Category Archives: Mountaineering

Toubkal Winter Conditions #4 Jan 2017

23-01-17 Afella and other 4,000m peaks!


Latest Toubkal Winter Conditions Report – January 30, 2016

I got back from a fantastic six-day trip with Alexander from Sweden. We had some fresh snow right before our trip and were greeted with frozen water pipes at the gite in Imlil that we stayed in the night before starting our trip… which made for an adventure from the get go! Our local staff told us that the recent snow had reached all the way down to Tahannaout (small town en route to Imlil) which is around the 1,000m mark. We had a very cold trip but were grateful for the warmth of the wood burning stoves in the common rooms of the Mouflons refuge.


The conditions were pretty challenging over the week with very cold temperatures and big drifts of wind slab. We had to turn back on one occasion due to upside down snow (hard slab overlaying soft snow).


23-01-17 South Col of Toubkal


24-01-17 Alexander working hard at our snowpit heading toward Akioud



Snowpack and Snow Cover

The cover remains fantastic but there continues to be serious avalanche risk especially on leeward and cross loaded slopes.  As mentioned, we found a number of more northerly slopes with upside down snow and also came across big drifts of wind slab. For the most part during our trip we couldn’t go anywhere near north to north-easterly aspects.


There was a serious warming over this last weekend with the freezing level going up to 3,600m. With the drop in temperature over the next couple of days, we should see the snowpack consolidated and become more stable…  there is more snow coming though. Watch the wind and how it deposits the new snow. Be diligent with checking the snowpack and its stability and where the wind is transporting it and also watch for heavy saturated snow later in the week as it is set to warm up again next weekend. Be on the look out for upside down snow as well as slab sitting on top of suncrust or another hard layer. Check to see how these are interacting and watch out for clean easy shears of slab on a weak layer or weak interface. We found in places a collapsing weak layer. Really watch for hollow sounding snowpack!




Climbing Conditions  

The ice around the refuge was good, but the approach slope to Chockstone Gully as well as Curtain Call (the ice smear on the left) were loaded towards the top.  The Afekhoi cascades are fat and ready for climbing as well as the ice heading south towards Tizi Ouagane. The big lines on Afella looked in good condition but the approach slopes were very dodgy last week, so take care when trying to climb bigger lines on Afella, Ras etc! All the major gully lines were very laden with drifts so avoid those for the time being.


27-01-17 Afekhoi cascades


26-01-17 Toubkal West


26-01-17 Afella


26-01-17 Alexander going for it on the ice heading toward Tizi Ouagane


Refuge Access

Porters are essential for getting supplies and extra gear up to the refuge as the track has snow on it. Mules can get as far as Sidi Cham (2,350m), but not all the way to the refuge. Do make sure to pay your porters and muleteers properly and keep to 80kg for a mule load and 20 to 25kg for a porter!


24-01-17 Akioud


Winter Conditions Summary

There is fantastic snow cover in the High Atlas and with the warming over the weekend and now a cold couple of days the snowpack should really start to stabilize. There is more snow predicted mid week as well as a warming over the weekend so do stay diligent assessing the snowpack, watching how the winds deposit the fresh snow. Be on the look out for weak layers and easy sliding on snowpack stability tests that look at shear quality. Also watch for hollow and collapsing under foot snowpack!  The ice climbing is very good, but really watch the approach slopes to get on to the climbs.


23-01-17 Me and Alexander on the cold summit of Toubkal -25 with the wind chill at least!


For a personalised trekking, guiding or instruction service and/or logistics for Toubkal and the High Atlas, get in touch with us here at The Mountain People!


Disclaimer: as a mountaineering instructor I have had avalanche risk assessment training and have a good level of experience but am by no means a professional avalanche forecaster. These reports aim to give you a general idea of the winter conditions for a few days ahead and the risks involved but please be diligent in checking weather forecasts yourself and monitoring the conditions when you are out in the High Atlas.






Categories: Blog, Climbing Information, Conditions, High Atlas, Ice Climbing, James, Mountain Information, Mountaineering, Winter
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Managing yourself on the hill for Scotland winter mountaineering

Managing yourself on the hill for Scotland winter mountaineering - The Mountain People
How well do you manage yourself on the hill – like a wolf?

Managing yourself on the hill for Scotland winter mountaineering



Managing yourself on the hill sounds a nice idea but for many of us the more urgent issue of getting ourselves to the hill takes the limelight. Especially after the first few blogs where we now realise not only have we got to get ourselves to Glen Coe but we also need to make sure we’ve got the right kit and that we are in reasonable physical condition.
When we get there we need to be slick in the way we put things together on the hill, the way we look after and manage our self. If we’re not, our hopes of adventure, friendship and fun in the Scottish mountains can easily be replaced with disappointment and frustration.
With this in mind, four tips to help us to be ready for “managing ourselves on the hill”:

Expensive time, cheap time


As an adult, I don’t often get told off. To my great surprise, I found myself being told off on an Alps trip for being late at the start of the day. The guide explained, “There is expensive time and cheap time. Cheap time is the evening before, expensive time is the morning before. Make sure you get ready in cheap time”.
Preparation is the key to success in mountaineering. Use the cheap time wisely – try out any new kit before you arrive, check your existing kit is fit for use, make sure you can get everything in your bag, know how to fit an ice axe to your bag, that sort of thing. Then, when you are on the trip, pack your bag as far as you can the evening before. Get up early enough to have breakfast and make lunch and sort out last minute things.

