A Winter SOTA Walk - Part 1

Part 1 - Wednesday 30 December

Between Christmas and New Year I always undertake a multi-night walk across the Lake District. Typically this takes the form of a west-east transect. This year was to be a little different, as I now have a radio license, and since late September I have been part of the SOTA programme. For the past couple of weeks I had been planning a route that would allow me to try and obtain 175 SOTA points over 4-5 nights camping.

The plan was for the XYL to drop me at Dunmail Raise on 30/12/2020, with the four peaks surrounding Grisedale Tarn covered that afternoon and on the following morning. The afternoon of the 31st was to then include Red Screes (G/LD-017), Stony Cove Pike (G/LD-017) and High Street (G/LD-011) (worth 71 points for the seven peaks). With the SOTA tally reset at midnight, the route was to then be reversed covering the same seven peaks on 1/1/2020 and the morning of the 2/1/2021 – ending on Helvellyn (G/LD-003) (totalling 142 across the three days). The final sector of the expedition was to walk home (West Cumbria) via Dale Head (G/LD-020), Robinson (G/LD-021), Grasmoor (G/LD-009) and Melbreak (G/LD-036) (36 points).

As you’ll see, things did not go to plan – but I will back to try the above route next New Year!

The 30/12/2020 turned out to be near the start of a cold spell. The last few years have seen fairly mild weather towards the end of December, so this was already threatening my plan. With snow lying down to about 400-500m elevation, ad further cold/snowy weather forecast it was necessary to carry an ice axe and crampons. Along with the five days of provisions, winter camping kit and radio equipment my pack was rather heavy – probably surpassing the 18kg limit I usually set for myself (I didn’t weight my pack – it would just make it feel heavier). The heavy pack, and significant snow depth at elevation wold slow my pace.

The XYL dropped me just outside Grasmere at midday and I began the climb towards Grisedale Tarn by following wainwrights coast-to-coast route from Mill bridge (NY 336 092), crossing Tongue Gill to ascend on the east side of Great Tongue. The climb path up to Hause Moss became steadily more icy; shortly after crossing the waterfall at (NY 348 110) it became sensible to don crampons, as much of the path was sheet ice. With traction now much improved I was able to stomp up to Hause Gap and admire Grisedale Tarn

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IMAGE Looking back down Tongue Gill

Grisedale Tarn is the legendary resting place of the crown of the kingdom of Cumbria, after the crown was carried there in 945 by soldiers of the last king of Dunmail. This has been a regular camping spot for me over the years, usually whilst undertaking walks across the Lake District – and would now be my home for two nights on this occasion.

Without snow or ice, the route up to Fairfield from Grisedale Hause is an inelegant clamber up scree zig zags – a route that is much quicker in descent than ascent. The addition of snow and ice make the ascent much easier, and I was able to make steady progress. The route is steep in places, and I was starting to feel the weight of my pack a little. The views on the climb were tremendous, with Grisedale valley coming into view, and clear sight across to the Helvellyn range (where I hoped to be that evening).

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IMAGE View across to Grisedale (wih Ullswater peaking-through at the end of the valley)

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IMAGE View down to Grisedale Hause from about a third of the way up. Seat Sandal (G/LD-022) is the mountain on the other side of the hause, Great Gable is visible o the distant horizon.

I was glad when the steep climb started to level off, knowing that I was now almost at the summit. The route to the summit is well waymarked with cairns – a useful guide in foul weather as this summit has a sudden and nasty drop into the aptly named Flinty Grave.

The summit was fairly busy with many walkers arriving from the Ambleside/Grasmere direction. Windermere was clearly visible, as was just about the entirety of the Cumbrian mountains. In these conditions, with snowy peaks all around and wind-swept snow and ice underfoot it felt like the summit of Everest. The cool air had great clarity, with snowy peaks contrasting with the dark green/brown of the valleys. I spent a while picking out peaks I could recognise and admiring the view.

