Hopefully you can see where I’m going with the title of this one…
As early as the first day of this trip I started having thoughts about its success or failure and the learnings that could be taken from it. And if I’m honest with myself, the seeds of that conversation with myself were sown before I even set off. This trip wasn’t just another Lakes trip for me – it served a purpose as preparation for my Cambrian Way walk in a few weeks time, as well as quite possibly being my only Lake District trip this year. So I put a good amount of effort into making sure I got the most from it. But how did I do ?
Some people just like reading trip reports, without any of the reflection or nerdy stuff, so I’ve deliberately kept this separate this time, contrary to my usual practice. But I know there are people out there that do actually like reading this sort of stuff, so it’s up to you how far you get through this before you bail out. The purpose of this post is to share how the trip compared with what I’d planned, look at some of the lessons from it and arrive at some conclusion on success or failure.
What I originally wanted this trip to be
Because of focusing my walking for 2013 around doing the Cambrian Way, and the timings of family holidays and similar events, it looked quite likely that I might only get to the Lakes once this year. With the Lakes being probably the most optimal place for me to train for a hard mountain walk, this then meant fitting this trip in before the Cambrian Way, which in turn meant doing it before Easter. At the time of scheduling, this sounded ok – after all 2 years ago I did the Cumbria Way at the end of March and glorious weather was had by all (well until I arrived). So I originally planned this trip a few weeks ago expecting winter to be gone or at least well on the way out, and to be facing wet, sometimes windy, but still at times chilly conditions.
The route and style of this trip were build around my preparation needs for the Cambrian Way, which were:
- to help me assess where I am physically in terms of undertaking a strenuous multi-day mountain backpack,
- to rehearse gear choices and test certain new items of gear,
- specifically to try out the use of Social Hiking for a multi-day trip – I’d only ever tracked day walks before,
- checking I could stomach wild camping for 6 nights straight, having only managed a run of 4 before,
- specifically to see what carrying 6 days provisions is like, as one stretch of the Cambrian Way might require that,
- for the trip itself to be part of my physical training for the big one.
During planning the route, I managed to a large degree to stave off my usual desire to do lots of peak bagging, and the trip route was more about visiting some favourite places and places I hadn’t been for a while. But there were still a few new summits thrown into the mix. I ended up with a route plan totalling 73 miles with around 7,000m of ascent and forecast to be around 42 hours walking. However, past experience has taught me that I never tend to stick to such a route plan once I’m at about day 3 or 4, so I fully expected to alter things as I went along. Indeed, my decision making about the route, and especially in light of any weather conditions, was something I specifically wanted under the microscope on this trip, so call this objective 7 to add to the above list. All of this meant that I never viewed my planned route as cast in stone, but more as something which we project managers would call a “baseline” – a plan against which we could monitor progress and from which we could make adjustments.
For the record, here’s an overview map of the route originally planned:
What this trip turned out to be
I knew before I set off that I was facing more wintry conditions than I’d anticipated. This wasn’t a huge issue, and certainly didn’t jeopardise the trip going ahead, but it did have an impact on the gear taken with me. More about that later. Suffice to say I expected some snow, but not to experience another big dump of snow whilst I was there.
When I looked up at the fells above Coniston on that first day, they looked pretty much as I’d expected – rich browns and greens most of the way up with a dusting of white on top.
However, all that changed on the first night. From having snow covering the top 250m or so of the fell, overnight, the whole lot got covered. So I quickly found myself having not just a bit of snow to contend with but full-on winter the whole way. This wasn’t necessarily a problem – I had the equipment – it was just a level of walking difficulty that I hadn’t fully expected. The snow slowed me down a lot and greatly reduced the distances I could walk in a given time – nothing new there – and therefore meant that my chances of completing my full planned route were slim to non-existent if conditions stayed like that.
It’s also worth saying at this point that I had checked the weather forecast and did know it was going to snow. However, what you don’t necessarily know is how far down the snow will start to lay or how the forecast will pan out in specific valleys.
