Category Archives: mountains

Backpacking in the Cairngorms

Part 1: To the Highlands by Caledonian Sleeper

When I began my journey from East Surrey at 1853 on a Wednesday evening, it was with a heavy heart, for a number of reasons. A lovely old fellow we all knew was dying; he did in fact go home, early on the Thursday morning. A pint in that favoured spot, the Doric Arch at Euston station, marked the start of my holiday. Later, as I boarded the sleeper train, there was an oddly sudden and very heavy rain shower. My wife informed me that this rain was quite extreme back in Oxted, shorting out house electrics and causing minor flooding.

Arriving in Inverness, I was straight into gloves – it was one of those cold and blustery mornings. The train was almost an hour early. I recommend the Caledonian Sleeper; it is costly, but good value for money when you look at what you’re getting – return travel from London to Scotland, and two nights accommodation. Inverness is a long way from London and indeed, a long way from Edinburgh. The atmosphere is very different. I started by taking coffee and a breakfast roll in the bus station cafe. You can’t beat a bus station or train station cafe; no-one cares how smart or untidy you are, or how big your bags are. As a very tall man, I do sometimes value not being noticed.

To the co-op to pick up some groceries: I bought bread, butter, cheese, tomatoes, little oranges, an onion, fresh spinach, chocolate, fresh tortellini, and water. I carried in from home, coffee, sugar, spices and salt and pepper, porridge oats, red lentils, gram flour, and chorizo sausage, and also a trail mix of “date, nut and seed balls” – these were absolutely superb. Thence, by cab to the airport to pick up a rental car. Then I motored back into town, swiftly over Slochd and down into Glen Feshie, to park up at the road head and prepare for hiking. Leaving home, my rucsac was 16kg: now with food for three days and water, it must have approached 20kg.

date, nut and seed balls

Part 2: Glen Feshie to Glen Geusachan – across the Great Moss

After a climb through some pleasant woods, the route to Carn Ban Mor goes up the left-hand side valley of the Allt Fhearnaghan. I was feeling very fit and strong as I climbed, but did notice far more snow than I had thought there would be. This seemed to be more than the Autumn icing-sugar dusting of snow I had anticipated, and was closer to real winter conditions. Up onto the Great Moss, I did not go to Carn Ban Mor, and also made the error of leaving the track, and thus wading through heather and fresh snow occasionally drifting a foot deep. It was blustery, showery weather. One moment, I could see Angel’s Peak and Cairn Toul, the next, there’d be a squall and a snow shower. I made my way to the summit of Tom Dubh – just a slight top in the midst of the Great Moss, though at 918m as high as most Lake District summits.

View from Tom Dubh

From Tom Dubh, downwards into an area of fens, marshes and little tarns where I found myself going in circles and doubling back away from half-frozen watercourses I could not possibly ford. It was an oddly blue-grey world, and the snow started to pile down. I got on down to Loch Stuirteag, where I had hoped to camp! This was a wild and inhospitable place, wholly unsuitable for camping in anything but summer conditions. In any case, a howling wind was at my back; I sought in vain for shelter. Lower down, at the very top of Glen Geusuchan, I thought I found shelter, and laid my tent out in a flat spot. But the outer was nearly torn from my hands in a violent gust. What was I thinking of? I should have been in grave trouble had I stayed there. I packed up again and struggled on downwards into a glen of deep, trackless heather. I fell over and picked myself up again; I found myself on the edge of steep slopes down into the river; my feet fell into hidden water; I stumbled, carrying 20kg. To be fair, I had bought a new rucsac, an Osprey Aether Pro 70, and it was an exceptionally good carry. Nearly 2kg lighter than my previous rucsac, this one sat very comfortably and caused me no problems at all.

I could find nowhere to get out of the wind. I didn’t feel desperate, but it was quite a desperate situation. Darkness was impending; I was already tiring. I could not realistically make it to the Courrour Bothy in daylight. I should have been left floundering uphill through the trackless heather, in the dark and the storm, trying to find Courrour – an unlit speck in the mountain fastness. I found a place in the river bed – can I pitch a tent on sand and pebbles? Yes. At least this place was sheltered by an old river bank, a six-foot wall of peat and heather, and was as out of the wind as I could find.

I struggled with the wind whilst getting pitched, and pitched my MSR Elixir 2 outer first, though it wasn’t actually raining at that point. Almost the last thing I did outdoors as darkness fell (apart from getting water from the river) was collecting heavy stones to pile onto the guys and tent pegs. Well that I did so now rather than in the dark. I had a good camp – I cooked dinner, ate, and turned in soon after. I certainly slept some, though the noise of the wind and the frequent rain showers kept me awake much of the time.

