Hiking the winter hills:

The winter hills can be a magical place and offer some great rewards to the willing hiker, crisp frosty mornings, misty valleys, long reaching views and snow topped mountains are but a few of the delights to be experienced at this time of year.  But the Irish mountains can be a daunting place in winter too. With unpredictable weather, they can also bring inherent risks, such as icy cold winds, grey boggy hillsides, torrential rain, shorter daylight hours and low cloud with poor visibility.

To cope with the ever-changing nature of our Irish hills in the winter it is best to be well prepared. It is vital in winter to have good waterproof hiking boots with an ‘aggressive’ sole pattern and a good step in the heel for essential grip in the wet and slippery conditions you will encounter.  Couple these with a pair of gaiters, they will prevent snow, mud and debris from entering the top of your boots.

Protect your legs with good softshell pants, often made of a stretchy material for comfort, they are also windproof, will offer a degree of insulation, and may ward off the odd shower. Avoid jeans at all costs, they are made of cotton, will get heavy and cold when wet, will result in you losing a lot of essential heat and bring with it the risk of hypothermia.

Layering your clothing gives flexibility and allows for better temperature regulation as it is easier to add or remove layers.   A good layering system should include a base layer, an effective base layer should move moisture away from your skin, it should be comfortable and provide some insulation. The choice is usually between synthetic, (polypropylene or polyester), or wool, (predominantly merino). Cotton should be avoided, as it will absorb up to 25 times its’ own weight in water, and the hollow fibres of cotton won’t release it easily, so it stays with you and makes you feel cold and clammy.

Next comes the mid or insulating layer, this will provide most of the warmth by trapping air in the fibres of the material. Often a synthetic fleece, they provide insulation while transferring moisture to the outer layers to evaporate. They are generally not windproof so need to be used in conjunction with an outer layer or shell.

A shell jacket with a hood will protect you from wind, rain and snow, and can be both waterproof and breathable.  Soft shell jackets are becoming increasingly popular, they are windproof, provide insulation, and will keep off the odd shower, though once it rains heavily you will need your waterproof jacket.

In addition to your clothing, there are certain essential items you should have with you when heading for the winter hills.

Hiking the winter hills

 

12 things you should definitely carry in your winter rucksack:

  1. Waterproof drybags. Put those items that you want to ensure stay dry into drybags for extra protection from the winter weather. Use a rucksack liner too, to ensure all your kit stays well protected from the elements.

 

  1. Waterproof Jacket & Pants. Invest in a good waterproof jacket and waterproof pants. These are essential items to ward off both rain and cold winds. Inadequate protection from either can make you uncomfortable at best, and at worst can lead to hypothermia, as the chilling effects of wet clothes and high winds are greatly increased in winter. Choose one with a breathable membrane to reduce moisture building up inside, and ensure it has either waterproof zips or storm flaps to cover the zip, this will prevent water ingress through the front. Make sure it has a good integral hood too, that is adjustable.

 

  1. Gloves & Hats. Take several pairs. You will often see lost gloves and hats in the hills, so take spares to use in case you lose one. It’s also great to change into dry gloves half way through a wet day. Fleece gloves are ideal for most conditions, but be prepared to upgrade to insulated and waterproof gloves when the weather dictates.

 

  1. Warm spare layer. You may have an enforced stop in the mountains, maybe a colleague has an injury, or perhaps you are stopping for lunch in an exposed spot. In this scenario a spare warm layer is ideal. A synthetic (primaloft) insulated jacket is best, it can be put over your existing clothing, including wet waterproofs, and will warm you up straight away. A fleece jacket could be an alternative, but they are not windproof, so you would need to put it on under your windproof layer.

 

  1. Food and Drink. Always ensure you have plenty of high calorie food available, and bring extra in case you are delayed and have to spend more time outdoors. There is no rule concerning how much liquid you should take, though 1.5 litres is a good guide. Take a hot drink in a flask when it is going to be cold.