So I pretty much knew on Sunday morning that my walk plan was unrealistic. But with a route that allowed me a fair amount of scope for variation, and in one of the areas of the Lakes that I know better than the others, I could still see how I went for a bit – I didn’t need to chuck it out of the window at the first sign of a snowflake. On day 2 I carried on with my planned route, although the sheer effort of walking in heavy snow, and the safety considerations of route finding in a white world, along with the fact I was still fully stocked with provisions meant that progress was slow. Because I don’t live near significant hills, whenever I go hillbwalking the first 36 hours are always hard going until I find my legs and my rythym and adjust to any load I am carrying. So the conditions exacerbated this, leading to a decision to have a short day on day 2. This left me a whole day behind the original plan.
On day 3, after yet more overnight snow, I popped up high to have a look and see whether it was on to carry on with my route over the Crinkles. I ascended with no expectations other than that I knew it would be hard going and that I would likely have to camp well short of my intended spot on Lingmell. On arrival on Great Knott, visibility was poor to, at times, non-existent and so I made the correct decision to descend and to write-off that section of the route. I knew from the fell conditions reports before leaving home that the area around and approaches to Scafell Pike were particularly challenging in these conditions. Whilst I felt safe and confident in what I was doing, and had no concerns about keeping warm or in my ability to find shelter, I did recognise that my winter experience was not yet up to a prolonged spell on really steep ground with poor visibility. So I descended to focus on the southern half of my route which was predominantly below 700m altitude and with less cloud cover.
My camp on the northern end of Hard Knott, for all my descriptions in the trip report about the wind and snow (please allow me at least a bit of artistic licence!), was in many ways delightful and whilst I kept a good eye on the security of my pitch, I was never seriously worried. I specifically bought my Scarp because of its ability to handle wind and winter conditions, and whilst it was fascinating to watch the tent flexing against the onslaught of the elements, at the same time I could see that in all of the important places it was remaining rock solid. I was warm inside the tent, apart from some ground chill from the overnight loss of air from my sleepmat, which I coped with.
The one flaw in that night’s camp was not cooking a hot meal and a hot breakfast the next morning, due to a combination of laziness and a desire to save fuel. I didn’t go hungry though, but maybe this just slightly increased the desire the following day for a hot meal and a night in the youth hostel.
Day 4 would have been great in less wintry conditions, and I can see I’d have completed the walk over Harter Fell, Green Crag and maybe as far as the fells around Devoke Water. But it was hard work early in the day’s walk just to get off Hard Knott and the concentration required to keep myself safe in descent nibbled away at both my motivation and energy levels. I also knew that the descent the other side of Harter Fell was steep, and I had no desire to do it in those conditions. So the detour west into Eskdale made a lot of sense, but the gradually building mental image of a meal and easy night in the youth hostel soon gained the upper hand. If there’d been no hostel there, I’d happily have camped somewhere around 300-400m up, and that was my fallback plan in case the hostel option fell through.
Having found the hostel available, it seemed like a good idea to take advantage of it for a second night, enabling me to travel a bit less encumbered on day 5. This allowed me to do a 16 mile walk, probably the best single day’s walk of the trip, and get some stunning views I’d have missed otherwise. The decision to overnight for 2 nights at the youth hostel proved to be a mojo-restoring decision.
Day 6 and the need to get back to Coniston, but back with a full pack (out of which I hadn’t made much of a dent in my provisions), saw me opt for a straightforward walk over the passes, avoiding the tops. The forecast was for 30-35 mph winds anyway, so this seemed the right thing to do. Given the fierce wind when walking over the Walna Scar Road, this was definitely the right call. God knows how the Germans managed the reciprocal route the day after me when the winds were forecast at 80 mph.
Having got my tent dry in Eskdale hostel, I went for the easy option of keeping it that way for the final night and taking the easy solution of a night in a Coniston hostel. Given the overnight snowfall and rising winds, this was a fortunate decision too.
