It was one of those evenings… I’d spent hours musing in front of the computer screen. I hadn’t slept well for the two previous nights, which left me tired and a bit zonked. However, a quick pre-bedtime look at the weather ahead turned out to be a game-changer…
I don’t think Jen had expected me to pipe up (pun absolutely intended!) with an idea for a big hike on the very day I returned from my latest Mountain Leader Training expedition. Be that as it may, I suddenly found myself staring at a weather chart that indicated very favourable conditions for the next 24 hours. All things being equal (which they rarely are when it comes to websites predicting the notoriously changeable UK weather), we were looking at a sunny day in the mountains.
I checked the Met Office, BBC Weather and Accuweather websites… all were telling the same promising story. My body wanted me to rest, but my brain was urging, “Go out! Do a biggie!” I decided to look at the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) where I knew I’d find predictions more specific to the Lake District. If anything could dissuade me, this website would be it. And indeed, its forecast wasn’t quite as favourable, but overall the conditions still looked pretty good.
I looked across to the boss and posed the question. Big, new hike tomorrow? The response was non-committal… hmm, she was giving nothing away. So I started looking at local high peaks that we had yet to climb. Perhaps if I could give an actual specific suggestion, I might receive a definitive response either way. I started to build my case…
I knew that Jen knew that I would be looking at England’s highest peaks. Would she buy in to a biggie at short notice? I decided to look at the lower end of the Top 10 and spotted Bow Fell. This mountain, with its peak at 902m, is practically next to Scafell Pike and its neighbours. However, unlike them it is relatively easy to access from the east, which means that by road, we could reach a sensible start point in a little over an hour (as opposed to two hours’ drive to Wasdale Head in order to climb something else in the Scafell area). I tentatively ask if Jen has any work she has to do tomorrow – nope (BONUS!).
Having worked out my sales spiel and tarted up my hair in the mirror – presentation being key, and all – I put my case forward and quickly realised that she probably hadn’t heard me the first time I suggested we go for a hike. But, all’s the better, since now I had compiled a convincing case and she would be putty in my hands! *Mua-ha-ha-ha*.
My plan worked. The case was presented and the jury was out for less than a minute. It was a done deal!
The initial plan was to drive to the Langdales and park in the National Park Authority car park next to Dungeon Ghyll. From there we hoped to do a fairly large circular hike, aiming for Bow Fell but going off-piste slightly once or twice to visit different peaks. If we reached Bow Fell and reckoned we had time on our side, we might even push our luck and attempt Esk Pike.
Of course, this more ambitious objective was reliant on an early start… and neither of us is particularly good at mornings, unless there’s an unavoidable “hard deadline” such as a flight to catch…
In fact, I only recently realised that clocks don’t start up at 10am and run through to 10pm before resetting again. So, when not-so-rudely awakened (with a coffee!) and told it was 8.30am I was convinced I had entered a virtual reality. Thankfully my day pack was already just that: packed for the day.
I’ve also discovered that my vocal chords, too, subscribe to this idea that time doesn’t really exist until 10am. I can force a grunt, at a push, but can’t stand up straight, so I collide with cupboards. Pre-10am I think I probably do a fairly good impression of Shakin’ Stevens. On a more serious note, my eyes don’t work first thing either; if a hand is waved before my face all I see is a pattern of hand-shaped trails… In short, my pre-10am world probably resembles how most people feel immediately after dismounting an extreme ride at Alton Towers or Disneyland.
Subsequently we didn’t leave early. In fact I have no recollection of what time we ate breakfast (if indeed we did), or what time we left… I think, nay I hope, Jen drove us there… I assume she just bundled me into the car. The long and the short of it is that we arrived at the Lake District National Park car park at around 11am. Anybody reading this is forgiven for thinking that perhaps I was woken at 10am and simply pushed in the direction of the car, but I assure one and all that’s not the case. I really did see 8.30am… I’m not mad, it exists! (LOL).
Please humour me, as I’m about to digress from the story a little further here! Much as I appreciate the work of the Lake District National Park Authority, I would have them answer one question: who do they imagine carries £8 of change around in their pockets to pay for parking? This may be a rather “first-world” rant of mine, but there are no cashpoints in these remote mountainous spots, and while many official visitor car parks accept card payments these days, the one next to the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel doesn’t. In fact, I don’t know which assumption is sillier… 1) That car drivers habitually wander around carrying £8 in change, or 2) That car drivers will actually cough up when required to pay £8 to park in the middle of the country for a few hours. I MEAN EIGHT POUNDS?! ARE YOU PEOPLE NUTS!! Is the Head of said National Park Authority a London banker?
Rant over. Ok, yes, I do understand that this place is a real crazy-busy hotspot in the summer, so I guess somebody must be paying the requested fee…
Anyway! Having only £5 in coins between us, Jen and I had to look for an alternative parking spot. We noticed a few cars in a field outside the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel (not to be confused with the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel further along the road) and ventured in to ask if we could borrow a patch of grass for a few hours. They duly obliged, for the lesser price of £5, which meant that we could finally park with peace of mind, lace up our walking boots/shoes and head for the hills.
Things began to improve, as they always do once the initial logistics are sorted and we start walking. We passed the Old Hotel and turned left to follow the Blea Tarn road, which soon led us steeply upwards past Wall End; after a bend or two we saw a path leading off to the right. This particular path can so easily be missed on the map (OS; OL6) but it turned out to be solid, clear and very well built – a cracking choice (thanks to m’lady). We followed it across Redacre Gill and climbed the flank of the mountain until we reached the Pike of Blisco, our first peak of the day at 705 metres. Here, we stopped to soak up the sun for a moment and admire the fantastic views.