Saunas and ice baths

A single day Scottish winter mountaineering usually involves moving between sweating like you are in the desert to freezing like you are in the arctic. Kit and layers need to be taken on and off regularly. Similarly, conditions underfoot can move from wet soggy mud to gun-metal neve. Crampons get taken on and off more times than you’d wish for. And then, those super expensive guaranteed waterproof gloves get wet and cold. Time to change them for a dry pair from your bag.
All this means it is going to be helpful to have your kit well organised in your bag. Make sure you can get to your crampons easily and are ready to put them on and off. Think carefully about what “spares” you are going to take. I like to take three pairs of gloves or mitts, one pair to wear and two spare pairs in my bag. It can be very windy, have your map tied to something (if you hear a rumour that my map was whisked out of my hand in strong winds on my winter ML assessment it is not true).


Mental triggers

During the day, things happen, like a boot lace becoming loose. We consider the situation, realise to tighten the lace we’d need to take our gloves off, decide that would be cold and that the lace is not too loose and will be fine until we next stop. Essentially, we come to the comfortable conclusion that we, “Can’t be bothered”. If you find yourself having this thought, or similar, it is a mental trigger to say we need to address the situation now – shoelace, getting something to drink or eat, changing gloves, putting something warm on, getting goggles on etc. Good discipline is important.


Singing with the team

Some of us are probably already concerned a bit about our fitness. The increased speed with which we now walk up the stairs at home we know is not quite the preparation we originally had in mind. We fear that when we get out on the hill the pace may be a little more than we feel comfortable with.
Whether or not the pace is too quick it is good to recognise that manging yourself includes talking to others about how you are, the pace – too fast or slow, your comfort, your feet and those sorts of things. Set out each day ready to communicate how things are going for you.
And finally, looking after your attitude and morale are key to having great days in the mountain. Demanding conditions can easily take it out of a group leading to the team trudging along, in silence, for long periods of time. You don’t have to lead us in a song but choosing to be cheerful and friendly will bring big rewards for you and your group.

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Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering

Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Image: Sarah Andersen

Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering



My first winter route. Gearing up in a frigid Coire an t-Sneachda, I was psyched-up and ready to go… if only I could get my harness on. Stripping off clumsy ski gloves to double back the straps of a summer climbing harness, I began to suspect that my gear choice needed serious refinement. As my bare fingers froze onto the fiddly metal buckles it was clear how much I had to learn.
Every winter trip brings new insights into getting the most from gear in Scotland’s ‘special’ winter climate. Fortunately, not all the lessons are as painful.
So, to help you gear up for your next snowy Scottish adventure, we have some advice on choosing kit to minimise the suffering and make the most of time on the hills. This is geared towards Scottish winter mountaineering, but much applies to winter climbing too.
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Creag Meagaidh looking suitably Scottish. Photo by Masa Sakano

Good Purchases


We’ve all made good purchases, and then there are those we’d rather forget. There’s nothing more frustrating than realising you’ve made a bad call – just as your new shiny kit becomes mucky enough to make a store return impossible. While obviously painful for our pockets – these mistakes also cost the environment as nothing is produced and shipped without an impact. Over the years, I’ve learned a few helpful principles for avoiding costly mistakes.
Of all my purchases, I don’t recall regretting anything where I had first spent time researching the options, asking friends and looking for a good price. Where I’ve bought the best I could afford, I’ve always been happy with the results. On the other hand, when I turned up in a shop needing to purchase kit for a trip the next day, my last minute decisions were often costly disasters. I remember persuading myself that some too small gloves would do for a climbing trip. Result = really cold fingers and lesson learned painfully.
Getting a bargain is always a tempting proposition. Given a bit of forward planning, I rarely have paid full price for big ticket items. If you’re able to shop off-season it’s amazing what can be picked up. Ebay has some great deals on nearly new kit as well. The only caveat is that it’s only a bargain if it’s the right kit and fits well – don’t be blinded into regrettable decisions by the big red discount label.
My final thought on good purchases, is to consider good in the broader sense of the word. Us outdoor types tend to appreciate the wilderness and value our leisure time. Perhaps that’s why brands who have a strong emphasis on environmental protection and the rights of workers in their supply chain have become so popular. Patagonia deserve a big shout out for making top quality kit in a way that does minimal harm.
So, here’s a run-down of the clothing that will keep you safe on the hills.



