It does not have to be like that though. A guided course in winter mountaineering skills under qualified instruction seriously lessens the chance of your getting into trouble on the hill. Navigation, winter skills, such as digging snow-holes, avoiding avalanches and use of ice-axe and crampons, mountain first aid and scrambling - safely negotiating slippery and exposed ground - these are what a winter mountaineering course can offer. It's also a great way to cure the midwinter blues and get some wind in your hair. There are a number of centres offering courses in these skills, mostly to existing or would-be outdoor instructors and wilderness leaders.
However, John White's Mountain School in Cumbria is aimed more at introducing beginners to the winter hills. His weekend or week-long Winter Walking Skills courses teach you how to use an ice-axe - for moving on steep ground and for stopping yourself when sliding - and how to use crampons. Avalanche awareness and prediction, snow-holing and navigation are also taught. By arrangement, if weather conditions permit, and the general level of the group seems high enough, it might be possible to spend a night in a snow-hole, high up on the Cumbrian pikes.
You should be relatively fit - as if for a hillwalking trip - but you do not have to be superman or woman to take a basic course. Even if you never use it to full effect, what you learn with John White will certainly stand you in good stead the next time you go walking and the fog comes down, or you lose the trail and have to navigate your way with a compass. Winter Walking courses have a maximum instructor to student ratio of 1:6.
If you are more experienced - have learned some basic rope work and climbed and abseiled a little - the Winter Mountaineering course is probably your best bet. Covering the same curriculum as the introductory course, this next level goes on to include with some climbing techniques, basic rope skills, belaying (learning how to fix ropes safely for climbing and abseiling), ridge scrambling and more complicated navigation. By the end of the weekend you should have tackled one or two beginner winter climbing routes and should be able to go on to learn ice climbing. Winter mountaineering courses have a maximum instructor to student ratio of 1:4. John White's third weekend course, aimed at people who have already climbed some simple winter routes, is the Ice Climbing weekend. These go into the more specialised techniques of ice-axe and crampons, ropes and belays, and will get you up your first proper ice-climbing route, weather permitting, by the end of the weekend. The maximum instructor to student ratio for these advanced courses is 1:3.
The price of each course includes YHA accommodation. However, if you want a bed and breakfast or hotel, that can be arranged and the YHA accommodation price subtracted from the general tariff. All courses run from January to March. John White also organises six-day trips into the Sierra Nevada in Andalusia, Spain, during these times. However, these are for more experienced mountaineers. Beginners should stick to Cumbria.
With easy access from Ambleside (John White will collect from the bus or train station), this makes a feasible place for a weekend break if you're coming up from the south.
John White Mountain School, Garden Cottage, High Close, Langdale, Ambleside, Cumbria, LA22 9HH. Tel 015394 37387.
Winter courses run to around the beginning of April, though rock-climbing and other mountaineering skills are taught all year.
Dormitory youth hostel-style accommodation provided; you can take a B&B room for a pounds 9 supplement, or stay in the excellent Langdale Hotel, 015394 37302, for pounds 60 a weekend.
Breakfast and packed lunch included.
Minimum age 8 years, special discounts for youths.
Clients require their own holiday insurance.
Staff trained in first aid and mountain rescue.
British Mountaineering Council.
Winter Walking weekend: pounds 99; Winter Mountaineering weekend: pounds 120; Ice Climbing Weekend: pounds 120. 6-day Winter Mountaineering course: pounds 295.
10% deposit required, non-refundable. Balance due two weeks before start date. Late bookings accepted if space available.
Ambleside is off the A591. If travelling by train (around 3hr 30min from London), take the Euston-Glasgow line and change at Oxenholme for Windermere, seven miles from Ambleside; free pick-ups arranged by centre. National Express buses also run to Windermere.