As I look out of the window a few flakes of snow are drifting around, the first real snow flakes this year and the only second lot of snow this winter. Walking in the Peak District National Park when there is snow on the ground is a real joy. Care has to be taken as the weather often changes quickly from a nice winter scene to one of life threatening survival.
I have a friend out on Kinder Scout today, running the Kinder Dozen, a gruelling route up and down the flanks of the plateau. In winter conditions this is one serious undertaking, but well prepared can be a fine way of spending a day out on the high moors.
Some of the best days out walking have been in winter. Back in 2013 I was leading a group of walkers around the White Peak. It snowed heavily in the night, fifteen foot snow drifts were not unusual, so there was no use of the car. We elected to walk from the hotel down in to Dovedale and follow it up to Milldale. We were the first people in the dale. All was white and quiet, and curves. Not a single footprint existed, the land was formed by white billows of snow, obliterating walls and footpaths. It was like walking into Narnia. We all walked without talking, just enjoying the surreal experience.
The picture above was taken a few years ago on Hathersage Moor. When we set out it was just a normal winter day, no snow, but a heavy sky. By mid afternoon it had all changed and as we dropped down from Higger Tor the scene changed to a complete whiteout, unusual in the Peak District. We were heading for the enclosure but that had disappeared. Walking on a bearing we found the walls and then on to Mother Cap. At all times, literally just a few hundred meters away from a road, but we might as well have been in the middle of Bleaklow for all we could see.
Monty and Olly enjoyed it hugely and collected huge great balls of snow on their coats. A day never to forget. Getting out there is what makes the memories.
Hathersage Moor appears on Walk No.5 of Dark Peak Walks published by Cicerone Press
Dark Peak Walks by Paul Besley
Walk No.5 Dark Peak Walks, Peak District National Park
A few years back Alison and I were walking up Cut Gate on a cold autumn day that had a wind cutting in to you with icy strokes. As we approached Mickleden Edge Alison wandered off to have a look at something and I carried on a little then waited for her to catch up. As she approached me she seemed to be walking slowly and a little ungainly. I asked her if she was OK and she said her legs were tired and she had no energy, she said this with a slurring voice. We had not been out that long and the day was dry, but it struck me that she might be suffering from light hypothermia. I got her out of the wind and gave her some hot tea to sip and cake to eat, whilst putting on a few extra layers. I could see the woods around Langsett Ranger Station, it was ridiculous this could be happening, we had hardly walked any distance, Alison had recently run the New York Marathon so was not unfit, but here we were dealing with the effects of wind chill on the human body. Alison recovered quickly and we made our way back to Langsett. It turned out that some medication she had been given had thinned her blood making her more susceptible to cold.
Norah Leary was not so fortunate. The seventeen year old rambler from Sheffield froze to death on Broomhead Moor on the 14th December 1937. A rescue party made up of police, local people and gamekeepers, found her body beneath a 10ft snow drift. The report, above, from the Manchester Guardian on the inquest gives further details. A photo here shows the rescue party bringing the body down Mortimer Road towards Ewden Beck. The clothing on the rescue party would have been very similar to the clothing worn by the ramblers.
A recent rescue of a walker near to the Cut Gate path could have had a very different outcome if Woodhead Mountain Rescue had not found them in time. A day walk in good conditions had turned into a life threatening event in harsh winter conditions with snow and sub zero night time temperatures. Being correctly equipped can make the difference between getting home safe or not at all.
The Dark Peak makes you pay for simple mistakes, especially in winter. The area can be at its most beautiful at this time of year, it can also be at its most brutal. So far the winter has been mild, many of us had wished for better winter conditions, hopefully it will come, for there is nothing better than walking across moorland in snow with a blue sky above.
What on earth has happened to winter. Last weekend I was reclining in several inches of snow waiting to be found by a SARDA dog on their assessment. Driving home from the Chew Valley Sunday lunchtime all you could see was white. People keep posting images on FB of their adventures in Snowdonia, Scotland and the Lakes. Here on the north eastern edge of the Peak District we have had a snap of cold yesterday, now the rain has returned to mush the paths back in to slurry.
