Lakes 2013: Helvellyn by snow-cave

Lakes 2013: Helvellyn by snow-cave

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 54.52685°N / 3.01724°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Apr 6, 2013
Activities Activities: Hiking
Seasons Season: Spring


2013 has been a fortunate year for me thus far. Although I haven't spent my time hopelessly pursuing black cats, trying not to notice single magpies nor making any special effort not to walk under ladders, several things have happened which could be considered very lucky. I have become a grandfather for a start. But before I get too carried away, I must remind myself that this is SUMMITPOST not GRANDFATHERPOST, and without further ado I will get back on track...

2013 has been a very fortunate year in terms of mountain trips. I have just posted Alps International Expedition 2013 which included extraordinary and wonderful traverses involving the two highest mountains in Western Europe as well as the highest possible bivouac, with a night spent in a snow-cave on the summit of Mont Blanc. This was back in July. But back in April I had another very special trip to the mountains, rather closer to home.

I went to the Lake District with my 19 year old son, Andy - and we did a modified version the Patterdale Round  - modified; due to the unseasonable amount of snow which had fallen in the preceding few weeks.

Patterdale Round

The Patterdale Round is well described in the link. In brief, it is a circuit involving several summits in the north-eastern corner of the English Lake District, culminating in an ascent of the 3rd highest summit in England: Helvellyn 3,110ft - or 948m. I had done the round before, on a glorious day in May 2012 - and I planned to follow same route in April 2013 as I had then: climbing St Sunday Crag first, via the delightful scramble of Pinnacle Ridge, moving on to the top of Fairfield, before climbing to the highest summit, that of Helvellyn. As a grand finale I planned to descend via another Lake District classic scramble - the famous Striding Edge - before returning to Patterdale.

Patterdale Round - Google Earth view
Patterdale Round - Google Earth view of our version

The only difference in the planning to May 2012, was that rather than careening round in a single day, we planned to take a more leisurely 2 days - with a camp up at one of the high tarns in the area. But then came the almost unprecedented early Spring snow-fall. At this stage Andy had been going to be joining me with his pregnant girlfriend Angela. We had all felt this would be her last chance to manage a mountain trip, before becoming too advanced in her pregnancy. With the snowfall and bearing in mind Angela's limitations, I kept modifying the plans. The two scrambles - Pinnacle and Striding Edge - were quickly off the menu. These would now have become serious winter climbs. Then came some bad luck: Angela had to endure an emergency dental extraction two days before we were due to depart - and it was immediately obvious that she was in no fit shape to go to the mountains. Regretfully she pulled out - but encouraged Andy to still join me, whilst she recuperated at home.

So it was to be just Andy and I on this little trip.

Once again, plans were modified. Andy had only summer gear and wasn't experienced in winter conditions so the two scrambles were still out. We decided therefore, to do whatever we could of the round where we could get away without having crampons. We still planned on a night out - one of Andy's passions is camping - and he had a reasonable sleeping bag. But the night out would not be tent based. With the extraordinary amount of snow that had fallen, I fancied that I should be able to introduce Andy to the gentle art of snow-caving - and that somewhere along the route we should be able to find a suitable bank or even cornice, to dig into.

I had an additional motive: planning for my summer alpine trip included a snow-cave on the summit of Mont Blanc - and having not lived in a snow-cave since 1987, I was keen to revive my somewhat rusty skills in this area. Andy was completely up for it.

Here is what we got up to:

St Sunday Crag 

We left Yorkshire early on Saturday 6th April, drove over the snowy Pennines and down and across to a positively Alpine looking Lake District. We parked at the 'pay and display' car-park by the Patterdale Hotel - and had to obtain our tickets actually from the hotel, since we were planning on parking over 2 days. A little after 10am, we hefted on our back-packs and set off.

Patterdale Round - start by Patterdale Hotel
Andy by the Patterdale Hotel

We walked for about a kilometre before entering the pretty glen of Grisedale - and before long we were away from the road and climbing up the lower slopes of St Sunday Crag. The weather was glorious, with a clear blue sky and sun shining on the snowy slopes above. Low down, we climbed frosty slopes of grass, with just the occasional snow-patch. Within a short while our labours were rewarded by an expanding view over Ullswater - one of the great lakes which gives the Lake District it's name.

