My scariest mountain moment this week was in the comfort of my own back garden. My window cleaner was telling me about his walk up Helvellyn a couple of weeks ago. They had gone the long way round (Grisedale Tarn probably, but he didn’t know the route) and found the top pretty well covered in snow. Not wanting to risk a descent of Striding Edge, they had opted to go down Swirral Edge instead.
At that point I must have been visibly cringing, because he said, “Do you know it”? I know it, all right! In the 1980’s I was the police officer for the Patterdale area, as well as a member of one of the local mountain rescue teams. In my three years working at Patterdale I attended several inquests for people who had been killed after falling from Swirral Edge in winter conditions.
“We should have had crampons and an ice-axe, I suppose”, he said. “It was really desperate – I was driving my hands into the snow to get a grip, but it was like glass”. I know just what he meant. With axe and crampons the ridge is an easy Grade I route, if that, but without gear it can be lethal. I’ll explain why.
Swirral Edge is on the east side of the summit plateau. The prevailing winds are from the west, so the snow is mainly deposited on the lee (sheltered) side of the mountain, particularly at the head of Swirral where a steep snow arête about 5 metres or so soon forms. Extended periods of freezing and thawing changes the snow structure, until it becomes so hard that boot soles barely mark it. A slip here becomes an uncontrolled slide then a fall of 100-150 metres, either towards Red Tarn or into Brown Cove.
The problem is that this 5 metres of steep, hard snow comes at the end of an ascent up an easy ridge, with the summit tantalisingly near. Conversely it comes as a descent route at the end of a long day, where easy ground is so very near that a longer way round becomes unappealing. With crampons and axe there really isn’t any drama – without, it’s an accident waiting to happen. There are fatal accidents around here most winters.
Regular winter hill-walkers and mountaineers will probably have their own stories of accident black-spots. Last winter I was both amazed and horrified by the number of ill-equipped walkers going precariously up the snow-covered PYG track to the summit of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), though I shouldn’t have been because I’ve seen it all before. And how many of them realise that the easy summer ascent of the Llanberis path lies on a convex slope that leads to crags waiting below. It’s yet another place where unprepared walkers frequently die.
Unbelievable, but it happens every year. So, do yourselves and the rescue teams a favour this winter and stay safe. We all have our own ideas about the best way to do things, but here are my favourite tips to keep out of trouble –
1. It goes without saying, but I will say it – take ice-axe and crampons, and practice using them beforehand. Don’t waste too much time practicing self-arrest with your axe – learn instead how to stay secure on your crampons so you don’t fall in the first place.
2. Carry extra gear – in winter as well as axe and crampons my sack will always have a “bothy shelter”, a Blizzard survival bag, a Paramo Torres smock, headtorch and spare batteries, two spare pairs of gloves (I get cold hands!) and a spare hat, first aid kit, and spare glucose as well as flask of coffee and food. I’ll also have map, compass and GPS.
3. On the other hand, don’t over-burden yourself. Too much gear means you move more slowly, and in winter speed is important.
4. Don’t waste time faffing about – be organised, keep your kit in order, start early and be mentally prepared to come down in the dark.
No guarantees, but go prepared and you have a better chance of not going home in one of these –
The numbered photographs above are copied from the Geograph Project website under a Creative Commons Licence. The images are © and are by –
1. Simon Ledingham 2. John Harvey 3. Matt Eastham 4. Sharon Leedell 5. Michael Graham
You will find more of their superb images on the website.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock