Even though we are half way through January winter has been particularly elusive so far this year. Sure, its been cold and damp, but those clear frosty mornings when the world is touched with white have been conspicuously absent. Last week with the media running about like headless chickens and talking about the incoming Snowmaggedon I admit I went to bed excited that finally I would be able to dust off the skis or axes.
The winter sport enthusiast is however used to disappointment; rather like he who chases the rainbow, the ice and snow always appear to be just out of reach, like a spectre who is due to arrive tomorrow, or who left yesterday, never quite overlapping which the hear and now. Snowmageddon did not result in a thick blanket of pure white powder across the landscape, but the hills did look to have a light dusting, and although my plans to ski tour had to be left to another day, the bright blue skies promised a good winter day was there for the taking.
I chose Great Shunner Fell in the Yorkshire Dales a rounded whale of a mountain between Wensleydale and Swaledale just west of the Buttertubs Pass. The Pennine Way runs over the summit and I followed this out of Hardraw (home to Hardraw Force, Englands highest unbroken waterfall) up a track coated in a sheet of ice and frozen snow which was actually surprisingly grippy.
Soon you leave the last dry stone wall behind and head out onto the open moor climbing up a very broad ridge of grass and heather, the gradient is very gently rising the five hundred meters to the summit over 8 kilometres. The views behind me were fantastic, upper Wensleydale coated in a heavy dusting of snow, the black dry stone walls standing out starkly against the white fields they enclosed. Across the other side of the valley, Fleet Moss, the highest road in Yorkshire stood out under a blue sky and brilliant sun; the light glinting off its frozen surface, forming a thin line, like a river of molten sliver, draped over the hills ran from the moorland dropping steeply into the dale below.
Climbing higher Ingleborough, easily recognisable from its flat topped profile appeared in the distance, shrugging clouds from its shoulders to bask in the sun. The rays of the sun did little to combat a bitter wind which sapped the warmth from exposed skin, and had clearly spent many hours sculpting the covering of snow into waves and ridges across the moor.
The ridge appeared to go on forever as kilometre after kilometre slowly ticked by, the summit shelter only revealing itself during the last five hundred meters or so. From the summit the view were expansive across much of the Dales and beyond, Ribblesdale, Swaledale, and Wensleydale all stretching away in a panorama of snow capped hills and high moorland.
After a warming cup of coffee I turned to descend east towards the Buttertubs Pass, following a helpful fence line though the pathless terrain over Little Shunner Fell. This walk is one of those its probably best to climb in winter, its vast bogs, sworn enemies of your boots frozen in the cold, crisp air. Although the snow is thin I follow ski tracks from just below the summit right down to the road, which with a good covering would make a nice little run.
Rather than follow the road back to Hardraw, its only a short addition to the route to cross the road and climb up Lovely Seat; again I was aided by a handrail to the summit by a well placed fence line! As the name suggests once the top is reached one can sit down and enjoy the view back to Great Shunner fell from a large stone chair. From here the broad scale of the hill becomes apparent, the southern ridge which I made my way up earlier stretches away dropping very slowly towards Wensleydale looking every inch of its eight kilometres.
Now I left the friendly handrails behind and took a baring across the open moorland for just over a kilometre, heading for Shivery Gill which I followed swiftly down to the road. After following this for a further kilometre I joined a footpath back to Hardwaw just after the road drops steely down a 20% ramp now famous from the iconic scenes in 2014 when the Tour de France fought its way through a wall of spectators here.
As I write this the snow has vanished, hopefully only temporarily, for it would be nice to get the skis out on those hills. Fingers crossed.