I have spent many years running some of the finest ridgelines in Lochaber, during the winter months - although running might not be an accurate term for what i've been doing! Mountain running in Scottish Winter treads a fine line between fell running and winter mountaineering, depending on the conditions. It also represents a fine-line in terms of risk; running exposed, technical ridgelines with minimal equipment, clothing and sometimes company.
After recently giving a talk about some of my favourite local ridges and the contrast that can be experienced on these lines in the winter months, I decided to put pen to paper! I've been asked many times to describe the equipment and clothing I use, so I hope to address that here too.
Breaking trail. The view over Lochaber from the ridgeline of Beinn a'Bheithir last month
What is winter?
This might seem an obvious question but there's more to it than meets the eye. In the 'fellrunning calendar' winter is regarded as anything between Dec 1st and Mar1st. However, in that window, any number of different conditions can be experienced (from springlike temperatures with no snow at all, to piles of the white-stuff and sub-zero temps in the double figures). It goes without saying that this cannot be standardised, and so ease-of-travel (and thus effort/pace) is highly variable! The only constant is the hours of daylight. In Scotland, mid-winter means 17h of darkness, with slightly less in December and February.
Anyone who has been in the Scottish Highlands knows that winter simply does not end in February, with March often being the best month of the year for skiiing and other snowsports. However, there is generally less in the way of storm-cycles and there is obviously more daylight.
Whatever the month, 'winter conditions' in Scotland, are traditionally regarded as those that involve the neccessary use of axe/crampons - i.e. when the mountains are predominantly 'white'. Obviously this a relative concept and with Fastest Known Times (FKTs) tumbling on a daily basis, there will inevitably be a trend towards thinner or faster underfoot conditions.
Three different days running in the Mamores. Which are winter? (LHS is November 2019, the middle is 'Mid-Winter' 2021 and RHS is Dec 2021)
How does it feel?
Whenever temperatures are low, basic tasks such as sourcing water, changing clothes or simply eating become extremely difficult. In sub-zero temperatures high-level water sources freeze and so it's neccessary to carry much more water, meet supporters enroute or drop lower to refill. To add insult to injury, the water you carry will also freeze, This is less likley if it's kept inside a pack, than if you carry softflasks on the outside of a vest/bag. Help prevent freezing by adding electrolytes to your water and/or using an insulating flask/bladder. The tubes or valves of softflasks are most prone to freezing but if you use a wide-mouth flask then it is easy to clear out the ice and refill, or use it like a soft-cup (ignoring the choked valve). In dire circumstances, I run with my softflasks down my front (i.e. inside my shell). They jiggle about but don't freeze!
On a recent solo Lochaber Traverse, I tried to loosen the ice that was choking a soft-flask valve, and bit straight through it - so be careful and look after your kit up there!
Lochaber Traverse solo 2022; fast underfoot but strong winds and -15C wind chill
Freezing temperatures also mean frozen food. Avoid foods with a high water content and choose things with high sugar (dried friut, sweets, gels) or fat (cheese, sausage) and chop carbs into bitesize mouthfuls, as biting/tearing off chunks can be hard going!
Beware the effect of ambient cold temperatures on your electronic items including phones, GPS devices, watches and headtorches - batterylife can be significantly shortened.
'Wind chill' is the effect that wind has on how cold the air feels against your skin (in high winds, air of a particular temperature has a greater cooling effect). For example, if the temperature is -2C, then in strong winds it might have a cooling effect equal to (still) -10C air. It's important to take this measurement seriously because that's how you're going to feel up there, every time you look into the wind or take your gloves off - which can sometimes get debilitating pretty quickly. I would recommend multiple pairs of gloves/mitts - they get wet quickly and are so easy to lose! Running in winter without gloves on is simply not an option. I use insulated mountaineering gloves for anything technical, so that I have the dexterity to use my hands properly.
On all but the driest of days, the wind will be carrying ice fragments, transported snow and supercooled droplets, which build as rime ice into the direction of the wind. In burly conditions, this ice will form on your eyebrows, lashes and clothing as you run. Use a jacket with an adjustable hood and robust peak, plus some kind of balaclava or buff to protect the facial skin. Women have more delicate skin than men, so I would recommend a barrier cream of some kind to reduce damage (I use this on eyelids and around nose/chin).
Lochaber Traverse, supported 2021. Spectacular weather and lots of snow!
When trying to assess the snow/ice conditions on the hill, it's prudent to assume you're going to encounter the worst - even in decent weather. Even when the hill looks pretty springlike and there are only patches of snow, these can turn out to be bullet-hard and impassible (even as late a May). If you carry a lightweight axe and crampons (and know how to use them), then you know you'll be able to make progress. The axe is used to arrest a slide and to climb easy technical ground, as well as provide basic stability when required. It can also be used to cut steps in hard/steep snow - ideally in conjunction with crampons. I carry a Petzl Ride and Kahtoolah microspikes (for use in low/thin conditions) and Kahtoolah flexible 10-point crampons for deeper/more consolidated snow. There are lots of different makes and models available. That said, there are still some conditions where even these basic pieces of equipment are inadequate.
