Red Pike in Winter : Lessons in Navigation

Updated: Jun 21, 2018

Early February 2018, myself and my mountain climbing companion, Tanya (whose blog you can find here decided to attempt a 17km circular walk of the mountains around the southern side of Buttermere. The weather forecast was for persistent but light snow and -3/-5 conditions throughout the day, so having done much of this route before, it seemed like a good opportunity to practice our winter mountaineering skills. Our intention was to set off very early in the morning and arrive before the first light of day, but due to a number of setbacks - mainly road closures over the fells - this didn’t happen. Despite being later than intended we did, however, arrive in decent time. We rolled up at around 9:30AM, but didn’t set off on our hike until around 10AM due to a combination of messing around with our packs, drinking a much needed coffee and talking to other hillwalkers; one group were about to set off on their own route, and another were attempting the same route as us. These, I have come to realise, are standard and seemingly unavoidable setbacks for a walk in the hills.

The route we followed began very, very easily; a short walk downhill into the village of Buttermere, and then an impossibly flat section that took us between the two lakes (or ‘waters’, as they are called in Cumbria) of Crummock Water and Buttermere Water. This was a very scenic part of the route, for at this particular point, looking south-east across Buttermere Water, we were exposed to a fantastic view of the imposing, wedge shaped Fleetwith Pike, which was to be our descent from the mountains. It is worth stopping for a few moments to admire this view, despite being only 5 minutes into the walk, it is worth admiring not only because it is a lovely vista, but because this marks the point when the most challenging section of the walk starts.

After passing between the two waters (or lakes as they’re called everywhere else in England), we entered Burtness Wood and began our climb up ‘Old Burtness’. This short steep section is less than half a kilometer long, however, during that time, we ascended approximately 500 metres up a set of well maintained yet extremely large steps. Every time I have walked this route in the past, these steps have left me rather sweaty and out of breath. Whilst this time around was no exception, there were a number of elements that made it a touch easier. Firstly, I didn’t have a bag with my overnight equipment in it, secondly, I started running in January, which has given me a massive increase in stamina, and thirdly, every 5 minutes or so we decided to stop for a 10-30 second break to catch our breath. This final technique was something I had actually started doing when I first began running, and it really worked well. It's a technique I will certainly be using for later ascents!

Despite being physically demanding, this section of the route is quite scenic. The lower half takes you through a thick, green wet forest, which is beautiful, and once you break through the tree line, I highly recommend resisting the urge to look back behind you and instead, ascend that little further. If you do, and the day is clear enough, you will be treated to a spectacular view of Buttermere. A sight that is very much worth stopping and snapping a picture of (I have many pictures of this particular view). Once out of the tree line, the change in landscape below your feet is sudden and dramatic. With barely any warning, one moment you are sweating your way through a thick green forest, the next you are surrounded by bare rock with only the occasional bit of heather poking out to indicate that there is life up there. Once out of the forest, the track becomes a little easier (and I do mean only a little), and the first leg and initial ascent of the route is almost over. This section of path has seen me caught up in fog each and every time, so if you are planning on taking this climb onboard yourself, don’t be fooled by those breathtakingly moody and dramatic surroundings, and ensure that you have your map and compass ready to hand!

this is a shot of that view from a previous trip, one of my favorite photographs

At the end of this leg, we reached a small section of muddy path. If you are doing this walk yourself and don’t know the route, it can appear as though you have wandered off the path. You have not. Check your map and continue on. Shortly after this muddy section and a tiny, slippery stream crossing, Tanya and I reached my favourite part of the route; Bleaberry Tarn. I’ve wild camped here a couple of times in the past. Once solo, and once with my good friend, Brian. It’s a fantastic spot in a natural basin, which shields you from the wind most of the time, but the nature of the shape of the area and the fact that there is a tarn does cause the temperature to drop. A fact that was evident on this particular walk, as this was where we first encountered ice.

