

The sun sets on the southern Cairngorms. Best to head home at this point.

A single ice axe safely secured to a mid-sized daypack.

A pair of axes stowed against a bag big enough to carry climbing gear.

Snowdon in winter conditions, and a tool essential for summiting it.

Ice climbing near Lochnagar in the Cairngorms, an upper-end winter activity for those that don’t mind frozen feet.

To finish, there are a few sites beyond the usual weather forecasts and the like that prove very handy for the winter mountaineer. Chief amongst them is the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, which does exactly as you’d expect and provides superb guides to where the danger spots may lie from week to week. They also publish six regular blog updates of on-the-ground conditions across the Scottish Highlands. A fantastic way to learn exactly what’s going on from people that know better than anybody.

And if you’d like to book onto a winter skills course, or find an instructor to accompany you in the hills, make sure to visit

Please do visit the Lifesystems Facebook page and Twitter feed to share your own experiences of winter in the hills, and to encourage others to enjoy it for themselves!

Until next time.


Dan Aspel is a journalist and Mountain Leader. You can find him at

Visit to find a host of kit and equipment for your next winter adventure.

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