Winter Mountaineering / Hill Walking in Scotland

The MCofS would suggest that the ascent of any of the mountains of Scotland in winter conditions of snow and ice (winter walking) should be regarded as ‘mountaineering’, as safe ascent and descent would be dependent on the use of technical equipment such as ice axes, crampons and even skis and associated mountaineering skills.

Despite the lowly height of Scotland’s hills, in winter they transform into a very different environment. The weather can be almost arctic in its ferocity and often worse than that encountered in The Alps for instance. Current weather patterns are unpredictable and change rapidly from warm and wet to cold storm force blizzards and white-out conditions.

There is also a distinct lack of way-marked paths in the higher mountain areas making easy access impossible – the wild land areas, although shrinking, are still significantly large enough to mean some distance must be travelled across rough terrain in order to climb many cliffs, ridges and mountain tops.

This lack of paths and tracks means mountaineers need to be skilled in navigation and be self sufficient.


MCofS Visitors Guide to Winter Climbing
This guide will give you an idea of the range of venues, styles of climbing and a brief tour of Scotland’s classic mountaineering excursions.


Where can I Start Mountaineering?
The MCofS recommends anyone new to the outdoors to take a progressive approach to gaining experience and skills:

  1. Start by hill walking in summer. Tackle the hills that don’t require climbing or scrambling and build up experience of the terrain and the conditions you will encounter (See the Hill Walking pages).
  2. Scrambling in summer may seem like the next step, but as scrambling usually does not involve technical climbing equipment it is potentially more hazardous than rock climbing, especially if you have never had any climbing experience (see Scrambling Fact File). So gain some climbing skills first, either at a Climbing Wall or with a Club. Start by attempting the easier less exposed scrambles before attempting some of the more advanced excursions.
  3. Walking in winter would be the next step, bringing with it a whole new set of skills and hazards that entail true Winter Mountaineering skills. The use of technical climbing equipment become important. More substantial clothing is required; days can be more arduous than in summer; shorter days often require walking at night and a need to be more skilled at navigation using a compass; and you will need more technical gear such as ice axe and crampons and know how to use them efficiently. This activity also involves graduating into more serious terrain in winter (for example tackling summer scrambling routes, ridges and easy gullies).
  4. Ski-Touring or Ski Mountaineering is popular in Scotland and combines the skills of skiing with those of mountaineering – safe passage in mountainous terrain. You can advance to extreme mountaineering and winter climbing without the need to learn to ski-tour, but this skill can be very useful in times of deep snow and in Alpine regions to allow faster (and therefore possibly safer) travel into and out of remote areas.
  5. Winter climbing would be the logical next step and although there are winter climbers who do very little summer rock climbing, it would be recommended to gain rock climbing skills as it will help your confidence and increase your knowledge of rope skills.
  6. Gaining climbing and winter mountaineering experience in Scotland will put you in good stead for Alpine climbing. The added hazard you will encounter will involve glacier travel and safety.
  7. All these learnt skills can then be applied to even bigger mountains in remoter regions: termed Himalayan climbing or Big Wall climbing (e.g. Himalaya, Alaska, Peru, Patagonia), where glaciers are bigger, the weather is worse, the altitude causes specific extra complications, and the scale of the mountains and the cliffs requires multi-day climbs, and the chances of rescue from outside your own team can be non existent.

Children and Mountaineering
It is a general rule that children do not have the necessary physical endurance appropriate for tackling winter mountaineering until they reach the age of about 16, especially in Scotland where a typical winter day can be long and arduous and the weather poor. Therefore few centres or instructors will take younger children out into the bigger mountain areas in winter. Children who rock climb well, indoors or outdoors, can often find ice climbing quite easy, whilst struggle to cope with the full days walk as well. There are, on the rare cold spells in Scotland, ice climbs close to the road, and these may be suitable venues for younger climbers wishing to try winter climbing.

An alternative may be to introduce them to the sport at Scotland’s premier Indoor Ice Climbing Wall at The Ice Factor in Kinlochleven, near Fort William.

Mountaineering Safety
The MCofS has produced a range of information items to help you manage the risks whilst mountaineering. We also run courses in summer walking, winter skills and rock climbing, sessions in avalanche awareness, navigation and first aid.

See the Mountain Safety pages for full details and advice

Alternatively you can join a mountaineering club (make sure they accept novices) or…

Go on a course at an Outdoor Centre:
The National Centres in Scotland run courses in mountaineering -

The National Outdoor Adventure Centre at Glenmore Lodge

Edinburgh International Climbing Arena (EICA, Ratho) or…

The Ice Factor climbing wall run outdoor mountaineering courses or...

Engage the services of a Guide or Mountain Instructor to teach you.