Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Escape to the Mountains, Part 1

In recognition of the hard work I'd been doing over the summer and as a way to mark the end of my MA, Daniel and I took a short break to the Lake District. In our usual style, rather than using this time to rest and let our bodies and minds slowly syncronize, we instead decided to do a 3-day hike over some fells, taking in two mountains on the way. We planned to camp one night, spend the second night in Black Sail Hut (the most remote hostel in the UK - you can't even drive to it!) and then enjoy a night in my favourite pub/B&B for a real treat.

On the morning of the trip, my Dad texted me to warn of severe weather. There wasn't much we could do except pack our full waterproofs and hope for the best, so we loaded up the hire car with camping gear, crossed our fingers and toes, and headed North West to the mountains!

Oh dear, it rained!

We arrived at the campsite and tents appeared to be floating on the turf, so I insisted we check in to the nearby hostel instead. It was old and stale-smelling and impersonal, but we cooked up our noodles and baked beans in the kitchen (why do these things taste so good from a camping stove but horrendous when cooked indoors?!) and retired to our seperate, single-sex dorms for an early night - fingers and toes still tightly crossed.

The next morning the weather was worse. We had to turn back from our planned route and take the road as the path was literally raging with water, and the rain was gushing so quickly into my eyes that I couldn't see. Not long into the walk we were soaked to the bone, and a quick pause in the lashing rain gave us the opportunity to strip naked in a field and change our soggy underwear before we caught a chill. This seemed to calm the weather a little (maybe the weather Gods were put off soaking us through some more in case we were tempted to take our clothes off again), and as we reached the foot of the first mountain - Green Gable - the conditions could only be described as 'ideal mountain weather'!

It was a lovely walk to the top and the views were superb. Really, really beautiful. In all the years I've been coming to this part of the world, I'd never known that it could be so desolate and so eerie. We were in a corner of the Lake District that remains untouched by the common tourist; an area reserved for the fellwalkers prepared to spend nights in a tent on a mountain side. Far from the comfort of B&Bs and Cumberland breakfasts, this area was almost unrecognizable to me, and there was something incredibly magical about it all.

As we climbed higher the winds began to pick up. The sort of winds that whistle as they strike the ground and scream through your ears - a couple of times we were forced to crouch on the ground in shelter. Our euphoria on reaching the peak of Green Gable was short-lived, probably blustered away by the gales (70mph, according to my Dad); we had a hurried picnic (out of necessity rather than pleasure, for we were both drained to the core by this point, but a pack of Mini Cheddars has never been so precious, in light of what was around the corner) and made our way down Windy Gap towards Great Gable.

I suppose it was really very naive of me to think that Windy Gap had been named that way out of folly. The winds knocked both of us off our feet (no exaggeration), and even to me - someone who will try the least sensible of things just to avoid the 'should have done' clause - there was no possibility of getting up Great Gable and down again in safety. We made the decision to head down to the hostel, which was supported only minutes later by the fastest change in weather I have ever encountered. Suddenly we were enveloped in clouds, and visibility was reduced to about 5 metres in front of us: I started to seriously panic!

To cut a very long, very exhausting and very very nerve-wracking story short, we descended the mountain, me in tears, down a path which had become a muddy stream from the weather. We slipped, we got lost, we were soaked through and miserable, and the whole saga lasted much much longer than I could have ever feared.

When we finally arrived at the bottom of the mountain, we had to cross a stream. By no means would this be a problem on a sunny day, but after days of rain, a stream in a valley surrounded by mountains quite quickly becomes a raging river. Oh, it was horrendous! We selected a less-raging section of water to cross; Daniel climbed in first and I grabbed onto his hand, wading in not long afterwards myself. It was so cold; I felt a chill travel up my legs, through my stomach and into my whole body (the way you feel when going over a hump bridge in a car), and the pressure of water up to my waist was threatening to carry me with it. Of course, we made it safely across the water, and when my feet were firmly on the riverbank I started to shake all over, both from the cold and from utter relief.

The walk to the hostel was not far from here, but every step felt like a mile. Blue skies made an ironic appearance as we came over the top of the final hill to the beautiful sight of the hut that was to provide the one thing I needed at the time - shelter.

My Dad's map, soggy and torn...

We didn't have a dry piece of clothing between us. We had no real food to eat but flapjack and cous cous, and how we were going to get out of the valley the next morning was a question we just didn't like to ask at that point (the only way out was up - not only was the thought of 'up' unbearable, but so was walking, anywhere, ever again). But there was a roof, there was a drying rack, there was Scrabble and the amazing company of a Canadian couple and the hostel worker, and there was instant hot chocolate. Never before have my needs been so basic, but never before have I been quite so convinced that I was going to die only a few hours before.

We retired to bed that night damp, hungry, exhausted, and too aware of how dangerous the most beautiful of landscapes can be in the wrong conditions. My fingers and toes were still tightly crossed for better weather - the next morning we would be crossing a mountain pass, and I was in no mood for more challenges, thank you.

That's all for now! Tune in at a later date for Part 2!


  1. Wow, you guys are hardcore hikers! It's scary to realise how much we are really at the mercy of nature, isn't it. Glad you are okay!

  2. I actually felt a bit ill reading this. I am one of those people who firstly prefers the beach to the mountains and secondly prefers to look at nature through a window.

    You are one brave brave pair - my dad's a pretty hardcore hiker but I don't think even he has gone out in weather like that! He has done the Penine Way though, do I remember you doing that last year? Awesome....