So the blog returns after a 5 month absence…….
The first backpack of 2021 was to Upper Eskdale on a busy Bank Holiday weekend at the end of May. For the past few years I’ve tried to get away once a month but Covid lockdowns have made that a bit tricky this year. I’ve also joined the local Mountain Rescue as a trainee, something I’ve always wanted to do and which I’m very happy about, but it leaves less time for escaping to the hills for my own pleasure. However, I had a child free window of 24 hours and was, as usual, determined to make the most of it. The weather forecast was superb – sunny, dry and not too hot – so I left my tent behind and took only a bivvy bag, planning on sleeping somewhere high up with a view.
I managed to avoid Bank Holiday traffic by doing the opposite to everyone else and arrived at the National Trust car park at Stickle Barn in Langdale just as everyone else was leaving. From there I headed along the road past the campsite and up the Band towards Bow Fell. There was a helicopter circling near Harrison Stickle, later I found out that a paraglider had crashed there and was being rescued. In fact the local Mountain Rescue Teams had a very busy weekend, something I’m definitely more aware of now I’m involved with the Mountain Rescue.
There were still a few people coming down the Band as I went up, with one young lad wishing me good luck as I passed him much to my amusement and I wondered where he thought I was going. By the time I reached Three Tarns I had the place to myself in the evening sunshine and I stopped for some food and a quick look at the map. Then I went over the col and descended into Upper Eskdale, into the rough pathless country that I love. At the bottom of the first steep descent I crossed Lingcove Beck then skirted round the side of High Gait Crags and ahead of me, now in shadow, was Scafell and Scafell Pike, viewed from their wildest side.
Wainwright describes the Eskdale side of Scafell Pike as “a wild and desolate scene set at a precipitous gradient, a frozen avalanche of crags and stones, much of it unexplored and uncharted, wild in the extreme, and offering a safe refuge for escaped convicts or an ideal depository for murdered corpses.” Sounds like my sort of place – apart from the murdered corpses bit of course.
I skirted round Great Moss, having learnt my lesson from my last visit when I took a direct route straight across the middle and regretted it, then crossed the river Esk below Esk Buttress. There were a couple of climbers high up on the Buttress, maybe on Central Pillar, the only people I saw all evening. If they were quick they would just have time to finish their climb in daylight. Then I went steeply northwards, over rough grass and boulders, below the foot of Esk Buttress towards the stream in Little Narrowcove. There I found a faint path which I followed upwards until at 700m the narrow valley opened out into a flatter bowl, scree and cliffs on all sides. Here I traversed southwards, again on rough pathless terrain, to the col between Pen and Rough Crag which is where I intended spending the night.
I found a wide grassy ledge with a superb view down Upper Eskdale towards Harter Fell and Green Crag. In the distance I could see the Duddon Estuary and Morecambe Bay. I had a much needed cup of tea then made my bed. First a ground sheet, then my mat, then my bivvy bag and sleeping bag, finally my rucksack as a pillow. I took my boots off, got in my sleeping bag and made a very basic meal of cous cous and cup a soup. Then I sat drinking whisky, warm in my sleeping bag and insulated jacket, watching as the lights of Ulverston flickered in the distance and the hills slowly turned orange and then pink before disappearing altogether. There was no noise, no sheep, no birds, no wind, just silence. Finally I slept.
The wind got up after midnight and I woke, cold, my bivvy bag flapping noisily. As usual I only had my one season sleeping bag and wore all my spare clothes. I put on my waterproofs and tightened the bivvy bag around my face. The sky was clear, the stars and moon shone brightly, but I was more interested in sleeping than star gazing. Next time I awoke it was 6am and the sun was well up in the sky.
It was a beautiful, clear morning and the mountains looked almost alpine like. There was still a fair breeze and I was glad when the sun reached my ledge and warmed me a little. After a breakfast of muesli and dried milk and lots of tea I was ready to go at 6.45am. I left my rucksack at the col and descended back into Little Narrowcove with two empty waterbottles. There had been no water at the bivvy site and this was probably my only chance of water for most of the day, so I took the opportunity to get 2 litres, then I went back up to the col. Now for a bit of exploration and a new route to the summit of Scafell Pike via Rough Crag, over rough grass, rocky steps and boulders, completely pathless and uncharted, following my instinct as to what would work and what wouldn’t, always with that same incredible view down Upper Eskdale.
Wainwright makes more comments about this approach to Scafell Pike in his Southern Fells book – “Someday, when the regular paths become overcrowded, it may be feasible to track out an exciting and alternative route of ascent for scramblers here, but the author prefers to leave the job to someone with more energy and a lesser love of life”. I disagree with him there – energy yes, but I love life as much as anyone, especially when I’m in the mountains.
I reached the summit of Scafell Pike at 7.30am and had the place to myself which felt like an achievement on a Bank Holiday Monday. I’d been on this summit 4 days previously, on the Thursday, doing a 3 Peaks recce with the Mountain Rescue, and it had been very busy. What a difference. I sat on the very top for a while enjoying the view, westwards towards Pillar and Gable, north to Derwentwater and Keswick. Eventually three people approached from the Wasdale side and I headed off, not wanting to break the spell.
From then on my route was along broad paths and well known terrain. Down to Esk Hause, up Esk Pike, then Bow Fell, Crinkle Crags, Pike of Blisco and back to Langdale. Navigation was easy and the route gradually got busier as the day went on. The sun still shone out of a clear blue sky and the views were amazing but somehow the magic of exploring new routes in wild country had gone. A few small victories on the way back though – I’d done the same route two years ago and had scared myself descending the bad step on the Crinkles with a heavy rucksack and had also struggled on the last ascent up Pike of Blisco. I’d meant to avoid the bad step today but missed the turning so gave it a go, unbuckling my rucksack in case I needed to throw it down, but it was fine and I wondered what the fuss had been about last time. The final ascent up Pike of Blisco didn’t seem to slow me down either and I made good time, arriving back at the car at 12.30pm.
Another superb backpack, less than 24 hours long, yet it will give me a boost that will hopefully last for weeks. I must try and do this more than once every 5 months. Although whilst I’ve been writing this, I’ve had a phone call to say I’ve passed my 3 month assessment with the Mountain Rescue, so there’ll be no easing of the demands on my spare time just yet…….. 🙂