Without a doubt, the boots are one of the most important – and most tricky – pieces of kit to get right. Your ability to cover ground, stay comfortable and safe as well as keeping all your toes depend on having the right boots in a size that fits you. Like a climbing partner, you will only really know how good your boots are after you’ve faced some challenging days out together. To maximise the chances of getting it right first time, here are a few useful principles.
Boots are graded according to their purpose: from B0 (3 season only and unsuitable for any winter walking), through to B3 (fully rigid sole suitable for steep climbing). The boot type also affects what crampons you can wear, since a more flexible sole will cause stress on rigid crampons.
This is the most fundamental choice, so spend some time realistically evaluating what you will use them for. If it is to be for walking and easier grade climbing (I and II) then a B2 boot is a good compromise. It hits that sweet spot of being robust and rigid enough for some steep stuff, but with adequate flex to make walking less crippling than a fully rigid boot. If you’re planning a range of activities – from simple walking to ice climbing – there is a golden rule to remember. Buy a boot which can cope with the most demanding intended use. While you can walk long distances in a fully rigid boot (albeit feeling like a prototype robot), you will never climb ice with bendy soles!
Having decided on the boot grade, you should be able to draw up a shortlist which have adequate insulation and waterproofing to cope with Scotland. Remember, that some B2 boots are designed for alpine summers, so will climb fantastically, but will leave you numb after the first bog crossing. There are now several basic design types which can work in Scotland. Each has pros and cons.

Plastic boots with removable liners

Once these were what you saw on most people climbing in Scotland. Now they’re much less common. Pros: good weather resistance and warm, can dry out easily by removing liners, rigid. Cons: bulky and lacking feel.

Single Leather boots

Boots should use a quality leather (Perwanger is the best) with a water-repellent treatment. The more extreme the application, the thicker the leather should be. B3 boots typically have at least 3mm thick leather uppers. A full leather boot with minimal seams may not need a Goretex liner and will be a robust investment. On the downside, it may lack the out of the box comfort of more modern designs which incorporate synthetic materials.

Super-gaiter style boots

Boots with a built in gaiter are a more common sight with models from Scarpa and La Sportiva leading the way. They offer improved warmth and water resistance with only a minimal increase in bulkiness and weight compared to a single boot. They are less robust, however, and can take longer to dry.
Given the choice available, this is a great time to get recommendations from friends who do similar outings. You could also consider hiring first.
If at all possible, get into a specialist shop and try on a range of boots. Take your time and get advice from the staff. To try them in the shop, always use the type of sock you’ll head out onto the hills with. Lacing boots depends massively on personal taste, but generally you want to leave adequate room over the toe box and forefoot, while holding the ankle firmly into the boot. Many boots now have hooking eyelets half way up to allow you to vary the tightness – this is a great feature and saves messing about with surgeon’s knots. Once the boots are on, try all the usual standing on edges of steps, walking down inclines and kicking the shop wall. You’ll get some strange looks, but those in the know will understand what you’re up to.
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Crampons fit? Check. Photo by Niki
If the boot fits well, it will feel good on the foot, your toes will never touch the front and your heels have minimal lift when standing on the front point. They’ll also need to fit your crampons, so if possible take them into the shop for a test too. Front pointing up the shop’s drywall is generally considered poor form, so a simple fitting will have to suffice.
Once you have a boot home, it’s a good idea to wear as much as possible around the house before getting them muddy. Better shops will have a good return/exchange policy even for slightly used boots, but you are going to lose some money once they’ve been out of the house.


Action Suit

In his book “Extreme Alpinism”, Mark Twight coined the phrase ‘action suit’ to describe the clothing system that a mountaineer will keep on all day – adding to when needed if stopped, or slowing down. Even if your ambitions don’t extend to extremes, this book is an inspirational read from someone who has learned how to eek every last ounce of performance from his kit. It’s also a cool phrase! Who doesn’t feel more ready for adventure just thinking about putting on an action suit.
The concept is to wear a combination of layers that keep out the worst of the weather and allow you to regulate your temperature (and hence sweat less) while working hard. With the right clothing, it should be possible to stay in a comfortable temperature range while you’re moving, without putting on and taking off mid-layers continuously. The aim is to be just warm enough for whatever you’re doing – which means starting out feeling a little colder than comfortable, knowing you’ll soon warm up. Nobody wants to be the group member who asks for yet another stop to fiddle with layers! If the basic layers are right, it’s possible to stay comfortable most of the time by making on the move adjustments of hoods, hats, gloves, sleeves and zipping heat in or letting moisture out through the main and venting zips.
Alternatively, some prefer to go for a single thick layer (e.g. Buffalo, Montane extreme) and rely on deep venting to shed excess heat. This is a personal call, with some loving these systems, while others go for layers.
Here are the layers you’ll need to rock the action suit style.

