I have been asked why one should put oneself through such difficulty and discomfort, as described below. Where is the pleasure? In answer to a friend who asked this question I wrote this:
I suppose one answer is that it is a fine mixture of the ludicrous and sometimes comic useless effort, extraordinary lows and highs and all in a stupendous setting – both the landscape and the weather – which enhances a sense of being alive and emotionally and physically engaged with being alive. I believe these things are called adventures.
There is something else, which is that in such surroundings and walking for long distances through them, I tend to lose my sense of self, ego drops away and a kind of serenity can be experienced, not available elsewhere to me.
Cumbria, September 2021
I took a bus from Penrith Station to Keswick, then another to Ambleside and a third to Great Langdale and the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. On the buses I was aware of a pleasant smell – woody and faintly sweet. I thought it must be the cleaning materials they use. I checked in at the hotel and went to my room. This aroma followed me. I opened my sack to find that the nice screw-top plastic bottle I had filled with whisky had a flip top opening and had emptied out the contents onto all my gear. The sleeping bag, sleeping mat and tent were all wet and smelling of a good malt. I draped them all around the room and disappeared to the bar and terrace.
While having a beer and staring up at the Langdale Pikes I felt a pain in my side. Thought I was sitting badly. It grew and grew into something serious, and I knew it must be to do with a large resident kidney stone I have, which is due to be removed. I went to my room, took a strong pain killer and lay there wondering what to do. Call an ambulance? Call for a taxi? Could the timing of a kidney stone be so bad? The pain was unbearable. After a while the pain killer kicked in and I tottered down to the dining room and tried, unsuccessfully, to eat something. I went back to my room and slowly became aware that the pain had gone completely. I must have passed a small fragment of stone. I could carry on.
Great Langdale to Angle Tarn
The heat the next day was intense and the first steps up towards Stickle Tarn and Harrison Stickle, carrying my 12K sack, made me aware I hadn’t trained enough for this. But I kept going, watching the big drops of sweat splashing on the stones in front of me.
Looking at Pike-o-Stickle from Harrison Stickle summit, which I reached very tired, I thought I would give it a miss as it is a great dome sticking out of the side of Langdale and looked steep and rocky. I got my head down and walked across to it. I missed the path going around and when I looked up found I was actually on the rocky path and scramble to the summit. I kept going. On the top was a dense cloud of flies and midges and I didn’t stop there. Two young Irish women descended with me. ‘O I can’t stand the midges’ said one. ‘Give me the rain any day’.
I scrambled down the rocky steps bouncing my sack behind me and carried on, following the path to Stake Pass and Angle Tarn. The heat continued and I stopped after 45 minutes for a drink of water. My water bottle, which had been tucked into a side pocket of the sack, was gone. It must have fallen out on my scramble down from the Pike. I thought this was serious as I was already rather dehydrated. I stayed pondering for a moment. Then something almost Biblical happened. I saw a tall, elderly man with a white beard, using a long pole as a walking stick, approach slowly from the direction in which I was heading. He stopped by me. He said, ‘Do you have enough water?’ I was astonished. No-one asks that. I stuttered that no, I hadn’t. He said ‘500 yards along this path is a delightful stream of clear, cold water. You will come to it soon and you will hear it before you see it’. And he strolled off. He was right in all accounts. I found the stream, filled my spare bottle and sat by the water drinking my fill.
I arrived at Angle Tarn to see a man swimming in the cold, cold water accompanied by his dog. They left a little later and I camped. When my tent was up a woman appeared on the rise above me. She asked me where I was headed after my camp. I told her and she said, in some distress, that she had left her phone up at her last stop – ‘up there’ she said, pointing to the Ore Gap way above us. I said I was sorry I couldn’t help – it was in the wrong direction and too far for a deviation. She said how marvellous it must be to sleep up here. ‘You must be able to see the Milky Way’. ‘Yes’ I said. She said she could see the Milky Way from her garden, near York. Just then a voice came up from below her. Her husband. ‘I’ve just found a phone in my pocket!’. She was silent for a bit. Then she said, ‘I don’t know whether to kiss him or kill him’.
