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Ice axes and unbelievable cold

Written by George Fisher


If you love roaming the hills in summer, but have yet to translate this to the winter, then hopefully this advice might provide inspiration and explain a few of the basics.

It’s cold, so invest in good insulation and base layers. Bear in mind that the temperature drops by 1C for every 100m you ascend, so the top of a Lake District fell is a fiercely cold place to be when it’s hovering around zero in the valley. Good clothing, and plenty of high energy food is the first step to tackling winter in safety.

Wind makes it colder; even a modest wind can be biting. Let’s say it’s an ambient 0C. Not so bad without a breeze. But throw in a 20mph gust and suddenly the effective temperature is -13C as that air strips heat away from your rapidly cooling body. Easy to deflect with windproof shell and gloves on. Hellish (and potentially dangerous) without.

Snow and ice means slippery rocks and frictionless slopes, so that’s why climbers won’t leave without axe and crampons. Leaving aside ropes and climbing hardware, learning how to use an ice axe and crampons is well within any walker’s ability, and unlocks a whole world of winter for you. Crampons strap to a suitable pair of boots in minutes, allowing you to walk on ice without fear of slipping. And the axe will allow you to arrest any fall before you gain enough speed to get into real trouble. For all their scary appearance, winter tools are actually simple things designed to keep you safe.

Navigation is even more important than in summer, as getting lost is not a good option in winter. With fewer hours of daylight, the risks are real of wandering near edges where overhanging cornices of snow and ice may have developed. Add to this fewer people on the hill, which makes it less likely you’ll come across others. Learn to use a map and compass, and tell people of your plans before you leave. Make sure you have an emergency ‘bothy bag’ (eg LifeSystems Survival Shelter), a well-protected and fully-charged phone, and a head torch.

Several websites are very handy for the winter mountaineer, for instance the Scottish Avalanche Information Service provides info on Scottish conditions and on Lake District fells. And for winter skills courses, visit