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Borrowdale: 12-14 November 2004

Kirk Fell, Lingmell, Great Gable

I particularly wanted to get up to the Lakes this weekend so that I could attend the Remembrance Day service on the top of Great Gable on Sunday. It's something I've often intended to do, but somehow have never actually managed. I took Friday off so that I could get a good start, but it was still midday by the time I'd torn myself away from the PC and the comforts of home. Still, I'd heard that the forecast for Saturday was wonderful - bright sunshine followed by a very heavy frost - so I was full of excited anticipation.

After considerable thought, I'd decided to park at Seathwaite in order to camp on Friday evening in the hanging valley at the top of Sour Milk Gill: many thanks to John on U.R.W. for the suggestion :-) I stopped at Keswick on the way to Seathwaite, because I couldn't entirely resist the lure of the kit shops. In particular, I wanted to see if I could find an Osprey rucksack - just to look at, and possibly touch, at this stage - and I hoped to take a closer look at the new Anquet Photomap demonstration, to work out whether it was what I saw in Ambleside a couple of weekends ago.

I managed to find both the Osprey Luna and the Anquet Photomap demonstration in George Fisher, which is one of my favourite shops, and decided to return on Sunday afternoon, when I'd have plenty of time to play. On the way back to the car I bought an extremely delicious hummous, lettuce, cucumber and onion sandwich from the Good Taste Coffee Shop & Deli in Lake Road (1 minute from George Fisher, and one of friendliest delis I've ever visited), and then I drove down to Borrowdale.

By the time I got to the parking place not far from the farm at Seathwaite the weather had begun to turn from crispy cold sunshine to lowering cloud, a chill wind and the first spatterings of rain, so I got my things together fairly quickly, locked up the car and set off down the road towards the farm. The map showed a path turning right towards the fell about halfway through the farm yard. I didn't initially see it on the ground, but when I turned back to look again from the far end of the yard I noticed two young men in walking kit emerging from what looked like a stall at the back. I went over for a closer look, and sure enough that was the way to the gill.

The path up the side of the fell to the left of Sour Milk Gill was surprisingly steep, and even slightly scrambly in a couple of places. The steepness shouldn't really have been a surprise, as I'd spent quite a lot of time flying up and down the path in my Anquet Harvey's 1:25k Virtual Landscape over the preceding few days, but I seem fated to be taken by surprise by the way in which contour lines translate into reality :-) Nonetheless, the walk was invigorating, and I enjoyed it. I was glad of the chill wind, which kept me cool.

I emerged over the lip of the climb into the hanging valley at about 4.30pm, just as the quality of light began to change. I immediately began to look around for a campsite, but pushed on up the valley in the hope of finding something slightly flatter than the dry looking but rather sloping ground available immediately to the right of the path. Everything I saw as I progressed up the valley seemed pretty wet, though, and I was keen not to repeat the slightly icky experience I'd had two weeks earlier when camping on a boggy bit of ground, so as the light began to fail I decided to go back down to the dry grass I'd first seen when emerging from the climb.

On arrival back at the bottom I looked around rapidly for the flattest pitch that I could find. Having found it, I whipped my rucksack off and slipped the tent out of its bag. As I did that, though, a strong wind suddenly blew up from towards the Gables behind me, and came whining down the valley in my direction. It was so strong that I had to kneel on the flysheet to be sure it wasn't going to blow away, and there were a few anxious minutes as I fed the pole through the sleeve and then attempted to position the second two groundsheet pegs nice and squarely with the first. Soon the tent was up, though, and not long after that my kit and I were sheltering inside. I was relieved to get in. I'd noticed some dense black clouds gathering at the top of the valley, and I'd begun to be a bit nervous at the possiblity of a thunder storm. Happily, though, out of sight was more or less out of mind, and not long after getting in I was inflating my new Exped Down Air mattress for the first time in the wild, and then climbing into my sleepy bag and settling down to test out the mattress, and to read my new camping book ('Sting: Broken Music').