Base layer

The aim of a baselayer is to get moisture away from your skin fast. Even a couple of millimeters thickness of warm dry air trapped in clothing next to skin massively reduces conductive heat loss from the skin. There are different fabrics which do this job effectively. One option is to have a very thin first base layer (such as lightweight polyester Capilene) followed by a more substantial mid layer. I find Merino doesn’t transfer moisture quick enough for a mountaineering base layer, but it works great as a second layer – drawing moisture away from the more hydrophobic base layer.
Another approach is to use a thicker base layer made of brushed and gridded polyester fleece. The Patagonia R1 hoody works fantastically like this, or as a mid layer. The long fibres draw moisture from the surface effectively and the grid allows ventilation while trapping enough air to give it insulative value.
Other features that will make you base layer more versatile are:

  • Long hem. A builder’s crack is never a good look and having snow falling into a builder’s crack is downright unpleasant. Having plenty of length to keep your top tucked in is priceless.
  • Thumbholes and long cuffs. I’m always amazed by how much added hand warmth is gained simply by keeping the wrist covered.
  • Balaclava style hood. Again, this additional feature significantly enhances the protection of the base layer, for minimal weight gain and since it’s stuck to your undies, it’s never going to get dropped in a blizzard.


Mid layer/s

Mid layers are chosen to reflect the temperature and your expected hear output. Simple fleece is a great choice as it allows moisture to move through and gives fantastic wet warmth, for those really miserable days. Most people new to mountaineering massively overestimate how much mid-layer insulation they’ll need. On a mild Scottish day if you plan to move fast – or are unfit and hence generate lots of heat just shuffling along – you may not need a mid-layer at all when on the move and pumping out heat. If you’re not sure, there’s little harm in having a spare layer in the rucksack to put on just in case.
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Just in case……  Photo by Masa Sakano

If you’re strapped for cash, this is an area where going cheap will have less impact. There are many cut-price outdoor shops where you can snag a bargain microfleece that will do the job almost as well as a £100+ version. It’s going to have a more fashion oriented fit, so just make sure it’s long enough and cut reasonably close to avoid excess flapping fabric.
I suggest avoiding any membranes, which inhibit breathability and the extra windproofing isn;t needed if you have a shell over the top.

Soft Shell

Soft shells were designed as a compromise between fleece (breathable, but non-weather resistant) and hard shells (weather resistant, but highly unbreathable). This is a compromise which allows you to keep the sweaty shell in the pack for all but the worst weather (most Scottish winter days) whilst having a good degree of protection from wind chill. Manufacturers have played with different fabrics to balance breathability vs protection. Whatever you go for, it’s worth considering a good hood, which covers a significant portion of the face and can go over a helmet and a robust outer fabric.
My current favourite approach is to combine mid and soft shell in a single layer, wearing a jacket with highly breathable insulation and a pertex outer with good air permeability. There are several manufacturers going down this line now including Patagonia (their Nano Air uses stretchy insulation. Our very own James Kniffen swears by this jacket) and Rab have a good version I’ve been very impressed with using alternative insulation (Strata Hoody using Polartech Alpha).

Hard Shell jacket

When the Glencoe mist turns to horizontal 60mph sleet, there’s no better feeling than pulling on a bomber hardshell jacket and zipping it up to your eyeballs. Regardless of the soft shell marketing hype, there is no substitute for a full waterproof when a polar maritime front hits you high on the hill.
My first Goretex jacket in the early 90’s was a monster. Made of thick, inflexible material and going down to near my knees, it could keep any weather out. The fact I couldn’t lift my legs up, couldn’t undo the double storm flaps with gloves and sweated insanely didn’t diminish my pride in wearing that coveted logo.
Fortunately things have improved a lot. Goretex remains a trusted label, but there are other membrane options. There are so many good jackets now, it’s hard to know where to start. A few thoughts on appropriate choices for Scotland are:

  • Light is right, but a few more grams will buy you so much more comfort. For the Alps in Summer, the lightest possible jacket in the bottom of your sack is probably a good call. For Scotland, I would prefer something a bit beefier since it will likely be worn a lot of the time in some punishing conditions.
  • A good hood is essential. It should cover most of the face when fully closed and have a stiff peak (ideally wired) to stop it folding down over your eyes in the maelstrom.
  • External pockets are better than internal. If you have to open the main zip to get out your map, stopping to navigate becomes something you’ll avoid.



The same layering principles apply for legs. I go for different combos depending on the weather and objectives:

  • Mild and wet conditions. Base layer (E.g. Powerstretch) and hard shell
  • Cold and active walking day. Thin base layer, soft shell trousers. Hardshell in the rucksac, unless it’s a perfect high weather forecast in which I might dare to leave it at home (maybe….)
  • Cold and active climbing day. Thin base layer, soft shell trousers. Hardshell in bag ready to go on at start of route


Booster Layer

Since the action suit is designed to work when you’re active, it is obvious that you will get cold as soon as stopped. Having a booster layer in the top of your rucksack to pull on when stopped solves this problem nicely. This is so much better than the old days of taking off the shell to put on another fleece underneath – and getting soaked to the skin in the process. This jacket is commonly known as a belay jacket, but this is just one situation where it comes into its own.
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
There are no smiles without the belay jacket! Photo nineonesix

