Monday, 29 November 2010

Early Snows

With the TV news getting all excited and blethering on about the "extreme weather", it was time for a change of style this week.

From various blog reports (The Front Point) and posts on UKC it looked like things on the East side of the Helvellyn range were coming in to condition. Steve was keen to head over so we arranged for a 6am start from Skipton. Come Friday evening and Steve was still at work and would likely only get home by 9pm so we decided to be lazy and head over at midday and avoid the crowds that way. It's a problem these days, you either have to be very early or be prepared to climb in the dark to avoid queuing on many winter routes. Since we both have Hope headtorches, climbing at night is not an issue, in fact, Steve has done most of his winter climbing at night!

As it happens we had a dump of snow overnight so we had to spend an hour or so cleaning and gritting the lane so that we could get the car out.

After a stop in Kendal so that Steve could use his Pete Bland voucher (he came 5th in the Tour of Pendle) to get some new fell running shoes, Kirkstone Pass was passable but looked like it would ice up quite easily.  Parking is permitted at Glenridding mine through the winter months so it was worth a chance getting up there as it would save 2Km walk-in, and out! As we approached a cattle grid a skier (heading down from the tow at Raise) was walking across it and wouldn't get out of the way so I lost all momentum and ground to a halt about 50m further on. After reversing back down and turning round in someone's drive we parked just above the pub, just 400m from the main road.

Our destination was the Red Tarn area of Helvellyn, I'd never climbed here before - in the days when I lived in the Lakes there were just a handful of grade I gullies - these days there is a bit more to go at. From memory I think I've only ever been down to Red Tarn just once when walking in my teens so definitely a new area. Since it was 2:30pm when we left the car it wasn't surprising that we were the only ones heading uphill.

What you always forget about winter climbing is just how much hard work it is - from the enervating cold to the clumsiness of the equipment needed to counteract it. By the time we were at the outflow of the tarn we had a healthy sweat. A quick change of clothing - not pleasant in a stiff breeze and spindrift but better than climbing and belaying in damp thermals. Then it was off up the approach slopes hoping that we'd correctly identified our climb - V-Corner - before the light faded.

Walking in to Red Tarn at dusk

Off to our right there was a lot of shouting and swearing going on which eventually faded by the time we started actually climbing.  As was the light. I'd got first lead so I headed off mainly following steps in the snow to the first ice. The lower parts were nice and thick but above it was mainly a thin covering over rocks which neccesitated keeping to mixed ground leading up grooves to a bay at the top of the ice. From here a steeper corner seemed to be the key to further progress but my last piece of gear was 20 metres below! There was a reasonably substantial icicle but I had no slings with which to thread it - a couple of quickdraws clipped together just went round, it would have to do. A move higher and a perfect peg crack appeared. A few taps later and I'm much happier and step down to retrieve the quickdraws. Once out of the corner I was soon at a stance and took a belay. I'd run out nearly 60m of rope, so much for the guidebook's 20m!

By the time Steve arrived it was nearly dark so on with the torches. As he was leading the next pitch I was sure that I could hear a helicopter flying around and a couple of minutes later so it proved as a set of lights and a lot of noise appeared over Swirral Edge. After circling the combe a couple of times it flew off. The party who had previously been doing a lot of shouting were still in the same place so it looked like something was amiss.

With repeated fly pasts and hovering above the party communication opportunities with Steve were limited but before too long he was at the belay just as he ran out of rope, at least this time it was closer to the stated 30m! I had got cold on the belay so it was good to get moving. The helicopter was still to-ing and fro-ing so it was just a case of getting on with the climbing. The last pitch was described as just a snow slope but early season you never can tell, but the guide didn't lie. Well apart from the pitch length! The rope ran out when I was about ten metres from the mini cornice.

It was now that the helicopter came back and took the casualty off to hospital so I had to wait a bit before Steve dismantled the belay and we simu-climbed until I got on to the plateau. No belay so I just walked back towards the cross walled shelter as Steve climbed. Eventually we get out of the wind and pack our gear away. Then it's stumble down Swirral Edge in crampons and up on to Catsyecam.

I kept my crampons on for most of the walk out as the path had hidden patches of water ice and taking a flyer on a path wouldn't have looked cool. It did make walking awkward though. Just before we got to the car a Land Rover pulled up and a couple of MRT lads had a chat. It seemed that the accident was a woman who had slipped and fallen around 100ft hopefully her injuries aren't too severe. By the time we were back at the car it was 7:45pm. We headed home via Penrith hoping that the road would be clear rather than risk Kirkstone Pass, the car thermometer showed -8C at one point.

Sunday and my legs were knackered from the twisting and knocking on the path due to wearing crampons, my muscles hadn't had such awkward movements for a long while. Thus the planned bike ride didn't happen. Given that the cold weather is meant to last for at least another week it may be that next weekend's Sportive may not take place. Certainly Cath said that she had been frozen on her bike ride on Saturday.

With the cold snap set to continue until at least the weekend things should be good for next weekend as well.

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