At 931m Skiddaw is a distinctive peak in the northern Lake District, and ranks as the sixth highest mountain in England. It towers above the town of Keswick, providing a stunning, dramatic backdrop to this place which is something of a UK mecca for climbers, hikers, runners and outdoorsy folk in general!
So, from the sleepy village of Sedbergh at the foot of the Howgills – where the Mountain View that greets us in the morning is just as inspirational, if less dramatic – what makes someone wake up in the morning and suddenly decide to head so far north to go for a walk?
Well, since my last few proper hikes were fairly epic adventures that involved climbing no fewer than five Scottish munros, I felt the need to bring myself back down to earth slowly, seeking out the fulfilment of the highest mountains I could get to rather than risking disappointment by climbing small local ones… In a word, the next hike had to be big. To be fair, nothing England has to offer can match the height of those munros, and from what I’ve seen of our Lakeland peaks, even the highest have well-maintained, public-friendly paths. In their Scottish counterparts, however, hikers usually have no option but to go off-piste and forge a path through bracken and heather… so in terms of challenging terrain, Scotland wins again.
So, one lazy evening at home, while Jenny was busy tapping away on her keyboard doing her French thingamajig, I found myself Googling the UK’s highest mountains. Which are the Top 10 highest in England, and which have we yet to climb? It came as something of a shock to discover that although we’ve reached the summit of Scafell Pike twice in the last 12 months, three more of England’s 10 highest peaks lie within spitting distance of it… who knew?! Guess I should have looked at something other than our destination when looking at the map on those hiking days… and I also guess we’re still rank amateurs in terms of the local geography 🙂
From the top of our nearest peak (Winder, in the Howgills) on a clear day, we have a pretty good view across to the Lakeland fells, and this week we could see that many peaks were white with snow. Much as I hankered after a big, high walk, my experience of climbing above the snowline told me that it was probably a bit ambitious to expect to reach the top of one of the super-steep, rocky crags surrounding Scafell – and enjoy it! – in snow and ice, so I shifted my search for a suitable peak further north.
I had often heard people talking about Skiddaw so I headed to Wiki to find out more. It looked like exactly the kind of hike we would really enjoy, and I knew the views from the top (weather permitting!) would be spectacular. I just needed to submit the idea to the boss (Jen!) and hope for a smooth application process… Cooking always works well, especially so if washing up is included in the package. Throw in a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon for the lady, and I’m usually onto a sure-fire winner – might even slow her down on the day! *yawn*.
By 10am on Skiddaw Day we’d had breakfast, packed day sacks, fed the cats and were ready to go. For us, this was good going so far! We needed to drive about half an hour up the M6 motorway, then another half an hour on the A66 westbound to Keswick, and then along a minor road (keeping our eyes open for red squirrels!) past Ormathwaite, and onward and upward to a car park, our hiking start point. Every metre we drive after Keswick was uphill, I noted… Hmmm…
The previous evening I had mapped out a circular route that would have meant following the bridleway past (and up) Little Man (865m), up to Skiddaw (931m) and then we would turn left to descend via Carlside (746m) and White Stones before reaching the village of Millbeck and following the lane back to the car…
This is why I shouldn’t plan the route, Jen! There we were in the car heading upwards from Keswick, and there was a little elf or pixie or something on my shoulder screaming at me “This will be the last 4km of your hike and it’s all uphill! You are old, knackered and will be grumpy as ever at the end of the walk when you set eyes on the car!” More often than not I listen to said pixie, and today was one of those times. I made a last-minute decision to change the route. In making it an out-and-back hike, going back the same way equals all downhill, and we like that… a lot! 🙂
We arrived at the car park to find it really very spacious, given its roadside location… however, today it was crammed almost full. This meant there would be people in abundance on the hills. Not my favourite scenario but hey, it’s only to be expected on a Saturday in the Lake District with a mostly dry weather forecast! We have a quick bite, shoulder our bags and set off.
