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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Outside, in the July evening, the round grey pebbles of the lake shore were still warm from the hot summer sunshine. The sky across the water was turning to pink, but he was comfortable outdoors in only shorts and T-shirt. Gathering handfuls of sticks, he prepared a little fire on the shingle a few yards from where he’d pitched the tent. He no purpose but leisure, and no food to cook. He had the ancient desire to look into the heart of the fire.
He’d been brought to the Newlands Valley, to this western shore of Derwent Water, as a boy. In that single week he had lost his heart. He loved it all: the tree-clad islands, the rounded fells, the delicate peace-drenched light at evening and early morn. As the dry sticks caught fire and began to burn, he recalled the smell of woodsmoke. This little place, this nook of old England, this quiet corner of the Lake District, was to him, a kind of spiritual centre, a place of pilgrimage.
Behind the little tent on the tree-fringed meadow by the lake, the land rose up in waves to the high tops, even at this hour, crested in sunshine. In the stillness, the sound of sheep high on the fell could be heard.
Two nights ago, he and the others had escaped from Force Crag Mine. They’d made their way across the grain of the country, through trackless valleys and overgrown fields, through the dark and the storm, travelling at night, hiding up in the daytime. They’d got here late on the second night, drenched, cold and shivering, and had holed up in the ruins of an old outdoor centre. They’d no means to light a fire, and nothing to cook even if they could. The ever-present risk of being caught, weighed heavy upon them like their cold, wet clothes.
Their pickup was to be by boat, on the lake that had been called Derwent Water. There was a jetty in these overgrown woods, near a place they’d heard was called Brandlehow. An old jetty from better times, when there had still been such a thing as tourism. But now, these once busy woods, these unkempt fields, all the land about, were drear from decades of neglect.
Only the trees moved, roaring and bending, creaking in the wind. The rain dripped from the leaves of Autumn, and where there was no shelter, it came down endlessly, an unstoppable grey noise.
Hope ebbed away as the grey daylight grew stronger. Sheets of rain obscuring the mountainside became visible. Dark clouds were down on the high tops. Wind was whipping the water into a frenzy. Even on this lake, there were substantial white-horsed waves thrashing the stones of the shore. The wind was like a solid noise in the tree tops; the rain, relentless, dispiriting. Despair and defeat was an actual taste in the mouth. It seemed to be over. They would be stuck here, and stuck here, they would be caught.
As the daylight thickened, the weather, if it were possible, grew worse. Nothing animal or man was out and about or moving in this weather. Small furry creatures were hidden away in their burrows and holes, hiding from the storm. Such people as were left in this remote part of the country would likewise be in their homes. It was all wet leaves, mud, sodden clothes, wet hair, wet and cold feet. Hunger gnawed at them, weak as they already were from working in the mine. They were paralyzed with defeat and exhaustion, hunkered down in the woods, sheltering in long collapsed ruins, buildings that had been derelict for decades.
The crunching sound of footsteps…what was that? His heart hammered. A man appeared from around the corner of the ruined building, wearing a rain-soaked outdoor jacket made in the previous century, and a leather hat. Rainwater dripped from the rim. He had a straggly beard, and missing front teeth. He looked silently at the fugitives for a few moments, saying nothing, and yawned hugely. The three of them struggled tiredly to their feet. The stranger did not speak. He just indicated with a jerk of his head, in a voiceless movement, that they should follow him, and almost as quickly as he appeared, he was gone. One after the other, the three fugitives limped back out into the rain and wind, their feet squelching, wet socks, wet shoes, blisters. Their footwear was light prison issue work shoes, not really appropriate for walking in wild country in heavy weather.
Following the stranger down through the dripping woods, they came to what looked like a derelict landing stage. A rather odd-looking boat was alongside. The boat was somehow, difficult to see. It was certainly grey. It sat very low in the wave-strewn water. Or was it grey? Was it bigger than it appeared to be? The three of them climbed onto the landing stage, each casting dubious and fearful glance at the violence and malevolent passion of the waters beneath, and thence, following the man in the hat, down onto the strange grey boat. Close-up, it looked like a launch of some kind. As soon as the men were aboard, the boat jerked violently astern, and, rocking violently, turned away from the shore.