/ Winter Mountaineering: How to start?

This topic has been archived, and won't accept reply postings.
Oo on 17 Dec 2012
I'm a rock climber with summer hillwalking experience and want to get out and do winter mountaineering and ice climbing (primarily to have skills for UK stuff, but with a view to Alpine trips). What's the best way to get started?

Winter skills course? Are there cheap, weekend, near Derby courses?

Are there any offers from MLs or pre-MLs who want a guinea pig to practice on?

Just having a go? Sounds like a great option until it goes wrong...

Apologies if I've missed a blindingly obvious resource of information on the topic, but a quick search (UKC and google) gave nothing apart from quite expensive looking courses which I'm a bit wary of.
GridNorth - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo: Read a book or two, watch the BMC DVD Alpine Essentials, find a like minded buddy and go and get on with it. There is no substitute for experience, the practical techniques are easily learned from the above.
bradzy_c - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to GridNorth: Agreed.
Oo on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to GridNorth:
Any book recommendations?
Orgsm on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo:

Join a local mountaineering club and go on their winter outings, explaining your experience as you have here. Learning from more experienced partners still offers a great (and cheaper alternative) way into Winter mountaineering.

If it's in the UK you'll more times than most be doing "mixed" rather than pure ice. There's more than just the climbing to learn; winter navigation, avalanche risk assessment, route choices, dealing with shorter days and darkness overtaking you, assessing conditions when you reach a route, learning when to back off, clothing, ropework when everyhting is frozen.

A club is a good way to learn all of the above over a number of outings. A course is a shorter more intense way of learning the skills from a qualifed professional.
GridNorth - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo: The rockfax book is quite good. There are also books by Will Gadd and Mark Twight. I can't remember the names and I've loaned mine out so can't check. The Twight one is something like "Extreme Alpinism, Fast and Light". This about sums up the content but there is a lot in it for the novice.
GridNorth - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to A Game of Chance: Agreed. Not sure that you "learn" to back off though, that is far more to do with character and temprament.
Orgsm on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to GridNorth:

You'll learn from your more experienced partners. Of course you could be unlucky and find a club member who doesn't back off when they should, or doesn't take account fo your skills and experience. Talking to the club committee they'll generally know who is considered safe and a good choice for a novice, and those whom you'd best not be paired up with.
GridNorth - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to A Game of Chance: Thanks for the advice but having climbing all 6 Grande Courses in the Alps, been up Everest, and spent several years guiding I think I trust my own instincts.
Bruce Hooker - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo:

You can start off by buying a pair of suitable boots and going for hikes and rambles in winter. You live in Derby so going to areas that you know from summer walks would be as good a start as any. Navigating is much the same, keeping warm is common sense, then ideally, as said, find a club or friends who have done a bit before and go with them. After a bit you'll see what other gear you need.

Instead of paying for a course use the money for winter gear - it's probably best to try and make do by borrowing or second hand stuff until you have a good idea of what you need... axes and crampons are not cheap so it's better to get some that will last you a few years as you progress. For example, at first you may be tempted to buy a walking axe and the cheapest crampons but if you progress normally these will soon be of little use and you'll have wasted your money.

If you know the ropes from rock-climbing there's not much to learn really going to winter climbing, not for a while anyway.
trivett - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo:

Check out: www.jcmt.org.uk

If you're new to it all it's hard to argue a course isn't a pretty good option, the JCMT offer them heavily subsidised.

Uppers on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to GridNorth:

So, read a book and watch a DVD then just have a go then once you've died due to being too inexperienced you'll have all the new experience you need to not end up in that situation again!

GridNorth - No doubt your capable at least according to your ego but not everyone is matched equally physically or mentally.

Learn as much as you can, question everything. Experience is best learned alongside the experienced. Start small.
Orgsm on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to GridNorth:
> (In reply to A Game of Chance) Thanks for the advice but having climbing all 6 Grande Courses in the Alps, been up Everest, and spent several years guiding I think I trust my own instincts.

That was meant for the OP, but thanks for the polite reply. For some on here, replying to the wrong poster, that might have got their back up ;-)

GridNorth - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Gebraffe: I was just pointing out that the poster was advising the wrong person. You have no idea who I am, what my name is nor anything else about me so I'm hardly boosting my ego am I? I am entitled to express my opinion but please keep your personal comments to yourself.