The picture above was taken 21st January 2015. That was a real winter, last winter. The snow stayed for ages. I had many adventures in the Peak and a great weekend guiding guests down in Dovedale. We walked in to Dovedale on the Saturday morning and we were the first people there. It was like stepping in to Narnia. Snow muffled sound so we walked along in a sort of funereal procession, all quiet and reverent. The snow blanketed everything, smoothing edges, lots of soft curves. It was deep too. Deep enough for walls to disappear, making navigation over the hills interesting. Take away features and you are left with the contours and nav becomes a whole lot simpler. You had to watch for the drifts of course, some of which were up to fifteen feet deep. Something to remember that weekend.
Now it’s just grey rain, not even cold. Saved a fortune on gas but the electric is higher. A good time to knock off some more of the book, get some more walks written up and the layout sorted.
January 2013 has brought a welcome change in the weather, no more rain day after day, but clear blue skies and higher temperatures. It has made for some good walking and we have enjoyed several fantastic days out. The ground is completely saturated after the almost constant downpours and water sits on the surface in large languid pools. Moorland is particularly testing to navigate through, with the peat groughs the consistency of a semi liquid, once you accidentally step in to a bog there is only one way your foot and leg are going and that’s downwards. Best to make sure you have one foot at least on dry firm land so that you can extricate yourself from the quagmire. In no way is it elegant but at least you will be able to save yourself from the humiliation of being pulled out, sans boots and socks. The other day I went in with both feet, sinking in to my thighs. I had to throw myself forward on to my chest and basically swim across the surface, grunting with effort and a little fear. Anyone looking on would think I was some strange sportsman possibly from Lincolnshire.
They say bad weather is on its way with everyone on Twitter and Facebook who has any interest in the Peak District posting up words of excitement at the thought. We’ve missed out on the snow and have only been able to look longingly at all the photos of the Lake District and Scotland covered in white powdery snow, that have been posted on any number of sites. For some reason we all seem to love walking in the stuff. I think for me the changes that the landscape goes through after a good snowfall is one of the things I like. There is a purity about all that snow with all those curves as it falls across moor and rock like a huge white cotton sheet. There is the quiet as though for a time snow has removed all sound from the world. The only sound that can be heard close by is the crunch squeak of boots moving across the surface. For the first time last year I wore crampons and this gives an amazing feeling of confidence. No longer did I have to walk with a swing of the pelvis and a twist of the foot to gain traction forward. Falling snow is nice to walk in too. But snow driven at high velocity directly in to your face is another challenge altogether. Walking in blizzard conditions, trying to stay upright, trying to navigate and stay on the right track is one which requires skill and a certain mindset, especially if visibility and daylight are almost non-existent.
Of course walking on fresh snow means you are the first human to do so. No one has come this way before you, its Shackleton’s expedition being the first people to see James Caird Island. You are alone and before you, a smooth pristine carpet of white, untouched by human feet, the sense of exploration being heightened by the odd set of prints from some unknown as yet undiscovered animal. The cold, if very cold, burns the cheeks and snow stings when it hits the face. The best days are the ones where the sky is a deep blue and the air positively cracks with the cold. You can see for miles on such days and the quiet just adds to the ethereal sense the world has taken as its mantle. This is the best winter walking, moving along warm but not wet inside, the crampons helping forward motion and the air still, clear and biting.
The first fall of snow in the Peak District National Park found us at the National Trusts Longshaw Estate car park just past the Fox House Inn preparing for a walk up the Burbage valley below Burbage Edge and taking in Higger Tor and Carl Wark. Christmas trees were on sale but sadly there was no discount on the parking for a day at a rate of £4.00. Is that expensive? it sounds expensive for a car park with very few cars in on a winters weekday, but then £4 doesn’t sound a lot. Maybe the spirit of christmas scrooge has become part of me. It was snowing a little as we started to get ready and there was a bit of a cold breeze. I was wearing some new gear so was interested in how it would perform. The Scarpa SL Activ boots which I talked about in the latest gear review. After a session on lacing with Lee at Foothills I was hoping that the boots would have now settled in to my foot shape and I need not worry anymore about heel lift with my left foot. I was also trying my new pair of Paramo Gaiters, along with winter Craghopper trousers, Paramo shirt, Odlo Base layer, Paramo top, Berghaus Windstopper gloves and Marks and Spencer thermal long johns.
I was joined by Alison Counsell from Wapentac and her two Bedlington / Lakeland Cross Terriers, Monty (brown) and Olly (black), who had never seen snow before and were clearly excited at this new environment. After a little struggle getting all the clothes ready, running round the car park after the parking ticket which had blown out of the car, we were ready for the off. It was clear and the snow was holding off as we walked out of the car park and onto the drive that leads away from Longshaw Lodge to the Grindleford Road.
