Walking the Edge

With snow swirling and wind gusting our journey to the top was tough, but despite the difficult conditions it was one of my favourite days in the mountains.

Last week was a disappointment. I set out to complete Cadair Idris, but had been forced back as I was unsure of the terrain and the cloud had descended considerably since setting out.

In winter we have to expect that our goals may well be out of reach, we have a lot to contend with. There is more equipment and clothing involved in winter hiking. A fun hike in summer can take on a whole new feel in winter. On top of the increased weight, you also have less daylight and changing ground conditions to contend with. It starts to add up.

Saturday 16th was forecast good visibility, great weather and fantastic views. It seemed like a good opportunity to get some winter mountain shots so I planned a hike in one of my favourite areas of the Lakes. Setting off early again I headed up toward Patterdale, taking the long way from Manchester so as to avoid the snow on Kirkstone Pass. Despite the pass being the only major north to south road in Lakeland that is open, since the floods hit Cumbria a few weeks ago, it is still a mountain pass and as such is prone to heavy snow. I was right to choose the longer route as even the “easier” route was icy and very sketchy to drive in patches.

The weather was looking great. I parked up behind another two guys busy checking kit in the back of their car.

“Morning, where you off up to today?”

I replied optimistically with my route, which was to complete Helvellyn via Striding Edge then drop down the Dollywagon to Nethermost Pike.

“Yeh….we’re just doing the classic round”

The classic means going up Striding Edge, hitting the summit of Helvellyn and descending by Swirral Edge. It is a classic, a fantastically fun day for the weathered hiker and a nerve jangling intro to arete walking for the newbie. Their party of two contained both.

They left around 30 minutes before I did.


Before a winter walk I double check everything, a sensible and common practise among hikers. My planned route was not forgiving and I needed to be sure I could cope with anything. I had equipment for hiking and I had equipment to stay safe. In winter I always have a bothy shelter, first aid kit, whistle, head torch and enough water and food to last the night. This is a worst case scenario, but not unheard of in emergency situations. In fact 2 climbers were required to do just that recently during a rescue within North Wales.

I finished up, locked the car, and set out.

I walked about 5 minutes down the road, taking deep breaths and glancing frequently towards the Helvellyn massif.

“Where are you off to mate?”, the voice caught me out because I hadn’t realised anyone was there. I looked around and a guy across the road was looking back. “Striding Edge, you?”, turns out he was going the same route as me. “You want to walk together?”, learning from last weekend I realised it would be advantageous for us both to hike together. With snow now reaching the valleys it would be safer for both of us to have someone spotting.

We set off, the weather was amazing, the uphill a struggle with a full pack.

back-toward-patterdale

We pushed on, walking through the snow along the path gradually taking us toward our first way-point of “the hole in the wall” a stile where the Patterdale path meets the beginning of Striding Edge. Considering the weather, there were plenty of people out with us. Reassuring sometimes to know you are not alone in this environment.

Looking-toward-helvellyn

As we climbed we noticed a large mass of cloud forming over St Sunday Crags, shown on the left of the last photo. This was a batch of bad weather, which was due in the late afternoon. However each time we stopped to catch our breath and admire the scenery we could see the front advancing faster than expected.

Progress with a full pack is always slow, but with the added difficulty of snow it can be tough to find your energy. My walking partner, whose name I had discovered was Elliot, an ex-para from London now living just north of Blackpool. He was definitely in better shape than me and, in true military style, very good at encouraging me to dig deep. He reckoned I was carrying more, which is true with the photography gear I lump in with all the winter gear, but I still think he would have caned me if we had switched packs.

We reached the hole in the wall shortly after the below photo was taken:

advancing-weather

The front was close now.


Grabbing a sandwich while Elliot chatted with others preparing to continue, I laughed as I tried to work out whether he had even eaten anything up to this point (even by the end of the walk I think he at only one cereal bar!). I scoffed 2 sandwiches, 2 pieces of chocolate and a couple of pieces of banana loaf. It was a high energy lunch.

It was at this point we saw the 2 guys who were parked in front of me. One of which seemed nervous as the weather was rapidly deteriorating. I have to be honest, we questioned our options. It was agreed, we walk to the edge, assess our route and make a decision together, if one of us doesn’t want to go the other will return also.

The weather got drastically worse, goggles on to protect from the spin drift coming off the snow. Axe and crampons deployed, it was getting real.

By the time we reached the edge the wind was manageable, the gusts just adding to the fun. With visibility ranging from between 100ft to about 20ft we were happy to carry on. Importantly both of us were feeling really energised by the conditions. It was a funny feeling, because it probably should have been worrying me, but it really didn’t, I just felt very focussed. A focus I have not experienced often in the mountains. A focus of sort of just wanting to get the job done, concentrating on using the skills I have learnt over time to get up to the top and reach the goal. We pushed on.

elliot_striding_edge

Snow was swirling and the wind was gusting. We were on the edge, we were pushing forward, we were making progress. Many things go through your head at this point, but mostly don’t trip up, tripping would be a disaster.


We made the summit after nearly an hour on the ridge. We reached the summit shelter, a cross of rocks, to find 2 more hikers already there. We were closely followed by two more. The 6 of us laughed about the weather all in agreement that the forecast was wrong and that the front had moved in much quicker than the predictions made. We decided to descend together, it would be safest to remain together on Swirral Edge. Scoffing another couple of sandwiches as my bag filled with snow I treated myself to the hot juice I had in my flask. 5 minutes at the top we were all ready to descend.

Making our way to Swirral Edge we came across another walker looking for his way down after overshooting the edge, he joined our small group and we descended.

As soon as we got to about 700m the conditions improved, we could see further and we all split up to continue our days.

walking-group-split-up

From our vantage point we could just about make out the hole in the wall and our exit back down to the cars. I was physically spent, walking through snow had done me in. As we crossed back across to the hole in the wall I had plenty of time to appreciate the frozen tarn (Red Tarn), below Helvellyn, as I stopped regularly to carb load and get some resemblance of energy back in my muscles.

red-tarn

We continued down the path and along to our exit. Crossing the snowfields, wading through the snow soup. Our axe and crampons away we were able to start our second descent.

A fantastic day in the mountains, a walk that is normally done in 5-6 hours took 8 hours. It was one of the toughest and most rewarding I have had in the mountains. I thoroughly enjoyed having Elliot as company throughout the day. Hiking solo I would not have ventured onto the ridge, but with the added safety of another hiker it was possible for us to get to the summit.

Thanks for reading.