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Scottish Winter Skills

Talisman Mountaineering are long established local Cairngorm Guides based in Aviemore. We have a proven track record as local experts and a leading courses provider. Established in 1992 we've successfully been running winter skills training in the Cairngorms for more than twenty years. The Scottish winter skills courses take place in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park with it's ease of access and it's reliable snow holding.

Our fully qualified local MIC instructors and Scottish Winter Mountain Leaders aim to give participants a fun, safe and rewarding introduction to all the necessary skills required to walk and climb safely in the mountains in winter. See the BMC Winter Essentials video here>>>

See also winter mountaineering skills

Already done a winter skills course and want to use the skills on the hill then see our guided  winter walking page

Winter Skills clients returning from ice axe braking in Coire Laogh Mor in the Cairngorms
winter skills clients returning from crampon work and ice axe braking


  • Ice Axe and Crampons

  • Clothing & Equipment

  • Micro-Navigation & Route Finding

  • Avalanche Assessment

  • Emergency Rope-work

  • Emergency Procedures

  • Survival Skills

click here to enlarge the photo of Loch Avon basin and Shelterstone cliffs
Loch Avon

Choice of equipment and suitable clothing will be covered!

We will look at the range of clothing available and its suitability for the typical damp and windy weather conditions found in the UK as opposed to the Alps, Himalayas or more commonly the city wine bar. Why does a jacket suitable for a summit bid on Everest at minus 30 feel cold at plus 5 in Scotland and why do 300 branded breathable waterproofs often not work in the British hills. We discuss the pros and cons of the layering system in a blizzard on the Cairngorm plateaux as well as alternative systems such as that offered by Buffalo and Nikwax. I'm not sponsored by these companies so I can give an honest appraisal. The full range of available mountain walking equipment is discussed.

group_6th_jan_02.jpg (37146 bytes)

...all kitted and tooled up and ready for action...see our client photo album here!

Nutrition and exercise

...make sure you drink lots! need to drink lots!

The basic fundamentals of what and how much to eat and drink during a typical winters day should never be underestimated. The body requires calories not just for the physical exercise such as swimming through deep snow drifts but also to maintain the bodies core temperature to avoid the onset of hypothermia, as cold, wet and wind continually drain the reserves. We look at ways to pace ourselves and how to alternate and rest different muscle groups during steep ascents and descents.

Use of Ice Axe

...Jack the axe!
click here to enlarge
...descending with axe ready
  • Using your ice axe to move on the typical steep ground found while UK hill walking. This is the most important and often neglected fundamental winter skill (why ice axe arrest after a slip if you can avoid the slip in the first place!). How to choose and where to carry your ice axe. The correct use and position of an ice axe for walking up, down and across steep ground, will give you the maximum confidence and minimize the risk of any slip taking place. Practice is progressive and takes place on short, safe slopes with a soft landing if all else fails and all participants are provided with safety helmets. We only progress onto steeper slopes once confidence is gained. 

  • Use of ice axe for self belay. Stop before you fall! 

  • Using your ice axe for self arrest in different positions. You will be taught to brake instinctively from a variety of possible fall positions with and without crampons. We teach you to react quickly and positively so that any slip or trip is stopped immediately or before it can become serious. This is one of the most important basic winter skill and is one of the first things we cover on the course. See video clip here

step cutting on hard snow...
...putting or step cutting!
  • Cutting steps in hard snow or ice. An often neglected skill these days with the advent of crampons, but if practised regularly is extremely useful even when crampons are being worn. The real usefulness of cutting steps is however, when negotiating short sections of hard icy snow that would require several precious minutes to fit and remove crampons, when all that is required is a few deft flicks of the wrist and you are across. If you calculate the time saved in the short winter daylight hours by cutting steps you'll often find an hour or more is available at the end of the day. You will be taught to cut slash steps up, down and across as well as being taught to cut pigeon hole steps that are essential for overcoming the all to common cornice that lurks at the top of a fairly straightforward path onto a ridge or top. video clip here

  • How to and how not to glissade.  

  • How to self arrest if you lose or haven't got an ice axe

ice axe braking practise on easy slopes
...flying or practising ice axe braking!