We were 200 yards in, slipping and sliding on a squelchy mud track with our eyes on the steep climb ahead, and my pixie returned: “Fool, you’ve sat on your butt for a week. Did you think one week in Scotland would make you fit forever? Did ya? Hmm?” I don’t mind admitting that I was already struggling. It was indeed, as a friend had mentioned on FB the previous evening, a long slog to the top!
The path up to Little Man and Skiddaw is very well maintained, and plenty of fellow walkers were out enjoying it on this day. Some looked very well prepared, we were glad to see (seasoned hikers!) but there are always a few who I’d say have little business being on the hills. Given the way a handful of people were dressed, and carrying no bag or anything that might contain water, food or extra layers, they were clearly oblivious to the fact that even though the valley was basking in sunshine, the weather would be rather cold on the summit, 931m up!
As we made our way up the slope we could see what looked like Little Man (865m) in the middle distance. It was covered in snow, and we could just about discern a handful of people cautiously picking their way down… and slipping a lot! For my part, I stopped several times on the way up, cursing myself for not being able to control my racing heartbeat. Beta-blockers are effective at slowing my heart rate down, but that doesn’t ease the force of the pounding in my chest. I was becoming accustomed to this so Jen and I agreed from the outset that when my heart said stop, we would stop. However frustrating this would be, I wanted to make it to the summit!
On our arrival in Keswick, the prospect of a cloud-free peak had seemed doubtful, but now both Jen and I were thinking that there may just be the chance of a clear summit! This is something we’re not accustomed to, and which is often denied us on walks in the Lake District, so it would be a real treat. The views thus far (at the foot of Little Man) were amazing, but there was still a way to go… Little Man was steep and the path was thick with snow, so I removed the daysack and reached for my walking poles. I handed one to Jen – yes, chivalry still exists – and we began the snowy climb… Ermmm, with a short pipe break halfway up!
The way up was indeed a challenge; the snow was knee-deep in places and now we were gaining a bit of altitude we could feel the drop in temperature and the bite of wind chill. This was not a place to linger, and we hastened to the summit where we found an oddly-constructed cairn. Cairns (for the benefit of the uninitiated) are generally piles of rocks, but this one included lengths of scrap iron or some other rusty, weathered tool. Looking ahead we could see the next cairn beyond us… But hang on a minute… could we be so close already? That looked far too easy for 931m.
“Hmm. Ok, shall we take a look at the map?” said Jen, expectantly.
Crash-zoom moment as my mind’s eye showed me a perfect image of the map in its last known location: on the car seat. The pixie returned, and sounded a little nervous… “You don’t need a map Simon… do ya, do ya?”
“Ermmm, the thing is, Jen…” no other words were required, and Jen simply rolled her eyes. (Lol).
So, having no idea which peak we were actually on, we soldiered on up to the second cairn, wondering what we would see beyond the summit. Indeed, when standing at the rusty-iron cairn we hadn’t been on Little Man at all – but now we were! Just to our right there was another cairn, and beyond that an unmistakable double trig point. There was the elusive peak of Skiddaw, about a kilometre and a half away and practically on the same level! The path was covered in deep snow patches, and we hiked on, marvelling at the fantastic 360° panoramic views and thanking our lucky stars for the cloud-free summit… but we were aware that clouds were close at hand and edging towards Skiddaw.
The upside of sharing our path with others is that we hadn’t been on the summit for more than a couple of minutes (enjoying a good strong coffee!) when another couple appeared and joined us in admiring the views. On seeing them taking photos of each other, I approached and asked if they would like a photo of them both together, which they accepted with delight. We all nattered for a short while and they reciprocated by taking a snap of me and Jen before moving off.
It’s not often Jen and I get a picture of us both together. Indeed, even though it’s rare for us to bump into other people at summits, it certainly is nice now and again to capture a tangible image of us together standing on top of the world, well, our world anyway!
All in all, a successful day and another peak ticked off that bucket list!
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…