W3C The Snow Covered Fell MEMORIES


The crunch of my boots on the frozen snow was more audible the higher up the fell I climbed. I'd long since left the snow covered village behind with its snowmen and the shouts of children sledging had faded into nothing, I still could see them however, brightly coloured against the white background. My track ascended the fell snaking slowly upwards between the two walls and into a small wood through the gate encrusted with wind blown snow. Nothing stirred in this quiet world, usually there were birds and red squirrels but in the sub zero temperatures they had all gone and all that was left to see were deer tracks in the snow, not recent but still visible on the frozen surface, you could see the deer had stood for quite a while no doubt seeking shelter in the trees from the cutting icy wind. Although there were deer in the area and always had been it was unusual to see them or traces of them, but this winter was harsh, not quite as bad as some years previous when the deer had been driven onto the streets of Ambleside to huddle under the street lights seeking food and some warmth from the biting cold.

Today there was a cloudless blue sky and bright sunshine. The sun's reflection off the snow was beginning to sting my eyes but I knew nothing of snow blindness in those days and gave it no thought, just occasionally rubbing my eyes with a gloved hand.

As far as I could see the horizon was white, with dark patches of rock standing out; the snow line was very low that year with many of the low fells enveloped in a white shroud. Sunlight reflected off Morcambe Bay and as I gained height, occasionally Coniston Lake and Esthwaite Water, depending on your position relative to them. The snow had been here weeks but yesterday more had fallen, which got heavier as the late afternoon's sun dropped behind the Western Fells and the temperature dropped. A hard frost overnight had consolidated things.

I'd stood in the late evening on my way to the pub watching the snow, huge flakes slowly falling, the fells surrounding the village long since lost to view. Once in the pub I'd agreed to go on the hill the next day with a friend but he had succumbed to the inevitable hangover and his white face at the window when I called for him told me that I would be going on my own.

So there I was above a thousand feet on a beautiful day, my breath leaving large plumes behind me as I gained height, beads of sweat dripped off my nose with the effort of the snowy climb. The clothing I wore whilst keeping me warm was also drawing moisture from my body and inside my shirt was wet with sweat.

I crossed the old packhorse bridge taking great care on its frozen surface, no rail to catch me if I slipped and my landing in the ice-covered beck would be a cold one. I slowly climbed the hill to the base of the rock step which forms the start of the route known to many as The Fairfield Horseshoe, old Wainwright described it along the lines of "the finest ridge walk in England" and he had a point. It took some time as no one else had been up here and the snow was quite deep in places although a frost in the night had hardened the crust. The short climb up the rock step of Brock Crag was covered with snow and icicles hung from the rock. It was a beautiful sight. I recall it took quite a while to climb this thirty-foot pitch but it was good fun, with careful foot placement essential after you had cleaned the holds and no one to help if you slipped and fell.

Beside me the wall kept me company as we ascended the fell, built hundreds of years ago one summer apparently to mark the boundary between two Norman deer parks and stop the straying of stock; it had withstood many days like this, although a slight lean showed that perhaps the foundations were not as good as they might have been after all their years of battering by the wind.

I passed a small clump of pine trees on the other side of the wall. I'd once stood on the wall top here as a hunted fox came down the fell towards me, that day I was wearing a full waterproof suit I had been given, bright orange in colour. The fox must have seen me as initially it was the same height as me and about fifty yards away, but it was either colour blind or perceived me to be no threat as it crossed the wall about ten feet from me, so close that I could smell the strange fox like smell best described as a musky urine that they give off.

Today there were no foxes in view but a little further up the track prints in the snow of an uncertain age. I followed them and it became clear that a fox had stalked a mountain hare for a short distance. The hare must have been alerted to the presence of the fox as its tracks suddenly showed an increase in speed followed by the fox for a short distance before they separated as the fox gave up.

I returned to the path and continued my ascent, moving slowly on the fairly steep slippery surface. I didn't have an ice axe, they cost money so care was needed and certainly would be on the descent. The wall continued on my left providing some shelter from a gradually increasing wind blowing from the west. Particles of snow lifted off the surface and carried by the wind stung my face and I pulled my woollen cap down to shield my left cheek from the needle like pain.

Suddenly I was at the top, only a pile of stones denotes the summit, there is no trig point here. The snow was banked against the wall quite deeply, blown here by a previously strong wind from the east, the pile of stones almost covered but I knew where they were. I sat down and opened my ruc sack, taking out a flask. A warm drink from a flask always tastes better on the hill than at work.

The view was spectacular, even better than described previously, the angle of the sun bringing into sharp relief the detail as the shadow lengthened. Soon it would be twilight and the sky began to take on that darkened appearance which precedes sunset.

It was starting to turn cold now and the valley bottoms full of shadow. A bright glow in the western sky told before long of the setting of the sun, it was time to go down, after all it was Christmas.

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