We had pre-planned to sit and a hot drink in this area, as I knew from past experience that getting to this point is pretty draining on your stamina, so, we did just that and I took the opportunity to test out my new Berghaus “Ramche II” Jacket (which performed excellently) As we sat enjoying our Coffee and Mars bar (slightly off course in a little area hidden from the main path) it began to snow, cold wet, snow and the group who were attempting the same route as us briefly joined us. Immediately, I thought this was a little odd It turned out they didn’t actually know the route and were following us! This is and was frustrating for a number of reasons. Firstly, they did not have a map and compass with them, hence them following us. In winter and even on a clear day, this is not advised, because it’s so easy to get lost and very quickly at that. ALWAYS carry a map and compass, and make sure you know how to use them before setting out. There are a variety of useful and FREE navigational courses available out there today. Secondly, relying on the guidance of others isn't a great idea since you have no guarantee that the group ahead know where they are going or what they are doing. This is especially true if you only met them three quarters of an hour earlier and spoke to them for a grand total of 5 minutes. Thirdly, and possibly most frustrating of all, they appeared halfway through me relieving myself, resulting in me having to cut my little break short. There really is nothing worse. Tanya and I had a very quick chat with these guys before redirecting them up the correct route. In hindsight, I should’ve had a chat with them about how well equipped they were, which I think is something all experienced hill walkers have a duty to do.

This is a rag i use for wiping my runny nose on winter walks, as you can see its frozen pretty solid, I wouldn't fancy anyone's chances up there in those conditions unprepared!

We finished our hot drinks and set off on the trail again. At this point things started to get a little more challenging. Within 2 minutes, we had begun the secondary ascent, which would take us up towards the summit of Red Pike; the first summit on our intended route. From Bleaberry Tarn, it was impossible to see through the grey-white of the snow clouds, which were shrouding everything that day, but I knew where it was from previous journeys, so finding the path up was really quite simple. Immediately, upon starting the new ascent, it was clear that it had been snowing already and the temperature was dropping ever so slightly, meaning that we had to stop only a few metres into the ascent to garb ourselves in waterproof jackets and gloves, rather than becoming at a later time trying to do so.

As we we wrapped up, we were passed by three more walkers, one seemingly well equipped and another two who were somewhat less equipped. One of these was a man wearing skateboard trainers and tracksuit bottoms. It's worth pointing out that I myself was struggling with the grip under my feet at this point, and in proper hill walking shoes too. Skateboard shoes are just not appropriate for the hills in any weather, let alone icy conditions. To be fair to this guy, though, his friend did tell us that he was not expecting to climb a mountain that day, so the fault was not with him, but rather the experienced friend who had all the relevant equipment. Tanya and I both agreed that he should have known better and helped his friend out a little more. The third walker had a fur coat and four legs, so she was probably fine. A little further ahead, we both made the decision to get our hiking poles out . Accessing and stowing my poles on the move has long since been a real bugbear of mine, however, the incredible ‘stow-on-the-go’ system used by Osprey packs really makes this a lot easier. I am a huge fan of it. Embarrassingly, after I got my pack and raved about how great it was, Tanya went and bought the same one, in the same colour, so we look like real matching mountain nerds. Clothing and equipment rearranged, we continued our ascent up Red Pike. I loved every moment of this section, the snow and fog made for some very dramatic, but intimate scenery and the loose snow over packed ice made the climb itself challenging. As we ascended further, we started to get battered by a powerful howling wind coming in from the northwest, one which froze our faces and pelted us with ice, all the while threatening to knock us off our feet. Little changes in the weather like this transform a nice walk into an epic adventure. It’s the stuff I live for, the sensation of being somewhere totally unearthly really energises me. Suffice to say it wasn’t long before we were sheltering from the wind and putting our ice spikes on. The ones we were using (also matching I am, apparently a mountain fashion idol) cost £15 plus postage from Amazon. They’re pretty good for the price, so there really is no excuse for being poorly equipped at this time of the year. We all have access to the internet.

