Snatching Winter from the Jaws of Spring

© Norman Hadley

Armed with an ultra-minimal camping setup carried in a bumbag (only try this at home if you've really thought about it, folks), fell runner Norman Hadley seizes the last chance to sleep on snow at the tail-end of a patchy season.

The Roman god Janus famously had two faces, simultaneously looking forward to the new year and back at the old. By that measure, I probably have eight faces. All the seasons are my favourite and, whenever one cedes to the next, I find myself excitedly welcoming the newcomer whilst lamenting the passing of its predecessor. This is never more acute than when winter slides into spring. In the first week of April I generally have one eye scanning the skies for the first swallow, the other desperately wishing for the last of the mountain snow.

Helvellyn from Sheffield Pike  © Norman Hadley
Helvellyn from Sheffield Pike
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

This particular winter had proved frustrating. The only snow that had fallen had lain thin and thawed quickly. There had also been a procession of named storms to make high camps challenging: Arwen, Barra, Corrie, Dudley, Eunice and Franklin had marched through with barely time to draw breath. I'd managed a high camp just before Christmas, on the summit of Scafell Pike. It had been fantastic, with a memorable inversion over Wasdale, but snow had been literally thin on the ground. There had also been a rather abortive effort in the Northern fells in February, where I'd retreated to a valley pitch to avoid fierce winds. March had ended in a heatwave, with a shirtless run over the Grasmere skyline culminating in an unprecedentedly early swim in a plunge pool. It looked as if winter had been and gone.

The face you make when winter makes a surprise reprise.  © Norman Hadley
The face you make when winter makes a surprise reprise.
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

One of the most intense thrills: to be alone in winter with a dipping sun, armed only with the contents of a bum bag

But this is Northern England: the only predictable thing about the weather is its unpredictability. Three days after my Grasmere swim, the temperature plummeted and snow once more decorated the fells, especially in the east. I seized my chance. I wanted to pitch above the snowline in my ultralight tent, using my unusual no-rucksack running system, which I described in an earlier article and have  since adapted to winter conditions. I knew everything would have to be just right and, to my delight, the forecast showed a period of calm spanning the coming Friday night. Even though it was April Fool's day, I decided to give it credence.

An Adventure Begins

After work, I threaded the car through the sinuous curves of Kirkstone Pass, arriving at Glenridding in beautiful spring sunshine. The air was dazzlingly clear: a canopy of blue, dotted with clouds "bright with their own opaque selves" as the poet MacCaig would have it. A newly-arrived chiffchaff proclaimed ownership of the Mossdale woods as I strapped on the bum bag and set off up through the bare trees. A huge larch lay toppled by the winter storms, its enormous but shallow root-plate slicing high into the sky. Careful examination showed the tree was not completely dead, with small patches of fresh growth indicating that at least one of the roots had bent rather than snapped.

Catstye Cam from the slopes of Sheffield Pike  © Norman Hadley
Catstye Cam from the slopes of Sheffield Pike
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

It wasn't long before I reached the first small patches of snow: the precious commodity that would make this a true winter experience. I doubled back to Glenridding Dodd to enjoy its magnificent aerial view of the Ullswater dalehead. I was in no hurry, because I'd planned to arrive on Helvellyn around teatime. The clocks had already gone forward, so I had plenty of time to linger, take photographs and just enjoy the crisp air. I ran up the heathery bluff of Heron Pike to Sheffield Pike. Already the southward prospect, to Catstye Cam and Helvellyn, was eye-wateringly beautiful.

Helvellyn reflection  © Norman Hadley
Helvellyn reflection
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

The way led up over White Stones. The snow was strangely localised: Stybarrow Dodd was liberally coated but Great Dodd, a mile to the north and slightly higher, was nearly bare. My way led south, over the richly covered tops of Raise and Whiteside, with the vast northern ramparts of Helvellyn beckoning me on. From this direction, it formed a huge defensive wall, stretching from the turret of Catstye Cam to the icy buttresses of Browncove Crags. Even the wide-angle lens couldn't encompass the colossal scope of it all.

Running down Raise  © Norman Hadley
Running down Raise
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

I sacrificed the last few gulps of coffee to soften the laces and tongues of my frozen shoes

The jutting prow of Browncove Crags  © Norman Hadley
The jutting prow of Browncove Crags
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

On the pull on to Lower Man, I crossed paths with the last of the day's people, descending to warm hearths in the valley. By contrast, I was still upward-bound, to the deserted summit plateau of Helvellyn. This was one of the most intense thrills of my life to date: to be alone in full winter conditions with a dipping sun, armed only with the contents of a bum bag. 

Water Crag, well plastered  © Norman Hadley
Water Crag, well plastered
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

Setting up Home

I found a suitable pitch for the tent, just south of the cruciform shelter. It was close enough to the edge of Lad Crag to feel the giddying gravitational pull of Nethermost Cove, but not quite close enough to require a belay. The peg placements felt solid in the frozen turf, but I still freighted them with rocks as an insurance policy. The flysheet flapped tetchily in a brisk breeze but the mountain forecast promised it would ease off at nightfall.

Home for the night  © Norman Hadley
Home for the night
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

Before I could get a brew on, I had to make a quick sortie out to Brownrigg Well to fill the water bottles. The last rays of light picked out the topmost rocks of High Spying How in salmon-pink. To the north, the Galloway hills looked placidly down on the Solway Firth. Far to the southeast, Pendle Hill stood guard over Lancashire.

