Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Helm Crag Horseshoe

9th January 2012

My first Lakeland Walk of 2012 and it was Billy no Mates. Keith rang on the Sunday to say he had flu and couldn't go for a walk. It was if to or not for me but I decided to go with my camera and walking gear and either have a day of photography or if the weather was OK I would go for a walk. There can be no worse feeling than tramping up a fell side in bad weather on your own as no-one tells you to shut up when you complain.

I must admit that it felt a bit strange pulling up for a Bacon Butty at Pete and Dave's caravan on my own. First lay by on the Kendal Road from the M6.

Food for One Please

" Where's your mate then." Asked Dave.

" Got Flu." I replied.

" Soft beggar, I come here everyday even when I am ill." Dave said and I suspect truthfully.

" Where's Pete then." I asked, hoping he might say Pete had flu.

" Gone for some bread." The reply dashing my hopes my hopes of touche

Oh well spam tasted good as I contemplated where to go for the day. The morning was overcast but the promise by the usually nearly always, nearly right weather forecast said it would brighten. Taking this as true which in general Keith and I did to great disappointment I decided to go to Grasmere. I had often thought of doing a horseshoe up from Grasmere up Helm Crag and round to Steel Fell and descending back to the village.

However when I got to Grasmere village it was packed and lack of car parking led me to decide to start the walk elsewhere. I drove out towards Dunmail Raise but found all possible parking places taken. I was contemplating a change of walk when I noticed a turn off for Town Head:  NY332098 and found to my delight that the farmer there allowed parking for £1. It was of course not the planned point to start up Helm Crag but it would avoid the crowds.

Helm Crag is famous for the rock structure on its summit which is called the Lion and the Lamb and from a distance it looks remarkable just like a large Lion crouching over a Lamb. The mountain itself though not huge at 1299 feet is pretty impressive when viewed from Grasmere with its steep sides. It does have another secret that is not obvious at first but take a good look at the lion and lamb and you can see that there is a step down to the north eastern side of the summit. It is as though this side of the mountain has slipped away from the rest of it. Indeed if you stand on Cotra Breast on the far side of the valley of Greenburn Bottom you can actually see the lump of mountain that has slipped. This is due to the ice age and the retreating glacier that once carved out Greenburn Bottom and Dunmail Raise. When the glacier retreated the north eastern side of Helm Crag lost the support of the ice and became unstable. Eventually the weight of the rock on the unstable ground caused a huge piece of the mountain to slip a few metres away from the rest of the summit leaving the step we see today. I doubt very much if humans saw this happen but it must have been pretty spectacular when it did.

Town Head

I got the walking gear on pretty quickly as Helm Crag from this point looks exciting and I was eager to get going. I walked down the lane from the farm as if going to Grasmere but when I reached the bottom of the hill I crossed the bridge over the river and took a footpath right at: NY336092 and then it was back up hill to some cottages where the man made track enters the fellside through a gate. Here a path goes to the right but I went left following a wet and muddy path that followed a stone wall to a little foot bridge over the stream of Green Burn at: NY327094. The path from here climbs very steeply but thankfully in a zig zag up to the col of Bracken Hause between Helm Crag and Gibson Knott.

Climbing Up to Bracken Hause with Town Head Below

I was completely on my own when I reached the col and turned left to climb the slope up to Helm Crag. Looking back Dunmail Raise looked particularly good from this point.

Dunmail raise from Bracken Hause

It wasn't the most difficult climb to the summit of Helm Crag but once there the pinnacle of rock that forms the lion is pretty impressive and, evidence of the huge landslip is easy to make out as shown to the right of the lion in the next photo.

Crouching Lion with Landslip to Right.
Me on Helm Crag notice to my right lower down is the top of the land slipped piece of mountain
This is not exactly the summit of Helm Crag which is at: NY326092 but it is what I would call the top if you felt like standing on the lions head. I knew Keith would not believe me if I did not take evidence of my being here. He would probably accuse me of playing bingo in Ambleside !! Luckily a lady walker appeared and I asked her to take my photo. I don't know how she managed to get my normal jet black hair to look grey !!!

I had to reverse my route now back to Bracken Hause but then carried on up along the obvious ridge to Gibson Knott. It was a rocky undulating path and not the most pleasant as avoiding trips and slips was paramount and deflected a little from what was a nice ridge. The summit of Gibson Knot was hardly spectacular in itself just a simple pile of stones and a little plaque someone else had left. It was a Man Friday moment as I thought I was the only one to tread this way having seen no-one since the lady photographer.

People have gone this way before

Still when I looked back towards Helm Crag the view down Far Easedale was significantly better than the pile of stones.

Far Easedale
Grasmere glinted in the afternoon sun. It was either the lake or the glint of a few hundred car windscreens. How it could be so lonely on Gibson Knott, and looking around the other fells I could see no other walkers, made me wonder where all the car people went for the day. However my selfish streak made me glad they were not here with me. However I could no decry the beauty of the scene laid before me and decided this would be a nice place to eat lunch. As the occasion decreed I had to follow the dress code in this natural restaurant on a January afternoon and was soon ensconced in a fleece, followed by a heavy waterproof jacket, scarf and hat. Cool was not the fashionable aim, cool was the weather or bluntly should I say it was freezing.

It is amazing how quick Lake District walking can make you eat. Even in summer when long warm days allow relaxation and time to dine, after a couple of mountains under your feet you are ravenous. In winter speed eating is more of a quick way of refuelling and getting back on your feet as fast as possible.

The warmer clothes stayed on for the rest of the walk as the temperature followed the sun in going down.

