Here are a number of accounts of climbing the Sharp Edge of Blencathra, over thirty years. The first, in the mid-1980’s, and most recently in 2015.
From Castlerigg into Keswick. Then we tramped out, eventually hitting the disused railway. It was a hot, hazy, blue sky kind of day. Under the big A66 bridge, and some of the old river bridges had a very Canadian feel to them. Splendid scenery. We left the old railway and crossed several fields to a road, which we followed down into a ravine. We stopped in the shade by the babbling brook, a lovely spot encouraging lassitude, but eventually we had to push on.
Up the hillside as the sun beat down on us. This is your Mousthwaite Combe. We laboured up a grassy path up onto the shoulder, which offered amazing views. FM radio reception was quite remarkable – we were listening to Q102 Dublin on our walkmans – in stereo. We continued onto the summit, not taking the route via Sharp Edge on this occasion. We dropped back down to the road arriving at the Salutation Inn in Threlkeld for an excellent bar meal. From there after a pleasant drink, we walked back to Castlerigg in the gloaming.
A large party of ten for a mass ascent of Blencathra! From the inn we moved along a road and struck left into a short valley, across the headwall of which, could be seen our path, forming a diagonal upwards. Mousthwaite Combe. At the top, we found ourselves on a broad whale-back, with a deep valley below. In it, the gloriously Tolkienesque River Glenderamackin. [Tolkienesque to me that is, not to the younger fellow who wrote this account in 1985; he knew nothing of Tolkien when he was 20.]
Along the left side of this valley, before climbing steeply up into the corrie of Scales Tarn. This is really impressive rock scenery, particularly Sharp Edge. One member of our party, somewhat afraid of heights and exposure, went up the screes to the summit. The rest of us went up Sharp Edge, with K. and R. at the front, and myself and T. J Walmsley shepherding one or two less experienced walkers in the rear.
It was my first time here on what became and what remains probably my favourite route. I found it passably sharp, suitably impressive and very exposed, but too short. It looks a lot worse than it is from a long way off. When you think of the great ridge walks in the British Isles, the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is by no means least among them, though is one of the shorter routes, the crux of it being only a hundred yards long. Even Crib Goch is only a few hundred yards of really sharp rock ridge mixed in with a mile or so of reasonably narrow ridge walking. For sustained narrow rock edge work you have to go to the Aonach Eagach above Glen Coe, which is miles long. But that’s not passable in winter conditions for walkers.
The route lies up over some gendarmes and up onto the summit where we had lunch. To the north there are many kilometres of wild moorland, but not particularly exciting hill country. At the top, it started to mist up. Blencathra has little to recommend it but Sharp Edge, and the descent was tedious. This being a Sunday, it had to be a short day – 4 hours on the hill. But satisfying for all that.
On a windy day, myself and J. Parkinson walked into Blencathra through low cloud. There was a fair amount of snow visible in the corrie of Scales Tarn. Sharp Edge itself was in cloud and the rock was exceptionally greasy to the fingers and to the boots. There was little snow on the ridge itself, but a fair bit on the face at the end.
We did not reach the summit: My friend noted that he was in his element roofing, sitting on the crown of a house in the urban environment, and had no problem with heights, but the conditions here put us both out of our element. The rock cold and greasy, we withdrew safely.
Always know when to turn back. A key lesson for the mountaineer, learned here at no cost. I’ve been fortunate over many years to learn some important lessons in mountaincraft at very, very modest cost.
Myself and R.C.E Ball, in heavy standing snow but clearing weather, climbed up into Mousthwaite Combe. It was windy; spindrift was troublesome to us the whole day. The path round to Scales Tarn was barely visible under the snow. In places, folds in the land caused very deep snowdrifts to form, hindering our progress considerably.
We got into the Scales Tarn corrie about 1.30pm. Scales Tarn itself was frozen. The main part of Sharp Edge was great sport, if spoiled somewhat by constant spindrift storms. There was hard frozen snow from previous falls, as well as fresh snow. The crest up to the summit was technically very difficult in winter conditions, as we neither of us were carrying ice axes or crampons. An axe would have been a great help. The snow was very hard, the rocks iced over to eliminate all handholds, and footholds were hard to make.
