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The Snows of Helvellyn

The Snows of Helvellyn

Postby The English Alpinist » Sat Dec 19, 2015 8:28 pm

Wainwrights included on this walk: Birkhouse Moor, Catstyecam, Dollywaggon Pike, Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Raise, White Side

Hewitts included on this walk: Catstyecam, Dollywaggon Pike, Helvellyn, Raise, White Side

Date walked: 13/12/2015

Time taken: 8.5

Distance: 22.5 km

Ascent: 1523m

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1 Kirkstone.JPG
Kirkstone Pass was passable.

This constituted day 7 of my original 30-day plan to walk all the Wainwrights in a single winter. I need to average 6 walks per month to do this, or more if I choose (or am forced) to split them up and make them shorter. I've done this once already when I beat a retreat in high winds on my first attempt on Blencathra, and completed it another day. Today was a big one, Helvellyn no less, and not only that but on the day of first genuine snow conditions of the year. Overnight it had dropped about 20 inches of snow, but this is what winter mountaineering is all about and I decided to attempt a full day. The first adventure was getting over Kirkstone Pass in the car: edgy. I had no trouble with traction, however, taking it very slow indeed on the way down to Patterdale. I passed what looked like an abandoned car not far below the Inn at the top, deposited diagonally by the roadside. I reckon they'd attempted to get up the evening before when conditions were at their worst. I'm happy to report no such trouble for me. At 8 a.m. I began my walk from Patterdale.

2 Glenridding Beck.JPG
Grisedale Beck.

3d up Birkhouse.JPG
The snow began to swallow me up to the knees.

3c up Birkhouse.JPG
No easier walking by the wall.

I couldn't quite believe it, overnight the landscape had become truly Alpine. Only 3 days ago I had done Fairfield in plain green conditions, and now this. That's Lake District weather for you! The walk up Grisedale and onto Birkhouse Moor was as idyllic as a Christmas card, the snow so crisp I could walk on it in soft approach shoes, my feet getting neither wet nor cold. This strategy was partly to protect my skinned heel from the other day, delaying the putting on of winter boots as long as possible. I needn't have worried: Compeed's blister patch proved to be magnificent all day! The thing I did have to worry about, though, was the deepening snow as I got higher, and the going became utterly torturous. I tried skirting along walls, seeking out heather or rock 'islands', but most of the way to Birkhouse summit proved a sinking and stumbling slog which I feared would knacker me for any further progress not to mention incurring 'time penalties'. The views were absolutely worth it, though, almost Canadian in quality as I gazed down Ullswater from the summit.

4 Ullswater.JPG
Ullswater and an equally snowy Pennines on the horizon.

5 Birkhouse summit.JPG
Birkhouse Moor summit with Catstyecam in view.

I regrouped, changed into my Scarpas which were now necessary, and into crampons which were clearly going to be pretty 'helpful' if not totally necessary. This process caused my hands to get somewhat nipped, but nothing that 10 minutes in winter mitts couldn't put right. I told myself, 'get Catsyecam done at least', then if I was tired or way behind in time I could always descend from there. Progress was barely any easier, with the path well snowed over, but I was encouraged to see a few other walkers up there. Two were coming down Swirral Edge, and they'd crossed over to Striding before I reached Red Tarn. Since the path made little or no difference to progress, I simply went directly up the face of Catstyecam. It did not take too long, and standing atop this pyramidal summit amidst the white panorama is one of life's memorable experiences. A time and 'fuel' check told me there was no reason I couldn't do Swirral Edge and Helvellyn summit as planned. I could check again from there if there was time to do the others. Alas, cloud had now settled over the tops, after what had been a 100% visibility morning. You can't exactly get 'lost' on Swirral Edge, though. You kind of just follow the rocks upward!

7 Cats climb view.JPG
Red Tarn, Helvellyn and Striding Edge from the face of Catstyecam.

8 crampons.JPG
The various footwear worn today (not simultaneously!)

9 Cats summit.JPG
On Catstyecam summit - 2 Wainwrights done.

If you've ever watched The Omen, you'll understand why an encounter with a crow circling overhead might make you think :crazy: It settled nearby on the rocks. Anyway, onward I went. I might have thought twice if there'd been nobody else out there that day, but by now I'd seen a couple of other parties descending via Striding Edge. Well, I actually found Swirral truly enjoyable. It's something you take slowly, anyway, no matter what season. With crampons, footing is easier than walking across snow-drifted moorland. I had not brought my mountain axe, and found hands here and there perfectly sufficed. I'd definitely made a good decision to do the route in reverse, though, rather than coming down this way at the end. Once on the summit plateau, views were zero, aside from 3 spectral figures disappearing into the mist towards a Thirlmere descent. That's as close as I got to actually 'meeting' any of the folk I saw. Who knows, maybe they were actually ALL ghosts.

10a Crow.JPG
The darned thing circled a few metres overhead before landing there.

11b Striding figures.JPG
Clearly enjoying themsleves on Striding Edge.

