The current wintry conditions bring back memories of Scottish winter climbing when winters were snowy and cold. Here is the story of a winter trip to the Lakes with my brother Jim in the days when I still did a bit of winter climbing.
It had snowed and the Cumbrian mountains were white once more. Jim suggested a day trip to Great End to do Central Gully, a classic grade II gully. I hadn’t done much winter climbing for a few years but reckoned I could follow Jim up a grade II so I agreed to go. Jim’s friends Jakob and Andy also agreed to go making 2 ropes of 2. So far so good.
We did a bit of research the day before and realised that conditions were a bit lean to say the least. The guidebook reckoned that in those conditions the crux would be grade III or IV and while I’d climbed competently at those grades in the past I knew I was out of practice. So I suggested we did Skew Gill and Custs Gully instead, both easy grade Is. To my surprise everyone agreed and we arranged to meet at Bowes at 6.30am the next morning.
At 6am the next morning it was snowing heavily but I made it to Bowes without too many problems. Jim collected Jakob in Durham and they also made it to Bowes. Andy meanwhile was stuck on the A68 in Tow Law and gave up and went home so only 3 of us headed west to the Lakes. The snow stopped once we were over Stainmore and we made it to Seathwaite just as it was getting light at 8am.
At Seathwaite we sorted out gear. There’s always a lot of gear for winter climbing and rucksacks are inevitably heavy. Crampons, two axes, harness, helmet, waterproofs, lots of gloves, spare insulated jacket, headtorch, food. We shared out the rope and ironmongery – pitons, cams, karabiners, nuts and a few very optimistic ice screws. Then heavily laden we slipped and slid our way up the icy path to Styhead Tarn.
From Styhead Tarn we started along the Corridor Route and quickly came to Skew Gill. It was very broad at the bottom, filled with scree and easy to walk up, but soon narrowed. At the first narrowing we stopped to put on harnesses and crampons. I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s best to put on crampons before you get onto steep ground.
We followed the stream up Skew Gill, first on one side, then the other. The snow was wet and the stream in full flow. Eventually we came to the final headwall, dripping with melting ice. Here we got the rope out and Jim led it in fine style. Jakob followed which meant there was no-one to watch my inelegant struggle as I tried to remember how to trust crampon front points on small rock ledges. Eventually all three of us reached easier ground at the top of Skew Gill.
The next destination was Custs Gully but finding it was a challenge in poor visibility. It wasn’t obvious from the map which of the many black lines signified Custs Gully and the topo in the guidebook seemed to bear no resemblance to what we could see. There were quite a few other people wandering round also looking for Custs Gully so I expected it to be busy assuming of course we ever found it. But by trial and error we eventually found it, and we roped up again. The mist was starting to clear and the huge chockstone loomed above our heads further up the gully. The first part was easy scrambling so we just moved together to save time.
Our way was stopped by a short pitch of icy rock, maybe 6m high. In good conditions this would be banked out with snow and you would hardly notice it, but today it was hard. Jim led again, struggled for a while and said he was defeated. An unusual admission for a man who has led grade V Scottish ice, albeit not recently. But as often happens, saying you are defeated spurs you on to try again and one more struggle saw Jim halfway up the wall. He put a cam into a sidewall and continued to the top. Jakob followed him in fine style and then it was my turn. By now there was a gathering behind us, all young and male, I was the only woman climber all day. I made a real mess of it, not wanting to trust my axes on small rock holds, but eventually with a yank on the rope from Jim and a cheer from the onlookers I was up.
From there it was a short distance to the final rock pitch and the top. It was Jakob’s turn to lead and he found it hard, almost falling off at one point. But he made it, and I followed, using only one axe and leaving my other hand to grip rock. As a result I climbed better and didn’t struggle too much. Then Jim shouted that one of his crampons had come off and had fallen down the gully to the climbers below. He would climb the pitch with the remaining crampon and wait for the climbers following to bring up his other crampon.
Soon we were at the top and unroped. Jakob, being German or maybe Austrian, had brought some schnapps which we passed round and said Bergheil. Actually the schnapps was good scottish Talisker whisky as Jakob hadn’t been home for a while but that suited me fine. Then it was an easy walk off Great End following a compass bearing through the mist until we met the hugely cairned path from Esk Hause to Scafell Pike.
The cloud lifted on the way down Grains Gill and we had views down the valley to Derwentwater and Skiddaw. Soon we were at Stockley Bridge and Jakob announced he was going to have a swim in the deep pools there. I looked at him incredulously. There was snow and ice on the ground and he wanted a swim. Sure enough he stripped off, much to amusement of the group of lady walkers coming down the path from Scafell Pike, and had a quick dip in the icy pool. Then we headed back to Seathwaite, arriving at 4pm just as it was going dark. A perfect use of 8 hours of daylight.
The arrival of children for both Jim and I and the knowledge of increased risk in winter climbing means that neither of us go winter climbing anymore. And of course good winter conditions are rarer. We move on and find other things to do with our lives instead.
Copyright of all text and photos Jane Ascroft 2021