Tuesday, April 30, 2019

don't push me cos I'm close to the edge

We went on another week-long holiday to the Lake District last week, of a very similar format to the one we took around the same time last year. This time I'm going to do the mountain-walking activity stuff first, just because that's How I Freakin' Roll, motherfuckers.

You'll recall that last time I was enthusing about having got two big adults-only mountain walks in; well we didn't quite manage that this time, but for good and interesting reasons that provided opportunities to do other equally interesting stuff. So while the big 12-mile circuit of Skiddaw that I'd devised will have to be kept in the back pocket for a future trip, we did get a couple of days out on the hills with the girls which I was, as you can imagine, unfeasibly proud and delighted about to what I imagine will be a tedious and embarrassing degree. So be warned.

Anyway, straight in, no messing, here's what we did. These are in order of distance and difficulty rather than strict chronological order (which would go 1,3,2 with two-day gaps between, if you're interested):

1. Cat Bells

We found ourselves in a position to take the girls out for a walk while my parents were looking after the boy. This presented a bit of an opportunity, since Huw is not as keen as either of his sisters on spending large amounts of time in the Macpac baby- and toddler-carrying device, and it would have been impossible for him to walk up a decent-sized hill, as gung-ho about giving it a try as he probably would have been, for the first five minutes anyway.

So we decided to take the girls up Cat Bells as an exploratory first outing, as we'd got them both some new walking boots especially for the trip. I suspect it's highly likely that this particular walk is a first outing for many kids who go on Lake District holidays, though despite its cuddly reputation the last bit of ascent from the north side (the more usual angle of approach) involves some proper, though not especially hair-raising, hands-and-feet scrambling. So it's definitely not a casual stroll you can take a pushchair on.

It also just happens that the starting point at the north end of the ridge was only about 10-15 minutes drive from where we were staying in Braithwaite, which was handy - in fact we spent more time driving around looking for a parking space than we did getting there. In addition to being a sunny Easter Saturday there was also a fell-running event on, so parking was at a premium, and we only avoided having to park a prohibitive distance away by getting lucky with someone leaving as we were approaching.

With two fairly young children (Nia and Alys recently celebrated their 7th and 4th birthdays respectively) there are a number of ways this could have panned out, many of them not good: deciding they hated it two minutes in, needing a wee every five minutes, wanting to be carried on the rocky sections, et frustratingly cetera. I'm delighted to report, though, that the girls absolutely smashed it, Nia with her natural athleticism and Alys, slightly shorter and chunkier of leg, with her trademark implacable determination not to be outdone by her big sister.

I mean, I don't want to overstate the achievement, as the round trip was a little under two-and-a-half miles, but everyone gave every appearance of enjoying themselves. Having a glorious sunny day with beautiful views of the Newlands valley and Derwentwater throughout helped, of course. Route map and elevation profile are below. Note that this is a slightly different version of the walk from the one which occupied fourth place in the Ordnance Survey's Britain's Favourite Walks list a while back - that one drops off the summit to the east to walk back along the path above the lakeside road, while we dropped off towards the Newlands valley to the west to take a more direct route back to the car park.

2. Haystacks

Fired with enthusiasm by the Cat Bells trip, Nia demanded to do another walk, a demand I was obviously more than happy to accommodate, even at the expense of a longer adults-only walk. My Dad, who after a quite debilitating bout of pneumonia a couple of years ago, and a heart-related health scare (which turned out to be a false alarm) last year hadn't done any mountain walking for a while (and who, to be fair, is nearly 77) wanted an outing too, so we decided everyone's needs would be best served by having a crack at Haystacks. This would fulfil Nia and Dad's desire for a walk a bit longer and higher than the Catbells one, and would enable Hazel and me to tick off Haystacks, which we'd failed to conquer last year as part of our Buttermere walk. Alys, having eloquently made her point with the successful ascent of Catbells, was more than happy to sit this one out.

There's some overlap with the longer, higher Buttermere walk from last year: same parking place at Gatesgarth farm, and much of the route of ascent up Scarth Gap Pass is the route we took to get down from High Crag at the end of the walk. The Haystacks route goes all the way to the top of the pass (which links the Buttermere valley with the wilder, roadless and less-frequented Ennerdale) and then turns west up a shortish scramble to the top of Haystacks at 597 metres (1958 feet). There's a rocky pile at the top with two cairns, each with a metal pole embedded in it. It's unclear which is higher but it's probably the one nearer the Buttermere side; obviously you have to put a stone on both just in case.

There are a couple of reasons for climbing Haystacks - one is the Wainwright connection as it was one of old Alf's favourite spots and his ashes were scattered around Innominate Tarn (where we stopped for lunch); the other is the general delightfulness of the plateau just to the south-east of the summit. As well as the gentle grassy descent to Innominate Tarn there is the larger and slightly bleaker Blackbeck Tarn, not to mention countless other pools dotted here and there. There are also fantastic views across Ennerdale to the vast bulk of Pillar and the more shapely summits of Kirk Fell and Great Gable, and down the Buttermere valley to Crummock Water and Grasmoor.

The summit path eventually skirts round to the north-east towards some quarry workings and then drops off down the side of Warnscale Beck and around the lower slopes of Fleetwith Pike back to the car park. Route and altitude profile info are below. Overall it's a splendid walk that packs plenty of excitement into its five-and-a-half miles, and barring a couple of minor falling-over incidents on the way down both Dad and Nia survived unscathed. A pint (and a J20 for Nia) in the Bridge Hotel in Buttermere village helped to revive everyone.