One thing I never anticipated was having to walk out of Coniston to Ambleside because of the roads being blocked by snow. I’d briefly considered doing it anyway before I saw the forecast as a means of picking off Black Fell, which I have still to do. But the desire for a rest day before heading to Wales for a two day walk killed that idea. How ironic then that I ended up doing most of that walk (except the Black Fell bit) and that the Wales walk was cancelled.
Reflections on gear choices and performance
The full-on winter status of the trip meant that my scope for travelling light was somewhat reduced. Making sure I was warm at night resulted in carrying a fleece, down jacket and fleecy trousers to wear to sleep in, and a sleeping bag liner to bring my 3 season bag up a notch. I then threw in a lightweight, but bulky, fleecy throw/blanket which actually worked well as an item of flexible warmth on my last camp in Wales at the end of November. This took some space. I then added in winter equipment – crampons and microspikes (one of which was used everyday, sometimes both of them) and ice axe. I also packed an extra layer for walking. Once I’d put in the bag of food weighing 6kg, my pack was both full and quite heavy.
I’d hoped to use my new ULA Epic for this trip, and if I’d been prepared to sling Monica underneath the pack and a few other items on the outside until I’d reduced my food bulk, I could have made it work. It didn’t feel too bad with over 20kg of load either. But ultimately, I didn’t want to take a brand new, untested, pack that was being pushed to the limits in an extreme environment. What if it hadn’t worked ? What if it hadn’t been stable ? etc etc. So I went with my old workhorse Lowe Alpine pack which I knew would handle the load, albeit at a cost of a further 1kg in weight over the Epic. This proved to be the right decision as I had a pack I could trust, that could handle the weight, and which was comfortable (to the extent any pack can be comfortable when carrying that much stuff). Once I’d played around with the packing to get the heaviest items in the right place, it was fine and I forgot about the weight.
I know some readers would be aghast at the sort of weight I’m describing, and so was I when I weighed it. But I told myself that from a training point of view it could actually be beneficial! After 4 days or so, I barely noticed the weight, coinciding with that point on a trip when some accumulated fitness kicks in.
Because I’d expected to be out in the wilds for 6 nights straight, I overdid the electrical charging, taking both a powermonkey minigorilla and a TeckNet battery. With the facility to mains charge at the hostel, this proved to be excess weight, but I’d have needed both if I had truly stayed wild for 6 days. In that time I’d have charged my sports watch every night, my phone twice and possibly my camera battery once. I can’t quite eke that all out of one charger. I did also give my Kindle quite heavy use putting that in danger of needing a charge too.
To add to the electronics, I also took my recent purchase of a SPOT Connect in order that I could track my route on Social Hiking and message home to say I was ok each night. I only had to change batteries once in this. Overall the beacons seemed to save and send ok, barring some instances where a few got missed. All of my messages got through. I did notice that some of the peaks I passed over didn’t register, and in one case one I didn’t pass over the summit of (Walna Scar) was picked up.
Monica, my Scarp 1 tent performed wonderfully, as usual. On all 3 nights she handled snow piling on top well, largely as a result of use of the crossing poles. She handled the windy night on Hard Knott well – I reckon it was less windy than last year’s pitch at Small Water, though. However, because the ground was frozen or covered in tufts of vegetation, pegging wasn’t perfect and my concern regarding the wind was more about how securely I’d fastened her to the ground. Because the snow was wind-blown, a certain amount found its way inside the fly to sit on the inner, with the inevitable incursion of a small amount of moisture. Not significant and no more than on a full-on rainy night though. My main issue regarding damp inside was avoiding bringing snow in with me.
My sleep system, consisting of a Cumulus Quantum 350 down bag, Sea to Summit Reactorlite Extreme liner, a POE Ether Thermo 6 mat, all of the clothes mentioned earlier and the blanket worked fine at keeping me warm from the air. However, the mat is now starting to struggle to hold its air and whilst that’s not been a problem on previous camps, I did really notice it on this one, due to the cold rising up from the ground. This was despite the use of a survival blanket underneath to reflect back what heat there was. I don’t really camp enough in winter to make buying a full-on winter bag worthwhile yet, but clearly were I to do it more, then a meatier bag would be a better packable and less weighty option than all of those other bits and pieces. What I will need to look at is either replacing or boosting the effectiveness of my mat.
