Caldera Cone in action in the field

A Far Eastern Odyssey – Part 4: Bad Weather ? Bad Gear ? Bad Decisions ?

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.

Or so goes the proverb.  But it’s a load of sanctimonious bollocks…

If there’s one piece of so-called outdoor wisdom that really gets on my tits, it’s this. Not because I totally disagree with it, but because of the way that people trot it out as if it’s scripture – usually when you’re on the receiving end of the weather and they weren’t. But like most proverbs, there is of course a grain of truth in the saying and I’d be the first to acknowledge that most of what we tend to call bad weather (usually when it catches us out), is just weather.  Standard weather within the normal range. And most of this range of weather can be catered for by matching the appropriate items of gear up against it.

But bad weather, certainly does exist. No item of walking gear is going to keep you totally immune if a hurricane passes by or completely prevent you being struck by lightning.  And try telling a relative of anyone who died as a result of the recent torrential rain and widespread flooding, that it’s not bad weather, just weather, and that they’d have been ok if they’d had the right gear. So let’s banish once and for all the fallacy that there’s no such thing as bad weather.  There certainly is. Get over it. But the human tendency to exaggerate and make what we say sound more exciting means we tend to use more extreme terms to describe conditions slightly outside the norm and specifically we tend to overuse the term bad weather to mean anything less than blue skies, warm temperatures and no rain. I think it’s this that the proverb is really trying to address.

Now, bad gear. Kit manufacturers aren’t superhuman or magicians, despite their marketing claims, and the weatherproofness of gear is very much dictated by the limits of current fabric technology and the economics of gear manufacture. No waterproof jacket will last out forever against persistent and long-lasting rain.  Eventually it will wet out. Until the day that titanium becomes the material of choice for outdoor clothing, of course. So gear has it’s limits too, and it’s often also a case of a trade-off of properties – for example of weight v robustness.  All we can do is strike the best balance between the gear we use and the conditions we seek to use it in.  We won’t always get it right, and weather conditions change, making the choice more complicated too. So I think it comes down more to the decisions which are taken in knowledge of the expected conditions and in knowledge of what our gear is capable of.

That’s the end of today’s sermon, as this post is supposed to be the concluding part to this week’s Lake District trip to the Far Eastern fells.  But the themes above run right through the experiences of the trip and contribute to how it ended.

Tuesday 3 July – Game Over

Safely in Keswick, I packed my damp rucksack, trying to achieve a workable balance of keeping wet gear contained so that it didn’t affect anything else, managing to get it all in, and not looking like a complete dickhead whilst in “civilisation”. This meant that I was faced with wearing my still wet boots for the journey home and the choice of wearing my “used” waterproof socks or trying double bagging my feet in normal socks.  I went for the latter, and it worked, albeit a bit tight.

A last look at the mountain weather forecast to confirm that there hadn’t been a last minute improvement (there hadn’t) and I was off. I walked to the bus station and past the gear shop that has our favourite proverb proudly displayed on its signage (I’m sure you all know which one).  It’s one shop I refuse to go in, out of principle, purely because of this. I’m sure it’s well meant, but it rubs me up the wrong way, so best steer clear.

The journey home was uneventful, but I did get lucky with my choice of trains.  Usually I opt for a train that avoids the need to change, and that’s led to some momentary stress when getting onto a packed train, with every seat reserved and no space for my luggage. This time however, in an attempt to get home faster I went for the two train approach, changing at Crewe and on both legs there was plenty of unreserved seating and luggage space. So I’m going to remember the 11:26 from Penrith and 13:29 from Crewe combination for future travels.

Getting the earlier trains meant beating the rush hour in London, not by much, but enough to take the edge off the usual depression that’s evoked by stepping off the train at Euston and finding oneself engulfed in hordes of people. That really is the way to undo the work of a getaway from it all trip. I arrived home and soon the house smelt like a pack of wet dogs courtesy of the salad of strange mountain smells lingering on my still damp kit. I still can’t identify what they all are, or the stains for that matter.  You name it, I trod in it, slipped on it or landed on it.

