Summiting a mountain in snow can be a heart-stopping experience.
Surrounded by the white stuff with horizons you just won’t see in summer – even on a UK mountain it is entirely different to what you’d see.
Utterly, jaw droopingly, beautiful.
It isn’t easy to get there so the views – and photographs – will be all the more rewarding for getting there.
There are a range of skills and techniques to getting up there however that you should master to make it to the top safely.
Yes, you will likely have to have a play for a day on the lower slopes to get to grip with those skills – hardly a hardship if you want to begin the hardest level of hill walking / mountaineering!
So let’s go and cover the prep and skills you need to get up a mountain in snow!
How Fit Are You?
If you’ve spent all the last year Munro bagging you’ll be fit enough for climbing a smaller mountain in the snow.
If you can handle a 15 mile hike in the Lake District in summer without feeling too rough the next day then a 10 mile snow hike should be within your reach.
We did say 10 miles – you will be carrying more gear and every step in the soft stuff will give, so you will burn more calories per metre.
Over autumn if preparing for your winter mountaineering, carry extra weight in your pack.
Push harder in the gym too.
If you’ve been sat at your desk every day all year without going to the gym or doing some reasonably serious walking, then plan your winter summit for next winter!
As a first step you should get training from a mountain guide or at a mountaineering centre.
Mountain guides will often offer private tuition – expect to pay upwards of £180 a day per person for a basic skills course.
These courses will teach you much of what we cover here as well as essential things like avalanche survival and how to dig a snow shelter.
Knowledge is power and in the snow on the mountain could mean the difference between making it home in one piece or not.
The Gear You’ll Need
If you aren’t afraid of a muddy slog in the winter then you’ll have much of the gear for your snowy mountain adventure.
If you’re new to winter mountain climbing you don’t need to fork out for loads of specialist gear.
Why? You can hire crampons and an ice axe it from a local outdoors centre.
By hiring different gear so you will get a better idea of what suits you instead of shopping blind and potentially getting the wrong kit.
Here is an idea of the gear you will need for a mountain summit attempt in snow:
- Quality winter hiking boots. These should be waterproof and winter rated. Leather or synthetic is fine, but for someone starting out you don’t need a design that’s been up Everest!
- Good walking socks with a spare pair in your pack. If your feet get wet you could be in trouble.
- Thermal base layers
- One to two breathable mid-layers such as a fleece
- Quick drying walking trousers
- Decent waterproof trousers as an outer layer, preferably with a full length zip up the leg
- Waterproof jacket. Don’t skimp on this as you don’t want to get wet in the cold.
- 2-3 pairs of winter hiking gloves. You will need a warm pair for rest breaks and at the summit and two that provide more dexterity while keeping out the cold and wet. Why two? Wet hands in subzero temperatures could be a frostbite risk.
- Warm hat and balaclava.
For Your Pack
- You need a 45 litre capacity hiking backpack
- Lots of high calorie snacks. You won’t need to go on a diet after a winter of snow hiking so don’t be afraid to munch on those kendal mint cakes!
- As with summer, half a litre of water per-mile is a good amount. We will cover fluid intake later
- A flask of hot coffee or tea
- Potentially a soup flask as well – a nice hot stew on the climb will make life worthwhile!
- Insulated jacket – down or synthetic is equally good
- Lunch and something for an unplanned overnight stay
- An emergency shelter -if solo this might be a ‘bivy bag’ but if in a group, share the weight of a larger shelter you can huddle together in
- Foam sleeping mat – in emergency you don’t want to lie on the snow even in a bivy bag as this will sap heat from you
- Navigation equipment and a charging pack for any GPS system you’re using
- Sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses and ski goggles
- Decent head torch with a good battery in case you get stuck out after dark
- Walking poles
- Ice axe and crampons (rent – don’t buy at first)
- Smoke and light flares in case someone needs to find you
Skills You Need to Master
You’ll appreciate that walking in deep snow and on ice is a bit of a pig.
Like running on dry sand it gives way a lot and saps your energy as you do it.
There is a skill to walking on this and icy snow (known as ‘firn’) that with some knowledge you can reduce the slogging involved.
In the next four sections we will look at this technique and other essential skills you should be confident in before you head up.
Walking in Soft Snow
This can be the most energy sapping bit of snow mountaineering.
Walk with a wider gait – shoulder width – to achieve better stability on the snow.
You don’t wade through it if it’s shin deep.
Instead you take a step and tamp the snow down with your leading foot until you are confident it will take your weight.
You then lean forward and take the next step, balancing with your walking poles.
If you are in deep snow then you should use your knee to start tamping down the snow and then your boot.
As a matter of courtesy, do not descend down an ascent track.
