Winter Skills Mountaineering Course Notes

Summary of instruction from our winter skills mountain courses

So you've had your Winter Mountaineering Course here in the Sierra Nevada with us. Want to refresh a few things?

IMPORTANT! These notes are designed to be a quick reference guide to supplement and refresh the information covered on your course with Spanish Highs. If you require more detailed knowledge and information please refer to the recommended reading list at the end of these notes

Suggested Reading

Our own coaching syllabus is based on the Mountain Skills Training Handbook

Kitting Out For Winter

In the harsh and severe conditions that generally prevail in winter there is little margin for error. These conditions will make even the simplest and smallest tasks very difficult. These notes are designed with this in mind, so having your equipment organised can make life much easier. Most of this preparation can be done BEFORE you start your hill walk.

Essential winter equipment


This is very much down to personal preference and how much you are prepared to spend but there are some points to bear in mind :-


Do not rush into the purchase of winter boots because not only your comfort, but also your safety will depend on them. Seek out an experienced store assistant who can ensure that the boots you purchase are adequate for the use you intend. Here are some points to bear in mind :-

The Ice Axe

This is the basic tool of a winter mountaineer. The length of the shaft is determined by the use to which it will be put. A general mountaineering axe will be between 55cm to 65cm long. A good guide is to hold the ice axe loosely by your side at arms length. The axe spike should be approx level with your ankle.

Ice axe wrist loop

The axe may be fitted with a sliding wrist loop or a loop made from a long tape threaded through the hole in the head - adjusted so it is taut when the axe is held just above the spike.

Advantages of wrist loop -

Disadvantages of wrist loop -

N.B. A cunning plan to prevent the last problem is to attach your axe to yourself with a one metre cord or tape to your harness karabiner.

Carrying the Axe

Carry the axe in the UPHILL hand.

The generally preferred method (and the one which is generally taught) is to carry the axe with the adze facing forwards. This is the natural position from which to move to the self-arrest position

BUT One school of thought states that it is more comfortable during prolonged use to rest the heel of your hand on the adze while holding the pick forwards. The IMPORTANT thing is that your axe is IN YOUR HAND and not in your rucksack from the first moment that you step onto snow (even if it is only a small patch of snow)

BECAUSE YOU DON'T KNOW WHEN YOU ARE GOING TO FALL - an accidental slip is, by its very nature, unexpected.


Ice axe braking (Self-arrest) Basic Position



Use of crampons

'French' technique.



Hybrid/American Technique - Ascend as above but with one foot flat and one toe into the slope.

Front pointing

This is necessary on very steep slopes

Balling - up

This happens in WET snow conditions when snow builds up in your boot treads. It can be avoided by wearing anti-balling plates. In an emergency anything to form a smooth barrier between your sole and the wet snow would do e.g. plastic bag! Snow can be removed by tapping boot regularly with your axe.

Avalanche Awareness

Digging a Snow Pit

Do five point test on the back of wall to examine

Hardness : penetration by objects

  1. gloved fist soft
  2. gloved fingers
  3. single finger
  4. axe pick / spike / compass edge
  5. knife blade hard

Wetness : the ability to make snowballs

  1. snow too dry to make snowball dry
  2. forms dry snowball
  3. snowball from which a few drops of water can be squeezed
  4. much water can be squeezed
  5. slush wet

ABRUPT changes between adjacent layers would suggest an instability in the snow pack and therefore a HIGH risk of avalanche. Gradual changes between the layers are probably safAlso, differences in the size of crystals in adjacent layers, as well as spaces between layers, icy crusts and layers of loose, unbonded crystals should also be regarded as possible sources of danger.

Warning signs - Snow pack

Warning signs - terrain

Warning signs - weather

DON'T FORGET the 'human' factor. Inexperienced climbers/skiers above you can unwittingly trigger an avalanche.

Survival Tips If YOU get caught

If someone else is caught

Snow Belays - Use and suitability

Belaying on snow

Indirect belay

Ice Axe anchors

These are useful in a wide range of snow conditions. How to use the axe will depend on the various layers within the snow cover and how to take best advantage of them.

Horizontal axe anchor

The benefits of this are that it is quick and effective and no additional equipment needs to be carried

Reinforced axe

'T' Axe

Standing axe (stomper) belay

Boot-axe belay

Very much like stomper as a way of safeguarding descent, it is an excellent method of lowering

Dead Man anchor

Snow bollard