I was awake at 5a.m when the storm reached it’s crescendo. Lucky I was that it had not been earlier. The wind redoubled in strength and tore out the pegs on the windward side of my tent, though the guy-line held. This made the outer tent flap in the wind unto destruction, unless it was fixed. The noise of the tent flapping wildly in the gale, particularly in the dark, could easily induce panic if you allowed it to. I managed to fix it from the inside, with rocks and moist sand. Then the pegs on the lee side came out, then on the windward side again. Four or five times I had to jam the pegs back in again, getting wet sand all over my hands and in the inner tent. By this time I was awake and dressed for the day and had started to pack up against the possibility of ultimate catastrophe. I did manage to make porridge and coffee, and dress a pre-existing cut on my forefinger, whilst using one of my trail poles to keep one peg in place on the lee side of the tent. This was a remarkably difficult moment and I seemed to get through it without too much trouble. The tent flapped; I was somehow able to rise above doing so. Getting things wrong was just not an option in these conditions: everything had to be done quickly, methodically, correctly, and in the right order. I packed up, dropped the inner, and took down the outer, but by this stage as daylight strengthened the storm ebbed; the worst of the squall was over.

From Achlean to my camp on Geusachan Burn at around 974943, was about 17km, which took about six hours. It is a very great shame, but buried somewhere in the sand of that river bank, or blown off into the wilds, there is a small slice of thin flexible polypropylene chopping board, bright blue, about 6″ x 6″ – for I never saw that again. There was some slight damage to the ends of my tent poles, which was easily fixed.

Part 3: Glen Geusachan to Glen Feshie

Let’s look at the positive – remember that bit in “Apollo 13”? “what have we actually got on this spacecraft that works?” …er, let me get back to you on that, chief…actually quite a lot. I was warm, dry, clean, my kit was packed and complete and dry, I’d had a hot breakfast and even some coffee. The world was at my feet.

Glen Guesachan at dawn

In the glorious light of dawn, I walked out of the side glen and round into the Lairig Ghru. Fording streams and rivers is a serious challenge in the Cairngorms – it is rarely an issue in the Lake District. One cannot ford the Dee even this high up, certainly not in cold weather, though one might try in high summer. I had to detour all the way up the the Courrour Bothy to cross the river. It was an uphill slog through heather, with only the occasional hint of a path. I reached Courrour on a bright and pleasant morning, about 10a.m.

Courrour

I crossed the Dee on the footbridge, and had brief converse the only hiker I saw for two days, an older man from Edinburgh. He was in for the day to climb the Devil’s Point and Cairn Toul. Approaching Courrour at 10a.m in late October, he must have made a very early torchlit start from the Linn of Dee – that’s a long walk in. God only knows what time he started from Edinburgh! He did mention that there had been driving rain on the drive in – probably about the time my tent was getting hammered by the gale.

Bod an Deamhain – “the Devil’s Point” (although I understand “point” is a Victorian euphemism for another quite different word beginning with P.)

I powered on down the valley, consciously keeping the pace fast. I was fortunate in being very fit: when backpacking, many issues conspire to slow you down. Hips hurt, shoulders hurt, feet hurt, blisters, hungry, thirsty, exhausted etc etc. The last of these, when you’re very fit, is almost an irrelevance. Walking at 4km/hour all day long while carrying 20kg becomes merely doable rather than requiring a mighty effort.

A chopper searched the surrounding summits as I walked south. Early afternoon, I came into phone range and also into sight of the White Bridge across the Dee. I saw a couple with a pushchair and a dog – I didn’t realise how near the Linn of Dee car park was at that point – about three miles away. I saw two estate workers. The next part of my route lay for many miles along unmetalled roads, and in fact I was passed by a car once.

To the Red House, and on up the Geldie Burn – though no burn this, but another wide and deep river unfordable in cold weather or winter conditions. The Geldie Burn is technically a “misfit stream”. The valley in which it lies is glacial in origin, not carved by this or any river. Geldie Burn has enormous relict banks indicating that at some point in the geological past, when the ice melted, it must have been ten, a hundred times bigger than it is now – a torrent like unto Niagara.

Through the golden afternoon over lovely brown moorland, and endless path, which, once the un-made road ended, was never less than a clear trail. From the White Bridge, up the Geldie Burn and to the unnamed waterfall at the head of Glen Feshie, at least 12 kilometres. I started to experience muscle pain in my left shoulder; I found that Voltarol brought very swift and very effective relief.

Sometime before arriving at the unnamed waterfall, I fell over. I was negotiating some deep and evil-smelling pools of mud in one of the ruts of the road. Whatever…I twisted and slipped. Or I slipped and twisted…carrying 20kg, once you’re going down, you’re going down – there’s no stumble and recover with that kind of weight on your back. I ended up on my back in a foot deep puddle of thick, black runny mud. Desgustang! With some difficulty I got myself up and out again. Strangely enough, I personally was untouched – wearing a Goretex raincoat, gaiters and overtrousers, no actual mud penetrated to my clothes. My rucsac took the brunt of the mud and was very dirty. If I had a minor criticism of the light grey colour of the Aether Pro, it would be that the straps and hip-belt show the dirt very easily.