I used my Trangia for this trip and because of being out for 6 days and expecting to use more fuel due to the conditions, carried a full 1L fuel bottle with me. Ultimately I didn’t use it all because of the change in accommodation halfway through. But I can tell from the rate I was using fuel, that the 1L bottle was about right if I’d stayed out the full 6 nights. Whether I do that on the Cambrian Way, or stick with my 500ml one and find a way to resupply I haven’t decided yet. Certainly I won’t want to carry a 1L bottle for 3 weeks when I may only need that much fuel for 1 of those weeks. The Trangia itself, although a heavy option compared with many stoves nowadays, was definitely the right stove to take. I prefer to use meths over gas anyway, and my Caldera Cone wouldn’t have been stable enough on the snow with the burner requiring something to stand on, and considering the fact that the snow under the stove was melting and shifting. Bulk-wise there’s not much in it – it’s just a weight difference. The Trangia is one item of kit that I refuse to contemplate switching out for something lighter. It’s perfect for me, I trust it absolutely, and it suits my needs. To me it’s worth the 700g or so.
As I’ve already mentioned, I didn’t eat all of my food, principally because I used youth hostels in the second half of the trip and took their meals. (The meals at Eskdale were excellent, those at Coniston Holly How a bit less excellent. The friendliness of the staff followed the same pattern. All in all, Eskdale is one of my favourite hostels having stayed there twice now.). Anyway, back to the food. I put a lot of effort pre-trip into meal preparation, weighing everything and working out the calorie content. My 6kg of food for 6 days provided over 19,000 calories (an average of 3,232 per day). My main meals consisted of:
- A Look What We Found Bolognaise sauce pouch along with some pre-weighed pasta (411g for 630 calories),
- Two Dolmio Spicy Tomato pasta sauce pouches along with pre-weighed pasta (485g for 595 calories),
- 4 BeWell Expedition Foods meals (Chicken Korma, Thai Chicken Curry, Shepherds Pie, Chilli Con Carne) each weighing just under 200g and providing up to 800 calories each,
- A pouch of Uncle Ben’s Express rice and two Heinz Squeeze and Stir soups (402g for 670 calories),
As you can probably see, there are 7 meals here – I always carry one complete spare meal. There are a mixture of wet and dry meals here, and whilst the dry are much better calorific value for their weight, wet meals are nicer and good for morale, so I would never just use dry meals.
For breakfast I took 3 BeWell Expedition Foods breakfasts giving about 500 calories for 125g each, plus 4 of my homemade porridge mixes. These mixes of 70g oats, 65g sultanas, 35g of powdered skimmed milk gave about 570 calories each. I will almost certainly just go with the BeWells on my next trip, at least to start with – after that it’s up to what I can find along the way, or via arranged parcel drops.
I took 3 desserts with me – a sachet of semolina and two of instant custard. I’d then add chocolate or biscuits to these as desired.
For snacks I took a selection of cereal bars – Jordans Fruisli, Cliff Bars and Cadbury’s Medley. Each bar provided about the same calories per gram (about 3.5), although the Cliff bars are much bigger than the others (74g compared to around 30g, but with 244 calories compared with 110 ish). A seclection of chocolate, Jelly Babies and a whole pack of chocolate chip digestives completed the food. The biscuits each weighed 16g and had 80 calories, meaning the 400g pack brought 2,000 calories, making them the best value calories per gram of anything I carried. The biscuits will definitely be carried on future backpacks. A good quick source of energy for their weight, they can be crushed to add interest to porridge or desserts, as well as being a snack, or in one case on this trip, my whole evening meal.
I used a combination of my Travel Tap and a two platypus bottles for liquids – one for raw untreated water and one for assured or treated water. This worked well and I’ll use this system again instead of my old Camelbak bladder arrangement.