Although it was still beautiful out, it was a relief to zip up the flysheet against the icy wind and get the stove on. Two pints of tea, a beefy rice dish and a pouch of berries and custard soon had my energy replenished. As the light faded, the temperature fell sharply. Already, my socks and trousers had frozen into stiff planks and the water-bottles were a cause for concern. I gave my feet a good rub to get the circulation going before stuffing them into down bootees and the dark depths of the sleeping bag. When I put the head torch on, I could see it was lightly snowing… inside the tent. Condensation was freezing to the underside of the flysheet and each new gust shook off a floury mist of spicules. It's at such times that I'm most glad of my waterproof sleeping-bag cover.

Small tent in a big and intimidating setting  © Norman Hadley
Small tent in a big and intimidating setting
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

I stowed the smaller water bottle and filter in the sleeping bag, because the manufacturer warns of dire consequences if you allow it to freeze. Trousers and socks, wrapped in a waterproof stuff sack, served as a makeshift pillow. Of course, they wouldn't dry out at all but at least they'd be a sensible temperature when I put them on in the morning. I decided to risk leaving the two-litre water bottle in the porch, but stowed it upside down so most of the ice build-up would be away from the neck.

With the wind lulling as promised, I bedded down. I can't say how much I slept. It was fitful at best, but it must have been enough because I got through the following day without needing to be prodded awake. Conscious that everything takes twice as long in winter, I started gathering myself together around half past five. A hefty dose of breakfast was washed down with a pint of coffee but I noticed I had made a bit of a schoolboy error with my night-time preparations: I hadn't slackened the laces or opened out the tongues of my running shoes. In their current iron-stiff state, it was doubtful I would get them back on. I therefore had to make the difficult decision to sacrifice the last few gulps of coffee to pour on the laces and tongues to soften them.

Waking in a blue world  © Norman Hadley
Waking in a blue world
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

Into a Blue World

Outside, the world was suffused in a muted blue glow. The night had deposited a layer of rime ice over everything. When I shook the tent, an avalanche of crystals swooshed to the ground. The main mass of Lakeland looked considerably whiter than it had done the night before.

Timing is everything, and careful study had suggested sunrise would be a quarter to seven. I reached the deserted summit cairn at the precise moment, with a peachy glow filling the air. But it was a bit mistier than was ideal, and I had an appointment back at home, so I pressed on.

Hazy sunup from the summit  © Norman Hadley
Hazy sunup from the summit
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

I took the descent of Swirral Edge carefully, glad of the bite of my metal studs. Admiring the reflections of Striding Edge in the granite-dark mirror of Red Tarn, I trotted up to Catstye Cam's perfect conical summit before cantering down the east ridge to Red Tarn Beck and the Youth Hostel. That left only easy running down the Greenside road.

Back at the lakeshore, nothing disturbed the calm of the morning beyond some halfhearted territorial squabbles between greylag geese. I reluctantly headed home, in plenty of time to welcome our visitors, but not before I had unpacked the tent and thrown it over the washing-line to dry. As I did so, it disgorged a huge cascade of ice-crystals onto the patio, like an over-generous waiter dispensing grated Parmesan. I watched it slowly melt: a fleeting memento of a superb night out.

A few days later, the first swallows raced across the skies outside my home office. But I was ready for them. Winter had redeemed itself at the last possible moment and I had slaked my thirst for it.

Red Tarn, Black Mirror  © Norman Hadley
Red Tarn, Black Mirror
© Norman Hadley, Apr 2022

Kit check

Tent: Six Moons Gatewood Cape with their 5-section carbon pole and a set of titanium pegs. Offers 360 degree protection - more like a tent flysheet than a tarp. It can also be worn, which could be a life-saver in an emergency situation. I have not yet proven mine in high winds, but I have rehearsed different configurations to pitch it low to the ground.

Bivvy bag: Terra Nova Moonlite. This is a thin water- and wind-resistant bag cover with a face mesh. It keeps the bag dry, resists draughts sneaking under the flysheet and gives me some protection in the event the tent can't be pitched or is flattened by gales.

Sleeping Pad: Gear Doctors Apollo Air. This is a new purchase to me but I'm impressed so far.

Sleeping Bag: Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 32. Bought as a summer-only bag. Despite the nomenclature, I wouldn't want to spend a night in it at 32 Fahrenheit so I boosted it with clothes.

Down Jacket: Montbell Plasma Alpine Parka. Absurdly light and incredibly compressible, it is an extremely high-end piece of kit. Worn only for camp, sleeping or in the event of a daytime emergency.

Down Bootees: Aegismax - they have proved toasty so far.

Base-layers: Rab Forge, top and bottom.

Mid-layer: OMM Core+ hoodie. Made from Primaloft. Bought on Chris Townsend's recommendation.

Stove and pot stand: Speedster Backpacking Products.

Cooking Vessel: Toaks 550ml titanium pot

Bumbag: Sierra Designs Flex Lumbar 7-10 L

Safety notes

The risks of running solo with ultra-minimalist kit in wintry mountains should be obvious. To mitigate these risks, I stuck to extremely well-trodden terrain: this was my fourth run up Helvellyn since Christmas.

I studied the mountain weather forecast in detail every day for the fortnight leading up to the day of the run, to understand the trends and patterns of the weather systems blowing in.

I also followed the invaluable daily blog maintained by the fell top assessors. This was the key to understanding that the descent of Swirral Edge would be navigable in studs. Any more build-up of hard-packed snow on the exit-slope and I would have either added an ice-axe to my kit (which carries impalement trade-off risks to the runner) or rerouted down the Keppel Cove zigzags.

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