>On Saturday we completed a rare North-South traverse of the Helvellyn massif on ski.
The alarm sounded at 5:30am. It was dark, very dark and cold. This seemed like such a good idea last night, now it just felt very early for a saturday morning. Our aim, to complete a full traverse of the chain of mountains that forms the distinct spine north and south of Helvellyn, a journey from Threlkeld in the north to Dunmail Raise, many miles to the south, a journey where for most of the time we would not drop below 2500ft, that would involve many thousands of feet in ascent and descent and that would be exposed to the elements in its entirety.
It was 6:30am by the time we left the house, there was still no sign of daylight in the eastern skies, and what little moon there was, shone clearly as we made our way through the central fells en-route to Threlkeld, the small village to the east of Keswick that would be our starting point.
We stopped briefly at Dunmail Raise to off-load one car and David, who was off to enjoy a days winter walking. Dan piled into the back of the van with his ski kit and the remaining four of us (Keith, Steph, Dan and myself) headed northwards.
As we arrived in Threlkeld the first signs of daylight were rapidly filling the eastern skyline, it was another 40 minutes before sun-rise. Ski’s out, skins on and we were off, swooshing along the disused railway line. From there we turned southwards, the large hump that forms Clough Head and the northernmost outpost of the Helvellyn spine the first objective of the day.
We were briefly joined by another part of early birds, a group of walkers and to begin with the ground, with the snow compacted by tractor tracks we followed each other upwards but as the snow gradually the snow became deeper we began to pull away.
The first rays of sun were already gracing the summits of Blencathra as we headed upwards, the snow underski dry and powdry, only a hard crust of wind scoured ice giving us anything to distract us. It was stunning, a rare morning, unlike any morning I have ever witnessed on the fells.
It was approaching 9:30 by the time the diminutive summit of Clough Head came into view, a layer of mist clung to its summit, filtering what was left of the suns warmth.
It was cold, no doubt at least 10 below with a brisk breeze. A brief check of the compass, and we were glided down our first brief descent en route to Great Dodd.
As we descended towards Calfhow Pike, a ferocious wind-chill reared westwards. Stopping even briefly was noticeable and so we pushed on on the pull upto Great Dodd. Stopping briefly on the summit (GR343205), the skins were off and we raced down across powdry snow and icy tussocks towards Watsons Dodd before climbing once again towards Stybarrow Dodd.
It was a cold, desolate and wind ravaged climb, desperately trying to shield ones face from the biting wind, looking up all that could be seen were crystals of ice and snow fleeting across the ground.
Looking southwards we could see the Ski Tow, no longer with its slightly eccentric, relic of winters past feel, but buzzing. Skiers and boarders choosing unlimited lines off the summit of Raise, with an endless line of others journeying to join them and an excitement from everyone who was standing on this normally isolated hill-side to watch. Another magic moment that you hoped could be repeated in future winters.
And so we skied down to Sticks Pass before leaving those valiantly clutching downhill skis and their snowboards as we headed off towards Raise (GR343174) and White Side.
After a brief stop for lunch (the four of us huddled into our lightweight mountain shelter) we headed towards Helvellyn Lower Man. Dropping down to the col that skirts the western edge of Brown Cove and for the first and only time, it was time to ditch the ski’s and climb the broad rocky ridge that would lead to the 925m summit of Helvellyn Lower Man.
With ski’s strapped to our packs and the wind accelerating across the ridge, it was an unsteady battle upwards, the ski’s acting like sails to pull you side-ways. It was a battle to keep hands warm in the biting wind, finger tips were becoming numb and climbing in ski mountaineering boots with the lack of ankle flex made everything feel a little unsteady.
But the ridge was shortlived, as were the twisting and ferocious winds. As we pulled onto the summit and the main Helvellyn plateau, it felt like a serene region of the arctic.
From there it was short walk upto the summit of Helvellyn itself. From here it would be largely downhill, a gradual descent across the scoured plateau towards Nethermost Pike.
From here the skins were off again, skirting around the western side of the mountainside above Birk Side we quickly raced across the hillside, carving across icy snow one second and fluffy powder the next, gracing turns I never thought possible in the Lake District as we dropped down across Willie Wife Moor before the short steep descent down to Dunmail Raise.
An unforgettable day.