This remarkable waterfall was, to quote C.S Lewis, “a terror in the woods for miles around”. It was audible long before it could be seen. It has no name on the map; it is comparable to High Force in Teesdale, and were it within a hundred yards of a road in England or Scotland, people would drive 100 miles to see it. In the Cairngorms it is at least five hours walk up-hill from the road head in wild and remote Glen Feshie, and probably five hours walk from the car park at Linn of Dee. So almost impossible to access in a day-trip except in high summer. How remote! How excellent that remoteness is.

I was now in the descent into Glen Feshie and ready to look for somewhere to camp. Trees appeared, larch and other kinds. Suitable places to camp emerged, albeit far from water – the river was running in an inaccessible gorge. I had at this point run out of water, so I needed to camp right by a stream. Better yet, there was no breath of wind. I needed to stop a little earlier to allow enough daylight to ensure that my tent was OK after the beating it took this morning.

I found a place by a ford, and camped right next to the path, in as wild and remote a location as ever I have camped in…except for, oh, last night. The tent went up easily and the ground took the pegs well. Once established, I made a faranata – a pancake of chickpea flour, as recommended by my son. On a Trangia stove it worked a treat. For afters, some chocolate and a sip from the hip-flask. To drink I had litres and litres of stream water: slightly brown from peat. There’s no sheep up here – no need for any purification tablets. Though the colour was off-putting, and the water was so cold as to induce a blinding headache, it was like nectar, like Ambrosia, like ice-cold lager. It is a pleasure to be that thirsty and have a pure mountain stream in which to slake that thirst.

On day 2 I walked 30km in approximately eight hours. I used Black Diamond trail poles, Gore-tex gaiters and over-trousers, walking trousers, merino wool base layers, a thick cotton shirt and Berghaus fleece and waterproof coat. I get cold easily these days: a merino wool hat helps, and gloves are big deal. I had a thin and thick pair of gloves, and also some heavy mittens. I wore gloves at all times outdoors when walking; up on the plateau I found it necessary to wear all three pairs at once.

High Street wet and dry; camping on a mountaintop

By Pendolino to Oxenholme, tilting through the heartland like an aircraft. In Lancashire the weather deteriorated, to pouring rain as the train called at Preston. At Oxenholme, to the Station Inn for a pint and then to camp in their garden. We were the only campers on a wet and windy Thursday evening. Next day, after a breakfast of champions prepared on a Trangia stove in a pub car park, to Sadgill at the head of Longsleddale.

We were away onto the hill before 0800. It was absolutely pouring. I’d not walked a hundred yards before regretting not fetching waterproof trousers. I stopped to put my gaiters on, which helped somewhat. Earlier in the week I had hurt my heel slightly mowing the lawn while wearing big boots with inadequate socks. I was now on the hill with both heels dressed in prophylactic, pre-emptive dressings, a kind of talisman, perhaps, to ward off blisters.

We plugged away up the valley to Gatescarth Pass. I read after our walk that when a railway through these lands was first proposed, back in the 1840s, one possibility considered was a route through Kendal and along Longsleddale, with a 2-mile tunnel under the Gatescarth Pass and into Mardale – the valley now filled with Haweswater. In the end of course, the route chosen for what is now the West Coast Main Line from London to Glasgow, took the much longer and steeper route over Shap and through the Lune valley. What might have been, eh?

Left up onto Harter Fell (778m) and squelch down to Nan Bield Pass, where there was a shelter, one side of which was exposed to the rough northerly wind. We hid behind it. There was a great view of Blea Water, and Haweswater directly “above” or behind it. Then, on up Mardale Ill Bell (760m) and onto the summit of High Street (828m) where it was possible – just, for they are in a north-south direction – to hide for a snack behind possibly the highest dry stone walls in the UK. They weren’t dry stone walls at that moment, I can assure you.

Then the long walk downhill to Patterdale, past the very picturesque and shapely Angle Tarn (I call this one the “other Angle Tarn” to distinguish it from the arguably better known Angle Tarn high up in the northern corrie of Esk Pike.) This gentler and larger Angle Tarn has a little island in the middle with trees on it! Onwards, down to the Patterdale valley floor as the rain eased somewhat. At one point we passed a frenzy of foxgloves, almost as if someone had gone out of their way to seed the hillside with that lovely flower.

At Patterdale we found welcome at neither the Ship Inn nor the Patterdale Inn. Desirous therefore, of leaving the hospitality of Patterdale behind us, we walked with some effort down the valley towards Glenridding. We found St Patrick’s Boat Landing, a little cafe up a flight of stairs, serving tea and cakes. Here we remained, wet and dripping but welcomed by mine host, for a couple of hours.