The summit plateau was lethal verglas. We got up and off quickly but with considerable difficulty, via Scales Fell, and good glissading (or bumslides in this case) down to Mousthwaite Combe. We were the first party on the hill after heavy snow.
The previous day, 8/1/91, we’d taken a short stroll from our camp at Braithwaite, up Stile End to Overside (1863′), before retreating before a blizzard in late afternoon. A warming up stroll terminated abruptly by a heavy snowstorm.
We were on the hill (that is, into Mousthwaite Combe) by 12.15pm. We arrived in the Scales Tarn corrie around an hour later. There was an attack of hail as we climbed up to Sharp Edge. The conditions were excellent. Up on the top of Blencathra we could see Styhead Tarn glinting in the distance. We detoured around for extra hill-walking – Blencathra is a short route. However, the weather worsened and a snow squall forced us to shelter. So we came down and were off the hill by 4p.m.
I think this is the time we went to camp at Castlerigg, but decided to go to a B&B in Keswick instead. I recall getting wet even opening the car door, at the campsite up at Castlerigg, and we thought, “No.”
We drove through to Scales and set off up Blencathra at about 2pm, in good weather.
As we got into the corrie of Scales Tarn, the weather broke big time, and our scramble up Sharp Edge was lethal. Conditions were very greasy and slippery underfoot. The mist was down, and for a time it rained quite heavily. My young colleague had never been here and struggled with confidence. We got up Sharp Edge only after long meditation and careful consideration. In any case, to withdraw from Sharp Edge in those conditions would have been more hazardous than going on. An ascent of the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is no mean achievement in any conditions.
So, on and up we went, and we were soon finished. We were further encouraged by three friendly men making their way slowly up the ridge behind us with much talk and laughter. After the summit we descended through pleasant afternoon sunshine to the car and drove directly to Honister Hause YHA. We checked in and had the cup of tea we as Englishmen had been desiring for some time. I saw that Youth Hostels are now licensed. Supper was at the Fish Hotel in Buttermere, taken outside, on a very clear and pleasant evening.
About eighteen months ago I went to the Lakes for a bit of wild camping. In the final paragraph of my trip report here, I wrote this: “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.“
I journeyed to Windermere by train. Leaving my home in East Surrey just before 0700, I was in Windermere just after noon. It is the Pendolino tilting train that makes this worthwhile and possible, from Euston to Kendal in three hours. The cost was not excessive at £133 return in standard class. After a scotch egg and a bottle of pale ale sat in a sun-soaked corner in Windermere, I took bus 508 up Kirkstone Pass, for £5.10, with a very cheerful and friendly driver who said, “It’s a while since I’ve driven this route. Let’s hope I can remember it”. There were two other passengers.
At the Kirkstone Pass Inn I hopped off in bright sunshine. As I was rigging my bag for hiking, seven or eight motorcycle warriors of one tribe or another roared through on their throaty Harley-Davidsons. It was 2pm. Grinning and confident in physical fitness, I set off up the hill, and was on the first top, Red Screes (776m). From there, along to Scandale Pass and little Scandale Tarn. Here there was a squall and in five minutes I went from using a sun hat to wearing gloves. That’s the Lake District for you – never underestimate the mountains. Further on, to Dove Crag, Hart Crag and finally Fairfield (873m) whence I arrived at 5.10pm. I’d been this way before, some time in the 1990’s. Here you can see the difference between winter and summer conditions:
The first time I was on Fairfield was in shouting rough conditions in about 1979 or 1980, with a school party on a YHA trip. It would hardly be allowed now. From there, down to the somehow ever-gloomy Grizedale Tarn. It is a long way down. Another location with deep memory for me, from that same YHA trip, only the second or third time I’d ever visited the Lakes.
