Sunday, 10 May 2020

So, you want to get hill fit. A (sort of) review of Training for the New Alpinism and Uphill Athlete

There's nothing better than walking uphill to get better at walking uphill!  But, what if you don't have access to hills and mountains, and is that really true?

The training for the new alpinism book
Traditionally, hillwalkers, mountaineers, alpinists and rock climbers have always looked upon training as cheating or something weird.  Competitive mountaineering only really existed in the Soviet Union and as indoor climbing walls began to open they were viewed with mixed feeling amongst the climbing community.

Mountain sports (or pastimes) have always been seen as a lifestyle rather than solely a sport or game to be played.  Those who practice them are often more integrated into a broader lifestyle or community than those who play other, more traditional sports, such as tennis or football.  They are seen as 'extreme' or 'unusual', and we therefore must be 'risk takers' and 'odd'!  To some extent this is true, in that they can have a higher level of risk attached to them, however, often it is that decision making to be able to avoid, reduce and accept the risks that draws many of us into the sports.  In our modern world, being able to take some control in an environment with real risks, is a rarity.

Training or just enjoying a day out ski touring?

As such, there are very few good books or articles written on the subject of training specifically for the mountains.  Most of our mountain training comes from pure practice of the sport itself, or adapted from athletics and other mainstream sports.  I have always had an interest in physiology and training, which hasn't always translated to being really fit and accomplishing my mountain goals; but it has resulted in years of reading and research.  On some of my first mountaineering trips I can remember asking myself how I could get more hill fit and psychologically prepared for these.

The first mountaineering training book?

The first book I came across, and one that is almost legend, is Extreme Alpinism, Climbing Light, Fast & High by Mark F. Twight and James Martin.  I can recall reading it over and over, dreaming of all of the adventures their training secrets could take me on.  And so it began, I would swim lengths of the pool for an hour or more at a time, because it was boring and so was walking on a trail or super long glacier, but at the same time it didn't impact my joints and I still had to retain enough focus to avoid breathing at the wrong moment.  At the local gym I would be the weird one who got on the step machine with a rucksack on for ages, and one of the few women who used the free weights - so much so, that one of the instructors that still works there recognises me ten years later if I visit when I'm visiting family in London!  I biked across London to work, went to the climbing wall for a few hours afterwards, and then biked home - barely able to hold onto the handlebars on occasion (the climbing wall was almost further away from home than work was!)

A few years later I moved to Snowdonia were I began to experiment with long days in the mountains, occasionally only eating before and after my exercise, my first foray into trying to understand what foods my body required, and how to become better at using fat stores.

Out on a long winter's day in Snowdonia

And then, a few years ago, Training for the New Alpinism arrived.  I had vaguely followed the Gym Jones youtube channel, and can remember preordering the book at work.  At the time, I was probably the only person in the centre excited about it.  Now, the majority of my colleagues have heard of Scott's Killer Core Workout, and quite a few of them own the book too.  In 2019, a follow up book, Training for the Uphill Athlete, a manual for mountain runners and ski mountaineers by Steve House, Scott Johnson and Kilian Jornet arrived.

Running on Snowdon (actually, power walking and running!)

As with most training books, there is a lot of information, and it is nearly impossible to read and retain it in one sitting.  Throughout the manuals there are stories from famous mountain athletes about times their training did or didn't go well and the results.  This is a cool reminder of the fact that they are human too, and it's not always bad weather than forces you to abandon your plans.

Me on Mount Logan, smiling despite the big pack and miles left to go on the expedition

The first year I began actively using the book, was also the first time I had actively engaged in training my core for several years.  I was due to go on a ski mountaineering expedition to Mount Logan, and wanted to be as resilient as I could be.  Completing Scott's Killer Core Workout twice a week was something I knew I would be able to fit in.  Working in the mountains can make you pretty tired at times, and so adding too much training too soon could result in getting ill.

Mountain biking aerobically and enjoying exploring new places close to home

High intensity workouts will not create a hill fit individual!  This is pretty much a myth.  I say, pretty much, because the reality is, that once you have a really good aerobic base, some high intensity work is beneficial, but it is the absolute tiny minority, not majority.  In his books, training at the upper end of your aerobic capacity and into your anaerobic, form only 5-10% of your training time, and none for the first few months, depending on your previous experience.

Local lockdown running loop

At work, I always find it interesting when I have clients who are into Crossfit, or Ironmans, but at the end of a week of walking, where we might only cover a maximum of 15km a day, they are knackered.  Why is it that someone can move all day on the flat, or be stronger than I ever will be in the gym, but they struggle to complete walking the Welsh 3000s or run up Snowdon?

