Footprints in the Snow

I remember it like it was yesterday, standing in a foot of snow, fog descended all around me, 600 metres above sea level on the side of Blea Rigg in the Lake District, full of despair.

It was mid-November and we were on the first day our 45 mile round trek from Grasmere to Scafell Pike and back. We were in the weather gap to make it before a weather front of fog, snow and hail came through. We had the promise of amazing views of the mountain tops all around, crisp winter air and the sun shining down on us for the 3 days of our hike. It was set to be the perfect trip.

We timed it wrong. The front was ahead of schedule and instead of crisp winter air and stunning views for the next 3 days we were to be in a whirling storm of snow, 40 mph gusts and fog so thick that you couldn’t see your hand an arm’s length away. Feeling both confined in my waterproofs with my hood wrapped tightly around my head and wildly exposed to the elements all around I pulled my map out and tried to locate us.

I managed to get it down to a 200 metre radius of our position with steep crags north and south of us. The snow had covered all the footpaths and our campsite was somewhere 1.5km west of our position.

My head kicked into overdrive, running calculations of how much food we had, all those escape routes we had planned that were now useless, how if I made a mistake on our bearing we could end up way off where we need to be. The prospect of being ultimately and completely lost in these conditions started the spiral of negativity in my head. In a couple of hours, we’d lose the light and I could feel the sub-zero temperatures drawing the heat out of me as I started to shiver and slip into the first stage of hypothermia.

Then all my thoughts went quiet. A wave of total calmness and serenity came over me as I was drawn into the present, yet I felt a thousand miles away. I took a deep breath and a clinical clarity of mind set in. I pulled my compass out, set a westerly bearing and we set off walking. Wading through the snow with the wind battering us as I focused of the little needle pointing into the looming fog. 

We walked west for an hour and it was starting to get dark. It should have taken us less than an hour to get to our campsite and we were still walking. All perception of how far we’d gone had been destroyed and I was starting to doubt if my bearing was right. ‘At least we haven’t fallen off a crag yet.’ I remember thinking to myself in an attempt to lift my spirits.

Despair was setting in and the realisation that we would have to find somewhere to set up camp was becoming more and more urgent. By now my body had given up shivering as I was well into the second stage of hypothermia, I was struggling do up the zips on my pockets and rapidly losing dexterity in my fingers. Getting any colder I’d be in serious trouble and boy, did I know it. The prospect of staying on the side of this grim, forsaken mountain side was not appealing at all.

Then we saw them. As the fog cleared for a moment we could glimpse them trailing off west into the distance. Fresh footprints in the snow. They matched the same direction as the bearing on my compass and with rekindled hope we followed them eagerly. Going against all logic that we should set up camp for the night we followed them in the hope that they might take us where we needed to go.

We followed the ominous footprints for 20 minutes, skirting around knolls and mini crags on the ridge as the light got dimmer and dimmer. The wind had settled and the fog had thinned out slightly as we walked over the crest on the mountain side in the bitter cold that had frozen icicles onto my beard. 

As we went over the crest of the hill our eyes fell on a large body of water that stretched out in every direction in front of us. A wave of relief and happiness rushed through my body. We were here.

We walked down to the water’s edge and the mountain was finally working with us as it sheltered us from the winds and foul weather behind us. Beneath our feet felt more solid and harder. As we brushed away the snow we realised that we were on a path a metre wide that allowed us to pinpoint exactly where we were.

Now we knew where we were, we could go about finding the best route off the mountain side. As we selected our route and walked down I remember looking back up at our nemesis looming in the thickness of the fog in the distance and I smiled to myself.

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