Glenmore Lodge Introduction to Winter Skills Part 1

I now know 4 major things about winter mountaineering:

  1. Crampons are God's one true creation.
  2. Whereas winter boots were birthed by the devil.
  3. You must never, ever put your gloves down. 
  4. Layers will be your new lord and saviour.

Slightly religious twist on that list, I'll admit. Last weekend, my dad and I headed to Glenmore Lodge in the north of the Cairngorms National Park to take part in some winter mountaineering skills training. Both of us love to hike and love the hills; but lack the skills to stay safe in deep snow, ice, and winter unpredictability. The course is aimed at people who can hike in summer, but have no winter experience. AKA, moi. It was meant to be mum and I, but very sadly she caught a virus the day before we were going.

We headed up to Aviemore on Friday evening; stopping to admire the incredible star visibility near the Cairngorms (we saw Jupiter. And Orion was completely clear). Upon arrival we settled into our lovely room- with complimentary mountain picture (the image was different in every room... I did ask!)-, then popped to the bar for a drink before heading straight to bed.

The wall in our room
One of the hallways- so cool!
Bright and early the next day we shoveled some breakfast down our throats before meeting Matt, our friendly, knowledgable, and mildly eccentric instructor; and the rest of our group. First on the itinerary was how to pack a bag. This may sound boring as hell; but in the mountains under-prepared = good-as-dead. The general theory here is pack everything you may ever need; in reverse order of when you might need it. Keep food handy (this is my kinda advice); pack multiple layers; pack more gloves than your hands can... handle, I guess. The outcome of this was that my winter hiking backpack was roughly 1984293 times heavier than a summer daysack.

We then headed on a long hike (5-6 mi) up and around Cairn Gorm itself, with the promise of learning winter skills along the way. We were introduced to the wonders of crampons- metal spike soles that allow you to dance on black ice like you are the winter fairy-, and spent much of the day deciding as a group when to pull them on or off. We also learned to traverse steeper snow slopes by cutting steps. A great deal of discussion also focused around snow types. Different types require different walking techniques, and carry different risk. We learned about how to identify slopes and snow at risk of avalanche; and how to avoid these slopes navigational-y. All day long we also carried avalanche transmitters that reveal your position to rescuers. I got back at night only to realise I hadn't turned mine on... Oops. That's step #1.

Putting on or taking off crampons

Lots of rime ice on the weather station

Top of Cairn Gorm (second from left)

Once back and refueled on tea and cake; things were no less hectic. We had a lecture at 6.45 pm, then dinner, then a lecture at 8 too. The 6.45 lecture was about winter navigation. The key takeaway here is not to rely on any landmarks that aren't huge productions of mother nature- paths, streams and buildings disappear in snow; elevation does not. Though elevations can be harder to see, so don't walk off a cliff, and can change shape with snow cornices. The team leader suggested learning your pacing, and timing. Learn how long it takes you to reach certain short distances in certain conditions. Learn slope directions and angles. Then you can navigate using these and your pacing. Another good idea is to keep in mind what lies past your target- what happens when you have gone too far? We also covered the thought that maps are not infallible.

Contours= everything

Visibility/snow makes is harder though- how steep would you say the THREE slopes in this picture are?

Interestingly (for me), most navigational mistakes are human psychology- someone is cold, lost, in a 'descending' mindset, wants to get out of the wind and takes a directional shortcut or doesn't properly consult their compass. The Cairn Gorm is a great example of the potential impact of this: if you walk off the wrong edge there are 20-odd miles to anything at all. Take a map, a compass, a spare map. GPS and phones are nice but electronics die. Some even freeze. The instructor also told a story of a rescue where the man had been relying on his iPhone for directions, and then broke the screen. Humans need to challenge themselves and their assumptions in navigation. Even the centre leader recounted a tale where he got lost and found himself thinking, "well these must be the cliffs so I go past these...", and after forcing himself to check against his maps and compass he found that he was in completely the wrong place.  Learn to say no to yourself.

By that time we were starved. Luckily, the food was great at dinner- squash with spinach stew or pork chops. Both were served with roast parsnip and sweet potato mash, then optional sticky toffee pud. Extremely tasty. I went for the squash and didn't end up having cake- sounds insane I know but there was cake in the packed lunches, cake in the afternoon refuel, and cake at dinner too! I was all caked out.

And soup... forgot the soup!
The 8 pm Avalanche talk was also all about psychology. The speaker gave the calculation for avalanche risk as: Hazard (weather, snow conditions) + Party (experience and skills) + Landscape (slope and aspect) = Decision. The inital focus of the lecture was on planning- researching the back weather forecasts (as the previous weather greatly effects avalanche risk), red flag snow types, and rising heat after heavy snowfall and strong winds. Then we were taught to beware slopes of 30-40 degrees (represented by 6-10 contours/cm on map) that face away from the wind direction (as all the deep snow is blown onto these). We also discussed the most dangerous snow type- windslab. This snow breaks in large fractures, and is very weak. You can see it if large clumps crack and fall away together as you step on it. The phrase to remember is: Steep, deep and weak.

But its mostly about humans. Most avalanche accidents are caused by humans. The danger scale begins with humans- avalanches caused by them become likely before natural ones do. Again the question is, are you big enough to say no to yourself or others? Even if you want to get home, or impress the group leader, or prove yourself a mountaineer? Even if you are tired and sore and cold and don't want to check the slope angle? Are you going to be wise enough to say, "guys, this slope is a bad idea". Like in navigation errors, more people caught out on the descent. You also get group and individual human heuristics. Heuristics are dangerous, they are a bad way to make decisions in winter situations. People think, "well loads of people are around". Or experience the familiarity fallacy, "I come here all the time!". There is also wishful thinking based on the level of commitment to the hike, "I'm sure its fiiiine". There are a million of them: its sunny; this is the only day you've got. Groups make particularly bad decisions- the quiet members go underrepresented, peer pressure leads to risk taking, there is competition within the group and between groups, and people are saving face. The instructor told us people literally walk past or through avalanche debris and think, "huh".

If you are worried about avalanche threat where you are: turn around, stop, go home via a safe route. The mountain will be there some other time.


Check out part 2 next Friday! Sorry this is so long but we learned so much.

Do you hike in winter?


  1. I would love to take an avalanche safety course someday and get into backcountry snowboarding. What they taught about human risk is so interesting. One of my grad school professors who specialized in snow science and had a ton of avalanche training told us that studies have shown that mixed gender groups are the riskiest and most likely to get caught in an avalanche. Groups of women tend to be more cautious generally and women will speak up in a group of women, and groups of men only will be more willing to listen to one person that thinks that backing off is a good idea. But in mixed gender groups, women are less likely to speak up, and men are more likely to go on despite the risks to "impress" the rest of the group. I thought that was a super interesting (and sad!) phenomena.

    1. That is really interesting about mixed or single genders. Its quite sad that for humans social stressors are perceived worse that straight up dying in an avalanche!

  2. Oh this sounds so interesting!! Great recap!

    1. Thanks Sarah; if you're still interested you can see part 2 up next Friday!