“The Spine” has gained a reputation for being one of the toughest challenges in the UK adventure-racing calendar, and with good reason – after all, running 268 miles along the Pennine Hills in winter in seven days is never going to be a walk in the park. It’s also serious stuff for the support team – the young doctors are prepared to deal with everything from blisters to medical emergencies, and the gnarly hill-men may have to endure anything from blizzards to yet another round of tall tales in the pub!
Getting the whole team together for a weekend R&R was always going to be difficult, especially for the young doctors working shifts. Medics Olivia and Naomi were free for a weekend of hill time, and gnarly hill-men rarely need an excuse, so Joe, John, Stuart and me joined them for a Lake District trip. What we didn’t know as we swapped drinks and tall-tales in the White Lion at Patterdale, was that ‘Mr Snow’ was also going to make an appearance overnight.
We had trudged up from Patterdale to the hole in the wall known as, simply, “Hole in th’ Wall”! From there onwards the fresh snow was deep and crisp and (sometimes) even. On the way to Red Tarn, I managed to persuade the gang that trainee search dog ’Mist’ would benefit from a few training runs in the snow. Naomi was volunteered to be the ‘body’ whilst the others wisely stood back and watched.
‘Mist’ is currently in the early stages of training as a search dog – she sees the ‘body’ run away, and then follows a sequence where she goes to the body then returns to the handler, barking to indicate a find. She then shuttles between body and handler until all are together, job done. This sequence will be repeated for many weeks until the dog is conditioned to follow the same sequence every time, without fail.
The deep snow was useful as an indicator of the dog’s determination to work through the sequence in difficult conditions – ‘Mist’ is big for a Border Collie at 19 kgs, and she used her size and strength to power through the snow, and I did my best to keep up, encumbered by a winter weight rucksack! Having completed three ‘first-class’ runs, it was then time to get on with the real programme for the day – the circuit of Swirral Edge, Helvellyn summit and Striding Edge.
I’ve written about this route in winter before (see post #12) – in summer the Edges are popular walking routes, but in winter they are more of a mountaineering challenge. Today was no exception, though in the mountains it can be different each time you go out. We had knee-deep fresh snow to contend with, requiring trail breaking as well as route finding skills.
My preference in snow conditions is to go up Swirral Edge and down Striding Edge – this way the steeper (and possibly technical) sections are done in ascent. However, most people do it the other way round, and after treading virgin snow for most of the way up we finally started meeting other parties coming down. In summer it’s sometimes amazing how unprepared some walkers are for a mountain day, but today everyone was well kitted out, including the young guy we met who was supporting Red-Nose day, with red balloons on his pack.
Then, suddenly, it was flat instead of up! The hard icy névé that frequently forms at the top of Swirral Edge was banked up with deep fresh snow that posed no difficulty at all. Four of us wore Kahtoola Microspikes for most of the day, with the other two in crampons – the Microspikes probably had the edge in the soft snow conditions. A ‘cheesy’ photograph was demanded at the top of the edge, then after a swift lunch break it was time to go down.
Going ‘against the flow’ of most of the traffic meant that we had the advantage of descending the tedious slope at the summit end of Striding Edge. Joe was now in pole position, and diverted round the rock pinnacle at what was (for us) the start of Striding Edge. Beyond there, the short rock chimney known as ‘The Bad Step’ was completely banked out with snow – I already had ‘Mist’ on a rope and harness because of the danger of her dropping through a snow cornice, and a ‘pull’ soon had her up the five metres of steep snow. The remainder of the ridge passed without incident, the usual big drops hidden in the murk.
And then it was all over! The ridge gets wider and wider, leading back to Hole in th’ Wall. From there a steady descent down Birkhouse Moor took us back to Glenridding, just in time for the Wales v England match on the TV in the Traveller’s Rest. After a quick cider, I had to set off to travel back to North Wales. The snow-free road I took over Kirkstone Pass was closed six hours later by heavy snow fall – it looks as though winter will be around for a while longer.
Text © Paul Shorrock – Images © John Bamber except those tagged (OC) © Olivia Cheetham and (PS) © Paul Shorrock