Patterdale Round
View over Ullswater from lower slopes of St Sunday Crag

In no time at all we reached the snow-line. Here the terrain became even more alpine with slopes of dazzling white shining in the sun. Andy hadn't much experience of winter conditions in the mountains and was clearly enjoying himself. The snow was in excellent condition for kicking steps - cold enough to have a bit of a crunch and to be supportive, but not frozen hard to the degree that we would have needed crampons - although I was keeping an open mind on the sort of conditions we could be facing later. We wanted to do the full round if possible, but I was fully prepared to have to change plans if need be. I foresaw no difficulties reaching the top of St Sunday Crag. But from there was a steeper climb up on to Fairfield - which I already anticipated we may have to miss out. Nevertheless even missing Fairfield, I remembered from my summer 2012 sojourn, we would have to traverse some fairly steep slopes in order to reach Grisedale Tarn - and the next part of the route leading up to Helvellyn.

Patterdale Round
Looking past St Sunday Crag, towards long ridge leading to Helvellyn
Patterdale Round
Andy climbing into the sun on St Sunday Crag

As we climbed higher and higher up the snowy slopes, I found myself looking across at the profile of St Sunday Crag. Across there and round the corner was Pinnacle Ridge, the scramble via which I had reached the top of the mountain 11 months earlier. Observation confirmed that in the current conditions it would be a serious winter route, requiring crampons and axes - and use of a rope (the route is a 'hard scramble' bordering on 'mild rock-climb' - and plastered in snow plus a bit of ice, would move above bordering on mild as a climbing objective).

It was reasonably hard work labouring up the snowy slopes. I was acutely aware that this was the first time I had carried a rucksack since the previous September in the Alps - and the first time I had carried a heavy load, with full camping gear since Aconcagua - over two years before. And at the end of that trip I had suffered a prolapsed lumbar disc. Recovery had been long and painful - and not complete. I had managed OK in the alps - but since we had exclusively used huts, I had never had to carry much more than a light day sack. I hoped my back would hold out on this more heavily laden trip with my son.

Patterdale Round
This was the first time I had carried a heavy pack for over two years


Patterdale Round
View from St Sunday Crag summit - towards Helvellyn, our eventual destination

After 2-3 hours of steady uphill toil, we reached the wide flat plateau which was the summit of St Sunday Crag - at 841m or 2,760ft above sea level. We were rewarded with spectacular views over Ullswater towards the distant Pennines we had driven across that morning. We could also look across at the other half of the 'horseshoe' - to the long undulating ridge leading to the top of Helvellyn. It was extraordinary to recognise that across there was a plethora of climbs in perfect winter condition - climbs which would rarely come into condition in winter - never mind spring. Looking across I had high hopes that we would be able to find a good bank of digging snow somewhere - deep enough to be able to create our accommodation for the night. But even if we didn't, the weather was good and the forecast looking favourable for an open air bivouac if necessary.

Looking at where we now intended to go, my expectations for Farfield were confirmed: it would be too steep to ascend without crampons. So it would have to be the traverse across to Grisedale Tarn - which also could have proved to be a problem, with the steepish slopes I remembered from the summer. Nonetheless we set off in that direction; initially on broad snowy ridge, towards Farfield, but then angling away to the right - where evidence of a path showed through the snow. It had been a few years since I had given Andy any instruction in the use of an ice-axe and I gave him a quick refresher. He soon got the idea again, of holding the axe in his uphill hand in such away as to come naturally into the fall arrest position if he slipped.

Patterdale Round
Andy traversing the steeper slopes towards Grisedale Tarn
Patterdale Round
Andy reaching the final gentle descent to partially frozen Grisedale Tarn

Carefully kicking steps in the crunchy surface we set out along the descending traverse. Evidence of the trail underneath remained visible and useful as a marker. My slight fear that this obstacle would be enough to stop us was unfounded and we managed the crossing all the way to the little lake uneventfully. 

 At the end of the traverse was a final gentle descent to the Tarn. The snow cover became sparse at this point, but nonetheless with a few ice patches about we had to watch our step a little. The lake was partially frozen - and here I remembered, from the just a month later in the season the year before, that I had stumbled across a lone young woman taking an early morning skinny-dip. I don't know who had been the more surprised. But I doubted there would be anybody skinny-dipping today - an ice-axe would have been needed to cut a hole in the ice, at the place the woman had been swimming.

