Repulsed by Skiddaw (Weather to Turn Back…)

22 03 2013

Mon 18 Mar 2013

I’ve just had another trip to the Lakes with my usual walking buddy Richard – this time up north, staying at Braithwaite near Keswick. You’ll by now have perused my last post from the week before’s trip and seen the many gorgeous photos and read the tale of beautiful conditions and one of the best days ever on a mountain… well, this post is totally different!

We arrived on the Sunday evening just in time to see Skiddaw looking beautiful with a lovely pink alpenglow on the summit snows – I decided it was a must for one of our next day’s walks. The next day the mountain’s upper slopes were swathed in cloud and the day was dull, cold and pretty grim. However, the weather forecast assured us that it was due to clear by afternoon. I wasn’t sure whether to set off for Skiddaw or to leave it until the next day in case that was better but Richard suggested we have a bash at it. I’m never one to refuse Skiddaw in winter conditions as it’s probably my favourite winter hill so I eagerly agreed…

I’d gone back to bed after breakfast as eating in a morning always makes me feel ill and so it wasn’t until 1120 that we parked up at the foot of Gale Road which heads up between Latrigg and Skiddaw. Most people park up at the top of the road but I felt that was cheating – that and I really need to get fitter. We stepped out of the car to a pretty strong and cold wind and sleet and drizzle – I put full waterproofs on to start off. I also took my ice axe, crampons and microspikes as I’d rather carry them and not need them than be without…

We marched off up the road hill to the carpark to find 3 more cars arriving. One man, strangely, got out of his car and proceeded to walk down Latrigg – most peculiar! Maybe he’s a member of a ‘Downhill Walking Club’? Another couple booted up and headed off towards the start of the path up Jenkin Hill to Skiddaw and the others were just walking their dog on Latrigg.

We passed the Jenkin Hill couple as they were hesitating and not looking very sure about continuing – the weather didn’t look to be heading for a vast improvement yet. It’s quite a steep pull up the zig-zags to start so I was nicely warm and had stripped down to my ‘base-layer’ type top already – Richard was fully rugged up – but then he always is.

The path soon turned to slushy snow, then icy snow but was only a thin layer so there was no need for any kind of spikes. However, when we attained the top of the zig-zag and the path flattened out a bit along the ridge, it was fully covered in soft snow and I decided I’d make much faster progress if my feet gripped each time I put them down so put my microspikes on – Richard didn’t bother.

Soon, deeper snow covered sections of the path but they were only short so we could see it emerge the other side of each patch – we were by now in thick cloud though. The wind was stronger up here and driving quite a bit of snow – visibility was down to a few feet – almost a white-out. Suddenly, thick snow completely covered the path and we were plunged into a grey-white world with some whirling snow but nothing else to see. Sometimes we were walking on top of the snow and sometimes we started to plunge into soft drifts up to our knees.

There were other footprints and we still seemed to be following the line of the path. Soon any other footprints were lost in the soft snow and it wasn’t really possible to see whether we were still on the line of the path but I wasn’t worried. I knew I was heading in more or less the right direction and that soon we’d meet the Lonscale Fence.

Eventually the fence hove into view but, due to the almost total lack of visibility, I couldn’t see the gate and stile I was expecting. Richard by now was floundering in yet another snowdrift and asking how much further it would be to the summit – quite a way yet! I could see he would soon be wanting to turn back and very soon he announced he didn’t want to go on. I said I wanted to at least find the gate and stile as then I’d know exactly where I was and, for some reason, I was convinced it was off to our left.

I set off along the fence, trailing a by-now very unwilling Richard behind me to hunt the gate. Every time we hit more snowdrifts and I waited for Richard to catch up, he said he really didn’t want to continue. I said I could give him instructions to get him off the hill but I wasn’t really happy for him to disappear on his own with the very murky conditions and his lack of knowledge of the hill. I assured him that, apart from one section of Skiddaw under Little Man, that there was no problem really wherever we decided to descend as all other slopes were safe.

I’d manage to persuade him to follow me again and we’d continue along the fenceline – I was worried though – it was going steeply uphill and shouldn’t have been but I was still convinced we were heading for the gate. Richard eventually dug his heels in and said he wasn’t floundering a step further up the hill. I knew I couldn’t leave him stood there even for a few minutes or he’d freeze to death but still wanted to continue a little further so suggested he continue very slowly after me, keeping to the fenceline, while I rushed ahead and then came back to him when I found the gate. He reluctantly agreed and so that’s what we did.

