BB1310 : Full Winter Conditions

Wednesday 13th March 2013

For many years now during the winter months a man has been employed to go up Helvellyn every day regardless of weather conditions and report on the ground conditions. He’s titled the "Fell Top Assessor" – a much sought after job currently held by a chap called Jon Bennett.

Originally this information was available as a recorded message on a telephone line, but with the coming of the internet the information is now on there. You can read about Jon Bennett, and see his reports, on the Lake District Weather Line.

On Tuesday of this week he was reporting the fells as being “in full winter conditions…, with snow on paths above 400m and ice at all levels”. So when the proposed walk was on either Fairfield or Helvellyn and Don e-mailed me to ask if crampons were needed, it seemed a no-brainer – "Definitely!” I replied.

On Wednesday evening Don advised that he was not able to join us. But his e-mail added that from Ambleside there didn’t look to be much snow so we might be better on the Howgills.

Full winter conditions’ on the climb of Raise Beck!

Can’t be right I thought, Fell Top man still said “full winter conditions”. So when John picked myself and Stan up, on my advice we headed for Dunmail Raise.

As we drove up the pass there was barely any snow visible and I was beginning to feel a bit guilty because John had been out the day before and bought a pair of microspikes in preparation for the outing!   The walk up Raise Beck failed to ease my conscience, although there was the occasional patch of ice that could be easily bypassed.

On reaching the Tarn there was at least a covering of snow on Fairfield but we were still able to climb to the top of Dollywagon Pike on easy grassy ground. Looking East from there however, it was clear to see how the Fell Top Assessor had reached his conclusions. All the West facing slopes were still plastered in snow.

Grisedale Tarn & Fairfield from Dollywagon slopes

Looking East to St Sunday Crag and Kentmere tops

The slope drops away from the top of Dollywagon and at last there was snow that needed crampons. So John was able to try on his investment. The look of disbelief mixed with relief on people’s faces when they realise that they actually will hold them in place on ice and not slide off into oblivion never ceases to entertain me. John was no different as we trotted off towards Nethermost Pike.

Looking back to the summit of Dollywagon Pike

On one stretch of the track we came across a set of raised footprints. I think these form when the less icy snow around them melts or is blown away leaving the compressed snow in place.

The weather had been superb all day with the sun out and only a light, but bitingly cold, wind. The views were extensive in all directions.

The crampons really began to prove their worth on the half mile or so between Nethermost and Helvellyn which had become a skating rink with large stretches of ice and frozen snow.

I was beginning to feel the guilt slip away!

 Crampons on at last!



 Footprints in the snow

View East from Nethermost Pike

I had noticed quite a few climbers around on the plateau (generally distinguishable by the fact that they are carrying 2 ice axes on their packs) and a look down the gullies from the summit immediately spotted a group climbing a buttress on the Swirral Edge side of the cove. The snow, to my amateur’s eye, looked to be in excellent condition and would account for the numbers of groups around.

We could also see people on both Striding and Swirral Edges. Both looked tricky undertakings in the current conditions (certainly somewhere I wouldn’t be unless roped up with an experienced leader!) The Fell Top Assessor notes the problems on Swirral that caused the two recent accidents there.

 Lunch was taken in the wall shelter.

Comitibus :  Helvellyn wall shelter

Bryan above Red Tarn Cove

Climbers ascending a route in Red Tarn Cove (Swirall Edge in background)

We had considered carrying on over Lower Man and descending to Thirlspot before catching the 555 bus back to the car. But time and energy lead to a decision to descend via Comb Crags as I had done a couple of weeks before.

I said then that…  "I definitely wouldn’t have taken anyone down that way that hadn’t had a reasonable amount of winter experience."

So here I was with John on his first outing in crampons heading straight for it! To be fair to myself we had agreed before leaving the summit that we would abandon the route and traverse the hillside to rejoin our ascent line if it looked at all doubtful.

But it turned out to be OK. The fresh snow since I was last there had made the line through the crags a little easier and John made a good job of getting down. It also gave me the chance to go off route part way down and do a bit of solo front-pointing down a short, 20 foot, gully filled with a couple of inches of excellent ice. Great fun.

To the North as we descended we had great views into Scotland. Stan pointed out just how close the Solway Firth seemed to be that day, and the snow topped hills of Galloway could be clearly seen.

View North to the Solway Firth and Scotland

John on easier ground descending Comb Crags

The final part of the descent

Finally we reached the path back to Dunmail at the end of an excellent day out.

There’s certainly a lesson to be taken from the walk – no matter how benign and snow free it looks from the valley it is sensible to put a pair of basic crampons (microspikes or similar) in your bag at the start of winter and leave them there!

Bryan, 15th March 2013





Wednesday 13th March 2013

Distance in miles:

7.6 (Memory Mao)

Height climbed in feet:

2,890 (Memory Map / O.S.)


Dollywagon, Nethermost Pike, Helvellyn

Other Features:



Bryan, John Hn, Stan



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