Summer's here and it's time to think big on the hills. Dan Bailey adds some ground to the popular round of Lakeland 3000-footers, just to make it properly hard...
I'm no fell runner, but I do like a challenge. I prefer my hill walks with plenty of distance and ascent, routes I can really get my teeth into. A full day out is great; two days doubly so. I'd long wanted to do the Lakeland 3000ers. Taking in all four English 'Munros' within 24 hours it is certainly a classic, and at about 70km with roughly 3000m ascent it fits the challenging bill too. But Skiddaw, Helvellyn and the Scafell range are widely spaced, and I didn't think all the valley plodding between them sounded that fun. So I came up with a high level alternative, roping in the Dodds, Great Gable and a few others to give a much harder round - but one that still looks logical on the map. This doesn't add much to the mileage, but with nearly 5000m ascent and lots more rough ground underfoot I decided that - for me at least - it was most realistic as a two-dayer.
For a detailed description see this UKH Route Card.
Joining me for a casual late morning start from Keswick Moot Hall is UKC's own Mick Ryan. He hasn't brought a bivvy bag, but with the leftovers of last night's curry and a full pack of tobacco he reckons he's all set. We've cleverly picked one of the hottest days of summer, and the air is soupy and windless on the plod up to Latrigg.
Bags stashed in a bush, we then get stuck into the long Skiddaw trudge. Runners might've made short work of it, but we're pacing ourselves. A good excuse anyway. Back in the valley there's an easy stretch on an old railway, but still somehow it's mid afternoon by the time we puff our way into Threlkeld like a couple of antique steam trains. The heat hasn't let up at all - if anything it is more ferocious. Mick declares he must have a drink, or die. So we blag a cuppa from the folks at King Kong Climbing Walls as a pretext for a breather in the shade.
Then it's off on the sweaty hoof up Clough Head, where paragliders mock us with their effortless swoops. Blencathra looks awesome from here. Shame it's not on the route, but there's always the Bob Graham next time I say, wiping the salt from my eyes and wheezing like a bellows.
Maybe I'm imagining things, but it has always seemed to me that Lakeland walkers finish their days far too early. Here we are several hours from nightfall, in the middle of summer, and there's not a soul around. It turns out we're not going to meet another walker until well into tomorrow morning. The Dodds are all ours, and though one Dodd is much like the next this series of rounded grassy humps does make for a beautiful evening stride. Shadows are stretching and Helvellyn looms ahead, its architectural simplicity picked out in the low-slung sunshine.
'There's always the Bob Graham next time I say, wiping the salt from my eyes and wheezing like a bellows'
A warm glow tips Striding Edge while evening gathers in the dale below, slowly inching up the slopes like a rising tide. Beyond the bright Solway are the rolling blue waves of the Galloway hills, clear as winter. While there's still light to go by we make a beeline for the valley, taking the path down Birk Side and Comb Crags to the gloomy conifers of Thirlmere. Across the way is the Wythburn Valley, a secluded and peaceful place by Lake District standards, and our best route west into the central fells. Now it's properly dark this seems as good a spot as any to bivvy, I suggest. But in a minute or two I'm proven utterly wrong. It is the worst possible place - unless you're a midge. Emboldened by the windless humidity they rise in Highland-like swarms from the grass, buzzing ears, clogging eyelashes and setting our scalps a-crawl. But we're all done walking, and while Mick does his best to smoke them out I just zip into my bag and try to endure (he's since given up - good news for midges).
Dawn brings no respite, so it's a hurried expletive-rich pack-up and we're off. A little up-valley there's the gentlest breath of morning breeze, enough for a brew and breakfast in relative sanity. The day is building into another scorcher as we climb out of the gorgeous upper valley, and somewhere en route to High Raise I contrive to lose my sun hat. Despite its modest size this is a key point in the Lake District, a sort of central hub around which the greater ranges wheel. It's roughly mid way between Helvellyn and the Scafells too, and though you couldn't exactly say it was all downhill from here there's a sense that we're moving now into the second half.
Water's running low - I just can't get enough of it today - and at Angle Tarn I stop for a fill, not anticipating there'll be many chances up on the stony Scafells. In the busy heart of the Lakes guaranteed safe drinking water is hard to come by, and I'm glad I bothered to find a battery for my UV purifier back in Keswick. At Esk Hause Mick joins me with a made up his mind look on his crimson face. He's calling it a day, worn down by a combination of blisters, crotch chafe, gammy knees and the sudden onset of old age. He can't keep up with the Bailey Dynamo, he says. Close to overheating, the Bailey Dynamo isn't sure he can keep up with himself either - but quietly hopes he'll find a second wind somewhere on this breezeless baked fell side. Then setting his sights on the long escape trudge down Borrowdale Mick Ryan abandons me to my self-imposed fate, donating spare grub and his sweat-crusted cap to the team effort in parting. I'm so dazzled and sun-scrambled that the hat makes all the difference; maybe I am still in contention after all, I hope, as I pound out a rhythm onto the Scafells with the pulse beat heavy in my ears.
There's plenty of company on Scafell Pike - I've never known it empty - but I doubt anyone looks as bad as me. I hunch into the limited shadow of a boulder to down some of Mick's donated food. My head's swimming and my legs have gone to jelly. Must remember to drink more. I wobble off towards the col of Mickledore, with Scafell's crags looking mighty impressive ahead. The direct route up the rock tiers of Broad Stand taunts me with a dilemma. Its shelving slabs and steep steps are the quick option, but not half as quick as the possible fall from the brutal crux onto the waiting scree below. Clammy with two days' sweat and feeling a little frazzled I sit for a while in its shade and ponder. The decision to go for it is inevitable; I just can't bear the thought of losing height on the alternative route via Foxes Tarn. But that doesn't make it the wise choice today, and for those few key moves I'm far less assured than I should be. It's easy to see how people come to grief here. In contrast to the Pike hordes there are only two or three other walkers on Scafell, and I lose even these on the descent of Lord's Rake. Cutting through Scafell's crags it's a spectacular way off, but treacherously loose. I pass the infamous jammed block with care. It looks OK for now, but one day it's bound to come unstuck...
It's down the peerless Corridor Route now, and after that little adrenaline boost on Scafell I've finally found my second wind. Threading through the crowds, I make good time on the descent across the gully-seamed sides of the Pike to the Spaghetti Junction of trails on Sty Head. Another decision time here. Afternoon's progressing and the Borrowdale get-out clause beckons. Am I really going to pick the hard, high road instead? It seems so. Great Gable it is, though I struggle to see what's so great about it on that leg-sapping shuffle up the uniformly-steep southeast flank. There's no one on top, and beyond a windless Windy Gap I'm still alone over on Green Gable.
With feet on fire Brandreth feels harder than it should, and the grassy descent to Honister steeper than I remember it too. Food's all gone now, and the cafe at the slate mine is closed. I'm an empty shell on the long pull towards Dale Head, and halfway up the flanking path that avoids the summit is an offer I can't refuse. My sticky head gets a dunking in Dalehead Tarn, though the heat is now beginning to seep from the dying day. It's my first time up the lovely High Spy, and I wish I could hang around to enjoy what's shaping up to be an impeccable sunset. But there's a way still to go. It's seemingly endless, that long stride out to Maiden Moor, but there's a gritty satisfaction in the relentless pushing on and I've hit my fourth or fifth wind. Still the pocket peak of Catbells feels enormous, lent stature and steepness by nightfall and my dropping blood sugar. There's a do at the lake side in Keswick, and my careful descent in the dark is serenaded by snatches of music that fade in and out as the night air wafts over Derwent Water. I'm down in the woods above the lake when the fireworks start, their booms and crackles rolling around the landscape like thunder. It's a grand climax to an epic walk, and very kind of them too. But a simple well done would have sufficed.
I just make the chippy in Keswick; Irn Bru and grease never tasted so good. The town is a-bustle with happy concert goers, and here I am stinking and wild-haired. No beds can be had for love or money, and after drifting about disconsolately for a while in a vain search for accommodation and a shower I settle for a grotty unwashed night in the car. Well it beats a midgey bivvy.
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