Ski expedition in Sweden, for the duration of this trip I felt as though I had boundless energy, regularly finding myself going at an ascent speed of 700m/hr! We did more skiing that I ever thought we would, and still completed our planned traverse from Vietas to Abisko.

As the years have continued, lots of the information from his original and new book have inspired my training thoughts.  I don't tend to really have a plan, more lots of adaptable ideas, and that works really well for me.  Here are some things I love about the book, and ideas I have taken forwards:
  • If you only have time to do a couple of strength training sessions a week, then make them core workouts - a strong core is worth almost double that of strong arms and legs and provides important groundwork for your body
  • The beauty of the core workout is that a lot of it can be done using your bodyweight, and in the Uphill Athlete book there is a really cool progression of exercises suggested
  • Getting better at walking up hills is all about improving your aerobic capacity, short high burst intensive exercise is all well and good, but should only be added as a small section of your training once you have spent a few months building an aerobic base
  • The Aerobic base is critical, you need to get used to the idea of walking or moving at a speed where you can hold a conversation the entire time, even if walking uphill.
  • Consistency is awesome.  It's impossible for most people to stick to a plan, but if you can at least do a little bit each week, even if it's not what you planned or hoped for, it helps.  This can feel sooooo slow, especially if you're used to that 'out of breath, I'm working really hard' feeling.
  • Do what works for you, read the book and take the bits that are relevant for you, try things out, don't follow what your housemate, friend or idol does, ask them why it works for them
  • Balance your stresses, life has lots of stress, work, family, relationships, length of day and quantity of sleep.  Once you add training on top of this, it creates more stress on your body, so adapt each day and week to your daily stress too.  If you feel tired, do less, change it, skip it, whatever works for you, so long as you recognise it and avoid getting ill from overdoing life, it doesn't matter!
  • Keep a log, if it works for you.  Especially at the start, try to figure out what time of day you prefer to do what training, when to eat, what to eat, how good you felt during the training.  Unless you remember these details it can be difficult to build a pattern of knowing why you got tired / ill and when it was.
  • Don't diet and train.  If you need to change your nutrition, it is a lifestyle choice, this means, it is for the rest of your life, and should be to something akin to a normal balanced eating habit.
  • Every fourth week, do a bit less.  Give your body and mind some time off every few weeks.  I try to time this week with a week I know it will be harder to train in, e.g. a big family occasion or different work location and it might happen after three weeks on one occasion, and after four on another.

Keeping a log on my Garmin Fenix 3 watch of the training I've done

Enjoy it.  Training can be fun, and not even really training, but rather a good excuse to go walking, mountain biking and climbing.  It can make your next mountain holiday more enjoyable because you won't be knackered at the end of each day.  It could make your next expedition more successful, because you could ski more lines than you thought possible in a week.  And, training the core could make your body feel more connected and enable you to perform better than you believed possible.

Enjoying long training sessions in the Alps around working as a ski instructor

I might say I'm going training, but what I really mean is, I'm heading out my front door to have some fun time outside, I just might be focussing on not moving too fast so I keep my heart rate in a particular place.  So whilst others are rushing to the summit only to be too exhausted to enjoy it and do the same tomorrow, I can have a great experience, not be aching the next day and get out again.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Entering The Dragons Back Race 2019, #dragonintraining

When people discover I enjoy running in the mountains more questions follow including:
What races have you done?
Do you compete?
What races are you doing this year?
How long does it take you to run 10k, a marathon, this race, that mountain?

Enjoying moving along the Crib Goch Ridge during day one of the Dragon's Back Race

Well the thing is, I might have a Strava account but I don't really remember many of the figures on it! It's there to help me ensure I don't overtrain for expeditions, to be a log book for what I've done, and to see what routes other people do for my own inspiration.  I can tell you how far I've run this morning, or for how long, but I have no idea of whether this was faster than last week or last year!

When I choose to enter a race, it's normally because there's a particular route I would like to do, possibly that route without external support would be significantly harder, or it's because the atmosphere of the event is something I would like to be a part of.

May 2015 I joined the Dragon's Back Race Event Team as the Support Point Crew, 2017 as a member of the Check point crew, and naturally in 2019 I had to run it.

Hangin' out with the event crew (I'm on the right) in 2017, taking a much needed break from putting out and collecting markers in the sun (album photo!?)

It is a five day stage race through Wales, from Conwy Castle on the North Coast to the Brecon Beacons in the South.  The route runs 315km along the mountains, taking in over 15 500m of ascent. In addition to the runners a huge event team supports you, providing breakfast, supper, tents to sleep in, advice, medical care and more.  It's a route that makes sense, following a logical line of peaks, with only the occasional out and back, or short section that if it wasn't compulsory, would probably leave out, e.g. Moelwyn Bach!

At the beginning of any journey, expedition, race or new work venture I think about many things.

