Helvellyn Winter Photography Walk Report

Thursday 31st Jan 2019

Winter has arrived in the Lake District even though a little later than usual this year, with an abundance of snow on the fells and having a week off from my day job I’d planned an outing on the Helvellyn range. With the forecast looking good for an early morning start on the Thursday, the night before I dug out my ice axe and crampons for the first time this year from my walking/camping closet, charged all my camera batteries and made sure I had my memory cards (I’m sure everyone’s done it but there’s nothing worse than realising your memory cards are still in your PC at home. Doh) and packed all my winter walking gear ready to go.

My initial plan was to catch the sunrise from the top of Helvellyn but checking the conditions from various sites and reading the fell top assessors report, I knew that it would be hard going and it would probably take me twice as long as usual to reach the the top in time, which meant that I’d need to start walking around 4am! So I scrapped that idea and aimed for a 7am start. I knew if I could get up high enough I would still get a good chance facing west to catch some early light on the fell tops as the sun rises.

My alarm woke me up at 5:30am, now I’m not a morning person at all so in my groggy state I made a coffee, had breakfast and heated up my soup for the thermos. Quick check on the weather again and it was still looking like it should be a blue sky day. Grabbed my pack and out the door into a dark, freezing cold clear night sky. It’s very rural where I live in the northern lakes so the stars where popping out of the sky and instantly a smile came on my face, I’m wide awake now and I knew I was in for a good day in the mountains.

My starting point was from the Thirlmere side at Thirlspot farm, which is only a 40 minute drive from my house. There was a crescent moon rising above the fells with Venus and Jupiter in close conjunction either side, it was a beautiful sight, I almost stopped to get some shots, but decided to stick to the plan. I parked in the Kings Head pub car park as the lay by was shut and I knew I’d be going in for a pint afterwards. I set off walking at 7:00am, my route would take me under White Crags to Stanah Gill and then ascending from there up to the col between Stybarrow Dodd and Raise.

As I was trudging through the knee deep snow in places and it was getting lighter I could see these big fog banks forming in the valleys and one was heading my way. Dense morning fog was forecast and I knew if I could make it above them in time I’d have a great chance at a nice fog inversion. It was getting lighter so I ploughed on (crampons not needed at this point as the snow was deep and soft) i reached a point above the fog where the tips of Skiddaw and Blencathra were just starting to poke out with some nice red light cast on them from the rising sun. This is where I dug my self a little snow hole and set myself in for some shots.

I’m really happy that I didn’t get up early to catch the sunrise from the top now. As photographers we sometimes just want to shoot the actual sunrise or sunset, but sometimes it’s about looking behind you! I was once shooting a sunrise from Snowdon when I just happened to turn around and there behind me was a massive double rainbow arcing over the Snowdon horseshoe (unfortunately can’t find the pic at the mo)

I’m pretty pleased with the shots I took over the fog banks, it was pretty easy conditions to shoot in other than being cold, these were shot handheld due to the changing nature of the fog banks. With my Tamron zoom lens on, camera set to aperture priority with exposure compensation dialed down by about a stop, I could shoot at around ISO 500 (lower as it got lighter) and still have a fast enough shutter speed at f/8 - f/11 to get sharp shots with no camera shake. The sweet spot for my Tamron 17-300 is at around f/8 depending on focal length, but I’ll always try and shoot at a mid focal length and mid aperture to ensure the sharpest, best quality shots.

Having a bite to eat and some soup from the flask I watched as the fog banks slowly dispersed around the valleys and it became clear that this was going to be an alpine-esque day in the Lake District. I carried on up to the col below Raise which was my next objective, it was really hard going in places with the snow so soft I just kept falling in big holes up to my thighs in places, I was on the the lea side to the weather so all this fresh snow had been blown over and pilled up in huge soft banks.

From the col at about 750m you can see down towards Ullswater which was still draped in a thick layer of fog. The wind was really picking up now and the wind chill was around -13, I donned the snow goggles as the sun was now in my eyes and there was lots of spin drift and gusting up to around 30mph in places. I also put the crampons on to head up and over Raise. It was really tricky going finding solid ground without a leg disappearing into the snow, whilst getting blasted by spin drift. Once up and over Raise it was easier going to get over Whiteside and onto Lower Man, but this is where the wind and snow drifts really were howling across the col


From the top of Lower Man it’s a nice stroll to the summit plateau of Helvellyn, where strangely the wind had suddenly disappeared and it was beautifully calm with amazing alpine-esque blue skies. I had arranged to meet up with two friends on Nethermost Pike who were heading up from Grisedale tarn, but I knew they were running late so had plenty of time to have lunch at Helvellyn summit shelter and chat to the numerous other walkers and climbers, all commenting on how it was such an amazing day to be out in the mountains but also how unstable the snow base still was. My friend had updated his Viewranger app so he could access the Buddy Beacon feature, which I already had. It’s a great little feature on an already brilliant mapping app, that lets you track, locate and send out a locator beacon to your friends. I was using this to check on their progress as he had his set to send a beacon every 15 mins or so. I could see they were on their way up Dollywaggon Pike so started to set off in that direction over Nethermost Pike. Without wanting to loose too much height because we’d be doubling back, I set my self up somewhere I knew I’d see them coming around the corner.

Not a bad pit stop

Not a bad pit stop

I sat and took a few shots of hikers descending from Nethermost Pike then spotted my friends coming over the hill

Hikers Descending from Nethermost Pike

Hikers Descending from Nethermost Pike

Better late than never

Better late than never

After a quick catch up we headed back over to Helvellyn as we decided to descend via Browncove Crags and back down to the pub. Again on the way down the snow was thigh deep in places and we all had a few stumbles.

All in all a great winter day day out on the hill and some good images taken from the day. But I think this is my favorite

Skiddaw sunrise

Trip Specs


1350m of ascent

9.5 hours out on the hill

Full winter conditions, ice axe and crampons essential