I don’t believe in new year resolutions on the whole because a) they inevitably fail, and b) they’re stupid. But when 2015 dawned I wanted a target to aim for, a general sense of direction for adventures that I wanted to plan and a focus to break out of a very familiar rut I’d been riding.
A simple theme was settled on: each month ride a different mountain. That simple and nothing more. A mountain a month, the rest would fall into place when the time came for each one.
Simple plans are the ones that tend to work out best I reckon and I really wanted to put the mountain back into my mountain biking after a couple of years of focussing on ‘The Valley’. Drafting in my usual partner in crime Sim made sense too, a shared sense of purpose saves having to explain everything down the line.
So first some things need agreeing on, ground rules, or rather high ground rules, such as what are we going to settle for when it comes to targets for these monthly forays. In simple terms what is a mountain? And is it what we’re looking for?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary a mountain is “a natural elevation of the earth surface rising more or less abruptly from the surrounding level and attaining an altitude which, relatively to the adjacent elevation, is impressive or notable“, whilst the looser UK definition is any summit of at least 2,000 feet (or 610 metres) and the government man seems to settle for a more straightforward summit of 600 metres or higher.
600 metres or higher seems sensible, so it’s how we decide to define our mountain adventures. So there’s the simple plan, an adventure a month over 600 metres, to add up to a year of positive altitude. Summits are good where possible, but altitude and attitude are what really matters.
Welcome to the Mountain Journal…
Of course we hadn’t planned for the snow to arrive just as we were getting ready for trip number one. It added an extra dimension to planning, but Helvellyn has long been a favourite mountain of mine and we were spurred on by the imagery coming out of Steel City Media who’d been filming up there the week before.
Along for the inaugural trip is our young Dan, the typical youth. He’s unaccustomed to 6am dawn starts and riding in the mountains, something that I’m keen to share. We head up the A65 unsure of how the recently dumped snow will affect our plans, but keen to adapt to what we find when we finally reach Patterdale.
There’s a choice of ways up onto the summit of Helvellyn, you’re spoilt for choice on a good day, but painfully aware of the deaths that have recently occurred on the mountain we’re keen to play it safe and maximise the fun to suffering quotient. It’s time for a bit of summit assessment and map work before we set off.
Dodging sheet ice, drifts and false starts we end up opting for the familiarity of Sticks Pass approach. The mine track offering the chance to warm up and wake up as we start to climb towards the youth hostel and start of the off road climb proper.
The lower slopes prove rideable, but we’re soon forced into the stop/start, ride/push pattern of hike a bike that alternating patches of clear track and hardpacked snow dictate. It’s just a case of knuckle down and get it done.
The east facing aspect of the track at least shelters us from the wind, the temperature is hovering around freezing point, and with windchill is promising -10 higher up. Welcome to proper winter in the mountains.
There’s a surreal element to the ascent as we’re keeping pace with backcountry skiers heading up to the Lake District Ski Club, the button lift and club hut high above on the side of Raise.
The search for traction and momentum as we climb higher are more than compensated for by amazing mountain light. There’s a beauty to the surrounding snow covered fells that makes the early start and effort more than worth it. It’s a good day to be on the hill.
Fighting for grip to try and keep the bike moving to reach the next section of stone amongst the snow, it’s not a struggle to keep warm as we manhandle the bike and push the low gear in the hope that the back wheel won’t spin out.
Rounding a corner and hitting the snow line dictates the start of the longest section of hike a bike, but we know we’re getting closer to where the contours flatten out, offering the chance to ride again.
As the altitude clocks up, the temperatures start to plummet as we’re exposed to the freezing westerly wind. But we’re almost within sight of the contouring track along the side of Stybarrow Dodd and it’s promise of rideable terrain.
Tucked in behind the bit of shelter offered by a bank of shale there’s one last opportunity to grab a food break and load up before weighing up options and heading on out into the wind again.
Taking the full brunt of freezing high winds, it’s time to hunker down inside another layer to try and shrug off the worst of what the weather’s busy throwing at us. It’s cold, it’s harsh, but I’d rather be here than anywhere else right at this moment.
I’ve known about the Lakeland Ski Club for some time now and always wondered just how good the skiing is, but seeing the folk skiing across the other side of the valley brings an immediate wish I had my skis here now to make the most of the opportunity.
With the snow getting deeper and traction starting to disappear we take the decision that it’s time to turn back; there’s little point in carrying bikes up onto the higher fell just to carry them back down again. We’re at a point where there’s plenty of chance for a bit of slip sliding riding to be done, so why not make the most of it.
There’s a beautiful and predictable texture to the snow right here, enough traction that with the right amount of front to centre weight shifting progress can be made, but with the limit of grip very controllable. It’s easy to allow the front and back tyres to drift into and out of corners, pulling it all back into control just in time before it’s all lost.
With the wind behind us now the suggestion of warmth returns, we’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to windchill, but there’s an obvious and easily reached escape route now we’re heading down.
Clouds are starting to build and get blown onto the summit to the west. The visibility up there is dropping, combined with advice on crampons and warnings of hidden cornices, it’s easy to see we’ve managed to get the best out of the day.
Front wheel swallowing holes are hidden by the snow and help focus concentration as we drop back down the pass. Knowing that we’re back within safe limits it’s time to play a bit more on the snow covered trail.
An opportunity to race is too good to pass up. As we meet the first of the skiers heading back down too, it’s time to let the brakes off and see just how far we can push it. Where else in England can you do that?
The last technical challenge of the day is the final drop to the Glenridding mines where the trail gets rockier, icier and a little bit more focussed than the higher terrain. There’s a need for a bit more commitment, balance and belief that the front wheel will go where you want it to.
One more turn and we’re back on solid ground with it’s predictable grip, and the familiar clatter of Lakeland rock under our wheels. We’ve dropped down through the snow line where there’s a chance to let the brakes off and the bike go. A more relaxing rip back down the valley to the where we’ve left the van and the promise of a cafe.
Get changed, layer up, and bask in the post ride warmth that a good few hundred metres of descent and added shelter bring. Ride number one, and the first mountain adventure of the year is done, and it’s been a good one.
All that remains is to plan the next destination.
All Photos by Sim Mainey