It wasn’t long on this section before we met the group who had followed us again, this time they were on their way back down. They’d managed to reach the summit of Red Pike and decided that the conditions up there were far too challenging for their level of experience. This is absolutely the correct thing to do. The mountain will be there another day, if you get lost up there, you may not be. Shortly after we learned that, the guy in the trainers also made the decision to head back down as well, an equally intelligent choice. Myself and Tanya, however, were well equipped and through screaming winds and stinging ice, we pushed on and continued up the mountain. We entered an area of eerie blissful still and quiet, amplified by the ethereal cloud that limited and softened our view of everything, and swallowed up our own voices when we spoke. At the summit, we met more climbers, this time well equipped and clearly experienced. They were having trouble working out exactly where they were located and were in disagreement about which peak they stood on. Some of their team thought they were on ‘Dodd’, whilst some argued they were on Red Pike. After double checking both the map AND the GPS, Tanya and I confirmed for them that we were indeed on Red Pike, but working out which direction to continue on in was rather challenging since visibility, by this point, was extremely poor. Luckily, having a good working knowledge of how a map and compass works came in handy, and we were able to take a few bearings and work out which direction to move in.

This Image has been pretty heavily edited so that you can actually see me

There was a problem we hadn’t realised at this point; something was wrong with my compass. I am not sure what caused the issue, but later in the hike my compass formed a bubble (it didn’t have one on Red Pike) and my right ear popped, incredibly painfully, and left me struggling with hearing for a few days. If these two things were connected, I do not know. Upon checking the compass after our hike, we discovered that it was pointing a good few degrees off north, giving us an incorrect map-landscape bearing. We were both carrying a map and compass, and we should have both been using them, for if we had we’d have known there was a problem. Lesson learned.

Upon leaving the summit of Red Pike, the landscape transmuted from the easy to follow, monochrome path into a black and white, featureless landscape, giving us visibility of only a few metres. There was no sign whatsoever of the track we had intended to follow, and despite us needing to descend slightly along this course, it was very difficult to see which direction the land sloped off in. These are challenging navigational conditions at the best of times, made worse when you are taking bearings from a compass that you are unaware is broken! If you look at the GPX file at the end of this article, you can see how far out a bearing, one which is incorrect by only a few degrees, put us off track.

Still, we soldiered on, having decided to head to High Style (the highest point along this ridgeline) and descend a steep decline from the side of this peak rather than following our route all the way around to the imposing Fleetwith Pike. The going at this point was pretty slow. We ended up zig zagging across the path and back tracking a few times to be sure we were headed in the correct direction. This is where we needed to be careful, as the route we trekked was a ridge line which, on one side was a fairly gentle slope, but the other, a sheer drop with many craggy cliff faces. The last thing we wanted was to fall off the edge of one of those!

A cleft in the rock, some of these were pretty hard to see and I didn't fancy falling down one

Eventually, the ground began to rise under our feet again, reassuring us that we were indeed on the correct path to High Stile. Our elevation began to change, along with the ground beneath our feet, switching from snow-on-grass to snow-on-boulders and making the route more challenging and the scenery more dramatic. I love moments like this on the mountain; your whole existence becomes a small grey-white bubble, as wide only as far as your own limited vision. It really does feel like being in another world, when these spaces are void of all other walkers and the only reminder of the human race are footprints in the snow. It’s easy to see why ancient people believed that mountains and high places were inhabited by Gods. Ghostly, unearthly, foreboding and beautiful are words I would use to explain these greyscale, out of body experiences. From here, finding our way was easy. Once at the summit of High Style, there is no where else to go. From that point on we could get our bearings and begin our descent.

The map showed us that the drop back down into the valley would be very steep and very fast, far steeper than the climb back at the beginning. Since time was of the essence due to the day’s light soon disappearing behind the mountain, this seemed like a good choice. As we began to descend, it became apparent extremely quickly that the way down was not going to be as quick as we thought. The path was impossible to find through what we now knew was a boulder field on the side of the hill. There was no choice, we were going to need to navigate our way through the huge slabs of hard, black rock - some the size of large suitcases, most the size of small cars - all covered with wet, clinging snow, which concealed the gaps between them. This sort of terrain was perfect for breaking the legs of all but the most cautious hill walkers.