Soon after this, I saw rocks sticking out of the hillside and knew we were completely off course – there are no rocks on the section of hill I thought we were on – I realised I was ascending the steep side of Little Man and was almost at the summit. In addition to this, the fence started to descend gently and there was still no gate. As the gate is on a small and narrow plateau under Little Man, this was further proof I was totally off course. As I know Skiddaw so well, I was a bit uneasy about getting it wrong…

I had a quick flounder straight upwards to see if the summit of Little Man came into sight but it didn’t and I didn’t want Richard to pass me without me knowing or I’d never find him in this pea-souper so I turned back down. I told him we were just under the summit of Little Man and asked if he wanted to go up that instead but he didn’t. I had no choice but to head us back down the fenceline.

We followed our footsteps but at times they had disappeared – my ice axe holes were still showing though and those of his walking pole. Eventually we reached the part where we’d joined the fence and, about 10 yards after that, the gate and stile! Basically, I’d assumed wrongly that we’d arrived at the fence below the gate when in fact, we’d almost scored a direct hit but were just above it.

I outlined two choices to Richard to let him choose. I said we could either set off from the gate in the direction of where I thought the Jenkin Hill path would be (I didn’t want to get the map out in the current weather conditions and also, it was only a 1:50000 so wouldn’t have the fence on it anyway so I wouldn’t have an accurate starting place to take any kind of bearing from). The other alternative I presented was that of following the Lonscale Fence down to the gate above the gill where a path heads off at right angles back to the Jenkin Hill ascent path – I pointed out that I thought we would be following a deep snowdrift all the way along the fence though…

We decided to head straight from the gate to try to re-join the Jenkin Hill path of our ascent. First though, we had to get away from the gate and it was surrounded by a very deep snowdrift indeed! We floundered about up to our thighs and eventually managed to reach the other side of the drift. The snow was pretty deep from there-on though – between knee-deep and mid-thigh – it was pretty hopeless and we were both tiring rapidly. I also became uneasy again – we had no landmarks to look at and were just heading into a white void – if we were slightly wrong with our bearing, at the edge of that white void, could be dangerously steep ground down to Mill Beck under Little Man.

In the end, we both agreed that, even deep snow along the fence-line would be preferable to this deep, white nothingness and turned back to flounder back to the fence. We started off following it and noticed there looked to be a shallower ridge of snow most of the way which we could follow and I could just keep the fence in sight. We were making much better progress now downhill towards Lonscale Fell and eventually, I noticed that we were approaching what looked like a drop into a gill – I’d lost the fence by now though. I said that, if we turned hard right now, we should hit the Jenkin Hill path at a point where it was visible again so that’s what we did.

There was just one more bit of confusion when I saw a path start to come into view but, for some reason, thought it was the one above the gill and prepared to turn right along it. Luckily, I noticed it was heading slightly uphill and, after a bit of puzzling, realised it was actually the Jenkin Hill path at last – phew!

We headed off down happily and eventually dropped out of the murk to see all the cars had gone so, equally happily, the other couple had turned back as well – it really wasn’t a day for anyone less than totally confident to be doing Skiddaw. I doubt anyone summited that day!

Richard was quite taken by my icy jacket and the total murk which had filled the valley while we’d been up the hill so he took a few photos – the only ones taken all day by either of us. Latrigg had been shining in the sun when we set off, as were the Helvellyns – now all was filled with very dirty grey cloud and even Derwent Water and Keswick were hard to spot.

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It must have been hard work – my legs seem to have worn away on this one!

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The next day was, if anything, even worse – still snowing, blowing and cloud below even the height of Latrigg so we decided to bag Richard the Wainwright of Binsey as he hadn’t done it. It was a lovely plod up in the snow, despite the total lack of a view, and I quite enjoyed it. Richard was frozen on the summit…

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but as usual, I was boiling and stripped down to bare essentials…

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(my legs have regrown for this one) 😉

The ruins of the old British camp on the summit were barely visible…

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As the Binsey-bagging had only taken around 45 minutes, we then went off to Whinlatter Forest for a bit more exercise and some fun larking around…

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Comb Beck Tarns (above) and we found an old, breached dam (below)
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There are two Archimedean Screws which haul water up out of the beck which we always like to have a play with…

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and then I found a relative to pose with 😉

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18 responses

26 03 2013
lanceleuven

Sounds like a bit of a nightmare! Glad you got down okay in the end though.

