We take on the intrepid Lord’s Rake... under snow!
A ll evidence says I’m standing between Scafell and Scafell Pike: the map, my memory of the day, what the people I’m with are saying with their mouths. But this does not look like the Lake District. If you dropped me here, blindfolded from a helicopter, I wouldn’t guess I’m at the foot of the highest mountain in England. Some other country maybe, but not England. Everything is bigger, whiter, more menacing and magical than it ever usually appears.
Photographer Tom, buddy Jack and I had left the Wasdale Head Inn that morning, which is good evidence towards being in the UK. And I know it was the Wasdale Head Inn and not somewhere in Alaska because we have bellies full of eggs and toast and tea, and I walked past a climbing history of the Lake District in faded photographs on the wall en route to breakfast. I’ve seen Wast Water and the distinctive skirts of Kirk Fell, which descend neatly like an old Victorian ballgown, embellished with boulders, scree and lichen. So I was in Britain alright, in winter, at the foot of one of the most familiar and wellwalked mountains in the country.
We set off from Wasdale Head on foot, so again, can’t have gone too far wrong! Climbing the path beside Lingmell Gill, it was cold and grey and the moss at our feet was patched with crystallised snow which had frozen in crisp nubs overnight, or gathered into narrow nooks in the heather. Rock slabs were thinly glazed with ice. Cold ran through the churning stream beside us, seeming to rumble around the stones in the riverbed. It was cold as it frothed
in turbulent flurries, cold in its metallic depths, cold at the clear, still edges.
We climbed steadily upwards, three little figures generating heat in an otherwise frost-hardened landscape. Where the burn divided, we crossed to the right and the path became less clear. The heather was now bundled in snow, its bushy stalks spearing outwards. Our footsteps crunched and slipped and we kept high, above the thin slice of stream, following Brown Tongue above the beck and into the spread of a white corrie.
We stepped into a bowl of snow. Above, the sky was blue. It seemed a perfect, contained little world, a private snowscape and not very English. But from here you could climb to Mickledore and Scafell Pike and see miles of wintry Cumbria, or to Lingmell and see the massif from an outset pedestal. I imagined setting up camp and watching as the snow reflected in starlight. I could have stayed in that rocky, snowy cup, transfixed by the peaks, for hours. After a few stolen moments to pause and gaze, we succumb to the hunger:
We curve towards the southern rim of the corrie, aiming at a corridor leading off above. Just past its entrance stood a giant boulder, the size of a shed, and we huddled around it to add layers and chomp down chocolate. I unwrapped the bar fast, awkwardly jamming my hands back into puffy gloves: it took only seconds for the cold to start chewing at bare skin, and at times we swung our arms in windmills to rush warm blood down to the extremities. I cupped a Thermos lid of coffee and savoured the thread of heat down my throat and into my stomach. Jack and I were giddy,
“IN WINTER LORD’S RAKE LOOKS KINDA MEAN. AND ENTICING.”
laughing, a little nervous about the coming adventure.
Lord’s Rake doubles back from the narrower corrie we had entered, to strike an almost perfectly straight line west onto the rim of Scafell Crag. From there, it’s a gently-graded 120m up to the summit. In summer, this is a pleasant not-quite-scramble up a scree slope. Generally playful and fun but not challenging or dangerous enough to provoke leg-wobbling fear. For 14 years, a huge boulder which had cleaved off the western wall lay wedged across the top of the gully, and brief nervy scrabbles had to be made underneath. Then, in 2016, the boulder fragmented and fell in pieces to the floor and now the danger in summer is limited. In the warm months, Lord’s Rake sees almost daily footfall and attracts hundreds of day walkers of varying preparedness and ability. So many that it has been reclassified by the Visitor Safety in the Countryside Group from ‘wild mountain’ to ‘rugged’ terrain from Easter to October, and is lightly managed for safety. Now though, it’s the cold side of those months, very obviously ‘wild mountain terrain’ and the only management for safety must be undertaken by ourselves. This family-friendly scramble
“THE HARDER AND MORE WINTRY IT BECOMES, THE MORE ENCHANTING IT ALL IS. ”
doesn’t look quite so affable. It looks kinda mean. And enticing.
