The ascent of Pen Hill above Coverdale — on skis March 2005


By: Tony Keats

Ever since I moved up to Melmerby in 1998, I had been hoping for a good snowfall so that I could get out on my cross country skis on the moor above the village. Although heather moor requires a really good depth of snow cover to make it skiable, there are several gravelled shooting tracks which would be skiable with a more moderate depth of snow. In March 2005 the right snow conditions finally arrived.

On a glorious sunny morning, following the heaviest snowfall so far that year, I set out with my cross-country skis to make what would probably be the first ascent, traverse and descent of Pen Hill on skis.

The first part of the trip took me up the road from Melmerby village to the cattle grid on the edge of Melmerby Moor, which I had to do on foot as the road had been cleared, carrying my skis. From here it was skis on and away!

As I climbed over the moor, the views in all directions were superb, from Great Whernside in the south east to the North York Moors in the north east, snow everywhere, beautiful blue sky, white clouds and glorious sunshine. Reaching the top of the moor and beginning the descent to West Witton in Wensleydale, I soon reached my first waypoint — the bridleway heading westwards and upwards to Pen Hill, this being the highest point in the area. Melmerby village is situated at a height of 285 metres above sea level, whereas Pen Hill reaches a height of 586 metres, quite a climb from the village without a chairlift! This track is part of the old Peat Road from Middleham to the peat-gathering grounds on Hazely Peat Moor, a windswept wilderness of heather and peat bog.

Heading upwards, I paused for a breather by an old sheep fold (Photo 1). Looking back the way I had come I could see the North York Moors (Photo 2), and ahead of me, my target, the summit of Pen Hill (Photo 3). A couple of gates proved awkward — I could not open them because of the depth of snow drifted up against them, so I had to climb over — an interesting manoeuvre wearing 2 metre long cross-country skis! However the third one proved too tricky so I took off the skis to climb over, giving me the opportunity for a photo of the summit cairn of Pen Hill viewed through the skis (Photo 4). Once over the last gate, the route stretched ahead of me with no more barriers (Photo 5). From here, the views towards Coverdale (Photo 6) and Wensleydale (Photo7) were magnificent.

Reaching the base of the final steep ascent to the summit, I took off my skis to attach climbing skins (Photo 8) and headed upwards on long diagonal traverses, using kick turns to change direction at the end of each traverse. After half an hour of hard work I reached the summit (Photo 9), where I sat down for a well-earned break and lunch. So far I had not seen another soul!

As I set off after lunch across the summit ridge I met a walker coming the other way — we both agreed that we could not have asked for a better day! He was the only other person I saw all day.

My route now took me westwards, following the northern edge of Pen Hill, with spectacular views down into Wensleydale and a considerable drop over Black Crags just a few metres to my right (Photo 10). Breaking a trail through the snow drifted against the drystone walls, (over a metre deep in places), was hard work, but the views more than made up for the effort involved.

My next waypoint was a shooting track heading south across the moor back towards Coverdale — again getting over the gate was tricky. Once over, it was easy skiing along the well-covered track, with wonderful views towards Great Whernside at least until I reached what I knew would be the hardest part of the route — a steep descent down the winding track, the edges of which were hidden by the snow cover.

After a series of traverses, kick turns and snowplough turns (and a couple of falls), the track became a gentle downward slope and I enjoyed a relaxed descent until I reached an area where sheep had been congregating around their feeding station, whereupon the track became a mixture of churned up snow and sheep droppings! This meant taking off my skis and continuing on foot until I reached clean snow again. From here it was a simple plod along the shooting track, with the snow getting slushier and thinner, until I reached the road back to Melmerby. After a short walk downhill I was back home — my total time for the route being around 4 hours.

An unforgettable day and I rewarded myself with a well-earned pint of excellent beer brewed by the Wensleydale Brewery!