The characteristics of a good booster layer are:

  • High loft insulation that works well when wet
  • Good hood. Always. Just always
  • Windproof and weather resistant outer fabric
  • Easy to put on over all your other layers. It needs to be big enough with a smooth and water resistant lining, so it can go over a wet shell
  • Big pockets to hold bottle of hot juice, big gloves, jelly sweets, etc. It’s super efficient to pull on the big jacket at a stop and have everything you need handy in a pocket without rifling through the rest of the bag

The classic combination of fabrics is Pertex (outer and liner) with Primaloft insulation. Down can be used in really dry conditions and advances in treating down are making it more resilient to moisture. However, synthetic is still the preferred choice for Scotland.


If you want a laugh, look through the outdoor forums on gear and see how many people are complaining that their gloves aren’t waterproof as advertised. It’s a sad reality of winter mountaineering – no one pair of gloves will do the job all day in all conditions. Despite advances, the poor hardworking gloves have an impossible job of balancing contradictory objectives:

  • Well insulated but dexterous
  • Able to survive constant abuse on rock, ice and pointy metal objects, but yet light
  • Waterproof as well as breathable and quick to dry. And they have a huge hole in the top which renders any waterproofing of limited use in torrential conditions

Obviously no glove can deal with the full range of conditions thrown at it. Therefore, most people resort to a selection of gloves to use at different stages in the day. If your gloves wet out and you have freezing hands, a spare warm pair in the bag may be your only chance to re-heat them before getting back to the hot ache inducing blast from the car’s heater.
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
James testing out the dexterity of his gauntlets on a snowy Dorsal Arete. Photo: Robert Landon

Walking and climbing approach

Lightweight windproof fleece is good in dry conditions, or with a shelled mitt over the top in the wet.

Technical Terrain

More protection is needed on technical terrain as your hands are often in contact with snow/ice/water/cold rock/all of the above! Increased dexterity may also be needed to deal with gear and ropework. A gauntlet style insulated glove with either soft shell, or full shell provides great protection and adequate dexterity. These tend to be the most expensive, especially at the technical end of the range. As cheaper alternatives, many professionals swear by the traditional work glove – a burly leather glove with minimal insulation, which provides good dexterity. I use builder’s gloves (Skytek Argon) as much as possible and save the expensive gloves for when it’s really cold. They’re not perfect (breathability = zero), but at least when they inevitably fall apart it is only £6 to replace – rather than £60!

Fearing for your fingers gloves

When it’s really nasty, or you’re stuck standing still (think eternal belay while your terrified partner hunts in vain for protection on a dodgy lead climb) it’s great to have a big pair of mitts to chuck on top of whatever else you’re wearing. With significant practise, you should be able to open a frozen Mars Bar wrapper, but don’t expect any significant dexterity. If you’re climbing, storing these in the belay jacket pocket means they’re available when needed.



You hopefully have a few layers with functional hoods (base, mid.soft-shell, hardshell, belay jacket), but still there’s benefit in additional hats. A light beanie that can fit under a helmet (merino is good) is a great base layer. Unless it’s really mild, a thin hat like this often stays on all day in winter, whereas a thicker one might need to be on and off. Beware of wind-blocker materials which can make it really hard to hear!
A fleecy neck gaiter gives really flexible protection for changeable conditions. One minute it’s a sweat band, the next you can pull it right over your face to fend off blown shards of ice. If your hood is getting opened up with really strong winds, putting a neck gaiter on over the top will keep it in place and prevent ingress of nastiness (great to have one when walking with kids, who invariably have poorly designed hoods). However, if your base layer has a balaclava style hood this might be more material around the neck than you really need.
Finally, a balaclava is a good backup in the rucksack to ensure you can cover every square centimetre of exposed flesh.
That wraps it up for a quick overview of boots and clothing. We’ll be back with a part 2 which covers the rest of the gear you’ll need for snowy Scottish adventures.
In the meantime, what are your top tips for suffering in style?

Categories: Blog, Mountaineering, Training

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Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering



Winter mountaineering in Scotland is a wonderful pursuit that demands the integration of many factors: mountain skills, the weather, snow conditions, equipment confidence and, of course, fitness and mental strength.
This article will help you prepare physically and mentally for the demanding nature of Scotland winter mountaineering. It will give you a variety of options and considerations, as there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’, and above all is realistic.
Read on if you: have young children and little spare time or energy; are nursing niggles or tweaks; work long hours in a busy job with a commute; have passion for the outdoors, but are precariously balancing the rest of life.
You might find I mention battling, fighting and overcoming a lot. This is because everyone underestimates winter when they start out, but don’t let that put you off – just go in with your eyes open.