Tom looks serious – and also kinda mean. Jack and I are chatting, a little intoxicated with the thrill of discovery, beauty and risk but one stern glance straightens us up. I’ve done a winter skills course and had a couple of days out, Jack’s pretty skilled up, with many seasons out in the mountains but has little previous winter mountaineering experience. Though this is a fairly accessible trip for walkers with winter skills – such as the ability to kick steps, familiarity with ice axe and crampons, and enough competence with navigation to be able to correctly direct yourself in a white-out – it is by no means an easy, safe or even very accessible route in these conditions. A slip, some misguided route-finding or a badly placed step could have consequences I don’t want to think about. The only outcome from this walk I’m interested in is an increase in skills, a successful return and enough appetite for a massive dinner. And a bit of elation and fun-having, too.
We kit up: gloves on, ice axes in hand, crampons as yet stashed away, and tromp towards the opening of the Rake. My cheeks burn with the cold. It rears up in front of us, an enclosed white streak, speckled with protruding scree. The sheer black wall to the left is brindled with ice, the boulder barrier to the right layered with snow. I kick a foot in, press down until the snow compacts, then begin to climb.
We zigzag upwards, cloud surrounding
us in soft whiteness and the world reduces to me and two guys steadily working our way through the frozen scree. Tom veers to the left and along a small platform, stops and scrapes snow from the wall. A cross has been carved into it and, neatly, a column of four initials to its left, commemorating the death of four rock climbers nearby in 1903. His point is clear – as relative newbies, Jack and I must take this seriously – and we edge back into the Rake. We climb higher, the gully steepens and the snow deepens – to our knees in places. At one point I plunge my axe into the snow, up to its hilt. I am relishing this. The harder and more wintry it becomes, the more enchanting it all is. Everything warrants investigation.
Especially this heap of boulders. At first the climb was easy and we used our axes only for balance but this bit is trickier. I reach and hook the pick in an ice-filled crack. I want to do this smoothly and elegantly. I take a breath, look up, jam a boot into a short ledge and step up, then topple over the rock with all the elegance of a fish leaving water in a bid for evolution. It’s an awkward clamber but successful anyway and I grin a little self-consciously at the top. Jack, behind me, is much more graceful about the whole thing, and makes it look easy. Never mind, I’m ready for the next obstacle! Unfortunately, that’s it. There’s only a short climb from here to the end of the gully.
The cleft is marked with a rock spire, after which the right barrier vanishes and the snow slopes treacherously downwards. We’ll be traversing the Rake across the open north face. Tom and Jack go ahead and I step tentatively down.
shrieks my scaredy-cat mind. On a clear day, we’d be able to look over Hollow Stones to Lingmell, but in the cloud rolls. It’s just us and Scafell. We carefully step down then stamp a traverse to the foot of a deep drift. I’m more concerned here than I have been at any point today. There’s a long way to fall. But I know how to ice axe arrest, I know how to kick steps and I am definitely concentrating. A little concern is wise but I refuse to let fear get in the way of my fun. Kick-schtick-step-kick-shctick-step, a few repeats is all it takes. The snow is deep and forgiving and we emerge at the top. Almost.
In the barren openness of the west face below the summit, it is cold. The kind of cold that, in a minute of stillness, chills you like you’ve been enfolded in ice cream. So we huddle in the shelter of an overhanging boulder and eat sandwiches, smushing them clumsily in our gloves. Hot drinks sipped and stashed, insulated jackets bundled away, we emerge. The cloud has flakes of snow in it, which catch on our eyelashes and sting our faces. We hunch, Tom orientates the map and compass and the snow makes everything white. Then we set off, sticking closely together. Soon the slope eases, we cut right and the summit is ours.
We’re standing atop the secondhighest fell in England and even though the highest is a direct 1.2km away, it is completely invisible. We’re in a world of snow, a world of cold and a world of wet and we are beaming. This is not the Lake District I’m familiar with, this is not the Scafell I crested in May in bright, warm sunshine and blowing wind. It’s not a place where people ordinarily walk and we haven’t just completed one of the most popular routes in the country. We’ve done something else. The winter has made this different. More threatening, challenging and demanding; more exhilarating, satisfying and beautiful.
We’ll have to go down, the cold, snow and fading light demand it. But I look out into the snow, feel the wondrous isolation of the high peak and tighten the zips on my jacket. We will go down. To the warm pub, pints of ale and plates of pie. But not yet, not quite yet...
Above: Pausing at Hollow Stones – the landscape having changed dramatically from the greener vista way below. Left: Still smiling knee-deep in the cold, white stuff.
Following Lingmell Gill, Wast Water becoming smaller and smaller beyond...
Ice axes prove their worth to help prevent slipping and sliding in these arctic conditions.
Left: Icy beauty is evident all around. Right: “Crisp?” Below: A cheeky slide couldn’t be resisted. Bottom: Scafell summit bagged. Huzzah!