Refreshed, we set off again, walking up the eastern and more wild side of Patterdale, through delightful woods – a generation or two ago, one might have camped wild here in these remote woods both with impunity and with great pleasure. Perhaps not today – not really the done thing. We crossed to the right-hand side, walking alongside Brotherswater, through still more lovely woodland. At the campsite at Brotherswater, we found no room for us. To be fair, it was a Friday afternoon in late June, whatever the weather. Jaded, we took a short snack and set off yet again.

We slogged through improving weather, our waterproof gear coming off by degrees, until we reached Hayeswater. Here we made the most excellent camp, along with at least three other parties. Our supper was tortellini with pesto, washed down with some very strong beer, followed by chocolate and fruit. A 32 km hike in two halves.

Hayeswater

The next day, we had a breakfast of porridge and coffee, and then struck camp in light clag. We reversed yesterday’s route, more or less, back over High Street. No rain this time, but it was windy in places. In improving weather we descended into Longsleddale, for a total round of 45km in less than two days.

Thence by car to Bowness, thinking we might rent a canoe and relax with some boating on Windermere. But Bowness was full of tourists and there was nowhere to park. It made Ambleside on a busy Saturday afternoon look like a deserted hamlet. Dreadful place, possibly only the second time I’ve been there in my life; I shan’t willingly go back. We left, and took the chain ferry across the lake, and sat with a pint in Hawkshead.

Later, we met up with some friends, and in the golden evening, climbed up onto the summit of Holme Fell near Coniston, and camped right on the summit. Very fragrant and heathery. Sat on the summit we ate well – this time we had a spicy dal, and some Farinata – spicy chick pea pancakes. Though the evening grew cold, there was tremendous visibility and glorious views as the sun went down.

Coniston Water from Holme Fell – evening
Coniston Water from Holme Fell – morning
the central fells seen from Holme Fell, late evening

A long-ago winter’s day on Coniston Old Man

When I look back over more than forty years of hillwalking and mountaineering, starting in 1977 and continuing to the present day, there are a small handful of summits I find I have visited time and time again. Tryfan and Snowdon are two of them; Blencathra is a third. I was very surprised to find, when I started preserving my written mountaineering logbooks, that the Old Man of Coniston (803m) was actually quite high on my list.

We visit the mountain here in February 1986, in what were superb, icy-cold snowy winter conditions: quite remarkable for the English Lake District even forty years ago. I rather suspect that we shall not in our lifetime see snow like that in the Lakes. But one may hope.

Five of us left the hut in Coniston and walked up the path, towards Low Water. A tedious slog saw us into the Low Water corrie in deep snow, where we practiced ice techniques for a while on a large, gently sloping icefall. We went on up a gully to the right of Low Water Crag. Apart from a steep grassy step, it was easy but very satisfying snow climbing. It brought us out in due course onto the unconscionably cold and icy summit of Brim Fell.

Nick Hough on Brim Fell February 1986

In mist we continued south along the ridge, which looked quite alarmingly sharp in winter conditions. Snow can sometimes have the effect of making the merely British hill look alpine, and give the appearance of difficulty to what is merely straightforward. I recall being told that one of the first French mountaineers to see the Snowdon Horseshoe in winter, in the late 19th century, wildly over-estimated the height, length and complexity of the route under winter conditions. The party got to the start of Crib Goch, and saw Snowdon in the distance, covered in snow, looking very Alpine. The french mountaineer declared that the summit of Snowdon was too far away to reach from where they stood, in daylight.

Coniston Old Man was iced over, but not completely covered; the Lakeland summits are not high enough to permit a serious build-up of snow. We left north, as the mist cleared to reveal Goat Hause and Dow Crag. We stopped for lunch at Goat Hause and continued across rather rough mixed ground, which was very hard on the crampons. This would be scree in summer and there would be a perfectly obvious path to follow. We were aiming for a snow gully at the northern end of Dow Crag. The first section was just drifted snow, but soon it became some rather trickier frozen-over grass and rock steps. Nearer the top we moved over a rocky rib into the next most southern gully, which was well in condition, packed with hard snow, especially near the top. It twisted away below us down to Goat Water. [It is entirely possible that the photograph of me that opens this article, was actually taken here. At 40 years remove I cannot be sure.]

Not sure where we are here: except it must be broadly west into the sun at that time of year and time of day. Possibly taken from Swirl How. The small lake middle left may be Devoke Water. February 1986.

This was fulfilling and satisfying work, a great end to the route as we scrambled out onto the summit of Dow, to clearing weather and the sight of the Scafell massif absolutely plastered in snow. The weather was photograph-clear. From Dow, we considered our options, and moved onto Grey Friar. When we got there, it was cold, and windy, and we were becoming rather tired. We thundered around the hause and up the gentle slope to Swirl How.