Having enjoyed our visit to this first summit, we moved on, picking our way down an initially steep path to the saddle where Red Tarn sits at 550 metres ASL (not Helvellyn’s Red Tarn, I might add!). We thought about how best to reach our next peak, Cold Pike, which lies close to our planned route to Crinkle Crags. It was simple enough… from Red Tarn we continued along the now-climbing path for a few minutes, before striking left to ascend what we’ve heard described as “easy slopes” up to Cold Pike. In practice I found them boggy in places, grassy, tufty and… erm, tough! Thanking our lucky stars for the lack of recent rain (as I imagine this bit gets very boggy indeed), we reached the cairn at the top, 701 metres. However, my feet ended up sodden after all as we traversed back down to intersect the main path, prompting me to wonder whether my fell shoes had been a good choice for the day… Un-diddly-doubtedly they were! Back on the main path and heading North West, we soon passed Great Knott at 696 metres and the clouds began to show a presence… They were trying to rain on us, but it fell as little more than localised light drizzle.
Since we were making fairly good time, we stopped for a coffee, opting to do so in our current sheltered spot rather than atop a windswept peak. I felt like jumping in my time machine and transporting myself back to thank the gentleman who invented the flask… You can’t beat hot coffee on a big hike!
Our next task was to make our way over the various tops that make up Crinkle Crags. It was a bit of a scramble in places, and as we approached the second big crag we arrived at the well-known “Bad Step”: two large flat rocks, separated by a large gap (which is very tricky to climb or descend) and blocking a gully. It’s well worth a Google! So, we wondered, do we go up it or around the easier left-hand option? Silly question, really… I headed straight up the middle, having failed to find the normal handholds, and I fixed my gaze on a possible climbing point at the far end of the right wall.
It wasn’t a huge climb, but I was clinging on precariously, aware of the distance between me and the solid rock below, and blindly feeling for – and putting my trust in – handholds I couldn’t see. I felt rather exposed, and acutely aware that whenever I craned my head back for a fuller view, my bodyweight shifted backwards a little, further tempting disaster… Eventually I managed to drag myself up, and looked back towards Jen, not entirely sure if she’d want to take this on. She tackled it, but was unable to locate the fingertip grip I had fumbled upon; she found another grip, but didn’t want to commit herself to the awkward arm-twisting push-up it required.
However, for some reason I have yet to fathom, she has confidence in me at such moments, and after a minute or so of searching in vain for a grip she was happy with, she accepted my suggestion that she could grab onto my wrist. I knew I was very firmly positioned behind a rock that was going nowhere, so, arms safely linked, she put her full weight on my arm for a moment, shifted herself forward to a solid rock hold and hauled herself up to my level. It was a moment of trust that I did not take lightly, and which will probably stay with me for a very long time…
We stopped for another well deserved cup of coffee before continuing the climb to Long Top at around 860 metres, and minutes later Crinkle Crags had been ticked off our list of places to visit.
Time was moving on quickly, and we could see both Bow Fell and Esk Pike in the distance. I was trying to do the maths and it wasn’t looking feasible that we would bag both… but we carried on regardless. We headed down the last Crinkle to the saddle referred to as Three Tarns (for reasons that become obvious when you see it!). We would later return here to begin our final descent, but right now we still had Bow Fell in our sights. At 902 metres this mountain ranks 9th among England’s Top 10 highest peaks, and we reached a plateau before the last rocky push to the top.
At this point we came across a pair of grockles we’d seen several times that day, drifting past us whenever we were sitting down somewhere. We found that having done the worst of the climb and feeling a little fed up, they were readying themselves to head back down… without visiting the summit! We felt obliged to
add to their pains errrm, “inspire them to continue,” and persuaded them to summit Bow Fell with us. To be fair, they genuinely thanked us afterwards, even though they were probably cursing every craggy rock their feet landed on before reaching the summit. I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not this was simply a ruse by me to drag a potential camera-holder (or two) to the top with us… As luck would have it, they did obligingly take one of only a few photos of Jen and me “together, with a view” on one England’s highest peaks. For us this made 5 of the top 10 ticked off the list.
With the clock clearly working against us it was decision time – it simply didn’t seem plausible that we would get to Esk Pike and back in daylight. Jen, as always, had been on call to clients and had accepted a mini-translation that she needed to deliver before 7pm. This was already a tall order given where we were, so we decided to head back down to Three Tarns and take the descending path we had passed earlier.
The return leg was quite uneventful, although both the path and the views were outstanding, including the noteworthy Great Slab and Flat Crags as we came off Bow Fell summit. We headed down via Earing Crag, White Stones and The Band, and followed on to a steep descent whose good reliable flags led us down to Stool End. An oddly-named point to end on, as we had had an excellent day…
We eventually found ourselves back at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, and after another kilometre or so the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where Jen had hoped to get a Wi-Fi signal whilst waiting for a basket of chips to arrive. The chips were forthcoming, but unfortunately the Wi-Fi was not… still, that wasn’t going to stop us sitting down for a few minutes to enjoy the chips! Never fear, there was a happy ending all round: I drove us home while she did the brief translation using her phone, in the passenger seat. Technology really does follow us everywhere these days!
Now it’s back to the drawing board to plan for another adventure…
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…