Walk Date – 17th January 2019
Distance – 9 miles
Weather – dry and sunny, a very cold north westerly wind
After a very cold night another fine weather day dawned, in anticipation of which we had planned to walk up Steel Fell at the southern end of Thirlmere. There were some dire warnings of very strong winds in the forecast so we had a Plan B just in case but, although the wind was very cold, it wasn’t quite strong enough to adopt Plan B or to give us too many problems once we started climbing the north ridge. It was a difficult day for photography though, buffeted by the wind, the chill factor of which kept the temperature well down in the minus end of the scale and my hands in their gloves, and the very strong sunlight to the south of us ruled out any hope of taking any shots of the views in that direction, so there aren’t quite as many photos as usual. Despite all that we were well wrapped up in several layers of clothing, which kept the heat in and the wind chill at bay, and consequently had a very enjoyable day.
Steel End – North Ridge – Steel Fell – Calf Crag – Brownrigg Moss – Greenup Edge – Ullscarf – Black Knott – Castle Crag – Nab Crags – Steel End
We parked in the United Utilities car park at Steel End where we had another freebie parking day as the ticket machine had developed some ailment or other and was refusing to accept our coins. Hats on, gloves on, packs on and walking poles at the ready we set off walking back along the road towards the start of the footpath close to West Head Farm taking a look along Wyth Burn and the very chilly looking valley through which it flows. Its a nice sunny day but very cold which the bright sunshine is doing nothing to alleviate.
A glimpse through the trees on our left of the snow capped lower slopes of the Helvellyn range. There has been a light fall of snow over the fells during the night and, although it wasn’t much, it felt that winter had finally arrived as we gazed at the snow dusting the fells ahead of us while we drove westward along the A66. Everything looked pristine and decidedly wintry in the clear, cold air.
We turn up the track alongside the farm, passing a group of workmen who were having their morning tea break as they huddled inside their wagon. It was parked beside the farm buildings so work of some kind looked to be taking place there. Through the misted up windows of the cab we could see that they had raised their mugs and were giving us cheery waves as we passed by. A little further along we branch off the narrow tarmac lane, which continues on over to the lay-by on Dunmail Raise on the A591, and begin our ascent on the north ridge of Steel Fell. With the ground frozen solid the path is firm underfoot, which is all to the good because this is a very steep climb, although at the moment it looks anything but. AW described this route as ‘A straightforward trudge up a grassy slope that lacks items of interest. Excuses for halting are justified by the splendid retrospect of Thirlmere.’ He’s not wrong on either point.
With a little height gained we stop at the boulder for a look back towards West Head Farm and along Thirlmere. Beside the wall running across the shot from left to right, just above the boulder, a zoom in will reveal the point at which we left the little tarmac lane to follow the grass path up here.
We are now climbing the very steepest section of the ridge and, as usual, I am very overheated so we have another pause for a breather and a look back. Despite being very hot I’m reluctant to remove my jacket in such a cold wind so I unzipped it and the fleece layer underneath as far as possible just to let a little of the heat out. The boulder in the previous shot can just be seen in the very bottom right hand corner of this one so we haven’t travelled a huge distance but the view clearly shows how much height we have gained. From the gps data we worked out, very approximately, that the gradient is somewhere about 1 in 4 or 1 in 5. Whatever the gradient is, my legs are now telling me that it is severely steep.
Along the way and another pause, this time for this close up shot of Dollywaggon Pike above Birkside Gill, I got to wondering if the gill was just as steep.
Thankfully the steepness isn’t too prolonged and from the top of the steepest part of the climb, somewhere around the 485m mark on the route map, we pause for breath once more and turn around to take in the fabulous view. West Head Farm is reduced to microscopic proportions, Wyth Burn, now a thin ribbon, is snaking its way into Thirlmere, with almost the full length of the reservoir on view, and on the skyline are the snow topped fells of Skiddaw, on the left, and Blencathra on the right. A wonderful sight and well worth the toil to achieve it. It’ll be something lovely to look back on when I’m old and decrepit and my climbing days are over, which will probably be the day after tomorrow the way my legs are feeling right this minute.
A close up of Thirlmere, the surface of which is being roughed up by the wind so you can imagine what things were like up here. The dusting of snow on Blencathra is plain to see while Lonscale Fell on the far left has very little. Great Calva, between the two of them, has none at all by the looks of it.
A little more snow seems to have landed on Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon Pike directly to the east of us.
Over to the west of us, across the Wyth Burn valley are Nab Crags and beyond them the grassy slopes rise up to Ullscarf. That’s the route of our return later on.
Its clear from the shot that the gradient has eased quite considerably so we are walking much more comfortably now as we carry on across to the summit of Steel Fell, although there is still quite a way to go before it is reached. Over to our right and across the middle foreground is the knobbly ridge we’ll cross when we make our way over to Calf Crag. Above that on the centre skyline is the summit of High Raise, the Langdale one that is.
