In the winter months, the Scottish Highlands are transformed into a snowy wonderland. The dramatic views of snow-capped peaks will take your breath away and could make you forget that you are in the UK. But rather than battening down the hatches and staying inside to hibernate, we excitedly don our winter jackets, pull on our gloves and run outside to play! Ice axes are sharpened, and skis are waxed as the season-loving ski tourers, mountain walkers and winter climbers gear up to get out. It is the perfect opportunity and location to do a Winter Skills Course.
To explore this other-worldly landscape is a truly magical thing. You will discover remote locations that give you a real sense of the wild and expose you to the elements. To enable such a special experience however, you must be prepared, as it is also a harsh environment with many potential risks that must be respected. Weather can challenge you with brutally cold wind and snow; a clear view along the ridge one minute may become a white out the next; Terrain can be hazardous with avalanche risk. When out in the mountains, it is imperative that you are aware of the risks, the route and carry the right equipment- and in winter these precautions become even more essential.
Booking yourself onto a winter skills course before you head off into the snowy mountains should be a necessity. It will provide you with the knowledge and resources to help your judgements and decision-making, as well as the practical skills to keep you safe on the hills. Depending on your prior knowledge and your individual goals, you can choose a 1 day course to learn the basics, or a 2 day course that leaves you feeling a bit more independent.
The day starts long before you slip your crampons on, with important decisions to be made before you even leave your house. Learn how to interpret the forecasts and check avalanche risks so that you can plan ahead, stay safe and get the most out of your day. Get clued up on how to dress and what to pack for your day- what layers to bring and what safety equipment it would be wise to invest in.
Then it’s time to lace up your boots, zip up your coat and head out into the snow. The experienced instructors show you many ways of moving through the snow to minimise slips and stumbles- with and without crampons and ice axes. You are shown how to fit and secure your crampons, how to properly hold your ice axe and when it is a good decision to use one or the other, or both of them. You learn a variety of methods to kick steps, traverse slopes and walk up and down hills, using your tools to maximum effect.
A highlight of the day for many is the ice axe arrest- using your axe to stop an uncontrolled slide in the event that you lose your footing on the hill. This is an important skill to master- and a lot of fun to practice, though you may end up with snow in every crevice!!
After a significant session of learning new techniques, you get the opportunity to take your new skills to the hills. The Winter Skills Course always finishes with a walk in the mountains, as it is important to experience the winter conditions and put what you have learnt into a real life situation. Though weather dependent (as you may have gathered by now), a typical walk would be to summit Cairngorm and take in those spectacular 360 degree views. Occasionally you may be sat inside a cloud, but that’s kind of cool too! With the support of the friendly guides, you can consolidate your skills, pick their brains (they love to answer your questions) and talk about the possibilities of your upcoming winter adventures.
After completing the Winter Skills Course, it would be great to follow it up with a guided walk. There are so many stunning routes to explore, and you can really feel like your goal is complete when standing at the top of a remote peak and gazing out at miles of snowy mountains.
Or maybe you have wet your appetite for knowledge and fancy joining the 2 day Winter Skills Course, which will teach you even more techniques to use in a variety of scenarios.
On day two, you will delve more into navigation, avalanche awareness and evaluation, and ropework. The ability to navigate using a map and a compass is vital when facing challenging conditions. It is all too easy these days to rely heavily on your phone to get you about. However, in sub-zero temperatures and wet conditions, the likelihood of a depleted battery is much higher. Although the Winter Skills Course is not a Navigation Course, it does cover the basics, touching on map orientation, how to take and follow a compass bearing, and how to interpret contours. However it is suggested that if you have no prior navigation experience, it would be vauable to do a day navigation course before setting out unguided.
With your map and compass ready to go, set off into the hills to talk avalanches. You are shown how to do a snow-pack analysis, which involves carving out a cube of snow to check the layers and create a snow profile. There will be some search and rescue exercises, introducing the use of transcievers and probes, in which you bury the transmitter and see if you can find it using the transciever. This gives you a good insight into just how important it is to know what to do and be able to react quickly.
You will also get an introduction to rope work and explore the use of snow anchors and bollards. If you are really getting into the building and digging, you may even get the opportunity to dig yourself an emergency shelter! It is such a fun and interesting day that will leave you with more confidence in your decision-making and many more tools under your belt when heading out into the mountains.
Whatever your goals, and whichever course you choose, you are guaranteed to have a truly unforgettable experience. The Winter Skills Course is a chance to learn a lot lots of cool stuff in a supportive environment from knowledgable guides. It is also a chance to go out and play in the snow. To slide down hills and throw snowballs. To get geeky about ropework and knots (if that way inclined). To meet new people and open up a whole new world of adventure.