Are Winter Skills courses worth the money?
100% YES (if you choose the right one)
Obviously as a Mountaineering Instructor and owner of a company which provides winter skills courses, my answer to this question may be seen as biased. However I firmly believe that taking the time and spending the money to attend a winter skills course is worth it!
Looking for a course with an Instructor who is a member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors is a good start, the logo to look for is at the bottom of the page.
In Easter 2010 I came up to Scotland with the University of Leeds canoe club, I had recently damaged my shoulder kayaking but I had decided to tag along anyway and try and do some winter walking, there was still an excellent covering of snow on the mountains.
As the group set off for their day of falling off waterfalls on the Etive, I headed for Ben Nevis. It was a perfectly clear day and I made good progress to the summit. At the Red Burn I put on my my newly purchased Grivel G12s and got out my axe. I was a summer mountain leader trainee at the time and had spent a lot of time in the mountains growing up so I felt confident I was well equipped, however I had never been out in winter solo before.
It was one of the rare days on Ben Nevis where you could happily sit on the summit in the sunshine and fully enjoy the view, there was no wind and the air was so clear you could see the snowy tops of the Cuillin in the distance. I decided I had made good time and I would continue around the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, which I had read about online and decided I had the skills to tackle.
I took my time along the ridge as the snow was firm and I knew that would make it more dangerous if I was to slip, I now look back and know that I was so worried about not slipping that in trying so carefully to place my feet, I did the exact opposite of what I needed to do. Whilst crossing a steep angled bit of firm snow I tried to get the crampons points engaged but they glanced off a hard patch and I lost my balance; I was sliding.
I would like to say that the next few seconds were a perfect example of how to do an Ice axe arrest but I am quite sure they weren’t. However, I had the axe in the correct position under my shoulder and I had come to a stop. Once my heart had slowed a little I managed to kick my front points in and make my way carefully back to the ridge crest.
It is quite possible I would not be here if it hadn’t been for more than a few attempts at practicing an ice axe arrest. Not long before this trip to Fort William, I had been on a winter skills course based in the Cairngorms. We had spent a weekend learning how to move with crampons (maybe I should have practiced that more) and how to use the ice axe in a variety of sliding situations. And so, I learned that repeated quality practice of these essential skills can save your life.
This is a skill I now teach to others, hoping of course they never have to use it for real. I always make sure that everyone is happy with the technique and have practiced enough to feel like they know what to do and understand why the technique is taught.
So is it worth it?
Of course nowadays online there are those who will cry out and tell you that you can learn all of this on YouTube and that you don't need to pay for a course. Yes some of these skills have excellent tutorial videos online, forecasting is much better and you can read one of many good books about avalanches. I still don't believe that all of these things are better than learning the skills from someone who has put them into practice, taught them a lot so they understand what they are teaching and who can give you feedback and answer any questions you have.
What should a good winter skills course give you?
A course can teach you the skills, but to keep them you have to practice!
Core skills: The Glamorous side of winter skills, this is what attracts us, the sliding, the spiky objects, the digging holes but don’t be fooled, they are important but only half the equation.
-Learning to use your boot as a tool, kicking steps
-Use of Crampons ascending and descending
-Use of an Ice axe to self belay and self arrest
-Cutting steps with the axe
Knowledge of the weather, avalanches and forecasting, emergency procedures
Scottish weather is known to be changeable, famously we get all 4 seasons in a day. Understanding how to check the weather and how that will impact your route planning as well as your journey on the day is vital. A good winter skills course will also introduce the dangers of avalanche and how we can move safely in the mountains. Snow science is a complex subject so don’t expect to come away an expert, but learning the basics is key. Discussions about how to contact the emergency services, what they need to know and some scenarios to chat through are also, especially when people have real life stories to relate to.
Winter Navigation practice and how it’s different
Navigation is another skill requiring lots of practice, but when the cloud comes down on top of a Munro and you can just about see your hand in front of your face you will be glad you put in the time. A good winter skills course will introduce the basic techniques for making sure you know where you are and how to get back safely to your car.
Clothing and Equipment
Lots of discussion about layering, waterproofs and boots and how these differ in winter. Rucksacks, crampons, ice axes, helmets and all the other little bits which will make your life easier when out in the mountains. A lot is based on experience so a good winter skills course will give you the chance to try things out and chat to the instructor and other participants.
The empowerment to make decisions in a winter environment
To be able to walk away from your car happy that the knowledge you have will keep you safe is an amazing feeling. One that as instructors it is really satisfying to see people progress towards. A good winter skills course will set you up to start making decisions and heading out with others in the mountains.
A desire to learn more
If you go on a winter skills course and the instructor says at the end that you have learnt everything and you are now ready, then they are delusional, not of sound mind or they are lying. There is always more to learn!
The chance to ask questions
Possibly the most important part of any course!
I always say to people that if they have any questions they should ask. By asking questions you are able to rationalise why someone has made a decision, rather than just taking for granted that they have made the right choice.