In the deep shade, below Ullscarf’s ridge of crags, the white waters of Wyth Burn can be seen. The flatter area in the sunlight just above Wyth Burn is the very wet area of Brownrigg Moss.
A look back to show the dramatic change in gradient once you are beyond the top of the very steep climb ……
….. with another pause, not for a breather this time since breathing returned to normal a while back, but simply to gaze across towards the Helvellyn range and enjoy the view.
We drop down from the crest of a small rise to the stile with the summit of Steel Fell still some way off in the distance. The stile is wobbly and the grab post is broken but its manageable with care.
J gazes down to Grasmere while I take this shot of Seat Sandal with Fairfield and Great Rigg on either side behind it. There was absolutely no chance of a shot any further to my right for obvious reasons.
Looking back at the stile and the small rise we had descended to reach it. The snow capped Helvellyn group still looking grand against the blue of the sky.
Across the stile now and, before we begin to follow the fence over the undulating ridge, a look back across the frozen tarns to Dollywaggon Pike, on the left, and Seat Sandal on the right. Fairfield is just beginning to appear behind Seat Sandal.
The crossing between the stile and Steel Fell can often be very squelchy but not so today. All the usual mushy areas were hard frozen which avoided the need for wide detours to avoid them. Some of the deeper ones we avoided just to be on the safe side though, sinking through the ice with freezing water enveloping the boot tops would be very unpleasant.
At the end of the crossing we reach the first cairn, a few yards to the east of the summit cairn.
I had just finished taking this view northwards from the cairn when a solo male walker, nonchalantly crunching on what must have been a very cold apple, approached us from the direction of the south-east ridge. From the south of England, judging by his accent, and he stopped for a chat. He told us that his wife had stayed behind in their hotel in Grasmere, and that he intended to descend Steel Fell and then cross the A591 and climb Seat Sandal before returning to Grasmere. He was thinking about going up Raise Beck and asked us about the route. As we looked at it, across from us, it was clearly in deep shade and so would probably be quite a chilly and icy climb, if he didn’t mind those conditions. Alternatively another option would be to leave the beck path after a while and take the steeper route up the western flank where he would at least be climbing in sunlight. He decided he’d make his decision when he got across there so we chatted on and during the conversation he mentioned that he didn’t mind steep climbs but his knees definitely did not like steep descents. Having just told us that he then asked us about the way down off Steel Fell, pointing to the way we had just walked, so we told him what it was like. I couldn’t help but wonder, for the rest of our walk, about how his knees would cope with the very steep descent and whether they would recover sufficiently for the ascent of Seat Sandal.
J, snug as a bug in a rug, at the cairn with rucksack straps flying every which way in the wind.
The solo walker has headed over for his descent while I take a look at his proposed next fell of Seat Sandal over to the left of the shot, with Fairfield, Great Rigg and Heron Pike forming the skyline behind it.
Another look across to Seat Sandal with its steep western flank in the sun with Raise Beck is in deep shadow to the left of it. I wondered which route he would finally decide on when he got over there. Should anyone be thinking of using the western flank route a map of it can be found on our Seat Sandal walk on 30th April 2017. It is very steep.
Steel Fell’s summit cairn is just a few yards to the east of the previous one so we only have a very short stroll across to it. Two chaps arrived, also from the south-east ridge direction, took a couple of photos and then headed across towards Calf Crag. Followed seconds later by a group of three who did exactly the same. No conversations this time just the usual friendly hello exchange.
Its been a bit chilly standing around for a while chatting, so J sets off again while I take just one more shot looking ahead at our route across the knobbly ridge to Calf Crag.
A closer look at Thirlmere and Blencathra as we begin the crossing …..
….. with another stop, in a dip between two of the many knobbly humps across here, for this skyline view of, from left to right, Skiddaw, Lonscale Fell, Great Calva, Knott and Blencathra.
A bird’s eye view, from the top of one of the knobbles this time, of the route ahead. Navigation is straightforward, just follow path beside the fence.
A look back to Steel Fell, on the left, as the path crosses the head of Greenburn high above the watery mush of Greenburn Bottom. Helm Crag and the green fields around Grasmere towards the right of the shot.
This particular section of the route can often be a very wet crossing as the flatness of the area and the preponderance of tarns suggests. No problems today though, it was a straightforward crunch across the frozen ground. The path skirts off to the right around the knobbly hump in the centre although it is of no great height or difficulty if walkers have the time, and the inclination, to clamber across it.
We press on towards two of the larger tarns, both without names, with High Raise over on the left skyline and Greenup Edge over towards the right. Its not quite so windy now that we have the bulk of Ullscarf acting as a wind break for us. Without the wind it was a very nice, sunny tramp across here.