It was with some difficulty that I found a place to pitch my tent. The aspect was geographically similar to that tarn in the Cairngorms (Loch nan Stuirteag) where I’d experienced difficulties last November. A high tarn flowing east down into a wild valley, no obvious camp ground at the outfall and a rising wind. But, a place to camp I found, by the babbling brook, and soon enough it was supper time: fresh tortellini and a tin of 8% stout. I was drowsy; I hardly thought at all. I was in bed asleep well before 9pm. I found that lying in my sleeping bag in the tent, listening to the babbling of the brook, I could be in a place where I was not thinking about anything: awake, but barely even conscious.
I was wide awake by 6a.m and set off at 8a.m, tent dry, ready for adventure. I was on Dollywaggon Pike before 9.30a.m, and from there to Nethermost Pike (891m) and onto Helvellyn (969m) before 10a.m. The first and strongest of the day-trippers were already there, some Scotsmen with good camera equipment. Absolutely stupendous visibility!! Just look at these below. I spent some time talking to the Scotsmen, reflecting that the last time I was here was in winter conditions in 1997.
And then, down, through the long morning. Although earlier on there had been few enough people on the mountain, I passed many dozens of folk toiling up the long and arduous ascent of Helvellyn from the Thirlmere side. Why would anyone climb Helvellyn from that side? A dreadful slog, it is. I suppose the ascent from the Patterdale side, involving as it must, either Swirral Edge or Striding Edge, is not for everyone. And not for me, is that steep downhill to Thirlmere: by the time I got to the valley floor, about 11a.m, I was tired and I had stubbed toes. It was very warm and sunny – again, absolutely delightful conditions for photography.
I was starting to think, where will I fill up on water? Odd to be in a reservoir valley, yet for there to be no instantly available drinking water. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink…there was a long and somewhat tiring slog through admittedly delightful woods up along the eastern shore of the reservoir, as far as the dam, where I stopped for lunch. Boots off, charge my devices, and sit in a sun-soaked corner. Lunch was bread and butter, cheese, tomatoes, and a little Chorizo sausage. An orange, some chocolate and some trail mix. I drank the remainder of my water. Now I really needed to fill up.
As I set off again, a trio of hikers passed me, two young women and a young man, all festooned with clanking cups and pans and camping equipment hung on their rucsacs. I confess I don’t like it for there to be any stuff attached to the outside of my rucsac. I prefer the clean lines of climbers’ rucsacs and generally don’t even do side-pockets if I can avoid it. One of the girls stopped to chat. It seems that they perhaps, did not realise when they arrived last night, that camping is strictly prohibited on the Thirlmere valley floor. I was just pleased to hear someone speak in a Lancashire accent, whatever this youngster was telling me.
At Armboth, I managed to fill up my water bottles, though I deemed it necessary to add purifying tablets. Onwards and upwards literally; the second ascent of the day, from Thirlmere up over the moor to Watendlath. I shouldn’t have cared to come through here in claggy conditions; the moor, as well as being boggy, was pathless and featureless; one should find oneself very soon resorting to the compass in poor visibility. Initially it was a very pleasant walk through steep meadows with unusual flowers, leading up onto a rather boggy moor. I found this hard going as it was now mid-afternoon and I was carrying 3kg of additional water. And so it was that for the first time in my life I found myself visiting the little hamlet of Watendlath, nestled in a hanging valley between Borrowdale and the Thirlmere valley. There was a tea rooms, and I stopped for a pot of some of the best tea I’ve had for ages, along with some rather nice tea bread. It was 4pm.
From Watendlath, one skirts the eponymous tarn and sets off up a good bridleway to Rosthwaite in Borrowdale. This was an ancient, traditional and much-trod road. It made me think of those many passes of Lakeland through which there is no tarmac road. Sticks Pass across these very moors. The Walna Scar Road between Coniston and Dunnerdale. The Black Sail Pass from Wasdale to Ennerdale. The Scarth Gap between Ennerdale and Buttermere, and the biggest and most important of them all perhaps, the central pass of the Lake District, Sty Head between Borrowdale and Wasdale. There will be others. I came down towards Rosthwaite late afternoon, again, in glorious sunshine, with the aforementioned Sty Head pass visible in the distance, as well as the bright specks of distant cars in the Honister Pass reflecting the sunshine. And all the time, the sound of lambs, and occasional cuckoos.