Running in the snow during winter

The Positives:
  • I know how to use a map and compass, so when my GPS watch dies or fails to provide me with necessary information, hopefully I will be able to find the checkpoints and campsite!
  • Routefinding experience, for over ten years I've been exploring mountains on and off paths.
  • Local knowledge - Day 1 is my 'stomping ground', I climb these mountains on a weekly basis, Day 2 and 3 I knew pretty well, and Days 4 and 5 I was familiar with around half of the course
  • Campcraft, knowing that I could keep my bit of the tent organised, and I had a system to look after myself each day would not only save time, but help me to recover and be ready for the following day.
  • Time on my feet, working in the outdoors as my full time job meant that my feet were acclimatised to day after day of mountain terrain
Early morning guiding the 3000s, I was more psyched than ever to do long days at work in 2018

The Negatives:
  • The distance, I had never attempted to run this far at once
  • The time, I had never run this far each day for more than 2 or 3 days at a time.  As the week continued would I have enough time in the day to complete the course, eat, wash, do foot maintenance and recover?
  • Training, balancing training with work, home life and building a campervan was a constant battle.  At times I was exhausted, whilst for most of November 2018 I didn't do any running at all as I spent most of it van building
  • People, would tent life work?  How would I find the race psychologically with more competitors than they have ever had before?  
  • Equipment, mine wasn't the lightest, but it was well tested.  Would this weight difference impact me?
  • Food, whilst over the last couple of years I had figured out what food I can and enjoy to eat during long runs and fast packs, would the camp food provided work for me?  Would I be able to eat enough of it?
Keen to bag some munros after a day of outdoor work

Day one
The weather forecast was perfect, cool weather, clouds on the tops at the start of the day, with clear views later.  Jogging along the castle walls felt surreal, I struggled to believe this was happening to me, halfway between crying from all of the effort that brought me to the start line, and smiling that the journey had started.  The ascent of Tal Y Fan provided a good warm up as the mass start meant we would move slowly.  Shortly the running and power walking replaced jogging.  Grassy tops in the Northern Carneddau led to the rockier peaks further south.  The battle between feeling fresh legged, eager, and attempts to conserve energy had begun.

Heading down towards the support point on day one of the race

Five and a half hours later I was stood grinning in the Ogwen valley, embracing every moment.  Shoes and socks off, air the feet, eat lots from my drop bag, drink, restock running pack with food, stretch a bit, suncream on, smidge on my feet and legs for ticks, socks on, shoes on, continue.

Running into the support point in the Ogwen valley

A short sharp ascent up Tryfan came after the support point.  It felt busy on the route and I struggled to enjoy following others step after step, soon I left the main trod and took a more direct route to the summit, scrambling over rockier terrain and leaving the crowds behind.  Friendly faces by Adam and Eve on the top spurred me onwards.  Running off the Glyders the terrain was dry, and familiarity allowed me to follow my nose and enjoy the descent along the red dot path towards Pen Y Pass.  I made the cut off time, not by miles, but enough that I knew I would have plenty of time to reach camp and should be there before darkness.

Happy to be there and loving mountain running on the race
Crib Goch was amazing, as usual!  Dry scrambling took my mind off the gentle abuse my legs had suffered during the day.  Cheerful shouts and hugs from friends in the safety team on the ridge gave me some extra energy, and soon I was on the summit of Snowdon.

Selfie with Tim on the safety team on Crib Goch

The final descent of the day was fabulous, a gradually descending but rolling path led down to the campsite, along the side of Galt Y Wenallt.  This section contained some of the best views and trods of the entire day, perhaps it was the welcoming camp, or perhaps the lack of others as the field was spread out.  Who knows, but I loved every minute of it.

Clapping and cheering surrounded the farm roads into camp, a beep from my SI chip and into the marquee to download my figures for the day.  The crew efficiently ferried me onwards through the bag collection, finding my tent and then food.  It was funny how yesterday carrying my own big bag was perfectly manageable, but now I embraced the crew lugging it around for me.

The start of the race in Conwy Castle.

Knowing the camp craft and organisational side of things would be one of my strong points I went about my routine.  First up, tea and supper.  I had arrived to be able to have a hot snack first, refuelling quickly, and then continuing on to arrange my things in the tent, before my main dinner later.  Stretching, cleaning and checking feet, a bit of chit chat, organising my day food and bags and looking at the map for tomorrow.

The first day went well, I was super happy to finish, eat and drink enough, and my legs still felt strong.

Dawn Patrol in the Glyders before work

Day two
5am wake up the next day.  The first participants would be allowed out at 6am and I knew that I would have to be among the initial batch to stand any chance of staying within the cut offs.  Today would be equivalent to the longest I have ever run in one day and there were some big road sections in it.  Not to mention the fact that it was forecast to be really hot and sunny again.