This is Seathwaite Tarn – a reservoir

From Swirl How there is a very steep ridged descent called the “Prison Band”. This was excellent sport downhill to Swirl Hause, and from there, down to Levers Water through a good foot of soft powdery snow. That was hard going. In the sky, pastel hues of pink and yellow, a beautiful evening in the making. An absolutely grand day. Down past the iced-over quarry roads through the Coppermines Valley, arriving at the hut around 5pm.

Levers Water, late afternoon, February 1986

The ongoing project of preserving paper notes of mountaineering and hillwalking going back as far as 1983, can be browsed here: https://plateroom28.blog/great-outdoors/

Wild camping in the Lake District – October 2020

Part 1: To Windermere

I set off from Surrey around 3pm, starting a 300 mile drive in to the Lake District. Whilst without incident as a drive,there was very heavy rain in the Chilterns and then again around Stoke-on-Trent. The M6 Tollway I think highly of – belting along there cost me £6.90 and probably shortened my total journey time by six minutes. What price money? There are people – quite a lot of people judging by the emptiness of the toll road – who refuse to use it as a matter of principle. I confess I cannot get my head round that attitude. Arguing that you can’t afford it, for a one-off journey, cuts no ice. Commuting might be different, of course. Maybe they object to the principle of roads being private property rather than public infrastructure.

I got to my B&B in Windermere in heavy rain, a little after 8.30p.m. Mine host was a rather eccentric and somewhat peremptory older man. Eccentric, in that he’d already admitted (as a businessman and B&B owner) to not possessing a mobile phone. To not own a mobile phone in Britain today, is in my view little more than a fashion statement. Not owning one as a B&B owner indicates an indifference to customers that I don’t find encouraging. Peremptory, in his attitude. Breakfast was exactly 8a.m and appear here in the hall and I’ll show you into the dining room. (This beats by some margin the narrow window “breakfast is 8.30 til 9, any time” offered by a cheery Australian landlady in Weymouth, which became a standing joke in our house for years afterwards.) Always remember – Fawlty Towers was not a sit-com: it was hard-hitting documentary.

My room was a typical B&B room, woodchip on the walls, a sink, no en-suite, comfy bed, tea-making facilities. I went out for a rather dank pint in a local pub, and went to bed, to sleep well enough.

Part II: from Great Langdale to Styhead

Next morning I went down at exactly 8a.m and mine host was waiting for me. He showed me into an empty dining room set for over a dozen people. He served me as good a Full English as ever I’ve had, with a pot of the strongest and tastiest coffee I’ve drunk in years. An excellent start to the day. Before 8.30a.m I had left – through the misty moisty morning to the head of Great Langdale, where I parked the car in some flat land near the road, a mile or so beyond the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. Getting my gear right took some time, and it was probably near enough 10a.m before I set off.

My rucsac had weighed 16kg at home before so much as a bite to eat went in it. Now, it must have been well over 20kg. I hadn’t walked thirty yards before I wondered if I needed to take a longer warm-up. I considered walking the length of Mickleden, nice and flat, but that meant the horror of climbing Rossett Gill at the end. I decided to stick with going up The Band, so off I went towards Stool End Farm. And as I climbed, I came across the true deliverable of physical fitness. This last six months I’ve been running 20km a week. I walked up The Band in an hour and forty minutes, carrying a 20kg rucsac. I don’t say I didn’t break sweat, nor that it didn’t take it out of me, but my pulse stayed under 100 all the way. Happy with that!! At the top, a rest before continuing up Bow Fell, which despite it’s daunting aspect I found a straightforward ascent. At the top it was almost noon and there was a squall coming, so I stopped for lunch.

Scafell and Scafell Pike

From Bowfell I continued round the Scafell horseshoe. Ore Gap, Esk Pike, Esk Hause, but missing Great End. The weather was glorious, so I continued right on up to the summit of Scafell Pike itself, where I arrived at 4p.m.

Here you can see so much: an unnamed tarn on Middleboot Knotts, Great Gable, Styhead Tarn, and in the far distance, Derwentwater with Skiddaw clearly visible behind

It was cold. On a few occasions I had cause for concern that I should have brought mittens – as well as gloves. From Scafell Pike back down to the col and down the Corridor Route, starting to feel tired. But what wonderful light: Here’s the view down into Wasdale:

At one point, in the pleasant later afternoon sunshine, the path went down some very steep and rocky ground. You can do without that, when carrying a 20kg expedition bag. In Frank Herbert’s novel “The Dragon in the sea“, an old and wise submariner says to a more junior officer, “As a submariner, you only make the same mistake once“. For me as a man in my fifties carrying a huge rucsac, descending a rocky scree or boulder field, that was true. Here, I would only slip or put my foot wrong once. There would be no second chance. Taking the greatest care one does get down, though the thigh muscles ache. One has to be in the position of being able to lower, in a controlled way, your entire body weight, just on one leg. You have to keep your centre of gravity behind you – if it gets in front of you, you’ll topple over in an instant and game over man, game over…

Very tired, I reached Sty Head, and opted to camp there, on flat ground by a babbling brook.

