One of the great joys of living in the Lake District is that we get to hike the fells all year round. Between October half term and February half term the fells are generally a lot quieter even at the weekends, but they’re also a lot colder too. We’d never done any winter hiking before so we read up, took advice, bought a few bits and pieces and headed for the fells. Here’s a few of the lessons we learned along the way.
1. Use your compass. Admittedly the Lake District generally doesn’t keep its mist solely for the winter but this one caught us out in October on High Street, when a simple afternoon hike around Riggindale turned into a 9 hour battle against the elements. After arriving at the top of Long Stile we were distracted by the trig point on Racecourse Hill and, thinking we were headed in exactly the right direction, didn’t bother taking a compass bearing in the mist. Muppets. Instead of heading towards The Knott we instead headed for Thornthwaite Crag, only realising our mistake when we reached Grey Crag and the mist cleared to reveal a lake that clearly wasn’t Haweswater. Whoops. Our only option was to drop down off Grey Crag (ripping my Berghaus Gore-Tex trousers which still sport the gaffa tape fix) and then up and over High Street in the pitch dark with a little rain and mist thrown in for good measure. The other lesson here is always to pack your head torch, just in case your hike doesn’t turn out quite as you’d planned.
2. Get up early. From around late October to March there’s the very real chance of catching a temperature inversion in one of the valleys. Our first one was a lucky hunch; we managed a couple of others, but we’re still far from experts at spotting them. Gummer’s How is a 10 minute drive from home and is a perfect viewing point with the Old Man away in the distance. There’s nothing quite like driving up the road from Fell Foot park towards Gummers How and suddenly popping out of the thick grey mist and into a beautiful cloudless day. Even better when there’s snow on the distant fells. On one occasion we were the first people up there making footprints in the virgin snow – something guaranteed to bring the big kid out in most of us. Steve did his level best to take some amazing pics while I pelted him with snowballs.
3. Remember it goes dark early. Frustrated by our shorter winter hikes I thought it was about time we tackled something rather more meaty, so the week before the clocks went forward we headed off to Honister with a bit of a long itinerary. After hiking over the top of Fleetwith Pike and dropping down to Buttermere we headed around the lake before hiking up to Bleabury Tarn and along the ridge to High Crag and back via Haystacks. We made it to Scarth Gap before the head torches came out. We still made it up and over Haystacks in the dark and rain but my previously gaffa taped trousers acquired a whole new hole. Still I think there’s a certain panache to wearing mountain gear that looks well used; a sort of shabby chic for the fells.
4. Wear your thermals. Firstly because if you rip through your over trousers and walking trousers they provide a handy final barrier between you and embarrassment and secondly because they’ll keep you warm. Sexy isn’t the issue here, warmth is. They may be passion killers but they’re life savers. On a warm sunny day most people notice the big drop in temperature when they reach the top of a fell – well imagine what that’s like when it’s zero on the valley floor? When it’s cold outside layers are the order of the day for the fells; lots and lots of layers. You may feel warm enough while you’re walking but at some point you’re going to need to stop for food and drink. Even the briefest stop will have you shivering, so make sure you pack a flask too – nothing quite like a belly full of hot mushroom soup to speed you on your way.
5. Take your time & expect the unexpected. The fells aren’t to be messed with in even in the height of summer, so you certainly don’t want to be taking any chances through the winter. This is not the time of year for bagging as many Wainwrights as you can in a day; this is the time of year for taking it steady, watching your footing and enjoying the spectacular views in every direction. It’s also the season of the unexpected. We’ve been startled by deer in the mist on The Knott, spooked by hundreds of luminous sheeps eyes watching in surprise as we descended Fleetwith Pike in the dark and surprised by weather changing from warm spring afternoon to violent hailstorm within about 10 minutes on Helm Crag. Make sure you’re properly kitted out, enjoy the fells, and get home safely. Oh – and watch out for me if there’s snow on the ground, I’m a dab hand with a snowball.
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