Climbing snow and ice in a Lake District gully by Dan Aspel
Although it can be both a fierce and a fickle beast, the British winter season tends to run from December until March. The months of February and early March are typically the most robust for good volumes of consolidated snow and well-established ice, and the high plateaus of the Cairngorms and the sheltered crags of the West Highlands are considerably more dependable than the more southerly landscapes of the Lake District and Snowdonia. Although they too, when in condition, can provide quite sublime playgrounds for those with an ice axe, a pair of crampons, and the experience to use them.
Why does this matter? Primarily because winter conditions create a searing beauty in the British mountains, batter you with life-affirming amount of challenging weather and frozen terrain underfoot, can give rise to a heart-stopping clarity in the air and, most importantly… they’re fun! If you love mountains then experiencing them at their most demanding and impressive multiplies the feeling of joy and satisfaction achieved by an incalculable factor.
If there’s a downside to becoming passionate about winter pursuits, it’s that the conditions are changeable. And increasingly so if, like those of us who experience the vanishing snows and glaciers first hand - and 97 per cent of scientists who study the issue - you are concerned about the disturbing evidence, future uncertainties and potentially terrible consequences of
human-driven climate change. However, when excellent winters prevail - as they did for a number of years in a row at the end of the last decade and the start of this one, and do for days or weeks at a time even in the current poor years - then anywhere that snow falls and that ice forms can be a source of limitless amusement.
Below you’ll find 20 images in a gallery of a trip I and my friends Maciej and Karolina Raslawski made to the Lake District in February 2016. We’re fortunate enough to be able to rely upon each others’ experience and kit arsenal to make this kind of activity possible, but if you’ve no winter climbs behind you and would like to correct that… then do visit the following link:
http://www.mountain-training.org/associations/ami/find-an-instructor. Here you’ll find a database of qualified and capable people very eager to introduce you to the gullies (and, in time, perhaps even the more exposed terrain of ridges) of the British mountains under their winter coat*.
*(the mountains, not the instructors. That would be weird).
So, here we go...
Cold, crisp… but far from wintery. The end of the Borrowdale valley gives little to no impression of the snow and ice established above it.
Ascending south-west towards the Scafell range. The first hints of snow begin to appear.
Easier terrain, and a long stride towards the peak of Great End (910m), where Cust’s Gully lurks.
The frozen waters of Sprinkling Tarn reveal the low ambient temperature above 600m.
The terrain begins to rise on the north face of Great End.
Seeking out the start of the high-placed gully.
Beaten to it: another climber, this one solo, begins his ascent of the superbly steep and “in condition” Cust’s Gully. Note the chockstone hanging perilously above.
Halfway up the gully. Being only a Grade 1 route, it’s straightforward enough to tackle with a pair of axes and no ropes.
Hard graft brings us to the top. A good chance to test the breathability of this expensive clothing...
Looking back down Cust’s to Sprinkling Tarn and the northern fells in the distance.
Another winter explorer gazes northwards towards Blencathra.
The frozen terrain of the high Scafell group, under an iron sky. It’s views like this than make winter mountaineering such a life-affirming hobby.
The infamous col of Mickeldore, with the highly problematic Grade 3 scramble of Broad Stand in centre shot, leading to the summit of Scafell (964m).
The next morning, and heading towards the clearly wintery north face of Catstye Cam (890m).
Winter protection: a sling secures to our ropes, which secure to my harness and thus secures me to a suitably “bomber” anchoring point.
Halfway up Catstye Cam gully, Karolina is already feeling the joy.
Maciej gives a typically effusive and over-emotional thumbs-up.
Removing our climbing gear as the sun sets over the Helvellyn range.
The author, looking suitably proud and thrilled to still be alive.
Sun sets on Catstye Cam and a superb day of winter mountaineering.
Make sure to visit the
Lifesystems Facebook page and Twitter feed to share your own experiences of Cumbrian winter climbs, adventures in snowy gullies, or other cold weather excitement.
Until next time.
> Dan Aspel is a journalist and Mountain Leader. You can find him at www.danaspel.com
> Visit www.lifesystems.co.uk to find a host of kit and equipment for your next mountain adventure.