Styhead

For supper I had fresh tortelini and some sausage, with onion, garlic and pesto. I use a very old and battered Trangia stove, the smaller “27” model. It has served me well for nearly 40 years. With this stove I feel rather like the proverbial man who has his father’s axe – I may have replaced some of the parts. On the hill I was munching through a small tiger loaf bought in Windermere, with Red Leicester cheese, butter, cherry tomatoes, and a satsuma. I was also using a trail mix of sultanas, raisins, seeds, salted peanuts and chocolate chips. This was inspired stuff – a mix of fast and slow energy. I learned this trick from a teacher when I was in school. And because I can afford the weight, a counsel of perfection for my evening meals was a bottle of Malbec, though wine and bottle weigh over a kilo. It’s an absolute fundamental to me that wild camping doesn’t mean rough or hard living. Camping doesn’t imply “roughing it”. Life offers enough difficulty as it is without adding further artificial complexity.

It was very cold overnight – an unpleasant cold breeze blew in through my air vents, til I shut them, at the expense of increased condensation. During the night the moon came out, which caused me some odd dreams and I did wake up briefly.

Part III: from Styhead to Buttermere – a round of Black Sail

My breakfast was porridge with a dash of Scotch, black coffee with a good deal of sugar, and a sausage. Breakfast of champions. Despite the cold and clear sunny morn, I had what was effectively a wet strike because of condensation. I shouldered my pack and set off towards the path. I passed a fellow out running with his dog, going in the Wasdale direction. It was about 9-ish. I reached the bottom of Aaron Slack and started up. The last time I was here, was twenty-odd years ago, coming off Great Gable with a friend of mine in absolutely dreadful weather: it was the time we met Todd, a lone American youth. Taaaarrrd, as he pronounced his own name, was rather over-equipped, we thought, at the time – probably August. I didn’t feel over-equipped now in October.

I was carrying an MSR Elixir 2 hike tent, an Alpkit three season down sleeping bag, a Thermarest mat, the smaller (size 27) Trangia and about a pint of fuel. A full set of spare clothes, a first aid kit, maps and compass, a hip flask, two litres of water, and food for two more days on the hill. Don’t forget the (hic) half a bottle of Malbec. And of course a pen-knife. And a small pair of field glasses. Waterproof trousers and jacket, fleece, scarf, gloves, wooly hat. And I carried that lot up to Windy Gap between Great Gable and Green Gable. And there, I met a chap with a dog. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I almost said. Sure enough, it was the same guy. In the time it had taken me to grind up Aaron Slack, he’d RUN up Great Gable and down the other side. And I thought I was fit. He had a friendly and well-mannered grey dog, which whilst I was sat down, came over to see me.

Just look at the view: Pillar is on the left there. Ennerdale centre, and Red Pike just right of centre. Crummock Water is visible to the right, and the coastal plain beyond all.

From Windy Gap onto Kirk Fell: my first navigational tactical error of the day. Staying high is always good advice when hillwalking, of course, particularly in such beautiful weather. I could descend all the way down to the Black Sail hut and then back up the Black Sail Pass to Pillar, or, I could stay high on Kirk Fell, but come down off the fell to the top of the Black Sail Pass. I could see on the map that the descent went through “Kirk Fell Crags” but I didn’t pay enough attention to the detail. Coming off Kirk Fell, I not even see how steep; the land dropped away. The path descends very steeply through rocks and screes. Indeed, no-one could come up that path without actually climbing or scrambling – and I must descend with that huge heavy rucsac.

Mixing down-climbing – descent face-in (making one feel very exposed, but much safer) and going down face-out (you can see where you’re going and you feel safer, but it’s always more hazardous and you’re more liable to slip) – I got down. I recalled advice about visiting the Black Cuillin of Skye. It was simple: if you’re not comfortable climbing downwards, don’t. Don’t go to the Black Cuillin. Down-climbing is a tricky technique to learn and you have to learn to trust your hands and feet. It is the better way down steep places, especially if the rock is wet and greasy. Here, all was dry. Had it been wet I would probably have turned back. Concentration and effort took their toll and I was morally shattered by the time I reached the col. Were it not even 11 o’clock in the morning I should have been tempted to reach for the hip flask for a swift steadying double. I resisted. Climbing onward toward Pillar, I was starting to feel a little jaded. I stopped for my lunch half way up at a “Pile of Stones”. Again, lovely scenery and such clear air.

