A winter backpack across the roof of the Pennines

by backpackingbongos

The big plan to backpack the wild West coast of Jura between Christmas and New Year fizzled out with achy joints and fountains of nose juice.  Instead I moped around the house feeling slightly relieved that the weather had turned totally rubbish with day after day of grey skies and fog.  Then suddenly out of the blue there was a forecast of blue skies and frosty nights straight after New Year.  A plan was hatched, I would take this opportunity to camp on the summit of Cross Fell, something that has been on my to do list for a while now.

Luckily I awoke on New Years Day hangover free, the homemade elderflower champagne had done the trick, drunkenness without any pain!  That evening saw the Bongo camped next to Cow Green reservoir for a comfy nights sleep ready for an early morning attack of the hills.  Well that did not work as my iPhone alarm failed to go off pre dawn.  I awoke with a jolt and peered out of the windows at a completely frozen Cow Green with a backdrop of snowy hills against a cold grey sky.

Day 1 – 9.9 miles with 535 metres ascent

Garrigill is the sort of village where I would love to live.  Hidden deep in a fold in the Pennines, cottages huddle around the village green with a good pub at its heart.  Last time I was here the pub had closed down but thankfully it is up and running again.  Leaving the van by the green I was passed by an elderly gentleman in full tweeds and a splendid deerstalker hat.  He assured me that if the clouds lifted I would get a view of both the east and west coasts from the summit of Cross Fell.

I set off up the lane with tweed and hat envy, foregoing the pleasures of the river side path up the River South Tyne as I had set off much later than intended.  However the dead-end lane with no traffic was a pleasure to walk with the moors rising up all around me.  My peace was shattered briefly by a group of scramblers at the road end, the last sign of life for the day as I took the track towards the river’s source.  This is marked by a large sculpture, its plinth giving a good excuse to remove my pack and have a sit down.

Descending slightly into the next valley I entered an empty, bleak world of moor and sky.  This is about as close as you are going to get to wilderness in England, miles and miles of high empty moors.  Signs warn you to stick to the paths and tracks as the area is littered with disused mine shafts, many unfenced and hidden amongst the deep heather.  Crossing the Tees and heading up Trout Beck I came across an amazing sight, icebergs were laying strewn across the partially frozen river.  The temperatures in this high moorland bowl must have been pretty extreme a week or so ago to freeze such a large fast flowing river.  The past few days thaw would have been spectacular as the river tore itself up depositing dinner table sheets of ice high up on the river bank.

Further up a small set of falls had me transfixed with their winter beauty.  It would have been amazing to set up a camera to capture the river freeze and thaw over a period of a couple of weeks and then condense the footage into a couple of minutes.

My aim was to head up to the source of the river but first I wanted to investigate Moor House and check out the bothy there.  It turned out the bothy was firmly locked and for the use of the visiting scientists only.  However if you are ever in need of assistance in the area there is an emergency phone that you can dial 999 from.

Returning back to the river I went a little way up-stream and stopped by a ruin and did something I very rarely do whilst backpacking.  I cooked a meal and made a brew.  A great thing to do in the cold weather and it brought some warm into my body.

The track alongside Trout Beck soon becomes a feint path as you head further and further into the wilds.

As height was gradually gained the scenery became even bleaker and there was a dusting of snow, which with the steely grey skies made me feel like I was entering a monochrome world.

My plan for the day was to climb Great Dun Fell then follow the Pennine way north to the summit of Cross Fell.  Approaching the 750 metre contour of Great Dun Fell I became aware that darkness was nearly upon me.  The late start and a stop for lunch meant that there was no way I would reach my destination for the night.  I spotted a frozen spring in a hollow and breaking the ice determined that I could get some silty water out of it.  A flat bit of ground nearby helped make my mind up that I should set up camp.  It was only 3.30pm and it would soon be dark.

I had chosen probably the most exposed spot possible with open moorland spreading for miles in all directions.  However there was not even the slightest breeze and the silence was absolute.  The nights forecast was to remain like this so I thought that I would risk it, although the Scarp1 crossing poles were deployed, just in case!  The main difficulty I encountered was getting tent pegs into the rock hard ground, with re pegging and shifting about  necessary as softer spots were sought.

The only man-made structure visible from my tent were the strange ‘golf balls’ on the summit of Great Dun Fell, an object I am only used to seeing from either the M6 or the eastern Lakes.  There was also a ‘Currick’ a few hundred metres away that looked like a figure staring at my camp, slightly creepy!

Returning to my water source as soon as the tent was pitched, thick ice had already formed where I had broken through only minutes previously.  I could already tell that it was going to be a cold night!  I spent a while walking around taking photos until the cold drove me into my tent.  I got into my sleeping bag fully clothed for a bit to warm myself up.

The evening went, doze, cook, doze, hot drink, read for a bit, doze, hot drink, finish book before lights off at about 10pm, it was a long old evening!

