Winter’s wind snarls, its white teeth bite our faces as we scramble over rocks and walk onto the summit plateau of Eel Crag. The incongruous May blizzard washes the summit with snow and ice, and spring’s delicate corniches, tentatively clinging to the edges of hidden rocks, imperceptibly slide into the Coledale Valley to crash and explode on the rocks a 1,000 foot below us. Lowry-like figures flit around behind snow-white veils of mist.
By the fractured trig point that marks the summit, we stand in a white-out, squinting against the stabbing snow. There’s only time for a quick picture, before we turn and make our descent. Across the valley, the mountains are now just faint shadows.
Ten in a day on Coledale
Today we are aiming for ten Wainwrights, though I am not optimistic, the weather is lousy. Last week we walked in t-shirts, but now, with the wind-chill, it is freezing. Earlier in the week, the days had been greeted with picturesque white fells, heavy snowfalls, and plunging temperatures. Again, we are carrying our winter gear.
“Let’s just go for it,” I said.
Small stick-like figures walking along a distant ridge, silhouettes against a backdrop of storm clouds. They must have set off early, to get back early. Perhaps they also know what is coming: heavy snow, with strong winds and rain in the valleys.
It is not the best of days to venture onto the demanding hills of the Coledale Horseshoe, but we need to get some more Wainwrights under our belt. Our target was 60 by the end of April. We have climbed 48 so far, another 10 today will keep us on target.
Rugged rock steps lead onto the summit of Grisedale Pike, while the view back down into Grisedale Beck and Whinlatter is inspiring. A mountain biker appears on the ridge just behind us, and sits down to rest, the massif of Skiddaw rising behind him.
Hopegill Head is a spectacularly pointed peak from this angle. While to our left, the great dome of Grasmoor overshadows Coledale Hause. We have a snowball fight while walking above Hobcarton Crag, its north faces not yet warmed by the spring sunshine.
I draw my hood to cover my face, protection against the icy snow that is howling across the summit; wisely we draw back from the edge. On its western side, Hopegill Head is just a walk up a grassy slope, but its northern face, with sheer drops and rocky crags show its true nature.
A Sand Hill, but no sand
The teeth of the blizzard are biting, as we walk rapidly across Sand Hill, leaning into the wind. There is no sand on Sand Hill, and probably a lot wiser people than I have considered why this hill has such an incongruously sounding name.
Gripping the stones on the cairn we pose for pictures before the wind blows us of our feet and we collapse in a heap. Mark and Hannah race ahead to Coledale Hause to find shelter from the strength-sapping wind, and a suitable place for a snack.
Over the past few months I have come to better understand the metabolism of children on the hill: they need more food, more rests, and a constant intake of snacks and drinks. It keeps their legs going, and helps us to complete these amazing walks.
Wainwrights bite the dust
I know the Coledale Horseshoe is going to be very testing for Hannah. Whiteside has already bit the dust – removed from the agenda, too much for today – and now Grasmoor goes the same way. That leaves eight mountains. Already heavy snow showers are racing towards us, carried on the southerly wind. The central fells are concealed behind a curtain of snow, and although we cannot feel the wind, we can hear it, roaring around the crags behind us.
Many walkers had given up and are heading down Coledale Beck, to the safety of Keswick. The cold makes its way into our bones. Mark is wearing shorts, rather him than me, but he is determined not to be beaten by winter’s reluctance to give in to spring.
The crags on the North face of Eel Crag look inviting. Hannah thinks that Keswick has more appeal. I eye a route up through a gully and onto the summit. I talk to Mark. Hannah jumps into the conversation. “Yeah, let’s go,” she says. She’s always one for an adventure, and happy now that we are not going up Grasmoor.
The OS map names this as Crag Hill, confusing! Wainwright calls the mountain Eel Crag, so that’s good enough for us. Eel Crag it is, straight up the North face. Hannah leads the way, excited that she can now get in some scrambling.
Exposed on Eel Crag
The route up Eel Crag is amazing, giving airy scrambles over the rocks. We venture to the edge and peer into the valley, impressed by the sheer beauty of these mountains, they are so steep and rugged, quite different from the central Lakeland fells. I cannot get used to the steepness of the valleys, as they lead straight down, dropping into becks and waterfalls.
By the fractured trig point we turn for Sail and Scar Crags. Hannah is suffering now, she is having trouble with her legs. I think the tendon on the outside of her knee is troubling her, although she is happy to continue rather than give in.
I want to add Causey Pike to our route and then come back for Outerside and Barrow. There is dissension in the ranks as we pass the inconspicuous cairn on Scar Crags. We are all suffering now. Not really from the distance or the height we have climbed, but more from the incessant strong winter winds that have accompanied us ever since Hopegill Head.
Battered and bruised before Barrow
We are tired of being battered. Our faces are red, and Hannah’s face mirrors how we are all feeling. She just wants to get down, and even the promise of a treat at the Keswick chippy doesn’t lift her spirits. It looks like my plan to go over Outerside and Barrow is falling apart.
In the sheepfold nestled below Outerside we consume all the remaining food and water, I try to gauge the response to going over these last two peaks. Hannah is adamant that she won’t. Yet it seems such a shame not to, as we will have to return at a later date. But the food refuelling exercise seems to have worked when Mark suggests that we do Outerside. It isn’t high, only 100ft, but it looks massive to tired eyes.
Mark leads off, with a direct ascent through ankle-deep heather. This appeals to Hannah, and she’s off. It takes four stops, dozing in deep heather, sheltered from the wind, before we stand on the top. Hannah is now burnt out. I empathically delete Barrow from our list, and we make a bee-line for Keswick.
Fish & Chips in Keswick
I promise her a very easy walk next week, nothing over a 1,000 foot, and no more than two hills. The promise of fish and chips at The Old Keswickian is still on, but I think the chance of Daddy’s pint afterwards has gone.
We trek out of Coledale and enter Braithwaite, where Mark runs to get the car while we sit on a bench, unpack, and have a hug. We have climbed 3,937 feet and walked nearly 10 miles in strong winds and blizzards. I tell her how proud I am at what she has done, and she says that she was glad to have done it, but added that she isn’t going out again for another month. I know she is joking, I think!
Mark arrives, we jump into the car and head for Keswick’s famous fish and chip shop.