It’s difficult to pinpoint just how I fell in love with hiking. There was no single eureka moment; my ever-growing passion for the great outdoors is more akin to an upward, exponential curve. However, I can probably identify the week in which the curve began to accelerate past the point of no return.
A wintry Easter
I’d arrived in Cumbria to visit family at the start of the Easter Holidays in 2015, looking forward to a break from teaching in East London. As had begun to become the norm during my time off school, I’d planned to escape into the high fells of the English Lake District for some alone time in the mountains. High on my list was Great End, a Wainwright summit that I hadn't yet ticked off on the Scafell range.
However, winter had lingered late this year and the weather was all over the place. The mountain forecasts predicted everything from high winds and fresh snow to hailstorms and lightning.
In Britain, you often hear people talk about their ‘apprenticeship’ with the mountains. In the world of work, an apprenticeship is when you get taken under the wing of a wiser and more experienced practitioner in your chosen profession. They guide you along the right path so that, one day, you too will be a wise, experienced and – usually – fully qualified practitioner yourself.
I like to think that, during an apprenticeship with the mountains, it’s not a person or an organisation that takes you under their wing, but the mountains themselves. The most valuable lessons are those learned not from a mountain guide or a friend, but from the experiences gathered during adventures in the high places.
During my long apprenticeship, which took me from my first faltering footsteps in the fells of the Lake District to becoming a qualified Mountain Leader, it was the transition from summer hiking to winter conditions that triggered the exponential growth in my passion.
It began with Great End
So, with all hell set to break loose according to the weather forecast, I turned my attention to Great End, the impressive northern termination of the Scafell range. At this time, I didn’t own – or know how to use – an ice axe or crampons. In fact, I did all my hiking in a pair of Salomon Speedcross trail running shoes and that day was to be no different.
As this was 2015, back in the days where you had to delete the photos on your phone to make space for new ones, I don't have anything but mental images of the day. Perhaps that's what makes it all the more special in my memory.
I parked at Seathwaite Farm, which is usually crammed with cars, as it’s a popular starting point for England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. On that day, there were only two other cars. The lack of activity was accentuated by the muffled near silence you often get in the fells during winter. I set off for the wild-feeling Sty Head Pass under a brooding sky that hung close and heavy, hiding the higher places.
Things gradually opened up as I progressed alongside the chuckling Styhead Gill. In the distance, an immense white mountain wall emerged from the cloud.
I love the ‘Oh my god, it’s…’ moments you get in the mountains in winter. It’s usually when a sight you know fairly well in summer suddenly seems to take on a new monstrous form after snowfall. In this case, I muttered ‘Oh my god, it’s Lingmell,’ as I took in the majesty of the fell’s northeast face in its winter coat.
Thinking about it, this was the first time I’d been properly immersed within the mountains in winter conditions. I’d done snowy walks on smaller fells, with distant views of the higher peaks. But now I was really amongst it, alone, and I was loving it.
Suddenly, everything got darker, windier and it looked like there was some kind of swarm approaching back from where I’d just come from. I hastily pulled my pack open and threw my waterproof on just in time, as the most violent volley of hail I’ve ever experienced absolutely battered me. I staggered over towards a boulder, back turned to the onslaught, and tried to take as much shelter as I could. The assault lasted about five minutes before departing as quickly as it had arrived. Again, I was loving it.
Okay, Great End. Challenge accepted.
My ascent took me above the snow line, as I passed the beautiful Sprinkling Tarn. Two people were making a careful descent and they told me they had decided to turn back at the high crossroads of Esk Hause as conditions were too difficult. I pressed on, arrived at the Hause and decided to continue. I knew from a previous hike to Scafell Pike that the Scafell ridgeline and the summit of Great End weren’t far.
The grip of my Salomons was just starting to struggle a little. Knowing what I know now, it’s likely I’d ascended above the freezing level and the snow, which was crunchy lower down, was now more compacted, calling for the use of crampons for safe passage. Nevertheless, I knew that I only had to ascend Calf Cove before a gentler gradient would give way to the summit. I wasn’t going to let Great End win.
However, once on the top of the ridge, I was completely exposed to a ferocious gusting wind, which was almost strong enough to blow me off my feet. I hunkered down behind a boulder and decided to eat lunch, waiting to see if the wind would die down.
Once lunch had been consumed, the gusts did indeed abate, albeit slightly. I made a dash for the summit and I remember, upon arrival, letting out a victory cry towards the mightily impressive sight of Great Gable across the valley. Of course, my relatively puny shout was completely swallowed by the wind. Great End had been hard won and I felt a huge sense of achievement.
So focussed had I been on getting to the summit that, when I turned to face back towards where I’d come, the scene took my breath away. The sight of the snow-covered Scafell ridge, crowned by England’s highest peak, was hugely enticing. However, without proper winter footwear, I knew I’d be chancing it and decided that retreat was the best course of action. Regardless, a fire had been lit in my belly up on that freezing, windblown summit.
The appetite for these kinds of adventures can’t be sated. In fact, more days like this have the opposite effect. It’s an appetite that grows every time I feed it. My experience on Great End, where I had decided, wisely, to descend rather than to seek out England’s highest summit, had left me hungry for the ability to access winter mountaineering.
Two days later and I was similarly gripped on an ascent of Halls Fell Ridge on Blencathra. It’s not a particularly difficult route but on that day, the snow had begun to melt, making everything a little slippery, and it was rather windy. Again, I passed people of the ridge who had decided to call it quits, while I continued to claim a hard earned summit tick. I often think of my Great End and Blencathra adventures that week as being something of an awakening. Since, both have come to be among my favourite mountains anywhere and I've been back countless times since.
It wasn’t long before I’d made the, not inconsiderable, investment in a pair of winter hiking boots, an ice axe and a pair of crampons. Fast forward seven years and I’m now an experienced winter mountaineer, President of the London Mountaineering Club and training to be a winter mountain leader. I’ve done far more challenging routes in places like the Scottish Highlands and the Alps, but never has any adventure felt quite as epic as Great End did in the Easter of 2015.
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Alex is a freelance adventure writer and mountain leader with an insatiable passion for the mountains. A Cumbrian born and bred, his native English Lake District has a special place in his heart, though he is at least equally happy in North Wales, the Scottish Highlands or the European Alps. Through his hiking, mountaineering, climbing and trail running adventures, Alex aims to inspire others to get outdoors. He is currently President of the London Mountaineering Club, training to become a winter mountain leader, looking to finally finish bagging all the Wainwright fells of the Lake District and hoping to scale more Alpine 4000ers when circumstances allow. Find out more at www.alexfoxfield.com