Photos of Great Gable

Here at last are a selection of the photos I took on Great Gable on Christmas Eve:

Red Pike

Gale force squalls began to buffet us as soon as we gained height on Yewbarrow’s flank, where we found no respite in the lee of its giant bulk. Wainwright’s description of Yewbarrow as an upturned ship’s hull is certainly accurate. Today, though, the wind was without its normal load of rain and cloud, but instead was whipping up loose snow and ice crystals which had a savage effect on bare skin and one’s state of mind.

At any time of the year a mountaineer ventures onto the hills with due consideration of the elements, but as soon as his foot falls in mountain territory he becomes subject to their rule. Nevertheless, the mountains often seem aloof to your presence and you make your way among them of your own accord, suffering arbitrarily what you may encounter. The mountaineer is tolerated and ignored. However, this time it was as if we had fallen under a malevolent winter force.

The wind seemed to pit itself against us wilfully, as if we had carelessly strayed into the domain of a playground bully. Here, though, the consequences of our transgressions were serious. The bully could not be assuaged. Instead he had become the executioner, his axe held high above us, ready to deal a blow for a moment of folly.

My eyes and cheeks stung bitterly, and initially my spirit wilted under the force of the furious wind. However, this only served to dent my pride, and spurred me on to a fury of my own, grimly determined to overcome the fickle. Legs braced and hoods secured firmly we faced down the squalls that were being funnelled down through Dore Head, a fierce, incessant barrage that we could see bearing down upon us.

Strangely enough through the palatte of white, grey and black we eventually reached The Chair, a feature high on Red Pike mentioned in Wainwright’s guidebook, but one which had eluded me many times before. Here, truly, we were in the realms of forces far beyond our control. No overlord did we find residing in The Chair, but we subconsciously paid our respects in these aetherial courts, stooping, crouching and staggering from rock to rock in deference to the power of the wind.

Wind and snow streamed over the ridge and fell away across the escarpment. At other times, the wind reversed, creating vertical, swirling plumes that disorientated the senses. Thus it was with a sense of relief that we finally dropped down to Low Tarn, plunging through deep drifts deposited in the lee of the ridge. However, even Low Tarn was blasted by the elements, and we retreated into a bothy bag for lunch, a fluorescent orange haven in which to ignore temporarily the maelstrom outside.

After lunch our retreat was remarkably swift, and we soon dropped below the snowline, gradually feeling the wind at our back decreasing in force. The physical and emotional struggle was over, but I recalled with a shudder the dark image of Stirrup Crag above Dore Head where the icy wind would rip away anything unsecured among the black, broken rock bare of snow and ice.

If only Oxford were a mountain area…

I would fill my Winter ML logbook in a jiffy.

Blencathra: Still Sharp

The crowds were out in force when we visited Blencathra after Christmas Day. Its allure was magnified by dazzling slopes and clear skies and I was ready to be captured within its grasp, having never climbed it before. Previous encounters with the mountain had been through the window of a car, neck strained, peering awkwardly at its many facets, or wistful backward glances at the end of a trip, the crags and fells melting away morosely to gentle lowlands.

My brother and I were with John and his family, but we took the most demanding route for walkers: Sharp Edge on ascent and Hall’s Fell Ridge on descent. The weather was nigh-on perfect: excellent visibility and barely a breathe of wind.

However, I was new to winter walking in such snowy conditions and quickly frustrated by the need to follow in others’ footsteps, even though this was the most economical method. British mountaineers are lucky in that their wanderlust can be nourished by open access in national parks, although perhaps complacent with that gift at times. Today I would enjoy the outdoors from a piste trod by footsteps.

Away from the intrusion of the A66, a childish spirit within me yearned to frolic in the pristine snow and explore the untouched routes. Scales Tarn, nestling below Sharp Edge, and its steep headwall were literally buried beneath snowfall that had been preserved by calm and cold conditions. The pure white and smooth surface of the snow concealed the deep, vertical rock gashes torn by ancient glaciers. As we traversed Sharp Edge, I secretly longed to throw myself off and be enveloped in a sea of white.

The ridge quickly broadened out into the norther shoulder of Blencathra and the summit soon appeared in sight. Unfortunately, this also meant joining the hordes which had congregated there. We took lunch swiftly and the obligatory pictures and then set off down Hall’s Fell Ridge, the central bastion in the triple rampart that overlooked Threkeld.

By this time, the day was drawing to a close, so we savoured the last of the sun and the views before the shadows engulfed the scene. It was a day to remember, and I wondered how long I might have to wait to experience similar conditions again in the Lakes. For now, though, I enjoyed the finish of my initiation into winter mountaineering: I had wielded my ice axe and, although I had not worn them, my crampons had been ready at the top of my rucksack for deployment.

Next time the fells would not look so kindly on us…

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