Monday, 31 January 2011

Fells in Winter: No Lesson Worth Learning is Ever Easy

As evening dusk drifted into slumber and darkness descended on Lancaster town square, we sat in a local hostelry, warmed by our ales, and traced our fingers across the map spread over the table between us. The contour lines pencilled a thrilling illustration, a seemingly haphazard morass of wrinkles and furrows sketching opportunity and excitement. Anticipation percussing its portentous rhythm in our stomachs, we quaffed, debated and analysed. We knew we were to be unlucky with the weather - blackened skies and frantic, hysterical gales would make our time in the Fells brawny and vigorous an enterprise. We would have to tone down our aspirations and restrict ourselves to Yewbarrow, Pillar, Great Gable and Haystacks - still four hostile ogres to tame. We knew there would be snow gracing their peaks, perhaps even as low as 400m, and we’d come prepared. In our cavernous kit bags, slung into the boot of our chariot, was all manner of heavy metal - a contrast to our 3-season ultralight intentions, but winter brings with it a new set of priorities.

We slept fitfully that night, eager to finish the final leg of our journey to our ingress point. Had we known how difficult the journey would be, and how late we’d begin, we might have slept even more poorly. Rimy, frozen roads, bespoke icy treachery crafted for us, meant the Hardknott Pass, hitherto an old friend, was unpassable. We were forced to take the long way round, approaching our adversaries from a different front. Time wasted away as we sped like desperate thieves in the night. Despite our dispatch, it was past midday before we had parked and begun our preparations and nearly 1pm before we departed for Yewbarrow from the banks of Wastwater. We knew dusk would begin its all-consuming descent in only a few short hours and we quickened our pace.

As we ascended, getting used to the conditions underfoot, the weather remained calm, reserving its ultimate betrayal for later. We climbed, sometimes hands on, and smiled outwardly that we were here. Across the valley, with Wastwater magnificent behind us, we could see the snow on the peaks and it felt good to be within the shadow of these antediluvian monsters. The sun shouldered its way through the murky pall and, in short bursts of radiance, blessed us with a warm, cosy incandescence. It was not long before we reached the snow line but, for some reason, we were reluctant to break out crampons and ice-axes. It was patchy, we reasoned, and we could make tolerable progress without them. To a certain extent, we were right, but we would likely have made even better progress with them. We muscled our way up through the bedlam of snow-daubed rocks and frozen tussocks, gunning the steep ascent, keen to reach the summit. As we did so, cresting almost without warning, we were greeted with blue sky and an enchanting radiance of sun. We turned to admire our handiwork.

As the sun began its initial descent below the horizon, some time before civil twilight and the clouds held in abeyance for now, it cast a cerise blanket across the white mantle swathing the top of Yewbarrow. We crunched through the frozen snow, basking in the celestial grandeur surrounding us - the aura suffusing the mountains like a glittering veil. From nearly 700m up, we could see every peak around us with perfect clarity. It was a heavenly moment - a milieu quite unlike any I have every experienced.

Yet with startling celerity, the weather’s opening perfidy commenced and the clouds regained their ascendancy bringing with them reinforcements - the hail and wind began with temperate warnings which we could not but heed. We had determined the route down to our first potential overnight pitch, beyond two cairns along the Yewbarrow ridgeline, and headed for it only to realise our folly - path there may have been and it may have been obvious to an OS cartographer in the height of summer, but in winter, snow and ice masking the route with smug satisfaction, we needed another route. With the hail and wind increasing the tempo of their evening’s entertainment, we searched urgently for a safe route, the map now all but forgotten in lieu of our eyes on the ground. 

As the weather worsened yet further, our gaze fell upon our intended pitch - reaching it would be a challenge as the ground between us and it was decidedly unfriendly. Nevertheless, we pushed on, picking our way across glassy boulders and frozen flora with utmost care and precision. It was a debilitating descent in the failing light. Eventually, we reached our spot and swiftly, carefully and with some urgency we pitched. In that weather, nothing could prevent the rain from invading our shelters as we pitched them but soon we were inside and protected from the raging fiend outside. We dried off as best we could, pulling on extra layers and slipping inside our bags. As we ate, we chatted happily ignoring the bitterness surrounding us. It had been a short day - but a hard one. We slept well to begin with.

I was awoken frequently that night - the wind tugged and battered my diminutive Akto, desperate to unseat the indomitable fellow. It failed but, almost apologetically, the Akto succumbed to the cold outside and my warmness inside and layers of condensation lined the inner and the fly. By morning, the loft of my sleeping bag was almost non-existent and the only thing keeping me warm was my PHD down jacket and the extra lining provided by Dupont Thermalite. I emerged into the misty morning to engage in some natural necessity and observe the weather. Cloud sat ominously atop the summit of Kirk Fell and Great Gable and the snowline was lower than the afternoon before. As I stood, hands shoved in pockets and hood firmly snug around my head, I realised that camping the next night was now impossible. A drop in temperatures, which had hovered around 0C that night, would be a serious proposition for us if my companions’ bags had suffered like mine. Fortunately, only one had - the other heavier but made of sterner stuff - but that was enough of a problem for us. I resolved to re-consider my options for winter - it was an experiment but one that had failed unreservedly. Lessons learned in adversity are usually the ones most keenly remembered. Even if we broke camp and headed back to the car, to pack only daysacks, we would not be up and down before dark. Couple that with a poor night’s sleep and the day was beginning to look desperate.

