Winter Skills Mountaineering Course Notes - Sierra Nevada, Spain

So youve 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

Mountain Skills Training Handbook : Hill and Johnstone. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills : The mountaineers 1992 Safety on Mountains BMC booklet A Chance in a Million : Barton and Wright 1985 - Scottish Mountaineering Trust

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.
  • Prepare written checklist of essential equipment prior to leaving home and ensure everything is packed
  • Organised packing system for your rucksack and pockets so you know where things are
Essential winter equipment :-
  • Map (small and compact with waterproof cover)
  • Compass (essential for escape in poor visibility)
  • Watch Whistle (though I've never used one!!!!!!)
  • Torch
  • Day rations
  • Winter boots
  • Warm wicking trousers
  • Waterproof over trousers
  • Wicking base layer top
  • Insulating mid-layer top
  • Waterproof, breathable outer jacket
  • Warm hat
  • Warm under gloves
  • Gaiters - although we don't use in the Sierra Nevada
  • Waterproof over gloves
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • First aid kit
  • Survival bag
  • Goggles/sunglasses
  • Emergency food
  • Rucksack (of sufficient size so items are not hanging from outside)
  • Other items to consider depending on snow/weather conditions: GPS/Avalanche transceivers/Snowshoes/Skis


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 :-
  • Body heat is conducted outwards through layers of clothing to the surface; the speed at which this happens is a critical point for survival in the mountains
  • Water conducts heat 25 times more effectively than air. It also can hold over 3000 times more heat than air. Wet clothing can therefore turn a human into an amazingly effective refrigerator
  • Cotton and silk can retain many times their own volume in water and take ages to dry and are therefore a BAD choice of fabric for winter
  • Nylon pile and modern spun synthetics retain their structure when wet and dry quickly. Therefore a GOOD choice
  • Polypropylene underwear acts like a wick to water and transfers moisture from the skin to outside layers. This maintains a dry layer next to the skin. GOOD choice
  • The harder you work, the less insulation you need to keep warm so the ability to adjust the insulative properties of your mid-layers is important. This is best achieved by multi-layers of clothing, which can be removed or replaced as required
  • Up to 1/3 of your entire body heat can be lost through your head


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 :-
  • A comfortable fit (i.e. not too tight) is essential to avoid cold penetrating into the foot
  • Loose boot make the use of crampons very tiring and the increased friction can cause blisters. Some movement of the heel is normal and to be expected though (approx 1mm is OK)
  • Design of your boots must be compatible with your crampons. (Take your boots with you when you purchase your crampons)
  • Leather boots must be of high quality and made from unsplit leather to provide water resistance, insulation, stiffness and general durability
  • The sole must be stiff in order to kick steps in hard snow and ice without injuring your toes. Also stiff boots provide a more stable base for crampons
  • Consider the purchase of plastic boots for high altitude mountaineering because the insulating properties of the separate inner-boot are far superior to those achievable by an insulated leather boot

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 -
  • If you accidentally drop your axe, it remains attached to your hand
  • It can relieve strain on your arm when pulling up on an axe
  • Axe can be suspended from wrist, thereby freeing your hand
Disadvantages of wrist loop -
  • it can cause problems when getting into the self-arrest position
  • your axe will bounce around probably stabbing you several times in a tumble fall (wear your helmet!)
  • it is necessary to change the wrist loop from hand to hand, often over bulky gloves, every time you change direction (in order to keep the axe in the uphill hand)
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.