I do not pretend to be a medical expert, but have read around the subject, consulted professionals and learned from bitter experience. If you are at all concerned about your health or abilities, please refer to your local doctor.
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering



‘Mountaineering is a battle; it is draining psychically and psychologically, so train accordingly’ (Andy Kirkpatrick, ‘Binman Fitness’)

Winter mountaineering is a full-on blend of hard physical graft and mentally sapping activity. It involves earlier starts (= less sleep); shorter daylight hours (= more darkness); it’s colder, windier and wetter (= more tiring); and involves carrying more weight (= even more tiring).
The total combination of these factors is not just physical – you have to be able to cope mentally as well.
Ask yourself, how bright and breezy are you when you are cold, damp, buffeted by the wind and tired of post-holing? The better your stamina, the less you will be thinking about how tired you are, and so more able to enjoy your environment!
I remember a climbing day in Glencoe when I first started winter climbing. Our objective was Church Door Buttress on Stob Coire Nam Beith (1150m), one of the highest venues in Glencoe.
We set off around 6am, carrying full winter climbing equipment on top of personal gear, walked over 5km to the start of the climb, ascending at least 800m, all of which took the best part of three hours. The summit was a further 350m of climbing and then we had to walk back to the accommodation.
I was exhausted by the time we got to the base of the climb (which was out of winter condition), and relieved to continue on the Grade I ground without the further exertions of technical climbing.
This might all sound a bit depressing! And it is of course best to be under no illusions that winter mountaineering is a battle: you need to be ready and resilient, physically and mentally and your training needs to match these demands.
But, it’s not all bad news: part of the attraction is overcoming these obstacles so that you can be well prepared to enjoy the unique Scottish environment: views, light and vistas to die for.



Thankfully, there is no one optimum way to prepare, although you can definitely be smart about your training, factoring in time, energy, commitments and life.
Here are four key themes to consider when preparing:
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

1. Binman fitness

The term ‘Binman fitness’ was first coined by climber Andy Kirkpatrick in 2011. It refers to the non-conventional, unpredictable and uncompromising nature of mountaineering and how best to overcome that challenge.
The analogy is of a bin-man, -woman or -person who has to: ‘move fast, lifting, pushing, grabbing, grappling, climbing, bending and avoiding bin yuck every day (apart from weekends and Xmas).’
Bear in mind, this is not an hour’s aerobics class; this is repeated and sustained over a regular shift (so at least eight hours). This approach involves:

  • Training beyond what you expect to encounter, as conditions are inevitably worse than you anticipate
  • Focusing on the legs and stamina, as you are on your feet all day, with a load on your back and engaging upper body muscle groups
  • Avoiding the familiar: by keeping workouts varied, you gradually condition your mind to overcome the stress of the unknown as well as seeing more gain physically

Further reading: Andy Kirkpatrick’s classic article, ‘Binman fitness’
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

2. Functional fitness

Don’t fool yourself that because you are putting on muscle or losing weight that you are fighting fit for winter mountaineering.
Consider the following maxim that I have found helpful: ‘Appearance is a consequence of fitness’.
Muscle gain and weight loss are undoubtedly good outcomes, but without underlying fitness they are merely superficial and mask fundamental deficiencies. In other words, be specific and objective about your training – will hours on a rowing machine or exercise bike really prepare you?
Consider why mountaineers and alpinists are generally speaking (ok, maybe not Andy Kirkpatrick) slim, athletic and sinewy. It goes back to the battling – regularly encountering 60mph wind (classified as storm force); the long summit approach slopes; the rubbing of your rucksack straps.
It’s the ability and conditioning to push yourself when it starts to hurt, to negotiate snow covered boulders, and overcome knee- or perhaps thigh-deep snow.
Wherever you can and however you can, seek to replicate the reality of what you expect to find.
Further reading: the Mark Twight-Gym Jones ‘300’ method
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

3. Exercise in the margins

One thing that is unavoidable is that modern life is busier than ever with work, family and extra curricular activities.
The fittest I have ever been was when I was at school: I played a 2nd XV rugby match every Saturday; trained four times a week; and found time for competitive water polo twice a week on top of all of that.
Unsurprisingly, those days are long gone: one hour plus sessions have shrunk to 15 minutes; injuries have forced me to include stretching; weekends are more about family. In short, exercise has been pushed to the margins: unless I revert to being a pupil or student, that free time I once had is very unlikely to materialise.
An important milestone for me was the article, ‘Find exercise in life’s margins’. It’s essentially about accepting the inevitable in life and adapting to that change. Life changes, so why is it that you are so resistant to change?
Some key points here are:

  • Lower your expectations – if you aim too high initially or for a previous ideal, you will only succeed in repetitive failure
  • Write off one week a month – remember all those other things you are doing? They need to happen too. Anticipate and plan for them so they do not become obstructions
  • Enjoy exercise – if you hate doing something it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – you’ll probably give up. Why continue doing something you detest?