In the night, because I had not taken enough water or salt on board I suffered appalling cramps which had me crying out. They subsided after a while and I slept.
In the morning I put the kettle on the make my hot chocolate drink. When it boiled, I picked up the kettle and brought it to my big folding mug which held the chocolate powder. My hand slipped and I poured boiling water over my right foot. I dropped the kettle and tried to pull the steaming sock away from my skin. I tore the sock off and poured cold water over my foot and then rested the cold metal bottle against the burn. The first aid bag was to hand and I put on some antiseptic cream and plasters where I could see the skin had burned. More pain killers.
Scafell Pike and Wasdale Head
I later decamped and set off towards Esk Hause, the big pass between Esk Pike and the Scafell massif.
Half-way there I thought I couldn’t go on as my hip and groin pain were shouting out and the foot burn stinging. I stood for more than 15 mins pondering whether I should take an easier path to Wasdale via Sprinkling Tarn and Styhead or continue to Scafell Pike. Without making a conscious decision I found myself heading towards the mountain. Crossing the boulder fields on the route I found very trying as a slight fall could mean a broken ankle or worse and great care had to be taken. On the final climb to the top a young man descending looked across and said ‘That’s some pack you’ve got there mate. Are you camping?. I said, ‘Yes – but I think I am getting too old for this game.’ He said ‘I don’t know how you guys do it. It’d be too much for me. You must be carrying the heaviest pack on the mountain today. Good luck’.
On the summit and among the summit crowds were a group of young Nepalese men. One was being very helpful and was offering to take photographs of couples and groups so that they could all be in the picture. His English was very good. ‘OK Madam, Sir. What would you like – landscape or portrait?’. Across the stones a group of rather portly Pakistani men were having a splendid time with two large Pakistani flags, opening them out and having pictures taken, I suppose claiming Scafell Pike for Pakistan. And some bastard had brought up a drone and it was buzzing around us.
I was very tired on the way down the dreadful track from the summit. Half-way down I stopped, took off the sack, drank some water, lay down and fell asleep for 20 minutes. I carried on down to where the lovely stream crosses the path and had another break. I drifted off again and was woken by a rather scruffy and energetic dog licking my ear. ‘Sorry mate,’ said the owner. ‘Didn’t see you there’. I continued to Wasdale and camped. I met with several members of my climbing club, The Cliffhangers, who were having a meet there. We had a lively meal together as the weather closed in.
Into the clouds
The morning brought very low clouds and some light rain. I was still tired from the last two days and booked into the Wasdale Head Inn for the night. The next morning the weather was no better but I wanted to push on. To give myself a chance of reaching Haystacks (a mountain) by the following night I climbed to the Black Sail Pass. I had no intention of descending to the Black Sail Youth Hostel and climbing up again so took a path that I had used before under Kirk Fell and Great Gable. This rose slightly along its route and I wandered upwards into the cloud.
The path was fine to begin with and easy to follow. Then breaks occurred, long stretches with no indication of the track. I just followed by instinct, and I kept coming across the path again. The mist was very thick and all was silent. There was no wind. After a while I had no idea where I was or how far I had come along the path. There were no features. I came to a large cairn and thought that I would be OK now. However, I could not find a path stretching in any direction from the cairn. This was very strange and I had to make a guess. I knew that if I followed the contour I would inevitably come across the main path to Great Gable. But it didn’t appear. Studying the map I could see two shallow stream filled ravines were up ahead which I would have to cross. I still had no idea where I was. A cairn would appear in the mist ahead and I would give thanks. The cairn would then say ‘Baaaa’ and walk off to join other cairns eating grass a little way off. I reached the first ravine and managed to cross easily. The second was smaller but had steeper grassy sides. I tried to keep my feet but eventually I slipped and the weight of my sack pulled me over and over and I tumbled down into the sphagnum bog at the bottom, getting soaked. In the silence I could hear my voice – ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!. Later I found a path, a real path, and followed it downwards. But there was something wrong. I should have a low hillside rising on the right. In this case there was a stream below me in a shallow cut. This could only mean I was too low and I had to climb up again. As the ground levelled I could suddenly see through the mist the wide and stony path I was looking for. A great relief. I followed it down and eventually came out of the clouds and could look back to where I had been.
