Despite this being a very mild season so far in the Lake District, it is most definitely winter on the higher fells at the moment.
The snowline keeps rising and falling, and there was snow down to valley level on friday in the central Lakes, but at the moment it’s hovering around 700m. Above that it has been snowing for days now, reaching pleasing depths for those of us that like to run up and down in it and fall over a bit.
On thursday I decided to aim high, nay highest, with a walk up Scafell Pike from Wasdale via one of the more fun ways, Mickledore. Fun in winter anyway, it’s a bit loose underfoot at other times of year, but with two feet of snow to get your feet into it’s a short easy gulley.
The weary trudge up Brown Tongue brings you into the boulder strewn amphitheatre of Hollow Stones, and one of the more thrilling and imposing sights in the Lake District – snow clad Scafell Crag, a jagged monochrome edifice of rock sketched in pen and ink upon the sky.
Today its far reaches blurred into cloud, as did the topmost sections of Mickledore and neighbouring Scafell Pike. There was no immediate promise they’d reveal themselves with any more clarity, but I pressed on, ascending into the snowline and wading ever deeper on the approach to Mickledore. I passed a young couple on the way, who sat eyeing the crags above, appearing to deliberate over their next move.
I was a little wary at first as the steep bank of snow to the right of the gully appeared to be littered with avalanche debris, but on closer inspection it was merely individual clumps of snow that had tumbled from the crags, unable to cling on any longer, so I carried on.
The gully was nicely sheltered, so I sat for a while in my little stone chute of calm, thigh deep in snow, listening to the wind roar over the the top of the ridge just above my head. The couple I passed earlier appeared to have decided on a plan, and far down below had begun to follow me.
As I topped out onto Mickledore into the cloud and a wind sculpted world of white, it was clear that that getting to the summit and then off it again would give my navigational skills a test.
I’ve mentioned the transformative nature of snow and ice on the landscape before, and how it’s endlessly fascinating from a photographic point of view. Particularly in the mountains. Not just in that initial cloaking of white when winter first arrives, but also in its tractability in the subsequent dynamic phases of freeze thaw cycles and scouring winds.
Sometimes that transformative power elevates itself beyond mere photographic interest into the more pressing concern of being a serious navigational challenge. Experienced hill walkers do, intentionally or otherwise, familiarise themselves with certain surface features and recognisable rocks prove a useful aid (and mental reassurance) in poor visibility.
But once all of these are crushed under 3 feet of snow, and all you have is white upon white, things get more difficult.
I’d have loved to have spent time exploring the abstract world I found myself in upon the summit. Amongst the featureless mounds of white loomed isolated rocky carapaces laced with fingers of ice, like a long abandoned fleet of crash landed alien craft.
However on this occasion I conceded that getting myself off the summit in a safe direction should be the main objective, and eventually managed to pick the correct line down towards Lingmell col, emerging out of the cloud and into the sudden visual awakening of a view reclaimed.
As I approached the col I spied only the third figure I’d seen all day. As I approached closer I recognised the only other person likely to be trudging around here with a heavy camera bag and staring expectantly/dejectedly at the sky – Terry Abraham, filming some of the later scenes of his Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike film.
A brief lifting of the cloud above Lingmell had us both optimistic of grabbing a few shots for several seconds, and then it lowered again. We chatted for a while, and Terry mentioned he’d also been keeping an eye on the couple I’d passed as they wandered around with seemingly no fixed plan. We both eyed the unshifting cloud on the summit, commented there was no sign of them, raised eyebrows and hoped they knew what they were doing.
Neither of us were convinced we could grab much more with our respective cameras given the conditions, so we wandered back down into Hollow Stones where he was camped. I then headed off, wishing him luck with the night shots he had planned (the skies were due to clear) and dropped back down to Wasdale the way I’d come up.
Later that evening Terry tweeted me to say mountain rescue were in action on the hill, and we kind of knew the story straight away. Luckily the couple were found benighted and lost (albeit in rough conditions) rather than anything more disastrous.
I’m not sure there needs to be another lecture about lack of skills, experience, appropriate gear and poor judgement, so I’ll just tell you to donate to the volunteers of the Wasdale MRT here instead.