A Solo Winter Ascent of Blencathra

The Route: Blencathra | Distance: 8km | Time: 3 Hours
Height gain: 699m | Max Altitude: 862m | Start: Scales Farm | Finish: back at Scales Farm
Map: OS Explorer OL6 | Date: 05/02/2013

As the day dawned on my birthday the snow began to fall. This was exactly what I had been praying for. I had travelled up from London two days prior together with my ice axe and micro spikes plus an array of other assorted winter garb all in the hope of striking it lucky with some winter conditions up in The Lakes this February. A regular visitor in the summer I had long dreamt of returning when the national park became transformed each year into a winter playground.

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I had booked into the incredibly old and atmospheric Inn ‘The Horse and Farrier’ at the foot of Blencathra a mammoth of a mountain dominating this part of the northern lakes. For the last couple of days I had repeatedly looked out of the Farriers’ windows up towards the summit of this mountain which towered behind us only to be disappointed as it’s summit was constantly obscured by mist, squally winds and low cloud. But today it was clear, and furthermore, it was cloaked in the white stuff! This was my chance, and all the omens were in alignment, there was a window of moderate weather forecast until around midday with the winds of the last two days subsiding somewhat and the snow being now fresh and plentiful on the ground! I quickly packed my rucksack and made for the door.

Both excited and apprehensive in equal measures I began my slow and cold ascent from the well known Scales Farm situated along the usually busy but today surprisingly quiet A66. I had my new Pogu Microspikes in my pack and new snow baskets on my Leki trekking poles, my ice axe fastened to my back and enough thermal layers to get me to Everest Basecamp, I was as prepared as I could be – or so I thought!

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The lower slopes were much harder going than expected as the snow was way deeper than it appeared at first glance from a distance and the incline was serious and punishingly unforgiving, the microspikes were needed sooner than expected! Queue my first rookie error of the day…….on ripping my spikes out of their bag I should have kept a tighter grip on it as now I watched my microspikes holder tumble off down the snowy slope driven by the powerful wind to rest in a mound of snow-drift! Queue rookie error number two……I then stupidly proceeded to try and retrieve my lost spikes bag from the snowy and slippery slope below!

After a hair raising, slippery and sliding scramble to retrieve a bag worth nothing more than a few quid I realised what a fool I had just been, I should have left the bag and I knew it, but I also now knew what I was up against in today’s conditions and had an even healthier appreciation of how winter conditions create a whole different ball game than the benign climes on the same route in an English summer.

Lesson learnt I pressed on endeavouring to get past the windswept and snowy but usually grassy bank that I found myself on at this stage of the route. I reached the top of Scales Fell and the ground levelled somewhat but the wind howled ever louder up here and with even more intensity, it was a battle to stay on my feet at times as gust after gust tried to knock me off my feet.

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It was time to face up to another error in my judgement, my ski goggles that were sitting nicely in my bag back at the Inn were absolutely useless sitting there when instead I now needed them to protect my face from the stinging spindrift that was mercilessly battering my exposed eyes and face! What a fool I had been to leave them behind, what was I thinking, I had brought them with me but left them packed, what a fool! Instead all I had we’re some fairly useless summer shades that were fine in summer but next to useless in a blizzard which was now what I was facing on the exposed upper slopes of Blencathra.

I carried on. I had now reached the start of the ridge that would eventually lead all the way to the summit. Arhh the summit! My goal which had looked so clear and inviting an hour or so ago in the earlier weather window now didn’t look quite so enticing. The window had closed more rapidly than the Met Office boys had predicted and already the clouds had moved in and the wind was gusting at an unhealthy 30mph or more! Conditions were approaching near white-out.

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Should I concede defeat against ever surmounting odds and beat a gallant retreat back down or go for glory? Every outdoor mountain enthusiast has to ask himself this question at some time whether his feats are on the lofty Himalayas or the lowly Cumbrian fells, the choice is still the same – fight or flight. I wanted that summit badly, the weather just made it all the more challenging!

