Are you ready for a Winter Mountain day?

“Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small” Sun Tzo -The Art of War

The first snows of winter are already upon us, below is what goes through a Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructors mind as they look to plan a winter trip.

The stakes are a lot higher in winter so whether you are going for a walk, mountaineering along a ridge or hoping to complete an ice climb it is important to put a bit of time and effort into planning your journey. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) 'Be Avalanche Aware' guidelines provide a great model to follow for the planning of all mountain days, considering your abilities, the weather and terrain you intend to visit before, during and at key places along the way.

Planning at home


You should always check the weather forecast before you choose your route and use the forecast to help you make a sensible decision about where to go and what to do. If you choose a route before you look at the forecast, it is all too easy to convince yourself it will be fine when really the information is telling you it is not a good idea.

The Mountain Weather Infomation Service (MWIS) provides an excellent, independent weather forecast that is written for the summits of Britain’s highest mountains. In the winter it is even more important than normal to note the wind speed and direction – both these and the freezing level can affect snow stability and the avalanche hazard. It can be worth comparing it to the Met Office mountain forecast to see if there are any differences.

In Scotland the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) provide a daily forecast throughout the winter months letting you know the avalanche hazard in six different areas (Lochaber, Glen Coe, Creag Meagaidh, Northern Cairngorms, Southern Cairngorms and Torridon). It is very important to take the time to read the observed hazard to take note of where instabilities in the snow may lie and not just look at the charts. In the Lake District the Fell Top Assessors' report provided by the National Park offers an insight into the conditions on the summit of Helvellyn including wind speed, temperature and wind chill and the observed snow conditions on the day.

Be flexible with your plans and don’t get too committed into climbing a particular hill on a certain day. By monitoring conditions over the whole winter season you will be able to build up a picture of the snow cover on the ground and choose the right hill on the right day to enjoy the mountains safely and at their finest.


Before deciding where to go consider the experience of the whole group.
  • How recently you used winter equipment such as ice axe and crampons?
  • When was the last time everyone used an ice axe or crampons?
  • What experience does the group have in the mountains?
  • How recently has everyone climbed a mountain in winter?


Cross reference the map and guidebook with the knowledge of how the group will cope with steep ground. Cross reference the SAIS forecast with the map and interpret the aspect, angle and altitude. How will the group cope with the terrain?

Your Journey

If you watch a highly qualified and experienced Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor glide seemingly effortlessly across the snow you might wonder what on earth they are thinking about. Are they planning their dinner for that night? Or wishing they were somewhere warmer? Chances are they will be thinking about the plans and route for the day and constantly checking whether their plans are the best ones for the current situation. They are fully aware that the decision making process for a day in the mountains does not end until you are back safely at the end of the day. What seemed like the perfect plan for the day and your group can quickly become unsuitable when conditions change. A good mountaineer is asking him or herself questions throughout the day.


Is the weather as expected or are conditions changing?
  • What affect is this having on the current ground conditions?
  • Is snow being transported by the wind onto aspects of slope I will be travelling on?
  • Is it warmer or colder than expected?


Is the terrain as expected or is snow or ice having a bigger effect that expected?
  • Does your proposed journey cross potentially unstable slopes?
  • Is snow being transported by the wind? Where is it likely to be deposited?
  • How exposed to an avalanche are you?
  • What terrain should be avoided depending on the avalanche hazard?


Does everyone have the ability to cope with the conditions and terrain ahead?
  • If the visibility drops do you know where you are and where you are going?
  • Can you and your group all navigate?
  • Has everyone in the group got the right clothing on?
  • Has everyone in the group got the right equipment out?

Key Places

Along the route have you considered when and where key decisions need to be made. These might include:
  • when to get out an ice axe,
  • when to put on crampons,
  • whether everyone should be wearing helmets,
  • whether the route is taking longer than expected?
  • Are all the group happy with the route and the conditions faced along the way?

What Weather/Terrain & People considerations will affect your key decision making at these key places? All members of the group should feel comfortable raising any concerns they may have.

A day spent in the winter mountains of the UK is a thoroughly rewarding experience.
"Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end" Edward Whymper

About the author

Nick Cannon Jones has held the Winter Mountaineering & Climbing Instructor qualification for ten years and splits his time between the Lake District and Scotland. He runs a small outdoor business with his wife, Jill called More Than Mountains.

Photo Credits

Alan Halewood
Casper McKeever
Jim Walton
Paul Kellagher

You are about to be redirected to the Candidate Management System (CMS)

Create an account to register for one of our schemes.

Log in to your existing account Learn more about CMS