A Fell Tale: Climbing the Peaks of the Lakes.

Until this week, my only experience with The Lake District was skirting the edges of it while driving along the A66 on my journeys south. I knew that it held the tallest mountain in England within, but I’d never really thought of the place as anything more dramatic than the bleak and atmospheric moors that I passed fairly regularly. Anybody else who knows the area would probably laugh heartily at me for holding such an image in my mind, and I am more than happy to poke fun at my ignorance now that I have finally spent a few days among the fells and dales that make up one of the most impressively compact series of towering peaks and breathtaking views that I have ever seen.

Overlooking Blea TarnDay One: Scafell Pike

At 2 degrees celsius, it was a cold start for mid-April. Granted it was 5am, but the plan of action for the first day in the Lakes was to climb Scafell Pike. I made the two-and-a-half hour drive to meet my brother at the Aira Force Falls car park, relatively close to the edge of the district. We had a short walk around the falls to stretch the legs, then got back in our cars and began the journey to Scafell Pike.

For the biggest mountain in England, it certainly isn’t very accessible. I’d say that this is part of the charm of the location, and while there is a slightly easier (longer) route to reach the mountain by car, we decided on taking the more epic journey that took us through Wrynose and Hardknott Passes. I had no knowledge of these roads prior to arriving on them, but I’m certainly never going to forget them, not after seeing the sign that greeted us:

Beware all ye who enter hereI don’t own the best car in the world, but it’s a fairly decent five-year-old motor. My brother was driving something a tad older that had barely scraped through its last MOT. The “Extreme Caution” at the beginning of Wrynose probably should have caused us to seek out a safer route, but we thought we’d go for it; you only live once! The road was wide enough for a single car, and the passing places weren’t exactly frequent. To begin with, working out how to pass oncoming traffic was the most annoying aspect of the drive. However, we soon caught up with a slowbee further ahead, just in time to reach those 30%+ gradients! These inclines needed a run up, and the cars struggled in second gear. At the top of the steepest chicane going up, the guy in front decided to slam his brakes on, causing both myself and my brother to have to come to a screeching halt on the hill. It was quickly established that neither the footbrakes or handbrakes of either car could withstand gravity at this angle, and we began to slide slowly backwards. To add insult to injury, the eejit in front carried on without needing to have stopped, possibly unaware of the awkward reversing that was going on behind him. We had to retreat far enough so that the road levelled out somewhat. We then checked for anything else out to get us and made a dash for it. Small engines roared, and tyres squealed as the two of us wound our way up the twisting, single track road. A short distance ahead was our nemesis, stopped in a layby. Being two sensible adults, we did little more than glare at him as we passed and made for the peak of the pass.

From here, it was downhill by the way of Hardknott Pass, the steeper of the two parts. Fortunately, downhill is somewhat easier, but picking up speed with the drops below was a terrifying prospect. I allowed myself to breathe once we reached the bottom of the road, and then spent the rest of the journey to Wastwater reflecting on the horrors of it all.

20150413_130151It was still fairly chilly upon arrival into the car park at the bottom. We took a look at the impressively deep Wastwater and the surrounding fells before turning our attentions to the biggest of the lot: Scafell Pike. On the lower paths of the mountain the weather was alright, and it looked like we could see the top. Ready for some impressive views, we soldiered on. I was genuinely impressed with the pace I was making, thinking that I would be a lot more tired than I actually was (all those local Scottish walks are having a positive effect!). My brother lagged a little behind, but he was carrying all of his camera equipment, a burden that sapped at his morale as the clouds descended and rain began to fall. We were around halfway up when the rain became more of an annoyance, but the tough stone steps were finally replaced by grassier options which made progress a lot easier on the both us. We passed a lot of people heading back down the mountain which made me wonder two things: was it really that bad up there now, and how early did these guys set off?

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As we entered the cloud cover, it stopped raining quite so much and instead turned to snow and icy wind. The thicker hoodies came on, as did the gloves and hat, and we pushed on through the mist using the frequent cairns as markers to find our way. It didn’t take long before the the fog thickened to the point where we couldn’t see the next cairn. More exciting that worrying really, as it meant we had to use the surroundings to look for clues as to the routes other people had taken; there wasn’t a trodden path at this point on the mountain, at least not with the snow cover. This made for a much more enjoyable trek to the top than Snowdon had made (another climb that came free with terrible weather and no views), and it didn’t seem like too long at all before we reached the peak of the Pike and looked upon the triangulation point and the monument to men of the Lakes in the First World War. As expected with the fog, the scenery was less than stellar:

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As is the case with most mountains I’ve been on, the return journey took a fraction of the time. The only detractor here was that we met up with the rain again, and it was much heavier.

