For the week of October 1st -8th, I actually had my first days off from giving tours since February. I was exhausted and quite ill, and a week on, I still am though slightly less on both counts.
Longer time readers will remember that I like to escape London to go to the quietest and most isolated spots in England at this time of year before going some place a little warmer in mid-winter.
It’s been quite a nice long summer in London this year, and it didn’t really rain at all for several months as well as temperatures hovering in the 30’s C / 90’s F for much of the time. For many years I have taken my summer holiday either in the last week of September or early October, and now I do my tours the tradition continues. However, there is no getting around the fact that the weather can be variable at best in London and yet in the Lake District, the wettest though perhaps most beautiful spot in Europe, the chances of rain are taken to another level.
Like last year, however, I can happily report that I spent a whole week there and had wall to wall sunshine and warm temperatures every day, even when London suffered from the first cooler days of Autumn.
I hadn’t set myself any firm plans for my week trip, but one of the things I wanted to do was to climb a substantial mountain. The Lake District is home to the top 10 tallest mountains in England and while they may not be overly significant on the global scale, when it is remembered how small our land mass is and that they pretty much emerge from the sea then it makes them a little more impressive.
In fact, along with the mountains of Scotland, the Cumbrian mountains are about the oldest in the world and countless ages ago, were the tallest in the world, more so even than the Himalayas today. Billions or at least hundreds of millions of years of erosion and more than a few ice-ages have worn them down to the current sizes of up to 978m or 3,209 feet tall.
It’s not so much the height but the beauty that draws visitors from across the world here. I was just reading how American President Woodrow Wilson couldn’t wait to return to a particular valley in the Lake District when I heard some American voices behind me remarking that it is the most beautiful place they had ever seen.
So after driving all the way up from London the previous day and making myself at home in a rented cottage on a farm, I awoke with at my customary early time to watch the sun rise above the mountains. I often get chest infections due to my asthma and inability to rest for more than a little while and last Sunday though I rose at 5.30am and hoped to climb a mountain that very day, I found myself out of breath just walking to the bathroom.
Such is life, it happens often but I never, ever let it get the better of me. I’ve gone in to work before when the doctors have told me I should be in Intensive Care on a life-support/breathing machine. Still, it wasn’t exactly the most encouraging start to a mountain climb anyone has ever had.
I had breakfast and watched the mist rise up from the valley floor. The weather was forecast to be good all day and in these parts, it can change quickly even in mid-summer and even more so on the mountain tops.
I decided I was going to climb Skiddaw, an old extinct Volcano and a really massive piece of earth, several miles long and at 3,054 feet / 931 metres, almost a kilometre high. I checked the temperature as it never gets very warm on the summit of Skiddaw even like today when it is perfect in the valley. Top temperatures of 19 degrees C / 68F in the valley but only 4 C / 38F on the summit. I made a packed lunch, took a bottle of water and packed a thick sweatshirt in case my t-shirt and light summer hoodie proved to be insufficient for the task.
Leaving the cottage at 8 am, I could see Skiddaw from the front door, dominating the sky line even 7 or 8 miles away. By 8.30am I had parked my car in a layby at the foot of the mountain and with a little trepidation. My only navigation aid was a number of screenshots I had taken on my Ipad from Google maps. There were a number of routes up the mountain but many of them had very long approaches. I had picked a shorter route that was only about 8 or 9 miles. The cost this came at was the fact that it was a hugely steep climb from the beginning.
Up through woodland in a nominal footpath, several times having to drab hold of trees to stop myself falling over. I had read that going by this route; you will have to stop for breath frequently and regularly. They weren’t kidding and with my sore chest, I was very out breath almost all the time causing me to immediately think this was a stupid idea.
After ten minutes I made it out through the woods and found a footpath which I hope was the one I wanted, it edged up steeply through bracken and heather from the woods in the valley bottom up towards a ridge which from there I hoped would be an easy enough climb.
This part of the mountain was only marginally less steep than the initial woods but one of the problems with asthma is that it can take a long, long time to get your breath back, which I never really did. Fortunately the higher I got, the more incredible the views became which meant I could pretend I was stopping only for my photos.