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IMAGE – Busy summit of Fairfield (G/LD-007)

I setup a short distance away from the main summit shelters, against a convenient rock. I was using a Yaesu VX6 and an RH770 clone. My paper log (a Rite in the Rain pad and Uniball power tank pen) were placed atop my pack. I have the SOTA summits loaded into my GPS as Points of Interest, and this proved a useful means to remind myself of the SOTA reference (since the GPS automagically tells me). It was 1339hrs when I called CQ. First to respond was a S2S from @G7KSE on Melbreak (G/LD-036). The audio was a bit odd and I was worried something was wrong with my radio. I was relieved that the following contact (@G6LKB) was clearer. @G7CDA and @G1OHH followed to give me the four contacts (always a relief) and I was soon operating a small pileup. I was glad to speak with @M0NOM who had been on the same summit a few days prior. M0NOM advised me to take care not to fall-off Cofa Pike on the traverse across to St Sunday Crag (G/LD-010). Most of the regular Lakeland SOTA chasers were contacted giving good signal reports from Preston and Liverpool up to Carlisle.

It was soon time to pack-up and head across to St Sunday Crag (G/LD-010). I made a mistake at this point: I carry two RH770 antennas with me (the clones have a reputation for fragility), one is an SMA the other is BNC+SMA adapter. The antennas are each stored inside offcuts of electrical conduit. The BNC antenna had fallen into the snow and, with the white conduit camouflaged against the snow, was left behind. I plan to attach some brightly covered tape or similar to prevent this in future.

The start of the route down to Deepdale Hause and across to St Sunday Crag was easy to find in the clear conditions. Cofa pike is the crux of the route and there was a choice of three options (judging by the existing tracks) – over the top, or around either side. I chose the path around the east side of the pike. A narrow (30-40cm) path led me around the east side of the crag, with Cawk Cove far below, at the bottom of a steep and icy drop. At the end of the path round the pike a rocky outcrop overhung the path slightly, requiring me to swing out a little to get my pack past – I was very conscious of not wanting to shift my centre of gravity too far over the edge!

Once past the pike the going is straightforward, and a fun climb from Deepdale Hause up to St Sunday Crag (G/LD-010) with a couple of false summits to aim for on the way. This is a really pleasant ridge to walk along – narrow enough to give good views on either side, but plenty of width to be perfectly safe.

Atop the crag the views were magnificent – particularly the view across to Helvellyn and along the ridge from Fairfield to Red Screes.

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IMAGE – View Across to Red Screes

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IMAGE – Ready to Call CQ


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IMAGE – CQ SOTA, CQ SOTA, CQ Summits on the Air!

I powered-on the radio at 1455hrs, with the frequency still tuned to 145.550 (from the previous activation) to immediately hear @MW7LCX on GW/NW/051. I called out S2S and had a very pleasant chat into North Wales, receiving a good signal report. After completing the QSO I moved on to 144.500 and called CQ, with @G0TDM/M responding followed by @G1PIE and @GM4WHA to give the first four chasers.

Eleven contacts were made in total and it was around 1515 when I started packing away ready for the descent back to Deepdale Hause and on to Grisedale Tarn. I wanted to be at the Tarn before sunset.

The decent to the Hause was quick, and the turn-off for Grisedale Tarn is well marked by a cairn (it is mush easier to find the path from the top end, than it is from the tarn end). I started descending, with a group of three climbers ahead of me in front. Well equipped with ropes, acutely angled ice axe heads, and steely expressions of death defying winter climbing endeavours, I imagined the climbers had been on some of the scrambles up Sunday Crag.

Down at the tarn I picked my way across boggy ground, trying to avoid post-holing through the icy crust into the various tributary streams. A look back to St Sunday Crag showed the setting sun causing the summit to glow orange-red.

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IMAGE – Sun set illuminating St Sunday Crag (G/LD-010) (outlet from Grisedale Tarn in the foreground)

The tent was pitched in a favourite spot next to the tarn (slightly elevated from the spot more favoured by other campers) and I sat inside the doorway for a quick snack before the next round. With my food and camping gear now removed from the pack, I was ready for the ascent of Helvellyn).

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IMAGE Tent pitched at Grisedale Tarn

After checking I still had my head torch, spare torch, spare-spare torch, and spare batteries and after re-donning crampons, I started the zig-zag climb up towards Dollywaggon Pike. It was a beautiful still evening with the sun setting over the western Cumbrian Mountains.