More detailed information can be found on the 'Winter Essentials' leaflet

Crampons & Footwork

John Wayne and Tina Turner techniques...practising good crampon technique is essential for security and to avoid accidents..
...getting to grips with crampons

  • Kicking steps and good footwork. Again often neglected, why waste time and effort if you can avoid fitting crampons! You will be taught the most efficient ways and methods of kicking steps up down and across as well as being taught to slash kick, boot edging and balance techniques on hard snow. The correct choice of boots is fundamental and every year despite being advised on the correct choice of footwear I often have some poor individual slipping, sliding and nervously try to keep up with the rest of the group wearing their comfortable 3 season boots (good for hammering the point home!)
  • Cramponing techniques. We cover basic techniques for moving on terrain of different angles, fitting crampons, care and maintenance. Front pointing, the french technique, and the combination of both techniques. Good crampon technique and footwork is an essential part of competent winter hill walking. You will be taught the correct choice of crampon for the activity and boot, when its sensible to fit crampons and when not. How to adjust crampons, there maintenance and the best methods and positions for fitting crampons in different locations and snow conditions. Crampons are essential for British winter conditions. Even on days when snow cover looks to be thin, extensive areas of ice and hard snow may be found at higher levels which cannot be walked upon safely without crampons. video clip here.
  • The Use of Ski Poles. We look at the pros and cons of using these hi tech zimmers/walking sticks! The ideal lengths and how to avoid cold hands and injuries. And in particular when not to use them on steep icy slopes and when navigating.
  • Using ski poles for self arrest.

Navigation Techniques for Bad Weather

map and compass skills are essential...
...navigation in sunout on the plateau!

Basic navigation techniques help avoid problems in the first place.

Use of the map, compass & GPS covering the full range of navigational techniques for bad weather and white-out. We will ensure that basic techniques such as pacing, timing, following bearings, aiming off in bad visibility/night navigation etc. are covered as well as more advanced micro navigation techniques such as boxing, spiral and sweep searches.

you need to be able to navigate in whiteout conditions...
...navigation in whiteout on the plateau!

We will look at the most efficient ways to organize yourself and kit in strong winds, damp and sub zero temperatures to avoid maps, gloves etc. disappearing with regular monotony. See the video clip for typical conditions on the Cairngorm plateau here

Click for Cairngorm, United Kingdom Forecast

Snow Structure and Avalanche Assessment

Avalanches are fairly common in the Scottish mountains and contrary to public opinion are generally more prevalent on the less steep terrain that a walker could find themselves on. We look at the various elements which influence the stability of the snow. You will be shown how to use snow pits to examine the snow profile, perform basic shear tests, walking rutschblock tests and how to assess the danger of the given slope and similar slopes of the same aspect. We will also show you what to do if you are caught in an avalanche.

More detailed information can be found on the 'Avalanche' leaflet

Navigation, Avalanche Assessment and Route Finding

In winter, streams, lochs and paths may be covered by deep snow drifts and completely buried. Detailed route finding becomes very important for conserving energy, especially in deeper snow. Skilful route finding enables you to use the minimum of energy, maximizes your potential for the day and avoid dangerous avalanche prone areas or long detours because a river is in spate.

Sample Winter Skills & Introductory Winter Mountaineering Programme

The following schedule is for guidance only and will be amended to make the best use of snow and weather conditions. Each course is individually tailored to the needs and aspirations of the participants.

Experience & Fitness required: Regular summer hill walkers with a good level of fitness and stamina.

  • Day 1 (Five day & Weekend courses): Briefing on course, weather, avalanche reports. Checking and issuing of safety equipment and the fitting of crampons to boots before setting off to the Cairngorm ski area for instruction on ice axe skills such as emergency braking , step cutting, kicking steps, use of crampons and basic navigation techniques. (old waterproofs useful during self arrest practise!)
  • Day 2: (Five day & Weekend courses): Briefing on avalanche awareness and weather before setting of to the Northern Corries, Cairngorm to consolidate and put into practise the previous days skills. The main emphasis of day two will be on micro navigation techniques, avalanche assessment, emergency survival procedures, the construction of snow shelters such as igloos, graves and snow holes and emergency rope work.
  • Day 3: Consolidation of previous days skills with emphasis on advanced micro navigation techniques such as pacing, boxing, doglegs and searching techniques in the heart of the Cairngorm plateaux collecting a few Munros on the way.
  • Day 4: Optional Snowhole Expedition Preparing supplies (Whisky?) and equipment in the morning. Afternoon, setting off with heavy sacks to navigate to a suitable snow hole site. Construction of large group shelter. Relaxing for the night in the warmth and comfort of your own snow shelter after an hour or two of night navigation!
  • Day 5: Optional Snowhole Expedition  Participants recover and dig themselves out from their snow holes! Navigate home collecting a few peaks on the way. Evening farewell celebration.
Interested, but would like to see who attends our winter courses and what our winter skills courses are all about? Well why not view the Talisman Blog, our Facebook page and our photo albums to get and idea. Many of the photos and our popular YouTube videos were taken during our courses. You can see what the press and magazines say here!

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Updated  03/10/2016

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