Somehow I still had three days of holiday to take before the end of March, so quickly cobbled together a plan to catch the back end of winter in the western lakes. I’d arranged to leave the car for a few days at Buttermere YHA in return for a small donation, this took away the stress of abandoning the car on some derelict layby and gave a good starting point to wander uphill and pitch a tent. The snowline looked to be around 250m, everything higher than this was decidedly white and wintry, many of the surrounding summits were lost in clouds, those that weren’t appeared jagged and menacing, not of them made a friendly beckon of “come and camp up here for a few nights”.
A chilly amble along the wooded shoreline of Buttermere preceded an ascent of Whernside Pass, the craggy monochrome faces of Fleetwith Pike, Haystacks, High Crag and High Stile dominated the skyline. My pack seemed unreasonably heavy for just a few nights out, extra food, clothing, crampons and walking axe adding a few kilos I’d normally be without, the extra weight coupled with a bit of a climb resulted in some sweary huffing and puffing as a I worked up a bit of sweat.
The wintry conditions certainly deterred the crowds, I only met one other walker who was coming down from Fleetwith Pike. We stopped for a brief chat about bothies and snow whilst I tried to contain my jealousy of the fact she lived in Wasdale. Though no doubt she was envious of the virtues of living in Nottingham and having so many different branches of Greggs to choose from. The first of many snow showers began and we both went our separate ways, stopping for just five minutes was enough to feel the chill in the air and it was good to get moving again.
Warnscale Bothy was visible on the other side of the stream, I stuck my head in to make to make a quick brew and have a look around. The modest but charming shelter sits well camouflaged shelter against the grey slate. It’s so small that you virtually have to crouch down to get through the doorway, but once inside there are raised platforms and a decent fireplace, decent stack of wood and coal would create a very cosy home for the night. If the weather turned truly dramatic it was good to know that there was a decent refuge to retreat to.
A quick scramble up the snow covered slate was rewarded by some expansive views back down to Buttermere and Crummock Water.
The landscape beyond this point was plunged into a world of snow, rock and ice. There was little wind, only that eerie muted silence that comes with thick snow, the only sound was my own crunching footsteps which gently punctured the quiet.
After a wander, I pitched a tent by a frozen Blackbeck Tarn, it was a well sheltered spot next to the outflow and at this time I was confident that nobody else would be passing this way for the rest of the day. It was a relief to give my aching shoulders a rest from the heavy pack I’d lugged up the hill and before I bedded down for the evening I headed to Haystacks to try and catch a glimpse of the sunset. Although it felt like midwinter there was still plenty of light remaining and the sun didn’t pass under the clouds till after half six.
As the light faded the world turned into a mass of icy blue white and black, the eastern faces of Pillar and Kirk Fell both looked decidedly savage and intimidating. A biting wind had also picked up and made removing gloves to take photos painfully cold, the previously wet soft snow became frozen and hard as the temperature plummeted further.
Whilst the wind had picked up, the sunken position of the tarn gave decent shelter and in the tent there was barely a ripple, the only audible sound was the gentle pattering of snowflakes on canvas which continued well into the night. I used the old trick of keeping my gas cylinder stuffed in my warm bag which meant I didn’t have to wait 10 minutes every time I wanted to boil water.
The snow continued through the night and there was an extra couple of inches on the ground by sunrise, when the door was unzipped a miniature snow drift collapsed inward. The morning also brought along a widespread thick mist, visibility was generally less than 20 metres and there was little sign of it shifting. This prompted a lazy few hours around the tent, reading, eating, drinking coffee and a fair amount of sitting and staring into the whiteness of the outside world. The fog briefly lifted to the extent that I could see the end of the tarn, maybe there was hope of some improved visibility? Within minutes the mist sank back down, removing all features from the surrounding landscape from sight.
This morning obviously wasn’t going to provide much in the way of views, so once I’d packed up I used the adverse conditions as an opportunity to work with map and compass and test my navigation skills heading first to Brandreth and returning back down to small pools near Grey Knotts. It was a challenging morning, at higher levels the mist was incredibly thick and interspersed with heavy flurries of snow causing near whiteouts, this was exacerbated by waist deep snow drifts which concealed small gullies and streams. I had to stop regularly to take bearings but managed to stay on track for the most part. Aside from not getting very lost it was largely a thankless task as there was literally nothing to see but snow and mist. If the conditions had been better I’d hoped to take in Great Gable and head down to camp by a beck but given the poor visibility and heavy snowfall I decided to stick to plan B and seek out lower ground.
Visibility improved lower down the hill, the recognisable shape of Dubs Quarry Shelter was perched clearly at the base of Fleetwith Pike, it seemed like a good place to head for a brew and to consider some more realistic options for the rest of the day.
After a solid 24 hours of not speaking to anyone it came of something of a surprise to walk into Dubs hut to be faced with 15 teenage lads in jeans and trainers who had been dragged out on a school trip to the nearby slate mine. After some awkward forced conversation they collectively shuffled off leaving me to get a bit of lunch in, the hut was sizable but not particularly homely and felt quite run down, probably not helped by a higher footfall than most shelters and bothies receive.
Warnscale bothy is tucked away somewhere in this photo, can you spot it?
With the mist firmly clinging to the hills I set back out in the direction of Haystacks, the Western fells seemed to be clearer and I made a beeline for Bleaberry Tarn just past High Stile. I needed to back at the car for no later than 08:30 the next morning so I could get back to Nottingham for the school run. In between the mist lifting and falling I caught some impressive views from Haystacks of High Crag, Green Gable and Great Gable. It’s amazing how a dusting of snow and a swirling of cloud completely change the appearance and an atmosphere of a place.
Descending to Scarth Gap Pass was tricky, at the lower altitude the hard ice turned to soft melting snow which was constantly balling up under my crampons but was far too slippy to walk on with boots alone, I’ve since read a few DIY approaches to prevent balling that I’ll have to try next time. Again I was a victim to poor visibility as thick clouds hung around the summits of High Crag and High Stile, I’d planned on walking over both before camping at Bleaberry Tarn but settled to contour round from Seat. Had it been a fine Spring day I would have been keen to get a lot more summits under my boots, feeling a bit cheated and defeated by the endless slipping and sliding I considered driving back home after the sunset but managed to dig out a bit of resolve. In the end I took the easy route of heading down the hill to Buttermere and taking the very steep path up to the tarn just before it got dark. Sometimes you just have to submit to the conditions and be happy that you’ve managed to get out at all.
Staying out another night was definitely the right decision as the tarn offered a really stunning place to spend the night. I pitched a tent in dwindling light next to the frozen water sheltered and encircled by icy mountains. I had perfect views of the Whiteless Pike, Wandope and Grasmoor to the North, all hunched together with white sharp pointed peaks and frozen ridges. Not a bad view to look out to from your bed. Once I’d collected water from the outflow I cocooned myself in my bag for the evening with a mug of hot chocolate and biscuits. Walking through the snow, ice and mist had done me in for the day and getting a good nights sleep was not a problem.
I set an alarm for 6am and was up walking by half past stopping only for a few minutes to boil up water for a brew and to drink in the sunrise as the morning light flooded into the valley. Whilst I hadn’t covered many miles, or reached as many summits as I’d intended, the experience of being out for a few nights in a quiet frozen world was very enjoyable and quality had easily surpassed quantity. I was back at the YHA in an hour or so and wished I’d given myself enough time to get one of their fine looking cooked breakfasts but the clock was ticking and I had to make do with a sorry looking squashed malt loaf whilst I headed back home. It’s always a good thing to give yourself a good reason to return.