This may be hard to believe but most of the impressive British ascents in the alps were put up by climbers who had no certificates and had not been on any courses, they just had a spirit of adventure that people like you are sucking dry.
Ramblin dave - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to GridNorth:
> (In reply to A Game of Chance) Agreed. Not sure that you "learn" to back off though, that is far more to do with character and temprament.

The ultimate call might be down to your temperament, but I think you can learn a lot about what factors to take into account from climbing with someone more experienced and asking sensible questions...
Bruce Hooker - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to trivett:

> If you're new to it all it's hard to argue a course isn't a pretty good option,

Several posters on this thread, including me, have suggested just this :-)

My principal objection is that the bromide they put in your tea, it addles the brain.
alpinebutterfly - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo:
Have a look at Bremex Mountaineering and Climbing Club <www.bremex.org.uk>. It's a nationally based club and slightly different from many other clubs in that the ethos is to share and practise mountaineering skills. They have a winter mountaineering meet in Feb.
Ramblin dave - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to GridNorth:
> (In reply to Gebraffe)
> This may be hard to believe but most of the impressive British ascents in the alps were put up by climbers who had no certificates and had not been on any courses, they just had a spirit of adventure that people like you are sucking dry.

My gut feeling is that most of them had learnt the basics (at least) from climbing with more experienced partners or generally getting sensible advice from other climbers, though...
GridNorth - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo: I totally agree that, if you can, you should climb with someone more experienced but I am getting a little sick of people pushing commercialism in mountaineering and implying that it is too complicated to teach yourself. It's not.
GridNorth - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Ramblin dave: No back in the 50's and 60's, a time when UK climbers made impressive ascents in the alps, it was just seen as a natural progression. Crag climbing, climbing in the mountains, winter climbing, alpine climbing, greater ranges. Back then though I don't think many considered just taking up alpine climbing without that apprenticeship.
Taurig - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo:

As far as the technical climbing goes I can't be of much help, but as others have said, start small and get out in the snow as often as you can. It might seem boring, but learning how to stay warm and dry, navigating in deep snow, picking the riht route for the conditions, it all takes time to pick up these skills and you don't have to be on the highest peaks to gain them. As I keep trying to tell my over-enthusiastic mate, theres no point in being able to climb hard routes if you can't find your way down after topping out. Some of the most challenging navigation I've done has been in winter on hills 500m high, 20 mins drive frommy house!
Oo on 17 Dec 2012
Many thanks for all the suggestions. I agree with GridNorth about the commercialism, I'm not fond of paying for something that a (appropriately skilled) friend could teach me - but I think courses certainly have their place.

Thanks for the Club suggestions, having never been part of one not really sure what they're like but will see if I can give a taster weekend a go.

As an immediate, "oh blow it, let's get out from behind the computer", I have booked some accommodation for 2-5 Jan in Rhyd Ddu with some similarly (un)experienced mates. Any suggestions of good walks or guide books for around there would be much appreciated. Planning on getting out plenty but taking it easy and sticking to simple and safer stuff.

Now just to pin down a mate who actually knows what he's doing (i have someone in mind - but am open to offers, can feed and house) and buy some gear, see: http://www.ukclimbing.com/forums/t.php?n=531466

Ta everyone.

Oo
Dave 88 - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to GridNorth:
> (In reply to Oo) I am getting a little sick of people pushing commercialism in mountaineering

I completely agree, but aren't you a guide?
Nath93 - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo: This is my first winter season, and its amazing how much confidence you can get from just a little time on snow and ice. Learn to trust crampon and axe placements and get good at doing everything with gloves on. I've had 2 day's of instruction from guy's who know what they are doing and it helps a lot.

I had one day of "instruction" before I decided to head out on the Cuillin last week, and it was intimidating but I picked an easy objective and went for it. Everything came good and I enjoyed my first solo winter foray into the hills ! Learn to navigate really well, that way when it turns to shit as you top out you can get yourself and mates down, although they shouldn't be relying on you.

Just try and get to know someone who can climb and give you a good base of skills, i'm sure you'll find someone.
GridNorth - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Dave 88: No, I was a guide and instructor back in the late 60's/early 70's before deciding it was not the life for me so yes I suppose I have played a small part in this commercialisation. Mia culpa.


The Ex-Engineer - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo: If you happy leading long multi-pitch mountain rock routes and can also competently navigate in low visibility then you have the essential skills needed to head out Winter Mountaineering, assuming you take a conservative approach to everything. [Conversely, if you wouldn't feel 100% happy heading up a rock route on big Welsh mountain crag as the more experienced of a pair, then probably book a course or find someone to mentor you.]