A trickle of water was accessible where the stream emerged from the lake-side - and we stopped to collect water. We had several water bottles and a larger 'Camel-Back' container between us. Anticipating that this may be the last running water available we filled everything we had, although this would mean an even more heavily laden slog up the next slopes, towards Helvellyn.

In due course we set off up the zig-zag trail towards our still distant goal. Being south-facing these slopes didn't have much snow cover and so the path was easy to follow - just a 'grunt' with the unaccustomed loads on our backs. Our route now followed a very long whales-back ridge towards England's third highest point - but with the two intermediate little tops of Dollywagon and Nethernmost Pikes to contend with en route. After a laborious ascent of about 300m we reached the first of these, the rather curiously named Dollywagon Pike. The view from this top, looking out over the top of Falcon Crag towards St Sunday Crag, made a good excuse to stop - and I photographed Andy standing before the beautiful vista.

Patterdale Round
Andy on top of Dollywagon Pike, St Sunday Crag and Patterdale beyond



There was not much more ascent to go now. Helvellyn summit was still about 2.5km further along the ridge, but only about 100m higher. There was a little down and up to get over the next intermediate top of Nethernmost Pike but overall I didn't reckon on more than 150m total uphill. No longer following a zig-zag course we set out along the gently undulating ridge. I was now alert to snow-cave possibilities. To our right were the steep crags I had noted earlier had winter climbing route possibilities. In places the crest was corniced - and I hoped that somewhere there would be an associated bank of snow deep enough to dig into.

As we plodded along the sun, having long passed it's zenith, was slowly descending the western sky to our left - and I felt a good sunset coming on. On a less positive note I started to notice the effect of my heavy pack on my damaged spine. My lower back was aflame with pain radiating out to both hips. Having been working hard in the gym to strengthen all the right places, I was a little disappointed to find myself in so much discomfort - and apprehensive, since my summer alpine plans included carrying even heavier loads...  But I tried to park these thoughts and focus on my enjoyment of being out with my son on this unique April day in the Lake District.

Andy was going well. He hadn't been doing anything approaching the amount of fitness training I had been - but such is life at the age of 19, you can get away with just throwing on a heavy pack and launching off into the hills. He did say though that his legs were beginning to feel a little tired, at around this stage of our journey.

As we continued to progress along the ridge my attention became increasingly taken up with where we were going to spend the night. Between Dollywagon and Nethernmost Pike, I didn't see any snow drifts of even approaching the sort of depth needed for the digging of a snow-cave. But the way things were looking, we could spend a night out in the open if we had to. If the weather let us down, we just had my tiny one man tent for shelter. This was not over generous with space even just for me at an inch under 6 foot. Andy is 6 foot 3 inches - so a night in my little tent, even if adequately warm, would be very uncomfortable. My old expedition tents, which I used to take the kids camping in when they were small, have all had to be 'retired' in the last few years.

Patterdale Round
Andy on top of Nethernmost Pike, before we found the snow drift, Helvellyn beyond

On the other side of Nethernmost Pike there was a small saddle before the final pull up to the summit of Helvellyn. Here, at last, there was a big drift associated with a larger cornice adorning the top of the precipices to our right. The sun was getting significantly low in the western sky now and I was keen to get digging straight away - to be finished before it set and we were faced with darkness. Also, if the truth be known, I was ready to take my pack off and stop plodding uphill. But Andy was in the grip of summit fever. The summit of Helvellyn was just a few hundred metres away and (having just made another modest descent) still 100m higher. With the approach of evening it was looking attractive in the late afternoon sunlight. Andy wanted to go up there - and take our chances with finding either another suitable snow bank, or just sleeping out if not - or possibly coming back down to the saddle we were on, where we would just have to put up with the likelihood that any digging operations would finish in darkness.

Hopefully for the last time, I hauled on my pack - and we set off towards England's 3rd highest point. The snow underfoot remained fairly deep and there continued to be a substantial cornice to the right - but nothing as deep as behind us at the saddle. I doubted that we would find good digging snow right on the summit...

