The difference between hill-walking and mountaineering: ice

Ice and snow may be the curse of drivers, but for mountain climbers they call for a rush to the nearest summit to enjoy thrills and challenges in confrontation with the frozen elements. For anyone contemplating a vertical challenge, the prime peaks and ridges are those of Scotland, principally the Grampian and Cairngorm mountains, and to a lesser extent the Torridon region in the north-west.

Hill-walking is a summer pursuit, but hill-walking in winter is mountaineering. Winter courses for the inexperienced are essential. Their aim is to teach the basic skills, starting with navigation. After you have acquired compass proficiency you should try it in blizzard conditions, when direction- finding and timing become survival skills. Beginners should also practise such essentials as walking in crampons and using a rope.

The most popular climbing areas in Scotland are Glencoe (including the 8km ridgewalk along Aonach Eagach on the north side) and Ben Nevis (Scotland's highest peak at 1344m), both on the western side of the country. The east is colder and drier than the west, whose coastal climate produces unique climbing conditions including white, sparkly, hoar frost which can be several centimetres deep. Torridon, though more northerly, is nearer the sea than Ben Nevis, and the Gulf Stream can ruin the wintry possibilities of its Mts Liathach and Eighe.

Ice in its many forms co-stars with snow in winter climbing. Most Scottish ice-climbing takes place in gulleys where the snow has melted and frozen several times, forming a surface hard enough to grip on to with basic equipment. With newer and better equipment, climbing on ice-smeared faces and buttresses has become increasingly popular. It is even possible in a hard winter to climb on giant icicles, some of them 100m long, formed where water drips over the crags and precipices.

As any winter mountain enthusiast will tell you, part of the fascination of climbing is the way the climate produces constantly changing conditions, while the mountains themselves have so many facets and formations that you can never tire of them, which is reason enough to get your crampons on.

For further information, contact Kevin Howett, The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (01738 638227), based in Crieff, Perth. The MCS also organises one, two and three-day winter skills courses in January and February. For women enthusiasts the MSC can provide access to a networking group.

Glenmore Lodge (01479 861276) in Aviemore runs summer and winter training courses for beginners up to the highest levels of expertise. Beginners' all-inclusive, five-day courses cost pounds 216.

Martin Moran Mountaineering (01520 722361) organises courses in the Torridon region. An all-inclusive five-day standard course costs pounds 360.