Blizzards and Hailstones on Brim Fell

It should have been an easy walk along the ridge over Swirl How to the summit of Brim Fell, but we ended up fighting through blizzards and hailstones.

Coniston, Lake District. — It should have been an easy walk along the ridge over Swirl How to the summit of Brim Fell. We ended up fighting through blizzards and hailstones and experiencing freezing temperatures before becoming disorientated contouring along an indistinct path in thick cloud.

On our first walk for five weeks, we set out from the famous Three Shires Stone above Wrynose Pass to traverse along the track that climbs to Wet Side Edge. Our walk will take us over the Carrs and Swirl How before reaching the summit of Brim Fell.

Thick cloud hugs the summits. Below our boots, Wrynose Bottom stretches away towards the arduous Hardknott Pass and the rain-filled waters of the beck glisten silver in the sunlight.

On another day, with a higher cloud base, the Scafell mountains would be visible. But today we watch a snow shower race along the valley before turning our backs on it and head along the edge towards Hell Gill Pike.

Within minutes we are in the cloud, the route is lost, and it is hard to find the correct path; I am sure our way lies to the east. Another path obviously leads down the side of Hell Gill–a route we don’t want to follow. The compass bearing points to Hell Gill Pike.

We intersect the path again, which has turned a dog-leg below us. Feeling confident again, we clamber over the cairned top of Hell Gill Pike and continue towards the rocky top of Little Carrs.

Shifting clouds and landmarks

On the ridge, between Little Carrs and Great Carrs I teach Hannah how to use a compass to locate her position on the map.  A distinctive dip along the ridge between Wetherlam and Swirl How provides the first landmark. Seconds later it disappears, hidden by clouds; we mark a line on the map.

The second point is a little more tricky, as we cannot see anything. For a fleeting second we see Little Langdale Tarn, four kilometres away. It provides us with our second landmark. I draw another line on the map and point out the intersection marking our position on the ridge. Hannah takes a bearing for Great Carrs, and we set off.

While we walk, the clouds part for a few minutes and we delight in the fantastic views of the Greenburn Valley. From dizzy heights, we gaze down a precipitous gully to Greenburn Reservoir.

At the summit of Little Carrs–our first Wainwright today–the cloud descends. The ridge now turns eastwards along Broad Slack, before the short climb to the summit of Swirl How.

‘S’ For Sugar is missing

Balancing over Greenburn Valley near Great Carrs
The cross marking the site of the Halifax Bomber (S For Sugar) which crashed in 1944 near Brim Fell
The site of the crash of the Halifax Bomber 'S' For Sugar in 1944 on Swirl How, Brim Fell

The crash site on Broad Slack, near Swirl How, where the Halifax bomber ‘S’ For Sugar crashed on 22nd October, 1944

’S’ For Sugar is missing

It was at this place, on October 22 1944, during a training flight, that ’S’ for Sugar crashed into the hillside killing the crew of eight.

A memorial now marks the site, while the rest of the Halifax bomber lies strewn down the scree over the ridge. Red poppies, maybe from last November, adorn the small cairn.

As we stand by the cairn on Swirl How, the weather deteriorates.  Heavy snow and hail sting our faces as we gaze over to misty Wetherlam. Cold wind whips snow in all directions, and after a few minutes, we set out again, fighting to keep warm against the wind chill.

Hannah on the summit of Swirl How, before heading for Brim Fell

Blizzards and hailstones on Brim Fell

Our next mountain, Brim Fell, will be tricky. The wind intensifies and within minutes we lose all visibility. The temperature plummets and wind-driven hailstones the size of peas stab us in the face. We are on a ridge; otherwise, I would consider turning back. Hannah is feeling the cold, and we cannot get out of the wind. The summit of Brim Fell is over two kilometres away and on a broad plateau.

At Levers Hawse, we meet a group of walkers, a family, the only people we have seen today. By now, we are in a whiteout. The strong south-west wind swirls snow in every direction.

Determined to reach the summit, we start the climb out of Levers Hawse. Navigation is essential. I take a bearing for the summit cairn. A line of cairns marks the way, the only things we can see. Looking into the wind is impossible because of the hailstones and we continue with our heads down, keeping the compass aligned.

