Monday, 30 March 2009


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


Totalfeckineejit said...

Great description Dominic ,I feel like I've been there without even leaving my armchair and and with possible temperatures of -14!!!the armchair is where I'm glad to be!Poetic visionary conclusion.Fab.
Enjoyed the Mayo poem too.

BarbaraS said...

You can't beat a mountainy walk this time of year - brrr! I enjoyed the bracing wind from here.

Mayo is quite delicious :)

The Weaver of Grass said...

One of my favourite things is when you ring me from the top of a mountain (as you did yesterday from Skiddaw) - I get a bit of the pleasure without all the pain (and cold). Glad you had a lovely day.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

TFE: I now have this crazy vision of an upholstered sedan chair being carried up this mountain :)

BarbaraS: Too true - so I'm trying to take every opportunity.

Have you ever tried Hellman's with chips? Exquisite. :)

WG: Vicarious mountaineering, eh? - as you say, some of the pleasure without the effort.

Get Off My Lawn! said...

A respectable cold never killed anyone. Wait a minute. Yes it has.

Sounds lovely and I'm glad you enjoyed the climb.

Poet in Residence said...

In the Lakes yon collie often has a lean and hungry look! They can't half shift though. If you can watch them working some sheep on the hills it's a great way to spend a picnic half hour. By the way Dominic, I hope your marathon training is going well. I did the distance at the w/end: Fri 15km, Sat 17km, Sun 10km. Now all I've got to do is join them together. Easier said than done.

Dominic Rivron said...

GOML: If I understand you right, I hope you get well soon. If you follow similar schedules to us, the Easter holiday is just round the corner, which can't be bad.

PiR: I almost mentioned in the post that there is a memorial to three shepherds close to the start of the Skiddaw 'tourist path'. The inscription reads:

Great Shepherd of Thy heavenly flock
These men have left our hill
Their feet were on the living rock
Oh guide and bless them still

Marathon training going well, thank you. I've got up to 35 miles a week, so it usually takes me five days to "do a marathon" at the moment.

Frances said...

I envy you. I love the Lakes better than anywhere in the whole wide world. You were quite right to draw back from Hellvellyn though Dominic - not a mountain to be messed with in bad weather. Or good for that matter.

Totalfeckineejit said...

That would be brilliant,that's my kind of travel.I saw a sofa car one time complete with standard lamp that I would love to own -or even better the bed car.

L. Rochelle said...

Horizontal icicles..a sandwich to eat in the hand painfully cold...seems just like poetry!!

Poetikat said...

Dominic, what strikes me as I read this is perhaps the enviable camaraderie you must have with your son on these sorts of treks. I'm sure many a man looks to his father for this kind of amiable outing, only to find he hasn't the time to spend, or he's just a crud to begin with (not that mine was, you understand; I'm only speculating).
Do you have any interest in the whole Everest phenomenon? The book, "Into Thin Air" is fantastic.

I really enjoy tagging along on your climbs.


Dominic Rivron said...

Frances: It is a great place. I must admit to preferring Snowdonia, but I love Wasdale and there are lots of hills in the North West of the Lakes I've not been up yet that look really good (in Ennerdale, for example).

TFE: Perhaps a sofa microlight? I don't know if you saw it, but I was just reminded of the Craggy Island Show where they had a sofa on a crane in lieu of a big wheel.

LR: It was a rather poetic experience all round. More poetic, I think, for being viewed from a warm place! :)

Poetikat: When you don't live together you have to try to make the time you spend together count. Fortunately, Daniel and I both enjoy climbing hills.

I haven't read any books on Everest for a long time. My favourite mountain books are those of WH Murray (Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland) which I would definitely want with me were I to be stranded on a desert island.

Poet in Residence said...

That's a great line at the end - I felt like opening a door in the landscape and walking in. It's a feeling I've had in the Lakes too.

Dominic Rivron said...

PiR: What always does it for me is the late afternoon light on all that green.

Sepiru Chris said...


Your description makes me want to compare it to my own impression.

I just send word out on the ether about your poems, via my site today. Thought I would let you know.


Aunt Bernard said...

Just the thing to blow the cobwebs away - lovely blog! And thankyou for your comment on mine...

Dominic Rivron said...

SC: Thanks for the link!

AB: Glad you've enjoyed it. Please drop in again.