Baffled of Beck Head
I was looking forward to walking in snow and it looked as though I wasn't going to be disappointed as I drove along the Borrowdale Valley. The only slight problem was that the Honister Pass road with its 25% gradient and sharp bends was very slippery. I only had one anxious moment near the summit of the pass where a stream of water had frozen across the road and I had to take care getting into the National Trust car park.
The path up to Grey Knotts rises immediately and steeply from the rear of the grounds of the Honister quarry. Navigation isn't a problem, you just follow the fence up the hill, the fence is also useful to hang on to where the constructed path is iced over. Constructed paths are useful for the prevention of erosion but they are slippery in wet weather and sometimes dangerously so in winter when the water retained on the path freezes over.
As I gained height the patchy snow quickly became a proper covering and the view of Dale Head across the pass showed a definite snow line. It was cold and bright making the views very clear except for the cap of mist on the highest of the hills. The fence is a reliable guide but I had to detour away from it because the usual wet path is very icy in places.
There were a couple of sets of footprints in the snow helping me to find a way around the wet and icy sections. One set of footprints was from running shoes, there is only one person mad enough to go walking in snow wearing running shoes and he wasn't due in the Lake District until next week. There are a couple of rocky corridors I had to pass through that needed a bit more care before I reached a stile in the fence that had to be crossed.
I was following the footsteps through the snow which was deep enough for me put my gaiters on to save filling my boots with the stuff. Then almost at the top you have to cross the fence again to actually get onto the rocky crown of Grey Knotts summit with its two cairns. The further one seemed to be higher and therefore the summit until I got to it and looked back and the other one then seemed higher. It didn't help me to decide which was the higher summit because the mist had quickly rolled in shutting off the views I had enjoyed so far.
The fence now provides a reliable guide to Brandreth but it is away from the ridge and the views of Base Brown and down into the valley of Seathwaite. The running shoe tracks followed the fence, I walked over to the ridge and followed the fox tracks to the summit of Brandreth. Once at this summit the views returned with interest, Ennerdale was colourful surrounded by the white hills, Pillar and Red Pike were stunningly white in the bright sunshine.
As I walked down towards Gillercomb Head the wind began to blow the loose snow into wet clouds obscuring the views but navigation is easy following the fence posts down towards the collection of small tarns. I wanted to make my way to Moses Trod and the gate, still standing although the fence around it has gone, is the place to turn right.
Having turned right down a slight slope through ankle deep snow I had to avoid the wetter areas that were still visible through the snow. I was sure that I would notice Moses Trod, it must be well used and obvious with plenty of footprints in the snow. I should have used my knowledge of the place to look around to see where the path should be, but it was only when I crossed a stream that I wasn't expecting that I began to wonder where I was. I had gone too far downwards, the obvious and busy Moses Trod was invisible under its covering of snow.
I turned left to follow the contours of the hill, hoping that I would come across the path without having to climb up through the snow again. I recognised the rocky rise that the path goes over and sure enough I rejoined the path just the other side of it. Strangely there were fox prints here as well and they seemed to follow the path without fail, the path was not obvious in places and I lost it a few times but each time I found it again the fox prints were there. There were excellent views from here near the source of the River Lisa down into Ennerdale and across towards Buttermere with Grasmoor towering over Crummock Water.
I followed the fox almost all of the way to Beck Head over snow covered ground where the path was not visible at all. As I carried on past Beck Head I found the running shoe footprints again and wondered if my friend Peter was actually on the hills today close by. As I stopped briefly near Beck Head I noticed that I had received a text message on my phone. The message who said you could go to Moses Trod was from my friend Peter, now I was really taken aback. Was it actually his footprints after all that I was following, how had he seen me, he wasn't supposed to be out walking until next weekend.
I continued along Moses Trod while the running show seemed to have gone towards Beck Head. From a distance the path contouring the steep and rocky lower slopes of Kirk Fell was obvious, under foot it was less obvious but I was confident that if I followed the fox then I would stay on the path. There is a beck going down the hill that I have had trouble with before, today it was partially frozen, the rocks being covered with ice and there is a steep bank to climb on the other side.
After that the bouldery ground falls steeply down towards Ennerdale but the path is wide enough to feel safe, looking upwards the crags of Kirk Fell are ruggedly impressive. The closer you get to Black Sail Pass the ground becomes less steep but wetter and there was an excellent view of a sunny, snow covered Pillar for a while. Eventually you reach Sail Beck at the place where it levels out after falling steeply from Kirk Fell. After crossing the beck is a steep climb over wet ground until you reach the large flat area at Black Sail Pass.
I sat on my favourite boulder for a bite to eat and a drink looking up at Kirk Fell, it doesn't look too bad and I know what to expect. As I started the climb up the steep snow covered path there were two sets of footprints, boots going up and running shoes coming down. The going was quite hard, having to kick into the snow that wasn't really hard enough to be kicked into. The path wasn't clear but was obvious enough and anyway I was following footprints until I realised I wasn't going the way I expected to.
The way ahead was a rocky gully, running shoes had come down this way and I suppose the way ahead didn't look that steep and there seemed to be plenty of exposed rocks to hang on to. The way got steeper and the rocks couldn't be relied on as hand holds and I eventually got to a boulder, it was topped with ice and the rocks either side were too steep to step on to without reliable hand holds. By now I was cursing running shoes and I decided that in order to avoid climbing down again I would put my crampons on and find another way up.
I had to descend carefully for a few feet to find a safe place to fit my crampons and then found a way up over steep exposed snow covered rocks but I felt I could go anywhere with the security of crampons. After a strenuous fifty feet of climbing I came to a very steep snow slope, steeper than I have come across before and still really too soft to kick in to. After working hard to get up the snow I came to another boulder with a foot wide and three foot deep gap in front of it, too high to step onto and nothing to hold on to anyway.
Now what? It looked like there was a gully on the left running parallel to the route I was on so I had to slowly slide full length down the snow slope digging in as best I could with ice axe and crampons. The gully looked climbable but steep and at least fifty feet high but it seemed a better option that going all the way down. I had a nerve wracking few minutes climbing up very steep snow covered boulders but fortunately there were hand holds when I needed them and my feet always felt secure.
I was thankful to reach the top of the gully, only a few feet away from where I wanted to be if I had climbed the normal route, and there were running shoes' footprints heading down towards the gully. I left my crampons on as I followed running shoes alongside the fence to the shelter cairn at the summit of Kirk Fell. Only then did I get another text message to say that Peter was at home so there must be another mad fell runner out there somewhere, what a scary thought.
It was at this point I realised I wasn't going to have time to climb Great Gable today but it had been an interesting day anyway. The fence takes a left turn at the summit and will take you to the subsidiary summit with a cairn at the North East corner of the fell, directly opposite Great Gable, separated by Beck Head. There were not many footprints to follow and the path wasn't obvious, crampons come into their own when you can simply walk down any hill no matter how slippery.
Once down at Beck Head I picked up Moses Trod again and this time followed it all the way to the old mineral line leading downwards from the old drum house. The setting sun lit up Buttermere and its fells before making a bright farewell flourish as I reached the dismantled tramway.
Andy Wallace 17th January 2004
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