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Preparing for Winter Mountaineering in Scotland

All you need to know about Preparing for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland

Why prepare for winter mountaineering in Scotland?

It’s simple really, winter mountaineering is very different to being in the mountains during the warmer months. The days are a lot shorter and the weather is a lot colder.

There’s ice and snow to deal with, the risk of avalanches, rapidly changing weather conditions, and navigation can be challenging with the terrain under a blanket of snow.

At the same time, the Scottish mountains in winter are simply breathtaking and being able to experience them safely is a life affirming experience. Winter can also last from November to April, so that’s six months of mountain adventures you don’t want to miss out on!

Our Approach

Our approach to preparing for winter mountaineering in Scotland starts in the Autumn before winter arrives. This gives us plenty of time to check clothing and equipment, and make any repairs or replacements.

It’s also a good time to get into the mountains before the snow arrives and brush up on skills and fitness. At Ocean Vertical we run a specific day-long course in the late autumn designed for winter hillwalking preparation – Preparing For Winter Mountaineering In Scotland. Here we look at:

  • Pre-planning for your winter hillwalking day
  • How to understand the weather conditions
  • Route choice
  • Winter hillwalking kit list
  • Navigation and map reading
  • Demonstration of winter equipment

Our approach has been informed by over 20 years of leading clients into the Scottish mountains during the winter [and warmer months too]. As well as knowledge and skill, we have built up a deep respect for these mountains, the wildly unpredictable weather conditions that surround them, and the challenges their imposing terrain represents.

Sure, there are bigger mountains in Europe, with more snow on them, and more vertical terrain: But when it comes to unpredictability and pure exposed challenge, not much comes close to full winter conditions in the mountains of Scotland.

The right clothing and equipment.

Winter mountaineering in Scotland is a whole different thing to summer hillwalking and needs specific clothing and equipment to keep warm, dry and safe.

So each autumn before the winter arrives we carry out an overview and check in preparation for the winter. Even though we have been leading clients into the mountains for 20 years, we still prepare carefully. 3000 feet up on an ice field in driving sleet and wind chill of minus 20 is no time to find out your waterproof jacket’s zip is broken, and won’t do up!

So run through your winter mountaineering clothing carefully to check it’s all in order and still fits well. We will look at the specifics of what to wear and pack under the FAQs on this page.

One of your most important items of “equipment” is your winter mountaineering boots. Have you been looking after them? Have they dried and cracked after a summer in the cupboard under the stairs? Are they still waterproof, and do the laces still work? Broken laces in a snowstorm can be disastrous.

Other key items of equipment we check over are ice axes and crampons. Ice axes are pretty bomb-proof, but crampons need a little more attention with straps and adjustable parts to make sure are in good working order, and importantly a good fit with your boots.

Make sure you have the OS maps for the areas you want to explore and that your compass [and spare] is working. The same goes for your head torch and spare batteries.

The right level of mountaineering experience.

You may well have been in the mountains dozens of times hillwalking in the warmer months, and this certainly builds up knowledge and experience. But winter is different, and a far more critical environment to be mountaineering in.

So if you have little or no experience of winter mountaineering, join up with a group who has the experience, or better still book into a winter mountaineering or winter skills course. Enjoy the experience! Make a weekend of it and perhaps book in with a buddy.

Having a like-minded buddy, or group of friends to share your mountaineering with over the months and years is a very special and rewarding experience. It’s also good practice not to venture into the mountains in winter alone.

How we can help

At Ocean Vertical we are in the mountains of Scotland 12 months a year – both with clients and in our own spare time. We are passionate about the Scottish mountains and wilderness, and this is the life of our choice.

Whatever your hillwalking and mountaineering ability, we are here to help support your adventures safely with our professional team. Below is an introduction to several of our winter mountaineering courses.

Before the snows arrive late autumn is a magical time of year in the Scottish Highlands. The colours are just breathtaking, and the sound of stags fills the Glens. To take advantage of this special time of year we run a series of overnight mountaineering adventures, from the Glen Coe region to the wilderness of Assynt.

These 2-day trips are great preparation for hillwalking, and how to wild camp as the weather turns colder. It’s a great way to spend time with friends old and new too! You can see details here: OVERNIGHT ADVENTURES

In October and November, we run Preparing for Winter mountaineering in Scotland. This one-day course usually takes place in the Glen Coe region and is designed to cover the core skills needed for winter hillwalking – before the winter arrives. It’s a great way to build confidence and skills without having to deal with the winter weather at the same time! You can see details here: PREPARING FOR WINTER HILLWALKING IN SCOTLAND

From December to April it’s winter in the Scottish mountains. The snow may come and go, and the temperature fluctuates, but make no mistake: it’s winter and blizzards and minus 20 wind-chill could be just around the corner.

