Why treading carefully in the snow is wise in the Yorkshire countryside

A snow storm lifts off Whernside and Ribblehead Viaduct. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.
A snow storm lifts off Whernside and Ribblehead Viaduct. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.
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There is nothing like a thick carapace of snow and ice on our usually benign fell country to make walking there feel like a proper mountaineering adventure.

Suddenly, Roseberry Topping on the edge of the North York Moors positively pirouettes with Alpine-like splendour above the village of Great Ayton and manages to earn its reputation as “Yorkshire’s Matterhorn”.

Roseberry Topping on the edge of the North York Moors, pictured in the snow by Margaret Knowles.

Roseberry Topping on the edge of the North York Moors, pictured in the snow by Margaret Knowles.

Similarly, the Three Peaks of Whernside, Ingleborough and Penyghent in the Yorkshire Dales are majestic in their white coats and look considerably greater challenges to walkers than their modest height and shape present on a fine summer’s day.

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Of course, it is possible to tackle the Three Peaks by doing what proper mountaineers call “winter climbs”. They choose the steepest possible gradient for their ascent, not the main paths used by wusses like me. The more seasoned Alpinists might even tackle snow-filled rock gullies on the sides of Ingleborough and Penyghent in order to reach the top.

At first glance, however, Whernside - the highest summit in Yorkshire - does not show any formidable defences, yet it is actually on the British Mountaineering Council’s list of top five winter hills for first-timers.

Buckden Pike above Wharefdale.

Buckden Pike above Wharefdale.

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According to the BMC, Whernside’s gentle eastern slopes lend themselves to low-level winter skills practice. The council adds the following advice: “You’ll need to wait for a good covering of white stuff before crampons will come in handy on the tramp up from Ribblehead - in the right conditions, though, the area below the summit plateau is the perfect place to practice ice axe arrests and whiteout navigation without risking your neck.”

On several occasions I have actually wound up risking my neck, although by accident. The most serious incident was about 20 years ago, in the days before phone satnav, when I lost the path during thick snow flurries while descending from the summit ridge of Buckden Pike above Wharfedale, and became thoroughly disoriented.

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Convinced I was on the old packhorse route down to Starbotton, I eventually found I had descended to the Walden valley, one of most far-flung corners of the Dales. With gritted teeth and a little more than an hour of daylight remaining, I turned back up the fellside but then - in a virtual whiteout - wandered off the track.

Much later, when finally I reached my car in darkness, I checked the map and discovered to my horror that because of my desire to reach lower ground I had traversed the top of the ravine carved by Cam Gill Beck, where one slip would have been calamitous, and negotiated the slippery slopes of something called Knuckle Bone Pasture.

Therefore, much care is necessary in winter, even when navigating familiar routes. The BMC advises anyone climbing fells in snow to invest in ice axe and crampons and learn how to use them. The challenges on winter mountains are greater, it says, but so is the pay-off in terms of spectacle and wonder.

It adds: “Isn’t that worth getting out of the house for?”