This might sound like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, but there is a lot to gain from learning more skilful walking. We all learn how to walk at a very young age and we all do a lot of it. In some ways, this works against us when we are walking on rough, loose and unpredictable ground like we find in the mountains. Our gait is so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to change it to become more efficient when we go off road.
However, if we can become more efficient walkers, we will be able to walk further and enjoy it more. If we can become better walkers, we will slip, trip and stumble less often. And, as we move into scrambling and climbing, we will move much better on steep ground if we have good foundations in our walking technique.
Here are some tricks to get you thinking about how you walk and how to make it more efficient. You can do all of them in your daily walk or exercise routine during the Covid19 lockdown.
Often, one of the first drills you do when you start rock climbing is to climb with silent feet. The same goes for walking. Place your feet as quietly as possible as you walk along a trail (any trail). Of course, the gravel under your shoe will crunch but the thumping noise of your shoe striking the ground can be minimised. Tune in to what you are doing to make this work best.
You might find that you look to place your feet accurately instead of where ever they land, you might shorten your stride slightly, place your foot gently and softly, perhaps by putting it down toe first. All of these things are good.
Explore how you place your feet. You can use your toes, inside edge, outside edge, walk sideways. Learn to use small placements accurately and confidently. Shorten your stride to make it easier to shift your weight over the leading foot.
Pause and balance
Walking along a pavement or any regular, even surface, we tend to fall forwards onto our leading foot with full commitment. When the foot placement is predictable this is fine. On uneven surfaces, when the foot placement is unpredictable, a moment of pause, balanced on one foot (the trailing foot) is useful so you can check if the next placement is stable. All these drills are designed to build in a moment of pause, balanced on one leg.
Be centred and smooth
Hook your thumbs into your belt in front of your belly button or hold your hands behind your back. Focus on your hands and on moving them forward smoothly. Take this up a step by balancing small stones on the backs of your hands held just in front of your belly. You can make this a competition between the people you are with – the person who keeps the stones their hands longest wins.
Balance a small stone on your head while walking!
We tend to focus on our extremities, especially when we think about skilful walking, when we should be more centric, leading with our centres. Leading with our centres makes us walk more smoothly.
It’s common to end up with a lot of shock loading when we walk downhill. Long steps, landing on your heel, falling onto your leading foot, result in heavy strikes and a lot of stress going through your knees and hips. It’s also a good way to slip and slide. So, do the opposite. Walk on your toes in descent and take short quick, soft steps, placing your feet accurately.
Our joints can be used as shock absorbers that transfer impact force into muscles and tendons instead of the cartilage and bones within the joints. Cartilage is very hard to repair and replace, whereas muscles repair themselves and adapt quickly, and tendons are designed specifically for stretching and rebounding. If we use our ankle joints as well as our knees and hips, we add another shock absorbing joint and hugely reduce the impact force, wear and tear on our cartilage. To make this habitual (something we do all the time) we need to practice it purposefully on easy trails.
With purposeful practice of these skills by doing the drills we will build our walking technique. This means we should practice all the time we are out walking, as much as possible during the walk, regularly and often. Make it habitual; normal.
In addition, we should do specific exercises to build strength and balance in our ankles. The best way to do this is also to build it into a daily routine. We can use the time we brush our teeth for this! When we brush our teeth (twice a day for two minutes each time) –
One last thought is about walking poles. In descent, walking poles can help take a lot of shock loading off your joints relieving knee and hip pain, and they act as stabilisers, especially useful when your muscles are tired and legs are wobbley. However, there is a serious down side to over reliance on walking poles. We can learn to use the poles for balance, stability and correcting small errors in foot placements. This means that our muscles used in walking and our walking technique deteriorate. It seems to me that we should maintain our skilful walking technique and use walking poles only when we really need to such as walking through fresh snow or with a heavier than normal rucksack.
Covid-19 brought a rude end to our winter climbing, just when it was getting really good. Three weeks of lockdown and probable restrictions on travel after that mean we are unlikely to get out winter climbing again before next winter.
So, in traditional fashion, here are some images from my winter that give a flavour of what it was like: full of promise, disapointing, stormy, snowy, stormy, windy, brilliant, tough and amazing. It was very challenging for much of it, not just the weather and ground conditions, but the changeability of them, demanding a lot of careful consideration of the hazards.
I didnt get it right all winter, that's for sure. But I got it right enough and I got through it unscathed. It will certainly be a winter to remember for lots of reasons.
Another thaw yesterday fed the snow with water to dribble down the ice climbs and form more ice now that it is frezing properly. Today was dry, clear to the tops for much of the day but pretty windy as well. Elved, Tony and I did not want to go very high due to the wind so we went to the Minus Face and climbed a great couple of routes between Slingsby's Chimney and Minus Three Gully. First up was Platforms Rib which actually follows a groove about 6m left of Minus Three Gully. We abseiled down Slingsby's Chimney and landed at the foot of Right Hand Wall Route which was another lovely grade IV climb back to First Platform. The wind did drop later this afternoon but we were very happy with our two climbs.
The Minus Face was popular, as it has been for a few weeks now. Minus Three Gully had a couple of ascents and Yann and team went to Minus One Gully but I do not know how they got on. The wind was blowing up the face all day, carrying spindrift up into our faces as we tried to peer down to see our next foot placements. At least we new there was no avalanche risk where we were and the wind chill effect was firming up the ice and snow more quickly.
Mega Route X had a couple of ascents today and it was said to be taking good ice screws. All the big classic ice climbs are fat with ice. Rubicon Wall looks very good as well - Left Edge Route and Rubicon Wall look very nice, as well as Observatory Buttress. There is a certain amount of crust snow around on the climbs so some of the climbing might be a bit more awkward than it might be.
In Coire na Ciste there are big cornices above the gullies on Creag Coire na Ciste, some above The Comb and along the top of The Cascades. The big snow gullies are corniced as well. The Fawlty Towers area is poretty good and popular, The Crtain looked a bit thin at the top but Vanishing Gully looks OK - I don't know if it is good ice though.
Gemini melted away and The Shroud looks too thin and patchy for me. Waterfall Gully is still there as well as Boomers Requiem and Compression Cracks.
We had a deep thaw on Saturday with the temperature at 900m of +5C for several hours and heavy rain. Abacus Mountain Guides' teams managed to deliver some valuable training to Oban MRT members in Glen Coe while staying well clear of the numerous large avalanches during the day, and our skiing and climbing teams went east to find drier weather in the Cairngorms. We lost a good bit of snow cover but you would not have thought so looking at Stob Coire nan Lochan yesterday. Fresh snow on Sunday and yesterday added to what was already a very good cover of snow.
It has not properly refrozen at this level (about 1000m). The snow-ice on the climbs is detached in many places and has not frozen back in place. The turf is still well frozen - turf takes longer to freeze as well as to thaw out. Tony, Elved and I climbed Raeburn's Central Ordinary Buttress Route which was very nice. The snow-ice on the first pitch was slightly disconcerting since it sounded hollow and was slightly detached. The rest of the climb was very nice though, on solid snow for much of the way. Early in the season this climb is not as much fun with just a little snow on the rocks. Now that it has filled in properly it is much nicer to climb.
Owen and his team were climbing Evening Citizen which had a few nice patches of ice as well. Brad, Dave and Gregory climbed Twisting Gully Right Hand into Moonshaddow which had ice on the middle section leading to the cool chimney towards the top. Casper went up Twisting Gully which was nice and was best with an exit on the left. Looking down SC Gully, I was happy that I did not have to try to climb out past the steep soft snow and cornice at the top. There are a few cornices above the crags but they are not huge. It's mostly the gullies that are affected.
The weather front came in at lunchtime as forecast and gave us steady snowfall as we descended Broad Gully back into the coire and down to the van. Broad Gully is very full, wide and has no cornice. It would make an excellent steep ski at the moment and one snowboarder booted up to have a go. We made do with a bum slide!
We have another thaw right now but the temperature is dropping already and it looks like it will be cold with further fresh snowfall for the rest of the week.
That was a week to remember. For Tommy and me, that was probably the best week of Scottish winter climbing either of us have ever enjoyed. We've both done a huge amount of climbing and had very successful weeks in the past, but the combination of good (but still challenging) weather, first rate ice climbing conditions and a bit of luck to get onto climbs without queues resulted in a very satisfying list of climbs for us both. These are climbs that we have both wanted to do for very many years (decades in fact) and we did a good number of them this week. We're both very happy to take a rest day today with weary arms and a lot of satisfaction!
Of course we had to finish the week by climbing Mega Route X yesterday. This was on Tommy's list of dream routes from when he first got in to winter climbing, so it was really nice to be able to climb it on a lovely day and to find it in amazingly good condition. As we walked up to it, big Matt was cruising up it, having a lot of fun, and it was nice to share the experience of this climb with him and Martin. It also showed us just how steep it is! Mega Route X requires a very specific combination of snow above it, thaw and rain to produce water dribbling down the face, and freezing conditions to form the ice. Just too much or too little of any of these will stop if from forming. It looks like we have the perfect combination over the last couple of weeks. It is brilliant right now.
We climbed it in two pitches. The best line on the first pitch is different to how I found it a few years ago climbing with Abib - this time it seemed best to go up the crest of a pillar in the most sensational position to find the best ice for climbing! The second pitch looks as daunting as the first but once you get stuck in it works out very well with some wide bridging. Looking down from the top all you see are huge hanging icicles and pillars of ice on an extremely steep cliff. It is such an atmospheric place and was the perfect end to a fabulous week.