During this 5-month period we run mountaineering courses for beginners through to more technical mountaineering courses. Here’s an overview to help you find your level, and the right course for you.

For beginners to winter hillwalking, or for those looking to consolidate existing winter experience we would recommend:

WINTER HILLWALKING EXPERIENCE

GLEN COE WINTER ASCENT

BLACK MOUNT WINTER EXPERIENCE

We also have a very special winter mountaineering day to offer our clients, with Ocean Vertical Director, Mollie Hughes. Mollie is a world record-breaking mountaineer and Polar explorer. She has summited Mount Everest twice and is the youngest woman to ski solo and unsupported to the South Pole in Antarctica in 57 days. If you would like a days winter mountaineering with Mollie then this is the course for you:

WINTER MOUNTAIN EXPERIENCE WITH MOLLIE HUGHES

If you are looking to spend more time focusing on your winter mountaineering core skills, we also run a two-day course in the Cairngorms. This is for beginners and the more experienced mountaineers alike. It’s the perfect way to get a good grounding in what’s required to venture safely into the Scottish mountains in winter. The overnight stop makes it a fun social event too! You can see details here:

WINTER MOUNTAIN SKILLS

Our final course is for the more experienced winter mountaineer who is looking to make the transition to more exposed and challenging terrain: It bridges the gap between winter walking and winter climbing.

This 2-day course has a ratio of 1:4 and takes place in Glen Coe, focusing on these topics:

  • Planning a mountaineering day
  • Equipment requirements
  • Safe route choice and navigation
  • Advanced crampon and ice axe skills
  • Basic rope work for ascending and descending steep terrain
  • Skills for ascending graded routes, ridges and gullies
  • Appraisal of avalanche risk

You can see full details of this course here:

INTRODUCTION TO WINTER MOUNTAINEERING

Preparing for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland FAQs

What do I need for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland?

That’s a good question and a very broad one! Hillwalking in the mountains in Scotland is a magnificent experience. There’s a whole new world of adventure out there from late November well into April.

That’s 6 months of adventures you don’t want to miss out on.

So, in terms of what you need for winter hillwalking in Scotland here are the headlines:

You will need experience of winter hillwalking or have members of your group who are experienced in winter hillwalking. You will need a decent level of fitness. You will need the right kit – clothing and equipment –…

What experience do I need for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland

We all must start somewhere, so the answer to this could be “none”. We usually find winter hillwalking is a progression from hillwalking in the warmer months. It’s the natural next step to want to keep exploring into the winter.

Most of our winter hillwalking clients have summer and autumn mountain experience. They are familiar with big days, good weather, bad weather, and pretty much everything in-between! But snow, ice, cold and reduced daylight are a new challenge.

Terms such as “white out” and “avalanche risk” bring a whole new dynamic into play. And then there’s winter equipment such as…

What kit list do I need for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland?

There’s lots of ways you can spend lots of money on an endless journey of buying more and more winter hillwalking equipment and kit. In fact, it doesn’t have to be crazy expensive, and its something you can build up over time.

Perhaps to start with you can borrow waterproofs from friends and do a little searching on eBay and Gumtree for some quality second hand clothing and equipment.

When it does come to getting your wallet out and investing in your own kit we would say, buy once and buy well. Think about investing in a high-quality brand such…

What should I know about weather conditions for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland?

You should know that the weather in the Scottish mountains can be incredibly unpredictable and change rapidly.

What at one moment seems to be a beautiful and relatively benign winters day can descend into gale force winds, sleet and snow, spindrift, minimum visibility and minus 20 wind chill within a matter of hours, if not less.

Understanding the weather conditions should form a key component of the pre planning for your winter hillwalking day. Your route choice and mountain location should be heavily influenced by the weather conditions. Some key items to consider are:

The Mountain Weather Information Service forecast…

How do I find the Mountaineering and Hillwalking weather forecast?

Building a picture of the mountain weather conditions prior to your winter hillwalking day is a key skill in planning and deciding on route choice. Thankfully there are some great services out there to help with this important process. Here are some of the best:

The Mountain Weather Information Service 

This is an invaluable service for the winter hillwalker and mountaineer. This provides a detailed 3 day forecast at 900m specifically for those in the mountains.