In due course my impressions regarding the good winter climbing conditions were confirmed. Shortly before we reached the summit we spotted a couple of ropes of climbers front-pointing up superb snow towards a breech in the cornices to our right. Just after that we were able to gain a grandstand view of Helvellyn's famous 'Striding Edge' - in full winter raiment. I hadn't yet decided how we were going to get down - but clearly not that way - not without crampons and a rope. At the other end of the summit plateau I was aware there was the less severe descent of "Swirrel Edge". But even that was potentially tricky in the conditions we had. I parked further speculation for the morning - at least comfortable with the idea that we could simply turn around and go back down the way we had come up if necessary.

Patterdale Round
Close to Helvellyn summit, looking down on Striding Edge in full winter raiment
Patterdale Round
Helvellyn Summit













We reached the summit of Helvellyn.

The views were superb in all directions - and I continued to marvel at the contrast in conditions compared to 11 months earlier - when a mere one month later in the season I had enjoyed summer strength sunshine, clad only in shorts and t-shirt. I snapped photos in all directions - and including looking down on a very frozen red tarn, at the foot of the precipitous east face - which the climbers we had seen, had just ascended. On the far horizon in that direction we could see the furthest extremities of Ullswater and beyond, the Pennine range of hills that we had driven over that morning.  

Patterdale Round
Looking down on the very frozen Red Tarn and with Ullswater and the Pennines far beyond

The sun was now getting quite low in the western sky. It would only take about 15 minutes to get back to the saddle where the deep snow-drift was. But it was going to be dark in less than 2 hours - and I was guessing it could take 2-3 hours to dig a proper snow-cave. The cornice in the vicinity of the summit didn't look either safe or deep enough to dig into. And I didn't even think about looking elsewhere in the wide, flat expanse of Helvellyn's summit plateau. I turned around from my perusal of the eastern skyline to find Andy - for a discussion about our options...

Summit Snow-Cave

Andy was about 30m away, towards the western edge of the plateau. I presumed he had gone over there to check out the view towards the setting sun. But only half way across to the western slopes he appeared to have stopped - and was looking at something at his feet.

"Dad!" he called over "Come and have a look at this!"

Mystified, I started walking towards him, wondering what he could have found. As I went across, I took in that actually Helvellyn's normally flat summit was no longer flat. The surface had been wind sculpted into a series of wave-like snow drifts. Andy seemed to be on-top of the larger one of these. The gradient was very shallow - but nonetheless, I could recognise that the snow must have been at least 2m deep around where he was standing.

He had found a hole in the snow. Someone had dug a shaft straight down...

"Hey - someone has dug our snow-cave for us!" I exclaimed happily - not displeased at the thought of escaping 2-3 hours of digging, in my now tired state - and with the sharp ache in my lower back.

Patterdale Round
Andy taking a rest from digging the snow-cave
Patterdale Round
Andy digging snow-cave on Helvellyn summit














But further exploration soon showed that we weren't getting away with it that lightly:

The shaft was about half a meter wide and went straight down about a meter, before the excavations angled underneath the snow into a small space. Andy managed to just about contort himself into the space - but it was nowhere near big enough for two to get in and lie down. Another issue was that what little I know about snow-caves, is that it is usual to find a snow-bank or slope - to be able to dig a sideways shaft before creating the living space. This would be a little bit better in terms of ventilation - but the other issue is that when digging from a sideways shaft, all excavations could just be kicked out backwards. With a vertical shaft, we'd have to lift out all the loose snow.

But beggars could not be choosers... we decided to make the best of what was available. I broke out my vintage snow-shovel - last used on Broad Peak in 1987. I looked at Andy's attire...

"You'll need your full set of water proofs on - and a pair of gloves you can afford to get wet" I informed him. He rummaged around in his pack - and I did the same. Soon we were both suitably gortex-clad - and wearing our spare gloves. We set to work - taking it in turns to dig. Quickly we found that it was too cumbersome digging using a handle for the shovel - and just used the blade as a 'scraper'. The snow was perfect for digging - but even so, it was hard work - and we seemed to be shifting an awful lot of snow, to be laboriously lifted up and out of the shaft - without much increase in size of the space inside.

We took it in turns to dig inside, at the 'coal-face'. Whenever it was Andy's turn to dig I lay face down on the surface, head and shoulders over-hanging the shaft - so I could lift out the crumbly blocks of snow he was producing and shoving out of the slowly expanding living space. This work was nearly as strenuous as the actual digging - a lot of shoulder exercise, but also spinal extension exercise - actually quite good physiotherapy for my aching back.