 

  1. First Aid Kit. A bare minimum would be an ‘ouch-pouch’, this could consist of sticking plaster, antiseptic wipes and blister plasters, such as Compeed. You may feel you want a more comprehensive kit, but do get training in this case, and do not carry what you are not competent to use.

hiking the winter hills

  1. Survival bag. This is rather like a plastic sleeping bag, bright orange, lightweight and cheap, and everyone should carry one in their pack. In emergency situations you can climb into this bag and it will protect you from the worst of the weather. They have often been attributed with saving lives in the mountains. You might consider upgrading this to a ‘blizzard’ bag, which has some added insulation.

 

  1. A group shelter. Also known as an emergency or survival shelter, this is a plastic tent-like cover that a group of people can get into to give protection from the elements. They come in various sizes from 2 to 10 person, and would be used to protect a casualty or as a shelter on an exposed lunch stop. If you are hiking as part of a group then a larger one could be carried between you.

 

  1. Head Torch. Essential in winter, and a good idea all year round, a head torch will provide you with light to get off the mountain should you be caught out in the dark, it can also be used for signalling for help. It’s a good idea to carry extra batteries, or a spare torch in addition.

 

  1. Map and compass. Essential items for all hillwalkers, do not rely on smartphone apps as they can get wet and cold and then fail. Carrying a map and compass is not enough on its’ own, you need to be confident and competent in their use. If you are not sure how to navigate yourself around the mountains with a map and compass then go on a course to learn how to master these essential skills.

 

  1. Emergency whistle. Many rucksacks now come with an integral whistle in the chest strap. Six one second blasts on the whistle, repeated after a short break, is the internationally recognised emergency signal. The reply from the rescuers is three blasts. It makes sense to carry one.

 

  1. Duct Tape. This amazing versatile tape has a myriad of uses, from repairing torn waterproofs to temporary boot repairs. (Wrap some round your water bottle or walking pole).

 

hiking the winter hillsFinally, a word of caution.

If you want to experience hiking in snow conditions, then the higher mountains are the place to go, but unless you are equipped with ice axe and crampons, (and know how to use them), stay away from deeply frozen icy ground. Be prepared to back off if the conditions get very slippery with ice and consolidated frozen snow.

There is still a lot of exciting hiking to be had below the snow line, with clear crisp air, superb visibility and stunning sunsets. Yes, the hills in the winter can be a hostile environment, but by giving a little thought to preparation it is possible to experience some wonderful winter hiking in the Irish hills.

Mountaintrails provide guided hiking tours, navigation training and Mountain Skills courses in Ireland and the UK. To find out more go to www.mountaintrails.ie.

 

 

 

Accurate navigation in winter is all the more imperative.

With the shorter daylight hours comes the increased likelihood of you having to descend in the dark. There is the increased risk of poor visibility, or even white out conditions when windblown snow particles can blur the boundaries between earth and sky, (known as the ‘white room’).  Paths, streams, boundaries and even lakes can disappear under a blanket of snow.

Good navigators know where they are at all times, and can follow their progress on a map. This is so important in winter conditions, when icy snow slopes and corniced edges can increase the hazards you face.

The essential tools for winter navigation are the map and compass, an altimeter can be useful too, (more of which later).

Keep your map in a soft plastic map case, folded so the area you are hiking in is shown. This should be kept handy, inside your jacket or in a secure pocket, it’s no use to you in the bottom of your rucksack, get it out and use it.

Your compass should be of a high quality, the mountaineering bodies in Ireland and the UK recommend the Silva 4 Expedition model. Use the lanyard to fix it to your rucksack strap or a toggle on your jacket, so you won’t lose it, and remember to keep it away from electronic devices, as these will deflect the needle and give inaccurate readings.  In the windy conditions often experienced in winter maps and compasses can easily be blown away and lost, so practice good map management, (and carry a spare just in case).

Don’t be tempted to rely on GPS or phone app systems for your navigation, they can be a useful back up, but cold kills batteries and your unit may fail, leaving you stranded.