I was fortunate to join the breakfast queue when I did, as it certainly looked longer by the time I was at the front.  This was one meal that seemed harder to pick what to eat.  I really fancied my own banana oaty pancakes with fruit, but settled on cereal and something hot, along with a big mug of coffee.  Having burnt so much energy the previous day, and beginning today with a gradually ascending road for 4km I wasn't too concerned about feeling ill from running so soon after eating.  Normally I struggle to run particularly swiftly if I've just consumed a plateful of food!

Runners in the sun on Day 2 of the Dragons Back Race

This section of road was probably the only tarmac I enjoyed that day.  It served as a pleasant warm up to get the blood flowing and find my rhythm for the day.  An already hot ascent of Cnicht followed.  Thankful for local knowledge and some route finding ability, I was able to swiftly remain on track as the right of way is suitably vague on the ground.  Descending almost directly down the mountain you link up smooth patches of grass and scree like terrain, grateful for the lack of fog as you have nothing to help you other than following your nose in conjunction with the map.  It's a taster for the wilder terrain of Day 2 with the Rhinogs still to come.  

The Moelwyns came and went, before a really lovely section of trail running that I'd only ever been on once before, heading South to Maentwrog.  Then came more road.  It might've only been 5km worth but I hated every minute.  Upon reflection there was more than one reason for this.

Checkpoint on the summit looking towards the sea

I was feeling hot and knew the next section of hills wouldn't start for a couple of hours.
The bulk of the pack were overtaking me and suddenly it felt like a road race.  There seemed to be so many people and I started to question, probably for the first time ever, why I liked running, why I wanted to do this particular race, and what on earth I was doing!

Honestly and simply, I just quite like running, I get to think about nothing or something or whatever!  I revel in being able to do a quick loop around the hills in a couple of hours, when walkers spend all day doing it.  I enjoy seeing how far I can go in a day of running, and there's something satisfying about the self sufficient and selfish nature of it.  As in a video I saw the other day about two runners, 'it's simple, I think it has become a habit, a bit like having a meal!'

Looking across towards the Rhinogs

So I guess you could say I was having some sort of physiological crisis about my running at this moment, in that, currently, I was not longer liking it, and I was having to think about why I enjoy mountain running!  Oh yeah, and I was currently not really mountain running, but in a valley on a hot road being over taken by (in my mind anyway) road runners! (Actually quite a lot of them were not 'just' road runners, but I was feeling a bit pissed off at the time)

Enjoying early starts when out fastpacking on days off before the race

And then, I bumped into Mel.  We had both been on the support team for the race four years ago, and said that we would one day do the race.  We hadn't spoken much recently and it was great to have a good natter and catch up.  Boosting each other along, actually Mel did most of the work here, we continued until we were on the stretch of path leading towards Llyn Eidden Mawr.  She told me to stop getting my knickers in a twist and get on with it, I was just having a bad moment and everyone gets these on long running days.  

True, but now my heel was starting to niggle a bit.  It had niggled a bit in the year before, but rarely, and temporarily.  I just put it down to the heat, my heel spurs and length of day.  Working in the outdoors means I need my body to function, and I phoned Jim, asking for advice.  What I really wanted was him to say, keep going, it's nothing, don't worry.  But the reality was that I was a bit concerned and scared that I might not be able to work the remainder of the year or future if it got worse.  I had called earlier asking him to pick me up at the end of Llyn Trawsfynydd, and then later saying I would continue to the support point and see what happened along the way.

Trying out new foods whilst loving training in my 'Dragon in Training' T-shirt

The section from Trawsfynydd to Cwm Bychan is so pleasant, perfect mountain running, even without any mountains to go over!  It is wild, deserted and just so cool, I'd run there anyway!  Things were feeling good, I sent Jim a message saying I would carry on, I had time and my heel was feeling ok.

Support point, sit down, eat from drop bag, restock food and water in hill bag, drink, chat, suncream, tick repellant, change socks and feel psyched to continue.  Little did I know that a couple of minutes later, Jim would arrive to collect me, whilst I was already near the top of the Roman Steps.

Trigpoint training views, somewhere in Wales

Similar to my first ever marathon, the Snowdonia Trail Marathon, it was the hills I was looking forwards to the most.  (In that marathon Snowdon is the last section of the race, and was the only bit I really enjoyed!)  The changeable nature of the paths underfoot, making decisions on what route to take, and being able to tick the hills off, made time feel redundant.  

I was beginning to actively look at my map for the recommended times on the peaks and calculating if I was going fast enough, faster, or not.  I still had more than enough time in the bag, but I really wanted to get to camp without needing to wear my headtorch.  Knowing the final descent off Diffwys required some nimble feet I did not fancy the added duress of limited depth of field and vision.

