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In the clag on Scafell Pike

Britain’s highest peak

In the week leading up to our latest outing in the mountains, we had kept a close eye on the weather, holding off from committing to a date until the latest possible moment. We’d peered at various charts, tracked the changing predictions about when to expect rain, and daringly (!) not booked the cattery until rather later than is advisable in July. Eventually plans came together around the chosen date, and we took off in the direction of the south western Lakeland fells, our minds set on a multi-day, multi-peak hiking extravaganza! It’s easy to be ambitious about these things until the weather decides to interfere…

We arrived at Wasdale Head campsite at around 11pm on a Thursday night, already less than enthusiastic about the accommodation we’d brought along. This was to be the first “proper” test of our newly-purchased Berghaus Grampian 3 tent. Of course, before setting out to camp with it we had pitched it in the garden, for 5 minutes on a dry sunny day, the first opportunity we’d had to see it properly. Those few minutes were enough to show us that actually, this tent wasn’t right for us; we need a much larger porch space. However, unfortunately this brief “use” of the tent negated any possibility of our returning it to the retailer. P.S. Berghaus – you just lost a previously enthusiastic customer. Your customer service sucks, and fobbing off responsibility for bad sales to a third party, i.e. Blacks/Millets, just doesn’t cut the mustard. Rab, Montane, Marmot and the like here I come! Anyway *ahem* rant over forever… I digress!

Despite arriving at the campsite after dark, we managed to find ourselves a lovely pitch, and hoped to be able to extend our stay by a couple of nights on paying in the morning. We knew there was a big running event due to take place that weekend that would surely leave very few tent pitches unclaimed… Anyway, pitch chosen, we pulled various tent bits out of the bag and set to work, but good lord, those first few minutes of our time at Wasdale Head nearly sent us running for cover, if not driving away at speed! The drizzle and humidity had combined to produce a plague of a fearsome enemy: midges, which attacked us in force. Even when we turned off the head torches to continue pitching the tent in the dark, they kept on coming, delivering bite after bite on every bit of exposed flesh. There was nowhere to run, and until the tent was up, nowhere to hide! The tent needed to be erected and fast… fortunately Jen and I make a speedy team and the thing was up after about 7 minutes of torture. We were both pretty savaged, and so glad to finally zip ourselves safely inside the bug-proof inner to settle down for the night.

The following morning we made breakfast at the car… the boot of my BMW X5 has a double door that offers a very effective “breakfast bar”-style table solution. It’s just as well, too, since I was to spend a significant chunk of each evening and morning standing by the car boot, given the lack of a usable porch area in the Grampian 3 tent. So here we made porridge and coffee (thank you, Jetboil!) and prepared for what should have been our biggest hike of the weekend. However, the capricious Lakeland weather stayed true to itself, ohhhh that darned weather… (LOL).

As we set off for the hills I don’t mind admitting that something briefly held my full and undivided attention… she was young and tanned, possibly Spanish, with butt cheeks falling out of the bottom of her entirely unsuitable (for hiking) super-short floaty shorts. Sometimes a man needs a bit of motivation in getting up those hills, and for a moment I thought I’d have been very happy to stick with a pace that kept me about 15 metres behind this particular motivation all day. Sadly, perhaps she overheard me and Jen discussing the merits of climbing Britain’s tallest mountain in skimpy clothes… the girl and her friends dropped back below us and she wrapped a jumper around her waist. *dangit* I mean, one has to laugh really – come on chica, WHAT BUSINESS DO YOU HAVE ON THE HILLS IN THOSE CLOTHES!? Guys, I’m sorry. I did ask Jen to capture the moment on camera but she declined. Never mind, at least I won’t be sued for publishing porn on my blog…

We’ve seen some things in our time but this gal, bless her heart, was simply not dressed to tackle the climb up Scafell Pike in that day’s conditions. Indeed, whilst she was able to keep up with my elderly man’s pace for a while, she and her two amigos eventually dropped out of sight, and Jen and I kept climbing up into the clag (i.e. low cloud) that is commonplace on Britain’s highest peak.

Our plan had been to reach the top of Scafell Pike and move on to its neighbour Sca Fell, a new route for us and a peak we hadn’t visited before – only 14 metres shorter than its big brother. We figured that we’d try and reach these two highest peaks on day one, plus any others we could feasibly get to. The idea was also to use that nice high vantage point to look at the surrounding peaks, try and spot routes connecting them, and earmark a few summits to aim for on day two. Alas… the weather elbowed its way in on the action again, and Scafell Pike remained shrouded in cloud all day. This was to be the third time we’ve walked up in such conditions and seen nothing but white at the top! I think we’re jinxed when it comes to Scafell Pike, but hey ho, we’re lucky enough to be within reach of many other Lakeland peaks and able to enjoy fantastic views from those when the weather is on our side.

