Mountain Walking: Lake District Winter/Spring 2010 Wednesday April 28, 2010

The lowest temperature I’ve experienced in the Lakes is minus 15 degrees. The first time, it started with an initial stroll around Castlerigg and some trepidation: this was cold. The following day’s temperature was no better, but the difference was I was walking Glaramara and my perambulation kept me passably warm. I couldn’t stop for more than five minutes without feeling alarmingly chilled. Technically, all of this meant a borderline situation in regard to survival and the equipment I was using. Not ideal, I must admit, but the other factor is what kind of walk I was undertaking and what level of challenge it posed. Glaramara is more than a stroll; the route up Thorneythwaite Fell and down Grains Gill makes for a full day at a moderate pace. But it’s a comfortable day, and the navigation is similarly quite simple. The main technical difficulty was finding large amounts of ice impossible to cross (I had no crampons), which were hazardous and made progress much slower. This in turn meant my final descent was in near darkness, and the return to my car along the road was in total darkness. It was however a memorable and very satisfying day.

I used to find mountain snow a great thrill; this lasted a few years but is no longer the case. Aesthetically, glistening white peaks can be very beautiful but it’s not necessarily a better view than you find in other seasons. Snow covers the land as a blanket over its subtle colours, shapes and shadows. It’s fun to scrunch through snow, softening and compacting like – in a strange way – the fun of popping bubble wrap. It’s an unusual sensory experience, that satisfies. But, progress through snow is far more arduous and slow.

The novelty has gone for me. I wanted some snowy walking in the rare winter of 2009-10, but felt no great excitement as I have previously. A few years ago, at the first inkling of snow on the hills I’d get up there at the first opportunity. It redeemed otherwise dark and depressing winters, something to look forward to after a season of sunshine – or more likely, mild grey days of typical British summer.

Casually then, I decided on a trip to Borrowdale and the expense of an overnight bed. This is another problem with winter: I don’t want to camp when it’s cold and dark at four or even three thirty. Maybe, just maybe, such masochistic suffering is worth it when you have days of blue skies and sunshine, but you’re more likely to be hoping for such days rather than enjoying them.

I tried for a vacancy at a B and B I used to frequent, but the hostess was busy. She did however kindly phone a few other places and just up the hill the proprietor of Manesty Cottages offered me a night at an impromptu off season rate of £35 for one. Very costly, but it was a good deal compared to normal rates. The ‘cottage’ was a large double bedroom with a small kitchen and en suite bathroom; more of a mini apartment. It had terrific views over Derwentwater, looking across to the overlying fells. A great place for a weekend or even a week with a girlfriend. Stroll about the lake one day, go romping across the heights the next, a lazy breakfast enjoying the view, a drive over to Buttermere, and an evening or two enjoying dinner in nearby Keswick. Such a holiday in the Lakes, as opposed to an organised attack of the hills, has a pleasure of its own.

My plan was however more of the latter; I was there to walk the hills and enjoy the snow. I hadn’t decided where to go – that could wait – but in the morning opted for Maiden Moor which towers above the cottages. The day was grey and disappointing, not worth going further afield or higher (1890 feet).

The climb up the hillside is steep but not especially taxing, though near the top I was alarmed at strong winds funnelling down from the col. They were more severe along the top. I was battling them to move forward, avoiding steep drops in case they were too naughty, and at times was blinded by snow they either carried with them or whipped up from the ground. Then I remembered, the forecast had said winds of thirty or forty miles an hour. It was fun for a while but was then arduous and annoying, added to the fact of calf, knee and thigh high snow I had to wade through. Gaiters were a good idea, I realised, and I spent five cursing minutes fiddling with icy zips that wouldn’t engage and getting much colder for being stationary. There were brief moments of moderate light with a photo opportunity, but it was mostly leaden and my batteries failed after a few shots.

I enjoyed the scenery, but didn’t want to make this an epic adventure and began to think of short cuts and not going as far as planned. Then I remembered a track down to the head of Grange I’d never walked, that I’d wondered about the last time I was up here. I decided that was the best option, though not without difficulty: the path isn’t marked on the map and even if it were obviously visible, in these conditions that would not be the case. I started descending the hillside…and noticed someone climbing up. Across about thirty feet we had to shout and were still inaudible against the howling winds, which masked perhaps my angry remark telling her dog to fuck off as it jumped up and played with me. This was no time for fun. My face and jaw were chilled and immobile, making even speech difficult never mind shouting. We pointed and arranged to meet higher up and I retraced my steps.

Apparently, the path was very icy and I noted she had crampons and an axe. That factor, together with the issue of finding the path or failing that, knowing the general direction to take – not towards Grange but to avoid possible hazard lurking ahead at any moment – led me to climb up to the ridge again and return the way I’d come. It might take longer – or possibly not if the descending short cut were technically difficult – but it was the safest and most reliable option.

Coming back down the Manesty hillside I started cursing again where the snowy track had been turned into a slippery run for toboggans, and where there was slight but still hazardous ice for any descent: I’d not noticed this going up and decided for such conditions, I must buy and carry some micro spikes.

It’s now April as I write this. I’ve had two wild camps since this trip, the first uncomfortably and worryingly cold in Threshthwaite Cove, and two nights in the vicinity of the Scafells: the first in upper Eskdale, the second at Three Tarns. The first night was comfortable and it was great to be sleeping in a tent again, the first time since the Pyrenees last year. The second night was grim, cold and unpleasant but the morning was beautiful.

The last two trips were transitional, at the cusp of the seasonal shift from one of the most severe winters on record and spring. My sleeping bag is very light and graded to zero degrees; I was sleeping in conditions of about minus five wearing my base layer, pyjama layer, fleece, hat, and was borderline cold most of the night. The point about this is not so much one of comfort – though that’s significant – as the possibility of a dangerous situation and/or a truly miserable experience. The concern is the temperature may drop lower and hypothermia might begin, making sleep impossible. You would have to get up, dress, and start walking to warm yourself, down to the nearest valley. Then if it starts raining you’re in big trouble, and if the wind starts to chill you it becomes critical. All of this at 2 or 5 in the morning when you are exhausted and, shall we say, not in the best of spirits. Fortunately none of this happened, but it could.

It adds another dimension to walking when you face conditions such as the above, and it’s a kind of mountain training. Decision-making based on prevailing conditions is an important part of mountain craft.

But…roll on the summer. Especially, roll on the Pyrenees 2010 when I return to the wonderful French/Spanish mountains. I’ve now written 30,000 words to accompany about 180 photographs I took last year walking from Lescun to Gavanie; the next stage is to compile these into a book format. The writing is not the usual fare of route finding and trip reports, but a reflection on the philosophy and psychology of mountain walking. Last year, a college in Edinburgh accepted me for a PhD programme on this subject: a combination of academic writing, photography, and walking all the 284 Munros of Scotland. Unfortunately I didn’t have the funding for it but I’m now doing something similar, except based around different mountains and with a more accessible, anecdotal, and less ‘academic’ style.

Here’s the French peak called Le Taillon (3144m), looking across to Spain; walking the Pyrenees takes you across this kind of wonderful terrain:

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book