Looking back towards the Rhinogs from Y Llethr, with one peak left to go on day 2

The peaks passed in a daze, I knew where most of the good tracks were, and where I could take the occasional short cut to save on height gain or distance.  I secretly enjoyed being able to use my navigational skills and assessment of the terrain to my advantage here, it felt more akin to how the original Dragons Back Races were, no recommended routes, fewer people, and no GPX files to download.  Whilst understanding the reasoning behind this, I couldn't help but feel as though there was a bit of GPS watch reliance in the race!

At the end of what is probably my favourite drystone wall in Snowdonia, was Diffwys, the final peak of Day 2.  To my delight I managed a reasonable speed of descent, passing a very midge eaten photographer, and knew that at least, if I needed a head torch towards the end, it would be on forestry roads and tarmac.

Then the torture began.  Fluctuations of pain from my right heel as I ran, with my brain trying hard to continue the push onwards.  More fast paced, impactful road running, about 10km worth!  It went on forever and felt as though everyone else had passed me by as I slowed to something you could only just about call a jog.  At least this edition had altered the gradually climbing road on the North of the Afon Mawddach for the flat trails to the South.  I suddenly got cold, forced down the last of my food and put all of my clothes on, I knew it was because I was in need of a hot supper, rest and recovery.  Headtorch on for the final kms into camp.  

The markers through the camp guided me towards some vague clapping and the end-line of the day.   I had finished Day 2 before the cut off.  But, it was ten o'clock, my tent buddies all fast asleep, and I was a hungry hobbling wreck.  Ironically all of my leg muscles still felt pretty good!

My poorly heel turned our annual Scottish holiday from backpacking to bikepacking, it was an enormous positive that came out of the whole injury experience, as I have a new found passion for exploring by mountain bike too now. 

Realistically I knew tomorrow would be a bad idea with my heel, but with my usual stubbornness I planned as though I would being day 3 and leave the final decision until the morning.  My only other issue was that the lack of sleep would begin, having the chance to get a maximum of six hours sleep.  On the bright side at least I didn't have trench foot, like one of my tent mates, who had had to pull out earlier that day.

5am, I limped out of bed, just standing was troublesome, thankful for my poles I completed the hobble of disappointment and shame to the kitchen tent for breakfast.  Friends from the support team asked after me, and I felt as though I was letting them down in addition to myself because of my limp.  Food complete, and trying not to cry, I made the decision to pull out of the race.  It was a sensible choice, realistically, I needed to be able to work on my feet in a week and a half.  I had booked seven days off after the race to recover; in fact I can remember telling my colleague that I wouldn't be able to work then, despite the centre being busy, as I probably wouldn't be able to walk!  Dramatic at the time, a couple of weeks before the race, but it was now a reality.

Living within 40minutes of the camp, Jim was able to pick me up before he went to work.  It took me about thirty minutes to hobble the 300m from camp to the junction down the road with all of my stuff!

Snowshoeing at work in January 2020, the first time I wore boots consistently since the race

Bitterly frustrated and both happy at the same time, I began to reconcile with the fact that I hadn't finished the race as I spent the remainder of my time off from work recovering.

On the one hand I put Jim through so many early alarm clocks so I could go out for dawn patrols in the mountains before work.  He had had to endure my endless obsessing over kit, food, training, routes etc...  I had barely rock climbed for the entire year, been more antisocial than usual, and any spare time I had was taken up with building the new campervan.  And at the end of it, I still didn't finish the race.

Finally back out training again in March 2020, and loving it

But on the other, I embraced it.  So many opportunities and support from people to get out in the hills and go running.  The knowledge that afterwards, the only reason I was limping was my heel, but my legs and other muscles still felt amazing.  I was forced to question what sort of running I like, whether this kind of event was for me or not, and what some of my weaknesses are.  I learnt to manage my food and liquid intake over two long hot days in the hills.  I realised that, without unforeseen injury, my legs could probably take me further than I think without being too tired.  I also had an incredible season of work afterwards, wearing my running shoes every day, as I wasn't able to wear boots until the following January.  In fact, in the year since the race I have probably only worn walking boots for twenty days, two in the summer, ten snowshoeing, and the remainder in UK winter (where working I can't really wear my winter running shoes!)