I was very impressed by the new mattress, which is by far the most comfortable camping mattress I've ever used, but I was a little disturbed to be feeling a bit chilly in my sleeping bag. My feet had started off warm, but within an hour they'd cooled off considerably and were verging on cold. I was lying curled up on my side, and I was also a bit chilly where my bum and knees were in contact with the wall of the bag. Normally I just sleep in my base layer, but it occurred to me that if it was going to be a cold night then that might not be enough. After all, the sleepy bag only claims to go down to -1, and if anything I probably tend towards being a cool sleeper. So, I dug out a spare pair of socks from my clothes bag and put my walking trousers and Montane Krypton hooded smock back on, and within half an hour everything except my feet was as warm as toast. I eventually sat up and rubbed my feet back to circulation, and eventually I dropped off and slept more comfortably than usual until it was time to get up the following morning.

I woke at about 7.30am on Saturday to a glorious morning. I got up and nipped out for a quick look round, and found that the sun was already beging to light the tops of the surrounding fells. Not far away I noticed what looked like a frozen puddle, and when I went to take a closer look I found it covered in thick ice: the first of the winter for me :-)

Camp in hanging valley near Sour Milk Gill

I went back to bed for a luxurious snooze, but about 45 minutes later I finally sat up and set about making a large kettley thing full of hot chocolate, which I drank as I read a bit more of the Sting book. When I got towards the end of the hot chocolate I emptied 2 sachets of 'instant' porridgy oats into it, and brought it to a bit of a simmer on the stove. After that I left it to cool down a bit, and by the time I came to eat it it had taken on the consistency of boiled wallpaper paste. Still, it didn't taste as bad as it looked, and I'm quite sure it was full of just the right sort of energy. As I was eating and reading I heard a couple of people pass quite closely, which reminded me of my proximity to the path, so I finished breakfast, and by the time I'd washed the kettley thing, packed up and emerged to pack my rucksack there was a large party of walkers being led past by a couple of guides!

As well as having fun in the hills, I'm currently trying to work out whether my existing kit is going to work for the walk across Scotland that I have planned for next May, so one of the things I'm doing is trying out different kit arrangements. This weekend I took my 50L Macpac Pursuit (the old one, not the new version) and strapped my tent to one side and my new mattress (in a waterproof sack) to the other. My tent poles are sitting in the wand pocket behind the mattress, and my walking pole was eventually slipped down the side straps to the side of the tent. Here's how it all looked: it actually felt quite comfortable.

Current rucksack configuration

My main plan for today was to look for the interesting wild camp sites that I've been told exist above the Corridor Route which leads from Styhead up to Scafell Pike, and my route out of the hanging valley led up to Green Gable, passing Base Brown on the left. Although the day was still beautiful, the valley was shaded and there was quite a lot of thick ice on the path. I was careful about where I was putting my feet, because to stand unwittingly on an ice-covered step would be to invite a disaster. It wasn't difficult to walk around the ice, though, where rest of the path was dry, offering a good grip. I stopped on the way up to refill my water bottle, but it wasn't too long before I emerged onto the the col between Base Brown and Green Gable. From there it was only a short further push to the top of Green Gable, from which the views were magnificent.

Haystacks nestled between High Crag to the rear and the lower slopes of Brandreth to the front, with Buttermere just visible in the background.

Ridge leading up to Pillar on the left, and through Haystacks, High Crag, High Stile, Red Pike and Starling Dodd on the right.

The way up to Great Gable first involved a steep descent, via shaley ground, to a col. I'd been told that there was another good wild camping spot a short distance below the col to the right, but I couldn't see it when I was there. I pushed on up the climb towards Great Gable, and soon found myself negotiating a little bit of a scramble. I reached a bit of an impasse and had to pause for some deep breaths, in order to get my fear of even little heights under sufficient control to allow me to backtrack and take a slightly different route, but soon enough that was done, and not long afterwards I emerged onto the top of Great Gable for the second time in a fortnight.

I sat down on my mapcase and got out my coffee, and pretty soon I noticed that the elderly man sitting next to me was wearing a very attractive looking Paramo smock, so I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought of it. ("Toasty warm in winter: too hot in summer: don't really know how it dries after heavy rain, as haven't ever had it very wet," is a summary of the reply.) The bloke and I chatted for a while, and then I gathered my things together and began the descent to Styhead.

