Sunday, 11 December 2011

The North Face of Lancaster.

Christmas shopping in Lancaster:  it may not be a typical hike but it did involve several hours of solid walking, intricate navigation through the back streets of the city and an overwhelming desire to accomplish the entire mission in one expedition.  Recklessly I left my head torch, map and compass at home and pinned my hopes on Lancaster City Council's streetlighting and signage departments; luckily they didn't let me down.

After leaving Lancaster railway station I took the waymarked route along Westbourne Road and continued straight on over the major intersection, keeping the Cancer Research shop to my left at all times.  Some of the views along the way were simply stunning; snowy mountains, gaping ravines, polar bears, penguins and a giant sized Very Hungry Caterpillar in the window of Past Times.

I opted for the circular route taking in M&S Knott, BHS Screes and WH Smiths Gap.  The route was fairly busy, but perhaps less so than you'd expect for the time of year.  I also noticed that everyone seemed well prepared and appeared to be carrying more than enough food and equipment to cope with most eventualities. Should the mist have descended I am confident we could have survived on mince pies and Harvey's Bristol Cream until mountain rescue found us, though I had secreted a secret stash of liqueur chocolates in my handbag in case of emergencies and was prepared to lead a rousing chorus of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" to guide them to us should the need have arisen.

There was a good degree of camaraderie amongst my fellow hikers though I did notice that on this particular hike there were far fewer men than I usually see out on the fells.  I can only assume that the arduous nature of the route had proven too much for them and they were most likely at home with a pie and a pint bravely planning their next assault on an empty grassy hillside.

Four hours later and my mission was complete.  I'd sustained minor head injuries from a craggy outcrop of Jamie's Great Britain as I passed through WH Smiths Gap and a glancing blow to the shins courtesy of an over excited small child with a scooter.  It's an ideal bad weather route with plenty of places to shelter along the way though it's certainly not going to be the prettiest route in good weather.

Grange's Record Breaking Tree!
Fortunately I had time to recover at home before venturing out to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Grange. When you think about record breaking towns, Grange-over-Sands probably doesn't leap immediately to mind.  However we apparently have the tallest live lit Christmas tree in England and, in its 65th year, the longest continuously lit Christmas tree - though we do switch it off during the summer you understand.

The ceremony started at around 6pm when a crowd of excited children began to gather opposite the ornamental gardens.  After a few rousing carols the lights were turned on and Christmas officially arrived in Grange.  Soon after Santa appeared to take up residence in his grotto much to the delight of everyone present (including me, though Steve did veto me going to sit on Santa's knee.).

So there you have it, the first unsupported winter assault of the north face of Lancaster completed and the biggest Christmas tree in England.  Who says it's grim up north?

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Thumbs up for Thumbs up mountain!

Well, a number of firsts today.  First time in a hail storm on a fell, first time in a snow shower on a fell, first time walking though (very light) snow and first time up thumbs up mountain.

Helm Crag, up close.
We've been waving to thumbs up mountain since the first time we drove south along Thirlmere.  It took us ages to get around to finding out the real name for the place as we rather like our name for it, but turns out it's Helm Crag.  Next time you're driving south along Thirlmere look up and to your right and there it will be, right down at the south end, looming over Grassmere, and giving you a cheery thumbs up as you go on your way.   We decided last weekend that today would be the day for it but we didn't realise we'd have a few other firsts too.

As we headed along Windermere we could see the snow on the top of the fells in the distance and got ever more excited as we neared our goal.  Our plan was to wander up Green Burn, scramble up to Gibson Knott then follow the ridge to Helm Crag and then head downwards.  You really should come out walking with us some time, we have such a laugh along the way!  Along our route we viewed Helm Crag from various different directions figuring out the best "thumbs up" angle and decided it's definitely better from a distance. 

As we made our way up Green Burn we noticed a large white wall was moving towards us and the mountains behind were vanishing.  Within a few minutes we were being pounded by a hail shower (Check out the video below.).  Walking into the direction of the wind became very painful and pretty much dictated our route up Gibson Knott.  The shower soon turned into snow and left a light dusting all around us - very festive, almost as if the weather was waiting until December before turning on all the Christmassy stuff.

The walk itself was pretty uneventful but as it was our first time out in these conditions it was an opportunity to learn.  If you're an old hand at this sort of stuff then you'll probably laugh at what I'm about to say, but cast your minds back to the fist time you were out in winter and try not to be too harsh.

Firstly I learned that I need a pair of waterproof overgloves as my wonderfully warm gloves became an icey cold block of sogginess pretty darned quickly, not helped by the fact that I have a rubbish sense of balance so have to hold on to stuff a lot.  I also learned that I need more hot drinks and less cold squash and lunch breaks in these conditions require you to be able to neck a sarnie in 60 seconds flat - without getting hiccups.  My boots, as ever, did an amazing job keeping my feet dry and toasty and the gaffa tape on my waterproof trousers thankfully stayed put.

Another wall of white approaching!
I think I've also finally realised what bothers me about the sanitised routes up the fells, they encourage idiots to head upwards with the mistaken idea that the entire Lake District is laid out the same way.  We went down via White Crag, a route that has had rock "steps" laid in because, I'm assuming, it's a popular route from Grasmere.  We found the steps a welcome addition but passed a few people heading upwards who, in our opinion, were ill equipped to deal with even such a small fell as Helm Crag.  Most notably we passed two men chaperoning 2 teenage boys.  Their showerproof macs were no match for pretty vicious hail showers we were getting, they had a small pack but no map or compass and, we overheard them say, were "hoping they'd find a path down the other side and back to the hostel."  Hoping?  HOPING?  And they were in charge of teenagers? 

I reckon Mountain Rescue should have a sliding scale of charges based on the idiocy of the people they have to rescue.  Or maybe we should introduce a points system like we do for driving licences?  Anyone caught on Helvellyn in flipflops will, of course, face an immediate lifetime ban. Those without a proper map and compass (or GPRS) should be given 9 points and immediate disqualification unless they attend an orientation class.  If they are caught a second time they should be released
on top of Scafell Pike in the mist and promised a beer, pizza and a hot bath if/ when they make it down in one piece.  Should sharpen the mind a little.

A very festive dusting of snow.
Anyway, we made it back to the car a little colder and soggier than when we set off but sporting a lovely rosy glow.  We know we still have a lot to learn about the fells in winter, but we've got some sensible routes in mind and promise to take it steady.  And no, we won't now be calling it by its proper name, it always has been and always will be Thumbs Up mountain to us.