I have always declared that winter mountaineering isn’t for me. I like to be warm. Plus I feel way too clumsy for technical sounding gear like crampon and ice axes. So I stumbled onto the winter skills course by accident really. I was using it as a preparation course for my Norway Arctic Expedition….it seemed fitting that I should have at least some experience with snow before heading out on a tough trip in the Arctic!
As Love Her Wild grows and continues to inspire me, I find myself trying out activities and experiences that were never on my radar, yet go on to surprise me. Alpine mountaineering was one of those things that ‘wasn’t for me’ that ended up being something that was ‘very much me’. There’s no other way to describe this course other than ‘I loved it’.
Everest, here I come!
(Ps. I’m joking)
Which provider to go with
There are lots of providers that offer winter skills courses. But I chose 360 Expeditions and they were exceptional! Their course takes place in the Pyrenees (guaranteed snow, views and good wine), they teach a variety of skills on the course, their safety record and expedition leader experience is second to none and you get to accumulate the skills you learn by attempting an actual real summit day at the end of the week.
Going with a company had the added advantage that food was covered and a lot of the technical gear available to hire free of charge making logistics just that little bit easier.
What to pack
The discussions on day 1 reassured me that I was not alone when it came to the stress of trying to work out what kit I needed to take. It turned out to be simpler than I anticipated. With most of my technical gear (crampons, ice axe, harness, etc) hired, my biggest focus became clothing.
You want a decent set of base layers (I used Armadillo Merino), softshell mid-layers and waterproof top and bottoms. Fleeces, liner hats and down gilets gave me more flexibility when it came to layering.
You’ll also want a good down jacket for summit day and this will also keep you toasty in the evenings.
Winter skills course review
We crammed a lot into our 7 days in the Pyrenees. Our base for the week was La Renclusa, a mountain hut at 2140m. We were thrown straight into the deep end with a 3 and a half hour snowshoe hike carrying all our supplies.
Over the next 2 days we made the most of the surrounding snow and walls learning all sorts of skills including self-arrest (aka: throwing yourself off a mountain before attempting to stop yourself with an axe), abseiling,Jumar-ing (getting yourself up a rope), avalanche safety and crevasse rescue (loved that!).
We also built a snow hole in pairs and despite all the others in the group deciding to chose the warmth of the mountain hut, I braved the cold and bagged my first ever wild solo camp in a snow hole!
Read more about my first night in a snow hole.
While all this was going on, we were shadowed by the mountains and the route leading to Aneto – the highest peak in the Pyrenees. Our last full day in the mountains was a summit attempt and we were all feeling nervous. We ran over what to pack, what to wear and what skills we would be using. Fitness was the main concern to most and I doubted if I had the strength to get myself to the top through all that snow.
The pacing was slow and the views spectacular. Our group did amazing but it wasn’t to be. The weather conditions weren’t great and some of the group hit a wall. I found it hard turning back when I knew I had it in me to summit but this is the nature of group expeditions. And while I missed out on reaching the peak, I gained a lot more with the friends I made and the laughs shared. That was the real highlight.
To top it off, the week ended back in the guesthouse where we’d started. A hot shower, clean clothes and reminiscing over pizza…my favourite part of any adventure!!
I would describe this 360 Expeditions course as bold. Not surprising really when you are being taught by leaders who have summited some of the world’s toughest mountains! I couldn’t believe how much I took away from just a week and it really left me yearning to do more.
Winter skills course top tips
So what do you need to know before doing your winter skills course Honestly…not much! It was all new to me. The course is designed for beginners so as long as you have basic fitness and some summer hiking experience you will get on just fine.
If you are going to focus on anything, get your fitness levels up and your head around your kit options. Cold management is a big thing but you quickly learn what works for you when you are in a winter environment.
Here are some of my top tips…
- You burn easily on the snow so take good sunglasses (or ski goggles) and factor 50 for the face and lips.
- I found my Armadillo Merino Wool liner gloves and liner hat made a huge difference and we a valuable bit of kit.
- Keep your snacks broken into small pieces (they will freeze) and in handy pockets, so you can grab and eat easily
- Put your liner clothes in your sleeping bag at night so they are warm to put on in the morning
- Keep your water bottle close to the body and in a sock to stop it freezing. Put it upside down so if it does freeze it starts from the bottom and not the lid.
- Small batteries die quickly in cold. It’s better to charge from big battery packs than using many small batteries. Keep them close to the body and warm if you can.
- Wear 2 pairs of socks (one liner and one thick) and a plastic bag in between. The bag makes a huge difference when keeping your toes warm and also acts as a barrier so your sweat doesn’t reach the outer sock.
- Take the soles out of your boots out overnight so they can dry properly
- Never go to bed cold. Do star jumps to warm up before getting into your sleeping bag
- When getting used to crampons, it’s easy to catch your outer trousers and to tear them (I did this 3 times!). Don’t bother investing in a good pair until you’ve sussed your crampon technique
- If you get an opportunity to sleep in a snow hole, grab it – it’s worth experiencing
- My face was dry and cracked from the wind and cold so I appreciated my night moisturiser
- If you feel your feet or hands going cold, get active and move your fingers and toes