At Rosthwaite I stopped at about 5.20pm for a pint of ice-cold lager, primarily so I could sit in range of WiFi and update my wife on my location. Though the pint was very welcome, it was secondary to my purpose. Clearly EE don’t have a mast in Borrowdale.
Onwards: first, another tiresome road tramp along around 2km of tarmac, before turning left into the fields again on a path to my final destination today, Tarn at leaves, where I planned to camp. Though at best 2km from the road, it was strongly upstairs, really quite steep. The sun was at my back and though I was flagging towards the end of the long day, I knew I needed to get there. “You’ve got this” I told myself, and I had. I was a little concerned though, that there were no paths onwards from Tarn at leaves. This concern had some justification; the map, as far as it goes in terms of detail (which is not far even on the OS 1:25000 sheet) showed none. But this isn’t the Cairngorms in November. I finally got to the tarn and found it very boggy, going in up to my knees and getting my boots wet right in the last two minutes of an immense twelve-hour day on the hill. But it all dried out quick enough.
I was sat down to my supper quite late – about 8.30pm. For supper I had spicy red lentils, and a chick pea flour pancake – a “faranata” the recipe for which I learned from my son Nat. I can’t be doing with not eating and drinking well when camping wild. To wash my dinner down I had some remarkable and very tasty 8% proof “Sling it out Stout” (though to be fair after that walk of nearly 25km, even Carling Black Label would have tasted like nectar. Well, that’s pushing it a bit, maybe…
The place was well deserted. Though I was happy enough, it reminded me of a sad part of Tolkien. Hurin, released by the devil Morgoth after 28 years in captivity, wanders over the land trying to find the hidden city of Gondolin, whose king Turgon, was once his friend. He knew roughly where it lay, but not exactly. And on some deserted moor, where the wind whistled endlessly through the grass while no-one was listening, he cried out in grief and rage, “where are you, O Turgon, in your hidden halls?” But someone was listening…Morgoth’s hidden servants reported those words back, and the betrayal of Gondolin began.
This tarn is one of those past its former glory, slowly drying out. Slow by no human perspective – it’s climate change alright, but not as we know it. It’s nothing to do with man-made climate change. Tarns like these have been drying out in the Lake District since the ice receded these 10,000 years. There are dozens of them. The word “moss” is often a giveaway, for example, at the Great Moss under Scafell Pike: even a cursory glance at the map tells you there was once a lake there. For all the boggy areas in which went up to my knees when I arrived in the evening, it was a dry camp and a dry strike. After a breakfast of mushrooms, spinach and fresh coffee, I was away again by 8a.m the next morning. What I could not do, is find fresh water to drink. I set off onto the hill with less than a litre of water left, but with a few little oranges and tomatoes.
It was not clear to me where to go from the tarn; I did not want to end up scrambling up and down bands of cliffs: unwise at any time if you’re on your own, a recipe for a coffin or worse if you’re carrying a 20kg rucsac. Once you stumble, down you will go. Don’t stumble!! I pressed on, keeping the dark and seemingly endless (and appropriately named) valley of Langstrath on my left. I remember being in it once on a rainy day, thinking it went on for ever. And I found a fence. Where a man can build a fence, I can safely walk. I followed that fence for quite some way before leaving it, saying farewell as to an old friend, and striking uphill towards Glaramara (783m). I was an hour and ten minutes walking this morning before I encountered a path. That is unusual for the Lakes.