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Winter conditions experienced in the Wicklow mountains, Ireland.

Preparation is the key. It is important to check the weather forecast several days before you go, if there is a risk of snow check out any available avalanche forecasts too. Do not try to take on too much, progress is slow in winter and daylight hours are few. Plan your ascent and descent routes taking into account potential hazards and plan an escape route in the event of abandonment. Draw up a route card and break down your journey into a number of navigation legs, try to keep the legs short to reduce inaccuracies when navigating in poor visibility.

When beginning any navigation leg, or trying to determine your position, the first thing to do is to orientate the map. This is also called setting, and involves lining the north south grid lines on the map with north on the ground. In good visibility this can be achieved by sighting features in the landscape and lining them up with the corresponding feature on the map. In poor visibility you may need to orientate the north south grid lines with north by using the north (red) end of the compass needle.

Sometimes this may be all you need to do to determine your direction of travel and to identify your objective, but in poor visibility it may be necessary to walk on a bearing.

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Navigating at night is the ultimate in poor visibility navigation and requires skill and accuracy.

When navigating in poor visibility consider the 5 D’s before each leg; Distance, Direction, Duration, Description, Destination.

Distance.

Measure the distance to your next target using either the compass romer or the measuring scale on the edge of the housing. To know how far to walk you should use either pacing or timing, or both.  Pacing is the technique of counting the number of double paces to your objective. Knowing how many paces you take to walk 100 metres in different conditions and terrain, you can then count out the multiples of 100 metres until you reach the distance measured. Pacing works best over shorter distances of several hundred metres, for greater distances timing is often used. Timing relies on knowing how fast you are walking, say 4 km/hr, and doing a calculation to determine how long it will take you to reach the objective.

These techniques may sound complicated, but they are one of the cornerstones of good navigation, and become easier with practice.

Direction.

To determine which direction to walk in you must take a bearing from the map with your compass. Estimate it first, this will help avoid errors, particularly the often made 180 degree error, where south is mistaken for north on the map, or you have the compass pointing from the objective to your current position instead of the other way round.

Once you have your bearing you must adjust it to take account of the magnetic variation between magnetic and grid north, check the map before you set out as the information you need is in the legend. Sight along the compass to an object in line with the bearing and walk to it, repeat this process until you reach the objective.

If visibility is so poor you cannot see anything ahead, send a companion ahead of you and adjust their position until they are in line with the bearing, walk toward them and repeat the process.

Taking and walking on bearings can seem daunting, and requires training and practice, but there are a number of online resources to help, some useful sources are listed at the end of this article.

Destination.

What do you expect to see when you reach the objective? You should have at least 3 features or characteristics of the target to enable you to confirm you have arrived in the right place. When you reach the objective ask yourself the question, ‘Do I see what I expect to see?’

To avoid overshooting, determine what feature will tell you that you have gone too far, this is a catching feature, and could be a stream, a change of slope, or a boundary.

It is a good idea to identify features you might see or cross on route, by noting these features as you pass them you can confirm your position. These are called tick features as you ‘tick’ them off as you go, they also give a good deal of confidence that things are going according to plan!

Duration.

How long will it take to reach the objective? This is linked to the timing mentioned earlier, and again you need to know how fast you walk and the distance to the objective.

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The winter mountains bring challenging but wonderful days out. The south ridge of Snowdon, North Wales.

Altimeters are a very useful tool in winter navigation. It can be important to know how far up or down a slope you are, particularly if you have to make a change of direction when descending a spur. By reading the contour height from the map and relating it to the altimeter reading it is possible to accurately determine your position. Remember to calibrate the altimeter regularly at spot heights and summits, as they often rely on barometer readings, which can change rapidly in winter.

