The Lake District National Park is located in one of the UK’s most scenic regions, with rolling hills, long glaciated valleys and numerous lakes, all tucked away in the northwest corner of England. It is one of the nation’s natural treasures! To coin a phrase, these miniature mountains might indeed be small but they are without any doubt, perfectly formed, having been sculpted by glaciers during the last ice age.
Throughout the year, huge numbers of visitors flock to the Lake District to relax amid its beautiful upland surroundings, picturesque valleys and quaint villages. These people participate in a whole range of outdoor activities including walking on the fells (the local name for the hills), rock climbing, fell running, on- and off-road cycling and an array of water sports.
Over the centuries the Lake District’s natural grandeur has led to it becoming a place of inspiration, not least for some of Britain’s greatest writers and artists including William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and William Heaton Cooper. During the end of the last century, possibly the greatest fell walker of all time, Alfred Wainwright, produced a series of uniquely hand written and illustrated guidebooks of the fells and valleys of the Lake District. These books became best sellers. Even today, people sometimes spend many years getting to the top of each of the 214 “Wainwright” summits described in his books. It is no mean feat to complete a “Wainwright Round” and to ascend each of his listed fell tops within the 2,292 square kilometers of the National Park!
Winter brings unique challenges
Although it is a magnet for natural pleasures throughout the year, for many lovers of Lakeland the best time is winter! A blanket of snow, draped across the fells, is the literal icing on the cake for many of us. At such times the hills take on an altogether more serious character.
Here in the UK there are thousands of winter enthusiasts who wait in anticipation for the “white stuff” to drop onto our island. The country’s geographical location makes each winter season a battleground between air masses — blowing in moist from the west, dry from the east, milder the south and colder from the north. Every winter this veritable meteorological wrestling match takes place between these different mixes of air; we just wait and look-on as the struggle is played-out.
Most of us “winter people” agree there is always too much rain and mild air finding its way onto our shores. But all who enjoy life above a snow line must be prepared to get out there if everything falls in our favor!
A further consideration we have to contend in the Lakes is that the local elevations are relatively low – the highest areas of the Lake District are just a tad over 900 meters (2,952 feet) in elevation. Therefore, any falling precipitation needs to be within a cold enough zone in order to produce any snow on our hill tops. In other words if it is only a few degrees above zero and is raining in the Lakeland centers of Ambleside or Keswick, then it will probably be falling as snow on the fells. With any higher temperatures in the valleys, forget it!
With patience, we are not usually disappointed. Eventually we are able to get up high and enjoy ourselves, even if the moment might only be brief! Over the past years we have been fortunate in having a helping hand in our quest in the form of regular and accurate updates by the National Park’s “Fell Top Report”. Each day an assessor has the task of walking up Helvellyn (950 meters / 3,117 feet) to give a detailed report of the conditions on the summit, which is then published on the National Park website. This daily fell top report has been such welcome assistance. There are many in the land who are exceedingly envious of their employment and in such a workplace!
The local destinations
So, where do we actually go to in order to play in Lakeland in the winter?
A favorite area for many is the Scafell massif, in the west of the Lakes region, which includes a number of 900 meter summits, including the highest point in all England, Scafell Pike at 977 meters (3,209 feet). These rounded and craggy heights project deep shadows in any low angled wintery sun. It is a rugged region of complex intertwined hills for the winter visitor to negotiate, especially when the mist descends, as happens often. In addition to suitable winter equipment, a visitor’s micro-navigational skills need to be good because it is quite easy to become disorientated in this area. But, it is a beautiful locality where winter wanderers can visit the high peaks of Great End, Esk Pike, Bowfell, Allen Crags, Glaramara and Great Gable, to name but a few!
Possibly the most accessible area to enjoy any winter activity is the Helvellyn ridge, situated in the eastern Lake District. It is a ridge some 16 kilometers (10 miles) long with a number of shorter ridges and valleys running out from it. Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, both glacially constructed aretes, are classic winter routes whenever there are good conditions. The fell tops along the Helvellyn ridge include Clough Head, Great Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, Raise, Catstycam, Nethermost Pike, Fairfield and Dollywaggon Pike.
In the best conditions, a good number of winter enthusiasts can be seen carrying-out a whole range of winter activities in this area. One January day last season, for example, as I was snowshoeing to the 950 meter Helvellyn summit. I saw nordic skiers making their way upward while others were using up-skis to ascend. Further on, I met groups of climbers who had been enjoying some gulley climbing in what they described as superb conditions. But the majority were out walking with their crampons and ice axes. Everybody I met appeared to display an aura of contentment! Along the Helvellyn ridge, just to the northeast of Raise summit, there is even a short ski tow for downhill enthusiasts, owned and operated by the Lake District Ski Club. It is unique because you must carry your skis and any other equipment for the day and walk upward for around an hour from the valley bottom to reach the tow. The members of this ski club are proud of their somewhat isolated ski run – they carry out all necessary maintenance themselves during the summer months.
Given the winter challenges present in the Lake District, it is important that a person learns the skills of winter walking, climbing, skiing, snowshoeing and of course navigation from proficient friends or clubs. There are many mountaineering and ski clubs in the UK, in addition to a number of Lakeland based companies that are able to provide winter skills courses and even guiding for those wanting to take to the fells during the wintertime but lack the necessary experience.
Recently, I was on the Helvellyn ridge with a thick mist intermittently swirling around me, obscuring the fell top views across the Lake District to the Irish Sea. During these whiteout moments, it was necessary to take care in keeping to the ridge and not straying too far onto a nearby cornice, to avoid falling. But, during one misty break, the dense cloud rose enough for the sun to beam through and produce one of the most precious of mountain phenomena … my triangular shadow projected down onto the clouds far below me, complete with halo! Such days on the Lake District fells are exceptional and don’t get much better.
For more information visit:
Lake District National Park – a range of information about the national park.
Lake District Weather and Fell Top Conditions – Details of what it is like on top of the fells.
Summitreks Winter Courses and Guiding – An opportunity to learn winter mountain skills or be guided.
The Wainwright Society – For lovers of fell walking in the Lake District and Alfred Wainwright’s 214 summits.
The Teesdale Gallery – A unique gallery of both photography and paintings of the Lake District.