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.

17 comments:

  1. Maz,
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. Brings back memories. Some fantastic pictures considering the weather and the effort required at times like this.
    Just to satisfy my mind, when did you do this walk, i don't think it was the weekend just gone was it?

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  2. Alan, thanks! It was the weekend of 8th to 10th January 2011. Sadly, finding time to write it all up was a task but three more posts to come on kit.

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  3. Great photos. Lesson learnt is the one we told you: Akto is a damp squib. Glad you had the warm jacket with you Maz. Lesson learnt and good walking had. Look forward to more from you.

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  4. Akto needs some assistance but damp is certainly right! We'll see if there's anything I can do about it (I have plans) otherwise it's eBay for the Akto. Live and learn Martin - it's the joy of what we do! Will be emailing soon re: meeting up. Good luck with the TGO!

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  5. Maz,
    The weather was a bit against us, but it was still a great trip. Would do it again if I got the chance. The mountains of the Lake District are truly amazing - and not less with the summits covered in snow.
    Don't forget to tell everyone about the Paramo pants you bought for me for the birthday and the OMM Cypher Smock that you recommended. Both was fantastic and made the trip easier and warmer.
    Looking forward for future adventures!

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  6. I had the same problem in my Akto last year. The sleeping bag became damper and damper as the night wore on and i would not have been able to camp another night. However I did not think it was water/ condensation dripping from the tent as i had a bivvy bag over my sleeping bag. I think the dew point was reached inside the top layers of the bag and the vapour from my body was condensing in the down rather than being evaporated out. It was a cold damp night and I dont think it was necessarily the Akto.

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  7. ooch! thems good teachers those hills. great photos.

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  8. the scenray is breathtaking and your pics is great. i dont mind trying if i ever got a chance

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  9. Sofus: glad you liked the Velez pants and the Cypher. Will detail our discussion in relation to them in the Gear Debrief to come. I think I feel a 5-dayer in the Lakes coming on later in the year...

    Greg: the only thing that makes me pause in relation to that is the fact I was wearing the PHD Yukon which did not change all night and, if it were body vapour inside my bag, then I'd have expected that to have problems too but both inside and outside of the bag, it was dry. Secondly, the bag was very damp outside where it kept brushing the inner. It beaded well to start with but eventually saturated - it was a cold and wet night so I am not so fussed about that. It was an experiment after all.

    David: thanks, as were yours over the last several posts on your blog - particularly Rothiemurchus forest, Loch Einich and the Argyll Stone and your Cairngorms Winter Skills Course.

    Lily: thank you.

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  10. Condensation is an unpredicatable thing Maz. Camping in the north pennines the first week on Jan my tent was bone dry in the morning, both inner and outer. However my lightweight bag was soaked on the outside around the chest and feet. Body moisture had obviously condensed in the cold air onto my bag before it reached the tent.

    If the conditions are right no tent will prevent condensation built up. Don't fully discount the Akto just yet!

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  11. Hi Maz, I'm playing catch up on the blog front but yours is as an enjoyable read as ever! Cracking photo's from the Panasonic(?). Rather jealous as I seem to keep missing the snow and experiencing sun!

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  12. Nice to see you back & wait for the Cairngorms mountaineering report - think you will like it.

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  13. Thanks for all the information. I admire what you have done here. We will look forward for your future updates. Thanks!

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  14. Playing catch up Maz, good post. Makes me wish I had the opportunity this winter to have done some backpacking.

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  15. Thanks Mark. Sorry you did not get out this winter. It was a good little trip this one and we enjoyed it.

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  16. Maz,
    The weather was a bit against us, but it was still a great trip. Would do it again if I got the chance. The mountains of the Lake District are truly amazing - and not less with the summits covered in snow.
    Don't forget to tell everyone about the Paramo pants you bought for me for the birthday and the OMM Cypher Smock that you recommended. Both was fantastic and made the trip easier and warmer.
    Looking forward for future adventures!

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  17. Great photos. Lesson learnt is the one we told you: Akto is a damp squib. Glad you had the warm jacket with you Maz. Lesson learnt and good walking had. Look forward to more from you.

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