At Pillar I needed to think: whilst there was no pressing rush, it was decision time about my further route and my final destination. Would it be Haycock and Steeple and then down, or would I go down from here, and then up and over into Buttermere or onto the Haystacks? I needed to start curving round and positioning myself to be within 4-5 hours walk of Great Langdale by nightfall. Here, the second tactical navigation error of the day. Instead of dropping directly off Pillar towards Ennerdale, I dropped down to Wind Gap, the next col, and down from there. The paths looked similar even on the 1:25000 map. But the valley route was the steeper and rockier, down into a deep corrie wherein, to my ears, were nesting some raucous birds of prey of some kind. A wild and little-visited spot for Lakeland.

A boulder-strewn hillside above Ennerdale

Some way down, I found I had lost my fleece; it had fallen off my pack where it was strapped on. I dropped the bag and set off uphill in the sunshine to look for it. But how do you find a dark grey fleece on a boulder-strewn sunlit hillside? I had neither the time nor the energy. By mountaincraft and not by luck, there was nothing of any value in the pockets of the fleece – save for all my alcohol gel and a mask.

Downwards to the edge of the industrial forest of Ennerdale, crossing a stream on a fallen log, on through the dank moss-ridden woods. I do love a forest but this place made Fangorn look friendly. In the distance far below, orange. I emerged onto a forest road where three absolutely enormous tracked logging machines stood. This is a deeply industrial environment, in the heart of some beautiful countryside. Then, a long and tiresome five kilometre tramp uphill alond the forestry tracks to the Black Sail Hut.

The Black Sail Hut – probably the most remote youth hostel in England

After a brief snack of bread and cheese at Black Sail, my final climb of the day, through the Scarth Gap into Buttermere – this was familiar terrain. Down into Buttermere for supper and camp at dusk.

Part VI: Buttermere to Great Langdale by bus

I camped in a little dell by the lake. It was a warm night on the Buttermere valley floor – much warmer than up at Sty Head. The forecast rain started at 7a.m, so I had a full wet strike. My supper and my breakfast were the same as the night before – for supper, tortellini, with sausage and pesto, and for breakfast, black coffee, and porridge with chocolate chips and a dash of Malt Whiskey. Dalwhinnie, I think this was, though after being stored in a hip flask it might as well have been Grouse. The second half of the Malbec slipped down nicely and I did not begrudge carrying the extra 1.2kg. As I weigh 91kg, I feel I can afford it. Nor did I begrudge carrying 250g of butter, 200g of cheese, 400g or bread, or an onion. Camping wild and backpacking doesn’t imply living rough.

I walked out the mile or so to the Fish Hotel in light rain, and was very pleased to find a bus to Keswick leaving in half an hour! Just enough time for a quick latte in the absolutely excellent Syke Farm Tea Room. The bus was driven by an amiable scotsman who a number of times had to stop and grab a seat cushion which kept falling to the floor each time the bus went round a corner. It cost £6.40 and ambled through the rain along the shore of Crummock Water, before climbing over Whinlatter to Braithwaite and Keswick.

At Keswick what to me appeared to be luck continued: twenty minutes stood outside Booths in heavy rain and I was onto a big double decker, bus 555, for the journey over Dunmail Raise to Ambleside. Cost: £9.40. At Ambleside I got off a stop too early even that didn’t prevent me from catching bus 516 to the Old Dungeon Ghyll, cost: £6. My journey by road from Buttermere took barely three hours and cost £22. A private car couldn’t have made the journey in much less than half that time. I would have been ready – though perhaps not so happy – to have paid three or four times that amount for taxis.

Had I known that public transport in the Lake District was so comprehensive and so well co-ordinated, I would never have brought the car at all. From where I live in East Surrey, the train would be about the same journey time, maybe slightly quicker, and a good deal less tiresome than trudging up and down the M40 and the M6. The train might cost a good deal more than the cost of the fuel – but as any fule kno, the cost of fuel isn’t the true or full cost of motoring.

Back in Langdale, I swiftly changed into town clothes, under grey lowering skies and pouring rain, and retreated back to Ambleside.

Buchaille Etive Mor

We took the sleeper from Euston, for a long weekend in the Highlands. As well as some hillwalking, there was a serious task at hand; the scattering of some ashes of a young woman who earlier this year, had taken her own life.

Our journey north was enlivened by about four fingers each of Glenlivet. We arrived at Glasgow Central after an adequate nights sleep, perhaps disturbed in my case by some rather odd whisky dreams. After a quick breakfast in the Gordon Street Cafe next to the station, we nipped off through the chill city streets to get our rental car. By 10 a.m we were parking up at Inveruglas on Loch Lomondside, in light rain.

Ben Vorlich

Past the rather impressive hydro-electric power station, you go under the West Highland Line, turn uphill keeping some rapids in a gorge on the left, and up a private road into the brown valley. Up ahead, there is a black industrial-looking dam.