After a quick breakfast, we began our descent and our trek back to the car, resolving to find ourselves a bed and breakfast in Keswick, dry off and make an assault on Haystacks and the ridgeline to its north the next day. It was disappointing - a decision borne of necessity but as we sat in another hostelry in Keswick, our kit drying in our rooms, we plotted afresh. I can't deny that it was with sadness and no little frustration that we made our way back to the car. That poor night’s sleep, coupled with the waste of a day, meant that those few hours in the fells that morning was uninspired drudgery. We sat in front of a roaring fire, quaffing ale, and relishing the substantial and warming local provender, planning with renewed vigour the next days assault.

We rose and broke our fast early, fairly shovelling down our morning repast and setting off before first light. The roads were replete with mist, thick fog diffusing dawn's early light as we sped towards Buttermere. The snow line had crept even lower overnight and we anticipated the mountains shrouded in dark, foreboding cloud would secrete around their muscular peaks a maelstrom of fearsome wind and icy precipitation. Weather reports warned of gusts of over 60mph and heavy snow - today would be a day to take care. A reasonable proposition in the balmy summer months, in winter even Haystacks and the ridgeline across from its approach col would be a challenge. We packed a light daypack each, crampons and ice-axes a mandatory addition, and embarked on our ascent. As the rain commenced its belligerent dance we wound our way up, along a simple bridleway, until we reach the snowline and the rain abated to make way for its frigid cousin's ire. The wind, for now, simply waited for us to wander into its snare.

Inclement weather notwithstanding, there is something deeply enriching about snow-laden mountains assailed by gale and spindrift - a spiritual and soul-searching test of mettle and resolve. We pushed on, hearts thumping and adrenaline pumping. The hills were clear of interlopers and we were alone. As we picked our way across the bouldery path, the snow became thicker: an august, resplendent veneer lending the criss-crossing stone walls and craggy landscape a dangerously majestic, spellbinding allure - soon, crampons and ice-axes would be obligatory. It was a dark, forebidding contrast to Yewbarrow's ethereal silkiness.

Beyond us, obscured by malignant cloud, was the summit of Haystacks. As we approached the col, we paused and resolved that the time had come for heavy metal. The wind had ceased its subterfuge and entered the fray by now, and we ducked behind shelter whilst attaching crampons. The effect was instant and supremely gratifying. Possessed now of an inexorable sure-footedness, we pressed on, gunning the now technically demanding ascent. Driving our axes into the snow for balance, we concentrated on foot placement to avoid ice-clad boulders, savouring the ease of movement afforded us by our equipment. At that moment, a call from behind me cut short my revelry - fine-tuning required, I was informed, so I moved on up the mountain - a pure scouting exercise and nothing more - whilst others made their adjustments. Perhaps I was too hasty, but as I rounded a corner, the weather’s final ambush was sprung. An overwhelmingly ferocious eruption of wind - a thoroughly combative, hostile force - wrenched me mercilessly from my feet, flinging me towards the floor. I managed, through luck more than judgment, to maintain my footing and roll with my assailant, crouching low with my back hunched to its violence. Icy spindrift pounded my back before drifting away, as quickly as it had come, as the wind abated. It was a salutary moment and one I'd not forget later.

Joined by companions, warning duly imparted, we continued on. Bursts of violence persisted but we ducked beneath them and refused to be beaten, spindrift biting our faces. We stopped and pulled out a plastic bottle within which a casual observer might have thought would be Ribena from the colour. We knew better and took a swig each of port, savouring the heat as it rolled down our throats. A tradition of ours and one we were unwilling to dispense with - the weather would not beat that out of us. We munched on Logan Bread crafted some days before and considered our position. Onwards, we decided, but with our eyes open. Yet the cloud became thicker, the snow more intense and the wind more bellicose with each step and each metre of ascent. The summit no more than 50m above us, we paused at a point that would require some hands-on attention. We knew then that there would come a point where the weather would inevitably beat us - a point past which, if we progressed our safety could not be guaranteed. We were so close, and the weekend had already bestowed upon us more than our fair share of disappointment, but to continue would be foolish and put others at risk should we take a wrong step and need rescuing. Or perhaps even worse. With heavy hearts we turned back, gazing wistfully at the summit that had bested us. Next time.

No lesson worth learning is ever easy.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Fuizion Food - Exceptional Food and Exceptional Service

Just a quick post this as I work on a series of posts dealing with our winter trip to the Lake District and some observations on my winter kit. On 23rd December 2010, I ordered a host of Fuizion meals to keep the three of us going over the three days we'd be in the Lakes, wild camping in the bitter, hypothermic conditions anticipated. Reviews from various bloggers had led me inexorably to the conclusion that here was a company whose food I had to try. They were dispatched on 29th December 2010 and I knew I'd be back in the UK by 3rd January 2011 so I anticipated few problems. I'd ordered other items before the Christmas break, all of which arrived without incident, but no sign of the Fuizion package.

I contacted Fuizion and Tony suggested, as he'd be travelling from Portsmouth to Guildford, which was reasonably nearby to where I live, for other reasons, that he drop off a new package for me. Sadly, and through no fault of his, he couldn't be there in time for our departure so we arranged for him to swing by my home and drop them off whilst I made alternative arrangements. On 21st January 2011, the original package arrived and I contacted Tony to send it back. He told me to keep it and use them on my next walk.

This is a new company and customer service is the primary way a new company gains a reputation but if Fuizion continue making a good product and dealing with its customers in this way, they will continue to prosper and I wish them every success in future.