We climbed onward and upward, gradually becoming covered in tiny white droplets as the cloud attached itself to us. At one point we came across a rather odd sight: a spade planted in the ground, looking not unlike the legendary Sword in the Stone! Some not-so-ancient burial site?! Hmmm, more likely the spade was used and later mislaid by some good-hearted soul helping to “Fix the fells” and paths… and it now acts like a cairn guiding people along the main path from Wasdale Head.

We continued up, roughly halfway now, and stood aside to let a big group of people (30, easily!) pass us on their way downhill. “You’re nearly there!” one said, presumably to encourage us. Now, ok, given the amount I sweat every time I go up this mountain I can forgive people for believing it’s my first visit and that I’m struggling. But personally I’d rather not be told that the top is just around a few more corners when there’s actually about an hour to go! I wonder how many more people that dude “encouraged” on his way down…

Eventually we reached the summit. Still in the clag, of course. There were about 20 other people up there, everyone hunkering down on the leeward side of the filled-in stone shelter. Jen was hardly out of breath, and totally expected that we’d be reaching a few more peaks before home time… otherwise she wouldn’t buy me pudding after dinner at the local hostelry later! However, such threats fell on deaf ears… I had my bank card in my pocket, ha!

That said, I was keen to get across to Sca Fell. But given the terrible visibility and the fact that this new route involved sheer cliffs that we really needed to go ROUND, not over, I started to wonder whether it was worth the effort on this occasion. We huddled on the summit of Scafell Pike in the freezing wet wind, and looked at the maps again.

It seemed feasible that we could walk on a bearing from our current location and be following the path we wanted. We conferred briefly and then began a navigational routine one shouldn’t really carry out for fun: I fished out the compass, set a bearing and sent Jen out on it. I watched as she clambered over the big, slippery rocks strewn all over the place, then shouted for her to stop when I was about to lose sight of her red jacket. Visibility was down to about ten metres. I then walked forward to join her – my turn to negotiate those slippery rocks. We began walking in ten-metre stages – I sent Jen forward whilst standing stationary, looking from her to my compass to keep her on track.

Humans tend to drift one way or another, especially on terrain strewn with obstacles, and it’s fascinating to see in practice how disorientated one can become, even when walking freely with head down looking at a compass. I was yelling ahead for Jen to adjust her direction – one metre left, one metre right, etc. However, it wasn’t long before we really couldn’t see the ground in front of us… because there wasn’t any! This had to be the cliff edge, and clearly we couldn’t go any further here in these conditions. On a dry, clear day it might be possible to scramble down this bit, but today we couldn’t see a thing (20-foot drop? 50-foot drop?) and everything was super slippery, so we needed to try and get round another way.

We checked the map again and figured out how to go around the crags, but I can’t say I felt enthused by this situation. We were both getting cold from having to take things so slowly, and the wind was right in our faces. We now needed to head north to meet a track, and when we found it we’d have two options: either follow it left round the crags toward a different set of cliffs, and keep trying to reach Sca Fell in zero visibility, or simply call it a day and return to the safety and warmth of our tent. The weather was getting worse; there truly was nothing to see today above 400 metres!

Heading north, we could soon make out one of the cairns marking the path. I remembered it vividly, having noticed the red painted markings on the way up, and I felt reassured to be at a known point again. Even though neither of us felt particularly tired of climbing, we were both pretty wet and cold and let’s face it, we’d still climbed Britain’s highest mountain, which is not to be sniffed at!

Sometimes it’s simply better to err on the side of caution, so we opted to make our way back to Wasdale Head, slightly disappointed at the change of plan. Never mind… as always, the mountains will be there another day.

And so our day concluded with a fantastic meal at the Wasdale Head Inn, and I did indeed splurge on a pudding! It’s just as well the following day’s weather was forecast to be fantastic – dessert calories are even more delicious when you anticipate doing a great hike to burn them off!

Was it on our return to the campsite that we bumped into fellow campers and first time Lakes visitors Jack and Julie? My memory fails me, but therein lies another bonus of Lakeland hiking: the new friendships one can forge, to be discussed in a later blog to be sure.

This post was edited by the lovely Jennifer Lyon whose travel blog can be found by clicking here.

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…