I wanted to get onto Steel Fell before it got too late and I reckoned a couple of hours at the most would have me descending in the dark. Therefore I pushed on a  faster pace along the still rocky path above Moment Crag and onto Pike of Carrs: NY307103. I left the path at Calf Crag: NY303104 and contoured  the very boggy head of the Greenburn Bottom valley heading North East to pick up a wire fence that leads up to the summit of Steel Fell.

The bogs were the usual Lakeland high fell affair. It is an often asked question when non walkers look up a mountain and ask why big streams cut their way down from what looks like dry grassy ground.

"Where does all the water come from?"

It is sometime assumed that there must be a tarn or lake that feeds the tumbling torrent. In actual fact the ground that falls away from the tops into the stream heads is usually one big natural sponge holding millions of gallons of rain water. From this sponge rivulets of water seep out into watercourses eventually forming streams. Sometimes after really heavy rain the ground can hold no more and over   saturated it releases so much water that it forms spectacular waterfalls that crash down the steeper slopes.

This spongy ground is fantastic fell walking terrain in summer when its springy dry surface makes it easy going on the knees. On the damp January day I chose it is a lot different and it isn't too hard to find a calf deep peaty bog. The gore tex gaiters certainly earned their corn and I reached the fence very muddy legs but with very dry feet. Having waterproof boots is an advantage but without gaiters on this type of ground they can be an uncomfortable liability. The old saying that waterproof boots that keep water out are also brilliant at keeping it in if you should get in boot filling bog. Our cast iron stove at home has dried many a pair over the years.

The wire fence in bad weather is  a good guide to the summit but on a good day it also forms a barrier to the stunning views North along Thirlmere and into Wythburn it is worth crossing it to see these.

Wythburn Valley and Thirlemere from Steel Fell
Steel Fells Eastern aspect is also stunning. The wire fence turns North East from the summit then plunges straight down the very steep fell side to the road in Dunmail Raise.

Here usually in June brave fell runners doing the Bob Graham Round can be seen descending Steel Fell via this fence line to the applause of gathered team mates and supporters. Here by the road is fresh clothes, warm food and chance to rest for a few minutes. It is in most cases a long time since these lads and ladies have left Keswick at first light. They have run over the North Western fells of Robinson and Dale Head crossed Honister Pass and as well as other fells have scaled the giants above Wasdale of Great Gable and Scafell before running over more fells to this point by the road at Dunmail raise. Now usually as dusk approaches they set off to another warm round of applause to scale even more fells including the Eastern giants of the Helvellyn range and the Northern giants of Blencathra and Skiddaw. In all they will have run 42 peaks and around 63 miles and  around 27,000 ft of ascent and descent in under 24 hours. This is the anti clockwise way of doing the round and some do it the clockwise but whatever Dunmail Raise has a warm spot in anyones heart who has been involved in this magnificent achievement.

I have been involved in a couple of legs of the Bob Graham round helping John Serjeant one year and Phil Taylor the next both fell runners like me are members of Clayton le Moors Harriers. On both occasions I was the donkey. Let me explain how it works.

The person attempting the round runs all the way. He or she are there just to concentrate on the feat and to do this they are accompianed by a small team of fellow runners. These consist of a top rate navigator who makes sure the attemptee is guided correctly and saftely along the route. The other invaluable member of the team is the  donkey whose job it is to carry in a rucksack all the extra clothing for bad weather and food, and drinks that the attemptee may need. These two people generally do a leg say from Keswick to Honister Pass with the attemptee then hand over to another team who take over to Wasdale, then another team takes over to Dunmail Raise and this is repeated at Threlkeld and onto the finish at Keswick. There may be more runners in a team but the navigator and donkey are the key members.

The summit of Steel Fell: NY 399111 is marked by a pile of rocks and is special. Walk a bit to the East and grab the view with all your senses.

Steel Fell Summit
If you are a Bob Graham runner most of what you see in front of you with the exception of St Sunday Crag you have either to run up or run down. Then look North at Helvellyn, Blencathra, Great Calva and Skiddaw and realise these have been run or are yet to be run dependant on the way round.

 If you are a humble walker take in what these runners actually do then feel a lot more humble.

The view East

The sun was setting now and the fells lit up in the warm glow of early evening. I had only the long steep descent down Cotra Breast to negotiate and on a day like this even my stiff legs felt good.

Looking down Cotra Breast with Helm Crag on the right and far distant Windermere

I had been suffering from a sore knee for a while due to I later found out to be some worn out fell running shoes. As I descended I did what all walkers and runners have done and let my mind drift to the view instead of looking where I was going. All of a sudden I stepped onto a steep bit of wet grass and my left leg slipped from under me. I avoided falling but in doing so put all my weight including a full rucksack fully on my right knee. I swear I could feel the bones grind together and I suspect people in the pubs and cafes of Grasmere heard my scream of pain and quite a few expletives. I had to sit down while the pain eased a little but it was still very sore. Being a photographer I have a monopod, a single leg camera support that is strapped to the side of my rucksack. This is very strong and extendable so I converted it into a walking stick and hobbled the rest of the way down the fell to the cottages where hours before I had entered the fellside. It was then another hobble on tarmac to the car in now what was nearly darkness. It goes to show that its the simple slips and falls that could turn nasty. If you are on a crag or you know it could be dodgy you are aware of danger and concentrate. When you are doing what I did and daydreaming on a simple descent thats when problems can arise. It took almost an hour to get down from where I slipped. I had all the gear for a problem with extra clothes, torch, whistle, map and compass but if I slipped at the back of Calf Crag with no-one around it would have been serious.

Steel Fell and Town Head

I was truly tired by the time I got to the car and glad the day was over but it was and is a cracking walk and I will return with my flu ridden mate to do it again. The knee is fine now after investing in a new pair of fell running shoes and giving it some rest. I did enjoy the beer anaesthetic when I got home though. Dr Marston makes some grand medicine!!!!!!

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