Walking the Frozen Spine - the Pennine Way in Winter

The Pennine Way in winter is a tough old route. As you probably already know or have experienced its bleak up there, bleak, dark, cold and almost always very wet. It’s the grandfather of long distance walks in the UK and completing it in winter as unsupported as possible is a fantastic challenge. In December 2012 two weeks before Christmas myself, and a very psyched friend had a go.

Zoe and I left Edale at 7am on a cold dark morning, our unsure footsteps labouring under the unfamiliar heavier pack weight that a winter crossing demands. We ascended Jacobs ladder and gingerly stepped over neve-hard snowdrifts and ribbon frozen streams across dusty sandstone slabs. On Kinder Scout plateau we were treated to crystal clear views of Manchester to the west with smoking chimneystacks shimmering through the frozen air. The sky was an ocean blue and the sun poured down shimmering light that contained little warmth. Kinder downfall had morphed into a frozen cliff,  we smashed ice into pools to refill our water bottles. We pushed on hard, conscious of the short daylight hours and that we yet had a long way to go on this first day. Up over Bleaklow we began to loose the daylight and the path disappeared under drifts of snow and ice. We navigated over the top, and descended the other side in the dark following the steep ravines down to Crowden. It was very cold by 6pm when eventually we arrived at the closed YHA, and after a good 18.2 miles on the first day we camped and slept well.

We rose early and were on the trail at 6am. It felt bitterly fresh as we began moving over ground that was thankfully rock hard. Snaking our way up past Laddow rocks we were bathed in a beautiful winter orange sunrise. We were careful as the path was treacherously slippery, slick with ice. Over Black Hill it grew colder, and we mapped our way over the snow-white expanse with no footpath to follow. Valleys came and went, at Standedge Moor we stopped to sleep thankful for the 800g goose down sleeping bags we carried, at -18C outside the feeling of indulgence we felt as we packed them had surprisingly disappeared.

Another 6am start the following morning was tough and we forced our trail weary bodies out and onwards over the cold dark moors. The visibility was poor and we moved through freezing fog stopping only to munch on sausage sandwiches upon reaching the M62, served by a cheerful cook who on that day was closing his sandwich van for the season. “Your lucky” he shouted over hot fat spitting frying pans, “I was going to close yesterday for the season”. He sent hot mugs of coffee over the counter muttering, “Your crazy, you’re going to die up there, you really are”. With his bleak words spinning in our tired heads we made the long climb up Blackstone Edge. Visibility was terrible and the freezing fog froze and clung to our clothes, packs and faces coating everything in a white frosting. Past White House pub we pushed on through the fog skirting horizon-less frozen reservoirs. The bitter northerly wind grew in strength blowing our breath away with each arctic blast. Eventually many hours later as the light faded we crunched down off the moors and into Hebden Bridge, off route but happy, hunting for beer and gas resupply for our stove.

Day 4 felt odd from the start. Still cold it began to rain coating everything in clear slick ice. It slowed us terribly and it was a real effort to get over Top Withens. Man its bleak up there in December; Arctic bleak, and every inch of that trail felt haunted. The rain and wind grew worse and stronger. Pretty soon we were battling to make headway. Zoe began sneezing and her left foot began to explode in pain. We slowed and wandered getting colder and wetter. Reaching the valley we sheltered in a wind battered shed. We looked at each other; lips shivered, icy wet hands shook and I knew we were cold and wet to the core. It was time to call it for the day as the weather had developed into a full-blown winter storm. We found an unusual but vintage cheap pub, had hot showers and ate camp food in our cold brown walled room. Later buried under our sleeping bags and bed duvets we listened to the sleet lashing the antique window outside.

We left at 5am the next morning focused on making the mileage up after the storm the previous day. The day felt miserable but we were stoic. At around 9am after 4 hours of walking we bought scotch eggs the size of planets from a butcher with bloody hands. We wandered alongside the frozen Liverpool canal watching ducks skate across the ice while swans looked on angrily. We ate Ibuprofen like confectionary and Zoe battled though tunnels of pain with her left foot, we talked about how explorers shifted focus, shifted their attention from pain and onto other subjects, we felt in good companionship with the men and women who ‘just did’.  We made superb distance and by the evening we wandered into Malham triumphant.

A pestilent cold had made its way into the team. We woke with thick heads, beating hearts and hollow limbs – not good news on a winter trek. With the rain it made interesting work, and Malham cove, the ascent and the rest of the day passed in a blur. That evening we consumed gallons of Lemsip and cowered in our sleeping bags with only a scrappy Jilly Cooper novel (don’t ask we picked it up somewhere along the way) for entertainment – it was a long and very strange evening.

The next morning we started at 7am, an hour later than normal. The rain continued to pour down and trails became streams. We’d read about previous winter Pennine Way traverses were traveller’s encountered huge problems with flooding and heavy rain. Just 4 days previously we had been traversing over concrete hard snow and now everything had been reduced to a watery world. Even the super tough Pennine sheep looked utterly despondent. It was the 22nd December; daylight was in precious supply and with heavy black clouds layered in sheets through the heavens above, midday felt like dusk.

We moved as quickly as we could, rarely stopping, focused utterly on the mileage to do and the cups of tea that awaited in Hawes. By 3pm and after 21 miles we reached the small town. Our fastest moving mileage day on the trip motivated by cups of tea and bacon sandwiches. Feeling celebratory and flu ridden we decided to rest on our laurels and stay the night.

The next day we made another 7am start (time keeping not what it was) and we marched on feeling stronger. The rain poured as usual but with our colds lifting we didn’t mind as much. With all the rain the trails were quagmires and with large winter packs it was slippy going. The banter was good though,  we hardly argued – which was unusual. Our walking rhythm and routine felt synchronised. Eat walk, eat walk, walk brew, walk, eat walk…. The worst time of each day other than rising in the morning was undoubtedly 4pm. It was by then dark and we always felt depressed that despite walking since 7am we potentially had another 4 hours walking in the darkness and then a cold wet camp. We had to dig deep and force ourselves onwards trying to stay upbeat but eventually we could take no more of the dark wet depression and we would stop and retreat into our sleeping bags.

The ninth day started late. We began at 9am. Zoe’s foot was bad again and the first creeping doubts of our success or not began to soak in. I could tell she was in pain. Some days she said nothing and walked on but today it looked bad. The horrendous mud really made things much worse and every slip or slide sent shooting pains up her leg. I felt bad. She was heroic. It was Christmas in 2 days time and this unrelenting rain was beginning to wear our spirits down. We were harassed by sheep (honestly we were attacked by at least 40 of them in one field…), slipped down tracks, waded through streams and thrashed over moorland. At the end of the day we stood in the cold dark under driving rain and had enough mobile signal to check in with the home folk to access a weather forecast. The deep low was in for a week ahead and it was clear we were out of luck and psyche. So 151.2 miles of winter Pennine trail behind us we called an end and STOPPED. Damn it. We’ll be back….

Many thanks to Mark at www.ultralightoutdoorgear.co.uk for kit support and help.

Paul Cosgrove - Montane 

Pennine Way in Winter 1
Pennine Way in Winter 2
Pennine Way in Winter 3
Pennine Way in Winter 4
Pennine Way in Winter 5
Pennine Way in Winter 7Pennine Way in Winter 8
Pennine Way in Winter 9Pennine Way in Winter 10