Thoroughly soaked and exhausted from our mountain trek, we headed to The Bridge Inn, not too far away. Turns out that the Innkeeper thrice missed the memo about a twin room being required and we were greeted with a double bed. Soon sorted out, but not without some heavy blushing from the woman showing us to the room! We consumed a couple thousand calories and drank some tasty local ales before spending the rest of the evening moaning about the aches in our legs from the twelve miles of uphill and downhill.

Day Two: Ambleside, Blea Tarn, and Rydal Water

In an effort to swiftly work out the knots, we got up early, ate a fairly small breakfast considering the “Full” in Full English Breakfast. We first went to Ambleside so that my brother could try and get his fix of reflection photography. He got some pictures, but I’m not sure the wind was really playing ball, and the short walk around the lake was ended in favour of a trip to the more sheltered Blea Tarn.

The plan here had been to walk around the small Tarn before heading off, but as soon as I saw the bulbous Side Pike in the middle distance, before Raven Crag, the aches in my legs from the previous day’s climb seemed to magically disappear. We walked around Blea Tarn, following the path that took us to the edge of the unique looking peak.

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Being little more than a third of the height of the previous Pike we climbed, we made it up Side Pike in short order, though this one presented us with some welcome scrambling given that there was no real defined route up the hill. Even without being the tallest of the peaks in this area, the top commanded an impressive view over the surrounding valleys (see the first image for the view back over Blea Tarn. I spent much of my time at the top scouting the nearby peaks for potential treks on a return visit, and spied several tiny dot-like people making their own way up the distant hills. Side Pike was a relatively busy little peak, being a waypoint for many walkers making their way through the district. We decided that food was the best option at this point, and made the journey back down which turned out to be more taxing than descending Scafell as we chose to go down by a different, completely made up route rather than return by the way we came.

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After a bite to eat, we headed to Rydal Water (I think for more reflection pics to be honest…). The general path was a tame loop around the lake, but offered the adventurous several routes into the imposing hills that embraced the water. With a fair amount of walking behind us already that day, we stuck mostly to the path with just a brief scramble to reach a slightly higher one. Following this path that was most definitely not suitable for anything but feet, we came across a fantastic cave, marked only as “The Caves” on the map board at the beginning of the walk.

The cave itself was a huge, jagged mouth that arched over a large, enclosed pool of water (complete with fish, somehow). Deep on the left side, the shallower right side had numerous large rocks left as stepping stones to allow access into the depths of the cave. The masses of water droplets falling from the ceiling of the cave were almost as heavy and frequent as a fair rainfall. I gave up avoiding them as I got further into the darkness. From the back of the cave, the views outside were incredible. The reflections in the water made the mouth of the cave appear as just that, a vicious set of sharp teeth ready to swallow anything that dared enter.

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I think I understood my brother’s fascination with them for the first time. The general view outside was good as well:

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It was getting on for 6pm after visiting the cave, and the next hotel was about an hour away. We made our way back to the cars again and aimed to make it there before the restaurant stopped serving. This meant driving straight past a host of other impressive looking locales…

Another twelve miles walked.

Day Three: Buttermere and Honiston Pass

The last day in the Lakes was upon us and the rainfall was heavy. My brother suggested a fairly sedate walk around Buttermere while the weather got over itself. The drive to this area featured a slightly less treacherous hillside drive, but did provide us with a good twenty minutes worth of wasted time waiting for a lorry to sort itself out while facing another car on the single track road. I guess signs that say “Unsuitable for HGVs” don’t mean much to these guys.

Barely a minute into the car park at Buttermere and I was set upon by the local National Trust rep, trying to get me to spend £60 on membership. I tried to explain that I’m all for the outdoors, but in Scotland there aren’t many places I go that are National Trust owned, and plied the fact that most places were in fact free! He was having none of it, so I let my brother deal with him when he asked about the area.

Hoods up, we walked to the calm waters of Buttermere. Reflection photos again. In the ten hours (minutes, really) it took to get a few photos, I was joined by a local dog who wanted to play. The rain also stopped, and the clearer skies beckoned further exploration again.

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We made our way towards Crummock Water, which was fed by Scale Force waterfall – the highest fall of the Lakes. The path that led us to Crummock was a fun, waterlogged route. Numerous makeshift stepping stones were needed for the parts that were just too deep for my water resistant boots (more on that in a moment). We made it through that trial to find that the path leading to Scale Force actually didn’t exist, and we had to pick our way through a long stretch of bog, where an accidental slip proved to me just how barely water resistant my boots actually were. It also showed me that they looked better brown than grey.