Finally, if it all goes horribly wrong and you can’t recognise anything in the landscape, don’t panic. Take a breather, have a warm drink or a sugary snack. As long as you have been walking on your bearing and know how far and how long you have been walking, you can always turn your compass by 180 degrees and return to your last know position, the beginning of the navigational leg. This is a back bearing and can return you to a place you can identify on the map, from here you can re-calculate the 4 D’s and begin the leg again.

Winter hiking carries it’s risks, but the rewards can be immense

Navigating in winter will test the skill of the best navigators, and requires all the above techniques and a lot of practice to become completely proficient. However, when you have learned the skills and gained the experience the winter mountains are open to you in all their magical beauty.

If you want to learn to be a competent and self-reliant winter navigator you can join one of our Mountaintrails navigation courses.

Other useful resources:

British Mountaineering Council: https://www.thebmc.co.uk/articles/Walking/Skills

Mountaineering Ireland: http://www.mountaineering.ie/TrainingAndSafety/SkillsVideos/default.aspx

Regular mountain hikers and climbers will know that keeping your hands warm in the colder months is essential.

Cold hands can lead to pain and discomfort, and leave the fingers numb and without feeling. In this state it is difficult to open zips and buckles, or perform the most basic tasks. This is a potentially dangerous situation, especially if trying to navigate with a compass, or open the rucksack to get food or a warm drink. Not addressing the problem can, in the most extreme conditions, lead to frost nip or frostbite and permanent tissue damage.

 

Some hikers are more prone to suffer from cold, numb fingers than others, possibly due to reduced circulation or narrow blood vessels in the hands. Some people, myself included, suffer from Raynaud’s phenomenon, a spasming of the blood vessels in the fingers which drastically reduces blood flow. For us, keeping our hands warm is a high priority when out in the hills.

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Lugnaquilla summit in it’s winter coat

Hands get cold when heat is lost from the skin surface, this will occur when the ambient temperature is below the temperature of the blood in our hands and fingers, and is exacerbated when there is a wind blowing, or when our hands are wet.

Regular readers will know I am a strong advocate of the layering system to keep warm and comfortable when out in the mountains, and this applies equally to our extremities, our hands and feet. The most practical way to achieve this, and maintain some level of dexterity is to wear gloves.

For those chilly days of spring and autumn wearing a pair of fleece gloves will often suffice, they offer good insulation and can offer a degree of windproof protection too, but note that they are not waterproof.

However, when it gets wintry we need to upgrade our gloves.

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From left to right: Liner, fleece and insulated gloves

I start with liner gloves, these are thin and lightweight, offer a reasonable level of protection, and allow greater dexterity for tasks such as using a compass.  Over these I would wear a thicker pair of waterproof insulated gloves, giving me greater warmth from the additional layers and from the trapped air between them.  I would recommend outer gloves with a long cuff, this prevents heat loss from the wrist, an area where the major blood vessels are close to the surface and heat is easily lost.

Some people prefer mittens to the outer insulated glove, but I like the dexterity that gloves give me, albeit quite limited.

Most gloves are not waterproof, and all gloves suffer from having one very large hole in them, the one you put you hand in!  Therefore it is important to carry spares, you can then change them for a dry warm pair if your gloves get sodden.

Spare gloves are also essential if you inadvertently lose one or both of those you are wearing, spending the remainder of a cold day gloveless is no fun. I am constantly finding gloves in the hills, so this happens more often than you might think.

So when I head out into the mountains in the winter months I will carry liner gloves, two pairs of fleece gloves and two pairs of insulated outer gloves, plus spares for my clients.

Happy hiking with warm hands!

 

What is ‘Wind Chill’?

 
The core temperature of a human body is around 37C. The air around us is usually cooler than this and so we lose body heat, particularly from exposed skin.
Wind chill is the term that describes this heat loss, and the increased effects of low temperatures and wind.
When wind blows across the surface of exposed skin it will remove heat from that surface, making us feel colder than we would in still conditions. Wet skin and wet clothing will exacerbate the problem, as the rate of heat loss increases from wet surfaces.
The body compensates by sending more warm blood to heat the surface layers, eventually reducing our core temperature and risking hypothermia, (see our previous blog on hypothermia).
Well prepared for the icy conditions in the Wicklow mountains.

