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Lessons Learned from a Freezing Winter Camping Trip

A winter adventure in the Lake District.

By: Richard Smith + Save to a List

Everyone loves a good story. Spending time in the outdoors, you hear a lot of stories. They’re the fuel that keeps us going back out there, the tall tales at the pub afterwards, slowly becoming taller as time passes and the minor details become blurred. The trips that give us these stories are the ones we remember the most, the ones where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Failure is a key ingredient to our growth as individuals.

Four years ago, I was just starting off on my journey into the outdoors. Inspired by a new move in my life, I had discovered the mountains and I was hooked. Only a couple of hours drive from my hometown in the northeast lies the Lake District National Park. It sits just off the northwest coast, an hour or so's drive from the border of Scotland. My first year living in the Borrowdale Valley in the Lake District was magic. For me, Borrowdale is the heart of the national park, quieter than the bustle of the south lakes and the home to some of the best trad rock climbing in the country. I soon discovered climbing and walking and I found a sense of belonging in the lakes that I never thought I’d have. Winter came and for the first time I saw the fells covered in snow. The rock faces transformed into alpine like playgrounds, they filled my head with the possibilities that lay on my doorstep. The only trouble was that I didn’t really know the first thing about winter mountaineering. Nonetheless, my sheer determination drove me out into the hills. I spent any day off I had, driving my 26 year old ford fiesta down to Seathwaite and abandoning it in the cold. It sat there, rusting in the dark. The gaps in the door from an old break-in, stuffed with socks and scarves to keep out the elements. My first idea was to make an attempt on central gully, an impressive scar cut into the middle of the rock face, which at the time looking up, looked like a secret entrance into Mordor itself. 

With a walking axe, a pair of boots meant more for walking to the shop and a set of crampons that were probably around for the first ascent of this route, I set off up the hard snow. Immediately out of breath, I stopped frequently to regather my delirious mind. My heart racing at the real danger with every step higher I took. The motion of my axe as it broke into the snow. The scrape of the pick as it hit off the rock and hooked and pulled me up the gully. My heart raced more and more. Every thought had now left my head as I moved up the snow. Eventually I came to a block in the road. The hard snow now turned into ice and into a steep rock face above me. 

Not deterred, I proceeded to move up the gully. I removed a smaller axe from my bag, a charity shop find. I swung the axe high above me and lodged it solid into the ice. Not believing it was stuck, I swung again and again until I was certain it would stick. Then lifting my right foot, I kicked my crampon into the ice and it stuck. I stood up and repeated the process. Before I could even think about it I was perched on the ice being held on by rusty blunt steel. I came to the top of the ice and could now see the snow start again. Just out of arms reach, I swung my axe trying to lodge it in-between rock to pull myself up. I had nothing, the move up was too exposed for my limited experience and I now had an actual thought for the first time since setting off, "how do I get back down?" Something you would think, that would have come up much sooner. But having the gift of naivety and the delusion that I was about to cruise up my first winter route like some kind of undiscovered climbing god, I had unfortunately not thought it through. 

Slowly and carefully I proceeded to down climb the section of ice. Somehow I reached the bottom of the ice and looked back up the barrier in front of me. Stubborn, I tried again. Three more times, down climbing each time. My pick scratched the rock, looking for a good hold to pull myself up, before I gave in and sat defeated in the snow. I didn’t feel defeated though. Exhilarated, I walked back down to the car as the last of the light started to leave the rock. Back on the ground I told my tale to one of the instructors at work, proud and excited by my adventure. He looked at me worryingly and looked at the boots I wore to go up (which also just happened to be my boots for everything else). The next day, I came into work and he had brought an old pair of winter boots in for me. They sat in the drying room, a poignant moment. A pair of Scarpa Mantas. With my new boots, I was now unstoppable. Day off after day off I walked up to great end and explored the rock face and the easier shorter gully’s leading to the top, now with the added bonus of warm feet. Each time losing daylight with much more todo, I decided I needed more time on the mountain and bought my first tent.

I convinced my friend from home to join me on an overnight camp and ascend one of the gullies. Filled with as much blind excitement as me, a few days later he got the train from Newcastle and I picked him up from the station. We pulled up in Seathwaite, the only car in the car park. The rain was pouring onto the windscreen.This was the first sign to turn back. We finished the last bits of packing and got our borrowed water proofs on awkwardly inside the car. We trudged up the valley in the rain until eventually it turned to snow. Being early days I didn’t even really know what a dry bag was, never mind owned one. By the time we got to Seathwaite, my bag was 3 times as heavy. We set up my new tent and threw our bags inside. Having planned on getting a route in that night we walked up to the foot of the face, battered by the wind and snow, we ran back to the tent to try again in the morning. Once inside, I pulled out my sleeping bag and warm clothes to get ready for the night ahead, but without any dry bags everything was soaking wet. Exhausted we lay in the tent, too tired and cold to cook or even have a brew, we thought sleep would be the best answer.

Through the night the temperature dropped and the wind grew stronger. We lay and listened as gusts swept down the valley from Esk Hause, picking up speed, getting louder and louder until it hit us like a truck, smashing into the frame of my cheap summer tent. The wind became constant, ear shatteringly loud as it shook the tent. The slushy snow under the tent came in through the thin ground sheet and onto our roll mats and sleeping bags. The tent froze from the outside in. I lay shivering, soaked. Looking back now, knowing I was in the early stages of hyperthermia, trying to sleep through the chaos outside.Steve had been on some crazy trips hitching around Europe and America and had slept in some pretty unforgiving places. Earlier in the day in sight of all of the snow he told me about one of his worst nights, traveling through Zakopone in the winter and not finding anywhere to camp. He set up his tent by the side of the road in the snow and nearly froze to death. Now, in our tent, under the shadow of great end the wind attacked us. A huge gust howled down the valley and hit the tent snapping one of the main poles in half, the side of the frozen tent collapsed onto us. He turned to me and said, ‘Rich, this is worse than Zakopone’. We both laughed deliriously, the movement bringing warmth to our freezing bodies.

I woke, after what was probably the sum of about an hours sleep, to silence. Amazed at what my body could withstand. The tent now illuminated from the light outside, I sat up and shuffled to the end of the tent to poke my head through the frozen fly sheet outside. The sky was clear and perfectly still. The sun was rising just behind the mountains, at any moment about to appear and warm the tent and us inside of it. Astonished at the change in weather I pulled on my boots and stumbled outside, half wearing them trying my best to warm my hands and feet. Steve soon followed and we both stood in awe at the snow-capped mountains surrounding us. Having decided through the night that getting down was all that mattered, the sun and the promise of a clear day now swayed our minds. The sun crept over the hills to the east and we basked in its warmth. Thawing socks, gloves and anything else wet on the top of the tent. After several cups of tea and breakfast we set off up to the face to climb. The day was perfect, made better by the nightmare it had followed. Heading backdown later that afternoon I swore to myself I would never go into the mountains so ill-prepared again.

Though a harrowing experience at the time, that night is one of my fondest memories out on the hill. It was a baptism of snow and ice and winter mountaineering and a huge tick list of what not to do for next time. Knowing what I do now, many problems could have been avoided in those early days, but I didn’t. Those mistakes were essential to help me on my way and a huge influence on my decision to be more responsible and knowledgeable out on the hill. So as far as tall tales go, this one’s as close as it gets to the truth. It might change after a few pints of cocker hoop, the wind become stronger, the night become colder. But that’s what these tales are for, to inspire us to get back out. After all, these tales don’t write themselves you know.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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