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The Snows of Helvellyn
by 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: 1523m6 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
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.
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.
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!
If you've ever watched The Omen, you'll understand why an encounter with a crow circling overhead might make you think 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.
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).
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.
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.
[size=150]PS: 4 days later the snow was totally gone, thanks to milder temperatures and - inevitably - rain.[/size
by ChrisW » Sun Dec 20, 2015 6:29 am
by The English Alpinist » Sun Dec 20, 2015 11:05 am
by simon-b » Sun Dec 20, 2015 7:38 pm
by Riverman » Sun Dec 20, 2015 11:09 pm
by dav2930 » Mon Dec 21, 2015 12:16 am
Ps - that's an impressive inversion over Ullswater and the Eden Valley in your 5th photo.
by The English Alpinist » Tue Dec 22, 2015 1:07 am
by Salfordwhite » Tue Dec 22, 2015 7:47 pm
by trailmasher » Tue Dec 22, 2015 9:19 pm