Every February, we spend a weekend walking in the Lake District and every year the weather is very different from the last. This year, two weather fronts – a cold front that had turned seas in eastern Europe into huge skating rinks and a warm front that carried a significant amount of moisture across the Atlantic – were having something more than just a simple playground scuffle over the British Isles; lots of pushing and shoving with no one too sure which would get the upper hand. I’ve never seen the Mountain Weather Information Service weather forecast for the following day studied so carefully before.
On Saturday morning, the warm front seemed to have the upper hand but that soon changed as we made our way up Skiddaw. After studying the forecast myself, I opted for Skiddaw because it has a well-established, wide path to the summit. It wasn’t a day to be on a narrow ridge without full winter climbing kit and experience.
The cloud level dropped to about 400 metres and with the high winds – also forecast – and the snow already underfoot and more falling quite heavily, visibility deteriorated rapidly; to less than 10 metres at times. I’m reasonably familiar with that route up Skiddaw. Even in cloud or fog, the path is easy to follow. But when that too is white and indistinguishable, it’s a much bigger challenge.
To give you an idea of what was visible…
. , / _ – ! : ‘ / | \ . , / _ – ! : ‘ / | \ . , / _ – ! : ‘ / | \
…a few rocks scattered around.
Thus, our summit attempt was thwarted. Micro-navigation was virtually impossible. On turning back, we didn’t quite turn through 180 degrees and we soon found ourselves on a steepening incline. My experience of Skiddaw and it’s contours told me almost straight away that we were off the path but without any reference points, all we had to correct the mistake was a general direction. The danger being that, having zigged one way, we could easily zag back the other and across the path without even realising. So with a mix of contouring around and gradual descent over already rough ground, we arrived at the saddle between Skiddaw and Little Man summits – still with very little visibility.
To get from 1 summit to the other, there’s a fence that acts as a handrail across that saddle but we couldn’t locate it. Time to get the GPS out and pinpoint us exactly on the map! As it turned out, aiming off a little too much on the descent, we’d missed the corner of that fence by less than 50 metres but with visibility so low… A few paces to the east and I had my point of reference.
After that bit of excitement, the rest of the walk back to the car was relatively uneventful but it was quite obvious that bad weather was setting in for the rest of the day. There was absolutely no contrast between snow on the ground and the white-out in the air. I found that very… mesmerising I think is the best description of it. The snow line was at about 300 metres on our way up; it was now firmly in the basin of the valleys. As we drove down into Grasmere, cars were struggling on the climb up to Dunmail Raise where, only minutes earlier, a bus had made it through.
We found out later that others had similar or worse experiences on the fells that day. I like to think of myself as fairly philosophical and I squared away our experience as Mother Nature kicking off to remind us just who was in charge.
By contrast, the next day she offered up an olive branch; a very picturesque Lake District, dusted heavily in icing sugar.