As I write this in late November it would seem that winter has finally arrived. The fire is on and we’ve had two days of rain which I hope will be falling as snow on the high mountains. All bodes well for some good winter walking at last. So far this season I’ve already experienced a white out and hail storm on a Mulhacen ascent in early November followed by a superb ascent with crisp white snow under a blue sky later that month. The first ascent was miserable, the second one of those days when it was a dream to be in the mountains.
For me walking in the under a clear blue sky in snow covered mountains is perhaps the best way to experience the high peaks. Many summer walkers are very wary of setting out in winter and whilst clearly it is more difficult and possibly more dangerous a few basic skills and some common sense means that it can be open to all with reasonable experience and fitness.
There is a saying amongst UK walkers that there is no such thing as bad weather only bad gear. To a certain extent that’s true and certainly you need better and more gear for winter than summer walking. Good boots and waterproofs are essential as are enough layers of clothing to keep you warm. One of the main issues in the Sierra Nevada is high wind speed which due to wind chill can dramatically drop the temperatures particularly on exposed ridges and mountain sides. Whilst not as dramatic as in the UK winter days are shorter than in summer so carrying a head torch in your rucksack (along with spare batteries) is useful as are spare gloves and hats
Snow and weather conditions vary a great deal from day to day so keeping an eye on the forecast is essential. Whilst on the mountain conditions change quickly, snow moved by strong winds can create areas of ’’wind slab’’ on lee slopes which are often prone to avalanche. Good route planning and navigation skills are more important than at other times of the year. A safe winter route may not be the same as one done in clear summer conditions when following a GPS.
For those who want to gain more winter mountaineering experience and learn skills such as safe use of ice axes, creating snow shelters and avalanche awareness in early February together with colleagues at Sierra Nevada Guides I am running a Winter Mountaineering Skills Course. Contact me for more details or see the link from my website.