Grizedale tarn

It’s been unseasonably cold for over a week. Temperatures have been plummeting to -10 C overnight and barely touching freezing during the short December days.

We are heading for Skiddaw. A thaw is forecast for tomorrow and the mountains beckon us to make the most of today. Crampons and ice axes at the ready, we need a mountain with gentle snowy slopes with a minimum of rocks protruding from the ice to blunt our crampons.

The warning of inclement weather and snow flurries has kept many other drivers away from the icy Dunmail raise. The car does a slightly alarming slither as I gingerly apply the brakes as the road slopes down. “Oh, did you feel that?” More snow showers are forecast as the day goes on. What if we can’t get home? It’s still a fair way to Skiddaw, and Helvellyn is right here. Plus, I’m less familiar with Skiddaw but I could find my swimming venue on the way down from Helvellyn with my eyes closed (or at least in thick cloud). I won’t mention it to Steve yet but I’m already fantasising about my swim in Grizedale tarn.

Okay, change of plan, turn around at the bottom of the hill, carefully drive back over the pass and park by the AA telephone box. From this iconic 1950s relic which marks the boundaries if the old counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, it’s downhill all the way back to Ambleside. We normally park right at the top of the raise, but that feels a bit too hairy today, given the snow and ice, and the fact that cars emerge at speed from nowhere over the brow of the hill. I don’t want to cause a pile up. This is safer. Somehow it feels right to park in our own county of Westmorland today rather than chancing a foray into the snowy wastes of Cumberland! The presence, or lack, of snow has been a bit weird on the way here. Natland, to the south of Kendal, resembled a Winter Wonderland, but Ambleside appears to have had no snow at all. Where we park, on the near side of Dunmail raise, is thinly carpeted in snow. This precaution adds less than a kilometre to our usual walk along the forestry track to Wythburn, and our favourite approach to Helvellyn, up through Comb crags, and Birk side. It’s worth a bit of a sweat to gain the height quickly, and the views over Thirlmere are spectacular. That’s funny, looking north there appears to have been far less snow than on the most southerly mountain ranges. It looks as though we made the right choice! We do love to play in the snow.

In the end, we have no need for our crampons as the patches of ice on the engineered path steps can be avoided, and, although the turf is frozen, any coating of snow and ice is relatively thin on the way up. My favourite crampon conditions are solid snow and ice, following several freeze thaw cycles, but we are not yet sufficiently deep into winter for this to be the situation underfoot. I’m prepared for snow showers, but it remains dry throughout. What a bonus!

I’m glad I’ve got my walking poles today, as they do help, both to preserve my knees, to give my arms a bit of a workout, and to stop me from slipping backwards on the snow. I do try occasionally to walk without using poles, as they do not do your core strength any favours. It’s far too easy to rely on them for balance, rather than to right yourself using your stomach muscles. I stop frequently to look behind me and take in the phenomenal view across the whole of the Lake District. The air is crystal clear.

Last week, on the Fairfield horseshoe, we were treated to a spectacular cloud inversion. As we basked in the warm sunshine on the summit of Fairfield, the Coniston range appeared an island in a sea of cotton wool. I could not help but wonder whether we might have to go and live there should sea levels rise! Only from an airplane have I ever seen such extensive cloud from above. As far as the eye could see, magical mountain kingdoms arose from a world muffled in eiderdown.

But back to today. As we gain height, we enter the cloud, and I remark to Steve that the Mountain Weather Information Service was not wrong when it predicted a 20% chance of cloud free summits today. Well, you never know, we may be lucky and be within the lucky 20% when we reach the top. Dream on! Still, we rather like the atmosphere and the silence as we head into the cloud. Everything is white.

For all of about five minutes, we are alone at the Helvellyn summit shelter. I knew it was too good to be true, as we are soon joined by the world and his wife, all clad in brightly coloured Gore-Tex. Several groups have ascended striding edge, fully kitted out in crampons, ice axes at the ready. I oblige one of the groups by taking a group photo at the summit. Would we like them to return the favour? No, thank you, we’ve been up here far too many times and there’s no view!

Which way down? The chest strap on Steve’s rucksack won’t close due to a resident lump of ice, and his fingers are frozen and numb. Mine aren’t quite so bad, and I succeed in thawing his block of ice sufficiently to be able to jam the clip in so that it catches on one side at least. Without it, his rucksack was departing from his back as it slid over his shoulders. Not ideal, especially when you’re walking into the wind! Steve is keen to return the way we came up, but I effect a pout. “Oh, I was kind of hoping that we could go back over Nethermost and Dollywagon Pike?” “Don’t tell me,” says Steve, “you want to go for a swim?” Rolling his eyes. “Er, I was kind of hoping to,” I wheedle. I can already feel the excitement rising in me at the thought! “You know how much I hate that treacherous path down Raise beck from Grizedale tarn,” says Steve. “Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine, there wasn’t much depth of snow on the way up, was there?” “Alright, then,” says Steve, rolling his eyes again.

It’s one of my favourite walks, from the summit of Helvellyn, over Nethermost and Dollywagon pikes, and down to Grizedale tarn. You’re treated to multiple views, looking back over striding edge, cornices of snow in winter, and sharp, rocky outcrops which plummet to the valley below. Today, the snow underfoot is perfect. Powdery, sparkling, and a sheer joy to walk in. It makes that delightful, squeaky sound with every step. The clouds tease us, by giving us glimpses of distant mountains through a diaphanous mist, and eventually oblige us with some of the best views we have ever had on this walk. “Aren’t you glad we came this way?” I grin at Steve, jumping up-and-down with glee. All the words which come to mind to describe the view sound like cliches.