I came across a Fell Runner, a man who regularly runs up all the mountains around here. He advised me that I was on the right path and that I would be doing very well if I reached the peak in 3 hours. He advised me that the peak that I thought I was climbing was in fact just a taster and one of three that had to be conquered before reaching Skiddaw itself.
‘Great’ I thought to myself, I may as well overdose on Salbutamol inhalers right now and wait for my sheep nibbled body to be found in the spring. Deciding, I would go on for an hour or so more, I bade the runner farewell and carried on up the path.
After a few minutes I reached the bottom of the ridge which was great as I also emerged into the sunshine and had an even better view of the lake in the valley. I was also exposed to a howling cold wind and the immensity of the mountain opposite which was omininously covered in cloud and looked rather impossible to someone who was out of breath just getting out of bed 2 hours earlier.
Nevertheless, I followed the increasingly rocky and uneven path along the ridge towards Ullock Pike. Pike is an old Viking/English word for a mountain with a very pointy peak with Ullock in this case being a place where Wolves used to roam. I seemed to spend as much time stopping for breath and taking photos as I did walking. It was wonderfully silent, just the wind and the sound of falling water from streams beneath and opposite me.
It was about 10.30 and I was still climbing up towards Ullock Pike. It was getting more of a climb than a walk and several times I was reduced to scrambling up on all fours, holding on to rocks to stop myself falling backwards and no doubt to a serious injury at the very least. After 15 minutes further and with no real idea how much more this climb would take, I met a Scottish lady. She told me that I had ‘broken the back’ of this mountain and that I must continue even at a slow pace to the top of the Pike if nothing else and that it was two more hours to the top of Skiddaw.
I was advised it wasn’t quite uphill all the way though there would be some very steep bits, there would also be a plateau.
It was fortunate that I met this lady as I might have turned around very soon afterwards but instead, I continued, momentarily not being able to see where I was going as a bank of cloud wafted up the shaded side of the mountain before evaporating seconds after hitting the sunshine. It was a very narrow ridge and with a most precipitous drop but it was also very beautiful.
Onwards I trodded, and at long last, I reached the summit of Ullock Pike, or rather the false summit, the actual summit had been hidden from view and was a few minutes further along the path. The view was fantastic, I could see numerous lakes and was already around 700 metres or I guess 2,000 feet up. I’m not a mountaineer in any way, shape or form though I did once climb Mount Sinai which at 2200 metres or 6,000+ feet was over twice as tall as Skiddaw. However there are paths and steps up Sinai, this was just a physical slog.
For the first time, fleetingly I could see the summit of Skiddaw emerge from the cloud before being swiftly hidden again. I hoped that the cloud would burn off by the time I got there… oh yes, did I mention I decided I was going to go for it.
I had barely come across anyone all morning but as various paths began to converge, there was a smattering of people. Some of whom I talked to and all were very impressed that I had picked this to be my first real mountain. I met a colonel, an Olympic medal winner and various other notable folk and quite a few dogs.
With Longside Edge on the left, I headed onwards to Carlside, a small lull in the storm before the final assault on Skiddaw. Suddenly the temperature dropped. The less hardy but possibly more experienced folk but on their woolly hats and winter climbing weather, I zipped up my jacket and after a few minutes put my hood up.
Despite all the breathless agony of the ascent so far, with physical effort momentarily gone, I could enjoy the stunning views of the mountains and I found myself almost jogging along the plateau with a spring in my step until I got to my path up Skiddaw proper.
It was incredibly steep, no wonder most people took the longer but perhaps physically less strenous route from Latrigg/Keswick. The mountain was covered in millions of pieces of Skree, loose rock the lay everywhere and with one wrong step would have you inadvertently surfing out of control hundreds of feet down to a date with a broken neck.
The route as at least 45 degrees, if not at times 60 or 75 degrees and what’s more it the path itself sloped outwards. Jump out from the path and you could travel a long way down indeed. It was re-assuring to see every one of the few hardy people up this route stopping frequently. It was just so steep. Once or twice I would stop for a few minutes and take a well-earned sweet and then continue, stagger about 6 or 10 steps forwards and come to a grinding halt.
