It's that time of the year again when the white stuff is covering the hills. This year it's come early and without a warning, one day still running in shorts, next day rummaging for the winter gear (and, typically, by the time I have finished writing this, much of the snow is gone again). Winter hill running is bit of an acquired taste, but taking on the extra challenges is, often, worth it.
The key to having an enjoyable time in the Scottish hills throughout the winter can, I think, be summed up in one word: respect. The winter hills are a serious place. Whereas getting benighted in split shorts and a string vest during the summer will earn one a (perhaps very) uncomfortable night and a bruised ego, the same scenario during the winter would quite likely end up with one's mates taking the piss over sausage rolls after the funeral (editor's note: mate quality varies). As hill runners, we tend to operate with smaller margins of comfort and safety, and in winter time it is critical to maintain those margins when things don't go to plan (which, among other things, means running the winter hills is not a sensible way to be learning the rudiments of mountain craft, one should serve that apprenticeship in some other way first).
However, with that 'participation statement' out of the way, the winter does bring exciting running opportunities for those minded to take on the challenges, and one need not to be called Kilijan or Finlay to venture into the snow. So here are some of my thoughts on the matter, things I have learnt, at times through bad mistakes; it's stuff that works for me running, it might not work for you, but perhaps it might help someone avoiding some of my mistakes.
In the winter months careful planning is doubly important for two reasons: the limited daylight hours mean longer runs are always a tight squeeze, and, the rate of progress along snow covered ground is impossible to predict -- a firm neve is grin-inducing, foot deep powder will make you work hard for a good pace, and a breakable crust on the top of a foot of soft snow will turn the air blue, and reduce one's pace to a crawl; I have been venturing into mountains for some four decades, but I still know of no way to reliably predict which you will find up there from down below. As such, it is important to have realistic expectations. My rule of the thumb is to expect to need around 30% extra time compared to the summer, and to plan for 50% more. Your adjustments might be quite different, but it pays to be conservative, and, always, to plan for the dark.
On the longer runs, it is also important to have a bailout plan. What do I do if the ground conditions make it impossible to complete the run? (In the winter, this a perfectly normal scenario.) Is there a point of no return? What are the early exit lines beyond this? Looking for alternative options when the sh!t is about to hit the fan is a recipe for turning minor difficulties into an emergency, and (this should not need saying, but does) expecting to be lifted out by an MRT simply because 'too much snow' / 'getting tired' / etc., is not a responsible plan. Sometimes there is no convenient bailout possible, that too is worth knowing in advance.
It is also important to understand how winter conditions impact on the technical difficulty of terrain -- the basic rule of thumb is that even the easiest of scrambles turn into full blown technical climbs that cannot be safely tackled with the sort of an equipment we as runners might carry. Corries get corniced, and pose avalanche risk. Consequently, some excellent summer routes might require variations in the winter, some are simply not suitable -- it is important to assess this beforehand to avoid getting caught out, and, yes, to have a bailout plan.
Finally, one should pay attention to the weather forecast, and in particular wind speed and direction at the target altitude (the MeteoEarth app is a great resource for this). Even moderately strong headwind has a big impact on a runner's rate of progress; in the summer, one might wave that off as MTFU but for the winter runner wind is a significant risk factor beyond the obvious windchill.
Anyone venturing into the winter hills should be equipped well enough to last safely for a few stationary hours on the open hill. This is nothing more than the common sense. Say I find myself in a genuine emergency necessitating an MRT call out. And say I am lucky enough to be somewhere with sufficient mobile phone coverage to raise the alarm. It takes time for the call to go out, the team to mobilise, and to get to me. Even if I am literally in the MRT's back yard, I can expect to spend a couple of hours stationary on my own before the help can reach me, and possibly lot more if I am in a remote area, or the weather conditions are poor. While in the summer MTFU can be a perfectly valid backup plan, the winter hills don't stand for such hubris.
As runners, we rely on our high energy expenditure to maintain our body temperature. In order to do that, we have to maintain a good pace, which in turn requires that we travel light. This works great, until it doesn't. While 'safe' is not the same as 'comfortable', it is fair to say, I think, that during the winter running kit falls well below even the most optimistic view of a safety margin. In the summer I generally aim to only carry the stuff I intend to use, in the winter I always carry a few things I hope not to have to use (yes, it's a nuisance, but I just think of it as weight training):
- Some sort of a shelter (for a solo runner a crisp-bag type of a bivvy bag might be a reasonable option, for bigger parties a bothy bag is a much better alternative),
- A properly warm layer well above what I anticipate to need for the run itself (in my case usually North Face Thermaball hooded jacket),
- Very thick woollen socks (wet running shoes and socks facilitate rapid heat loss when not moving; if I had to use that crisp bag, I would want them off my feet),
- Buffalo mitts -- these are the best weight to warmth gloves I know off, good to well below zero and working when wet; everyone should have a pair of these (they are bit slippery and clumsy, which doesn't matter running, and in any case, perfect as a spare).
