The First Time I Went… | Mountain Climbing In England’s Winter
Kate Dawson set out to discover for herself just how extreme the high places of England can get in winter. Equipping herself with an ice axe, she hit the snow of a cold Blencathra
For some, winter is a miserable time; the shrunken daylight and cold winds force most of us into the comfort and warmth of our beds, hiding away waiting for summer to return. Yet for others, a dusting of snow can be a calling to the mountains, like a siren luring adventurous hikers to the ridges…
I’ll admit, before this year I was the former. Typically, you would find me on top of a Lakeland fell in shorts and a T-shirt basking in the sun, surrounded by a lush green landscape, but not today. Today, I find myself trudging through the very white and cold mountainside of Blencathra. I’m layered up head to toe in the warmest clothes I own, my backpack filled with gear which is all new to me- an ice axe, crampons, gaiters… I feel like an alpine explorer, all set for a brand new expedition.
Despite not actually being on an alpine journey, I am far from disappointed. The higher I get into these wintery hills, the more magical it becomes. Truthfully, summiting a mountain layered in thick snow is harder work than I’m used to, but the rewards are greater.
“Summiting a mountain layered in thick snow is harder work than I’m used to, but the rewards are greater”
I’m standing on a peak I have stood a number of times before, yet it is brand new. A different view of Lakeland is lay out before me, like a dazzling white foreign mountain range. The soft wind lightly blows a dusting of spindrift across my vision and in this moment my attitude towards winter changed. I know now that there are few things more magical than standing in the glow of a winter sun surrounded by frosted mountains.
Prior to this maiden winter hike, I would always admire snow-covered peaks from afar, as though they were Himalayan giants only accessible to the world’s greatest mountaineers. “A little summer hill-walker like myself would never be capable of exploring such places,” I thought. Yet here I was, looking back at a white coated, craggy ridge that could have well been Everest if I didn’t tell you otherwise.
Admittedly, this isn’t Everest. And yet, this thinking can be the reason people underestimate mountains in the UK. Our highest peak, Ben Nevis, is in Scotland and is 1345m high; a long way off the colossal 8000m summits of the Himalayas. Despite this, the same risks exist.
Avalanches, hypothermic temperatures, cornices, blizzards… these are all real dangers here on these shores and they do happen. Last year, for example, the Scottish Avalanche Information Service’s annual report recorded 241 avalanches, 27 of which were human triggered with 15 of these people being carried down by the avalanche activity. Most hikers know to check the weather conditions before heading to the mountains, yet many may not think to do an avalanche risk check – which is equally important during the winter months.
“Avalanches, hypothermic temperatures, cornices, blizzards… these are all real dangers here in the UK and they do happen”
At the time of writing, the UK is in a strict lockdown and all this talk of climbing and hiking seems like a distant memory. Yet it seems COVID and restrictions may have actually played a part in more inexperienced hikers taking to the hills without the right kit and preparation.
Recent research from Mintel shows a trend in hiking increasing as a hobby in 2020, with statistics revealing a rise from 18% in 2018 to 23% in 2020. Although it’s great to see more people enjoying the benefits of the outdoors, it is too easy for new hikers to see a beautiful mountain image on Instagram and rush to the hills without considering the risks and restrictions, especially during wintertime.
Mountain rescue teams have been under immense pressure during the pandemic, despite their efforts to keep hikers off the mountains for now. On Christmas Day 2020, volunteers from Patterdale Mountain Rescue were called out on a six-hour long rescue operation to assist a man who had become lost whilst looking for Priest’s Hole Cave in the Lake District. Exposure to freezing cold temperatures during a wild camp in the mountains restricted movement to the man’s legs leaving him unable to walk down to safety.
“There have been many callouts in the last year where people new to fell walking have found themselves in an unwanted situation,” says Patterdale Mountain Rescue volunteer David Gracie. “Due to the pandemic, the way we now operate means a rescue can take longer. We must keep our team safe, therefore if a problem can be resolved on the phone, this is how we will assist. Of course in serious situations, we will go out onto the hills, but now we must take extra time preparing to prevent the spread of Covid, including carrying and wearing additional PPE.”
“Nobody plans to have an accident”
Patterdale Mountain Rescue usually sees an increase in their calls in the lead up to winter. They always advise hikers to properly prepare for the mountains in the colder conditions by thoroughly researching their route, carrying a map and compass (and knowing how to use them) and stocking their backpack up with extra layers and emergency supplies.
“Nobody plans to have an accident,” adds David. “However now the consequences are greater. A casualty or team members could be carrying Covid, which may cause serious illness to my family or myself. I would advise people who are heading out to the mountains to consider your impact if things don’t go as planned. In winter, pack more layers, learn how to use your gear and do your research. Snow is fun, but it comes with significant dangers, even to the most experienced. Its always okay to turn around and come back another day.”
Returning from my first winter hike, I was amazed at what I’d just experienced. I was instantly aware how quickly winter fades away in the Lake District and couldn’t wait to get back onto the snowy peaks (when restrictions allowed).
Reminiscing back on my day though, I was aware I wasn’t perfect. I made a lot of beginner mistakes; I put my gaiters on too late resulting in a soggy shoe full of snow, I spent most of the day looking through squinted eyes, blinded by the low winter sun due to having no glasses, I had an ice axe… did I know how to fully use it? Shamefully, no. I didn’t make any life-threating mistakes, yet things can easily go wrong on the mountains without the right gear and knowledge, and the risks often increase when ice and snow is involved.
My intention is not to put anyone off winter hiking; in fact it is quite the opposite.
“I haven’t reached the top of Everest, but in that moment, standing upon my first, pristine winter summit, I still experienced a sense of achievement, adrenaline and awe”
I want everyone to experience those magnificent moments; the first crunch of fresh snow beneath your boots, the sight of sparkling white blankets covering the hills, feeling as though you’ve been transported to an alpine paradise… these are the reasons winter skills are essential. With these moments comes the need to learn how to hike safely and responsibly during the winter months. A winter skills course with trained professionals will cover just that, and they’re easy to find and book online when the time is right.
I haven’t reached the top of Everest, but in that moment, standing upon my first, pristine winter summit, I still experienced a sense of achievement, adrenaline and awe that I bet all the greatest mountaineers have felt at some point.
There’s a reason people invest so much time and money into perfecting their winter skills. It’s for those awe-inspiring moments when you feel as though you could be anywhere in the world – even when you are, in my case, in England. That’s why people do it.
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