  • Be prepared and ready at all times when moving on ANY snow slope
  • Plunge the axe, spike first, vertically into the snow as far as it will go while the other hand grabs the shaft at the snows surface and takes most of the weight
  • Kick your feet into the snow to give additional braking and to help regain balance
  • Remember The longer it takes to stop, the LESS likely it will be that you slide will be halted by ice-axe arrest techniques

Ice axe braking (Self-arrest) Basic Position :

  • One hand on head of axe, the other hand on the spike
  • Spike covered with your hand to protect your body and to stop it catching on the snow or rocks
  • Axe held diagonally across your upper body with the adze tucked into the hollow below your collar bone- covered spike by your opposite side
  • To brake, apply shoulder and arched upper body weight onto the axe head to drive the pick into the snow/ice
  • Knees apart
  • Legs bent to prevent the front points of your crampons catching the ground and causing you to somersault
  • Turn your face away from the pick to avoid ice splinters in your eyes



  • The type of boot must match the type of crampon
  • The buckle should be to the outside of the foot
  • Strap-on crampons - Heel in first, toe in second
  • Step- in crampons - Toe in first, heel in second
  • Tight fitting - As a test, crampon should stay on your foot with the strap undone
  • No gap between boot sole and crampon
  • Practice putting them on wearing gloves and also in the dark

Use of crampons

  • Put them on while still on 'safe' ground
  • Remember STANCE - feet hip width apart, imagine a 6 inch 'no go' area around each foot
  • Flex ankles so ALL downward points bite
  • DON'T stamp or drag your feet - develop a technique of placing them firmly and confidently with each step
  • Ensure clothing is tidy around ankles NO baggy trousers!
  • Check each other's crampons throughout the day

'French' technique.

  • Feet FLAT on level or gentle slopes
  • As slope gets steeper- turn toe to point across the slope eventually pointing toe slightly downhill on steeper slopes.
  • Zigzag on steep slopes
  • TO TURN - Plant axe in snow Place BOTH hands on head of axe. Turn whilst facing UP the slope
  • Face down slope
  • Bend knees and position weight over or slightly behind heels (the weight of your pack will have some bearing on this position)
  • Place feet positively
  • Use ALL downward facing points

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
  • Face into slope
  • Feet horizontal so front FOUR points go into snow/ice. It may be necessary to lower your heel on almost vertical slopes in order to achieve this
  • Feet hip width apart
  • Flex at the knees

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
  • Location should have the same aspect as the suspect slope but be free from danger
  • Initial test by ramming axe through the snow pack you may find resistance at a hard layer
  • Dig a pit down to the ground or to the base layer of old snow
  • Smooth the back wall with a glove to make it easy to examine
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 safe

Also, 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

  • Avalanche activity
  • Fresh avalanche debris
  • Snow cracking or easily breaking away in blocks underfoot
  • Signs of snow-pack instability at test sites

Warning signs - terrain

  • Slopes between 30 to 40 degrees (most prone)
  • Lee slopes and wind-sheltered gulleys
  • Cornice build-up
  • Previous avalanche paths and debris
  • Natural terrain traps

Warning signs - weather

  • Heavy snowfall
  • Wind loading on lee slopes
  • Sudden rise in temperature
  • Rain and warm winds soon after snowfall
  • Prolonged periods of VERY warm or VERY cold weather
  • Solar warming
DON'T FORGET the 'human' factor. Inexperienced climbers/skiers above you can unwittingly trigger an avalanche.

Survival Tips If YOU get caught

  • Shout to let someone know
  • Try to escape to the side
  • Discard kit such as ice axe, ski-poles etc (these may remain on surface and give a clue as to your position for searchers)
  • Attempt to stay on the surface by rolling or using a 'swimming' action.
  • As avalanche slows, thrust your hands, feet, body to surface fighting with all your effort
  • As you stop, quickly try to create a breathing space around your face
  • Once movement has stopped DON'T PANIC conserve energy and air

If someone else is caught

  • Keep them in sight and note their last position
  • Check for further avalanche
  • Shout to anyone nearby for help - use your mobile if you have one
  • If in a group, consider appointing a lookout for further danger and plan YOUR escape route should there be another avalanche
  • Mark where victim last seen
  • Conduct transceiver search if you are using them
  • Search for surface clues
  • Systematic probe line search
  • You are the victim's only real chance of survival - KEEP SEARCHING