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27 03 2013
mountaincoward

Well I suppose I wasn’t too worried as it’s a very safe winter hill with good descents most of the way round. I was a bit unnerved that I didn’t know exactly where I was some of the time though as I thought I knew the hill really well. I spend a lot of time up there in the clag in summer.

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24 03 2013
Dan Hudson (aka icemandan)

We were in Keswick today and Skiddaw was trailing a Himalayan style plume of spindrift – which I’ve never seen before…and there were snow devils in Patterdale!

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24 03 2013
mountaincoward

That’s incredible! Did you get any video clips of either? If they’re on YouTube or something, they would be great to see!

This ‘winter’ is starting to worry me – now it’s forecast to stay THIS COLD until Thursday and then… it’s going to snow some more! 😦 I wish it would go away now and give us some spring!
Carol.

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24 03 2013
Dan Hudson (aka icemandan)

No video I’m afraid – I only had my iphone camera which has the same picture quality as a 1970s polaroid. Like you, I’m getting worried about the weather as am heading for the Highlands for the Easter weekend to do some munroes. The Easain traverse descending to Corrour (and dinner at the station restaurant) is on the menu but looks as if it could be pretty gruelling.

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24 03 2013
mountaincoward

I think it could be gruelling around Corrour just now! Where are you staying? Fort William and getting the train back after your meal?

I’ve got the Eibhinn range to do yet but, although they’re easy hills, I’m trying to wait until the snow goes. If it doesn’t, I’ll just have to do them when the days are a bit longer as they’re a long day really…

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25 03 2013
Dan Hudson (aka icemandan)

Don’t laugh but we’re staying in the Crianlarich Hotel (the one that used to be solely for Shearings Coach Holidays). The general aim is Southern highlands Munro mopping up operations. The Easains walk means taking the sleeper to Tulloch, we have from 8 until 6 to do the walk then three hours for dinner before the last train back.

You’ll enjoy the Eibhinn group – there are no great dips between them and the views are good. We camped in the glen to the north. Don’t recommend Culra bothy though. It’s a bit squalid and overcrowded and not one of my favourites.

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25 03 2013
mountaincoward

Culra was the first bothy I stayed in and I actually like it. I had a look in last year and it’s in pretty good nick and there’s 2 rooms with fireplaces. It was lovely and warm in the main room during the afternoon when I looked in as the fire was still going. I might stay there yet but otherwise, I’m either going to cycle in from Dalwhinnie for the day, or stay at Corrour SYHA.

Isn’t the Crianlarich Hotel really expensive for rooms? It’s very expensive for food and drink. You can always get your evening meals at the Rod & Reel pub in Crian – we really liked that – basic pub grub at a good price and very filling. Plenty of veggie options for me too. We also found the locals fairly friendly.

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23 03 2013
bob

My bad weather hill is sitting in the car at the bottom reading a good book. I keep fit turning the pages. I don’t do murky days now happily.
Your story has echoes of a good OZ film though Carol…A winter Lakeland version of… Rabbit Proof Fence:)

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23 03 2013
mountaincoward

Had to google the film – I’d heard of it and think I’d read about it before, but I’ve never seen it. I don’t really see many films nowadays – I once saw them all as I was a projectionist for years!

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22 03 2013
smackedpentax

I have never been up Skiddaw – but it looks great…but not in the bad weather…but think of the adventure you had! I really enjoyed reading this post…excellent!

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22 03 2013
mountaincoward

Skiddaw is a superb winter hill normally – very safe as it has few bad slopes and you can more or less descend anywhere if you get totally lost. It’s obviously got superb views on a clear day though and I’ve had many great days on it 🙂

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22 03 2013
chrissiedixie

Weather looks similar to what it’s like around here today! And it certainy looks too cold to have taken all your layers off…. 🙂

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22 03 2013
mountaincoward

I get super-hot walking uphill in any weather and only wear my outer stuff if it’s pelting it down… but as soon as I get either on the flat or the summit for more than a minute or so, I usually put everything back on…

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22 03 2013
fedupofuserids

I usually use Skiddaw as a ‘bad’ weather & fitness hill – so that’s how I tend to see it (or not :)) although it helps if you can make out the path! Probably a wise decision to turn back but the hill looked nice on Sunday evening & on Thursday but its miserable this morning so wont be very pleasant on top 😦

How’s Gale Road coping with the frost it was starting to get pretty broken up in places ?

