There’s something about a really wild winter day in the mountains that you can’t beat. You know the ones. The ones where you can only just about stand up. Just about trudge in the direction you want to, up to your knees in snow, despite the best efforts of the buffeting gale. Put simply it just makes you feel so alive. You forget about all the other crap that might be going on in your everyday life, far removed as you are from the real world somewhere way down below you….
Saturday was just such a day – not the wildest I’ve had by any means, even in the little old Lake District, but windy, cold and bleak enough to make things interesting. If nigh on impossible to keep a steady tripod.
I’d planned a short direct jaunt straight up and down Helvellyn, just for a snow fix and not really a serious photography day, but the weather turned out clearer than expected so I extended it slighty by throwing in Dollywagon Pike and Nethermost Pike too. Camera gear was of course packed, but that’s lightweight walking for me when I don’t have any extraneous overnight baggage or camping gear.
Conditions even looked like they might yield some interesting shots, with enough cloud cover tearing across the sky to give those magic fleeting bursts of sunlight that look so dramatic. If you can catch them that is.
The walk’s one I’ve done many times as it’s fairly straightforward, doesn’t involve too much climbing and throws in some good views. I’d done Crinkle Crags and Bowfell the day before, so the legs weren’t perfectly fresh.
The walk starts at the top of Dunmail Raise, thereby cutting out some of the ascent, and follows Raise Beck up to the wild and remote – feeling hollow of Grisedale Tarn, before veering off to zigzag fairly steeply up Dollywagon Pike. Once atop Dollywagon it’s then a relatively level walk along the ridge over Nethermost Pike to Helvellyn, with only some minor ups and downs in between.
It should be noted that the main path skirts the actual summit of Dollywagon Pike, and it’s worth making the extra effort to deviate the 50 yards or so to the airy protruding summit for grand views down The Tongue over the Grisedale Valley to St Sunday Crag; as well as a good view nearly all the way along the ragged cliffs of the ridge to Striding Edge.
Conditions were a bit mixed to begin with. It was quite mild down at valley level, (and Grasmere had been flat calm as I passed) but as I began to climb the path beside Raise Beck it began to snow calmly but persistently. Enough to put a grin on my face and convince me it was going to be a grand day out 🙂
The path was easy enough, with only a few sections of sheet ice to avoid, easily done by scrambling up the grassy bank to the right. Milder conditions had been prevailing over the last week or so, and there weren’t really any icicles or frozen waterfalls left to play with, so the camera stayed in the bag for now. Besides, I often end up spending a lot of time setting up these detail shots and then just deleting them when I get home as I never seem to get them quite right.
Grisedale Tarn, surrounded as it is by Fairfield, Dollywagon Pike and Seat Sandal, rarely sees much sun in winter and looked solidly frozen again today. The snow had stopped as quickly as it had started and some bursts of sunlight had begun to sneak through. I knew any light I had was going to be movng fast and tricky to catch, so dug out the camera and tripod, with graduated filters at the ready to hold in sky detail.
The wind was forecast to be quite strong, but it was still calm until I got close to the top of Dollywagon Pike, where the full strength was blowing along the ridge. I dug the tripod in the snow as deep as I could and played around with a few compositions with my full weight on it for added steadiness.
I liked the patterns of the snow covered rocks in the foreground in the shot above, and the light wasn’t uninteresting, but couldn’t quite get what I wanted, even at the widest end of the lens. I had the 18-200mm on, just for its versatility, and would have ideally switched to the 12-24mm, but there was too much snow blowing around and I was wary of getting a sensor full of it. It was bad enough trying to keep it from freezing hard on the front of my filters.
There was also some quite nice light looking across towards Langdale, and I tried a couple at the longer end of the lens, here picking out Harrison Stickle:
Even with 2 pairs (about £70 quids worth) of gloves on it only takes minutes before my hands start to go numb in these conditions when shooting, so I soon got my head down and started making my way along the ridge towards Nethermost Pike. I have mini thermometer on my camera bag, which was only showing about -7 degs C, but windchill would have been significant.
All the time conditions were changing. Skies directly above were almost clear, but there was still plenty of cloud around the sun. I already had in my mind that if the conditions held, things could get dramatic at sunset. I’d have to time the walk carefully though, because it was way too cold to be stood still waiting for the light. Although it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had the tripod set up whilst I ran rings around it trying to keep warm 🙂
Helvellyn itself is nearly always busy, and I passed a few other walkers coming in the other direction and exchanged shouted hellos above the howl of the wind, along with knowing grins that instantly acknowledged that some people just don’t know what they’re missing 🙂
I carried along, skirting the edge of the ridge as close as I safely could, wary that last week someone had been killed plunging through the cornices that build up along the edge, and carried on to Helvellyn. I’ve been up here countless times, but if you’re not sure where the edge is, err on the side of caution. It’s probably a lot closer than you think.
As I progressed, there now looked unlikely to be any dramatic end to the day, the sun increasingly strangled by the thick cloud off to the west. If there had been a spectacular dusk, I had managed to time the walk pretty well, as it soon began to get dark once I’d moved off the summit and headed down towards Swirls and a cheeky pint at the Old Kings Head.
Before I did I hung around for a while, waiting until the last of the stragglers retreated from the summit. The remote solitude of being on the normally busy summit of a wintry mountain all by ourself as the day fades away is something to embrace, even if its a cold hug. If you’ve only ever been up Helvellyn in summer with no escape from dozens of people up there, leave it until about 3.30 on a harsh winter afternoon and just enjoy.
I’ll be about 10 minutes behind you waiting for you to leave 🙂