A broken Spectre in the Lake District

A Father-Son Winter Scrambling Journey

By John C

Explore the captivating journey of a father and son as they traverse the picturesque Lake District in search of winter adventures. From the grade 3 scramble of Pinnacle Ridge to the summit of Helvellyn, their ambitious exploration, featuring challenging scrambles and unexpected weather conditions

Since I have been in my teens, I have always spent time in the Lake District in February, trying to find a bit of winter. At first it was with my Dad, then as I started a family it was with my wife whilst Mum and Dad babysat for us. Now, over thirty years later, I am doing it with my own son, Daniel.

We have ambitions to go to the Alps this summer, so I was keen to practise some of the techniques we might use. Snow was non-existent this February, but I wondered if a scramble, using a rope for a bit of short-roping and moving together, might be useful to do.

The plan was Pinnacle Ridge, the grade 3 scramble on the flank of St Sunday Crag.

The walk had a tough start. My infamous map reading skills had struck once again, and we failed to locate the zigzags that would take us the first thousand feet, from the bottom of Grizedale to the foot of the scramble. Instead, we sweated and stumbled up steep tussocky grass and moss until we found the spot to get the rope out.

There were a few other parties, but it added to the climb as intermittent conversations broke out between various people. The rock was rough and blocky and ideal for our purposes. We moved together, naturally adding belays where the climb seemed to justify it. We were both going well and enjoying ourselves. We inadvertently made the crux a little harder, as a slower party was pitching the entire climb, so we went up a slightly harder route in order to overtake them. It didn’t matter: we were enjoying the challenge.

Soon, we were enjoying the exposure of the final set of pinnacles. I realised I was on the top of the final tooth of rock, where many have stopped to have their photo taken. The down-climb was tricky, so I placed some gear so that Daniel would be protected as he followed me. I took a snap of Daniel and then the route was all but over.

We headed up the slope towards the summit.

"Dad, we don’t need the rope now."

"Yeah, I know."

"Why are we using it then?"

"We’re practising."

"But I know how to walk up a mountain."

"Get back behind me; you’re dragging the rope on the ground."


We quickly ate some lunch on the summit. It was 3pm. The weather was dry, the sun was out, and the views across to Helvellyn and Striding Edge were fantastic. Clouds blew in from the west, through the col that contained Grizedale Tarn, and then down into the valley. We were above the clouds and were enjoying a perfect day.

"Which way do you want to go back?" I asked as I traced several horseshoes on the map. One of the horseshoes went west, towards the summit of Fairfield and then down to Grizedale Tarn before re-ascending to Dollywagon Pike, Nethermost Pike and Helvellyn, before heading back towards the valley along Striding Edge.

"Helvellyn," he said.

"It’s a long way," I said. "We need to be somewhere reasonably safe by 5pm."

"What, back at the car?"

"Well, no, but on the last lap. I don’t want to be on a summit at 5pm."

"Okay, let’s go."

We strode off down the wonderful ridge towards Fairfield before ascending steeply towards its summit. It was mid-February, but we were sweating in just tee shirts. Just before the summit, we picked out a path down to Grizedale Tarn and almost ran down the slope. We passed a trickle of a stream and gulped backwater, having not expected to be sweating so much.

Over the beck at the col and immediately onto the zig zags up to Dollywagon. We paced ourselves so that we covered the ground but did not sweat too much or get too tired. Out to the West, a temperature inversion filled the valleys with clouds, leaving us to pick out the tallest peaks which reached through it. To the East, the perfect clear air allowed us to see across to the Pennines.

A quick visit to the summit of Dollywagon, and then we carried on to Nethermost and then towards Helvellyn, which was getting closer. I began to notice strange lighting. Nethermost Cove on my right was filling with mist. The low sun was on my left. Might we see a Brocken spectre? I never had done in the past. What an addition to a perfect day. I looked around, waving my arms around like a dancer, but I couldn’t see anything.

Suddenly, ‘Dad! Dad! A Brocken spectre!’ I looked across the cove into the mist, and there it was. ‘Get your camera quick!’ I fumbled in my pocket, trying not to drop my phone. ‘Too late, it’s gone.’ We carried on hurrying along. ‘It’s back!’ I was quicker this time and snapped it. For once, the photo did the view justice. Seconds later, it disappeared for good.

We continued striding to the summit. Once there, we had the place to ourselves. The temperature inversion was persisting out to the west. Beyond it, Scotland reminded us it was there. The cloud in the coves to our East had dispersed now, allowing us to see the summit plateau arc across to Swirrall Edge and then down to Red Tarn. The shadows were long. It was perfectly silent. It was 5.05 pm.

We dropped down to Striding Edge and immediately needed to stop to put on extra layers as soon as we were out of the sun. We scrambled along as fast as we dared, tempering our haste to ensure we did not stumble. Progress was beginning to become difficult in the fading light, and reaching the end of the difficulties was a relief. We walked to the Hole in the Wall and accepted we could no longer see. Head torches on, we then continued on the path back to Grizedale. The ground around us was freezing now, and the rocks were becoming slippery, so different from an hour ago. We were suddenly tired and tried to gauge our progress down the path as the complete darkness enveloped us.

Eventually, the road arrived, and the last tired walk to the car. No problem finding our car in the car park- it was the only one left.

Back to the hostel for some food. We had brought a pie that would easily feed four. It didn’t stand a chance.

4,500 feet of ascent, 20 mountain kilometres, a grade 3 scramble and a grade 1 scramble. Possibly the best 9 hours I have ever spent in the Lakes.

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