Navigating the bog was quite the task, but with the weather warming up it wasn’t really too bad. We made it to a bridge that crossed a smaller fall and stream, making quips at literally every subsequent fall and stream that that one was actually Scale Force, the biggest fall in the Lakes. When we did actually make it through the mire to main attraction itself, it seemed that the rumours were indeed true.

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While photos were again being taken, I spied some red stones that seemed to be arranged in a makeshift path, snaking up the hill by the falls. Rather than sit and wait, I leapt up the steps and found a wondrous path that I can only really liken to the Hidden Valley in Glencoe. It really was a fantastic route, and I pressed on perhaps a little too far to see what lay around next corner and over the next hill. It seems that this particular trail led on a vast circular route around and onto the impressive peaks that formed the sides of the valley we’d been walking through in the morning. The destination was a fell named Haystacks, which we planned on going to later anyway. I left this route for exploration another time, and carefully picked my way back to the steps that led me up, careful not to trip over any roots and send myself careening into the inescapable ravine below. Unfortunately my video is too big to upload on my rubbish internet, and looks terrible compressed, so the image below is the view out from the path.

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As you can see, the weather was becoming pretty good, so our initial plan to visit Haystacks was firmly back on the agenda. We picked our way back through the bog, and I earned another wet foot for the trouble. Back at the car, we had a quick bite to eat and made friends with a local robin…

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Haystacks wasn’t particularly far away, but we chose to approach it from a slightly easier angle given that it was already mid-afternoon, and the standard journey up it was a day’s job. We drove through Honiston Pass (another treacherous, though more picturesque route, largely thanks to being at the bottom of the valley for the most part and not having to worry about driving off an edge while gazing around, gobsmacked by the sheer awe of the height on each side) and parked up in the Honiston Slate Mine car park. £5 each, pretty sure we could have got away with it as well, as after paying there was no ticket or anything to say we’d actually paid…

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This walk started with a steep ascent from the mine visitor center up a route that reminded me heavily of the climb up Cairngorm, with the large, pale rocks forming a path. After three solid days of walking (up to about 30 miles at this point, rarely over anything flat), the climb was taxing, and early on we took a few stops to let our legs rest. However, at the second stop a Labrador trotted on by, ran back down, and ran back up. Not to be outdone by a hound (and aware of the owners watching us climb ahead of them) we pressed on and tried to take few breaks. We soon hit the first peak, but that only revealed another long, straight path ahead of us. The people at the top were barely more than dots from this perspective, hammering home the effort required to carry on.

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Of course, we did make it, soon taking the flatter part of the journey in our stride.

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Once again, the views were astounding, but even these heights hadn’t escaped water (despite the glorious sun) and boggy ground claimed everything, including the path. Given the amount of time we’d spent in quagmires that day, the squelchy ground didn’t prove to be much of an obstacle in between the rapid photo taking. In the distance stood the Great Gable and Scafell Pike, notably without any cloud cover this time! While we took a moment to lament our misfortune at having clambered up the biggest peak in poor weather, we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that the views probably couldn’t get much better. Haystacks was not so far ahead, but still a decent walk. With the day wearing on, we came to the agreement that even reaching that was probably too much to do given the time that we had left, so we settled for exploring the hill that we were on, and drank in the sights of the fells that we didn’t have time to explore in greater detail.

20150415_170855_Richtone(HDR)We made a quick stop at a slate house that formed a stopover for weary walkers, and then made a beeline for a ridge that would allow us an impressive view of Buttermere and Crummock in the valley we had been wandering around that morning. Everything around us here dwarfed us: the plunging cliffs, steep slopes, peaks above, and sheer distance between everything. The immediate feeling was the need to explore every inch, with each and every destination in sight looking to be a unique stop off with lots to see and find. Once we had made to it the ridge, we had to climb down a steep slope to get to an accessible path. My brother went first, and although I watched which rocks he used to step on and take his weight, I found that I either weigh a hell of a lot more than him, or he loosened one of the rocks up just enough to send me tumbling down the slope. I had barely put a fraction of my weight onto a large, grey boulder that was jutting out of the hill when it simply came loose and rumbled down the hill, with myself falling almost headfirst right behind it. Fortunately for me, the strong heather and squishy ground saved me from anything worse than a brief shock and the belief that that was it, but it showed just how quickly and easily you can get into trouble, even with a degree of confidence. Shame brushed off, we carried on down and got a few more photos.

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And that was about all we had time for. We made our way back from this point to the cars, slightly dehydrated and a bit deflated that our time in the Lakes was up. We parted ways at the Penrith roundabout joining onto the A66, and I headed back up 103 straight miles of motorway towards Scotland. I almost fell asleep at the wheel… ready to dream about mini-Scotland, already planning the return journey.

I hope this was wasn’t too boring! I wrote this instead of the next chapter of my story XD