There are some days when the Lake District looks too good, there is a point on the M6 motorway just before the exit to Kendal where on some days you can see the hills. Today is such a day and the hills have a covering of snow and they are being illuminated by the morning sun, will I stick to my planned walk or will the temptation of another snow covered hill prove too much.
As I drove through Grasmere the thought of an icy Easedale was very tempting, as I drove past Thirlmere I could feel Helvellyn tugging at my sleeve. As I got towards St Johns in the Vale the site of Blencathra was almost irresistible and as I got towards Keswick there was a graceful, elegant look about Skiddaw. Keswick itself was surrounded by snow covered hills, it was almost too much to bear.
Anyway I gritted my teeth and carried on, through Borrowdale and on to Seathwaite where about eight other cars were parked close to the farm. It was only when I opened my car door I realised that I had forgotten to bring my winter jacket, you would have thought by now I would know better. It is just as well I keep a couple of spare fleeces and a summer jacket in the boot of my car, don't ask me why, I was just glad of the layers of clothing on this bitterly cold day.
As you walk through the farm buildings there is a path under an archway between the housed animals, you have to open a large metal gate to get on the path towards the footbridge. Cross the footbridge and carry straight on, crossing a stone wall by a ladder stile with a curiously shallow gradient.
From here the way is up, the constructed footpath is usually good underfoot but there is snow in the gaps between the stones and melted snow has frozen over in places but it isn't too difficult to climb. There is no roaring water crashing down Sour Milk Gill today but there is a much more milky look to the frozen falls. It is a puzzle to me how water flowing fast down such a steep slope can get frozen.
As I gained height the it was obviously going to be a good photography day, the good light and hazeless views were giving me plenty of good viewing. There is a bit of a scramble over rocks at the side of the big waterfall but these are sheltered and free from ice and snow. As I toiled up the steep slope it became necessary to take off a couple of the clothing layers as the sun warmed me up a bit too much.
There is another waterfall higher up the gill where it spills over the lip of the hanging valley of Gillercomb. The falls were frozen enough for somebody to be attempting to climb up the ice. Then the hard work is over for a while as you get to the high valley, the sun lighting up Raven Crag made it look quite spectacular.
There wasn't that much snow around but enough to hide the path, however the way up the valley is fairly obvious and in this light there is no danger of getting lost. Footpaths almost always take the most natural, that is easy, way upwards and by looking for the natural way up the valley I found the footpath with just one set of yesterday's faint footprints still visible. One set of human footprints that is, there was also a very clear set of small footprints that I didn't recognise. It seems curious that they follow the route of the path as all animals tend to do in the hills, but I suppose they have been using those routes far longer than people have done.
As I walked along the easy path up the empty valley the view behind of Blencathra and the profile of Raven Crag gave a real feeling of winter and wilderness. As I got higher there were patches of frozen fellside, great swathes of ice to be avoided, sometimes awkwardly as it covered the path. I thought I had bypassed it all but the thin cover of snow let me walk onto the ice and of course I ended up sitting on it and I was unable to stand up again.
I could have slid over the edge where there was about a four foot drop but I didn't quite want to do that. I was able to hang on to a rock behind as I stretched out my long right leg to get my heel onto a rock and dragged myself over to it. Having got to it there were more rocks to get hold of and I got back on to my feet but I didn't quite trust the path anymore.
Towards the head of the valley you start to climb again, there was plenty of ice to avoid on the path but I wasn't going to let it get me again. The path takes you to the col between Base Brown and Green Gable and as you get to the ridge there is a fantastic mountain view in front of you. The Langdale Pikes are straight ahead, Great End and the other well known hills behind it are on the right, all of them white and bright in the sunshine.
All morning there had been a cold breeze but once I got on to the ridge the wind gave me a real chill and the layers of clothing quickly went back on. I use a drinking system with a tube that allows me to drink as I walk and sometimes the flow of water is interrupted as it was now. I took my rucksack off to investigate and everything seemed OK but there was a bit of ice around the mouthpiece.
So it was that even after only five minutes the water was freezing at the end of the drinking tube and I had to remove the mouthpiece to suck the ice out before the water would flow again.
Once on the ridge you turn right for Green Gable, keep straight on and you can't miss it. Well maybe you can, the path is rocky and it is easy to stray off it, you need to keep your eyes open and follow the line of large cairns. The views on your left are compelling, the presence of snow in the sunlight shows up every detail. Then just before the rocky summit crown the view opens up on the right hand side, Ennerdale and Buttermere surrounded by high snow capped hills.
Then at the summit of Green Gable the one object that dominates the view is Great Gable, from here you see its most rugged side, in any event my old friend looks magnificent today. Then again the views of Ennerdale and Buttermere, Kirk Fell and Pillar, everything is magnificent today.
From the summit is a steep descent, usually eroded and slippery with the added benefit of snow today, down to Windy Gap living upto its name today, you don't want to hang around to admire the view for too long. The start of the ascent of Great Gable looks quite intimidating at the best of times but the steep narrow path is full of snow today.
The path clinging to the side of the fell leads you to the real ascent. All of the ways up to Great Gable are interesting and exciting and this way up is no exception, steep and with plenty of rock to handle but easy enough most of the time for everybody to manage. The amount of snow and ice covering the rocks today makes it a bit trickier and I felt a bit safer using my ice axe, it isn't a place you would want to fall off.
From the solitude of Gillercomb to the crowds at the summit of Great Gable. Everybody congregates around the cold breezy summit but today is the day to go and find the Westmoreland cairn. Sitting near the cairn, enjoying the splendid view and the warmth of the sun I could have stayed there for ages, it is a wonderful place.
Oh well , time to leave so I climbed back to the summit and started my descent by the Breast Route, the least rugged of all of the Great Gable paths. It may be the least rugged but it is still a challenge to climb from Styhead Pass, the descent down the steep constructed path that is icy in places needs some care. The view across the valley to the back side of the Scafell group shows the gills of Piers, Great and Skew looking as though they have been thoughtfully sculpted out of the rock.
Down at the stretcher box at Styhead Pass the walking is easier, walking alongside Styhead Gill the normally wet ground is frozen, as is much of the gill itself. Last time I was here there was an enormous amount of water coming off the hills making the run off channels into torrents but things have returned to normal and the channels are dry except for a small accumulation of snow.
Eventually down at Stockley Bridge, the young River Derwent now back to a small stream again meandering through the ice. Once again the bridge without a stream is no longer a bridge over rubbled water, this will make more sense if you see the photo.
When I got back to Seathwaite there were cars parked for at least half a mile down the road.
Andy Wallace 28th February 2004
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