Further reading: Harvard Business Review article, ‘Find exercise in life’s margins’
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

4. D.F.Y.U.

Not everyone is wired like a street fighter and each person has different motivations for winter mountaineering. However, one thing we all have in common is that we do not want to get injured.
In the words of Andy Kirkpatrick again, DFYU: don’t f**k yourself up.
Sustainable approaches to fitness and training are now well established and proven by sports science, so with a little bit of research you have no excuse to trash yourself!
In particular, alpinist Steve House and coach Scott Johnston have helped raise the bar among mountaineers, climbers and alpinists. In the words of House:

‘The human body has an amazing capacity to adapt to physical stress. But it does this best if that stress is applied in a constructive, consistent and progressive manner.’

By repeatedly stressing the body and allowing it to recover, the result is a higher level of fitness, if well coordinated.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Perhaps not, but it is helpful to be aware of these principles that cause the effect known as super-compensation.
The four core elements of not destroying yourself are thus:
Continuity: stay motivated and keep training regularly. Interruptions will happen, but do your best to minimise them
Graduality: be realistic about increasing the intensity and duration of training over time. An erratic approach (e.g. after New Year or illness) will lead to injury or poor results
Modulation: you cannot put your body in a permanent crisis state – otherwise known as overtraining. Regular rest will enable you to increase training loads with a long-term rise in fitness
Specificity: matching the demands of the activity in training will yield the best results
Although mountaineering is fairly general there are things you can focus on or avoid. House has the following advice to give:

‘To improve your endurance give priority to weight-bearing exercise. This means running or hiking, especially uphill, which are more specific.
Cycling is a great general exercise, but bikes are very efficient modes of transportation and this makes them less effective training tools. You do not have to support your full body weight, which greatly reduces the energy cost of the exercise and the muscle mass used to propel yourself. It also limits the range of motion, the coordination, balance, and variability of the footing required while climbing.
You should not rely solely on cycling as a training mode. 
Swimming is another great exercise that has little carryover to alpine climbing. The prone position means that the heart has to work much less to pump the blood. The water also keeps the body cool, leaving more blood available for the working muscles.
If this is beginning to sound like running and hiking should be emphasized in your basic preparation time, then you are getting the picture.’

Further reading: Andy Kirkpatrick’s nugget, ‘D.F.Y.U’ and ‘The Training Effect’, Steve House and Scott Johnston

My top three fitness recommendations

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering


    1. Kettlebells


A kettlebell is a lump of iron with a handle that originated as a tool for farmers in Russia. It quickly became a means to measure strength, and is now a popular sport and training tool. Its beauty is that its centre of gravity is offset, unlike a dumb- or barbell, and it can be grasped in a variety of ways..
Core exercises include squatting (while holding the kettlebell), pressing (lifting it above the head), swinging and snatching (lifting it off the ground).
Because of the offset centre of gravity, any given movement requires attention to form and draws on core strength. The cumulative effect of all these elements is significant, particularly as you adapt to the constantly moving centre of gravity.
If wielded properly, a workout can take a matter of minutes, such is the intensity. This is ideal for fitting in during a lunch break or around other commitments.
Once you get into kettlebells, you can unlock flows and complexes which are multiple movements that flow naturally into one another. Technically you can do an unlimited number without putting the kettlebell down. This is a great way to replicate ‘binman fitness’.
Like the sound of it?

Want something more advanced?

  • Use a tabata or HIIT timer app to structure and develop your workouts (see below)
  • Get inspiration for workouts and kettlebell flows and complexes from Eric Leija or Marcus Martinez on Instagram

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

2. Tabata

Tabata, which is a variation of high intensity interval training (HIIT), follows a simple premise: maximum effort followed by rest, and repeat.
It was developed by a Japanese scientist to train Olympic athletes in the 1990s and is brutally effective: 20 seconds work per exercise, 10 seconds rest, and then repeat. Typically, you will work through multiple sets of six exercises and if you are working hard you will be knackered after two or three sets.
As with kettlebells, tabata is beautifully simple. It requires minimum equipment, using mostly body weight exercises; a full-on full body workout can be achieved in 20 minutes and you can do it anywhere.
Be aware that you will need to build up your endurance gradually, so start slowly and without weights.
Like the sound of it?

  • Read more about the Tabata protocol
  • Look up the classic moves: burpees, press-ups, lunges (any variation), sit-ups, squats, mountain climbers, renegade rows
  • Get ideas for beginner’s workouts from Jordan Yeoh on Facebook
  • Download an interval timer such as Interval Timer for your smartphone

Want something more advanced?

