Saturday, 3 December 2011

Blencathra via Sharp Edge

Every year there is a small group of people in Britain who get ridiculously giddy at the first sign of snow on a British weather forecasters map. These people even have their own weather forums and in recent years have used Twitter hash tags to create a website that shows live snowfall as it happens. These people have even been known to stay up staring out of their windows all night, without even sleeping, in the hope of seeing snow flakes fall past the glow of their streets lights. These people travel around with a spare sledge in the boot of their car, even though they don't have children. I have to confess I am one of these people and some of my friends refer to me as The Snowman. So when I saw the Mountain Weather Information Services forecasts mention snow a few days ago I couldn't believe my luck, as I had actually booked two days off work. Deciding where to go on Thursday night was made easy when tweets started coming through on Twitter by reliable sources saying that a sprinkling of snow had fallen on the Lakeland fells over eight hundred metres above sea level.

Ascent path from Scales

I had originally planned to go to Scotland this long weekend but a combination of not being rich and extortionate fuel prices made me think again. I did want to do something I hadn't done before as I tend to find myself being a bit boring sometimes and sticking to my favourite walks. So I decided on the Newlands Horseshoe which I have wanted to do for some time. I packed my winter gear the night before as I knew I would need to set off as early as possible to get up to the Lake District, as there are not many daylight hours this time of year. So full winter gear packed, including ice axe and crampons, I set off at half six in the morning. Traffic was just before rush hour so I soon found myself dashing trouble free up the M6. As I approached the South Lakes junction I looked left and squinted through the windscreen trying to spot any signs of the white stuff. Unfortunately although I could see the tips of the Coniston Fells, none of them had snow on. 'Oh well' I thought to myself, at least I can just put my normal boots on and do a decent walk. Then it dawned on me, being in a rush this morning I stupidly hadn't picked up my walking boots!

Tarn Crags above Scales Tarn

Luckily I did grab my winter walking boots. These are obviously very stiff boots and not the kind of footwear designed for a long horseshoe walk, so plans had to be changed. Most of the tweets about snow the night before had mentioned Blencathra. Being short in distance and easily accessible from the main road it is ideal for a quick jaunt. It also happens to be one of the best mountains in the Lakes and I dare say probably my favourite. My preferred route being an ascent of the knife edge Sharp Edge ridge and a descent of the Halls Fell Ridge. As I passed the Howgills I was convinced the snow may have gone as none of the Howgills beautiful round lumps had white stuff on them. My faith was soon restored when crossing Shap. I looked left to see High Street and Helvellyn topped by the bright white stuff. With a Smile on my face I turned off at the North Lakes junction and made my way along the A66 towards Keswick. After a few miles a white topped Blencathra came into view. I pulled into the layby at Scales, parked up and kitted myself. From the A66 I could also see the Newlands Horseshoe which didn't seem to have snow on any of it's peaks.

Snow showers over Scales Tarn

I set off along the A66 then turned up the path between the houses to reach the open land below Scales Fell. I turned right and ascended the path above Mousthwaite Combe to reach the col between Souther Fell and Scales Fell. Looking back from the ascent path I could see that Great Dodd was the lucky mountain with the most snow cover. It even looked as though it had more snow on it than the higher Helvellyn. I turned left and headed up the Glenderamackin Valley to reach Scales Beck where I ascended it's banks to reach the stunning glacial hollow of Scales Tarn. I stood at the tarn soaking up its dark yet strangely calming atmosphere. The cliffs of Tarn Crags were lightly dusted with snow, making it's usually over powering cliffs look unusually gentle. I had to make a decision now, do I or don't I tackle Sharp Edge. I have done it in cloud and sunshine but never in slushy ice and snow. My heart was saying do it, my head was saying don't. My heart won and I set off on the ascent path to the start of the Sharp Edge ridge. As I climbed the clouds came down and wind picked up. It started snowing, that hail like Graupel snow that blasts into your face like sand.

Sharp Edge

I managed to get to the half way point along the ridge along the easier path that skirts the ridge to the right. Half way though the path disappears and I had to get up on to the crest of the ridge. With great difficulty I reached the crest of the ridge and made my way carefully along to the drop just before the infamous Bad Step. After loosing my footing on several occasions and getting more wet and cold I decided this was not a good idea. I couldn't get a grip at all and every time I put my boot on the slate it slipped down on the icy mush. I stopped when I reached the crest and put my Microspikes on but they just slipped on the angled slate and made balancing even harder. Crampons were complete overkill and made things much worse. I turned round and made a dodgy slippery descent back to the path then headed back down to Scales Tarn. I passed three lads without ice axes who were heading towards the ridge. I didn't lecture them on not doing it as I hate when people do that to me. Instead I just told them what the conditions were and wished them luck. As I had been putting my hands in puddles of mush, my gloves were absolutely frozen and soaking wet. I swapped into my mittens which were warm, dry and heavenly. I made my way across Scales Beck then up the ascent path on the south side of Scales Tarn.

Snowy Blencathra summit

This path is incredibly direct. I don't tend to use this path as I prefer Sharp Edge, but as I advise people to use it on my website for an alternative to Sharp Edge when it is impassible, it was good to give it a go. I watched Sharp Edge across the tarn and followed the lads progress. They got to exactly the same point I did and then sensibly turned round and headed back down the ridge. The path I was now on soon reached the snow line and the path had no footprints, so it looked like I was the first person to ascend it since the snow fell. I was surprised to find that in places the snow had filled up to drifts of a few inches deep in the path. Looking behind me as I got higher I could now see down the Scales Fell ascent path, another one of Blencathra's many routes that I had never tried. I presumed it was just a boring walk up a bulk, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it was actually another excellent ridge walk. I reached the summit plateau turned left and made my way to the summit. As I reached the summit the snow stopped falling and the clouds started to lift. Perfect timing and the views were awesome. The views along the rest of the long summit ridge would have been enough as the rest of the mountain looked incredible covered in white snow with dark brown and red ridges heading off towards the valley far below.

Doddick Fell

The views opened up all around and I could make out which mountains had been given a sprinkling of snow. It was certainly a select few that had been given a proper sprinkling. The Derwent Fells and Central Fells only had a very slight sprinkling on their highest tops. The neighbouring giant of Skiddaw was similar to Blencathra with snow above eight hundred metres. The best snow looked to be on the Helvellyn range and the Eastern Fells, in particular The Dodds. I had a look down the Halls Fell Ridge from the summit but it was covered in ice and snow. The last time I descended the Halls Fell Ridge I looked across to Doddoick Fell and thought it would be nice to descend that way one day. I looked across to the Doddick Fell ridge to see it free of ice and snow. Therefore I turned round and headed down the zig zags towards the Scales Fell descent. There were some scary spin drifts passing me at times like mini tornados. I turned off the Scales Fell path and headed down the Doddick Fell descent path. This route is steeper than it looks from a distance. The first section is quite a scramble and some crazy gusts of wind had me pinned to the rocks at times. The descent of Doddick Gill was windy but pleasant with views across the valley to the snowy Great Dodd. I visited Keswick after the walk but found the gear shops full of the usual overpriced ultra lightweight garbage lacking in longevity or features. I didn't need any new gear and I had already spent enough money on fuel to get here. Therefore the only thing I had to do before I left the Lakes was to make a detour to Ambleside to get the wife her favourite Chocolate Fudge. By the time I was leaving the Lakes it was chucking it down with rain and five degrees. If that was falling as snow on the high fells, there would be a significant amount of snow by now. Snow is forecast for most of next week too. It took its time, but winter is finally here!

I have uploaded the photos from the day here.

Route Map...