- Extra emergency food (chocolate is a good carbohydrate / fat mix, with decent calorie density).
It is also worth keeping in mind, particularly when running solo in remote, quiet areas, that mobile phone coverage in the Scottish hills is still very patchy. There are technological answers to this, such as PLBs or satellite messengers, and if you spend lot of time in the hills on your own, this might be worth considering (I wrote a bit about the Delorme InReach SE gadget previously). And, of course, there is the old fashioned letting someone know your route and expected return time, technology is great, but sometimes the old fashioned ways are even better.
One of the big challenges during the winter months is keeping the feet warm. Ironically, the mild Scottish weather tends to work against us, with runs often starting below the freezing line in a bog, then moving well above the freezing line higher up -- wet shoes are the inescapable reality of Scottish hill running, and a real nuisance in subzero temperatures (anyone who has had their running shoes freeze solid on their feet during a brief stop to have a bite to eat, knows exactly what I mean).
These days specialist waterproof winter shoes with integral gaiters exist, but, being aimed at the European market, they seem to be impossible to get hold of in the UK, and, who knows, they might not be that great in our peculiar conditions. The basic approach to this problem that works quite well for me is:
- Thickish woolen socks (I tend to wear two pairs of the inov-8 mudsock),
- Waterproof socks; they are not really waterproof (the elastic membrane in these cannot take the sort of pressures running exerts in the toe box), and not too warm, but they prevent water from circulating freely, effectively creating sort of a wetsuit effect,
- A 1/2 size bigger shoe than I use in the summer to accommodate the socks.
Fell shoes provide surprisingly good traction on snow covered ground, in fact considerably better than any mountaineering boots I have ever owned, but they have their limits: they don't work on iced up ground, and beyond certain, not very steep, gradient. These days there are specialist winter shoes with tiny carbide spikes, but these are tiny indeed and don't work if the ice is dusted with snow -- the gain over a fell shoe is too marginal to make it worth the expense, IMO.
For lot of my winter needs Kahoola Microspikes provide the answer (other traction devices exist, but unless you plan to accessorise with a shopping bag on wheels, my advice would be to go with Kahtoola). The microspikes are easy to put on and take off, they don't impede running, and, in a limited range of conditions, the 9mm spikes provide excellent traction -- they work brilliantly on ice and neve (well worth the looks you get hammering it down an iced up hill) but they have a gradient limit, roughly an angle on which you can consistently maintain the entire forefoot on the slope, reduced further if a hard surface is covered with some fresh snow; how much depends on the type of snow, etc.
However, as much as I love the microspikes, it must be said emphatically, microspikes are not a crampon substitute, and they become positively lethal when the ground steepens enough to automatically switch into 'front pointing' mode. My simple rule is, if the terrain does not call for packing an ice axe, I take the microspikes.
In fact most of the winter Scottish hills do require brining an ice axe (and knowing how to use it), and crampons. Normal crampons are, for good reasons, designed for stiff-soled boots, and can't be used with running shoes. The Kahtoola KTS Crampon can, as its linkage bar is made of a flexible leaf spring. The 23mm spikes are bit shorter than on a typical walking crampon, but more than adequate for the sort of conditions I run in. The front points are quite steep, which makes them less of a trip hazard, and with a bit of practice it is possible to run in these quite well. By the same token, the steep front points make them unsuitable for very steep ground.
The most important thing to be aware of with these is that wearing flexible shoes means steep front pointing is difficult, and very strenuous on the calfs; they are quite capable, but the experience is nothing like a normal crampon, that's for sure.
As for axes, there are many lightweight models on the market. Personally, I have great misgivings about any axe that doesn't have a solid steel head, as experiments have shown that aluminium picks are less effective in emergency self arrest, and I don't trust a bit of steel riveted to an alloy head either. My axe of choice is the BD Raven Ultra, though I have to say, the spike design is poor, making it hard work driving the shaft into snow.