On readiness for winter walking11th December 2008
It’s winter again and I for one have come around to the notion that this time of year has much to offer those who enjoy the countryside. Shorter days and colder air are part and parcel of things in winter but cut your cloth according to your measure and you may begin to think that summer is overrated. From the photographic point of view, the golden light that abounds does yield results with a pleasing glow and the golden hours of dawn and dusk become more accessible too. A lot of my usual outdoors gear still remains useful but with extra warm clothing to keep out the cold and a working head torch for when walks broach the hours of darkness. Waiting for a bus or train home can be a cold business, especially since temperatures can and do plummet after dark, so my down jacket gets to see a lot of use.
The very mention of winter sends images of frost and snow into the mind but it isn’t always thus. In recent years, some winters have been so mild that one would be forgiven for thinking that we had been sold a forgery. As if to prove that colder winters still exist, last year and this one have seen good falls of snow in places. It’s almost as if there is a general oscillation between milder and colder winters going on and research carried out by the Met Office suggests a link with the El Nino cycle in the Pacific.
Without snow and ice, winter hiking involves negotiating wetter ground and getting back to civilisation before it gets too dark. Add in frozen ground and areas of normally soft ground become easier to cross, even if the feeling of boots not gaining purchase with the ground unnerves just a little. Otherwise, the landscape remains a familiar place but snow is another matter entirely with its ability to obscure details that are usually quiet obvious. While undoubtedly beautiful, it also presents new hazards like cornices, avalanches, drifts and blizzards for the explorer of hill country. In some ways, the door is shut on normal hillwalking with classic walks getting turned into winter mountaineering with all of its lingo. That’s a whole new arena with the various different types of snow and the various pieces of equipment like ice axes along with crampons and compatible boots.
That alien feel of the collected wisdom of exploring a frozen landscape is something that I find eerily alien with my being more accustomed to green places. The wilder places become more like what you find described in Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind or Ranulph Fiennes’ Captain Scott. My usual outdoors haven has more in common with that of Damien Enright’s A Place Near Heaven: A Year in West Cork. That slim volume provided episodes of pleasant relief while I was following Fiennes’ tale of Antarctic adversity and I can recommend it.
My experience of what might be termed full winter conditions can be compared to standing on the threshold of that world where everything is covered in the white stuff. Until last weekend, treading on powder dry snow and avoiding slips on ice were more akin to what I previously encountered. I took matters a little further among the Howgill Fells while avoiding ice on the steep lower slopes and ploughing through deeper than I had met before when up higher. I got reminded of the need for crampons while ensure that I did not go beyond the capabilities of my boots.
When it comes to entering that world of the white stuff, I am facing something of a dilemma. Do I plan to expand my experience of handling snow and ice in the hills with winter skills courses and various pieces of equipment or do I inch forward and continue to develop an appreciation of the limitations of my skills and equipment, turning back when conditions look as if they are beyond me? Being more walker than mountaineer, the latter notion is where my inclinations lie but I have no desire to become another statistic or a news item that pads out a television or radio news bulletin.
Media sensationalism can go too far and this year’s OMM in Cumbria fell victim to this; it was never going to be helped by a few overreacting individuals and the torrents of rain that fell. Even so, those yarns can still be instructive. No one who has earned their outdoors spurs should be tackling Snowdon with failing light without the right equipment like two lads who were found on Crib Goch last winter so that’s more of a lesson for the masses but there remain ones for outdoors types. One that comes to mind is a student group with only one map between them getting separated in poor visibility while out in Highland Perthshire earlier this year. Then, there are reports of fatalities like those on Helvellyn and they can be very off-putting.
There’s something to be said for staying among the foothills on the threshold of that white world, reading and learning more all of the while. Articles like that put out on grough in recent days have their place and I wish that it was published before my weekend exertions. My preference to stay on the walking side of the walker/mountaineer divide and quote a certain Alfred Wainwright comes to mind:”You are not dicing with death. You are not making a technical excursion into space. You are going for a walk”. I can be corrected on the original context but what appears to be severe riposte has its own resonance for me. In a way, I suppose that it is telling me not to get technical mountaineering mixed up with my hiking but where elements of it are needed in order to stay safe, I feel that it would be foolish not to learn about them and use them in their own good time. This can be seen as another outdoors journey: getting out into that white world without going in beyond my depth and back again safely with no harm done. It’s not about conquering nature but rather to let nature help me to conquer the stresses and strains of modern life.
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