Yesterday Daniel and I set off on another walk: the ascent of Skiddaw (pronounced 'skidder'), in the Lake District. We had intended to climb Helvellyn, but on consulting various online forecasts we decided against it. Soft, unconsolidated snow lay on its ridges, on top of old frozen snow. This is a lethal combination which can easily lead to an avalanche. Our plan, to ascend Striding Edge and descend Swirral Edge, was not a sensible one in the conditions, especially since our winter mountaineering gear amounted to one ice axe -for the lucky person- and one old metal tent-pole for the other one. It is possible to ascend Helvellyn more easily from Thirlmere but this, as I remember it, is just a slog if you are walking. Skiddaw, with its substantial 'tourist path' was definitely a better option.
We parked in the car park close to the top of a smaller hill, Latrigg, just outside Keswick. From here the path rises steeply to the skyline - the hardest part of the walk. Once this is polished off the rest of the ascent is quite gentle, skirting the foot of the subsidiary top, Little Man. At that point I was reminded of my previous ascent of the hill. I was alone, then. Daniel must have been about eighteen months old and, as we used to call him 'Little Man', I remembered being amused by the name. Well, here we were, both of us, nearly twenty years later.
Skiddaw has a reputation as an uninteresting hill. I think this is a shame. It may lack cathedral-like buttresses and pinnacles and absorbing rocky bits but it makes up for this with its sheer bulk which -if it hasn't already- dawns on you as you leave the grass behind and ascend its stony summit ridge. At 3,054 feet this is the fourth highest mountain in England. If, like us, you take the tourist route, the summit itself lies at the far end of this ridge. As you traverse it, the sides of the mountain suddenly steepen and you find youself looking down on your left into Bassenthwaite lake and on you right into the jungle of green hills known as 'Back o' Skiddaw'.
At this point, the full force of the cold wind caught us. At the summit trig point we took the customary photographs then sheltered behind a stone windbreak to eat. The forecast I mentioned earlier said that temperatures on Helvellyn summit had fallen to -14.5 in the last few days. I don't know what it was on Skiddaw but I removed a glove to eat a sandwich and even though we were out of the wind, it only took a few moments for my hand to feel painfully cold. The rocks of the windbreak were decorated with horizontal, wind-blown icicles. We hung around for a few minutes despite the discomfort: the view was wonderful as there was hardly a cloud in the sky and, anyway, it's not every day you get to stand on a 3,000-foot summit, unless you're a fell-runner who lives in Keswick. If our experience is anything to go by, there seem to be a lot of these. They all seem to own at least one lean-looking sheepdog, too. (I suppose any dog would be lean if walkies meant a quick jog to the top of Skiddaw and back).
The sun was low in the sky as we walked back down past Little Man. The wind had dropped slightly and it felt as if you could almost reach out and touch the main Lake District summits, all dusted with snow, that dotted the horizon. Directly below lay Keswick, on the edge of Derwent Water. In the town, points of glass and metal were still catching the sun and still, oddly, shimmering in a heat-haze. It struck me what a good place to live this would be. It's not that I really felt like moving house; it's just that for a moment I wanted to open a door in this landscape, walk in, and close it behind me.
Photograph (c) Michael Ely
Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence
4 years ago