Spare Time: A natural high

Strap on your crampons and practise your bum slides. Eric Kendall leads the way
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The Independent Online
The wind ripped at my body, the rain beat into my face and the storm howled around the surrounding peaks. For a terrifying moment, I thought I was in the opening paragraph of a travel piece on the perils of booking a trek with an operator who is not Abta-affiliated. In fact, I was just having a normal day out on a winter mountaineering course in the Western Highlands.

Winter in the hills promises unique thrills and challenges, but demands much more than summer walking. From December to April, you're almost bound to reach freezing conditions at some point up a mountain, even in Britain. It means that being on the hills rather than the valleys involves mountaineering skills, at least as a back-up, even if you think you're just going for "a walk". Snow, ice, and the potential for avalanches will all feature.

It can also mean stunning scenery and access to different (often more direct) routes to the peaks; with the right snow cover you can climb gullies which cascade with crumbling rock in summer. The motivation in winter is certainly different. "Because it's there" hardly applies. In bad conditions it's more "To see if it's there".

The key to winter mountaineering is good judgement and risk assessment, getting input from all the members of a group, not simply leaving decisions to an "expert". It's vital for everyone to remember that they're not in the SAS, and that the trip doesn't have to be either miserable or a near- death experience for it to be a successful outing. The basics are common sense. Even before you step outside in the morning, detailed weather forecasts are available by phone or fax, along with avalanche reports, which can save a long hike into an unsuitable area. Not only is legwork minimised, but you're not exposed to the dangerous instinct to carry on regardless, which increases in direct proportion to the amount of effort you've put into getting there.

At the snow line, key skills training starts with ice axe arrests - lots of sliding wetly on your backside (beginner), head first on your front (intermediate) and head first flat on your back (advanced/ suicidal). The theory is to imitate a fall on a slope, bringing yourself to a rapid halt by digging your axe into the snow. Get it wrong, and you risk neatly planting your axe while you continue on your way. To cope with this eventuality you also practise the digging-your-hands-in technique, the alpine equivalent of a drowning man clutching at driftwood.

Next on the agenda is avalanche prediction. It's a huge subject, and well worth paying close attention to. Along with daily bulletins posted locally as a guide to conditions, there's also the obvious but often overlooked point that if you can see an avalanche, then the risk of more avalanches is high. Looking around you on the hill can tell you more than all the snow science ever written. Perhaps the most relevant thing to remember is that you yourself are the most likely trigger for any avalanche that may come your way.

For analysing specific slopes, and to warm up after ice-axe drill, the Rutschblock test is ideal. Lots of digging with spade, ski or ice-axe is involved, to isolate a representative section of a slope. Then you can determine the stability of the snow by progressively loading the block until it slides, which gives a reasonable impression of how the slope as a whole will react to your walking on it. On a scale of one to seven, one means run like hell - which would be tricky, as the snow is so prone to sliding that it collapses the moment you isolate the block from the surrounding slope. At the more reassuring end of the scale, a seven is so secure that even a yomping yeti couldn't budge it.

The final basic skill to learn is the use of crampons, which can be dangerous in the wrong hands and even more so on the wrong feet. Putting them on is half the battle, particularly in conditions where simply tightening your hood strings is an achievement. First cramponed steps turn the world on its head. Suddenly sheet ice and hard-packed snow provide a rock-solid grip, while slabs of rock give a skittish feel. Crossing a rare patch of grass, Gary from Maidstone noticed that stomping around on crampons would also do an excellent job of aerating your lawn.

Basic ropework for tougher terrain or lowering down steep faces, using ice-axe belays and snow bollards, is a further aspect of moving safely around the mountains, though, for much of the time, winter walking and mountaineering is unprotected, relying on increasing care in relation to the degree of exposure. Do look down, not to give yourself an attack of vertigo, but so that you realise the stakes are about as high as you are. And for anyone who thinks all this is just about the serious matter of getting to the top, that's only half the story. Coming down the other side can be at least as demanding, but if you're lucky, it may afford an ice-axe-controlled bum-slide that makes the Cresta Run look like a walk in the park.

Where to learn, and what you need

The National Mountain Centre, Plas Y Brenin (01690 720214) offers some of the best training facilities and instruction available. They run winter courses in Wales, Scotland and the Alps. Comprehensive notes are supplied which detail experience needed and equipment required; in many cases gear is available on loan. The Scottish National Sports Centre, Glenmore Lodge (01479 861256) offers a similar programme based at Aviemore.

What you take into the mountains is fundamental to your comfort and safety. Protective clothing doesn't have to be GoreTex, though many manufacturers use this fabric for their top-of-the-range gear. Most important are the design and fit of the garments. Lowe Alpine use their own breathable fabric, Triplepoint Ceramic, and Paramo clothing relies on regular treatment of non-waterproof fabrics for optimum breathability and water-resistance.

Boots need to be both water-resistant and suitable for use with crampons. Plastic shelled boots are frequently used, but tend to be uncomfortable if worn day in, day out. Salomon now produce leather mountaineering boots (the Super Mountain range) which include lots of innovations, derived in part from their ski-boot experience. A boot which sprouts crampons from the sole unit at the touch of a button (after Rosa Kleb in From Russia With Love) is keenly awaited.

For both clothing and specialist climbing hardware, the best advice is available from your instructors, and specialist retailers such as Cotswold Outdoor (01285 643434). Half the fun of winter mountaineering is in gratifying pent-up gear lust. But keep in mind more mundane equipment, such as gloves. We wondered, for several soggy, cold hours, why our instructors had a minimum of four pairs, until we realised that no one, other than Marigold, has managed to produce finger-bags that keep the water out for long.