Day 2 – 9.8 miles with 365 metres ascent

I had planned to be up and away before dawn but typically after such a long night I managed to over sleep.  Getting up and packing was hard in the sub-zero temperatures.  Even though my boots were wrapped in my jacket inside the inner tent they were frozen solid.  My water was also frozen and it took a while to bring it to the boil.  Strangely there was no condensation inside or outside my tent, it was bone dry even though there had been no wind.  All the moisture from my body had condensed on the outer of my sleeping bag, the chest, head and foot area being pretty wet.

Within minutes I was up on the summit of Great Dun Fell taking in the views across the Eden valley before setting off for Little Dun Fell, a much wilder spot.

I had to avoid the areas that had been paved with flagstones as they were covered by thick ice, although the bogs either side were easy-going being frozen solid.  Gentle slopes led to the edge of the Cross Fell plateau and I got a sense of how vast this fell actually is.  It is not somewhere where I would like to be during a full on storm with limited visibility.

From the trig there was a brief moment when the Lakeland fells were lit up by the sun but otherwise it was a cold grey world, although the air itself was exceptionally clear.  So much for the forecast of bright sunshine!

With such good visibility it was easy to cross the plateau without taking a bearing, heading for a prominent cairn that overlooks the vast rolling moors to the north.  There was a real sense of space up there, the line of the moors unbroken by any man-made structures.

Crampons would have been helpful to get me down the northern slopes, the old snow was as hard as iron and any slip would have seen me hurtling down at some speed.  I spent ages picking out bare patches of ground, zig zagging until the Bothy of Greg’s Hut was in view.

This has got to be one of the highest bothies in the UK, as it sits on the 700 metre contour.  I spent a night here a few years ago one late November during a snowstorm, spindrift being blown through the bothy walls.  The small amount of fuel we had brought for the stove barely warming the sleeping room.  I bet that snow falls upon its roof on many days through the winter.

There are two rooms inside, the first being decorated with prayer flags under the wooden beams.  With the painting on the wall it reminds me a bit of the lodges you get in Nepal.  The second room has a stove and sleeping platform and I sat in there for a while cooking couscous and drinking coffee whilst the strengthening wind blew through the eaves.

A notice on the wall said that it was 7 miles down to Garrigill via the Pennine way and I was keen to get back quickly so I did not get home too late.  As soon as I stepped outside I managed to slip on a hidden bit of ice and fell heavily on my knee.  As usual I feared the worse but after a bit of swearing I was up and inspecting the damage.  Only a bruise to me but I had managed to rip my new Paramo trousers.  Cursing I hobbled off taking more care on the march northwards.

The track to Garrigill is surfaced and hard on the feet.  The views remain good as it keeps above the 600 metre contour for several miles, this would be a serious proposition in a storm.  For the first time that weekend the sun started to make an appearance and by the time Garrigill was reached the skies were clear and the gritters were working the high moorland roads.

25 Comments to “A winter backpack across the roof of the Pennines”

  1. Great stuff, James. You are a master of the similie and metaphor: ‘fountains of nose juice’, ‘dinner table sheets of ice’. Quality. The vast, empty expanse of Cross Fell gave me the willies just looking at the pics; imagine getting caught in a whiteout up there, no compass, no tent… brrrrrr.

    I imagine the experience brought you something similar to the WCJ in the sense that you had the place to yourself and could enjoy that peculiarly expansive feeling only wilderness can give you.

  2. Great report – thoroughly enjoyed that!
    I was ‘temporarily misplaced” coming off Cross Fell in thick cloud back in 2007 on my LEJOG with a GPS that was reading exactly 500m out (which caused quite a bit of confusion – so have not used the thng since.) I can tell you, (after wandering about up and down the fellside and never actually finding Greg’s Hut…doh!) that it is a very big place when you are in an optical bubble of about 20m.

  3. James great trip report.- I was looking to do this route at the weekend. However the forecast looks pretty awful. I have done Cross Fell before and I am not sure it is the best place to be with predicted gusts of 50 miles per hour ! Walking would not be a lot of fun. I am jealous of your trip – things seem to conspire to stop me getting out at the moment 😦
    I may see if there is an opportunity for a day walk on Sunday

  4. Cracking! 🙂 Really enjoyed that, James.

    Funny – I was toying with camping up Cross Fell over New Years Eve some time ago (until missus booked hotel in Cockermouth). I’ve yet to go up there. Sounds and looks great.

    Something that springs to mind with the cold ground – I’ve got a lightweight camping mallet. One hard head and one rubber on it. Always packed in my hydration pouch when winter camping 😉 Weighs about 300g’s. Picked it up in some random shop in Nottingham 3 years ago!

    Re: frozen water, I give up on it at this time of year. I tend to use the water in my hot water bottle for drinking or warming up the frozen water following mornings now.

    terry’cast’ for the weather says February is going to be much like December by the way. 😉 So, book your trips!

    January has been marked on the cards for a while as being wet, windy with a bit of snow. And February where it improves…..anyway.