The turf is sufficiently frozen to make the descent to Grizedale Tarn a pleasure rather than a boggy mess, and we’ve done it often enough to know which line to take to avoid the icy engineered steps which zigzag down the mountain. I am sure footed and eager to take the plunge into the water below, so I go galumphing down with a smile on my face, heading to a spot where there are rocks and not too many reeds in the shallows. One of my rules of wild swimming is that it must be as easy as possible for me to enter the water. Rocks are ok, as long as the large ones are outside the water and the ones lining the bottom are as uniform as possible. My other preference is for the lake bed to drop away steeply so that I can launch myself in up to my neck as soon as possible. Trial and error has taught me the best spots for achieving maximum efficiency in entering the water. I hate having to wade in through knee-deep water for any distance at all. Rapid immersion of all but my head is my preferred method of entry. I don’t like to jump in unless I know the spot well as you never quite know what lurks in the depths. My toes need to feel what is beneath them, until I push off out of my depth and kick and smile while I savour the sensation of the cold water.

Today there is no ice to break to enter the water, but I estimate that the water temperature will be about 3 or 4 degrees. There’s lying snow on the bank. The air is hovering around zero, so the water is warmer, haha. You tend not to walk around in your underwear in the air though, and water against the skin causes rapid cooling, so the two aren’t really comparable. Steve arrives and resigns himself to his role as photographer in chief. Ooh, it’s a little breezy. I need to disrobe and get in the water as swiftly as possible. If I hang about, any exposed skin will be rapidly cooled by the wind. I don’t want to waste that toasty feeling of warmth which my body has generated with the ups and downs over the hills. I delve into my rucksack and deftly pull out my shocking pink pack towel (a gift from my sister) in which is wrapped my swimming underwear. I always know where I’ve packed it for maximum swim preparation efficiency. Boots, socks and trousers come off first, as my legs don’t seem to feel the cold so much as my trunk (healthy layer of bioprene and lots of muscles acting like furnaces). I crouch behind my rucksack to achieve minimum skin exposure to the wind. I have a skimpy but decent stretchy bra top which doubles as a bikini which I pull on over all my clothes. It sits at my waist in readiness to be hoicked over my shoulders when I seamlessly transfer out of my sports bra top and my base layer. I have this changing with no towel or dry robe malarkey down to a tee. Having learned from bitter experience (no one likes to put sopping wet clothes back on after a swim), another consideration is preventing my clothes from taking off like three sheets in the wind and joining me in the lake. I stuff them between my boots and my rucksack, making sure they are well wedged in. Lastly, I tuck my glasses into the top of my boot, having learned my lesson another time when I destroyed a pair by stepping on them when I emerged from the water. I knew my gaiters would come in handy – I’m standing on them which gives my feet a chance not to freeze before I enter the water. After immersion, numb feet are part of the territory, but my soles will be less likely to be ripped to shreds on sharp rocks if I can at least feel my feet when I set foot in the water. Hand phone (doubles as camera) to Steve, and in we go. It has become my tradition to make a little video of each of my swims. I rarely post them on social media these days, but I like to have a record of where I’ve been and how it felt. Today there’s no video as I’m in a hurry and Steve is already freezing on the bank. He obliges and takes the photographic evidence.

Feet in, steady, carefully pick my way forwards over the slimy rocks until it’s deep enough to launch myself in and then, SPLASH. Gasp! Control my breathing and then swim 20 strokes breast stroke until I turn around and head for the shore, smiling all the way. “Yea! It’s fresh!”, I shout to Steve. Yep, about 4 degrees, I reckon. I’ve got quite good at estimating the temperature. Below 6 degrees is when you feel your hands and feet turn into lumps of ice almost instantly and your whole body is assaulted with a tingling feeling like tendrils of ice trying to penetrate your skin. The heat coming off my muscles fights against it and the exhilaration is what I live for. As I heave myself out of the water I feel warm, although I know that feeling won’t last for long. The tricky bit is to peel off the wet stuff (no one minds here if they see my bum, and anyway, there’s a mist over the lake!), towel off rapidly and put top layers on first. For some reason my ice block hands get stuck half way inside my sleeves, so dressing is rather slower than undressing was. Never mind, at least I’ve still got my gaiters to stand on, even if I can’t feel my feet! I don’t go in for dry robes as they are bulky and not compatible with mountain hikes. Instead, I rely on the fact that I haven’t given my body much opportunity to achieve an after drop as I never stay in long when it’s cold. I find I can generate much more heat if I dress in a hurry, stuff chocolate down my face, and set off up the hill at maximum speed so as to generate as much heat as possible. It inevitably works. When I hike I take my wet underwear off and replace it with dry, but when I run swim I just put my running gear back on over my wet stuff and run on.

Steve has gone on ahead (once he was sure I was safely out of the water) so that I can work extra hard to generate some heat as I catch up with him and I’m grinning from ear to ear. “Thanks for humouring me, love!” He smiles. The path down Raise Beck is icy but manageable without crampons. We are rewarded by waterfalls and icicles all the way down. It wasn’t what we’d planned for today but I think it turned out better than we could have planned.

Safely back at he car we only have to trundle downhill on roads which are no longer icy, as darkness descends. We are warm and feeling festive. Life is good.

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