  • Focus on a single muscle group, e.g: a variety of squats, lunges, jumps and burpees (seriously painful)
  • Use compound bodyweight exercises, e.,g: burpee into pull up (burp-ups)

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

3. Circuit training

When I lived in Oxford I used to run around South Park – an amazing expanse of grass and trees overlooking the dreaming spires. The great thing about South Park was that it had exercise equipment at regular intervals around its perimeter, which allowed me to build up a decent workout.
A run at an average pace of the circuit of the park took about 10 minutes and I added in things like:

  • Press-ups
  • Sit ups
  • Star jumps
  • Step ups
  • Monkey bar traverse
  • Tricep dips
  • Pull ups

When this became a little familiar, I made up a pyramid loosely based on something I did in the Army:

  • 10 x pull ups (run to next station)
  • 10 x dips (run to next station)
  • 10 x chin ups (run to first station)
  • 9 x [and so on and so forth…]

The principle is: by all means go for a run, but see how you a mix it up and integrate exercises that make it more of a full body workout.
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

The final word

Some sage advice from legendary ice climber and coach, Will Gadd:

  1. Keep moving; it doesn’t matter what movement!
  2. A little and often = progress
  3. Do what you enjoy to stay engaged
  4. Understand why you are moving and how that helps you train
  5. Fitness is health: don’t sacrifice what is important

Adapted slightly from ‘Gadd’s Truth: Five Fitness Commandments to Live By’
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering


Will Gadd’s blog on training and climbing:
Andy Kirkpatrick’s eccentric blog with plenty of down to earth advice and wisdom:
‘Training for the New Alpinism’, Steve House and Scott Jonhston: a critical review from Ice Climbing Japan and a more everyday one from Gear and Mountains

Categories: Blog, Mountaineering, Training
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Toubkal Winter Conditions #3 Dec 2016

Chilling out in the sun after a few pitch up some rock near the refuge! 22-12-16

Latest Toubkal Winter Conditions Report

Right before the Christmas break I was out with Patrick for five days of winter mountaineering and climbing. The conditions looked set to be pretty good since there had been some stable weather for a few weeks and the snowpack looked consolidated – but the weekend before the trip started some serious snow came in… 30cm plus! We managed to get some winter climbing in around the hut, but as the week progressed we found more and more weaknesses in the snowpack along with a couple of days of warm weather.  Patrick, on his last day, made quick work of Toubkal up the South Col route… well done!



Snowpack and Snow Cover

There is great snow cover in the High Atlas Mountains. There were lots of signs of slab avalanches on N to NE slopes. We saw crowns around the Akioud and Afella area. On more northerly slopes in shallow pack we found cup and faceted crystals around 30cm deep due to the cold conditions.


Akioud and a crown on the right where a slab released sometime over the weekend (20-12-16)


Another crown on a more easterly slope on Afella (20-12-16)


There were a few days of warming on Wednesday and Thursday, but the colder conditions seem to be persisting, so the snowpack will take longer to consolidate. Do take care on more northerly (NE, N and NW) aspect slopes as they will have remained cold and therefore dry snow metamorphism will need plenty of time to firm up and recreate a stable snowpack. The big gully lines up to the Tadat and Clocheton cols looked pretty loaded. There are serious weak layers in the snowpack, so make sure to be diligent by checking the snowpack, following the weather and avoiding loaded slopes!


Clocheton gully loaded (23-12-16)

Tizi Ouagane looking heavy laden! (22-12-16)


Start of the South Col route up Toubkal (22-12-16)

Climbing Conditions  

We couldn’t get to Chockstone Gully as we found the top section of the approach slope too dodgy to climb, but when conditions get better the lower section of the route is in condition. Routes on Afella, Ras and Toubkal West all need more time as they are heavy laden after the recent snow and need time to firm up on the snow sections. The ice all looked to be in condition… just needs more time and for the rest of the routes to firm up. The Afekhoi cascades look good, but do take care on the approach slopes!


Toubkal West / Tete Ouanoums (22-12-16)


Afella with ice looking good but more time needed for the gully snow to firm up (20-12-16)


Refuge Access

Porters are essential for getting supplies and extra gear up to the refuge as the track has snow on it. Mules can get as far as Sidi Cham (2,350m), but not all the way to the refuge. Do make sure to pay your porters and muleteers properly and keep to 80kg for a mule load and 20 to 25kgs for a porter!


Winter Conditions Summary

The snowpack has some serious weak layers within the first 30cm and even down to a metre in deeper sections. Do take care and avoid more northerly aspect slopes (E, NE, N, NW) and continue to monitor the weather. It looks like colder conditions are set for this week which will mean snowpack instabilities will remain. The winter climbing is looking like it will become very good when more favorable weather conditions help firm up snow slopes and gully lines, and the ice sections on Toubkal West, Afella and Ras all are coming into condition, but more time is needed for the whole routes to come into condition.


For a personalised trekking, guiding or instruction service and/or logistics for Toubkal and the High Atlas, get in touch with us here at The Mountain People!


James, Full-time guide/instructor for TMP

Disclaimer: as a mountaineering instructor I have had avalanche risk assessment training and have a good level of experience but am by no means a professional avalanche forecaster. These reports aim to give you a general idea of the winter conditions for a few days ahead and the risks involved but please be diligent in checking weather forecasts yourself and monitoring the conditions when you are out in the High Atlas.


Patrick getting his swing dialled 🙂


Categories: Blog, Climbing Information, Conditions, High Atlas, Ice Climbing, James, Morocco, Mountain Information, Mountaineering, Winter
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