For us here at KerryClimbing Winter is without doubt our favorite season in the mountains and on those all too rare occasions when the sneachta finally arrives it’s that magic time when the mountains really come into their own. Dazzling white snow under blue bird skies, crisp underfoot with views stretching to forever and ever with crystal clarity; the scrape, scratch and bite of crampons on crisp firm snow, ice and rock, and the dull thunk’n’whack as your axe plants securely in perfect firm snow-ice. Even the extremes, the white-out, the numbing wind and the face-shredding blizzard are part of the sensory treat that is the Kerry mountains in winter. And we love every bit of it!
Let’s be honest; the mountains of Kerry can be extremely serious undertakings, particularly in full winter conditions, and require skills and equipment far beyond those needed for normal 3 season & summer hill walking.
Before venturing into the realm of winter mountaineering you should first ensure your Mountain proficiency & navigation>> aswell as Mountain skills>> are up to scratch under summer conditions and then look to further develop those skills so that you are ready for the added challenges of winter. KerryClimbing runs specific winter skills>> courses to help you gain or improve skills.
Time, tiredness & energy
Time is a crucial factor in winter. You have far fewer hours of daylight to begin with, and everything you do is most likely going to take a lot longer. While rare conditions of hard-packed snow can allow for fast movement, it’s far more common to be ankle to knee-deep for long sections of your journey, which is going to take longer and can be extremely energy-sapping. And if the snow is any more than knee deep for any distance you may want to reconsider your route or even your entire journey, for progress will be agonisingly slow and will be massively tiring. Don’t underestimate the added physical toll it takes to venture into the winter hills – good fitness is essential. Even in relatively benign conditions, the cold saps your body of energy as it tries to stay warm; add in the extra exertion of breaking trails through snow, carrying a heavier pack, or battling through wind and whiteouts, and you have an incredibly demanding physical – and mental – challenge on your hands, and tired people are more likely to make mistakes. Every workout helps.
Once you actually hit the hills, don’t be afraid to pig out on your favorite treats – strenuous winter mountaineering can burn hundreds of calories an hour, meaning you need to be properly fuelled. Have a decent hearty breakfast (avoiding the full Irish!) and take plenty of high-energy snacks for the day. You may not want to stop long for lunch, but a plastic group shelter can come in handy for huddling out of the wind.
Group dynamics & skill set
What is your own level of experience and who are those that you’re going with? What experience and competence does everyone possess? How fit are they? What about their kit and their personal hill skills?
The answers to these vital questions will have a huge impact & bearing on where and when you chose to go. Think of all the group in this, not just the fittest and best. Skills and experience are best gained gradually; don’t just go straight for the hardest or steepest routes until you’ve tested yourself and learned lessons on easier challenges. It may be you decide that you or your group would benefit from some training in advance of any trips. Or you might think about joining your nearest club>>to benefit from others experience and support.
We all like to be pushed a bit sometimes – it’s how we progress – but assess the difficulties and hazards of your planned journey and the capabilities of your party and make sure you’re not asking too much of anyone. Remember, safety apart, you’re all meant to be enjoying this! Don’t be too ambitious on your first proper Winter adventure!
Route Choice & Planning
When choosing a destination or a route it’s best to study the whole route on the map – don’t just look at the start point and the distance. Take note of the terrain you’ll encounter and the steepness of the slopes (remembering that slopes of 30 degrees and above are where avalanches may potentially occur). Check any key points in the route where you might encounter hazards, such as river crossings, scrambling sections or those steeper slopes.
Work out approximate timings, not just for the whole route, but also for reaching those key/catching features along the route. This will help with navigation and will be invaluable if you need a cut-off time for getting back to your start point. Have a plan A, B, C and D and always be willing and open to switch depending on subtle changes in weather, fitness/energy levels, time, attitudes etc.
You’ll hear it often: make sure to plan your route! It’s always recommended that you have at least one alternative plan. Last minute changes of weather or other circumstances can very easily make your main plan impracticable, so rather than abandon the whole day, have something up your sleeve in reserve – but make sure you’ve planned that properly too! Remember that it’s okay to change plans if it makes sense to do so. Sometimes saying no and having the mature sense to turn around is the best decision you can make!
