Author: Ricky Lightfoot
“I’ve never been so relieved to get off a ....... hillside!”
The only other time I’ve uttered those words was during my winter Bob Graham Round in January 2015, but the latest outing was a bit shorter lived as I walked in to the Sweeny Bar just off the A591 near Swirls, soaked through with five other blokes.
A few months previous to the 29th December we, some members of my local club Ellenbourgh AC had agreed an a location for our annual “Christmas Doo”.
We decided on the Lakes 3000’s, a classic loop of the 4 mountains in the Lake District which stand above 3000ft, it’s also an annual event for the LDWA, in summer I might add (Long Distance Walkers Association) with approx 40 something miles and over 13000ft of ascent.
It’s in the record books that Billy Bland achieved the fastest round in 07 hours XX minutes and then Jos Naylor in 08:XX.
We gathered for a 5am start in Keswick, we weren’t after any records, just a challenging day out in the fells.
From the off we had rain which through Latrigg car park turned to sleet and over the summit of Skiddaw to driving snow with visibility down to only a few metres, once at the summit rather then look up I used the track back on my Suunto Spartan which basically takes you back the way you came following your original trace on the watch, ideal for a quick descent in bad weather.
Skiddaw was perhaps the worst section of the route as it was out and back and on the main path, the snow drifts made it that little more enjoyable on the way down.
On reaching Keswick again we had rain, this was to last the length of the valley until we reached Seathwaite where we had a little respite whilst fuelling up (thanks to Nick), the quickest route is obviously via the road but we kept to the trails which undulate through the Jaws of Borrowdale.
By Seathwaite the sky was a lighter shade of grey, we were wet and cooled a lot in the 5 minutes spent shoving banana cake down our necks out of the back of Nicks Toyota Yaris, we’d covered about 18 miles, 3500ft in about 3.5 hours.
We quickly decided to get moving again into the driving snow, we opted to head up Grains Gill and Esk Hause to reach the summit of Sca fell Pike, despite the snow driving and visibility poor we eventually stumbled across a pocket of calm weather whilst over Ill Crag which was a nice relief.
We tagged the summit and decided that conditions didn’t owe well to a ascent and descent up Lords Rake or Foxes Tarn so we retraced our steps back to Esk Hause missing Sca Fell out, 4 x 3000’s quickly became 3.
From Esk Hause up to High Raise it’s a bit of a trudge, even in summer it’s wet so we were edging our bets and hoping that with the recent snow fall the ground would be frozen - we should have know better!
We quickly descended and stopped from some scran above “The Bog”, in hindsight it would have been better to eat on the go as it got cold pretty quick and we were moving into one of the wettest sections on the route, to add insult to injury it began to snow which quickly turned to sleet and rain the closer we got to Steel End at Thirlmere, to say we were wet was an understatement.
We crossed the A591 and each scoffed a handful of fizzy dinosaurs from a bag Peter had pulled from his pocket, neither of us questioned an ascent of Helvellyn, we just kept moving.
As soon as we came above the tree line the weather began to worsen, the wind picked up, temperature dropped and we began to lose light, even on a good day this is a 50 minute climb so today with the conditions and the 10 hours we’d already done I knew it would be well over an hour before reaching the summit.
If we’d just set off from the car park, fresh and dry the climb would have been no problem but because we were already wet through and ascending into colder weather it made things feel 10 times worse.
We became spread out over the climb so kept regrouping as we didn’t want to hang around too much, I looked over at Callum near the summit and his full left hand side was covered with verglas, it wasn’t somewhere where you’d want to hang around for long, at times the wind almost swept us off our feet.
I had Salomon Gore Tex gloves on which had also frozen to the point they’d gone stiff.
Tagging the summit cairn was a relief and so we made our way down towards Swirls car park, we didn’t stop to get any pictures over Helvellyn and nobody stopped to put a head torch on despite it being dark, the clag was so thick it probably would have been more a hinderance then anything.
I eventually gave in on dipping under that clag and put my head torch on as I was finding it difficult to getting a decent footing there was so much ice, a couple of us reached the car park and watched the others descend with head lights on.
The discussion in the car park was about what time the next bus was expected? We’d missed it by 5 minutes...
We began the run along the road with frozen feet, it’s approx 6 miles into Keswick, we came to a stop outside the Sweeny Bar, Kings Head, we had £40 between us and reckoned it was enough for a hot chocolate and a taxi back into Keswick, there wasn’t a debate, it’s the quickest we’d moved all day as everyone rushed into the warmth of the bar.