A couple of points: firstly there'd be a case for doing the walk clockwise rather than (as we did it) anticlockwise, since that way you'd get the longish walk in along the old quarry road out of the way first and would get the best views of Haystacks' rocky frontage on the way up, rather than having it behind you on the way down. It would also place the summit slightly after halfway rather than slightly before it, which I think is probably preferable.

Secondly, impressive rocky frontage or not, and for all Wainwright's understandable affection for the place, you'd have to say Haystacks has a fairly tenuous claim to be thought of as a "proper" mountain in its own right, rather than just an interesting rocky outcrop on the ridge between the higher ground of High Crag to the north-west and the plateau below Grey Knotts and Brandreth to the east. That probably explains why most of the Wainwright guides (picture is from my copy of this one) give a slightly hand-wavey estimate of 1900 feet as its height - it was never considered significant enough to warrant a specific survey of its height until Alf's advocacy brought it into the public eye (it turns out old Alf underestimated it by 50 feet or so). You can get an idea of the problem (not that it actually is a problem in any real-world sense) by noting that while Haystacks is a Wainwright it is neither a Hewitt (since it's under 2000 feet) nor a Marilyn (since it has insufficient topographic prominence).

3. Helvellyn

My only non-negotiable demand on these trips is that I get one full day to do a Proper Ruddy Expedition accompanied by whoever wants to come, is going to be able to keep up and is prepared to fit in with whatever absurd set of arbitrary challenges and targets I have chosen to build into the route. And so here it is.

One thing that had been bugging me for a while was that while I'd been up Helvellyn before, via a gruelling and fairly un-scenic slog up its western flank from the A591 at the southern end of Thirlmere, I'd never done it via the route generally agreed to be the best, and moreover the most exciting bit of fell-walk in Lakeland, Striding Edge. So given that you really want to be tackling Striding Edge in nice weather, and Easter Monday was a glorious sunny day, off we went.

We parked in Glenridding, only about half an hour's drive from Braithwaite, and headed off up to Lanty's Tarn, a partly artificial tarn occupying a dip at the end of the ridge which overlooks Glenridding and Ullswater. Apparently Lanty is short for Lancelot, the guy it was named after; I didn't sample the water (the level was quite low and it looked pretty murky) so I was unable to ascertain whether it really was lanty. We then headed round to the south a bit to join a path taking a diagonally upward course towards the Birkhouse Moor ridge, the far end of which is Striding Edge. The spectacular views down into Grisedale at this point dulled the pain of the realisation that (thanks to some slightly careless path-spotting on my part) we were going to have to do a longer detour than planned to bag the cairn at the far north-eastern end of the Birkhouse Moor ridge, something I had deemed essential to a "proper" traverse of the ridge (see "arbitrary challenges and targets" above).

Having done the out-and-back detour to the cairn we started the climb up to Striding Edge. The term is loosely used to refer to the whole ridge to the south side of the glacial corrie occupied by Red Tarn, but on the ground it's pretty clear that the rocky tower known as High Spying How marks the start of the exciting bit.

It's not really as fearsome as its reputation suggests, but that comes with the assumption that you're reasonably sure-footed and have a good head for heights, as the ridge is narrow in places, worn smooth by a gazillion boots in others, and the drop-offs to either side are steep. In other words it demands your full attention. On the other hand it's not exactly a knife-edge and you can walk along the crest pretty safely most of the way, with a couple of bits where it's probably prudent to put a hand down for support. Weather obviously plays a part, rain, high wind or ice would make it a good deal more challenging. There are drop-off paths on either side most of the way along if it all gets too much; obviously I disdained these and stuck to the crest. There's another rocky tower at the far end where the ridge joins the wall of the mountain which requires a bit of climbing to get up and over, but then it's just a steep scramble up to the vast rocky summit plateau. You can see from the altitude profile below (around the 8km mark) that the overall gradient of Striding Edge in this direction is actually slightly downwards and you have to regain some of that height to get onto the top of the mountain. Note that this is another mountain where the trig point doesn't quite mark the summit; the summit (at 950 metres, 3116 feet, the third highest mountain in England after the two Scafells) is the rocky area with the cairn over by the big X-shaped rock shelter.

After some lunch we started back; the return route goes the other side of Red Tarn via Swirral Edge, which is nothing like as sharp as Striding Edge but requires a steep and intermittently awkward downward scramble to get onto. Once you're on it it's pretty easy walking to get along to the subsidiary peak of Catstycam (2917 feet); some people bypass this in favour of a path which skirts across the contours to the outflow of Red Tarn, but those people are idiots. A slightly pathless drop-off the other side of Catstycam enables you to rejoin the downward path without any retracing of steps, and then it's a longish but steady and straightforward descent back into Glenridding and a celebratory pint in the back garden of the Beckside Bar in the Glenridding Hotel. I had a pint of Thwaites' Wainwright Ale, which seemed appropriate.

The general convention seems to be to do the walk this way round, despite the slightly longer low-altitude tail on it, just because it seems somehow right to use Striding Edge as a means of arriving at the summit of Helvellyn shortly afterwards, rather than just as a means of getting off a mountain you'd already conquered. I can tell you from our experience on a reasonably busy day up there that you would also be going against the flow of traffic in a way you might find made life awkward on some of the narrower sections. Wainwright did it this way round in his preferred version of the walk, which differs from ours slightly in starting from Patterdale rather than Glenridding, and in taking in the detour to Lanty's Tarn on the way down rather than on the way up (picture is from this book). My track log tells me the version we did was a little under 10 miles, which seems plausible, but also that it involved around 5800 feet of ascent, which seems less so - yes, there was a fair bit of descent and re-ascent, but this is a good 1000 feet more than on the Scafell walk. Maybe my new shoes were just excessively bouncy.

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