The sun got lower and lower - and so did the temperature. Our spare gloves quickly became sodden with the digging work - but then outside were freezing up, making activities a little painful for the fingers.

Bit by painful bit we carved our way deeper and deeper under the snow. As the sun approached the horizon, illuminating the frozen outside world with golden and then pinkish light, we finally had our living space. We took some more time to make it as comfortable as possible - lowering and flattening the floor, raising and flattening the ceiling, making the walls perpendicular - so that we had a wide box shaped space, opening sideways into our shaft through the middle of one of the 'long' walls. I tried to dig the floor of the shaft deeper - such that it was lower than the floor of the cave - so it could act as a sump for cold air. But it was more difficult digging in this confined space and in the end our sump wasn't as deep as it should have been... no matter - it'd do!

Patterdale Round
Snowcave complete - Andy about to duck down inside to warm up

Inside the cave we decided we'd lay head to toe, making the most efficient use of space - and at each end we carved out small personal shelves - to place items like head-torches/mug, for ready access. There was just enough space to accommodate rucksacks and boots - partly using as pillows.

Having finished our new temporary home, we enjoyed the sunset for a few moments. Andy was suffering a bit from cold fingers - my little thermometer was reading minus 5 centigrade - and I suggested he get 'in the warm' whilst I sorted out the cooking equipment. So he soon ducked out of sight for the last time - and set to work laying out his thermorest mat and sleeping bag. Although adequate, his sleeping bag was less warm than mine, so I passed in my bivvy bag for him to use as a sleeping bag cover. Flexing my own cold fingers - and now toes as well - I walked around the summit area, enjoying the view of the setting sun, whilst Andy got himself sorted. I took a few photos. The view was quite breath-taking - and I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn't the Alps or Scotland during a really good winter - but the Lake District in Spring...

Patterdale Round
Sunset from summit of Helvellyn

When Andy confirmed he was comfortably ensconced, I bundled in my sleeping bag and mat and then turned my attention to the evening meal. I decided it would be easier as well as safer, to cook outside. Having dug a small flat shelf I cooked standing in the shaft - my top half exposed to the elements - so I was able to further appreciate the final stages of the sunset. I was glad of all the water we had laboriously hauled up from the stream at Grisdale Tarn - but even so, supplemented with snow blocks to ensure that I was able to save some liquid water for breakfast - and for our water bottles for the next day.

Dining at the Helvellyn Hilton was not A la carte - but a set menu of 3 courses: starter was a pint mug of tomato et basil potage, the main a freeze dried Mountain House Spag-Bol and finally, for dessert, a pint mug of chocolate-chaud avec encore chocolate pieces... I served Andy his meal bending awkwardly down to reach under the low rim of our doorway - an Andy now unseen apart from an occasionally emerging hand. The sun was long set by the end of cooking operations and so desert was served by head-torch light. Andy's muffled voice declared the meal satisfactory.

Now it was time for me to get settled for the night. I relished getting into the warm - with both fingers and toes more than a little chilled by now. But I didn't relish the contortions I would have to put my un-bendy self through to achieve this. Five minutes or so of struggle put me, plus a little loose snow, inside my sleeping bag. Once settled I took a photo of Andy - and then at his insistence, he took a photo of me.

The little bit of snow inside my bag soon melted and evaporated - and I soon became unaware of it. I have to say though, the new home was pretty comfortable. Andy confirmed that he was warm inside his sleeping bag and bivvy bag. Both tired from a day of lugging back-packs uphill in snow, we didn't spend long chatting and soon fell asleep...

Patterdale Round
Andy inside Helvellyn Hilton
Patterdale Round
Me inside Helvellyn Hilton

Swirral Edge

I woke at dawn. Grey light was illuminating the open space to my left. After a moments disorientation I remembered where I was and soon Andy confirmed he was awake as well. We had both slept well. With a mix of reluctance to disturb my warm bubble set against eager anticipation of hot coffee, I loosened my sleeping bag ties and thrust my top half out into the cold. Reaching into the open space of the shaft next to me, the thermometer said minus 7. I had also placed the stove and paraphernalia in the bottom of the shaft - and I decided that the amount of carbon monoxide produced by one quick blast of the stove to produce a brew would not be enough to harm us - besides a little bit of a breeze up top was stirring the air a bit. Using bottled water prepared the previous night - and still unfrozen wrapped in my pack - we soon had a pint mug each of hot sweet coffee. There was enough hot water in addition to re-constitute two 'Oat-meal with strawberries' freeze dried meals.  