This must be the stage that the two people I spoke to said would make you wonder why on earth anyone would ever want to come up here, 1 step forward and 2 back. It was all very bleak and Mordor looking though thankfully the clouds had now burned off the summit. I could see the cairn on the top and a few people around it, I could even hear their voices at times, but it was just so steep that I thought it would take forever.
I did, however, make it and without once being overtaken by regular climbers, locals or non-asthmatics. The summit of the mountain was vast and broad and covered in stones and scree. It was blowing a gale and absolutely freezing, in fact, one of my fingers turned as white as snow. The view was amazing, and I could see across the sea to Scotland and many other more local places and mountains. I got someone to take my photo and then found a a few rocks to shelter behind. It would make the most fantastic spot for lunch out of the wind though still intensely cold. I was so high; I had long since gotten used to being above the circling Eagles below me and seeing just how far I had come. Al the points I was going to give up and the relatively low but still high spots where I thought I had done well but which were now far below where I now sat.
My lunch was small but nice and well-deserved. A man with his rather battered looking dog said hello and while the man walked on, the dog saw my food so I generously gave him a piece of my sausage roll. He was ever so grateful and wanted more so I gave him a second piece which he gently took from my fingers.
A young couple staggered past, a 2-year-old child sat in some sort of carrier on the back of the man, bawling his eyes out. His parents laughed when is said that I know just how the baby was feeling. If it was like this on a perfect warm day, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of what the summit of Skiddaw was like in the real autumn, spring or dead of winter.
I had made it within the 3 hours that the man and indeed other places on the internet had said would be a respectable time and to my surprise I met the man on the summit so we had a chat. I actually met him five times at different locations on the mountain that day which was weird.
Most people headed back down the well worn, stable though long path back to Keswick but my car was parked miles away and really, I had to go back the way I came. I was only worried about parts of Ullock Pike and hadn’t at all considered that coming down Skiddaw itself would be difficult. In its own way, admittedly not in a “I want to die” sort of way, this was even harder than coming up. Coming up you could stagger about, almost topple backwards and then “fall” forwards. Coming down, you could either come down impractically slowly down on your bum or as I did, very slowly walking forwards and often sideways (the slope being so steep the whole weight of my body was often on my toes and pressed against the front of the shoes). Once or twice I did a spot of Skree surfing but the fact that I am still alive, proves that I slid for only a foot or so.
As I neared the bottom of the Skree, I could hear the screams of two people hundreds of feet above me as the horror of the steep and painful descent dawned on them as quickly as vertigo. I was glad to reach the plateau and for the second time climbed Ullock Pike before slowly descending the very craggy and slightly dangerous ridge down. In fact, I fell three of four times but each time, thankfully on my behind rather than forward and to a certain doom. Partly it was from tiredness and partly just because it was that steep and rocky. I had read that parts of your body would ache that you didn’t know existed but I must say I didn’t ache one bit, I put it down to a very active lifestyle and perhaps running up the escalators on London Underground several times a week.
I met a few more interesting people on the way down including a man who was from the village I used to live in. He had spent all his holidays for the last 10 years, camping on the summits of all the mountains here, he had worked out he had about another 15 years to go before he had bagged all of the big ones. He liked the isolation and solitude which I very much understood. He also mentioned how icy his night had been.
I wasn’t sure if I was even taking the right path down to the woods, but it seemed I had. It was just as impossibly steep as it had been 6 hours earlier and I had my most painful fall just a few minutes from the end. I had however made it! On the morning when I was so out of breath I could barely walk to the kitchen, I had climbed the 6th tallest mountain in England and by the most testing route and as my first real climb.
Way to go me 🙂 and my first day off for 7 or 8 months. Makes you wonder what I might do when I have a bit of energy and a good chest.
You can see the little video diary I had made of my time on Skiddaw, minus the frequent pauses, moments of living hell, small tumbles and moments of teetering on the edge of nothingness.