There is something about snowfall that triggers childlike excitement in most people. Those of us who love walking in the mountains are no different, and the first snow fall of the year means that many of us are packing up our cars and heading off to the hills in search of some snow capped mountain adventure.
Of course winter walking requires a different level of planning and preparation but that’s all part of the fun. Dusting off your under-utilised crampons and ice axe after pulling them out of the loft. Trying to work out which combination of layering systems and down jackets will be best for keeping out the cold. Charting the mountain weather forecasts to see when and where you will get a clear day, and then picking your route. Finally, the most important decision; which hot drink to fill up your flask with – hot blackcurrant is always the winning choice on a cold day as far as I am concerned.
There is a serious element to winter walking and you will need to know your route and any risks involved. Route finding is obviously a lot more problematic when you cannot see the path, and then depending on where you are walking and what the conditions are, then additional winter hazards need to be factored in. Using specialised mountain weather forecasts will give you a good guide to what the conditions are likely to be. In the UK I use MWIS which provides excellent up to date information on walking in Scotland, the Lakes, Dales, and Peak District in England, and Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons in Wales. However, as long as you are well prepared and know where you are going then you can have wonderful and safe days in the hills.
I live in the north of England and this means that I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to winter walking. I’m less than two hours away from North Wales, the Peak District, and the Yorkshire Dales, but I always lean towards the Lake District and this is where I headed to this weekend after a week’s worth of snow had fallen there.
The Lakes are beautiful all year around but early winter, when the there is still some semblance of autumnal colours on the fells, is a great time to visit. My route would start at the 500 year old Kirkstone Pass Inn before heading up the ridge of St Raven’s Edge to Caudale Moor, then on to Stoney Cove Pike, before dropping down and then back up to Thornthwaite Crag, before my final destination of High Street, and then returning the same way.
On a summer’s day this would be a relatively simple outing; a few hours with only a few up and downs. In winter however, with icy slopes and at least 6-12 inches of snow for most of the route, then this is a much more considerable undertaking. Walking through snow is like walking through sand so after 6 hours of it you start to feel pretty tired!
There are some glorious views on this route. Caudate Moor afforded me a fabulous view of the white capped Hellvellyn range, and then the lower slopes which melted into autumn brown on their way down to Ullswater. In the dip between Stoney Cove Pike and Thornthwaite there was a cloud inversion over Troutbeck and Windermere so that the only sight to the south was the hill of Wansfell popping it’s head through the clouds. On the way back it was possible to see both Windermere to the south and Ullswater to the north from the same spot.
Thornthwaite Crag and it’s huge trig point was my refuelling stop and there are great views from here down to Kentmere. The Eastern fells are less visited than the central ranges but are certainly worth the effort. High Street is the largest peak in the area, and this used to be a Roman road that linked forts near Penrith and Ambleside so it’s a very well walked path. There are usually good views from here down to Blea Tarn and Haweswater, but on this day the cloud came in and all I could see was white cloud and white snow when i got there.
The light at winter is different and makes for great photo opportunities, or if you prefer to leave your camera in your bag and keep your fingers warm, you can just walk and soak up the different colours. The shorter days mean that you can reasonably catch both sunrise and sunset in the same walking day, as I did this weekend. Sunset, although brief, can produce a fabulous light show as the white snow turns from blue, to orange, and then to pink. Just make sure that you are in safe distance to the end of your walk if you are there at this time. Walking in the snow, ice, and in the dark is not much fun!
The sounds are different too. Fresh snow absorbs sound waves which means that winter walking can be eerily quiet at times. Plus there are less animals, birds, and indeed people about, although I did see deer prints all through my walk, but of course, no signs of the deer themselves.
As I returned back to Stoney Cove Pike my legs were starting to feel very heavy after some hard route finding and uphill work. My fingers were starting to feel the pinch of the cold and for the first time in the day I was starting to think that there might be somewhere else I’d rather be; in front of a hot fire with a beer started to feel like a much more attractive proposition. And then I saw the sun starting to set and the colours all around me starting to change. As I basked in the glow of the not-so-warm setting winter sun, and took in the changing views all around me, I realised that there was nowhere else I’d rather be and that fire and beer could wait a little longer.