Walking down the drive you look across a pasture, part of the Longshaw Estate, which is separated from the house by a Ha Ha, a victorian landscaping device formed by digging a trench so as to allow an uniterrupted view from one side whilst placing a livestock barrier between the house and pasture. A favourite of su ch landsape designers such as Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown the Ha Ha is quite common in Victorian landscapes and parks. The pasture is also significant in that it is the home to the Longshaw Sheepdog Trials which take place each year. Founded in 1898 the trials are the oldest in the country and there is no nbetter way of spending a relaxing day watching the competitors coaxing the dogs to round up the sheep.If you can also at the same time work out what is happening then you have become, in my mind an expert, as I have yet to understand the marking system or what the different whistles mean. Soon another road is met, this one needing care to cross as this is the main road to Hathersage and the crossing point is not far from a bad left hand 90 degree bend. Take care!! You then find yourself with two options, the high route along the top of Burbage Edge or the low route walking on a well made track below the edge. As the wind was quite strong, there had been gales in Scotland and Northern England that last few days, with much damage and even one death and the skies were looking somewhat ominous I chose the lower route which offered some protection. It also meant that Monty and Olly could be let off the lead without fear of being blown off the edge by a gust of wind and they could explore the new environment and this white stuff that coated everything in safety. The track winds its way up the valley between Burbage Brook and Edge and offers fine views of Carl Wark and Higger Tor to the west. The valley itself is managed by the National Trust and has a covering of heather in which the occasional sheep can be found as well as the grouse. Several paths lead across west but we take the track heading north up the valley.
You are walking in Dark Peak or Gritstone country, you take your pick on the names. The land is identified by hard gritstone rock, peat moorland, heather grouse shoots, bog, groughs and cloughs in permanent shade. Gritstone country is wild and at times dangerous and attracts those who are enlivened by such environments. The gritstone itself dates back to the carboniferous period when the valley formed a basin in a tropical climate. Seas and rivers flowed in to the basin depositing sand and sediment which formed the millstone grit rock we see today. To think that 300+ million years ago we would have been in a tropical setting takes some believing when today it is zero degree temperatures and starting to snow.
It was starting to snow now, with dark clouds hanging low over the landscape. The dogs were enjoying running around the rocks and diving in to snow clad heather, their coats collecting powdery snow which collected in long lines along their backs. Olly the black coat would disappear from view in to the heather then re-appear like a shadow in some horror movie, moving across the heather under the black sky. The walking was easy and we talked about Alisons recent developments with Wapentac. Alison Counsell is a metalsmith of world renowned, how many people do you know who are on permanent exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the top five design museums in the world. A few years back Alison had produced a body of work for an exhibition which included a stainless steel three dimensianal sculpture of an Ordnance Survey map complete with rivers, valleys and contours. This led to a smaller version based on National Parks produced as gifts, they are known as Wapenmaps and a fledgling business was born. The range has expanded now to include maps, lights and botanical sculptures and is being sold in high end shops as well as online. It is nice to be involved with such a business, even on a superficial basis.
The snow was now coming in blustery gusts, interspersed by bright sunshine then moving on to wind, darkening skies and more snow. Passing Burbage Edge I pointed out different climbs and the sometimes anarchic names given to them. The edge is one of the major climbing areas in Britain and is often used for training. On weekends the edge is to found bedecked in colour from ropes, helmets and bodies crawling over every centimeter of it’s surface. Hands and fingers jamming in to crevices, limbs being coaxed and forced in to positions humans were not meant to be got into. Burbage Edge provides climbs for all skills from the easy Byrne’s Crack to hard Equilibrium. The edge is split into areas with names such as Nosferatu, Pebble Mill and the descriptive but innocuous Left End. There are over 600 climbing routes on the edge, enough for anyone and everyone. Today there were no takers, rock and snow and wet not being of particular attractive appeal. Bouldering is also a major pastime in the area and there is bountiful opportunities strewn all across the valley and up towards Higger Tor and Carl Wark. Our track had now led us to the head of the valley, a road blocking the tracks northwards march gave us the chance to try a little danger. So we crossed Burbage Brook tributaries twice to gain the western side of the valley. This was a good test for the Scarpa SL Active boot soles and their adhesion to wet rock. They passed with flying colours and I remained dry, with dignity intact. The Paramo gainters were also performing well and I could detect no build up of heat and moisture so evident in my old less technical gaiters. The dogs were a little reticent at first in crossing the rivers which were in spate, albeit a little one. Eventually they worked out what to do and after the first stream crossing the second was achieved with an air of ease, as though they had been doing it for years and nothing phased them. They have such characters.