The areas covered are broken down into: the Northwest Highlands, West Highlands, Cairngorms NP and Monadhliath, Southeastern Highlands and the Southern…

Where do I go for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland?

In Scotland we are spoiled for choice for hillwalking. Did you know 60% of Scotland’s land mass is mountainous!

The Scottish Mountaineering Club [SMC] produce some fantastic publications on hillwalking and mountaineering in Scotland:

SMC PUBLICATIONS 

These cover all of the Munros and Corbetts, from hillwalking guides to scrambling and summer and winter climbing. Perhaps one of their most famous and useful publications is “The Munros”, by Rab Anderson and Tom Prentice.

This definitive guidebook is detailed and comprehensive, with magnificent photography, and a narrative written with a clear passion and love for Scotland’s mountains. Well worth…

What boots do I need for Winter Hillwalking and Mountaineering in Scotland?

How to choose the right boots for winter walking and mountaineering in Scotland.

We can’t emphasise enough the importance of getting the right boots for winter hillwalking and mountaineering in Scotland. Get this wrong and it could make for a very uncomfortable day, or a very short day when you head back to the car park after half an hour!

It really is worth investing here. We would recommend you don’t buy online – different brands fit in different ways. Make a trip to a serious outdoor store and get professional advice. Be prepared to spend around £300. The investment…

avalanche awareness winter skills courses scotland glen coe

Are There Avalanches in Scotland?

Are There Avalanches in Scotland?

Avalanches are a significant risk in the mountainous regions of Scotland, especially during the winter months when snow accumulates on steep slopes. Understanding the risks and adopting safety measures is crucial for anyone engaging in winter mountaineering in Scotland. Here are some key points regarding the risks of avalanches and how to avoid them:

Risks of Avalanches in Scotland: Variable Snow Conditions: Scotland experiences highly variable snow conditions, with rapid changes in temperature and precipitation. This variability can create unstable snowpacks, increasing the likelihood of avalanches. Wind-Loaded Slopes: Strong winds commonly deposit snow on the…

Are there specific challenges posed by Scottish winter weather?

Yes, Scottish winter weather can be particularly challenging. Here are some aspects to consider:

Temperature Fluctuations: Temperatures can drop significantly, leading to frostbite and hypothermia risks. Dress in layers to regulate body heat.

High Winds: Scotland experiences strong winds that can make it feel much colder. Windproof clothing is crucial.

Snow and Ice: Snow can cover paths, making navigation difficult. Ice patches can create slippery conditions. Crampons and ice axes might be necessary.

Short Daylight Hours: Daylight is limited, so plan accordingly and start early to finish hikes before darkness.

Avalanche Risk: Certain areas, like the Cairngorms and Glen Coe,…

Are winter skills courses physically demanding?

While some level of physical fitness is beneficial, winter skills courses are designed to cater to a wide range of fitness levels. The focus is on teaching techniques, knowledge, and skills rather than extreme physical challenges. Winter skills courses are often over several days, so this should also be taken into consideration.

What should I take Preparing for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland?

  • Top tip - always choose bright colours for your winter hillwalking clothing and gear - you want to be easily seen in the mountains at all times

  • Avoid any cotton clothing - its heavy and stays wet when it gets wet

  • Mountaineering boots - crampon compatible - and good long wool socks. Take time to get the right boots for you - this is super important.

  • Base layers - Lightweight fleece - Fleece or soft-shell jacket

  • Trousers – synthetic that dry quickly - make sure they have plenty stretch

  • Waterproof jacket with hood, and waterproof trousers

  • Waterproof and insulated gloves – plus spares. Warm hat – plus spare

  • Spare fleece or insulated warm jacket - throw this on yourself or a member of your party if you need to stay in one place for a prolonged period of time

  • Nutrition and hydration - On the go high energy snacks such as chocolate and nuts, water and a hot flask

  • Ice axe and crampons - be sure you know how to use these

  • 40 litre rucksack / backpack with attachments for ice axes

  • Headtorch with spare batteries. Mobile phone kept insulated in your backpack so the battery doesn't die of cold

  • Navigation - map [plus spare] and compass. You need to know how to use these - and have a pre planned route with options A, B and C. [C being call it quits and cancel the day]

  • Group shelter - these pack small and light and can get your group out of the elements in an emergancy

  • Mountaineering helmet - if you get onto steep terrain in winter conditions its good practice to use a helmet.