I paused a few times on the way down, trying to see if I could work out where the interesting camping spots might be. I couldn't tell, though, and so I pressed on down to the bottom. Once there I set off for the Corridor Route. The start of the path is easy enough to find, and the path itself is pretty easy to follow. No more than about 30 minutes from Styhead I was approaching the second deep gully, which I think must be just before Round Howe, when I decided to climb up to the left to see whether there might be any flat ground above the little grassy shoulder I was passing. Indeed there was, and no more than 60 seconds later I was standing on a sheltered platform of flat, dry grass with views extending back over Styhead all the way to Derwentwater. It was absolutely beautiful, and I decided to put the tent up immediately, as I was quite sure that I wasn't going to find a nicer place if I searched for hours.

Looking over to Great Gable, hidden from the Corridor Route below.

Looking back to Styhead, with Derwentwater in the distance.

By now it was only 2.25pm, and I hadn't finished walking for the day. I decided to risk leaving most of my kit in the tent, not so much because I was unwilling to carry it up Scafell Pike but more because I knew I'd be tired when I got down, and I liked the idea of being able to slip quickly into my sleeping bag on the mattress and start heating up my dinner, and so I got together my waterproof jacket, map, compass, camera, head torch and gloves and made my way back down to the Corridor Route. With the benefit of hindsight, it would have made sense to take my water bottle too, but that didn't occur to me at the time.

The walk up to the top of Scafell Pike was cold but exhilarating, and I felt very light on my feet now that I no longer had the rucksack with me. I passed a stalactite on the frozen path and stopped to take a picture...

... and the views back to the Gables and more distant fells grew ever more magnificent as I climbed higher in the golden sunshine of the late afternoon. I passed quite a lot of places where it would be possible to camp, and so filed this information away for future reference.

Lingmell, with Kirk Fell standing like a table behind it, and the side of Great Gable to the right.

I got to the top about 3.50pm, and asked a bloke taking pictures from the summit shelter whether he'd mind taking a piccy of me with my camera. He said he wouldn't, and so he did.

Shirl on Scafell Pike

I decided not to stay long at the top, as I didn't want to lose the light on my way back to my camp. That turned out to be a wise decision, as the light began to show signs of fading not much after 4.20pm, and by the time I got back to the tent just before 5pm the gloaming was thickening around me. I was relieved to find the tent still there: there's only a small chance of having one's tent stolen in the Lake District, but it has happened before now (though not to me, thank goodness).

It was lovely to be able to slip out of my boots and waterproof socks and into my nice, dry bed socks before snuggling down in the sleeping bag to choose my evening meal, and I soon had water heating on the stove for a large pot of cous cous. After the cous cous I'd have liked a large mug of tea or hot choccy, but there wasn't enough water left in my 1L water bottle. I should really have emptied most of my water into my kettley thing before walking up Scafell Pike, as then I'd have been able to re-fill it in the stream on the way down, but I had to make do with a quick swig before cleaning the pot. I then snuggled down with my book again, and eventually I drifted off to sleep.

I woke early on Sunday morning, and unzipped the door a bit only to find that a cloud had descended in the night, and blocked everything from view. In view of the Remembrance Day service to come that was a little disappointing, but I hoped that it might lift a little by 11am. I considered whether to dress and descend to the stream in the gully in order to get some more water to make breakfast, but I decided to make do with my remaining trail mix and the dregs of my coffee from the day before. At about 8.15am I began to pack up, and by just after 9am I was setting off for Great Gable.

View from the tent towards Great Gable and Styhead on Sunday morning.

After 30 minutes or so I came to a short but steep descent into a bit of a gully, and realised that I was almost back at Styhead. There was absolutely nothing to be seen or heard, although I was sure that hundreds of people were already massing a couple of hundred metres to my left at the Stretcher Box. I came to a point where the path diverged, and took the left hand turn. Over to my right I noticed a solitary walker approaching the same path from what I hoped was the direction of Sprinkling Tarn. He called over to me, and we stopped for a moment to check that we were intending to go in the same direction. He too was aiming for the service, and so we walked on together. There was absolutely nothing to be seen in any direction until we got to within about 15 metres of the Stretcher Box, at which stage I think we both breathed quite a sigh of relief! The other walker, whose name was Peter, had walked over from Langdale via Angle and Sprinkling tarns. He'd walked with a friend as far as Esk Hause, but at that stage his friend had departed for the summit monument on the top of Scafell Pike. He'd not seen any other walkers in the clouds, and had begun to wonder whether he was in the right place.