Too late and too tired to get to Haystacks, I hurried down to the Honister Pass. The Honister pass is a dump. A disgrace that should be sorted out. I went into the café there. A young girl was closing up shop. I said, ‘Are you open?’. She said no, they had finished serving food. I said ‘Can I get a drink? Do you have any beer?’. She actually laughed in my face. ‘Beer?’. I could get a can of a fizzy drink from the cabinet. If any place was so positioned to sell lots of beer, the café at the Honister Pass is it. I asked about buses and there was one due in half an hour. ‘Where is the bus stop’ I asked. ‘There isn’t one. Go to the top of the hill and stick your hand out when you see the bus’. I did this and was driven to Keswick where I stayed with two friends, also members of the Cliffhangers, overnight.
Storm on Skiddaw
The next day the weather remained dull and overcast. One of my friends took me to the start of the Skiddaw path and I began the ascent. I wanted to lengthen my walking poles and tried to adjust them. I discovered one would not screw tight and I spent the rest of the trip with one short and one long pole. I was soon into the thick mist again. A lot of people were about so it was no problem following the way up. It was also excruciatingly boring. Another feature is that there are no features on the route and nowhere to sit down for a rest. A man who passed me said, ‘I presume that’s not just your packed lunch in that sack.’
As I went higher the wind got stronger and stronger. Along the summit ridge it reached almost hurricane levels with the mist roaring horizontally across the path. I reached the top with a few people who were doing some charity run. I asked one to take my picture. We were having trouble standing up. He said ‘Of course, mate’ and took my phone. He then stopped and said, ‘Hang on a minute. I’m in a race. Can you ask this chap here to take it, he’s staying.’ And so that happened. On the way down I bent down by a cairn to pick up a dropped walking pole. The wind caught me and blew me flat down onto the cairn. I rolled over and sat for a moment in a daze. For some reason I took the phone out to see if the summit picture had come out, and to have a rest. The gale continued to roar past. A man came passed and looked quizzically at me. I said, ‘Hi – just checking my emails.’ He moved on.
Getting below the clouds I found myself on the way to Skiddaw House, a hostel in the middle of a most wonderfully broad valley. The path was easy, the sun came out. I had a lunch leaning on the stone wall of Skiddaw House (it is closed during the day). I brewed some hot chocolate and ate fruit and nut bars. Two pleasant middle-aged men appeared and discovered me propped up by the wall. They asked where I had been and I told them about the storm aloft. ‘Really that bad? Could we get up there?’. I motioned to their clothing, sort of track suits and light boots. I said, ‘You would have to be a dedicated masochist to try it in those. And you would not enjoy it.’ They backed off an attempt at Skiddaw and said they would go another way to Keswick. They had been in the Boy Scouts together and had travelled and holidayed together for many years. I packed up as they went off and followed their path at my usually slow pace. But this was really pleasant. A good level path and wide, wide views.
A short descent took me to the top of the Glenderaterra Beck and I camped there. I liked it and stayed up until it was dark and the stars came out. At ten I was woken by a strange noise. It was a disco type, thumping rhythm. I looked out of the tent but could see nothing. It went on only softer for the next hour. I presumed it was the Mountain Festival in Keswick. I was consumed by a wild loathing of the promoters, the performers and the attendees. How could it be so loud as to reverberate over the mountains to me in this remote spot. The bastards! The bastards! And such crap, mindless sounds. It stopped at around 11 and I slept.
Hall’s Fell Ridge, Blencathra, to Scales Tarn
The morning was bright and the clouds high. I tried to have breakfast but I was surrounded by a dense swarm of tiny flies. I had to get out of there, packed as quickly as I could and hurried along the path. I chose another spot but as soon as I got the stove on the flies came around me. I had to wrap myself up in my waterproof with only my eyes showing and pulling down the face bit to shove in some food and drink. Glad to get away. I continued around the flank of Blencathra searching for the start of the Hall’s Fell Ridge.