You break up the hardened snow for those on the ascent.
Where possible, descend at least a metre away from the ascent track so climbers can see where not to go on the way up.
To Zigzag or to Go Straight Up?
On easier slopes where there is no avalanche risk, you can take a zigzag route up the slope.
Where it gets steeper, different to summer hiking, you need to go straight up the fall line.
This differs from a summer hike for the simple reason that you could cause an avalanche by breaking up the snow layers over a wider area.
In summer you’d zigzag up the steeper bits.
Ice Walking Techniques
You won’t need your crampons until you hit the ice.
These are cumbersome and heavy and best left in your pack until necessary.
Walking on firn you can get away with kicking a step into the compacted snow with your toe, and on steeper slopes with the side of your boot.
Use a walking pole for balance and have your ice axe ready to arrest you on a fall.
Where it comes to ice, out comes the ice axe and crampons.
On less steep slopes you can get by with using your crampons to kick in steps with your ice axe for balance.
On steeper sections you need to chisel your steps using the ice axe.
Navigation is going to be a lot harder on a snowy slope.
The footpaths aren’t obvious but you will need to stay on those routes.
Even using a GPS you should be accurate and know exactly where you are and where you’re going – that in itself is a skill.
In the months before you should get some night navigation under your belt on lower slopes (not even in ice or snow).
The days are shorter and you could end up late to return.
If you do have night navigation skills you’ll be happier heading for home if you are caught out.
Have a Practice Day
Before using your gear in anger, get on some lower snowy slopes and practice for a day.
Combine that with an evening in a local pub and it can be a fun day out with serious undertones!
You should practice with your ice axe and crampons.
Practice arresting a slide with your ice axe.
Practice digging steps with your shoes, crampons and ice axe.
Set up your bivy bag and try building a snow wall/shelter against the wind.
Get used to carrying the extra weight.
Sharpen your navigation skills.
Selecting a Route
As a first summit, do a route you know well and have done before in summer.
Choose an easy route that you can manage almost without breaking a sweat.
Reckon on doubling the time you do it in summer – a four hour hike could take eight in winter.
The days are significantly shorter in winter, so factor this in a route plan.
Even in Southern England in January, an eight hour hike will mean leaving at sunrise and getting back just after sunset – in Northern Scotland you will get seven or fewer hours.
Remember, at the top you will be getting quite a different view and that in itself will be a reward.
A win like that could feed your ambition to push your limits a little further while a loss from asking too much of yourself could lead you to quit what is a big thing in mountain climbing.
The Little Things That Make Life Work!
Check the Weather
The Met Office website and app has accurate 24 hour weather forecasts for most mountain regions in the UK.
Check the night before and again just before you head out.
For a first time snow summit attempt it’s best you go for perfect conditions.
Leave dodgy weather with the risk of heavy snowfall for a few years (and many more summits) yet.
Remember, mountain weather changes according to height as well – the further up you are the less favourable it could be.
That could mean grey and overcast at the car park and a raging whiteout at the top.
Food and Drink
In the cold you don’t feel so thirsty yet your body will be using water for calorific burn at a greater rate than you will in summer.
Though in summer you will feel more dehydrated you may well be more dehydrated in winter than after an equivalent distance in summer.
The answer? Drink even if you don’t feel thirsty.
You will be burning calories faster than on a summer hike too as your body tries to keep warm in the cold.
Simply, this is why you read about Arctic adventurers eating solid butter on their journeys as they soon burn it off.
Essentially, if a dietician recommends someone leading a sedentary lifestyle against eating it, then you’ll get away with it on a mountain climb in the snow!
Don’t be afraid of high fat pork pies, stodgy, carb filled stews or nightmare inducing amounts of cheese as you’ll burn it off.
Sweet breakfast bars are nice to graze on too.
Though perhaps having a full KG of it in your pack at the end will be a bit too much, it’s better to have a fair bit at the end of a successful hike.
That’s because you might not make a success of it and need that extra food to get you through the night.
Something caffeinated is good to have too, though do remember it makes you pee and that involves removing layers to expose extremities that you won’t want exposing too long in subzero temperatures!
Ready for the Adventure?
As a final tip, it’s better to bail and make it back to the B&B to work out whether another summit attempt is feasible tomorrow than to be freezing outside all night, waiting to be rescued.
It’s a matter of pride to not be rescued unless there was something beyond your control.With these things in mind, you could well be ready to climb that mountain in the snow.
We didn’t say it was easy did we?
For all that, your adventure (whether you make it to the top or not) will be a memory you’ll not forget!
Richard is a keen day-distance walker and lives close to the South Dorset Ridgeway and South West Coast Path.
Bucket list walks include: