Ultralight Night on Gable

© Norman Hadley

Norman Hadley takes backpack-free backpacking to extremes for an icy spring summit camp on Great Gable. In a tent weighing just 400g all-in, and with some foil insulation sheet for luxury, how would he fare when the overnight temperature dropped to -7?

I have a cartoon in my head. A cobwebbed skeleton sits in front of the mountain weather forecast, waiting for decent winter conditions. I think we can all recognise that scene nowadays? There had been a decent dose of snow before Christmas, but I'd been working out the end of a contract: I needed to work every hour to wrap up a project milestone and it would have been somewhat frivolous to bunk off while the money was still coming in. An even better batch of snow coated the Lakeland fells in mid January, but I now had the opposite problem: priorities had shifted to securing a new contract, so I definitely couldn't justify a getaway. As February gave way to March, I started to get nervous. I'd invested a lot in kit, and even more in hope, for a winter overnighter. Surely the season wouldn't pass without a single summit camp?

Great Gable. It's an impressive lump  © Norman Hadley
Great Gable. It's an impressive lump
© Norman Hadley

What was it Hemingway wrote about things happening gradually then suddenly? The pieces started to drop into place: I'd secured a new contract but the start date wasn't for another fortnight. The weather was stable, with light winds and low, low temperatures. The moon had fattened to its fullest girth. This was the Worm Moon: so called because earthworms typically rise to the surface in early March. With minus seven on the cards for the summits, the worms might have been wiser to stay curled up a little longer. But, for a wild camper, the air crackled with icy promise.

Now, I don't want to sound ungrateful but the one ingredient lacking was snow. I ran the St Sunday Crag ridge and calculated that all of the cornices between Dollywaggon Pike and Helvellyn could have been carried away in a reasonably sized rucksack. As my, and everyone else's, mum would say, You Can't Have Everything.

Lighter is better. Up to a point.

I got to the summit just as the sundown lightshow peaked. The fading light added a tingle of urgency: would the ground accommodate a tent?

The format was short, fast and light. Okay, maybe not so much with the "fast" part. Once more, you can't have everything. But it would definitely be short: barely twenty-four hours from door to door. Deduct driving time and I was left with about eight hours of running and thirteen in camp. Ultralight was guaranteed. Some people are quick, others cover huge distances. I'm too ancient and creaky to do either, but I can get by with astonishingly minimalist kit. It's my Thing now. Trust me: when you're the youngest of six, you learn how to develop Your Thing.

There were a couple of additions to the manifest in the name of comfort. I'd invested in some ultralight down trousers (I refuse, despite the creeping Americanisation of the gear trade, to call them pants) and had even lashed a small roll of insulated foil to the top of my bum bag to boost the R value of my sleeping mat.

But the basic format: an afternoon and morning run, divided by a high camp and my patent no-rucksack system, remained intact. The system had performed well on two trips the previous winter, with summit camps on Scafell Pike and Helvellyn. I now had Great Gable in my sights. It is every bit as unforgiving as Scafell Pike as a pitch, with precious little shelter, a dearth of level ground, and a liberal bristling of the pointiest rocks ever to sink their teeth into a hapless camper's ten-denier fabrics.

Not a bad afternoon for a leg-stretch  © Norman Hadley
Not a bad afternoon for a leg-stretch
© Norman Hadley

I wanted to come at Gable from a reasonable distance, so as to arrive on the summit at dusk. It had been a while since I'd run the Newlands fells, so I chose Stair as my starting point.

I set off in the early afternoon, the valley flooded with sunlight but the temperature hovering around zero. There were precious few signs of Spring but, even on north facing slopes, the snow only grazed the tops above seven hundred metres. Did I mention you can't have everything?

Running slowed to a brisk walk at the base of Scope End. Besides, there was every reason to savour one of the finest ridges in Lakeland, with zigzags leading up through rich beds of heather and little rock steps. A kestrel took fright at my coming and yickered away to terrorise the rodent population of Castlenook mine.

I met the snowline just below the top of Hindscarth, my shadow prostrated on the snow before a magnificent vista of Skiddaw and Blencathra. Easy running curved round the escarpment to the finely-perched summit of Dale Head. I got chatting to a woman whose phone was playing up: it wouldn't confirm whether it was taking photos. This seemed cruel luck with light of such Alpine purity, so I offered to send her some of mine. Consider this a promise kept.

Everything so far had been about looking north, over my shoulder, to the Vale of Keswick.  But the prospect south, where I was heading, now beckoned. The crazy pudding-bowl of Gable, backed by the huge northern wall of the Scafells, lured me onwards. Gravity helped, with a four-hundred-metre galumph to Honister Pass.

Wasdale and the Irish Sea  © Norman Hadley
Wasdale and the Irish Sea
© Norman Hadley

Pleasure is allowed, right?

Halfway down, it suddenly occurred that there might be an open café there. The trip didn't have to be all about wildness and asceticism. Yes, I had counted every gramme but there was still a credit card tucked in for emergencies. Hauling yourself up to nine hundred metres at the end of the day counts as an emergency, right? I decided to lean into the sybaritic vibe and ordered a million-calorie Baileys hot chocolate, which arrived with a mountain of cream the size of Gable's snowy dome.

Two planets lay in Pisces and there was fish pie for dinner. The tiny stove spat a teaspoonful of entropy into the vastness

Thus fortified, I set off up the Drum House tramway, passing what proved to be the last of the day's people, picking their way down in the dipping light. I picked up Moses Trod, traversing the huge moor draining into Buttermere and Ennerdale. Gable acted as a lure throughout, though Pillar drew the eye rightwards too.

Water proved scarce. My ultralight ethos required filling up the overnight water bottle at the last possible minute, leaving just a short carry to the summit. As a precaution, I filled up much earlier, stuffing the water bag inside my top. This was just as well, because everything beyond was as arid as the Gobi.

I followed the North Traverse all the way to the Northwest ridge, where the view over Wasdale was revealed with a resounding "ta-da!". Everything was beautiful: the warm light in the valley pastures, the gleam of the sunset off the Irish Sea, and the crisp outlines of the Isle of Man and North Wales. I made a mental note of a small grassy platform at Beck Head, in case my summit camp proved unworkable.

The ridge above was forbiddingly steep and icy, with a proper mountaineering feel but I got to the summit just as the sundown lightshow peaked. The light slanting across the Scafells glowed ember-warm but the air bit hard: minus seven on the thermometer and a fair bit to deduct for windchill. The fading light added a tingle of urgency from not knowing if the summit would accommodate a tent.

Light show on Pillar and Co  © Norman Hadley
Light show on Pillar and Co
© Norman Hadley

Making a home in a boulder-field

A finger-tip search revealed a tiny perch and I set up home with all due haste. The site was surprisingly good: a little snowy platform between rocks, the pegs pushing in convincingly. As is my custom, I hoisted rocks on each peg and clambered in, throwing on warm layers as fast as I could to preserve heat. The down trousers were a real boon, as I no longer had to crawl straight into the sleeping bag but could sit cross-legged to brew up, or crawl out to keep watch on the sky.

As night fell, the full Moon flooded everywhere with its orange plumpness. I'd just bought a new phone with incredible zoom capabilities so I took a few hand-held shots. Jupiter and Venus formed an impressive conjunction in Pisces to the west. There was no meaning in this, of course: just a fleeting, subjective alignment of two rocks and a gas giant in a vast vacuum. Two planets lay in Pisces and there was fish pie for dinner. The tiny stove spat a teaspoonful of entropy into the vastness.

Weighs a few hundred grams, but it makes all the difference  © Norman Hadley
Weighs a few hundred grams, but it makes all the difference
© Norman Hadley

Stomach as central-heating boiler

I saved afters for later, so my internal energy release would last into the night. Cinnamon rice pudding, if you please. And I pleased. By now, the inside of the flysheet sparkled with ice. The water bottles were starting to slush up, so I tucked them back into my jacket like a farmer warming newborn lambs. Similar precautions were necessary with the lighter. The odd contradiction in cold wild camping made itself felt: yes, there was a profound sense of calm connection with the universe but, because the stakes are so high (if you lose the lighter in the snow or let the mat blow away, things could quickly get nasty), you have to be exceptionally meticulous. I took care placing each item consistently so nothing got mislaid. Actions became drilled into muscle memory: light the stove, drop the windshield over before the flame blows out, pan on, water in, lid on. Food pouch open, preservative sachet fished out and into rubbish bag. Shoe on rubbish bag so it doesn't blow away. Slacken laces so shoes will go back on, frozen hard, in the morning. And so on.

The wind dropped as I bedded down around nine. The PeakFinder app predicted sunrise at quarter to seven so I set an early alarm, leaving time for a leisurely breakfast and maybe some dawn light. A man can dream, perchance to sleep. The kit kept me nice and warm so why didn't I sleep better? Can I blame the bright moon? Or the overexcitement of a middle-aged big kid on an adventure? I'll let you decide.

Gable casts a morning shadow on the world  © Norman Hadley
Gable casts a morning shadow on the world
© Norman Hadley

A mountain plays shadow-puppetry at dawn

I fired up the stove, as planned, at five. Suitably caffeinated and porridge-glowing, I patrolled the summit for an hour, watching the light build. Mostly it was an Arctic blue across the Scafells. Slowly, warmer tones crept in from the east. Great Gable is a famously photogenic hill: the profiles from every direction are different but unmistakable. Standing on the summit, you might have thought it was the one hill I couldn't photograph. Not at all: its singular outline was projected in Glorious Technicolour onto Kirk Fell, including the noble nose of the Great Napes.

Whoever coined the running mantra, "Be bold: start off cold" was clearly envisaging a low altitude start, where a few minutes' chill would be unlikely to have lasting damage. This felt much more high-consequence, so I kept the down jacket on as I flattened the tent. The rocks supporting the pegs were frozen hard to the ground, requiring a significant kick to loosen.

There are worse places to end a trip than Catbells  © Norman Hadley
There are worse places to end a trip than Catbells
© Norman Hadley

I trotted down the undulating ridge over Green Gable and Brandreth, meeting a wild camper just getting going from his pitch on Grey Knotts. He said he'd seen my head torch moving around the summit of Gable the previous night: a fleeting moment of kinship.

After jogging down to Honister, I refuelled again at the cafe, before taking the lovely thin diagonal to Dalehead Tarn and High Spy. Again, the focus shifted back to the north; the rearward views to Gable and the Scafells were too lost in shadow to make much impact. By contrast, the classic prospect from Maiden Moor revealed the brightly-lit amber cone of Catbells, backed by the oddly-symmetrical wall of Skiddaw and Blencathra.

Gaining Catbells, the frequency of greeting other humans increased dramatically but I didn't mind a bit. Gable had delivered a fantastically wild experience and Catbells was, well, Catbells. From just below the summit, I galloped the lovely slanting track down frozen turf to Skelgill and the start. The trip might not have had everything, but it had delivered more than enough. A lot more.

20 Apr

Fantastic Norman do you really get away without a sleeping bag in -7?!

There is an incredible grassy balcony above the Napes, an oasis amongst the scree and boulders. A lucky find for a first-timer

23 Apr

Hi Mark. Nice pitch there, and glorious light.

Yes, I have a sleeping bag, a Thermarest Hyperion 32. Not really a winter bag on its own but it works with the down suit to deliver a cosy winter experience. I know it sounds implausible getting all that, plus stove, pot and food, into a bumbag but it can be done.

I've since transitioned to a race-vest-based setup, which is even lighter: I can get a winter baseweight down to 3kg.


23 Apr

Also, this is what the winter bumbag looks like. Despite the sparse snow, this was a chilly midwinter afternoon crossing Esk Pike. Similar light to your Napes camp.

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