Hannah, ascending Brim Fell in whiteout conditions

Discretion is the better part of valour

The summit is now one kilometre away, Walking on level ground it should take us about 20 minutes, but in these conditions, I reckoned about 25 minutes. It must be over 20 years since I visited Brim Fell so I cannot remember any of its features. My watch shows 796m; we have walked about 20 minutes, we must be close.

Apart from the cairns, the landscape is featureless. Before us lies an indistinct, snow-driven, hail-lashed mountain with the summit nowhere in sight.

Behind a large cairn we eat our lunch while I consider our options. Hannah is getting cold, and a little demoralised. Five minutes will be enough. We cram down sandwiches, hot chocolate and sweets before deciding to head back down.

We are at the same height as the summit, the weather is dangerous, and I do not want to wander around in these conditions just to touch a pile of rocks.

The walkers that we had met earlier sit near us. They are also heading for the summit, but after a discussion we both agree that discretion is the better part of valour and descend. Another Wainwright ticked off; summit reached. That’s my opinion. I would not put Hannah in danger just to touch a cairn.

A path contours the fell just after Levers Hawse and avoids the climb over Swirl How and Great Carrs, then rejoins the ridge just before Hell Gill Pike; it will keep us out of the fierce wind and driven snow.

We follow what looks like the path; it is distinctive for a while but then peters out, disappearing under the snow. Unperturbed, we clamber over large boulders. I hope to find the path again, but I soon realise that we are not going to.

Nowhere to go

The visibility is zero; there are no landmarks. We are heading north along the valley over the rocks of Kidson How and Whity Head although we should be higher that this. I had taken a lower path, a sheep trail, but we are now committed and need to keep going, it’s better than trying to reverse our route.

The going is tough. We clamber over snow-covered, ankle-snapping boulders, cross streams, and continue in thick cloud with no exit visible. The hills tower above before disappearing into mist. We should be traversing just below the ridge. I keep following the bearing, doing my best to encourage Hannah, but I can tell she is tiring.

To return, is still an option, but that would finish Hannah. The way ahead is best, to head for Fairfield, to keep going and meet the path to Grey Friar, but I wasn’t sure of our exact location.

Navigation in thick mist can be demoralising and disconcerting when you are uncertain where you are. I keep encouraging Hannah, telling her I know where we are. I do, in a way.

Obscured by clouds

Convinced that the compass is giving me a false reading, I turn the map trying to coax the needle to move to where I want it to be. I don’t want to admit it, but we are heading in the wrong direction.

I stop. Time to get things sorted. Are we going the wrong way? Impossible, we are walking along the side of a hill.

What is the compass showing me? Main fact: a compass is never wrong. It is pointing south-west. We should be heading north. I accept it and realise that we have reached the headwall of the valley and are turning the corner. We have walked farther than I had realised. In the mist, with no landmarks, I had become disorientated.

I take a new bearing, from where I estimate we are, to the path above us. Then, thinking we have a hard climb ahead, I feed Hannah with mint cake and High Five to keep her strength up for the climb.

“We need to climb this hill to the path,” I said.

Surprised by the climb

We both laugh, the climb surprises us. It was Hannah that noticed the path. I never realised I was standing on it until she pointed it out. Our climb had taken only a few minutes, and not fifteen.

The cloud lifts and we cheer, although I am still unsure of our position. Westward the track splits into three. It takes seconds to locate this landmark on the map. We are within ten metres of the point I had aiming for when we left Levers Hawse over an hour ago.

While walking in thick cloud, without landmarks, can be exciting, the navigation needs to be exact. We had made it, and with a spring in our steps we head for Hell Gill Pike, contouring underneath Little Carrs.

The cloud drops again. Zero visibility.
“Are you sure we are going the right way,” asked Hannah.
“Certainly,” I replied.
“Next time can we go over the tops and not that way again.” she replied.

As we reach Hell Gill Pike and join the path that runs along Wet Side Edge, the sun shines through a break in the clouds. Behind us, a fantastic snowy, sunlit ridge stretches away over Swirl How and towards Brim Fell now devoid of cloud, snow, or hailstones; it is beautiful.

“Should we go back?” I quiz.

No reply. The answer is obvious, and anyway, Hannah is already heading down the hill for the car.

Descending Wet Side Edge after Brim Fell to Wrynose towards Pike O'Blisco and Cold Pike
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