Friday, 22 January 2016

Catstye Cam (Fell Top Assessor Winter Skills Course)

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Route: Greenside Mine, Red Tarn Beck, Red Tarn, Swirral Edge, Catstye Cam, Red Tarn Beck, Greenside Mine

Date: 22/01/2016
From: Greenside Mine

Parking: Car park at Helvellyn House YHA
Start Point: Greenside Mine
Region: Eastern Fells

Route length: 4.5 miles (7.2 km)
Time taken: 02:27
Average speed: 1.9 mph
Ascent: 645m
Descent: 643m

Wainwrights on this walk:
Catstye Cam (890m)

Additional summits: None

Other points of interest: Red Tarn

The Lake District's Fell Top Assessors are a hardy pair of men tasked with recording daily weather recordings from Helvellyn, arguably one of the Lake District's more challenging mountains, throughout the winter months. They provide a valuable service to anyone venturing into the Lake District fells during the winter where extra planning and equipment is a must. This year they have been offering a one day winter skills course with Graham Uney, one half of the determined duo, which I decided would be a good opportunity to hone the skills I had learnt at Plas y Brenin a couple of years earlier.

The day started with an early meet-up at the Inn on the Lake, a large hotel that has become the National Park's temporary office after floods devastated their own property in the Glenridding car park. We spent an hour or so discussing the weather and forecasts, a favourite topic of the Great British public, before kitting up and driving up to the Greenside Mine. On the subject of the weather, it was pouring with rain as we made our way up towards Red Tarn but we were optimistic that the weather would gradually improve as the day wore on.
Swart Beck tears down the mountainside
Glenridding Common
Red Tarn Beck and Glenridding Beck
Rain greets our climb up towards Red Tarn

We followed the main path up Red Tarn Beck, pausing intermittently to discuss the ground conditions and to get to grips (literally) with the correct handling of an ice axe. We followed Graham's lead until we reached Red Tarn, hiding in the clouds below Striding Edge and Helvellyn. We paused for a few minutes for a bite to eat and, as we did, the clouds began to break up revealing the imposing east face of Helvellyn, quite a sight with its covering of snow.
Climbing up through the gloom
Striding Edge and Helvellyn begin to appear
Digging out a Rutschblock
The group above Red Tarn
The sun begins to poke through
We spent the next hour or so learning how to test the stability of the snow using a Rutschblock test (sliding block), the technique of isolating a block of snow and testing the strength of the layers within it. Turns out we were on fairly safe ground. Despite the soft snow we learnt the art of kicking steps and used the technique to ascend to the base of Swirral Edge under the watchful eye of Graham.
We'd been sheltered from the wind for much of the day, only realising how strong it was as we got on to the exposed ridge.
A pair of climbers prepare to descend Swirral Edge
Climbing up towards Swirral Edge
Brown Cove
The base of Swirral Edge
Despite some unfavourable conditions underfoot we donned our crampons to get used fitting them and moving around on them before heading up the bank of snow on Catstye Cam - the wind making an ascent of Swirral Edge reserved for the more experienced winter walkers.
Red Tarn
Catstye Cam
Looking back to Helvellyn
The summit of Catstye Cam
Catstye Cam is a wonderful fell with a pleasing profile and commanding views in all directions. We didn't hang around for long however as the strong wind made it uncomfortable to remain stationary and we used the delicate art of glissading to descend from the summit. In other words, we slide off on our arses, using our ice axes to control our descent - a valid way of covering a lot of distance in a short amount of time.
All geared up.....
Despite being mid afternoon, we still had time to practice the technique of ice axe arrests, a seemingly maligned technique that instructors are now putting less emphasis on. While an important skill to lean, it's much better not to have to use it in the first place, hence the focus now on movement and crampon technique. Still, it's good fun throwing yourself down the side of a mountain.
With the lowering sun, our day out around Helvellyn was drawing to a close and we retraced our steps back along the path to the Greenside Mine.
Caststye Cam
Catstye Cam over Glenridding Common
I really enjoyed the day and the tutelage of Graham, it is something I would highly recommend to anyone thinking about getting into winter walking in the Lake District. It taught us some of the necessary skills to move about safely and efficiently in the winter fells, a location that should be treated with the respect it deserves. However, there are rich rewards for those who venture out when the snow falls.

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