Dan Bailey enjoys sunshine and snow on the greatest winter ridges in England, Helvellyn's Striding Edge, and Sharp Edge on Blencathra.
Are you a fair weather winter walker? That's certainly my preference. An occasional gritty struggle against hostile elements might be character building, but nothing beats the magic combination of sunshine and snow: views as far as you can see; dazzling light that floods even the dingiest corners of your seasonally maladjusted brain. Chuck in some airy mountaineering ground to tease the adrenal glands and you're literally laughing. A classic ridge in flawless winter nick is about as good as life gets. With the promise of a fine forecast I'll go a long way for days like these.
But of course it doesn't always pan out as billed. The night before, a gin-clear deep freeze on the Lakeland fells had looked a dead cert, and the thought of a cheeky mid-week border raid to catch England's most famous winter ridges minus their usual crowds was enough to prise me out of bed only a few hours after I'd got in. Few things have that effect on me, but Sharp Edge is one. A three hour drive through the motorway murk and suddenly there it was ahead, a pale sickle of snow and slate cutting through a grey dawn. Simple, elegant and utterly compelling, Blencathra's Sharp Edge looks its very best when you know you'll shortly be up there. But then, just as suddenly, it was gone, erased by an all consuming smudge that made a mockery of the sunny forecast. You can't win them all.
I unfolded myself from the car into a monochrome world, snow, trees, and drystone walls all cast in the same lugubrious half-light. The snow seemed to absorb both daylight and sound, and the usual traffic hum from the main road had soon faded. The pull up Scales Fell is an abrupt start to the day, but it has the advantage of directness and I was soon kicking steps across the steep flank of Mousthwaite Comb to round the corner above the River Glenderamackin. At this point Sharp Edge should unveil itself with a flourish, but the morning mist had other ideas.
Hints of the route ahead began to take shape at Scales Tarn. It starts here with an easy path, but soon gets more interesting as the flanks pinch tight on each side to form the famous arete, literally the sharpest edge of any Lakeland fell. Today its slate roof line faded at either end into cloud, and with the drop equally invisible below I moved as if in a bubble. Thanks to my early start I was alone, the limited visibility adding to the sense of solitude. Just an hour from the car the day already felt more exciting than anticipated, with a harrying wind and ice-glazed rocks.
"In winter this ridge almost perfectly defines the line between walking and mountaineering"
As on most Mainland UK ridge scrambles it is of course possible to take a cop-out flanking path below the crest, but this has always struck me as a wasted opportunity. Watch your step and the direct way is far better. Soon you'll hit a crux step. It's over in moments, but quite precarious in snow or ice, earning Sharp Edge its winter climbing I/II grade. Here there's a choice: either go straight over a little pinnacle with a slightly nervy step down at the end, or sketch across a sloping rock slab on the pinnacle's right side. A fall from this Bad Step would land you in a gully below, a spot from which the Keswick Mountain Rescue Team are forever picking people up. With this in mind I first tested the slab. On a dry summer day it's trivial, but I wasn't happy with the way my crampons skittered on the smooth rock, refusing to find an edge. The pinnacle proved less insecure, and I'd soon reached a notch where Sharp Edge runs up against its parent mountain. The ridge was now over, but a last bit of interest remained, with the option of a slatey wall or a snow-filled groove. In today's conditions I favoured the groove, kicking calf-deep holes and only wishing that it could keep on coming. My one criticism of Sharp Edge? There's not nearly enough of it.
But the fun was not yet done. I continued around the rim of the Scales Tarn cove to reach Blencathra's undistinguished top. Dropping almost directly from the summit cairn is the steep arête of Hallsfell Ridge, an airy conclusion to the classic mountaineering traverse of the fell. Though only moderately scrambly in summer, full winter conditions improve things no end. With deep gills on either side of me and the full height of Blencathra's precipitous southern flank beneath I picked with care down the rock steps of the crest. I'd soon got below cloud level, overlooking a tartan of white fields at Blencathra's foot. A solitary walker climbed the ridge towards me, a dot of moving colour in the sepia-toned space; he was the only person I met on the fell. It wasn't the pure blue weather that I had led myself to expect, but dramatic in a different way.
