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Winter Wainwrights

Image for article Winter Wainwrights

You’ll know how beautiful the Lake District is when the sky is blue, but this winter I've also seen some extraordinary moments of beauty. I've been trying a romantic challenge; to visit all the Wainwright summits between clock changes.

Everyone’s reasons for being in the mountains are different, be it physical, spiritual or social. I needed a goal to pull me through the darkness of winter, and reaching all the Wainwright summits - the 214 fells in Alfred Wainwright's guides to the Lakeland Fells - seemed do-able. Steve Birkinshaw did it in just six days and 13 hours, after all.

In the dark depths of winter, it wasn't my determination that was stopping me, but work. Up to the end of December we'd only managed 11 hill days and 63 summits. In January we had to realign our diaries to maximise our days; we managed 11 with 51 tops. In February, the days are getting noticeably longer as I write this, and we'll have managed 80+ in eight days. March will leave us not a lot of wriggle room for Wasdale, Eskdale and some of the higher central fells though.

The snow-covered hills started early; our second day out on 6 November, Steel Knotts in a horseshoe to Hallin Fell. Hard conditions, but seeing a herd of deer grazing in the snow and the ridge unfold from the cloud to expose Ullswater were worth it. Strong wind and grey days, but enjoying the miles and planning the next epic were all fun

By 24 November everyone had been out playing in some exceptional winter weather; we couldn't wait any longer, so took a lieu day. We skied from Dunmail Raise to Threlkeld, indulging in a few extra descents on some delicious drifts in arctic golden winter light. The sun set on Stybarrow Dodd and the last descent off Clough Head was on foot due to darkness; even with head torches we couldn't be totally sure of the drifting snow. Thankfully we arrived at my parents’ house in Threlkeld after the Archers had finished, so we could get a lift to Dunmail to pick up the abandoned car. With a day’s rest (well, work) we were back on skis. This time a tour of the Skiddaw massif, noticeable for a temperature inversion, great skiing on Bakestall but running water on Skiddaw summit; a quick traverse through slush, and a brilliant run down my favourite flank on Lonscale.

December started with a Herculean push, 12 summits in the West and strong wind, Grisedale Pike to Barrow, some snow but clear sharp light with yellow sun. Perhaps this winter summits plan was a good idea after all. Or was it; the weather changes and you're following a compass bearing through bog and rain late on a Sunday afternoon in the Northern fells.

A head cold and more strong wind added to the challenge of Ard Crags to Catbells and a mental note to take more clothes. The temperature had been fluctuating wildly from one day to the next, but that is winter... we needed a break from this madness and had a week of Alpine sunshine and skiing strengthening our thighs before the New Year’s onslaught of tops.

An easy start to the year with friends and family on a sociable outing to Sale Fell. The next day was rather more technical as it involved three separate groups of summits connected with a little drive between. Now that's hard, getting out of a warm car for the third time, but a stunning sunset and three different days in one.

Early January saw a lot of low cloud, we saw not much other than bog and the compass, but I still love the Northern fells. Gowbarrow and the Mell Fells ticked, my selfie picture shows multiple jackets, hats and Buff, it was raw cold. An early start on a Saturday morning found us in beautiful snow on High Tove and Armboth Fell in a glorious golden glow, work needed doing so we could only grab a couple of hours.

Fleetwith PikeSometimes the dice can roll in your favour, such as our traverse of Buttermere, Burnbank Fell to Fleetwith Pike (right). Blue sky and not much brain required for direction of travel as you could see everywhere. Just keeping me alert the weather flipped and was really cold the next day for our Greystones, Whinlatter loop.

What you don't want to see on your day off is rain forecast. Lucky we had some low tops that needed a visit. I surprised myself, I'd been thinking it was just going to be a mechanical exercise, instead cloud swirled in and out of big old trees, mist rose from the tarns and we had a really lovely day out that I wouldn't have missed. High up snow had been falling and Sunday we were back in it. This particular day felt really special, the forecast hadn't been good but a small pocket of weather opened, Great Gable was there topped in lovely sticky snow.

We had a cold Friday afternoon on the tops from Glenridding and a glimpse of a tremendous pink snow moon, it would have been so easy not to have gone out but we'd have missed that moment.

