Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Climbing Scafell Pike

My son Daniel and I have climbed many hills together, but we'd never got round to climbing Scafell Pike - until last Sunday. I climbed it twenty years or so ago and, knowing Wasdale, but not getting there as often as I'd like, I envisaged a balmy, idyllic couple of days camping there. It's a busy place but, set apart as it is from the hottest tourist hotspots, nowhere this big in the Lake District feels quite so wild to me. The only other places I've ever found in Britain with a similar feel are in the Scottish Highlands.

As it was, the weather was damp and the mountains obscured by low cloud. We heard it had been raining for days, so instead of camping we chickened out and stayed with my cousin in Ulverston, an hour's drive from the foot of the Pike.

We got up a little late, like you do, and not wanting to panic took the scenic route through the Duddon Valley. When we finally arrived, to my surprise, we found a place to park immediately. However, no sooner had I turned off the engine than the car was struck by a squall of drenching rain. It only lasted a minute or two, but it was quickly followed by another, which we saw coming – a fast moving bank of mist racing up Wastwater to meet us. Undeterred, we put on our waterproofs and set off.

Given our late start and the uncertain weather, it seemed sensible to take the most direct route. We made our way up the path that runs alongside Lingmell Gill. The sound of rushing water, at first from the swollen Gill and later from invisible waterfalls hidden in the mist, was with us all the way to Mickledore, the col that separates Scafell Pike from its neighbour, Scafell. At the foot of the feature known as Brown Tongue the path forded the Gill: we crossed it gingerly, not wanting to get our feet too wet at this stage. I rediscovered the fact that if you listen to the sound of rushing water intently what begins as an undifferentiated sound seems to contain all kinds of uncanny, ghostly noises. I found myself fancying I could hear distant, indistinct rock music.

At the top of Brown Tongue the path plunged into cloud. The path forks at this point and we took the right fork for Mickledore. Grass turned to scree and boulders and towards the top the route steepened dramatically, terminating in a short but interesting scramble up a gully. At last we found that the ground in front of us was sloping down instead of up. To our right lay Broad Stand, site of the first recorded rock climb in England, undertaken accidentally by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His account of his descent (he climbed down it, not up it), in which “every drop increased the palsy of [his] Limbs”, is great fun to read.
To our left lay our route to the summit of Scafell Pike. This was a simple matter of following a cairned path: I say simple, but in fact the path passes a few metres to the left of the summit and in poor visibility it's quite easy to walk straight past it. Once there, we found a sheltered spot and ate our lunch. Someone kindly offered to take our photo.

No sooner had we set off from the summit than we were hit by another squall. It was similar to the ones that had hit us by the car, but we were now over 3,000 feet up and the water hit us like hailstones, penetrating gear and clothing in seconds, and making it impossible to see. Thankfully the conditions quickly passed and we were soon making our way down. This time we took the simpler path, the one that meanders around the outcrops and steep ground near the top of the mountain, rejoining the Mickledore path at the top of Brown Tongue. Occasionally we were treated to a break in the clouds which revealed spectacular views of Wastwater and, in the distance, the patterns made by the sunlight, broken by the cloud-shadows on the Irish Sea.


The Solitary Walker said...

A great day out! Quite different weather from when I was up that way a few weeks ago.

Dominic Rivron said...

It certainly was. If the weather had been better we'd have thrown in Scafell via Lord's Rake as well, but it was not to be. Can't complain, as it's an excuse to go back again.