After an hour of gently putting the world back on the map, over coffee and warm oatmeal, I reluctantly wrestled my way out of my sleeping bag. Then with a few more contortions - and only a little snow down the back of my neck - I got out of the bedroom and into the porch. Finally I stood up, exposing my top half to a chilly breeze - and somewhat hazy light of soon after sunrise. The weather was no long completely clear, with ill defined streamers of cloud floating in the sky above. A weak misty sun shone through from low down on the horizon.

An early first arrival at the summit trig point 30m away was a little surprised to find he was not alone - and that the company apparently rose up straight out of the ground, followed by another as Andy joined me. I photographed Andy standing over the entrance to our accommodation. Soon there were other early arrivals to the summit - including a slightly mad Frenchman, who asked if we wanted to buy some onions... Having established that Andy and I were sort of living up there, he was at pains to find out whether we had breakfasted - and this was what prompted the offer.

"Er no - we are good thanks!" Andy responded.

With the misty sunlight it was atmospheric on the summit of Helvellyn, but in a slightly eerie way - and in contrast to the day before. We hauled all our belongings up out of our little home and packed them up in our rucksacks. We both felt a little proud of our snowcave and there was almost a reluctance to leave. It seemed a shame not to be able to use it anymore - and we knew that the time would come when there would be no trace of it ever having been up here. Nonetheless, with the snow so deep, I fancied that signs of little home should persist well into the summer - unless the unusual spring snow-fall was followed by an unusual early summer heat-wave.

Patterdale Round
Early morning on Helvellyn summit
Patterdale Round
Andy by the snow-cave soon after sunrise













We turned our attention to the return to civilisation. Up and about now, Andy was thinking of Angela - left at home and poorly following her dental extraction. He was keen to get back to her as soon as we could. We had phoned her on my mobile and she still sounded to be in pain.

I had been cautiously thinking of Swirral Edge as our means of descent from Helvellyn. This steep ridge forms the other arm to Striding Edge, embracing Red Tarn. It is not as long or as exposed as Striding Edge, but nonetheless would warrant particular care in the current conditions. We picked our way along the eastern edge of the summit plateau and, mindful of the cornice, moved northwards towards where we could see better. There were some good views of Red Tarn, frozen hard and far below. Soon we were soon able to see the start of Swirral - and it certainly looked a little steep...

Patterdale Round
A hard frozen Red Tarn from the edge of the summit plateau

A Father with his 14 year old looking son appeared. They had come up Swirral and were also about to go down. The man, aged about 40, said they had managed reasonably well without either ice axe or crampons - but that he was going to use a rope to protect his son for the descent.

Andy and I set off first - with our ice-axes in hand. I would be able to cut steps for us if needed - and made a mental note to also consider the man and his son, climbing down without ice-axes. I reminded Andy on his ice-axe technique - how to hold it in his uphill hand and to drive the point deep into snow for security. He looked safe and secure - kicking his boots into the holes made by the other pair on their way up. Occasionally we had to scramble on a bit of snowy rock - and I showed Andy how he could let his axe dangle from his wrist loop - or use the pick as a hold. He soon got the hang of things - and wasn't phased by the mild exposure. As I expected we encountered a few icy bits - and I supplemented the trail of shallow boot holes by cutting bucket steps at the more tricky places. Although securely belayed from above by his Father, the lad was grateful for my steps in a couple of places.

I was pleased to note Andy was managing so well - and even enjoying himself on the awkward terrain. Although not doing any regular physical training, he had practised gymnastics for a number of years and has the balance of a cat as well as natural fitness. So any worry I had about coming down this way was quickly dispelled - and I was pleased we did not have to return via the longer and more laborious way we had come. I was also pleased that I also found myself going well... not that I anticipated any technical difficulty with the terrain, but I had half expected to be half crippled with my back after the way it had felt the day before. With it being no worse than 'the usual' I wondered if all the extension exercises of the previous evening, lifting out snow blocks, had done some good! 

