4 Things I Learnt About Winter Expeditions

Emily Woodhouse Living Adventurously, Practical Advice

First up, if you haven’t read my post about my abandoned winter expedition in the Lakes, read that first. Like I said then, it’s really important to talk about our mistakes and near-misses. Better still, to learn from them. I’m not 100% new to winter mountaineering and walking. In fact I’m toying with the idea of doing my Winter ML some time soon…

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But this was my first ever multi-day winter expedition in the UK. I’ve done some “winter” expeditions in Austria/Italy, but it’s a very different type of winter. Specifically an August type of winter. Sure, there’s a tonne of snow on the ground and you’re crossing glaciers. But when it wasn’t snowing, we had gorgeous blue-sky days that left me walking in a baselayer. You arrive at a mountain hut mid-afternoon and sleep in a warm room on a mattress.

Positively luxurious.

Nothing compared to a bitter, mixed-condition multi-day camping expedition in the UK…

1. It’s Cold!!

Okay okay, not very profound I know. You’ll be please to hear that I was expecting it to be cold. But, even though I expected it, I felt like I wasn’t prepared enough. This probably had something to do with skimping on kit to try to go more lightweight. Don’t do this. Since I’m heading off for more winter fun in Scotland soon, I’m going to write it out here as a personal reminder:

Emily, you need more layers.

Happy Bunny (me) on Helvellyn Trig

I took a baselayer, fleece, spare fleece, belay jacket and waterproof jacket for on top. I had thermal leggings, normal walking trousers and waterproof trousers on the bottom. For the record, I rarely wear waterproof trousers unless it’s really lashing it down. Now, I spent a lot of time in the slush and I still was on the edge of chilled in the wind wearing all my layers. Next time, I think I need an even warmer duvet jacket. Plus a new pair of liner gloves without fingertip holes…

Oh, and a camping mat that doesn’t deflate overnight. Trying to sleep on the snow is impossible! I’m familiar with uncomfortable nights’ camping, but I found it almost impossible to sleep with the cold seeping through my right hand side. The genius solution of re-inflating every hour at least allowed me to get some winks.

2. False sense of security

Even if it’s thawed in the valley it can still be sketchy on top. Always take sharps (ice axe and crampons), just in case. The temperature goes down 1 degree for every 100m of ascent you do in the mountains. So although it may be slush at 200m, the snow could still be hard at 900m.

I kind of knew this already, but this expedition just hammered it home. Particularly in the extra time we were up in the Lake District after cutting the walk short.

A group of us decided to go up Sharp Edge on the side of Blencathra. It’s a short walk up from Threlkeld or Scales. When we arrived at the layby there was no snow to be seen. The cloud was low, so we couldn’t see the top of Blencathra, but everything looked pretty benign.

“Shall we leave our ice axes and crampons?” said someone.

We debated leaving sharps in the boot of the car, but decided we may as well take them. Note that we made a group decision here. It can cause problems later if half the group is less well equipped for the conditions.

Halfway up a slimy Sharp Edge and into the mist, we found the snowline. Another 50m up and it started to snow heavily. By the time we topped out, we were walking into a blizzard on icy snow. Crampons were necessary just to keep moving forwards.

As soon as we dropped out of the cloud, we were back in a mild spring day. You never know what’s up there. Stay safe!

3. It’s Slow

I had visions of alpine-style travel on our winter expedition. Blue skies, perfect snow conditions and long days. Funnily enough, the great British weather did not comply…

Stubaai Alps 2016

Travel takes longer in the snow. Part of this is because it’s more effort to navigate, more time to faff with kit and more effort on your body to stay warm. Unless the snow condition is pristine, it’s going to be much harder to walk in snow than on thawed ground. Why? Because instead of just walking, you’ll be kicking steps, breaking trail or (in our case) sliding around in the slush.

Another side to this is the mental struggle. If weather’s foul, you’re far less likely to want to keep on walking. Again, I’m kind of putting this here for my own reference. Normally, even in horizontal rain, I’d be quite happy to keep walking until 10pm to reach our campsite. On the Lakes Expedition, it got dark around 4:30pm. We were walking into white mist and slapped in the faced by sleet. I was like, “So, when are we camping?”

4. Plan plan plan

The higher the stakes, the more important it is to have a plan. On this expedition, we had kind of no plan. We knew where we were starting and finishing. We had a timeframe and appropriate kit. But as for the way were intended to go… Nope. Not really.

You might like: Don’t Plan Your Adventures for reasons why you might do this.

There is some argument for our flexible strategy. We didn’t know what the conditions would be like. By not getting fixated on a route (hey Pillar) we were able to adapt to what we found on the ground. However, in hindsight, I think it would have been better to have a solid Plan A. It wouldn’t have been hard to adapt Plan A all the way down to Plan Z if necessary.

Instead, we made up our exit routes and where we were going as we went along. This did work, but it would have been quicker and easier to have thought about it more beforehand. Why plan on the hoof when you can work it all out in a nice warm house days before you go?

Lessons Learnt?

Well, I’m off to Glen Coe at the start of March. Hopefully you’ll be reading this as I’m playing in the snow again… I will definitely be adjusting what kit I bring and we’ll see if it works better! No plans to do a camping expedition, just some winter route – if the weather is obliging. And, of course, I will be reporting back about it soon!

Do you have any lessons learnt from walking or camping in winter? Please share them below!