Saturday, I can certainly say I didn't fancy strong wind, zero visibility and snow. We were too far down to give up now, Sour Hows to Troutbeck Tongue with the Kentmere Horseshoe in the middle. A great slab of Christmas cake, a herd of deer and finding Thornthwaite Crag was nice, the rest was a test of spirit. The wind didn't abate overnight so Sunday’s ticks were a challenge to stay vertical; Rannerdale and Mellbreak, tick.

We realised if we were going to get this done we couldn't just rely on our days off, so we planned an extra Wednesday for Kirkstone to Pooley Bridge. Tuesday was clear blue sky, but Wednesday dawned with cloud to the valley bottom. The snow was thawing on the tops, so trying to run in deep slush was hard work but then the curtain of cloud opened, the High Street grey wall running off into the distance of orange bogs. Another spectacular day out.

Sunday, low clouds forecast, compass at the ready, not much Christmas cake left. Eagle Crag Borrowdale, unexpected warm February sun on my back and a large rainbow behind me, black and bog ahead. Rossett Pike then across to the Langdales, the Pikes poking in and out of cloud. A bearing to Pavey, trust the compass, then the summit unfolded to close back in a moment, more bog jumping to Thunacar and Sergeant. Payback time; the clouds rolled away to reveal the Lake District in late afternoon light we ended in the glistening bogs of Ullscarf and perhaps not the best line for a descent back into Borrowdale.

With another seven days planned we'll have covered all the 214 tops from clock change to clock change. It hasn't been easy coordinating work and changing plans because of weather, but even on the grey bad days it was exercise that made me stronger for the long beautiful ones. When I look back, this will certainly be a winter I will remember as a great one for all the right reasons, fantastic memories of being together.

Kit? I've been using Salomon XA Alpine running shoes all winter; I've actually rather liked them, good grip on rock but not so great on vertical grass. They're not waterproof, but their robust outer fends off a lot of bog and snow. Most importantly, the upper is showing no signs of wear. Socks; Smartwool all the way, they just work even when your feet are soaked. I've carried a Patagonia Nano-Air and had to use it on quite a few occasions and was really happy with the extra layer. In the last few weeks I've used a Nano-Air Light; really great cuffs, a good technical mid layer, no insulation on the back but on the chest and arms.

I've used a mixture of Power Stretch gloves or Montane Prism mitts and had very happy hands. On a lot of days I haven't gone for a lightweight waterproof as I knew we were going to be in torrential weather; my Arc'teryx Beta LT always does the job. Always in my Salomon pack I have a survival bag, whistle, spare food, extra clothes, waterproof trousers, a Petzl head torch and Kahtoola micro spikes.

UPDATE: Wainwright's done.

It's not just been about top ticking, it's been finding new paths, seeing new views or the challenge of navigating through the fog and rain; its been about being together, making the time to have a really great winter.

Our last outings if we were thwarted by awful weather. Great End, Esk, Bowfell, Crinkle, Cold Fell and Pike O'Blisco were completed in strong wind, rain plus post holing in snow along the tops. Trust the compass. We had a superb Sunday with thick fog for Lingmell, Scafell Pike, cascading waterfall up to Foxes Tarn onto Scafell , Slight Side. The day continued and the weather gave us a break as we traversed through the bog to Winn Rigg. We finished with magnificent blue sky over Wasdale on Illgill Head.

Luck wasn't with us, storms forecast for our last weekend. Our drive to Wasdale in the pouring rain wasn't inspiring though in hindsight added to our winter experience. Yewbarrow, Red Pike, Pillar, Scoat Fell, Steeple (my favourite) Haycock and Cawfell all done in clagg on a compass bearing in driving rain. From there we turned into more murk which opened for a moment to reveal the beauty of Middle Fell in the distance, our next top, then it was covered in its white vail. The compass and a very handy sheep trod took us through the bog to the summit. A quick turn to Seatallan and a great run down out of the clouds to Buckbarrow. Another day survived.

Heavy rain and more storms on the Sunday were interesting in Eskdale, impressive waterfalls and more bog. Hard Knott pass was closed so we had to go from the valley bottom. Green Crag, Harter Fell and Hard Knott all done on a compass, the latter with a head torch and the unenviable task of the trot down the winding tarmac back to the car.

Number 213 Walla Crag was a super sunny Saturday and the Salomon Run with Ricky very entertaining. We then sloped off to sneak up through the trees of Latrigg 214. There we sat alone in the sun, with the obligatory shoe shot and a quiet reflection of life.

I love the Lake District!

28 March 2017 by LisaBergerud

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