I kept an eye out for the other Father and son, who were descending just after us. We were having to be very careful climbing without crampons and I imagined it would be even more difficult without an ice-axe as well. But the man was clearly a very competent climber and belayer - perfectly at ease on the terrain and able to protect his son, who wasn't so skilled. I was a little surprised to see someone with the man's obvious skills without such basic equipment - but he would later explain that he was a pure rock-climber and hadn't yet started dabbling with snow and ice. Now that he had experienced Helvellyn in these conditions - and seen climbers having a ball on the steep slopes a few hundred meters away, he went on to say that he would endeavour to equip himself now - and hoped to start doing some winter climbing properly. 

Patterdale Round
The other Father and son descending Swirral Edge
Patterdale Round
Andy at top of Swirral Edge














We reached the col between Helvellyn and yet another mountain with a completely absurd name - Catstye Cam. We stopped for some water and a bite of chocolate - and watched the man and his son scramble down to safety before joining us. A little more, but easier scrambling put us all down on the flats by Red Tarn. To follow was about a kilometre of horizontal walk across the cwm to reach the bottom of Striding Edge - which was also the top of the final descent back into Patterdale.

Patterdale Round
Andy - with Swirral Edge behind

Part way across I snapped a photo of the frozen ramparts of the eastern face of Helvellyn above - by now adorned with climbers, enjoying the rare bonus of the good winter climbing conditions. This photo is interesting to compare with one taken by fellow SP member and Dutch climber rgg a month later in the season the year before. By extraordinary coincidence I had missed him by a day the previous year, when I had done the Patterdale Round - but he had camped at Red Tarn and taken his photo, just the day before I was there. I was already in dialogue with him by e-mail at the time - and we would meet 5 months later in the Alps...

Helvellyn - see that scrambler on Striding Edge?
East face of Helvellyn photographed by rgg May 2012
Patterdale Round
Helvellyn east face April 2013













Meanwhile Andy and I walked across the frozen cwm, but stopped just before the final descent to Patterdale. There were some snow slopes close to the trail which looked good for the gentle pursuit of "poly-bogganing"  - essentially tobogganing but using a large plastic bivvy bag instead of a sledge. I also took advantage of the opportunity to get Andy to put into practice the lessons on fall-arrest from the day before.

A little later we rounded the base of Striding Edge, crossed a wall - and all of a sudden there was Patterdale spread out before us - and still some 200m below. We had nearly gone full circle now. But to complete the circle was a stony path making a descending traverse downwards across bare open hillside, back down to the road - and a kilometre or so later, the Patterdale Hotel. We set off down the path - and about three quarters of an hour later we were enjoying ham-burgers and pints of juice in the bar.

About two hours later still we were back at Andy's flat, where we were pleased to find Angela beginning to feel better. Our adventure was over - for now...


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Back down in Patterdale looking up towards where we had been
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Andy contemplating the final descent to Patterdale













Return - with Mr Woof

Two months later, on 9th June, I found myself with a spare Sunday - and couldn't resist returning to Helvellyn. I had three agendas. The first was that I was that I wanted to do a bit of proper uphill walking with a pack in preparation for going to the Alps in July... pounding away on a cross trainer with a pack isn't quite the same and besides the views are not as good from a cross trainer. The second was that I was curious to see what had happened to our snow-cave - would there be any traces of that memorable night on top of England's 3rd highest summit? The third was that it was a chance to get Jake the dog, aka Mr Woof, a day out in the hills. At age nine and a half we have to glumly concede that there may not be many more occasions to be able to take him for such a strenuous walk. He had done very well in Scotland in April and with the summit of Scafell Pike (England's highest), the two Gables, Coniston Old Man and Blencathra under his paw, from previous years - I thought I'd see how he would manage on Helvellyn.

Tongue lolling, tail wagging, sniffing anything and everything in site, Jake was soon bounding up the fells above Patterdale. Clutching my walking poles I pounded grimly up the trail towards Red Tarn, reversing the route covered with Andy two months earlier. On my back was a pack containing about 15kg of water. But all the running was paying off, Jake was game - and we were soon far above Grisedale. The only obstacle was a stone wall with a style over it, close to the lower end of Striding Edge. Mr Woof hates these and slunk around unhappily - torn between his excitement at what may be on the other side and his twin dislikes; of either climbing the steep steps or the indignity of being picked up and carried over. We were stalled for a moment - and Jake expressed his frustration by barking at me, at the same time as dodging attempts to pick him up. But eventually the lure of the other side won - and he grudgingly allowed me to cause yet more injury to my lower back, lifting nearly 40kg of lumpy and unwieldy dog 5 feet up into the air and over the annoying barrier.