I now drank the last of my coffee, which amounted to a small cup and a half of stone cold, but nonetheless very welcome, liquid, and then Peter and I set off for the top. We stuck to a steady pace, and didn't stop at all on the way up. There were actually hundreds of people on the mountain, and the combination of gradient and the nature of the occasion transformed the ascent into something of a solemn procession. There was a bitter wind blowing a bit of very wet rain around towards the top, but I didn't bother with a hat or hood and was grateful for the cold to cool me down.

We got to the top at about 10.40am, and stood around taking in the scene. I began to feel pretty cold, just standing around, and my shoulders and neck felt wet and uncomfortable. I wasn't sure whether my waterproofs had leaked, somehow, or whether my layers hadn't yet completed the job of transporting the sweat of the climb from inside to out. (It turned out to be the latter: by the time I got down to Seathwaite a few hours later I was perfectly dry.)

Just before 11am, the President of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club read out her address to the assembled walkers, and then there were 2 minutes of silence. The minutes passed quickly and soon they were over, and it seemed to me that the cloud lent a quiet intimacy to the occasion.

Address by President of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club

At the end of the silence the crowd dissolved gradually into movement again, and I moved round to the other side of the monument to see whether I could locate a couple of people from U.R.W. who had said they'd be there. It took quite some time to get round, though, and by the time I got there I couldn't see a likely looking group. The wind was particularly hard to the west of the monument, and so after a few minutes I turned back and began to make my way back down to Styhead Pass. Despite my gloves, my fingers were now so cold that they were hurting. I knew they'd warm up as soon as I started moving, though, so I didn't bother digging around inside my sack for heavier, waterproof gloves.

The walk down was even more of a procession than the long climb up, but eventually it was over. The cloud hadn't lifted in the slightest, and it was still impossible to see any sign of Styhead Tarn from the Stretcher Box. I knew it was there, though, and so I got out my minidisc player for company and began the walk back to the car. As I walked back down to Seathwaite in company with many other people a helicopter flew up and down the valley several times. The first time it passed I wondered whether there'd been an accident back at the Gables, but by the time it had gone up and down a number of times I assumed it was an exercise. On arrival at the bottom, though, I found the Mountain Rescue landrover and quite a lot of the team, and heard them telling a walker in front of me that there had been a report of a man collapsed on Windy Gap, the col between Green and Great Gable.

I got back to my car at about 1pm, and was back in Keswick not long after 1.30pm. Once there I dashed straight to Booths for a bottle of diet Coke to re-hydrate, and then made my way back to the Good Taste Coffee Shop & Deli in Lake Road for more delicious, home made sandwiches. The food was just as good, and the reception equally as friendly, as those I'd enjoyed on Friday afternoon, and in addition to two lovely feta cheese baguettes with home made pesto and roquet I bought a tub of one of the most utterly scrummy home made salads I've eaten in a very long time - some sort of noodles with beansprouts in what tasted like a soy sauce and sesame oil dressing, sprinkled with a few sesame seeds: fabulous!

I then carried my brown bag of food along to George Fisher, where I spent a happy half hour or so investigating the mysteries of the Osprey Luna rucksack, which I now think is absolutely perfect for my backpacking requirements...

One of my favourite sights!

After that I drooled a bit at the Anquet digital mapping, browsed the books and toyed with a few Tilley Hats, before finishing off with a conversation with a very helpful, knowledgeable and enthusiastic bloke in the clothing department, who happily spent a long time explaining the relative merits of different sorts of base, mid and waterproof layers. A merino wool baselayer and a Primaloft smock have been added to my wish list :-) (If any family are reading, I can supply size and supplier details in the twinkling of an eye!)

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