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22 03 2013
mountaincoward

Gale Road’s getting very potholey unfortunately – we did drive up it at first and then changed our minds and parked back in the more sheltered spots near the forest at the bottom.

I wouldn’t have turned back without summitting something on my own but I had Richard to think of and he definitely wasn’t happy. I’d have at least done Little Man!

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31 03 2015
Chris

Hi,

Just read your venture about missing the stile on Skiddaw. I was up there today with my two sons (10 and 13) and their friend (12) and we intended to approach the summit coming from High Side and going directly up Broad End turing right onto what turned out to be the North Col. We were momentarily jubliant at finding what we thought might be the summit; a hollow victory quickly confirmed by the actual summit which maliciously winked at us through the mire before withdrawing forever. A blanket of heavy cloud suddenly descended upon us and we were hit by incredibly ferocious high winds blowing in marauding waves from the West face. The boys were becoming increasingly tired, wet and cold and I had a rapidly diminishing idea of where I was and which direction to take.

My eldest son wanted to carry on up into this over the summit in order to pick up the main summit routeway, but I insisted that we drop down the east side of the summit and walk in relative shelter in order to make our way over to Little Man and with a view to picking up the path down toward Jenkins and safety. Easier said than done! Traversing over the snow laden scree at steep angle proved quite challenging for me, and the boys soldiered on quietly putting their dwindling trust in me, and no doubt, like me, were contemplating how this might end. Their silence spoke volumes!

Through what can only be described as a severe and very full on antarctic snowstorm, I clearly glimpsed a peak which I thought must be Little Man. At least I hoped it was. At this point, my son decided the best way to find the path down was to head up the ascent and further into the cloud toward Little Man. A good idea in theory, but the path was completely covered in snow, and I was literally deterred by the vehemence of the strong westerly winds, and so thought it counter-intuitive to go further into oblivion knowing that somewhere nearby the edge of Grey Crags and the prospect of an icy death were becoming more and more of a reality. While this discussion was taking place, we experienced a prolonged period of intermittent white outs and continual snowstorm. We were relentlessly and cruelly battered on all sides with Himalayan spin drifts and icy sleet needling the face and eyeballs. I decreed that we kept close to the ice-laden fence and used it as our guide down along Underskiddaw toward Lonscale Fell and down to safety. This was not an easy plight, as we were all lifted and thrown against the fence by malicious rising cloud and herculean high winds. The inch thick ice glued to the wire fence shattered as it savagely broke our fall, cascading and jangling into the distance. The sleet raced past our faces as if it too just wanted to get the fuck out of there and escape the punishment, leaving us to suffer on our own. ‘On our own!’ That’s what I kept thinking. ‘We are truly on our own and the responsibility is mine alone to get us down. I am James Bond’

A break in the clouds gave us a clear view of the fence, and my son spotted the stile which I knew had to be a good sign and probably marked the Jenkins pathway. As we approached, it turned out we weren’t alone after all as someone in a red jacket appeared on the other side of fence. Never had I been so relieved to see another human being. We met at the stile and he confirmed that it was the Jenkins path. Battered and shaken, we made are way down with a huge sense of relief, some regret and for me some satisfaction. We came close, but we lived to see another day a little wiser and with a story to tell.

In future, I will take heed of weather forecasts and always bring a compass and map.!

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31 03 2015
mountaincoward

You might have been fine without the map and compass as it’s pretty safe to descend most sides of Skiddaw in most conditions except the west really. However, I wouldn’t ever advise anyone to go up in winds like we’re having at the moment – strong winds are the most dangerous of all and I know people who’ve been blown off ‘easy mountains’ and killed unfortunately. They were heavy adults too – children would have no chance.

But an epic like that really needs writing up into a blog post – you should get a blog! 😉
Carol.

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