Snow Belays - Use and suitability

Belaying on snow

  • Snow is soft and therefore does not have the certainty of rock
  • Rock anchors and belays should always be used if available in preference to snow belays
  • It is highly unpredictable
  • Need to adopt system of belaying to avoid 'shock-loading' the anchor

Indirect belay

  • Ideal for snow because the belayer can provide a dynamic arrest by controlling the braking force applied to the rope
  • Reduces impact on the belayer and the belay
  • Stance must be stable and cut well down the slope and directly below the belay a pull in the wrong direction on snow can render the belay useless
  • Consider a sitting position with slots cut for legs

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
  • Cut a slot with the adze across the slope and to a depth of 20-30cm (this will depend on snow conditions- the softer the snow, the deeper the slot)
  • Cut a vertical slot to form a 'T' shape extending down slope about 2m, the upper end of the vertical should be the same depth as the horizontal slot, it then tapers out towards the surface
  • Attach a sling using a clove-hitch to the shaft of an axe at the balancing point
  • Place the axe pick down in the horizontal slot ensuring it is hard up against the front wall of the slot and position the sling in the vertical slot
  • Pack snow on top of the axe taking care not to disturb the structure of the snow in front of the axe
  • Attach karabiner and belay rope in the normal manner
  • Must be a 'downward' pull otherwise the axe can pop out

Reinforced axe

  • The horizontal axe is reinforced by driving a second axe vertically into the snow directly in front of the buried axe and through the clove-hitch
  • Reduces possible movement of the horizontal axe
  • Ideal when there is a layer of harder snow immediately above or below the horizontal axe

'T' Axe

  • Differs from the reinforced axe because the sling is attached to the vertical axe
  • Vertical axe is placed BEHIND the horizontal axe
  • Ensure the clove-hitch is pushed as far down the shaft as it will go
  • Ideal where there is a firm layer of snow near the surface for the horizontal axe to but up against

Standing axe (stomper) belay

  • NOT suitable as a main belay
  • Used when speed is important in ascent or descent such as checking out a gulley or safeguarding a second over an awkward icy step
  • Dig out a flat stance in the snow large enough for both feet
  • Clip a screwgate karabiner to the eye in the axe head
  • Pass the rope through this to the belayer who takes up a standing position facing outwards with one instep over the adze and the other over the pick
  • Rope is passed across the shoulder on the 'dead' side
  • In the event of a fall, part of the load is taken by the axe and part is transmitted to the belayer causing downward pressure on the axe-head, which, in turn, increases its stability

Boot-axe belay

Very much like stomper as a way of safeguarding descent, it is an excellent method of lowering
  • Ideal in high winds as the body position of the belayer is closer to the ground and more balanced
  • Axe is placed vertically into the snow next to your right boot running in a line with your shin with pick facing backwards
  • Leave about a boot height of axe out of the snow
  • Rope is run from behind the belayer, between the legs, around the head of the axe from back to front and down to the climber
  • Belayer leans on the axe with his right hand, gripping rope from between his legs with his left hand
  • When load is applied the axe is pulled against the boot
  • Friction can be varied by movement of the left hand

Dead Man anchor

  • Works in ALL kinds of snow, particularly in poorly consolidated snow where other methods offer little or no security
  • Can be used as a main belay
  • Correct placement is crucial and it must be tested before use
  • Placed in snow at 40 degree angle to the slope
  • Care must be taken to ensure there is a downward pull on this anchor
  • Stance must be at least 3m from this anchor to ensure that the internal angle between the plate and the wire does not exceed 50 degrees

Snow bollard

  • An option for belaying in VERY soft snow as long as bollard is reinforced
  • Size of bollard depends on softness of snow i.e. softer the snow, larger the bollard will have to be? recommend 1m in diameter in hard snow to 3m in soft snow
  • Should be horseshoe rather than round
  • Channel should be about 30cm deepPad the back of the bollard with kit to prevent the rope cutting in
  • Sitting stance below the bollard is ideal with rope belayed round waist