After being away from home, I always sleep like a log on the first night at home.  But not tonight.  I tossed and turned with images of failed hill walks floating around my head. And I think I’m coming down with something.  Not just manflu, but “mountain man” flu.

So it’s time to let it all out and hope that the process of writing it down helps make sense of what has turned out to be the worst trip failure for five years – in fact since my first ever attempt at backpacking around the Lakes.

What went well (or, as I’m desperate for positives, what went ok)

  1. I managed to excise the ghost of Wansfell, created in 2006 when I climbed to Wansfell Pike believing it to be the summit of the whole fell.
  2. I knocked off another 8 Wainwrights, 4 English Hewitts/Nuttalls, and 8 Birketts, taking my totals to 167, 107/154 and 263 respectively.
  3. I picked off one of the awkward fells (by which I mean difficult to string together into a walk avoiding retracing steps or incurring extra ascent/descent).
  4. I had one successful wild camp, taking my total to 3, and the total number of nights in Monica to 6.
  5. I’d recce’d the northern part of the High Street walk from my vantage point on Beda Fell.  Now I have something to help plan the eventual conquering of this group of fells.
  6. I made the right decision to get off the fells on Sunday, which led to me having the information I needed to make the eventual decision to bail out completely.
  7. I was satisfied that I made the right call about calling it a day when I did, and I’m trying not to let the odd anecdote about glimpses of sun today get through my defences.
  8. I was pleased with how my new Cumulus Quantum 350 sleeping bag performed.

What didn’t go well

Where do I start ?

  1. The weather broke the trip. It wasn’t extreme or freak weather, but there was a lot of it and it was all cold and wet. For me there’s little attraction in camping out for several nights when I know that it’s going to be wet and windy without respite and when the whole thing’s a matter of fighting a losing battle against dampness. We have to remember that this is a leisure activity undertaken for enjoyment, not as some sort of test of manliness. So when there’s little chance for it to be fun, there’s not much point being there. The constraints of booking time off and wanting to get a decent price rail ticket mean there was always going to be an element of risk with the weather.  But who’d have thought it would remain so consistently grim the whole time ?
  2. Planning. When planning this trip what was at the forefront of my mind was the “fact” that the Far Eastern fells are the remotest in terms of how much “civilisation” is to be found amongst them, particularly in terms of useful civilisation to the walker. So I focussed on the need to wild camp it, and that led me to take my eye off the ball slightly in terms of what I would do if conditions turned against me. I simply didn’t have a contingency plan for the weather and so had to make it up as I went. With a contingency plan it’s even possible that I may have stayed out longer and stood on a few more fells.
  3. I didn’t take any “town” clothes due to my plan to keep it wild.  So when faced with a night in Patterdale I was walking around the hostel shoeless and in a pair of skin tight leggings. For my night in Keswick I had to invest in a cheap pair of trousers (which actually are really light and comfortable, so may have been worth it) and the cheapest footwear I could find – a pair of flip flops (these got me from the B&B to the restaurant and back but were later dumped for being dangerously big and poor fitting.  But probably worth it for the cost of a pint). If only I’d taken my flip flops from home, but I couldn’t find them and gave up looking.
  4. Because of the sudden change of plan due to the conditions I found myself in, I carried a lot of weight in my pack that I never used. Worst of all, four out of five days worth of food, as once I got to the hostel, I invested in their meals, and obviously ate out in Keswick.
  5. Water. Although there was no shortage of water underfoot and in the atmosphere, I struggled to find good quality sources for actual drinking.  But this was probably a necessary piece of learning I needed to go through.
  6. I had a few drips through the inner of my Scarp 1, that the light rains she’d been subject to before hadn’t shown up. So I need to revisit the efficacy of my seam sealing. That is if we ever get a dry enough day to do it!
  7. I took two bus timetables with me – for the 108/508 between Patterdale and Penrith and the 106 between Shap and Penrith. I didn’t even consider taking the 208 timetable for the bus to Keswick, and didn’t believe what the UK Stops Android app was telling me, as I “know” this bus only runs on weekends (which it does but then daily during the peak summer season). I even had to do some last minute journey planning for the bus to Penrith and train home which would have been easier if I’d brought the requisite materials with me.
  8. I felt cold on the Sunday and could have used a thicker base layer.  I put too much faith in the forecast temperatures and not enough allowance made for the “feels like” factor.

