We walk past daffodils, yellow buds push through green leaves, past snowdrops, brilliant white in the early morning sunshine. I see my first crocuses this year, purple, vibrant, waking to new life. For the last few weeks The Lake District has experienced sudden snaps of warm weather. Is spring beginning to push back winters grip? Has creation has been lulled into a false sense of security?
We set out from Ambleside, along Low Sweden Lane, heading for Low Pike, the start of the classic Fairfield Horseshoe. The route is legend among fell runners and walkers. Since the race was first held in 1966, each year, in May, hundreds of runners race up these slopes, heading for the summit of Fairfield, then descend over Dove Crag and High Pike. The course record was set by Mark Roberts in 2000, with a time of 75minutes 11 seconds.
Our route today will take hours, not minutes. Runners pass us as we climb towards Low Pike. We walk in relative comfort, sheltered from the winds which I know are blasting over the ridge ahead of us. I notice the snow line at around 1500ft. In the last few days it has returned and once again covers the fells. Spring’s presence may fill the valleys, but here, on the mountains, the grip of winter is holding its ground.
Today we will face Hannah’s nemesis: High Pike; the point at which we were beaten back a few weeks ago by strong winds, driving snow, and freezing conditions – and the day my camera froze! Things seem a lot milder now. We scramble up the intriguing rock step just before Cold Pike, using the ‘right foot’, as AW advises in his guidebook to the Eastern Fells.
Safely over, we follow the wall for High Pike. A small inconspicuous sign warns us that we are about to walk across a deep bog. Heading north, we never saw it until we had crossed it. Each of us finds our own path across, but don’t manage to keep our boots clean. Mark takes a flying leap across one of the wider parts. Hannah, not having Mark’s stride, wisely follows me, tentatively stepping onto clumps of grass for support. We make it without being sucked under!
This is as far as we got
At the gate in the wall, just before the summit of High Pike, we stop and reflect. This is as far as we got last time. It will be interesting to see what lies ahead. There are so many little boulders on this ridge that it seems a shame not to scramble up them all. AW writes in his guidebook, “Some of the rocks near the summit are big enough to afford simple practice in climbing.” Hannah has certainly taken this advice on-board, and is furtively searching out all the boulders she can find.
We celebrate on High Pike, and Hannah has a smile of achievement. I had promised a snack stop on Low Pike, but conveniently forgot to remind Hannah about this. She didn’t let me forget on High Pike. The views are fantastic across to red Screes, with High Street stretching away on the horizon. We shelter behind the wall. Winter’s wild winds are picking up, and we are now well above the snow line. It’s surprising how much snow can fall in a few days.
Point of no return
This is the point of no return. I look ahead at the wall running along the exposed ridge towards Dove Crag. The wind is biting. I know the wind-chill is going to be severe. Hannah says she is okay to go on, though her legs are still hurting from two hard days of walking earlier in the week. At least there is no spindrift this time, and the sun is shining through heavy snow clouds. The forecast had predicted heavy snow showers. So far we had escaped them, but, looking at the black clouds over Fairfield, that blessing may not last much longer.
It is an easy enough walk to Dove Crag. The path follows the wall. Some runners dash past us, heading for High Pike. I turn around to watch them – remembering the days when I used to run around the fells. I am surprised: there are about 20 people following us, some with dogs, others families, some in two’s, others in groups. They were not there a few minutes ago. More runners appear, weaving through crowds of walkers.
Dove Crag is an amazing summit. It’s our 19th Wainwright, and now 19 children are saved from trafficking. Those problems all seem a world away as we stand and admire the views, the beauty of the fells, the amazing lighting. We are world’s apart: us, and the walkers around us, enjoying the freedom of leisure in beautiful surroundings, while children are fighting to survive and earn a living thousands of miles away, their lives in danger everyday.
Ups and downs
I had forgotten how sustaining this walk is. From the opposite ridge, its ups and downs are not that readily apparent. We are faced with another descent before the ascent to Hart Crag. Already, the wind and cold is beginning to tell on Hannah, and we try to keep her interested. We have another lunch stop, tucked behind the large rocks that cluster below the summit of Hart Crag. We cannot escape the wind though, and eat sandwiches with frozen fingers. After about five minutes my finger tips have gone numb with the cold, and I suggest we move. The summit of Fairfield is still more than a kilometre away, and we need to cross the plateau in strong winds and biting cold.
We give the summit of Hart Crag a cursory nod, and stride out around Rydal Head. The wind is not the only problem: solid ice covers the path. I curb Hannah’s enthusiasm to have a look over the edge. Explaining the dangers of the snow slopes, which would send her hurtling down thousands of feet in just a few seconds. She now knows what a cornice is.
Walking on ice
On the Fairfield plateau large patches of ice give her the opportunity to practice skating. Although it is the wind that blows her around and not her own technique. I walk with my fingers tucked into my armpits; they haven’t yet thawed after eating my sandwiches.
The views from the shelter on the summit are fantastic. St. Sunday Crag stretches away from Cofa Pike. Behind me, Helvellyn appears placid, like a sleeping giant; pinched between the ridges of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge. But I know that, at the moment, its summit and the approaches are solid ice, and not a place for the casual walker.
We all welcome the rise in temperature on the descent to Great Rigg, although the wind is still hurtling plumes of snow into the air. Only a week ago, I was walking on grass and it felt like spring. Today, the snow lies deep over the path, and there are only patches of the grass. Descending Great Rigg, it is noticeably warmer, but we still receive out first snow shower. Snow and hail stab our faces, hidden behind hoods gripped by frozen fingers.
From Heron Pike we descend rapidly. We are all tired. Hannah is shattered. This has been her, and our, biggest, and most enjoyable, walk since we set out to complete the Wainwrights in January.
There is always a great sense of achievement in completing the Fairfield Horseshoe. I did think, in fact drool, at the thought of a pint in the Golden Rule, but time is against us and I will have to wait until we get back to Kendal.
Home at last
We set out to achieve 10 Wainwrights over the half-term holidays; we did 14. Still a long way to go, but the Easter holidays are looming. Hannah did mention something about never going walking again, but I know she was only joking, I think!