First trials of longer mountain runs when I couldn't resist the winter conditions at home in Snowdonia in March 2020

I'm still not sure what the future is, I'd love to try the Dragon's back route again, and I'd certainly love to work on the crew again, whether I would want to race it in the current format, I'm undecided.  Perhaps, but I know I still want to continue running in the mountains.  And currently, after my slight setback of 2nd degree burns on my legs last Autumn, I'm slowly returning to long hilly running again, and I love it.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

How to plan a walk in the mountains

Where should I go?
How do I know whether I will be able to walk there?
How long will it take me?
Will I have phone signal?
How do I pick a route?
What about the weather?
How do I get there?
Early morning walking in the Glyders in Snowdonia
To the keen mountaineers and mountain professionals amongst you, these can often seem like ridiculous questions.  You just pick up a map and go, of course you will be able to walk there, drive to the car park, the bus runs along that road daily, if the weather is bad I'll do this instead, most people can do that in a day etc...  Just google it.  Read a book.  Ask so and so that lives there or was there last week.

To a certain degree the above is true, it is quite easy, but only once you've done it a few times successfully.  For everybody else, it's a minefield.  During this blog I am going to attempt (as many other people have) to write a list of top tips, considerations and ideas for planning a walk(s) in the mountains and hills.  On the whole, this will apply to the UK, but lots of the planning will apply overseas too.
Following a vague 'path' on a multi-day walk in the Cairngorms National Park

Where to begin...
As one of my colleagues says, go up a hill you've heard of, take the obvious route - the easy one, then look into the distance and plan a route to go up the neighbouring hills that look fun.  It's a good starting point.

And remember, don't overthink it, plan something, go and have a go, just remember that you don't have to follow your plan, you can start it, turn around and go for a cake and a coffee or beer.  Some of my best days have been days when a plan didn't go 'to plan'!  The more you do, the better you will get.
Somewhere in Assynt on a walk planned that morning, which was then readjusted during the day as the weather started to change.  It was impulsive, we had no idea what the terrain would really be like, but it was great fun.

When is your time off?
Generally speaking each month has characteristic weather associated with it.  Spring and Autumn tend to hold more stable weather, and Summer and Winter have more unstable weather.
January: Snow is usually present on the tops in Scotland, the Lakes and often Snowdonia.  A month with a lot of precipitation and wind (the type of wind that might be difficult or impossible to walk in!)
February: The most reliable month for winter conditions in the mountains.  December, January and February are statically the coldest months in the UK.
March: When you start to feel the sun on your face again.  Spring arrives, longer daylight hours, but often still wintery and windy on the tops particularly in Scotland.
April: The month when the weather starts to change.  Less windy, less precipitation, and the midges are normally not quite out yet (but the ticks will be waking up).
May: Alongside April, probably my favourite weather month!  Statistically April, May and June have the least precipitation per month in the year.  Any snow remaining is likely confined to avoidable snow patches and gullies.  The wind eases off, and midges aren't at their peak yet (according to Smidge they begin emerging in late May)  It is also the month with the most amount of sunshine during the year.
June: Sunny, not much rainfall, no winter conditions, school's aren't broken up yet, but the midges and ticks are definitely out now so Smidge up!  And the days are at their longest - good for long walks, bad for practicing night navigation!
July: The stable weather starts to end.  Whilst a hot month, July hosts more rainfall than previous months.  If it's been humid the midges will love you!  School holidays=busier mountains.
August: Still the school holiday season, busy weekends and a bank holiday.  However it remains sunny and not too wet and windy.
September: The last month before the weather begins to edge closer to winter?  Quieter in the mountains, and whilst September is a bit wetter, windier and less sunny than July, these differences are not significant.  Midges are beginning to disappear, daylight hours are still plentiful and snowfall shouldn't arrive yet.
October: Towards the end of this month it isn't unusual to have a first dusting of snow on the tops.  One of the wettest months statistically, it will also be windier and noticeably colder with the first frosts arriving.
November: Generally a month that feels stuck between Summer and Winter conditions.  As wet as it's neighbouring months, windier, shorter daylight hours and often enough snow to get in the way but not enough to be useful!  Verglas (a thin veneer of ice on the ground) may be present, particularly in the mornings after a cold night.
December: Essentially the same as November but colder, unreliable winter conditions on the tops.  Some days are amazing, others abysmal!  Noticeably windier, and longer days often involve walking in the dark.

Double checking maps and watches before we continue our mountain walk

Useful websites for recent conditions and weather forecasts are:
Met office: - Mountain weather specific forecasts for a range of upland areas across the UK
MWIS: - Mountain weather specific forecasts that seem to be a bit more descriptive than the Met Office ones and they produce excellent videos explaining why the weather is happening.
SAIS: - Scottish Avalanche Information Service for avalanche bulletins and useful blogs with photos showing snow amongst other things
UKC: - Current routes that have been done, both climbing and mountaineering, use with caution as just because something has been done and that person thought it was amazing on the day does not indicate it was a good idea!
PYB: - Live weather feed and view of the Snowdon Horseshoe 
Google webcams of the area you are intending to walk in - there are lots for all around the UK
Facebook: - Scrambling & Mountaineering UK, Conditions in UK Mountain Areas, these are popular ones to get started with, but remember you don't know the background and risk awareness of the people you are talking to on these groups
Instagram: - search for the location of the mountain you wish to go to and have a look at the recent photos tagged with that location.  Again, use with caution as you don't know the background and risk awareness of the user or the date the photo was taken.

