A day of white

Posted by Sam Harrison on February 21, 2011 at 11:40.

 Hill walking

grasmere helvellyn lake district thirlmere

The destination for this week's walk was Grasmere, leaving open a whole host of opportunities and initially I had planned to do the Fairfield Horseshoe. However, looking at the snow, a few of us decided that Helvellyn was a better option for that little bit of extra height.

Start point: Lay-by opposite Swirls car park on the A591, just north of Grasmere, NY 316 169
Summits: Helvellyn (inc. Lower Man), Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike, Fairfield, Great Rigg
Distance: 9.3 miles / 14.9 kilometres
Ascent: 4110 feet / 1250 metres

Having the luxury of two cars (well, one car and one minibus) meant we could do a straight line walk starting from the shores of Thirlmere reservoir. We were going to park in the Swirls car park but after seeing the price of £5 and realising that we didn't have enough spare change, we decided to head across the road to the free lay-by. A well formed path leads up beside Helvellyn Gill to Helvellyn Lower Man and eventually Helvellyn. We were in cloud within half an hour, which combined with the snow created some impressive complete white-out moments.

We bumped into a group of guys on our way up who asked for advice on directions (they wanted to head down over Whiteside Bank and Raise but instead were heading down the way we came up). After a quick consultation of the map we told them their best bet was to head back up to Helvellyn Lower Man and branch off from there. They had a map but I'm pretty certain they didn't have a compass with them, or if they did they were reluctant to use it. Despite our advice they decided to carry on back down the way we came up - personally I think it serves them right if they ended up by Thirlmere and had to catch a cab back to where they started from.

On a related note, I couldn't help but notice the amount of people on the summit without ice axes, and presumably without crampons as well. Although Helvellyn offers some gentle ascents and the snow wasn't frozen enough to warrant ice axe or crampons, they are surely still an essential piece of kit with conditions like they were? It could have easily been a lot icier up there.

The summit was very busy as usual, even despite the less-than-perfect weather forecast. Quite a few people had seized the opportunity to make the most of the winter conditions over Striding and Swirral edges, and in fact we nearly decided to descend Striding and come back up Swirral to make the most of it ourselves, however time was pressing and having done Striding Edge just before Christmas we decided Fairfield was a better alternative (though in hindsight we probably did have the time to do both).

Summit of Helvellyn
 


Summit of Helvellyn
 


Helvellyn is famous for its flat and expansive summit - in fact the first mountain-top landing of a plane in Britain occurred here in 1926 - and in conditions like we had today it's easy to see how people get lost. Many a compass bearing was taken and many steps paced out to our next few peaks, before heading down the clear zig-zag path to Grisedale Tarn.

From the tarn we could see the other group from the Hiking Club descending the ridge to the west of Fairfield, however we decided to take the more interesting route up north east onto Deepdale House and then along the ridge running from St Sunday Crag to Fairfield. This is a fantastic route up that I've never done before - a small rocky and grassy path is etched into the fell side, as it ascends giving expansive views over Grisedale (we were even out of the clouds for a bit!). The ridge itself was also good fun, offering a tiny bit of very easy scrambling if you pick the most direct lines (the actual path, or at least the footprints in the snow, bypass all of this).

Fairfield itself and indeed the whole horseshoe is a walk that I have fond memories of, being one of the first walks I vividly remember doing on a beautifully sunny day many years ago. I remember thinking then that it was one of the best walks I had been on and that memory has stuck with me ever since. Although the summit today was a white blur, it still felt great to be back up there.

We didn't hang around for very long as the wind was bitterly cold. Our descent was via Great Rigg and Stone Arthur, bringing us out just up the road from Grasmere, where we joined the rest of our party in the (rather busy) Red Lion - where a glass of coke costs £2.80 but a pint of beer only £2.75 (I know which I'd prefer!).
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