But how DO you plan a route?
There’s plenty of inspiration for days out in the hills, whether you’re reading a traditional guide book, admiring recent stunning pics online or scrolling through online guides. But there’s more to planning the day than picking a route and reading the directions.
There are four basic factors to be considered:
- the weather and mountain conditions
- the skills and experience of you and your walking companions
- the landscape and type of terrain you will be visiting.
- the kit you/your group needs to take with you
Remember: Travel in winter is much slower than in other seasons because of weather and hazardous conditions underfoot .
The weather in winter can be challenging. Simply checking the TV weather forecast the night before isn’t enough. Use a decent detailed weather forecast service for a particular area such as Yr.no>> or Met Eireann>>
These provide the most up to date assessment of weather and snow conditions on the ground in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks are are collated from our own experience of being out there daily and gauging what its actually like under foot . These will assist you in building up a picture of what conditions will be like, what effect the weather expected on the day will have and other extra personal equipment/gear may be required.
A more thorough tutorial of information, tips and pointers regards Winter Weather soon to follow in Part 2 of our Winter*Aware series
Kerry’s, in fact, Ireland’s first ever published Winter Climbing Guide book is now available!
MacGillycuddy’s Reeks Winter Climbs – ‘Selected Routes’ is a superb, full-colour guide to some of the very finest, best known (and not so known!) along with the most popular Winter climbs to be found in the magnificent mountains of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, County Kerry.
This first and only guidebook to winter climbing in Ireland’s premier Mountain range is presented in a simple and clear user friendly format and fits conveniently into any jacket pocket, so it’s always at hand when needed! It contains lots of practical information on visiting the area, amenities, access, handy tips and advice on winter climbing in general, along with specific details on 50 of the finest winter climbs to be found in the country’s highest peaks, with an emphasis on the most popular lower and mid-grade classics. A stunning selection of wonderful landscape and action photographs along with impressive cliff photo-diagrams, supplement accurate up to date descriptions to make this an essential publication for all winter mountaineers & climbers and will no doubt appeal to all levels – from the aspirant to the experienced, the novice to the seasoned.
This eagerly anticipated winter climbing guide has already gained glowing endorsement and praise from a few of the most highly respected and accomplished names on the climbing scene from both here and abroad…
Here’s what they have to say:
‘Irish winter conditions are even more ephemeral than Scotland’s fickle winter, and all the more precious for it. Having once enjoyed a brilliant day in the Reeks with Piaras, I know what an expert he is on these fine mountains. He has done a beautiful job on this long-awaited first ever guide to Irish winter climbing.’
Stephen Venables: Renowned Mountaineer, Broadcaster, Writer and multi award-winning Author
‘Piaras is the best placed individual to bring this guide together and his enduring love of this area shines through in his huge effort to gather all the relevant information and to make this guide book a reality which is no mean feat for sure. Congratulations Piaras and no doubt your welcome publication will encourage many more to venture into and enjoy some of the fantastic climbs of these mighty Reeks.’
Mike O’Shea: Mountaineer, Explorer, Adventurer, Early Pioneer and local climber
‘The mountains of Ireland have a magical scale beyond metres and feet that turns any climb into an adventure. Although small in stature compared to their alpine cousins, the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks live on in your mind long after your boots have dried out.’
Andy Kirkpatrick: Mountaineer, Climber, and award-winning Author/Writer
‘Quirky, different, endearing, lasting…Winter climbing in the places of difficult to get conditions takes imagination and, on occasion, a leap. This guide will no doubt inspire that leap and give lasting memories.’
Nick Bullock: Leading Alpinist, Mountaineer, Climber and Author/Writer
‘Piaras has placed the Reeks on a perfect plateau and his intimate knowledge and respect for the Reeks is serious. He is Involved with every aspect of this magnificent mountain range and has embraced these ridges and valleys to produce for us a wonderful guide with incredible knowledge and insight.’
Valerie O’Sullivan: Award-winning Photographer and Author of – The MacGillycuddy’s Reeks – People and Places of Ireland’s Highest Mountain Range