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My microspikes were performing well so far and I had my ice-axe if things got really hairy so I was confident of making the summit. My GPS was working I had my paper maps, my face was stinging but I figured on maybe 30 minutes to the top and back to where I was again. Rookie error number four of the day…..distances in white-out snowy conditions should be at least doubled! This I would only learn an hour or so later.

The ridge was exhilarating though despite my ill equipment and naivety and perversely I was enjoying myself up high on the flanks of the mountain. Then for the first time I saw another hiker. This was reassuring as it meant I was not the only nutter out in these conditions. As we neared each other I could see he looked a pro with all the correct winter gear for a day in the mountains. Full crampons, two technical ice-axes, ski-goggles (not sunglasses!) etc.

We exchanged pleasantries as is custom in the hills but I could see him looking at my spikes and in a nice way he explained how wild it was on the summit and that there were copious amounts of ice everywhere and that even he had slipped often and found the going dicey.

I was not perturbed, I knew the summit well and had confidence in my bloody mindedness to reach my goal but I took heed of his advice and preceded with even more caution.

I continued to slip and self correct then slip once again, the snow became heavier and the visibility less but I pressed on upwards. Wading through snow now up to my knees I could almost feel the summit now!

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Made it! I was at last standing on Blencathra’s wintery summit. The visibility was near zero and the howling wind was buffeting me so strongly that I found myself kneeling, but still I had made it. I was elated but really there was no time to hang around and enjoy what was really a pyrrhic victory because with weather this bad it meant only one thing … I needed to be getting back down and quickly!

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I chose an alternate route of descent which would take me down to Scales Tarn via the steep but direct path off the back of Blencathra. Now my fellow hiker from earlier had already warned me that it was treacherously icy over there as he himself had ascended via that very route earlier but I still opted for this shorter and more direct route down. Could this be yet another blunder of a decision I was about to make? Hopefully not!

But as I slid and slipped my way traversing towards the start of the descent I already knew that my decision was looking decidedly dicey.

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The top of the path was a sheet of pure ice, no amount of spikes were going to stop me slipping here. I gingerly plodded slowly across and down using both my ice-axe and digging my spikes in as hard as I could. I slipped over a good half dozen times on this descent to the tarn and made hard work of just about every movement. The snow fell heavier all around me until I eventually reached the water below.

I hunkered down for a few minutes to get my breath back and build up some energy to tackle the knee deep snowy path back out to civilisation following the now frozen Glenderamackin stream out to Mousthwaite Comb. The path was both laborious and hard going in the now driving snow. Visibility was non existent and I began to feel cold for the first time.

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But the end of the hike out was now in sight and spurred on I pressed further until rounding the fell I caught just a glimpse of the farmhouse at Scales and my car. Now almost galloping down of the snowy fell I stumbled toward the car and warmth and my ticket back to the Inn in Threlkeld.

I had had an adventure, in truth a little bit more of an adventure than I had anticipated. I had learnt a lot. A lot about the quality of my equipment and how to use it, and how not to use it! I had learnt to never underestimate the British mountains in winter and that in winter rash decisions could potentially have dire outcomes, luckily I had got away with my wrong decisions though today. Oh and to add to my list of hard learnt lessons my GPS had packed up in the cold, wet and snowy conditions meaning that had I depended solely on my iPhone I would potentially have been lost in a blizzard, luckily for once my head was screwed on as I always carry a reserve GPS by Garmin in my rucksack, it’s old but it works.

So an epic winter mountain day was had and lessons learnt but most importantly I had enjoyed myself despite; well myself really! Further more being a glutten for punishment I now want to go and do it all again!

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Find the full Interactive Route Map of Blencathra here:

http://www.shareyouradventure.com/map/os/jamehand/5th-February-2013

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The Highs and the Lows. Altitude Data supplied via socialhiking.org.uk
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