    Good read! 🙂

  5. *Edit* My comment on the weather – February cold and dry like Decemeber, just not as much snow! 😦

  6. I love big open spaces Pete, as long as the weather is nice and clear! I now realise that it was a little bit too ambitious to plan to camp up there at this time of year. Imagine waking up for the loo and not finding the tent when naked, gulp…………..I will keep the similie and metaphors going just for you!

    Alan, how can you have a GPS that is exactly 500 metres out, was it bargain basement? I have to say that Greg’s hut is pretty well camoflaged, I could imagine missing it in the mist.

    You could always backpack low Mark, find some nice remote valley to wild camp instead. I’m off to the Dales in the morning for a quick 2 dayer, 50 mile winds there too over the hills. Will probably stay low. Otherwise have a good day walk Sunday.

    Thanks Terry. Is your hot water bottle just one of those bog standard ones, not sure if I could trust one up on the hills, what if it split? I will now go with the terry forecast, I will expect the whole of Feb to be cold and dry!

  7. Great post! I too have had fountains of nose juice over the Christmas period so can sympathise! Love the photo of the tent with the light and the one of the trig too, its not always easy to make trig photos interesting but you’ve managed it somehow there. I’m still only a three season wild camper myself, must get the balls and kit to do one of these proper long winters nights one day. I’m currently about to sell my GoLite Shangri-La 3 as despite it being an amazing tent I’m getting sick of it leaking when it gets really tested, one thing that causes this is the roof vents. The Scarp 1 is my first choice replacement at the moment for when I’m on my own but I’m a bit worried after seeing it has vents on the roof too, have you had any problems with it letting water in when it chucks it down?

  8. Wow! Those are some pretty epic pieces of ice you found! A good report as always, your pictures show just how devoid of anything it is up there mid-winter. It looks a bit too bleak for me to be able to return from a solo trip sane though.

  9. great report, thanks for posting!

  10. Jamie, those long winter nights are nothing to be afraid of really if you have the right kit to be comfy. I still am not sure if my Scarp1 is waterproof as last night snow blew through the vents and melted onto the inner. I have seam sealed it so should not be that. I will need to spend a night in heavy rain and see how it fares, I will let you know. One thing that can be siad for it is that it is rock solid in the wind. Does not budge an inch during a gale. That Christmas cold was a bugger eh?

    Thanks Northernfall. Those bits of ice were huge, never seen anything like that before. It really is a bleak place at this time of year, but in a good way!

    Cheers Owdbum!

  11. Does look like an mazing tent, its just those vent that bothers me. I wonder if they would do me one without them, would rathr have a bit of condensation on the odd occasion and know it would never let in water any other way.

  12. Jamie I recon that they would make you one without the roof vents, if anything it would be less work for them to make. You could email them and find out.

  13. I use a Platypus for a hot water bottle normally, James. Never had a problem. Doesn’t insulate the heat well – so depending on how cold it is (or you are) varies how long it stays warm. 8/10 it’s fine.

    Currently, using a very small but light traditional rubber hot water bottle 😉 So far it works really well.

    You’d never guess where I picked it up from…..you know those cuddly toys kids get? And they have hot water bottles inside?

    One of them! LOL

  14. Cool, does that mean that you keep the hot water bottle inside the cuddly toy then Terry?

  15. Another excellent report, James. In answer to a previous comment, I have no backpacking planned until April, but I may find an excuse to do some before then…

  16. April? Surely the weather will be nice by then and the days much longer. What fun will that be!?

  17. I know. The shame of it! For a couple of weeks we’ll be in a spot where it’s minus 30 overnight a lot of the time, but that didn’t stop me wimping out of a camping trip last year. It’s the need to cook outdoors that was the clincher – in bear country you don’t cook in a tent even in winter, as the odour on the tent may attract the bears in summer. That’s the theory, anyway.
    All this is really No Excuse, I know….

  18. Cross Fell with its helm wind is a fearsome place in bad weather. You had a good night on the hill there James. Nice to see the lit up tent in the dark photos.

  19. Martin B, bears and camping, minus 30 degrees, must be Wales?

    That camp spot was superb Martin and I was very luck to have no wind. I think that it may not be like that on Friday night!

  20. Great report as usual. The conditions were remarkably good considering!. The Trout Beck path must have been a grand sight with the ice.
    That is one bleak mountain to be caught in stormy weather, I remember legging it along the track to Greg’s Hut for a bit of respite.

    • Thanks Geoff. I was lucky with the weather but it was meant to be even better. Stunning with all that ice on the river, it would have been like the arctic a couple of weeks before. Cross fell is a grand place but only in good weather!

  21. Very inspiring images across Cross Fell would it be possible for the team to use them on http://www.rivertees.co.uk. Of course we would accredit the images back to this post if agreeable. It is with great pleasure we looked over your images and read your account.

    Thanks for the share!

    • Hi there. I would be happy for the images to be used as long as there are credits back to this original post. James

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