A look back at the Helvellyn range across one of the un-named tarns. Despite the sun constantly shining on them they seem to be hanging on to their winter covering fairly well so its probably quite nippy up there.
We eventually left the path, when it forked left, for the climb up to Calf Crag and here’s a summit view looking towards another un-named tarn in Brownrigg Moss.
The view to the east from Calf Crag summit where Fairfield looks to have a good dusting of snow across its vast summit area. Steel Fell is over to the left and is now a long way behind us so …..
….. I took a close up to show the knobbly nature of the crossing between here and there. Saint Sunday Crag is now more prominent in the gap between Dollywaggon Pike and Seat Sandal.
Looking to the left of the Helvellyn range where Clough Head, Calfhow Pike and Great Dodd are now visible on the skyline.
From Calf Crag summit a view towards the south east across Pike of Carrs towards Gibson Knott and Helm Crag, the return route for most of the walkers we saw up here today, including a couple we have just been talking to who had been following us across the ridge. Well, we didn’t actually speak to the lady of the pair as she seemed intent on getting off the summit without so much as a pause to take a look around. She reached the cairn and simply kept right on going. Her male companion did want to chat, telling us that he had climbed Steel Fell many, many years ago and had always wanted to do so again. They were going as far as Gibson Knott before dropping down into Greenburn and back to their car which was parked in a lay-by on the A591. I got the impression that he would have chatted longer but he kept watching his companion gradually putting distance between them so he said his cheerio and hurried off to catch up with her.
We dropped down off Calf Crag’s windy summit and plonked ourselves in this sunny, and sheltered, little spot just to one side of the path and busied ourselves with a little re-fuelling in the form of soup and sandwiches.
It was only a ten minute or so stop after which we hoisted packs once more and set off towards Brownrigg Moss and the climb up to Greenup Edge. Here’s a look back at Calf Crag just before we began crossing the mire.
I didn’t take any photos whilst we were crossing Brownrigg Moss, it was very, very wet with running water everywhere and I needed to concentrate on where I was putting my feet. It was also very gloomy in the deep and chilly shade so I waited until we were back on a firm footing and then took this look back. A zoom in will reveal four figures on the path below, they were one group despite the large gap between them and we had exchanged greetings with them as they were carefully descending this extremely icy path. Lots of care needed along here as it was quite treacherous in places.
I took to the snowy grass to take another look back and spot the group of four just about to negotiate the very wettest part of the Moss. Its possible to pick them out with a zoom in, standing beside what looks like a path but which is actually a stream running through the soggy bottom.
We left the path up to High Raise, off to the right just below this point, and joined this snowy one to take us over Greenup Edge and on towards Ullscarf. As can be seen there wasn’t a lot of snow lying around over here and what there was seemed to be confined mostly to the path. After the icy ascent from Brownrigg Moss to Greenup Edge we didn’t mind one little bit and quite enjoyed having a non-slip path under our feet again.
The walk over Greenup Edge doesn’t have a lot of interest along the way, in fact AW called it ‘A tedious and dreary walk’, but there are moments when some of the fells to the west come into view. Across the middle foreground is Rosthwaite Fell, behind which is the Grey Knotts/Brandreth ridge and the distinctive form of Fleetwith Pike. Over to the right of the shot is a sunny Dale Head.
The light becomes a little more subdued as a veil of cloud arrives and passes in front of the sun. The skyline becomes less clear but on the far left is Great Gable, the next high point along is Pillar, then comes the High Crag/High Stile/Red Pike ridge with Dale Head over on the extreme right.
AW thought Ullscarf’s summit ‘a cheerless place, even in sunshine’ and in truth it doesn’t have a lot going for it. The top is vast and consequently the views of the surrounding fells are restricted. We’ve been up here a few times now and I’m not certain that we would want to come back, I think we might be just about done with Ullscarf and its lack of delights. Now its time to head back so off we go across the narrow path which is visible just behind the cairn.
The light is quite poor across here now, the veil of cloud has obscured the sun and flattened the light and even if it hadn’t what light is filtering through the cloud is now hidden by the bulk of Ullscarf behind us.
Straight across from us is Steel Fell and on the skyline behind is the Nab Scar to Fairfield ridge. Thanks to the cloud the sparkle has gone from the day. Oh well, at least the wind has gone with it too.
No blue skies over the Helvellyn group either now so I put the camera away for the time being …..
….. but brought it out again for the final shot of the day now we have West Head Farm once again in view. All is quite gloomy now and there’s no rosy orange glow from the west to add a final splash of colour to the eastern fells. Still, the weather has been largely favourable despite the very chilly wind and we’ve enjoyed a good long walk during it, expecting a golden glow as the sun goes down is probably a wish too far, but it would have been nice all the same.