Many will spend time on a winter skills course looking at the ice axe self arrest which is undoubtedly an important skill to know but is it the most important? In short no its not in my opinion which leaves the question what is a vital area to focus on most for someone getting into the winter mountains for the first time. I believe its movement and good solid footwork along with crampon skills.
Needing too self arrest when the consequences are high is not going to be easy, if at all possible in the split second you have to deliver it. The worst scenario would be if you have fallen on a hard steep snow slope where almost split second reactions are needed before warp speed is reached and a dreadful conclusion is drawn. If you couple this with fear, shock and panic the likelihood of getting an effective arrest in is low. So the important focus shouldn't be on falling, the old adage prevention is better than the cure rings true on this.
Good movement skills are the key to not needing to arrest and so this article has a look at some tips and pointers on winter movement.
Scotland’s winter mountains are not consistently covered in a nice coating of snow, often hard icy older snow, fresh snow, rock, ice and frozen turf are encountered on a day on the hill. Which gives a multitude of different terrain types to negotiate and be proficient on. This doesn’t come easy either as with any craft that one perfects it really only comes with time spent on your feet in the mountains.
The starting point to good footwork is with what’s on them heading into the frozen mountains. There are a plethora of good winter boots out there of which I won’t go into which makes or models. The important thing is that they offer a stiff rigid sole along with good deep treads and are crampon compatible. The other key thing is that they are comfortable, if your spending long days in them and need to use them precisely at times its very important they fit well and comfortably. That’s not to be underestimated long heavy days and possible front pointing on hard snow will become very painful very quickly in ill fitting boots, so its worth taking the time to try a few pairs on before making the final purchase.
With boots sorted the other item to purchase is crampons. As with any ‘tool’ you need purchase for a particular job the same applies for crampons. There are many to choose from, some for ice climbing, some for walking, some for ski touring and so on. So make sure you pick the crampon for your style of mountain day. Make sure that they are fitted to your boots before you hit the hills and need to put them on. Its worth trying to be able to get them on and the straps tied out the way in gloves incase you need to do it in fierce weather, people seem to make a fuss about this but if its not fierce weather its largely irrelevant the main thing is that they are fitted neatly and excess straps tied neatly out the way, whether you get cold hands in the process is up to you.
Good technique really comes from time spent out and moving around in the mountains over time. To give you the best start with mountain movement ideally long before hitting the winter hills the summer mountains are the best place to start. Time spent summer hillwalking and scrambling give you a feel for mountain movement. Balance and technique developed here will go along way when on steep icy ground in high wind. Scrambling is particularly good for ‘mountain balance’ giving plenty of time moving between edges toes and heels. You can sometimes tell walking into various corries when passing over a boulder field. If someone is practically on all fours going through someone seems to be gliding effortlessly through it there is a difference in their mountain balance and confidence. That really only comes from time spent in the hills. Its hard to ride a bike of you have not actually got on one before, but if your first experience in the mountains is crampons on a steep snow slope there is a high chance you will fall off.
So gaining as much mountain experience as you can when you can is really beneficial in the long run.
With all of the above taken into account and you are in the winter mountains then its time to get going on your feet. Here are a few pointers that can help. It's best not to get into using crampons and moving on snow and ice on a steep consequential slope first. Ease into things and spend some time in friendly areas getting a feel for the feel of bigger stiffer boots and also how different it feels to be in crampons. Easier summits are best first off. Its also worth trying to get some confidence in the boots and crampons by trying things out on some safe spots. Ideal spots are perhaps snow drifts which can have some steep sections without the risk of falling down a steep slope if it goes wrong. Small rocky steps and icy bluffs all help build trust in your feet and allow a safer space to try front pointing up and down, kicking in and using the axe. Often large boggy areas in the winter create a flat ice section which can be good for stamping about on and getting a feel for those points biting into the ice and give confidence that they really do work. Consider wearing a helmet for these practice sessions.
This is where a winter skills course is ideal as we know good safe places to practice this and through experience are able to try and emulate the ground you would encounter on a mountain day in a safe and managed environment. Gaining confidence in those crampons is vital for when the ground gets steeper and instinctively knowing the best technique for the given ground is vital.
Something else to bear in mind in the conditions you head out in when starting out. Heading out on a lean day when the snow is bone hard will make the terrain very unforgiving should you make an error but if there is plenty of soft snow around its likely to be a little more reassuring to you. The main thing is to give it time with lots of milage spent on ground well within your limits. Its also worth spending lots of time out walking and scrambling in the summer months to build up that 'mountain movement'
Have a look at the video above to see a couple of the main crampon styles. For more on winter skills have a look at our article here