First Signs of Winter on Great Shunner Fell

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.


Looking across upper Wensleydale, the flat to of Ingleborough can just be seen in the distance. 

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.


The high moor just below the summit with Swaledale beyond


Looking north from the summit shelter 

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.


Great Shunner Fell from Lovely Seat



Not Quite Winter on Carn Liath and Beinn Udlamain

Those few days between Christmas and New Year are often a holding pattern between the consumption of too much food and the consumption of too much alcohol. As the days are mandatory holidays for me, and I had just about worked through the myriad of snacks that accompany the festive celebrations it seamed like a good idea to head somewhere for a few days in the hills to address the calories in the bank so to speak.

I’m particularly inspired by climbing and walking in Scotland in winter, drawn by the thought of peaks and ridges capped with crisp snow set against a blue sky. As someone who lives 400 miles away from the Highlands I tend to view weather forecasts around my windows of opportunity in my work calendar through slightly Quixotic glasses and possibly myopic fashion, always hoping conditions will be slightly better than advised!

By Boxing Day however any optimism I may have held about a few days on the west coast had been battered into submission by storms Barbara and Conor and my hope of a to north looked to be fading. Looking for a straw to grab a hold of a few pictures glimpsed on Twitter of snow settling around Loch Morlich convinced me that the Cairngorms could allow me to snatch a few days wintering before heading back to work.


Looking for the summit

Four hundred miles later and it was clear that the skis, crampons, and axes were going to stay in the car as temperatures rose rapidly to high single digits, bringing wind and cloud to dominate the forecasts. Rather than use my time to slog up a gully full of soft rapidly melting snow I decided to use my time to visit two  Munros I’ve missed during previous trips that would otherwise get overlooked as I slowly work through the remaining 200 on my to do list.

Beinn Udlamain (1011m) is one of four rounded hills that lie just west of the A9 at the Drumochter summit, all four are a reasonably reliable ski tour with snow often down to road level and I had been able to pick three of them off like that during earlier trips. Beinn Udlamain lies farthest from the road and had therefore been left till last. In good weather experienced ski tourers (which I’m not) could easily link together at least two and possibly all the summits without too much difficulty.

With a light pack, not requiring much usual winter kit, I followed the landrover track from the A9 up Coire Dhomhain, the head of which was lost in a opaque  ceiling of grey cloud. Reaching an obvious stream coming down from the coll between Beinn Udlamain and  A’ Mharconaich I turned up a stiff climb over grass and hether but very little snow.  Higher up there was a covering of the white stuff, which in the cloud brought a virtual whiteout and disconcerting slog up into nothing.

Finally the seeming interminable white slope gave way to a rounded broad ridge clear of snow which I could follow via a couple of doglegs (and well spaced old fence posts) to the summit after just over a kilometre.


One of those days!


Cloud banks above the Sow of Atholl

With the summit shrouded in grey mists Beinn Udlamain lived up to one translation of its name, the “gloomy mountain”; although to be fair to it, in climbing its three neighbours Geal-chàrn, Sgairneach Mhòr and A’ Mharconaich I’ve never been able to see more than about 100m on any of the summits missing what must be good views across to Ben Alder and Loch Erict.

The second peak I picked off was Carn Liath which lies above Loch Laggan and is often climbed with (and probably overshadowed by) Creag Meagaidh a fantastic mountain with, in my opinion the finest winter coire in Scotland in Coire Ardair.

The route (faint path) left the excellent path to the coire just before it enters the woods and climbs steeply up onto the shoulder of Na Cnapanan. I say path in the loosest possible terms as for its lower half it was little more than a stream weaving its way through holders and trees! Higher up things improved and from the shoulder the gradient relents giving an easy climb up to the main summit all the while offering a fantastic view across to Coire Ardair across whose headwall you can trace the classic steep climbing gullies of the Post Face .

Today these looked a little forlorn, thin and surrounded by black rock with only Easy and Raeburn’s Gully looking climbable and even then probably a slog through soft snow. Even looking forlorn though I still find the sight inspiring there are some brilliant days to be had here.


Coire Ardair

Creag Meagaidh has pride of place as one of my most frustrating mountains; possibly like nowhere else in Scotland it balances on a knife-edge between not enough snow and lethally too much snow. The vast plateau behind the coire collects huge volumes of the stuff which when moved about by easterly winds makes it an avalanche black spot and home to some colossal cornices.

A few year back in good conditions I remember seeing some massive old avalanche debris whilst climbing up through the notch in the back of the coire known as the Window. Its not somewhere I want to venture on a marginal forecast from SAIS.

Hopefully this will be the first of a few days in Scotland this year, I’m hoping to focus on ski touring with quite a few munros lined up should conditions click.  That said if I can grab a few easy gullies later in the season that would be a bonus too!