Read more about Preparing for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland

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Its late February and its been snowing. The Mountain Weather Information Service is telling us winds of 30 – 40mph dropping by early afternoon, snow showers clearing and 50% cloud free. Temperatures -3 at 900m but feeling more like -15 with wind chill.

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About Winter Hillwalking in Scotland

The Scottish mountains in winter are spectacular; we are out there every week guiding clients in some of the most beautiful and unique mountain wilderness in Europe.

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Preparing for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland Gallery

What people say about Preparing for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland with us

Brian – Winter Hillwalking on Stob Ghabhar

Visiting Scotland and finding myself with a free day and needing a quick mountain fix, Ocean Vertical arranged a 15 km Scottish winter mountaineering experience to Stob Ghabhar by the Little Aonach Eagach for me in typical Fall / winter conditions, lots of grey swirling cloud giving epic glimpses of Rannoch Moor and the Glen Coe mountains.

Highly professional with lots of advice and crucially encouragement; and they got me there and back from Edinburgh. I’d definitively use Ocean Vertical for my next fix when I visit Scotland again; inordinately recommended!

Emily – Winter Sunrise over Glen Coe

I thought we were mad getting up for a 3.30am start to go winter hillwalking! I now know why we did it. Watching the winter sunrise over Glen Coe was pretty special. Would I do it again? I’m already booked in for my next trip!

Karen – Winter Mountain Skills

What a day! Spectacular weather and views. Lots of snow and it was freezing! First time with an ice axe and crampons. The guys at Ocean Vertical were brilliant. We talked about planning, decision-making, navigation and how to use our technical equipment – I now know how to fit a crampon! Huge thanks and will be back!

Lisa – What a Winter Adventure!

Had a super day out in the hills (fairly big hills) with OV. Both Stevie & Adrian are experts what they do, complimenting any anxiety with understanding and calmness. Nothing was any trouble for these two.

Myself and those I climbed with were put at ease from the walk in to the walk out. We were given time to eat, rest and to absorb the splendour and majesty of those hills!

I learned so much in one day from map reading, to weather reading, even that apple cores & bananas do not decompose as fast as we think… take them…

Pete – Glen Coe Crampons and Ice Axe

Had a fantastic day out learning basic mountaineering under the tutorage of Stevie and Adrian. Lots of knowledge shared on key skills for the mountain, as well as having a go with crampons and ice axe for the first time.

Felt safe at all times and throughout the day the guys did a fantastic job make sure the pace was suitable for the whole group.

Brilliant value for money, will definitely do again very soon and can’t recommend enough!

Ruth – Glen Coe Experience

Thoroughly enjoyed another trip mountaineering to stunning Glen Coe with the highly experienced team at Ocean Vertical. With transparent and on-going risk assessment, Stevie and Adrian strive to provide their adventurers with the best experience in the conditions available – adapting where necessary with their extensive knowledge of the area. Whether it’s been paddle boarding, climbing or mountaineering in Scotland, I have always had a safe and truly rewarding experience. Can’t wait to get out with them again!

Sarah – Mesmerised by Glen Coe

What a adventure climbing with Ocean Vertical in Glen Coe!. Not being an experienced climber the guides led us to the top of a very snowy mountain with knowledge experience and skill. Mesmerised by the views I am already looking to book my next trip. There is a whole other world in those mountains – epic day. They also provided transport, ice axes, crampons and boots!

About Ocean Vertical

OV - Supporting Adventures for Preparing for Winter Hillwalking in Scotland

At Ocean Vertical we have a clear purpose and mission:

“To share a love for adventure in the natural world, and ensure the survival of our last remaining wild places”.

From our base on the rugged coastline of East Lothian by Edinburgh, we are able to lead adventures into Scotlands oceans and mountains.

Our Winter Mountain Adventures are focused on the Glen Coe and Black Mount area, and the Cairngorms. We lead overnight adventures into these mountains in the summer too, and also run a three day expedition to Assynt in the spring and autumn.

We lead winter hillwalking courses for beginners, through to more technical winter mountaineering courses for the more experienced mountaineer.

We aim to make our winter mountaineering courses as accessible as possible. We provide all equipment such as ice axes, crampons, winter boots and helmets, along with transport too and from the mountains.

The more people who can experience the beautiful wilderness and mountain landscapes of Scotland – the more chance we have of protecting and preserving this unique wilderness for generations to come.

We recognise that a love for our beautiful wild places demands active participation in the fight to save them.

Accreditations
Adventure Activities Licensing Authority ASI Accredited School - Stand Up Paddle ASI Academy of Surfing Instructors NCC Promoting Safe Coasteering