The map showed several paths across country to the ridge. I tried one but it petered out. I turned back and decided I didn’t want to go thrashing around in these fields. I took the tarmac road to upper Threlkeld and wound my way up through a building site to the ridge.
Not many people about as I started up the first part, which is a broad buttress type hillside. Steep but quite OK. An overweight young man kept passing me. He was dressed in trainers and a large pink puffer jacket. I always caught up with him while he sat and caught his breath. He had a comment at each stop. ‘This is harder than I thought’. We had hardly started. ‘I’m getting out of breath – is it the altitude?’. ‘No,’ I said – ‘you are moving too fast. Slow down’. I got to resent seeing his head poking out of the bracken higher up before I went passed him. Eventually he disappeared and was seen no more on the mountain.
The rock ridge was reached and I decided I would avoid the scrambling as much as possible although it looked easy and delightful. The reason was that there was a big drop on the right and any slip by me would have taken me and my pack down it. I am very top heavy on these walks and if I fall have little control. I refer back to the incident in the gully earlier on, and my screaming tumble down the screes on Great Gable a year or so ago.
Ahead of me were two young women. One, tall and athletic, knew what she was doing, no pack and sprinting up the rocks. The other, a short rather dumpy person but one who seemed utterly determined to overcome whatever was thrown at her. Rather than seeking out easier paths around the rocks, if she came up against a scramble, she just went straight for it. Her trousers were falling down, and she had rolls of red flab showing below her top. I passed her eventually where she was sitting red faced and taking a blow. I asked if she was OK and she said she was fine. She and the other woman were together in an unlikely partnership. I met up with the tall one a little later as she waited for her friend. I asked if she was a guide. It was a muddle as she said yes but meant she was guiding her friend as she had done the route before. I said, ‘Your friend is very determined’. She said, with a huge and beautifully toothy smile, and a delightful accent, ‘I knoh. She’ll get op it. She’s got op lots of things. Snohdon and others. But she is SOh sloh. I can’t goh that sloh. I’ve tried but I cahn’t and have to hack on. But she’ll be alright. ‘ere she coms now’.
I reached the top. The best of views after the best of climbs. I sat and had a nut bar and drank water. I turned later and the two women were sitting by me. The short one was obviously very at home and sat chatting away. The other said to her, ‘Well – shall we ‘ave a cup a tea then?’. And they did. ‘Glad ya brought the flask now?’
An easy descent to Scales Tarn. From above I could see a group of wild swimmers plunge into the Tarn and make waves that spread across the whole of the surface. Not many people about and when they all disappeared downwards I camped in a most lovely spot. I counted 50 sheep around, scattered over the fell side.
Whisky at last
The next day it was raining lightly when I got out of the tent and I packed up quickly, swallowing some water and a porridge bar. I was early and reached the White Horse Inn at Scales at 10am. They had a chalk board outside which had said ‘Open from 10,30’. This had been crossed out and replaced with ‘Open from 12’. O bloody hell. Two hours sitting in the mist and rain. But I was determined to complete the plan. I had waited for this moment for months. I read a lousy book and tried to sleep. Time passes of course and when my wait was over I heard the door being unlocked. The moment had arrived. I strode in, dripping, and went up to the bar. ‘A large scotch please’. And he dealt me one. I asked about buses. ‘They do come by but there is no bus stop. Just stick your hand out and he’ll stop – if you are lucky.’ ‘What times are the buses?’. ‘No idea – I’ve got a car’.
Sitting at a little window looking out at the mist I was glowing with happiness. I had had no idea that I could possibly do the round and although it had a big gap in the middle, I was here in the White Horse Inn with my whisky. There was nothing better I could think of at that moment. Later my friend Annette from Keswick arrived and joined me for a celebratory lunch. Then she drove me to Penrith and my train home.