Now you know when you are planning a walk, and what the characteristic weather is likely to be, a key question is: do I want Summer or Winter type conditions?  I am presuming that as someone learning (or improving or teaching etc...) how to plan a walk that you would start in summer conditions so the majority of the following will be relevant to summer.  And of course the key with avoiding winter conditions is to either walk between the start of May and end of October, to be very flexible in your planning (down to the last minute), or to plan a walk further South where winter conditions occur less often.

Sunrise at a wild camp in the UK.  I had never camped here before, couldn't find out much online, but it looked flat on the map and as though it would have stunning views, perfect for a good weather forecast.  The gamble paid off, but only because some planning went into it.

Where to go and how to get there?
Pick somewhere you have heard of, inspired by, or already own a map and or guidebook for.  This makes the initial planning easier.

Imagine you have narrowed it down to Snowdonia.  If you can drive, great, this will pose almost no problem (other than parking at the start of the walk if you arrive on a busy weekend in summer with a good weather forecast!).  If you need public transport then find out where you can get the train to, what bus services connect with the train and head into the mountains.  Once you know the mountainous valleys the buses go down (regularly - in case you miss one!) you have an area to start and end your walk.

Next: buy the Ordnance Survey 1:25000 map of the area you want to go to - and if you can afford the extra few pounds get a waterproof copy (it lasts longer even if you use a map case and you can draw on it with permanent pen to mark you route, timings and other planning information).  These cover a huge area so you will likely use it again and are invaluable in the planning stage in addition to during your walk.  Their website has a really useful map selector page: 

Taken from the Ordnance Survey shop website

The newer OS (Ordnance Survey) maps also come with a free phone download so you can look at a digital copy of the map on your phone / computer too.  Whilst their app is not as user friendly as Viewranger it is great at planning a route.

Top tip: you can often get a good discount on maps by searching around or using you BMC or MCofS membership etc... in some outdoor shops.

Taken from Cicerone's website

For your first walks in an unfamiliar area I would highly recommend buying a walking guidebook.  Cicerone have a range for the UK, the Cordee website list a huge range of publisher's books, and nothing quite beats Ralph Storer's Munro books if you are heading to Scotland.  Having said that, when in Fort William a browse in the Highland Bookshop will soon have your arms full of new and 2nd hand guidebooks!

If you go down the guidebook route, then, pick a route, read the description and see if it sounds suitable for you.  Then go and do it, reflect on it, and repeat.

But what if you don't want to follow a guidebook route and want to do your own thing?

You have a map of the area you want to visit, now you need to pick a start, middle (the mountain you wish to walk up or near) and end.  Here is a good time to get a permanent marker pen out and draw a circle around the bus stops / carparking points in the area(s) you wish to start and end in.  If car parking isn't clearly marked, look at Google street view to check there are lay-bys and parking areas that aren't passing spaces.  In the case that this is still proving problematic a web search for parking in ... valley will often arrive with some useful answers.

Screenshot of Google street view
Let's imagine you want to go up Yr Aran and Snowdon in a long summer's day.  To make planning easier you start and finish in the same place, that way you don't have to make a transport connection during your day.  Yr Aran hasn't got a footpath up it on the map, but the closest one to the summit it at Bwlch Cwm Llan.

Screenshot of OS maps online

How can you tell from the map that you will be able to get to Yr Aran if there is no path on the map?

It's not guaranteed is my first answer.  However there are some keys to deciding if it is possible or not.
How close are the contours (the brown lines of equal height on the map)?  If they are so close that they begin to merge together and are difficult to see individually then it will be unpleasantly, possibly dangerously steep, even on grassy terrain.  You will probably need your hands to help you up the slope.  If the contours are merging and one or more of them disappear then you will most likely not be able to make progress.
From the OS map key

Is it rocky or not?  The presence of scree or boulders will make it challenging, unpleasant and possibly dangerous.  Cliffs will be the same.  The odd rock here and there will most likely be fine if you can navigate and route find.  If it is not rocky then you don't have to worry about rocks but steep or wet vegetation can be just as hazardous.  If you imagine terrain in terms of slope angles then FATMAP is an amazing tool to see the gradient of a particular place, and I use it loads in winter when slope angle becomes more important.  In the screenshot below You can see the summit of Yr Aran in the bottom third, and the col with all of the dotty tracks passing through it in the middle.  Often, open source mapping contains more paths than OS mapping does.

Screenshot of FATMAP online on their gradient layer

No path on the OS map, but curious to see if there is one in real life?  Have a look at satellite imagery.