12 Swirral approach.JPG
Into the further I went...

14 Swirral.JPG
Swirral Edge.

13 Swirral.JPG
Higher on Swirral.

At the top, it was decision time again. I could descend, via either of the Edges, or go north to Raise and then descend, or go south to Grisedale Tarn. I chose to go north, taking in 2 more Wainwrights on the plan. From there I could backtrack and do the two towards Grisedale Tarn also, time permitting. The going was easier on the tops, as it was more windswept without too many deep snow patches. The route was easy enough to follow even though half in cloud. Helvellyn Lower Man was a bit wild, but it always is in my experience. Once I'd reached Raise, I turned back on myself and was back at Helvellyn summit in about an hour. By now visibility was worse, but I was as good as committed to the full plan now. I didn't fancy going down either Edge anyway, and the route over Nethermost and Dollywaggon felt safer if a bit longer. I had time, assuming all went well (which is something you always need to 'assume' very carefully).

15b white side.jpg
Various frozen summits: White Side, Raise, Helvellyn.

A taste of true fear set in at this point. The ridge south of Helvellyn was worse for snow. It had settled more consistently, and I worried in case it became literally impassable. The path was all but invisible. It poked through in just enough places for me to follow it, and with the backing of a compass bearing (basically I only needed to head southish all the time to reach Grisedale Tarn in about an hour) I reckoned I was okay. Without the compass and a good map I'd have been in a quite a bit of trouble I think. Occasionally I was tempted to second-guess myself, and descend what 'looked' right, but probably would have led me into crag peril to the east or the considerable inconvenience of an erroneous descent towards Thirlmere. The presence of footprints offered reassurance, but of course they were not necessarily leading where I wanted to go.

On the principle of keeping the crags to my left and heading south I found my way to the tarn. The descent to it was quite steep, and I stumbled several times in the snow, but these were just annoying rather than dangerous. I was very pleased indeed when the tarn loomed out of the mist. Unfortunately, I believe I passed a few metres below Dollywaggon summit, and possibly Nethermost too. All things considered, I'm counting them as done!! That was scary, and I'm just thankful there was no actual snowing into the bargain. On reflection, the worst that might have happened was that I'd spend a benightment wrapped in all my gear and the survival bag: not nice, but not exactly Siberia.

16 Nethermost.JPG
Nethermost Pike summit - I think.

17a Dollywaggon.jpg
It's called 'The Post' (can't think why). Encouraging sight but was not Dollywaggon summit.

18 Grisedale.JPG
Beautiful: Grisedale Tarn is reached.

At the tarn, the walking was much easier, not least because of full visibility again. The valley view down towards Patterdale was welcome beyond words, and I could enjoy the rest of the day. The snow got less and less, the path better and better, and I was well down before darkness fell. At 4.30 p.m. I was back at the car, the whole thing having taken 8.5 hours instead of the projected 7.5, so no big deal really. On the other hand, a nice reminder how things 'might' go wrong. Also, I'm wondering what the weather will hold from now on. Is the snow here to stay? GPS is something to think about too.

19 Grisedale down.JPG
Even more beautiful: my way down.

20b down.JPG
Another completion in fading light.

[size=150]PS: 4 days later the snow was totally gone, thanks to milder temperatures and - inevitably - rain.[/size

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Last edited by The English Alpinist on Sun Dec 20, 2015 11:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Snows of Helvellyn

Postby ChrisW » Sun Dec 20, 2015 6:29 am

As you rightly say TEA, almost Canadian in quality (all you're missing is some blue skies :wink: ) it's one more great step toward your inevitable success with some quite hairy moments along the way. Another enjoyable read, shame the snow has cleared away so quickly but that's the way of it this year I guess. I'm already looking forward to the next installment :clap:
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Re: The Snows of Helvellyn

Postby The English Alpinist » Sun Dec 20, 2015 11:05 am

Thanks Chris. I've done 2 smaller walks since, but not got round to uploading them yet.
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Re: The Snows of Helvellyn

Postby simon-b » Sun Dec 20, 2015 7:38 pm

Another good one, TEA. Nice to see a bit of winter in Lakeland. More of those conditions would be better than the unseasonal mild weather and all the rain it's bringing. But at least enough roads are now open to let you travel to your walks.
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Re: The Snows of Helvellyn

Postby Riverman » Sun Dec 20, 2015 11:09 pm

Great report. Conditions UK wide this month seem awful. Hopefully we'll see a temperature drop soon and more of the white stuff. Good luck with the others.
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Re: The Snows of Helvellyn

Postby dav2930 » Mon Dec 21, 2015 12:16 am

Not easy conditions those - hard work, and Swirral can be tricky in soft powder (especially in descent). Well done for persevering. Looks like you're making good headway in your mission.

Ps - that's an impressive inversion over Ullswater and the Eden Valley in your 5th photo.
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Re: The Snows of Helvellyn

Postby The English Alpinist » Tue Dec 22, 2015 1:07 am

Yep, rain is the worst thing guys. Rather fed up of it!
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Re: The Snows of Helvellyn

Postby Salfordwhite » Tue Dec 22, 2015 7:47 pm

Great report. Good to see you walking in conditions that your name and project deserve. The weather and road updates are useful too.
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Re: The Snows of Helvellyn

Postby trailmasher » Tue Dec 22, 2015 9:19 pm

Once again a great effort and report with photos to boot :clap: As you say, it's donkey work in deep snow and one just has to KBO :wink: . The top of Nethermost is hard to determine in the best of weather never mind when covered in snow TEA :( Your mission seems to be going OK and good luck with the rest of it :clap:
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