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IMAGE – Sunset over Grisedale Tarn (tent somewhere below)

I reached the iron post at the top of the climb, by which point the light had faded and a head torch was required, although the nearly full moon was bright enough to cast a shadow. I started the couple of kilometres to the summit. Of all the 10 point SOTA summits, Helvellyn (G/LD-003) must surely be one of the easiest (unless attempted via Striding Edge) – the path from this point is wide, well trodden, and gentle in gradient with no navigational challenges - although some respect should be held for the cliff faces on the eastern side.

During the walk I was occupied with identifying the various sources of light in the distance – Morecambe Bay windfarm, Windermere, Grasmere and Penrith. Also of note was the tent pitched atop Nethermost Pike – the occupant’s torch causing it to glow with an appealing warmth.

The summit was reached shortly after 1700hrs, the cross-shaped summit shelter was adrift with snow and so I created a space to sit. The compacted snow around the shelter was testament to a busy day on the summit, with myriads of boot prints all around. This was the perfect time of day to be here – with the summit all to myself.

I called CQ SOTA at 1725hrs and was rewarded by a call from @G7CDA followed by @M7DRB, @G0TDM and @G1OHH to give me my first four. All were 59. I made 18 contacts in total with several good conversations interspersing the shorter QSO’s. I tried to articulate to some of the chasers the view that I had, but struggled to do justice. The moon was shrouded in summit mist, but occasionally cleared to reveal an arctic landscape with the lights of numerous Cumbrian settlements visible. It was cold.

I completed the activation at 1740, at began packing away to find the condensation on my RH770 had frozen solid – it really was starting to get a little chill up here. I also noted that I had left my Sawyer water filter screwed to the top of my water bottle. With ice forming in the water bottle it was a surety that the filter had also frozen, and was now rendered permanently useless. For the rest of the trip I would resort to my backup option of chlorine dioxide tablets. This is about the third of fourth time I have made this mistake – but I never seem to learn!

Helvellyn summit can be a dangerous place in icy conditions, as the slope falls away to the NE escarpment in places; indeed, this has been the cause of some tragedies in the past. A mist was clinging to the summit area and I was very aware of the risk of disorientation causing me to set-off towards a much more direct descent than intended. Despite being “sure” of the way to go, I took a compass bearing and double checked – and even then proceeded with some caution.

After descending only 20m from the summit the mist started to clear. A bright torch light heading in my direction turned out to be a fell runner. We exchanged “good evenings”, each wondering why on earth the other was up here at this time. The glowing tent of the Nethermost Pike camper was a useful reference point whilst I was observant not to mistakenly pick up the track down to Birk Side.

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IMAGE – Night time snow and full moon atop the Helvellyn Range

The return leg to Dollywaggon pike passed quickly and I began descending the zig-zags to the tarn – with thoughts of Chicken Curry (rehydrated) for supper. Back at the tent by about 1830,I was pleased to have completed a good mountain day, and looking forward to a good night sleep.

The air temperature was certainly very cold, but also very dry – so it was easier to stay warm than wet days at 5 to 10 degrees warmer. I was plenty warm in my tent, woken only occasionally to the sound of snow sliding down the outer fabric (a couple of inches fell in the night).

Continued in Part 2


Looking forward to part 2. Great adventure!

Great to have a more unusual set of activations to be on the other end of. I love getting out of work at 4pm in the summer and climbing fells in the evening, it can be absolutely magical. A favourite spot was Brant Fell in the evening for a couple of years and I often almost froze to the rock whilst playing radio from there on HF anything up till around midnight.

I’ve done some early and late activations in the winter too, but nothing quite on this scale! I seem to have lost a few things on SOTA activations lately, bright/reflective tape needs to be deployed more on my equipment too!

Regards, Mark. M0NOM

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Great adventure! admirable Matthew!
I’m waiting for part 2…
Tell us which boots you used, I always come back at home with wet feet for only a day in the snow… I need a news bombproof boots!

Is there a trick to seeing the images? I’m just getting broken-image place-holders. (Firefox, MacOS-X)

Edit: Hmmm… Seems Firefox is the culprit. Safari and Chrome both show them just fine…

Amazing, what a great post! Now on to part 2!