    Caldera Cone in action in the field
    Caldera Cone in action in the field
  9. I was a bit underwhelmed by my Caldera Cone which I was using in anger for the first time on a walking trip. Sure it’s light, but I found it a bit of a faff, it wastes fuel because of the need to leave any excess to burn off, and it’s less safe inside the tent than the Trangia would have been.  And whilst light, it’s packed size wasn’t that much different to the Trangia once I allowed for the pot and various bits and pieces. My Trangia may be relatively heavy in comparison to the Caldera Cone set-up, but it’s bombproof and utterly dependable. I’m not giving up on the Cone, but it needs more use before I’m happy with it, and on an inclement trip I’ll probably use the Trangia in preference in the future.

What would I do differently ?

Obviously some of the above positives and negatives were the result of circumstances, and not something I could pre-emptively do a lot about.  So it’s only worth dwelling on these to the extent that they help me get it right next time.  So what would I do differently ?

Well first, if I knew the weather was going to be so character building, and I was still committed to go, then I’d probably have built the itinerary around the small pockets of civilisation at the fringes of the area, taking accommodation in Patterdale, Windermere and Kentmere and picking off the fells in a series of criss-crosses. In such weather, the attraction of a YHA drying room is difficult to beat.

Secondly, given the less than ideal weather leading up to the trip, I’d probably leave it a little later before committing to going on the trip.  I bought my tickets on the Tuesday – when I just had the first forecasts for the weekend available.  And I decided to go on the strength of the fact that it looked to be better than it had been during the week. I simply gambled that it would continue to improve.  It didn’t. I should have waited a couple more days to get a more complete picture.  This might have cost a little more in train costs, but I’d probably have saved that in avoided emergency accommodation costs, or simply rescheduled for a better time.

Thirdly, always take town clothes.  This time I did have a small bag of emergency clothes – sufficient for a quick change and freshen up before getting on the train after a walk off the fells on the last day.  But it didn’t include spare trousers or footwear.  I’d simply focussed on underwear and my top half as that worked last time on the SWCP.

So where does this leave me ?

Still much to do in the Far Eastern fellsI’m staring at my wall chart and looking at the small amount of colouring in of triangles, squares and circles that I’ve achieved as a result of this trip. It’s failure in graphical form, and shows the “problem” of the Far Eastern fells still far from solved. Another trip is needed, if not two – this time with more certain weather. The chart also highlights one thing quite vividly – a separation between the fells north and west of High Street, which are generally accessible by daywalks from civilisation, with a little bit of creativity; and the fells south and east of High Street, which are remoter and with less options for flexibility. Perhaps I should have seen this before I went and looked at the problem as two problems – the first being one of efficiently claiming odds and ends of fells on day walks; and the second one of dealing with the remoter fells by a wild camping expedition. I think I now have my answer, although I had to go through a wasted trip before I could see it.

The eponymous hero of the original Odyssey didn’t complete his journey in one go either, falling under the spell of Circe and enjoying a hiatus of a year, before being ensnared by Calypso for a further seven.  So maybe every Odyssey should have a pause in the middle – time to regroup and test the resolve to continue and complete the journey.

Not that I am in any way comparing myself to Odysseus.  His was a heroic journey to return home after a long war. Mine was just a few days in the hills where I got the balance of weather, planning, gear and decisions slightly out of whack. Not dangerously or massively so, but enough to tip the balance and turn a potential success into an abject failure. Plenty of lessons learned.

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