Whiteout on the Old Man

Whiteout over Coniston Old Man and Dow Crag as we complete half our Wainwrights for Tearfund

Walk underneath the imposing crags that tower above the magical setting of Goat’s Water and you cannot but give in to the desire to return another day with rope and harness.

Coniston, Lake District. — The sky has cleared, the forecast is excellent; this is it! My emotive vision of a spectacular sunrise has us rise from our beds at 5.30am and skid up the Walna Scar Road before dawn. In the east, the sky is lightening. Dawn’s rosy tinge threads along the horizon, heralding the sunrise.

It is February, and the days are growing longer, soon it will be light by 7am. These are the last days to witness the sunrise, or at least at a respectable hour.

Ahead of us, pinpricks of light bounce across the fell resembling twinkling stars, as walkers wind their way along dark paths. The bulk of Coniston Old Man (2634ft) is just discernible against a dark, azure-blue sky.

By head torch, we head for the gate and the start of the path. Brittle ice covers the road. We cling to the fence, slipping, trying to keep upright.

Crisp snow crunches underneath our boots, its squeaks resonating in the fresh morning air, broken only by the occasional cawing of ravens stirring among the black crags ahead.

Overnighting on Coniston

We meet other walkers, who, like us, have risen before dawn. Others descend, greeting us as they pass. It is only 8am and they had been to the summit, maybe overnight. But why leave the mountain before the sunrise?

Pink snow sits on the ridges. To the northeast, the sun’s rosy fingers paint Wetherlam. In ice and shadow, the hills wake to the new day. Near the mine workings, which for 300 years, until the 1940’s, provided copper for industry, the ridge leads to the top of our 106th Wainwright, just one before our halfway mountain: Dow Crag.

Winter sunrise on Wetherlam

winter sunrise on wetherlam

The magical hour

In the light of dawn, more walkers appear on the fell. A large group follow our tracks as we make our way out of the valley and onto the ridge. A blast of sunlight blinds us as we round a corner and, for the first time, its warmth caresses our faces, melting away the chilled air that grips our cheeks and nose.

The sun pulls itself above the horizon. It is the magical hour, the time after sunrise–or before sunset–when the hills display their splendour. To the north, the cloud is building and being blown towards us by the north wind.

sunrise on the path to Coniston Old Man

Dow Crag or Coniston?

Last month, I had considered making Scafell our halfway Wainwright, but because of the time involved in reaching the summit and the inclement weather I considered Coniston Old Man for this honour. But how could we get another mountain in before it? We could climb Dow Crag first, but then we would walk facing the sun for most of the day.

‘Crag Rats’

Dow Crag (2553ft) has a fantastic pedigree and deserves to be our halfway Wainwright. The home of Lakeland mountaineering, it was the haunt of the Coniston Tigers, that hardy group of climbers immortalised in Harry Griffiths’ book of the same name. These ‘crag rats’ put up many classic routes. Walk underneath the imposing crags that tower above the magical setting of Goat’s Water and you cannot but give in to the desire to return another day with rope and harness.

Painting the Crags

It was for the views of Dow Crag that I chose Coniston Old Man as our first mountain. I want to see the sun-kissing majestic crags in the early morning light. Today, as we reach the top of the ridge and crest the summit, we are blessed with this inspiring view.

Walkers on the near the summit of Coniston Old Man
Tea on the snow-covered summit of Coniston Old Man

Sitting in the snow, we brew tea and watch the crags. Dark crenellated rocks, burning orange underneath a solar paintbrush, are wiped with colour as it descends over empty climbing routes.

In a few months, the voices of climbers will echo over these silent crags that now only resound to the cawing of ravens.

The crags of Dow Crag in early morning light

More walkers gather on the summit, eager for the winter spectacle of the blue-sky forecast. A few of them clamber on the top of the large cairn. Others sit on its eastern side, eating sandwiches and gazing across Low Water towards Wetherlam and in the distance, Helvellyn.

Low Water, Wetherlam and Helvellyn from Coniston Old Man

Whiteout on Dow Crag

The favourable weather is short-lived. Clouds fill the sky. The morning becomes a drab, grey blanket of light, as the sunlight flutters and is gone. Snow-laden clouds glide towards us obscuring the view west to Scafell. We know what is coming; so packing our stuff we descend towards Goat’s Hawse and Dow Crag.

On the descent, Hannah jumps into thigh-deep drifts, slides along slopes, and makes the most of the deep snow. Walkers trudge past us heading for the summit, despondent that the day has turned. A group sits in the hawse, drinking tea and eating sandwiches, resting after their climb from Goat’s Water. It is lunchtime, our bellies rumble; a quick snack then we begin the climb.

The ascent to the summit of Dow Crag took half an hour and we are soon sitting among the rocks with other walkers. It is obviously the highest point, but the wind has picked up and the first snowflakes fleck our jackets. With the wind blowing in our faces, we take shelter for lunch.

Walking blindly through snow

Leaving the summit of Dow Crag in a whiteout

Swarthy north-west clouds veil the mountains. Our lunch boxes fill up with snow. Cold winds freeze our fingers.

The horizon disappears and we are in a whiteout. Any landmarks have disappeared. There is no longer any distinction between land and sky.

It is surreal: to sit here eating and drinking. We are the only people on the mountain–no other walkers visible.

Behind us, through the blizzard, dark crags, rimmed with verglas, plunge for hundreds of feet into the valley.

On the summit of Dow Crag in a blizzard

Halfway Wainwright

A short climb over the highest rock, a picture, the summit photograph, and we have reached our 107th Wainwright. We have completed half of the 214 we set out to achieve last January.


We celebrate, not with a beer–that will come later–but in a huddled group sheltering behind a rock from the biting north wind.


Just over a kilometre along the ridge, over Buck Pike and Brown Pike, is the Walna Scar Road, our route home. To our left, sheer crags drop into the valley.


Cornices hang precariously, waiting for the thaw. We keep away from them. In the white-out, the place they start and end is hard to perceive.

Sliding home for a pint

At the end of the ridge, the path descends to the Road. This is the moment we have been waiting for: the pleasure of a hundred foot snow slide into the valley. Mark has gone, slipping into the mist. Hannah soon follows with the other Ana. With a pair of cross-country skis, it would make a fantastic ending to the day, but we have to make do with mats and cagoules to speed our uncontrolled descent.

A climber on Dow Crag during a whiteout

Ahead of us lies a three-kilometre walk back to the car along a track that leads past disused quarry workings and centuries of history. With another 107 Wainwrights to go, and Hannah recovered from her injuries, our target to raise funds to prevent child trafficking is now achievable.

Descending to the Walna Scar Road

Before us lie the spring and summer months, and the hope of long scrambles in sunshine up rocky ridges and overnight camps on summits underneath the stars. But, for now, we trudge joyfully through ankle deep snow in biting winds to reach the car and then the warmth of the pub for a pint, of Wainwright, obviously!

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