If you go out on days with better weather forecasts, depart early and allow plenty of time, a stick to shorter, easier routes that are accessible and known to be in condition and are paranoid about avalanche conditions and reading the SAIS reports (if in any doubt completely avoid terrain rated category 3+, you can always practice skills just above the snowline and head to the pub early) then you are very unlikely to have a major epic. As long as you initially have that mindset, then experienced summer climbers/hillwalkers should have no problem giving it a go.

However, it is worth adding that there is a world of difference between being out in Scotland in late December and early March. The later is often relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable, the former rarely feels like anything other than stressful. As a novice, the later in the season you go out the more leeway you will have as regards the daylight and the more likely you are to be able to fully develop your skills as part of a full and rewarding day out.

Easy Winter climbing is not far removed from doing Grade 3 scrambles and climbing easy multi-pitch routes in big boots. You do nothing particularly new and you just need to learn how not to trip over your crampons plus how to belay on steep snow rather than just using rock anchors.

The basics you need to master before doing anything other than easy walking are not complicated. But, if you don't get instruction then you will need to put aside dedicated time to experiment out on the hill before ending up stuck below a cornice with a 100m+ runout below you - which can often occur even on a Grade I gully. I would say the basics are:

- moving up, down and sideways on steep snow slopes in crampons.
- moving over ice/snow covered bouldery/rocky terrain in crampons.
- mastering a basic ice-axe arrest (See Youtube videos or the BMC Winter Skills DVD. If in doubt, download a clip and take out with you on the hill on a smart phone.)
- digging a horizontal axe belay combined with a bucket seat and body belaying. (Again, watching a decent video and practicing 2-3 times is easy BUT time consuming.)
- direct belays around a boulder/spike plus Italian Hitch belays (may be revision, if not then again read up on them).
optionally:
- placing a Deadman (if bought/borrowed)

These basic Winter skills, combined with the ability to place slings, nuts/hexes and standard rock climbing belaying will keep you going for dozens of brilliant days out on grade I-II terrain. The progression to grade III and harder will then be fairly natural, if not without a few slightly scary moments.
ice.solo - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Oo:

courses fast track some of the process - a process that can be very dangerous.

like the guitar or anything else, doing a course here and there for the bits you want to know gets more down in a shorter period. but you still need lots of real time out with others.
indeed ONLY course knowledge has dangers in its own way.

winter courses are expensive because they encompass a lot of info: only half will be about technical stuff.
they are also hardwork. compared to any job requiring specialist gear and techniques, done in the cold, in dangerous locations, often over a 12hr day - you will find its actually reasonable.
behind this too is the fact that guides and instructors have had to pay for their training. its work, thats what those skills are worth.

of course be wary how you spend your cash: interrogate any course provider to make sure they are both certified AND qualified. my personal criteria is they have real climbing experience far beyond their instructing level. theres a difference between being taught and being loaded with data.

courses can also help with the gear until you get your own.

so, yeah, maybe a course to get some fundamental stuff, then smash it out independantly, with another course whenever youre ready to go up a level of seriousness.
Dave 88 - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to GridNorth:

I wasn't having a dig, just pointing out the irony. I had to google mia culpa.
Ramblin dave - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to The Ex-Engineer:
> (In reply to Oo)

> If you go out on days with better weather forecasts, depart early and allow plenty of time, a stick to shorter, easier routes that are accessible and known to be in condition and are paranoid about avalanche conditions and reading the SAIS reports

While being aware that the SAIS reports are reports from the day before and their predictions are at best as good as the weather forecast they're working from. A couple of years ago there were some serious accidents on slopes that SAIS had said was going to be more or less completely safe because forecast the previous day had had the wind direction wrong by 180 degrees.

IMHO if you aren't capable of making your own judgements of snow conditions and avalanche hazards, you really shouldn't be out in the hills in winter: relying on the forecast to tell you what's going to be safe is like relying on your iPhone GPS to tell you where you are.
Ramblin dave - on 17 Dec 2012
In reply to Ramblin dave:
NB I'm normally down on the inexplicably prevalent modern attitude that says that to get into climbing you need to do a course on indoor top-roping followed by a course on indoor leading followed by a course on outdoor sport climbing followed by a course on outdoor trad followed by a course on arse-elbow disambiguation etc etc, but snow / avalanche conditions is one thing that I really wouldn't mess around with because the point where you get some experience to learn from is the point where you rapidly become very cold and very dead...

This topic has been archived, and won't accept reply postings.