Saturday, 17 February 2018

A toe in the Lakes

I'd never been to the Lake District before, so thought it was time to see what all the fuss is about. It also happens to be fairly accessible from Edinburgh - more accessible than much of the Highlands in fact, less than three hours away largely via motorways. The prospect of crowds of people queuing on the fells has put me off visiting before, so I figured a combination of a week day, off-season and iffy weather would be the best time for a first expedition.

High Street looked pretty fine on the map, all craggy corries, tarns and cliffs, a nice compact round from Mardale Head together with neighbouring Harter Fell, easily accessible from Penrith and the M6. Mardale Head was fairly quiet; a thaw was setting in, the wind gusty and restless, the light low and the fells wrapped in cloud. It's a sombre place; two local villages were lost when Haweswater Reservoir was created in 1929 to provide more water for Manchester. The buildings were dynamited before they were drowned.

I climbed Riggindale Ridge to reach the High Street plateau, rather than the more sedate-looking route up Kidsty Pike.

A fine, gradual climb with a few scrambly steps led into the heart of the massif, a ladder to the clouds. Blea Water lay round and inky, down on the left, framed in white.

Before High Stile, the final steep ridge to the plateau, I wrestled with the bothy bag for a sit down out of the gusts for lunch, soup and tea. I'm never without a bothy bag in the winter now. It's not just an emergency shelter but great to have on routes and days where sheltered spots are in short supply. Just getting sheltered from the wind makes a huge difference to lunch stops, minimising heat loss and turning lunch from a hasty undignified scramble to something approaching sane and civilised.

Ahead the ridge climbs suddenly into the cloud and into the whiteout... Crampons on, axe out.

I meet a man coming down. We clock each other's crampons and axes, and agree that not only do they make this safer, they make it easier too. He's been to the summit and turned around, complaining about the wind on the plateau, but when I get there I don't think it's too bad.

There's a cairn where the ridge meets the plateau. Visibility is terrible; it's approaching whiteout. Time to focus. I take a bearing and measure the distance from the cairn to the summit trig, take a deep breath, and push off from that one solitary reference point, into a world of white. On cue, the trig point emerges from the murk. Don't be so surprised silly, the compass doesn't lie!

After a bit of indecision I decide to carry on round to Nan Bield pass. Though there's no visibility, it's not raining or snowing and the wind is manageable, so good for a bit more navigation practice. Heading south along the plateau, I don't want to be blindly following footsteps in the snow as the line of the Roman Road drifts off in a south-south-westerly direction. So, I count 500 metres' worth of steps directly south - just me, my breathing, the sound of boots in snow, the wind, the wavering compass needle. Then 750 metres south-east, and by then I'm clearly on the well-trodden path down out of the clouds to Nan Bield with its snowed-in stone shelter. The wind fairly howls through the gap, up from Kentmere and down over the maze of rocks and snow and winding water towards Mardale.

Water and an energy bar. It's 3.10 pm. I've noticed that an extra hour of daylight has magically appeared over the last few weeks. Enough time to carry on over Harter Fell. The steep climb up is fun and needs crampons, but from the summit cairn it's a simple if lengthy plod along a boundary fence then on to a broad and easy path down to the top of Gatescarth Pass. And that's more or less it - a winding downhill mile through the fading afternoon light takes me back to Mardale Head; the wind still sighs in the grass and the crags still wrap themselves in cloud.


  1. ..."a ladder to the clouds"

    Lovely words, lovely pictures.

    1. Thanks Alan. Looking forward to more Lake District exploration.