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 com