 

How do we deal with it?

 
We need to reduce the heat loss from our bodies, and the best way to do this is to wear insulating layers of windproof and waterproof clothing.
Waterproof shell jackets are also windproof and the addition of an insulating layer beneath will keep our body warm.
A warm hat is a must, keep it dry by raising the hood on your jacket. Keep your hands warm by wearing gloves, and carry a spare pair to change in to if they get wet.
You can help your body to generate heat by keeping energy levels high, eat regular high calorie snacks and take hot drinks with you on your hike.
It is important to be aware of the potentially dangerous effects of wind chill, and carry appropriate clothing to keep you comfortable, warm and safe when hiking in the winter months.

In summer, Ledge Route is a 450 metre grade 2 scramble that finishes at the summit of Carn Dearg, a 1221 metre subsidiary top of Ben Nevis. Under snow and ice it is a grade II winter route and reputedly the best of its grade on the mountain.

On 10th January this year, three of us headed up the valley of the Allt a Mhuilinn in the grey half light of a wet morning. The imposing massive wall of Carn Dearg rose to our right from the valley floor, its higher crags lost in the pale misty cloud, snow clinging to its flanks on ledges and in gullies, where it could get some purchase.

Allt a Mhuillinn and Carn Dearg

Patches of wet, soft snow slowed our progress as we gradually gained height on our approach to No.5 Gully, the start of our route.
There had been a lot of rain in Lochaber since Christmas, and at this altitude it had fallen as snow. This had become unstable in fluctuating temperatures and as we climbed the slope towards the start of No.5 Gully we had to pick our way over and around the previous weeks avalanche debris. This had refrozen to give us a safe, if awkward, passage.

The entrance to No.5 Gully

As Rob, the leader of our team, prepared the first belay stance and we put on harnesses and tied in, the snow began to fall anew, large white flakes falling from the pale grey sky. Strong winds were forecast from the southwest, but here on the north face we had reasonable protection, and the snow fell in a moderating breeze.

Ledge Route gets its name from a rightward slanting ledge that then sweeps back left to overlook No.5 Gully. Here the route turns right again to join the ridge proper, and leads to some very exposed situations.
The ledges and gullies were banked out with fresh deposits of snow lying over older and more consolidated material. It was decided to pitch this section of the route, and with Rob leading, we plunged our cramponed boots and ice axes deep into the steeply sloping snow to get purchase and made our way carefully up towards the ridge line.

Steady progress towards the ridge

Once on the ridge we could move a little more easily, and ‘moving together’, in Alpine fashion, we made steady progress along the sometimes very exposed ridge.
We stopped for a brief lunch on a small platform before continuing towards our goal, Carn Dearg summit.

Carn Dearg and the end of the climb

Icy cold strong winds and whiteout conditions greeted us as we topped out making the 2km walk to the summit of Ben Nevis itself an unpleasant option, so we quickly stowed our gear before navigating down the southwest side of the mountain to the Red Burn, a stream that in winter becomes a shallow, snow filled gully.

As we walked down and out of the cloud Glen Nevis opened up before us in shades of russet green and brown, the wind eased, and we had the pleasure of seeing several pairs of ptarmigan, an iconic highland bird of the grouse family, in their white coats. They called in alarm at our passing, their distinctive harsh, throaty staccato call filling the cold air.

Descending the Red Burn towards the Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe

We made our way back, firstly by the path running alongside the Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, and then over sodden, boggy heath to wade the Altt a Mhuilinn and return to our transport.
Our final destination for the day was the Nevis Range cafe, where we indulged ourselves with tea and cake, a fine end to a brilliant day.

Thanks and acknowledgement go to Rob Johnson of http://www.expeditionguide.com/ for leading the day and for some of the images, and to Mark Shaw for his good company.