Primaloft insulated boots, Dexshell waterproof socks, axe, poles and microspikes
I always wear warm waterproof socks (my favourite being Hytherm from Dexshell) and often an insulated running boot (currently inov-8 Roclite G335), though I find my trusty Mudclaws to be very effective in early season powder! Running in normal socks or layering a few pairs might work okay in very dry conditions but in wet snow or wind, feet get extremely cold in fell shoes and there is a risk of permanent damage if this is prolonged. It's worth considering a pair of running gaiters to prevent the snow from getting into your shoe/boot cuff, where it compacts into a lip of snow-ice that jabs your ankle painfully! Some alpine-style running boots include an integrated gaiter for this reason (though I find these heavy and expensive, with shallow lugs).
I use a Vertix 2 watch from Coros which has an outrageously long battery life (even in temperatures as low as -10C). I have taken to wearing it over my jacket, so that I can refer to it easily without exposing my arm. The mapping and big screen assist in navigation and route choice, though I always carry a HARVEY map and SILVA Exped 4 compass too. This is because navigating in the snow (especially in disorientating 'white-out' conditions) is a challenging and serious business. Accurate navigation is neccessary to avoid gullies, cornices and unstable aspects.
I carry a lightweight pair of goggles (essential for windy/snowy days if you want to use your eyes for anything!) and a Swift RL with spare battery (plus an emergency e-lite) for the night. The Swift RL is really bright (900 Lumens) and has good burn time, using reactive technology to reduce brightness when it's not needed (e.g. in early morning light or when looking at a map etc). It still feels a bit bouncy/bulky though and the new NAO® RL is likely the better option.
I always take poles for running in winter (the lightest ones I can get!) I use Mountain King Trailblaze or Skyrunners because they are extremely light, have a simple design and pack to a short length. The fewer catches, toggles or adjustments that your kit has, the better it will perform in winter, as all these things get iced-up and can stop working. I use a small snow-basket on my poles (to stop them sinking into snow) and use just the one if I have my axe out. Poles really aid stability and progress in snow and can help you locate or hop-over buried burns, holes and bogs. They can be useful for testing snowbridges and patches, and aid in river crossings. Most importantly they are life-savers if you injure yourself or turn an ankle. If you're running solo, you can hobble a lot further and faster with poles!
One pole and an axe at sunset on the Devil's Ridge; Tour of the Mamores, supported Jan 2021
What clothes you choose to wear running is a really personal choice. I tend to wear powerstretch leggings under some kind of over-trousers (I like the inov-8 trail pants for their comfy feel, fit and stretch). I usually have to wear so many layers that i'm always going to get sweaty (making breathability a bit of an irrelevance)! I always carry a synthetic jacket (mine is inov-8 Thermoshell Pro) and will even run in this if it's cold enough. I use a robust waterproof (mine is the inov-8 Venturelite Jacket), which stands-up well to the gnarly Scottish weather. Most 'running jackets' don't cope well with heavy rain or full winter conditions.
inov-8 Venturelite Jacket and 25L pack
Much of the terrain in the Glencoe/Lochaber area is steep and rocky, and there are lots of great scrambles that make fabulous 'skyrunning' routes in the summer months. In the winter, this steep ground can rapidly become committing and serious. Always keep an eye on the potential consequences of a slip and reserve a healthy dose of respect for anything technical (even if you've done it before in summer, as it will look and feel completely different in winter!) Anything that's hands-on or earns itself a summer scrambling grade (even grade 1) will be a graded 'winter mountaineering' route.
Graded scrambling (here grade 2) becomes a winter mountaineering objective, with all that entails. Aonach Eagach 2022
The changeable weather and unique climatic conditions present in Scotland often results in a variable snowpack that can be unstable. Most avalanches that involve casualites are initiated by those people in some way. The best way to avoid avalanche-prone slopes is to use the Be Avalanche Aware process and refer to the SAIS Avalanche Forecasts before you head out. Don't just follow your bucket-list route but let the forecast and observed conditions dictate - be ready to change your plan to something safer! Take note of the weather and conditions in the lead-up to your run, as this will help you understand the snowpack. In general terms, stick to ridgelines where you can, avoid unstable aspects and be wary of 30-45 degree slopes. Ideally go on an Avalanche Awareness course!
Extremely slow progress! Snow arete with areas of windslab 2023
Don't be fooled by thinking that there isn't 'much snow' or enough to cause a serious avalanche. It doesn't take much to knock you off your feet, and in Lochaber, the risk of getting buried by snow is far less than the risk of getting swept over steep rocky/craggy ground.
Microspikes are great bits of kit for low-level snowy or icy trail running but they do have their limitations in the mountains. They will sheer-off and provide little grip on steep hard snow/neve or where there is a layer of softer snow on top of a more solid base (due to poor penetration). Even basic walking crampons with long points will have limitations if the terrain is too steep or technical. A rigid boot and mountaineering crampons (with aggressive forward-protruding front-points) are neccessary for ascending or decsending this kind of ground. As runners with basic kit, it's important that we know when to turn around!
Winter Skills Courses
Girls on Hills run women-only traditional Winter Skills courses (for walkers/mountaineers) as well as low-level Winter Trail Running courses aimed at runners. The latter demo microspikes and teach the limitations of basic winter mountaineering equipment. A traditional winter skills course is the ideal starting place for runners looking to run in the high mountains, as it's impossible to understand the limitations of microspikes and flexible fell shoes without an appreciation of what mountaineering boots and crampons can make possible. Check-out our Winter Courses to find our more or see our in-depth article on UKHillwalking Walk Before You Run.