Power lines march off into the distance. Dodging some maternal cattle who were monopolising the road, we broke right straight up into the hills, a long slog. We stopped for a quick bite to eat in a draughty cleft in the rocks, and pushed on to the summit. As we did so, the weather broke with a vengeance. Another half an hour later in starting, and we’d have been forced to turn back from the summit. In a howling, lashing storm, we bagged the summit and retreated as fast as possible. Fortunately there’s a clear path, even in thick clag. We were off the hill before 2pm, meaning that we’d bagged a Munro in less than four hours. Rather pleased with ourselves, we got in the car and drove north to the Clachaig.

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In Glencoe, we pitched our tents, not without some wind-related challenges, and retreated through the storm to the warmth of the pub:

“The evening shadows on the dry stone walls
The night draws in and the ale house calls”

(Chris Rea, “Chisel Hill“)

Buchaille Etive Mor

Around 10.30a.m, a party of eight of us set off up the Lairig Gartain. On the walk up the glen we had twice to ford streams that were running quite full and needed crossing with care. This was the largest group of people I’ve been on the hill with for twenty years. Six of the people present were university students less than half my age, and a handful of those young people were experienced hillwalkers. Everyone was quite fit, but the collective pace of such a group is slower than that of a smaller party. The route lay zig-zag up into Coire Altrium, negotiating through a band of cliffs and broken ground up onto the col between Stob Coire Altrium and Stob na Doire. We did not reach the ridge until after noon, and we paused there for refreshment. The day was wide open; whilst it was cold and windy, the weather seemed to be clearing.

The delicate light and remarkable visibility improved as the afternoon wore on.

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Along the ridge, things seemed further away than they really were. We met two parties as we continued north-west. The first was two guys, one of them with a rope over his shoulders. He reassured us in a strong Italian accent that the summit of Stob Dearg was by no means too far away. The second party was formed of more members of the university hiking club.

As we moved up towards the main summit of Stob Dearg, we were visited by a very tame raven.

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Strange, very strange, was this, to my eyes. I only found out later that this bird is a regular denizen of this summit. I should have known my local history better: A mountain with a route up it called Raven’s Gully might well have such birds lurking at the summit. The raven afforded some remarkable wildlife photography, with Ben Nevis prominent thirty miles away in the background.

At the summit of Stob Dearg – the shapely triangular mountain commonly referred to as “Buchaille Etive Mor”, the party paused for a moment of reflection. Earlier in the year, someone known and loved by members of the party had taken her own life whilst suffering from depression. Ashes were scattered. It was fitting that such an event should take place on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday.

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And then onwards and down. First, down to the col, and then, the steep descent into Coire na Tuliach. Until the party went down into the gully, the light remained absolutely remarkable. One might go on the hill for two years and not see conditions like it. Tired now, the party descended to Lagangarbh, and crossed the river. Only as we approached the road on the long tramp back to the car, did we reach for our torches. Our timing was perfect – in more ways than one, for the following day was rainy too. We were lucky enough to do our hike in all too brief weather window as Autumn slowly turned to Winter.

Stand up, hold my hand
I hope you understand
Here where time is still, I walk the hill

Stand here, close to me
Here for all eternity
I wait as others will, I walk the hill

(Stuart Adamson)

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Holy silence

How long can you be alone, and remain happy? A few days? Weeks? or maybe only hours.  I’ve known people who were uncomfortable with their own company for only hours.  Yet, the great hunters and explorers of North America must have spent months alone – think of John Muir, who was a six month in the Yosemite Valley with only a new testament for company.

The Linn of Dee – and the stones of Turin’s pride

At the Linn of Dee, I got out of the car and was struck immediately by the holy silence of the wilderness.  Almost it is like a church; I walk with quiet tread through the woods, mindful that this is God’s front room.

At the falls there is a mighty bridge across the narrowest part of the gorge.  It reminds of me of Ulmo Lord of Waters’ words to Turin in Tolkien: “throw down the stones of your pride”.  For Turin would have things as he would have them, and had caused to be built across the full flood of the Narog river, a mighty bridge, the better to access the entrance of the underground fortress of Nargothrond.  And Ulmo, herald-angel of the Most High, counselled Turin to cast those stones into the water.  For cometh evil that would use that bridge to destroy Turin, lay waste to all that he had created, and bring hideous sack and slaughter to Nargothrond.  And so it happened.

But what means this for us? The bridge at Linn of Dee allows vehicular access more easily so that walkers can get into the remote heart of the Cairngorms – one of Britain’s wildest, purest remaining places.  And rightly so – this bridge should not be thrown down.  But what we might throw down is dependence on stuff – idols.  Technology as our master.  Social media, handsets, tablets, the Cloud – all good things if they are our slaves.  But if we are to hear more clearly what God has to say in the holy silence of the wilderness, then we need to put aside the clamour of our toys, and focus on what is of true value.