It seemed we might have a window, a break in the weather, a chance to get out this weekend, so we decided to go for it. Sunday’s forecast looked favourable, especially in the afternoon, after a run of heavy snow showers.
I reckoned that we would do the early climbing and then bask in sunshine during our ridge walk over the Fairfield Horseshoe. There are eight Wainwrights on this route. I did considering reserving this walk for summer, when we would have more daylight, but the sight of the Lake District mountains sitting resplendent under a mantle of fresh snow was too inviting.
Originally, I had considered a walk along High Street and back down the Troutbeck Valley, but I felt this was too much of a push in winter, even for Hannah who is turning into a diamond, considering she has never done much fell walking before.
With the prospect of heavy snow showers ahead of us we turned along the lane opposite the Golden Rule pub in Ambleside, and headed for High Sweden Bridge. I glanced over my shoulder – at the pub – and considered the chance of a pint on the way back, maybe.
High Sweden Bridge is an old packhorse bridge and crosses Scandale Beck, which, in winter, like today, roars down the valley off Scandale Fell and the higher peaks of Dove Crag and High Hartsop Dodd. To the right, the high flanks of Red Screes bear down on us, its craggy nature, on the eastern side from Kirkstone Pass, hidden from us.
A couple of heavy snow showers had already battered us, before we moved onto the fell and climbed the path towards Low Pike. We could see the weather, wild and aggressive ahead of us. For much of the time the mountain tops were hidden beneath howling spindrifts of snow that were being whipped along the ridges.
Behind me, the sun was fighting to get away from a bank of black, stormy clouds that covered Windermere and most of Ambleside. Occasionally, the Wansfell ridge looked dramatic; it was rimmed with silver light, and the snow was being whipped into mini-tornados, that swirled along before dropping into Ambleside.
Climbing into blizzards
We climbed higher, sheltered from the wind along the lee of the wall. It seemed as though we were in the Antarctic. Snow storms continuously whipping around us. Visibility was impossible, and we just had to stop when they hit us, turn our backs, and wait.
The mountains are fantastic in these conditions. At times the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the fells, making our effort all the more worth while. We were not disappointed, and relished the prospect of walking along these enticing ridges on our descent. The sunlight broke through and ran along the ridge over Fairfield, Great Rigg, Heron Pike, turning grey snow into brilliant white against blue sky. For a few seconds we gazed on the awe inspiring beauty of God’s creation, then again we turned our back against the icy snow, huddling together like penguins in the Antarctic, waiting for the wind to stop.
Cold Pike and onwards
The inconspicuous top of Cold Pike, is really just a rise at the end of the ridge, but it afforded us shelter behind some large rocks where we had something to eat, and put on extra gear. We fixed Hannah’s gators over her boots; the snow was getting deep now. It was great to relax and stop, after spending the last hour or so fighting against sporadic blizzards. We thought we were sheltered, but then the wind picked up again, and the sharp stabbing snow, which was partly ice, came scurrying around the crag in all directions; there was no shelter.
Our next summit, High Pike, certainly looked high. In fact, outlined against the biting blizzards it was indistinguishable. At times we were in a whiteout, and just had to follow the wall, grabbing glimpses of the route ahead, underneath hands that shielded our frozen faces from the stabbing ice.
Hannah was finding it hard going through the deep snow and biting winds, I kept a close eye on her. It was about this time that I knew we weren’t going to complete the walk. I decided that High Pike would be our last summit and then we would descend, which was a shame because by then all the hard work had have been done. She was doing fantastically. I was amazed at her resilience. Without any previous experience of these severe conditions, she was coping very well. We kept her amused at times with snowball fights, and she found the deep snow exciting, much different from what usually laid on the ground at home.
By now we were geared up like Antarctic explorers, fighting through snow drifts, wincing at the sharp snow, and leaning into gale force winds, that, I later found out, had sent the wind chill plummeting to -16 degrees. The top of High Pike loomed above us. All I could see of it was the black outline of a wall rising into the sky and disappearing into snow flurries. It wasn’t far now, probably only about 30 foot above us, but we had taken more time than I had expected. I told Hannah, that once we had reached the top we would be going back down, she seemed pleased. I also knew that she wanted to go on, but it was too dangerous for her.
Blown of the summit
The snow was knee deep, as we approached the summit. The wind buffeted our heads for the last few feet. We had just stepped over the edge, only feet from the top, when the full fury of the wind hit us. I was filming, hoping for some dramatic footage of us standing on the summit. Maybe the wind would stop, I thought, the sun would come out, and the view would be tremendous. It wasn’t to be. The wind blew us off the top. Mark and Hannah crashed into the snow. I fell backwards into a drift. My camera froze, and we made a hasty retreat to the shelter of the wall.
The wind continued to buffet us, throwing us across the fell. Our descent wasn’t going to be as easy as I had anticipated. Many times I was knocked off my feet, and Hannah, when the gusts came, just kneeled and planted her pole into the snow, sitting there, waiting for it to abate.
We reached Low Pike and descended into the shelter of the walls. A wall ran across the wind, we sat behind it, perfectly sheltered, and ate our lunch. All of us are feeling very hungry, our bellies are empty. We looked forward to the descent into Ambleside, glad to be off the mountains.
I glanced back and stared in disbelief. The wind had eased. The ridges were visible; running along the horizon in walls of brilliant white, bathed in sunshine against a deep blue sky. It seemed incongruous, that after our epic battles and hasty descent, there was now hardly any indication of the conditions that we had fought through for the last four hours. The closer we got to Ambleside, the more serene the mountains became. Tourists passed us, climbing out from Low Sweden Bridge, out for a Sunday afternoon stroll, dressed casually in jackets, dogs running ahead, children followed their parents. It all seemed to much. Hannah couldn’t believe it, although she didn’t want to go back, not yet at least.