Glaramara unfortunately has a short scramble which I did not recall from last time I was here (which to be fair was 36 years ago when I was a callow youth.) But keeping one’s weight forward works for climbing with a big bag; slightly less unnerving than climbing downward face-out, when the weight and centre of gravity must be kept back to avoid to avoid toppling over and down. I did not expect to see anyone here this early (9.30a.m) on a Sunday morning – way too early for day trippers to get to this location. The summit was deserted and cold. For a short while it was cold enough for me to wear my woolly hat. On the next summit I did in fact meet and have a pleasant chat with a young backpacker, who had camped on the shoulder of Scafell Pike at over 950m above sea level. We spoke of obtaining water; he noted that water flowing in streams off the central massif could be polluted and a problem: he was planning a two-night Mountain Leader Training exam expedition soon, and obtaining water in summer conditions, was a challenge. I was drinking water I’d carried all the way from Thirlmere.
Again onwards to Esk Pike and Esk Hause, the central col and cross-roads of all the Lake District. Also about as far as you can get from a road-head anywhere in the Lakes, although paradoxically enough, probably not the remotest location. Here there were day trippers, mostly up from Seathwaite, Borrowdale. Round here one reflects on the centrality, not of Esk Hause, but of Great Gable. It’s not the highest mountain of course, but it is the central boss, the ice-worn stub of whatever original mountain stood here millions of years ago. Near here I saw some classic “roche moutonnee” (literally “mutton rock”, rock like sheep) whereon there were clear scratches from the ice, quite at odds with the rock’s natural bedding plane, the scratches pointing towards Great Gable in one direction, and down-valley in the other. I do like the landforms left by the glaciers. The hanging valleys, the corries and cols. Truncated spurs. Misfit streams. Terminal moraines. Eskers and drumlins.
Round to Bow Fell, where I started to feel hungry and took lunch. On Bow Fell I encountered an older fellow with his young son, and he was teaching him the names of the summits on the skyline, testing him so he would learn them. I know them, and no-one taught me their names. But I am an older man and I’ve been coming to the Lake District for over forty years. My first trip was in 1977, to the Newlands valley with the Scouts, and we climbed Dale Head in claggy conditions. I remember it fondly. But it is something that would not be permitted today, for two Scouters with no Mountain Leader certification or formal training to take 16 young Scouts on a hike like that.
From Bow Fell, descending carefully, I went down to Three Tarns, where I saw that fellow again with his young son. I was most careful going downhill, though it seemed straightforward enough. I became aware that having climbed Bow Fell half a dozen times at least, I’d never come down this route, only up it. From Bow Fell, at a little after 2pm, I went down The Band, increasingly footsore, until I found myself very slow and very tired at Stool End Farm, about 3.30pm. A child was playing in the farmyard as I passed through, and my hike was over.
The geeky stuff
On day 1 I walked 9.57km; on day 2, 24.46km, and on day 3, I walked 14.28km, to a total of 48km in just a bit less than 21 hours total. On the second day, the 24km was taken over 9 hours and 49 minutes and involved four separate ascents, three from the road.
I used an Osprey Aether Pro 70 which weighed 14kg laden with no food or water. Add to that around 3.7kg of water, 900g of beer and all my food, means that at the start I was packing somewhere between 20kg and 21kg. This is a lot less than I was carrying with my previous rucsac which was about 10 litres larger but a good deal heavier. I’ve written about this before.
I slept in an MSR Elixir 2 tent, and used an Alpkit Skye High 700 4-season down bag, a silk liner, and a Thermarest self-inflating mattress. I used a small Trangia 27 and a small (750ml) metal bottle of bioethanol. I carried gloves and mittens (and used the gloves), a woolly hat and a sun hat (and used both), Goretex waterproof trousers (didn’t use) and Goretex gaiters (did use). I carried about 800g of Lithium battery power packs as well as a cellphone and a smart watch. Spare clothes, waterproof coat, fleece jacket, first aid kit, small pair of field glasses, and a few other bits and bobs, made up the kit list.
I found the Aether Pro too small for my purposes and the tent had to be strapped to the outside. But the extremely light weight of the Aether Pro carries all before it – I love that aspect of it. After a day or so I became adapt at re-packing and found things fitted better, and eventually the tent fitted inside. I have not yet had the Aether Pro out in heavy weather, so I don’t know how waterproof it is without a rain cover.
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.