Twenty minutes later Jake was having a ball at a now very un-frozen Red Tarn - compared to two months earlier.

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A very un-frozen Red Tarn - Jake frolicking in the foreground

Still reversing the route followed with Andy, I took Jake upwards towards Swirral Edge. I didn't even think about taking him up the more challenging Striding Edge. Even with the lesser objective I was a little bit nervous as to how he would do, since it was probably the most 'scrambley' route I had tackled with him. At any point I was fully prepared for him to rebel - and to have to turn back. I had faced a rebellion close to the summit of Scarfell in 2008: having traversed the summit we needed to cross a boulder field to access the long descent route home - and Jake had simply sat down and refused to move. My back wasn't so much of a problem then, but even so the prospect of carrying a reluctant and heavy dog over a couple of hundred meters of rocky terrain wasn't good. Fortunately greed won out over fear - and a series of treats saved the day. However, Swirral Edge was not just boulders, there was the added element of steepness as well...

Patterdale Round
A small tent marked site of our snowcave

To my relief he had no difficulty since he sniffed his way around every little rocky bluff and showed me an easier line than I had followed two months earlier. Pausing at intervals, only to cock his leg, he bounded up the slopes and I had a job keeping up with him, laden with 15kg on my back.

Somewhat breathlessly, I followed Jake up the upper slopes and out on to the flat expanse of the summit of Helvellyn... 

Tendrils of low cloud swirled around the summit as I reached it for the third time in little more than a year. Expectantly I looked around the summit plateau... but all was all bleak and bare. Not even so much as a single snow flake had survived. Even after two months, I had been sure that there would be some sign of the deep drift Andy and I had tunnelled into - perhaps a low mound of muddy old snow in a hollow somewhere - such as you find persisting into the summer on some of the higher summits in Scotland. But no - there was nothing. So there was nothing at all to mark the existence of the Helvellyn Hilton, which existed now only as a memory. Actually, there was something to mark the place, but it wasn't an old snow patch. Some officials from some sort of an event had the effrontery to park a small tent right on our spot. We had been displaced! I wondered if I could go over and claim squatters rights...

Jake came to the rescue. Solemnly cocking his leg up on the summit cairn, he staked his territorial rights - and thereby annexed the entire summit plateau. That job done he shared my lunch with himself - and then, showing his age now, he went to sleep on the stones near to the highest point.

Patterdale Round
Jake having staked his claim on Englands 3rd highest point
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Jake showing his age and catching 40 winks on the summit...













The return was back down the way we had come - and for the second time in two months I set out to descend Swirral Edge. Tired now, Jake was not quite as happy coming down as he had been going up. On one of the steeper bits his nose let him down and he sniffed his way to the edge of a precipice. There was another display of woofing - and I had to coax him back out of his dilemma - back to a shaley bit of trail which circumvented the obstacle.

All was forgiven back down at the Red Tarn. Jake bounded back into the clear waters to cool off and enjoy another romp. The upshot of this was there was an even heavier and now very wet dog to lift back over the wall, when we reached the lower end of Striding Edge/start of the final descent to Patterdale.   

Less than an hour later we were enjoying a drink sat outside the Patterdale Hotel. The second Helvellyn adventure of the year was now history. Thanks Andy and Jake for some special memories!  

Patterdale Round
Jake having cooled off in Red Tarn


On a final note - Andy is now a Dad! I always knew I was an old git - now I'm a Grandad!


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-3 of 3

silversummit - Sep 23, 2013 8:56 pm - Voted 10/10

Congratulations to both of you!

For a great trip and becoming a grandfather!

What a contrast from the snowy cold to the lake!


markhallam - Sep 24, 2013 1:01 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Congratulations to both of you!

Thanks for that - yes, it was pretty amazing to see the contrast - and pretty lucky to have caught those conditions in April.
best wishes, Mark

repelmen - Oct 4, 2013 1:14 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Congratulations to both of you!

Very cool outing and next winter outings need to be winter outings to meet goals like you Coloradans......nice!!

Viewing: 1-3 of 3



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