With hints of a brightening sky and a few hours of residual daylight I hot footed back to the car and steered straight for my next goal, Helvellyn. Thanks to its inland position England's third highest is one of the best bets in the Lakes for snow seekers, and though in typical years that does not necessarily mean a lot the Helvellyn range certainly looked the part today. The view up a snowy Grisedale never fails to impress, with the craggy wall of Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon Pike doing its best to look alpine. I was heading first for Helvellyn itself, and the most aesthetic kilometre-or-so of ridge walking in England, the grand ice-carved gangway of Striding Edge. In true winter conditions this ridge almost perfectly defines the line between walking and mountaineering, with just enough exposure and general seriousness to nudge it into the grade I band, yet very little actual hands-on difficulty. It is more walker-friendly than Sharp Edge, for instance, though far longer. I had hoped to be striding the edge in clear sunset, but as I reached it the mountain slid into the thick gloom of a cloudy nightfall. A piercing cold froze the fight from me, and I rapidly backtracked to a cosy B&B. I must be getting old.
Things looked more hopeful next morning. Fuelled on fried bread I re-trod the Hole-in-the-Wall path, a bit of a chore as ascents go but made less onerous now by traces of blue overhead and a promising tinge on the snow. Again I found myself well ahead of the pack (do they all sleep late in the Lakes?), and was soon alone in the snowdrifts that gather around the eponymous wall. I hit the Edge as an early sun brushed the snow-sugared rocks of Helvellyn's Red Tarn face and familiar fells emerged blinking into the brightening day. Across the shadows of Grisedale rose the hulks of Fairfield and St Sunday; northwards were the domed Dodds, pure soft white; and to the east the long flat skyline of High Street and the North Pennines, a snowbound wave. The forecast was finally coming good.
The ground soon roughens up, narrowing into the defined crest of Striding Edge. The rocky summit of High Spying How marks the start of the good stuff. Beyond a distinctive flat topped pavement the edge led on in a series of little knobbles towards the icy mass of Helvellyn. Though never quite narrow enough to comfortably straddle it is spectacular every step of the way. To one hand the snow slope dropped into Red Tarn, its frozen surface webbed with long white cracks; on my other side was a greater drop into the lonely hollow of Nethermost Cove. It was shaping up to be a day of endless photo opportunities, so when the first tiny dots clambered into view behind me I hunkered into the lee of a rock, camera at the ready. On days like this you're unlikely to be alone for long on Striding Edge.
As on Sharp Edge this route too has a crux Bad Step, a short steep groove met in descent when heading for Helvellyn. In snowless conditions it is barely a scramble, but winter ups the challenge a little. This safely despatched I continued in fine style up a last scrambly ridge and the icy upper snow slope, to spill out onto Helvellyn's summit plateau. If you don't mind sharing them, the crossed walls of Helvellyn's summit wind break are as good a place as any to chill out for a while. The eastern Lakes bathed in a contrast of blinding white and blue shadow, while sun spears stabbed through the clouds to skewer the western fells.
At this point the done thing is a descent of Swirral Edge, another lovely bit of airy ridge that rounds off the classic Red Tarn horseshoe. But by now I'd met enough people, so this time I turned south instead, heading for something a bit more obscure. Even the busiest hills have their quiet corners, and on the Helvellyn range you'll find plenty of them in the rugged eastern coves of Nethermost and Dollywagon Pikes. There's even a quality ridge, well regarded among those in the know but seemingly ignored by the Helvellyn masses. Hidden in plain sight just across the cove from Striding Edge, the East Ridge of Nethermost Pike is a great place for some some solitary and mildly scrambly entertainment, enjoyed in a spirit of ever so slightly self-satisfied superiority. Well it works for me.
A well-trodden trough in the snow had guided me along Striding Edge, but in contrast a single set of crusty old footprints led off the summit of Nethermost Pike to the narrow rocky arête at the top of the East Ridge. There's a raven's eye perspective down the length of Grisedale here, and a sudden appreciation of vertical space. With half an eye on the drop into Nethermost Cove I picked through the broken rocks of the crest, sadly short lived, and then on down a steep slope of frozen turf. In descent this has a treacherous feel, and might just deserve a winter climbing grade I. I'd soon reached the broad lower ridge however, where traces of previous walkers fizzled out and powder snow drifted deep in the hollows. I waded on through the deserted silence of Nethermost Cove, then out along Grisedale in the frosty gloaming. There was still the matter of that long drive home, but with four quality Lake District winter ridges in the bag, mostly done in complete solitude, I wasn't complaining.
Need more Info?
Guidebook: The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland by Dan Bailey (Cicerone)
Weather and daily winter fell top conditions reports for Helvellyn: Lake District Weatherline
For detailed descriptions of these classic Lakeland ridges see these UKH Route Cards: