I'm researching winter skills courses for the new year. Most cover all the basics:

  • Self arrest
  • Using crampons and ice axes
  • Avalanche awareness
  • Route planning

Is there anything else I should be looking for? They all seem very similar.

I'm specifically after something for a Scottish winter with a view to move into the Alps (summer) eventually.

  • 2
    Are they all roughly the same length? The other items you'll eventually want are glacier travel and crevasse rescue.
    – requiem
    Oct 3, 2014 at 17:05
  • 1
    Depending on how you feel your navigation skills are, navigation may be worth including - nav in winter conditions can be much harder than in summer.
    – aucuparia
    Sep 14, 2015 at 8:49

3 Answers 3


I can't speak for the Scottish winter and there definitely are differences to the Alps. But still I can give you an overview what is important to learn if you are going to do alpine summer tours in the Alps.

The German Alpine Club (German: Deutscher Alpenverein, DAV) is the world's largest climbing association. The number of members is over one million. (source: "Deutscher Alpenverein"). I will therefore give you the topics which are covered by the glacier courses (courses for alpine tours). The list might seem long but I think it gives you an idea what to look for.

1. Basic course

  • rope up on glaciers
  • crevasse rescue
  • general techniques with ropes, knots and belaying
  • walking with crampons
  • ice axe techniques
  • anchors in ice and firn
  • abseiling
  • self arrest on firn
  • orientation
  • planning routes
  • checking material
  • weather
  • first aid
  • environment and nature protection

2. Advanced course

  • repeat basics
  • going on combined terrain with faces and arêtes
  • climbing (leading and following)
  • belaying in steep rock, firn and ice
  • advanced ice axe techniques
  • hitting pitons
  • return strategies
  • mountain rescue
  • and much more...

There are additional courses for crevasse rescue which show the importance of this topic. Avalanche is only a topic in winter courses. I guess they aren't learning the topic of avalanche because it is pretty complex for itself and you are generally trying to avoid situations with a lot of fresh snow in summer. Of course they have avalanche courses but it's not a topic in those glacier courses!

My personal advice is to take a course which covers the important points from the basic course above. How to rope up on glaciers is the first thing you have to know and it's not very complicated. But still you should learn the general ideas from a professional (distances long enough to hold possible falls, maybe using knots between members, having rope for a possible crevasse rescue, NOT meeting up when you are doing a break...).

Crevasse rescue is also important, I would suggest that you learn at least one method. Under real conditions the rescue might be really tough but having stopped the fall of a companion (or even two) you could still call the mountain rescue services most of the times (still: learn how to rescue someone fallen into a crevasse!). That being said it shows the importance to actually get into this position of braking the fall, setting a deadman and so on.

To rope up on glaciers, to be able to belay correctly and to rescue crevasse falls you naturally have to learn some knots. You cover this in the fitting sections of the course. Maybe they don't write those topics explicitly in the description but I am pretty sure all will cover this. Check the course requirements though.

Techniques with crampons and ice axes are nice to learn although I don't think they are as important as the security relevant topics mentioned above. What's really important is how to set an ice screw correctly. Still, you will be using crampons in all glacier courses and you will be excited if you do it the first time. I personally didn't had big problems walking in them but you should care when you climb in them or you might get some porous trousers like I did...

  • 1
    Whats firn???
    – user2766
    Oct 6, 2014 at 7:35
  • 2
    Névé is a young, granular type of snow which has been partially melted, refrozen and compacted. Firn is partially compacted névé, a type of snow that has been left over from past seasons and has been recrystallized into a substance denser than névé. It is ice that is at an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice. (wiki)
    – Wills
    Oct 6, 2014 at 13:53
  • Like the stuff you test with the card? I get ya.
    – user2766
    Oct 6, 2014 at 14:06

This isn't a complete answer, just an answer about the avalanche stuff, but it's too long to fit in a comment. Research shows that most avalanche training actually is not helpful in reducing people's chances of getting killed. It may even produce a negative effect on safety, because people get a false sense of competence. This is called the "expert halo." Beacons add to this halo; in reality, it is usually not possible to rescue someone buried in an avalanche, even if they have a beacon.

Avalanche safety is actually really simple, and it needs to happen at home when you're planning the trip. From a topo map, determine whether the slope is steeper than about 30-35 degrees. If it is, then don't go to that area within 48 hours of a big snowfall (more than about 15 cm).

If you go and then make your decision on-site, the evidence is that social and psychological factors make it extremely unlikely that you'll make an appropriate decision.

See "Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents," Ian McCammon: Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents.

  • 3
    This should probably be either expanded or have more of a disclaimer. An "expert halo" is choosing to follow someone in the group who may not have more avalanche expertise, thus exposing the group to risk, see: monosar.org/safety_article_avalanche_human_factors.html. Also, education does correlate to safety, see: sunrockice.com/docs/Avalanche%20training00.pdf and others. In addition, persistent weak layers in continental regions mean that it's not enough to just avoid recent snowfall, so it depends on where you are.
    – Andrew
    Oct 3, 2014 at 20:47

Interesting. All of the answers address winter mountaineering, which I would regard as a separate subject.

Winter skills for someone like me, living 4 hours from the mountains, would primarily be about how to prepare and cope with winter conditions, such as encountered by a hunter or hiker below timberline.

Skills I would see as important:

  1. Hypothermia. Occurrence, recognition, prevention.

  2. Cold related injuries -- frost bite

  3. Dress. What to wear, what to carry, adjusting your heat balance.

  4. Fire making.

  5. Route planning.

  6. Emergency shelter building (hunters mostly)

  7. Adjustments to your normal first aid response due to cold weather: Mostly on how to keep a victim warm, and for the rest of the party to not become hypothermia victims.

This skill set is a pre-requisite to the mountaineering skills mentioned in both the question and in the previous answers.

With a slight change in how the hypothermia is addressed, it's also a good starter course for anyone engaged in water sports where water/air temperatures below 50 F (10 C)

  • 1
    Great answer. In-depth winter mountaineering courses usually either incorporate or require you to take a class that teaches some of these topics. In the US, courses billed as "Wilderness First Aid" teach basics of hypothermia, frostbite, evacuation, and emergency shelters, whereas things like dress and route planing might fit into a mountaineering course.
    – Andrew
    Oct 6, 2014 at 15:28

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