So, our list for the week is this -
It just goes to show how good the ice climbing conditions are at the moment, and how good the weather was for us this week. Lots of other people have been out having just as much as fun as us, and getting on to climbs that they have been waiting decades to try too. All the big classic grade V routes are in good condition, and some of them were climbed, such as Orion Direct. Today we have a thaw day with rain up to the summit, followed by a refreeze tomorrow and colder weather again next week. This thaw/freeze cycle will only improve the ice climbing conditions. We could be in for a mega Spring of classic ice climbing. Fingers crossed!
Yesterday I was thinking that the ice on Aonach Beag North Face must be good right now. I mentioned to Tommy about a route called Royal Pardon there and how the cover picture of the older SMC Ben Nevis guidebook was taken on this route. Then I saw a picture on the SAIS Blog clearly showing the ice was fat. So, Tommy and I had our objective for the day.
It's a nice approach. Step into the gondola at Nevis Range and ride it up to 650m. Walk downhill to the chairlift, put some more clothes on and glide up to 870m above sea level. Then walk gently up hill, over the summit of Aonach Mor and down to the Mor/Beag col. Gear up, leave a rucksack and descend nice steep snow slopes with no cornice to the start of the climb. If it is misty you might need to use a compass - I have turned 180 degrees up there without realising it!
The climb is fat with solid ice. In fact, the whole face is dripping with icicles and smears of ice everywhere. I think there is some new route potential for the very strong. The line of icicles in the right of the picture above looks like a fine objective for someone far stronger than me! Royal Pardon is steep enough! There is a section of about 8 axe placements where you are very much on your arms followed by a groove that takes away a little of the steepness by allowing some bridging. It's a 55m pitch to a rock belay but you could split it and belay on ice if you want. A bit of snow and a fourth pitch of lovely ice gets you to the top, a gentle stroll back over to the ski area and a nice coffee and cake.
Another attraction is that we had the whole crag to ourselves!
A triptych is a piece of art, often a painting or carving, made up of three panels placed side by side. The Minus Gullies on Ben Nevis form a beautiful, natural triptych and it's very satisfying to climb all three. A few years ago Tommy and I climbed Minus three Gully. On Monday we climbed Minus Two Gully and today we climbed Minus One Gully.
Yesterday we tried to get on to Minus One Gully but another team just got there first, so instead of waiting we went to climb Right Hand Route. This is a line I have been looking at for many years and wanted to climb. Robin Clothier climbed it last week, the first ascent it has had since the 90's. It follows the enormous right facing corner in Minus Two Buttress before stepping right into a long, sustained groove with many bulges. Above, there are two lovely pitches in a narrow groove and wee chimney at the tp that gets you to NE Buttress. Fantastic climbing, thin, steep and serious. Brilliant fun and nice to climb a Carrington/Rouse route.
Today, Tommy and I got up earlier and were lucky to get to Minus One Gully first. I climbed this once before, over 20 years ago, and it sticks in my memory very clearly. Since the route was climbed several times last week, we have had fresh snow blowing up the gully and this has covered the back wall below the first big overhang with soft snow.
Unfortunately this covered up the few patches of good ice on the crux left wall of the overhang! It took a bit of clearing and searching to find adequate placements to commit, and even then it was a bit thinner than what I remember from 20 years ago. Stepping left and escaping the chimney to a steep slab of fat ice is quite a moment.
The ice is fat and lovely to climb all the way to the top from there. Two long, amazing pitches past The Garden get you to the top snow patch and an escape left onto the crest of Minus One Buttress. Airy moves along this land you on NE Buttress and the now very familiar abseil descent to Slingsby's Chimney. Deep satisfaction and a warm inner glow is what we take away from the Minus Triptych.
This week I am climbing with Tommy, co-founder of Jottnar. If you see two guys dressed head to toe in Jottnar gear it is probably us! It's great to know that the boss puts his gear through its paces and continues to have big adventures in mountains, so that he knows what we need. The gear certainly got a bit of a workout today!
We went to the Minus Face of Ben Nevis. This faces north west and there are no cornices or snow slopes above the climbs. There is a steep enough snow slope to cross to get to the foot of the face and we were pleased to find a rain crust on the snow from a warmer spell yesterday. This is an indicator that the snow underneath is starting to stabilise and there was not so much fresh snow on top from last night. Even so, we pitched along the base of the crag to get to the start of the climb.
The ice is fat and accommodating on the climb. There is such a build up of snow at the base that you can step straight onto the slabs on the left with no steep traverse left at all. We got some very heavy spindrift a few times, right at the wrong moment too. Higher up, the spindrift lessened, the wind change to blow up the face and, by the time we topped out onto NE Buttress, it was quite a light wind and there were longer breaks between the showers. We almost got a view!
The third pitch is the real winner. Lovely climbing in the gully with an overhanging right wall and good ice on the left. From the top we abseiled two pitches to the top of Minus Three Gully, then another to First Platform. Two further pitches of abseiling took us down Slingsby's Chimney to the slopes beneath. Other teams were climbing Green Hollow Route and Ruddy Rocks, one pair went up to The Curtain which seems to be buried under powder snow. Hopefully we will get lighter winds, fewer showers and brighter weather over the next few days.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.