Screenshot of OS satellite imagery

Above I have marked the summit of Yr Aran with a red label.  You can see a clear path running eastwards towards the field boundary, where it looks like you can cross though it.  There also appears to be a path that weaves initially eastwards along the ridge and then in a northerly direction picking its way through the rocks and crags.

Screenshot from Viewranger OpenCycle map

Using free opensource mapping on Viewranger this confirms that there is some sort of path leading from the Bwlch to the summit of Yr Aran.
Screenshot of OS satellite mapping

Having browsed the satellite imagery and map we have also noticed that the gradual east ridge of Yr Aran also looks like a possible descent route until the field boundary heads south, whereupon we would need to head in a northeast direction to rejoin the Watkin path in the valley.  (see above satellite image)

Looking at our route up Yr Aran it would make most sense to start and finish in the Gwynant Valley at the Watkin path car park.  There also looks to be a path up and down Snowdon from here, on the map, that links in with our lesser known adventure on Yr Aran.

We decide to park there, walk up Snowdon via the Watkin path, descend down the South ridge to Bwlch Cwm Llan, up Yr Aran, and back down to the carpark.

So what next?
How long will it take me.

Using Naismith's rule (a Victorian mountaineer who came up with this widely utilised timing rule) you can roughly work out how long your walk will take.

You need to know how far it is.  Open your OSmaps site online and plan a route.  This will then tell you how far it is, how much ascent there is, and even how long it will take you.

Screenshot of Creating a new route on OS maps online

If you only have a paper map you can use a piece of string to follow the route on the map and then use this to work out how many kilometres your route is instead.

His rule says that we walk at 5km/hr plus 1 minute for every 10m of height gain.

In reality:
2km/hr if the going is incredibly arduous, the terrain is really loose, you are bushwhacking or need food!!!
3km/hr if you have a big rucksack, the ground is boggy / rocky / hard going, you are pretty tired
4km/hr if the path is in ok nick, you are feeling reasonable but it's not the start of the day, and you are having a bit of a chat with your walking partner(s)
5km/hr if you are on tarmac or a path in great condition, it's the start of the day, or you are breathing heavily, or really really hill fit!
6km/hr is power walking
Any faster and you are probably running!

On moderately steep terrain I add 1/2 minute per 10m of height gain.  In really steep terrain I add 1 minute per 10m.  In descent, if it is really steep or loose, the same might apply.

Top tip: remember what pace you planned your walk at, do your walk, and then see if it matched your estimated time.  If not, then think why not, and readjust for the next time.

After this, you need to add in time to navigate, time to have breaks for food, photos, enjoying the the view etc...
Planning the next day having taken into consideration timings from the first day

Other things to consider...

  • You might have the best plan ever up your dream mountain but what about:
  • Your walking partner(s) or group?
  • What kit/equipment you have?
  • The weather/conditions in the mountains
  • You / your walking partner(s) aim for your walk in the mountains
  • Will your plan work for everyone else you are going with?  Do they walk at a similar speed, have the same aspirations, kit to withstand the weather and conditions of the day?
  • What type of terrain does your route cover?  Is it rocky, could it involve scrambling because of this?  Is it boggy?  Does this suit you (and your walking partner(s) skills?)
  • Are there any river crossings or other hazards you need to consider?

Plan B
Having a plan B is almost more important than plan A.  During your planning phase ask yourself the following questions:
  • If the weather is worse than expected where could / should / would I go instead?
  • If it is taking me longer than expected at what time should I turn around, so I don't finish in the dark, storm arriving later, miss the bus etc...?
  • Where is the worst place on this walk to have an emergency and what would I do?  With and without walking partners, phone signal, other people on the mountain?
  • Where are the key places on the route?  Where do I need to make decisions that will impact my day?  This could be a navigational point, a route choice e.g. do I have time to go from Bwlch Cwm Llan up Yr Aran? if I wish to climb Yr Aran after Snowdon should I do an out and back from the Bwlch if I have less time and the visibility isn't as good, or do I have time and good enough navigation to complete the circular journey?
What will you do if your plan is now impossible due to adverse weather?!

Other thoughts
If you already have a map of a wide area you want to walk in, rather than plan a specific walk on a specific day, consider planning a range of walks and then going to the area that has the best weather forecast.  The Met Office provide summit forecasts for individual peaks.  Within 30 minutes drive from Capel Curig you can encounter sun and cloud or torrential rain on the same day in the mountains due to local differences.  This could make or break your day!

Finally, all of the above I have learnt from other people, books and experience.  Remember to chat through your ideas before, during and after your walk.  It's ok to change plan.  Embrace Technology.  You will probably get better at planning the more you do it.  I'm still learning and improving and I hope this never stops.