The going through this was achingly slow, and before long we had given up any notion of trying to navigate to or along a path, deciding that simply ‘down’ was our best option. This may seem a little reckless, we had, however, spent a very long time attempting to find the trail, and it seemed in hindsight that even if we had managed to find it, that the terrain underfoot would have been exactly the same. At one point during this section, I experienced one of the scariest moment I had ever encountered before in the mountains. I was traversing a section of grass that had been spared the weight of boulders. I thought this would be easier to move on as opposed to the uneven, solid rocks, but little did I realise that the wet snow had been clogging up my ice spikes as I was moving. My feet were suddenly no longer beneath me and connected to the ground, instead, my backside and rucksack were beneath me and my descent had sped up rapidly. I was sliding down the hill.

Thinking fast, I jabbed my right hiking pole into the ground as hard as I could and it held, but I couldn’t find purchase with my left. The pole didn’t really help, in fact I didn’t even slow down as the pole began to bend like a fishing rod with a large fish on the end of it. I remember thinking, not ‘Oh God, oh God, I’m going to die’, which would have been normal in this situation, but instead ‘Oh, for God’s sake! These poles are brand new and it’s going to break the first time I use it!’ Thankfully the pole did not break, nor did I die. My rapid descent was abruptly halted by a well placed slab of dark granite, which appeared out of the ether to rescue me. During the slide, I seemed to be moving forever, but looking back at where I had come I had, in fact, only traveled a few metres. When moments like this happen, it really does seem like such a longer moment in time. I will definitely be buying an ice axe for future winter walks. An axe will be much more practical than flailing about with a walking pole. The journey continued much like this for what seemed like an age; behind us a rock strewn slope, below us, a rock strewn slope. We felt like Sisyphus in Greek Myth, a king who had been doomed to an eternity to push a rock up a hill. We would be eternally walking down this one. That may seem a little dramatic, but honestly when you are there and you cannot see what is in front of you and what has gone behind, your mind plays trick and you lose all sense of time as it really does seem to last forever. In reality, our descent of this section took around 45 minutes before we dropped out of the cloud, the snow beneath our feet thinned, and the real world slammed back into view in all its earthy myriad of colours. The change of scenery was sudden and shocking. No shadowy mountains looming out of the fog in the distance (as so often happens), but an instantaneous change from black and white to vivid colour. This must have been how Dorothy felt walking out into Oz.

From here, Tanya and I stripped off our ice spikes and began the quick but leisurely descent back into the lush green, valley of Buttermere. We stopped to admire the new silence, only to be horrified and disgusted by the loathsome, sub-human and dull witted brutes in the valley participating in a fox hunt. They shattered the crystal silence with their vile braying and whooping, a noise which carried right up to us high on the fell and polluted the entire landscape with a grotesque presence. Their sound betrayed their humanity to be less than that of the wonderful and intelligent creature they hunted, or that of the dogs in their servitude, brainwashed into aiding them in their craven past-time. Detestable, cowardly creatures they are. Despite this, our walk back was pleasant. I collected a couple of sheep skulls to add to my macabre collection (after making Tanya strap them to my backpack so that we no longer matched) and we made our way back through the lush green scenes of Burness Wood, following a perfectly transpartent and happily giggling ‘Gill’ (Cumbrian for small stream). After stopping by Buttermere water to snap a few photographs of the perfect mirrored water, we eventually trooped back to the car to look back at where we had come from. From here, the mountain looked completely impassable and truly forbidding with its sheer, black rocky sides and crown of ice snow and cloud. Suffice to say, we were glad to be back in the valley, but happy to have achieved what we did. It is nice to come away from an experience having been challenged and having learned clear, definite lessons.

Another Clear example of the poor visibility we faced

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