We stopped for rest and coffee, taking in the scenery. On the road a man with two youths was pointing to a map and then the landscape. It transpired the youths were to be sent off on an exercise in navigation possibly. They did not look happy. Hands in pockets and heads down they looked as though this was some penance they were having to perform. A sad view, especially from the advantage of age. Cloud was starting to descend now, making visibility poor so we packed up and headed for the summit of Higger Tor. There is a clear path in good visibility that was now shrouded in cloud so we hugged the edge, keeping a few meters inland as it were. The snow was falling harder now, but the ground was still soft so you had to be careful where you put your feet or you could find yourself up to your knees in peat bog. A man we spoke to on the track told us how he had lost his boot by doing just such a thing on the ascent of Higger Tor. We managed to avoid such disasters and soon found ourselves on the summit plateau.
So here is some navigation advice, take it or leave it, to be used in very poor visibility in driving snow. First thing is don’t walk with your head down, trying to avoid the snow. This means you are focussed on your feet and not on what is around you, especially obstacles or worse, nothing at all!! Second, don’t just follow a path, in snow it may not be the path you want or a path at all. Third, keep walking legs short. Stop frequently and study map and compass and uses these to establish your position. Then calculate the next leg. Use pacing to establish how far to walk, compass to establish distance and eyes to discern any identifiable features you can use as handrails and attack points. Fourthly, take your time and do not panic. Stop if you need to and confer with other party members. Fifth and last. Do not attempt short cuts, if you become lost, try and work backwards to a known point or identify a major feature such as a road that you can get access to. Never split the party up. Stay together and stay safe. If visibility is zero and you do not feel confident in navigating find shelter and stay where you are until conditions improve. Do not go beyond your own or the parties limits.
Having said all that, because we were talking I missed our path towards Carl Wark and had to back track when I took my compass out to take a bearing only to realise we were heading north instead of south. I didn’t quite believe it, but chose to put trust in my compass and low and behold it delivered us with pinpoint accuracy combined with some good pacing. Moral. Have faith in your map and compass.
We were now in a whiteout, having to use map and compass to navigate from Higger Tor to Carl Wark a distance of no more than 400m. To anyone who knows the area and I include myself in that group, it seems ridiculous to suggest you would need navigation to walk such a short distance. A few miles from Sheffield, within sight and sound of a road and yet dis-orientation occurred before we knew it and then we were off course. I guess that’s why Mountain Rescue Teams get called out in such circumstances and the person or persons being rescued cannot quite believe they have managed to get themselves into such a situation. All in all a good lesson and I was glad that my map and compass work combined with accurate pacing worked just as they should.
Having reached Carl Wark we lunched whilst watching the whiteout clear and then descend again. Carl Wark is a Iron Age hill fort on a millstone grit outcrop amongst the moorland of the Burbage valley. A sign erected there tells us that the fort was built around 2500BC. That’s some time ago and there is still a wall there built out of gritstone blocks the size of a small garden shed. It’s not certain whether or not people lived here or were stationed here in times of trouble. Inside the wall is a an area strewn with boulders so living quarters would have been haphazard to say the least. It does have commanding views, when there is no whiteout, across the valley and down towards Grindleford. Any enemy approaching the fort would have been seen long before they arrived, which must have made attack difficult.
We descended from the fort and worked our way back over to the track we first walked up in the morning. Along the way we crossed back over Burbage Brook, Monty making it whilst Olly took an early bath, which to his credit he took in his stride. The snow was closing in now and traffic was having trouble getting up a moderate hill past Fox House Inn towards Sheffield. Once over the brow of the hill Sheffield came in to view. There was no snow on the road, no abandoned vehicles, no sliding cars. Such is the vagries of the weather in the Peak District.
Here is the thing that astonishes me. People were here in 2500BC that’s 4500 years ago and they have left an imprint on the landscape that we see today. I have walked where Iron Age man has walked, fought, eaten, slept. Based on four score years and ten, i.e seventy years of life and I know we are told that iron age man did not live to that ripe old age, then there are just 64 generations between me and the people who built this fort. There are five generations in my family now. That is the amazing thing about walking through this landscape we call Britain. We walk where others have and will walk. We are merely a spec of time upon time.