Friday, 26 February 2016

Blizzard on The Old Man

For as long as I can remember, Boxing Day has always been the day for going out on the fells. Christmas Day was always a lazy day — eating, drinking, dozing in front of the fire and singing around the piano — but the next day you went out, no matter what the weather, even if only for a short stroll down the lanes and across the fields. Sometime you just stumbled through the woods in the fog or got wet through in the Langdales. Several times we were skating on Tarn Hows in the sunshine and much later we went skiing in the Pennines. But once, more than forty years ago, either because the weather was too bad or because we had eaten too much on Christmas Day, we just went up to Coniston in the afternoon to sleep the night at the hut but do something fairly energetic the next day.

This but was a wooden garage, sited in a field at Coniston Old Hall farm, a hundred yards or so from the lake. It was the joint property of nine of us, and was one of the first climbing huts in the Lake District. Nowadays the field is a caravan park, but at that time we had the whole of the lake-shore to ourselves. We slept on rickety home-made beds under blankets that were invariably damp, and the place was heated by an old combustion stove that produced a fug you could hardly see through. Light was Provided by a couple of storm lamps and we cooked on Primus stoves. Often it was so cold — despite the stove — that we woke up in the morning to find an inch of ice on the water-bucket kept inside the door.

Incredibly, we bathed briefly in the lake every weekend, no matter what the month — it was a point of honour — and we either argued or played cards in the evenings. When we woke up this particular Christmastime, after the usual uncomfortable night's sleep, we discovered that several inches of snow lay on the ground. And, over porridge, bacon and eggs — we used to do ourselves rather well in those days — we decided to walk over Coniston Old Man; a mountain that we thought we knew as well as our back gardens at home. Just as we had no sleeping bags in those days, neither did we have any proper windproof clothing — in fact I don't think it had been invented. We just had old jackets and trousers, plenty of sweaters and scarves, motor-cycle goggles and Balaclava helmets.

But we all wore nailed climbing-boots and carried ice-axes and some of us had Boy Scout compasses. I can clearly remember, after all these years, walking up the hill behind Coniston railway station and thinking I had never seen so much snow. The village looked like somewhere in the Alps — although none of us had been abroad at that time — and the yellow lights from the lamps in the cottages shone out across the snow. It was a dark, murky morning and it was snowing hard. We trudged up the hill to the open fell and then turned right to follow the quarry track, except that no track was visible. The snow was already building up over the stone walls, and all the well-remembered features of the fellside had disappeared. Higher up, on our way to the quarries, we came upon a small crag, immediately to our left, which was completely encased in black ice, several inches thick, to its total height of perhaps forty feet.

By now a blizzard was blowing and it was difficult to see. The snow, and hail lashed painfully into our faces and at one time we noticed tiny specks of blood in the snow and assumed that the frozen snow had cut our cheeks. But as I have never heard since of hail drawing blood I can only assume that one of us had a nose bleed or some slight injury. All the same, it seemed dramatic evidence to us youngsters of the ferocity of the elements. Further on, the shores of Low Water loomed out of the mist and we saw that the tiny tarn was piled high with ice-floes so that the scene looked like a corner of Spitzbergen or the Arctic. It was perhaps ten minutes later when we realized that the conditions were becoming serious.

We were ploughing through soft snow knee-high and sometimes up to our waists, the wind and the driving snow were almost unbearable, and we were not even sure where we were. Visibility was down to a few yards, the snow had completely transformed the mountainside we knew so well, and there were black crags and drops into unseen depths — which looked much worse in the gloom and the storm than they actually were. We wanted to find some sort of shelter so that we could look at a compass and bring some life back to our frozen fingers. Nobody thought of going down. And then a miracle occurred. One of us suddently fell through a hole in the snow and, when he had recovered from the shock, found he had dropped through a hole in the roof of one of the quarry huts.

In a moment we all followed him, and, sheltered from the storm, were soon able to put on our reserves of clothing, get our fingers warm again and have a look at the compass — the first and only time I have ever had to use a compass on Coniston Old Man. We climbed out through the roof looking like Arctic explorers, with Balaclavas tied down with scarves and most of us wearing two pairs of gloves. With our circulations restored, some food eaten, and the general line to the top established, we pressed on without further adventures to the cairn and then down the other side of the mountain to Goats Water and back to the hut.

But the conditions on top of this simple fell were the most Alpine I can ever remember in Lakeland. In those days the huge cairn was about ten feet high, but, so deep was the snow, it was completely hidden. The wind was unbelievably strong, so much so that one of the party had his goggles blown off his face and irretrievably lost in the storm. And the normally easy descent to Goats Water was a slope of wind-polished ice so that we had to creep down supported by our axes, as if we were coming off the Eiger. Fortunately we were in nailed boots; in present-day vibram-soled boots without crampons, the slope would have been almost impossible for comparative novices and certainly extremely dangerous.

The Old Man of Coniston: WG Collingwood-1925: The Ruskin Museum.
When we got down to the but we stood our frozen clothes in a corner like suits of armour and photographed them. And in the evening at the Crown we had our first taste of mulled ale, done on a shovel over a blazing fire. 

AH (Harry) Griffin. First published in the Lancashire Evening Post.