To walk in I wore a lightweight Icebreaker merino base layer, with a trek shirt over the top, all topped off with my TNF softshell. On the colder days I did also try my Lowe Alpine waterproof jacket over this lot, but was too hot, so reverted to the base layer-shirt-soft shell combo. Down below, a pair of 260 merino leggings were worn underneath a pair of Paramo Cascada trousers. These were beautifully warm, but never too warm. Having discovered this combo late last year, I never wear anything else in winter.
I wore my old Raichle (yes pre-Mammut) MT Trail GTX boots which just about take a crampon (Grivel G10s), with Smartwool socks inside. This worked fine. Kahtoola Microspikes were also employed on the less severe snow. A Black Diamond Raven Pro piolet was in my hand much of the time too, and when it wasn’t Pacerpoles were.
What gear changes would I make for the Cambrian Way ?
- Well, hopefully, I’m not going to need full winter gear, which will save in the region of 1.5kg for the equipment and a further few hundred in clothing.
- With food being the single heaviest item in my pack, and the fact I didn’t use it all (even if I’d camped all 6 nights I wasn’t getting through it all), I will definitely cut this down, and most likely tweak my route in a couple of places to build in more predictable resupply options.
- I hope that I’ll be able to switch over to lighter clothing, saving a bit of weight.
- With more frequent resupply I should be able to revert to the smaller fuel bottle.
- I will be aiming to manage my gear so that it does fit the Epic. In itself that will save over 1kg, before I put anything in it.
- If it’s looking like it will be wet in Wales (highly improbable I know 😉 ), I will still consider using the Rab Ridge Raider Bivvy instead of my inner. That will give me more space inside the tent, better protection for my sleep system in the wet, and also give me the option of just using the bivvy bag on better nights or for more stealthy camps. Another option is taking it and posting it home, or not taking it and getting it posted out. Clearly using a hooped bivvy and tent has a weight penalty though.
There are probably going to be other tweaks too, but those are likely to be small things that I would naturally alter from trip to trip anyway.
As noted above there are some things I will definitely stick with for the Cambrian Way:
- The freeze-dried BeWell Expedition Foods. Expensive but light and don’t taste bad at all. I may also experiment with Fuzion meals.
- My water system felt more versatile and avoided carrying up to an extra 3kg of water at the start of each day.
- The Trangia is definitely going – whilst conditions should be more favourable to the Caldera Cone, after 3 or 4 days it pisses me off as it’s more faff than the Trangia. I’ll happily accept the weight penalty on this one.
- My sleep system works fine apart from the looming need to replace my mat.
- If it looks wet, I’ll be packing the Cascada trousers, but hopefully won’t need the leggings underneath.
- Biscuits. Sounds strange I know, but possibly the most successful thing I took with me. Packs more calories per gram than anything else in my pack, are versatile and easy to get at resupply. Thanks to Mud and Routes for the inspiration on this one.
Apart from the above, there were a few other things that I learned, or had reiterated or reinforced on this trip:
- The need to be prepared to adapt your plans if conditions differ from what you’d based your plan on,
- Walking in deep snow is hard, and greatly affects your walk time and how far you can cover,
- You don’t actually need to wear that much clothing to keep warm whilst walking,
- I’d forgotten what it was like to keep dry feet wearing my leather boots, to the extent that I will consider taking them to Wales,
- My respect for my tent’s abilities continues to increase,
- Once again the pattern of it taking until around day 4 before I felt fully into the walk physically manifested itself,
- Whilst I do think I could manage that 6 day stretch on the Cambrian Way without a resupply, I’m not sure I want to, so will look at breaking it in two, even if it means a change to the route.
Success or Failure ?
Whilst trudging through all that snow, I wasn’t at all sure whether the trip was successful or not. Based purely on the amount of progress I made compared to my planned route, it would be a clear failure, but I enjoyed the snowy camps, stunning views, and although the walking was hard, had no real shockers along the way.
As a trip in its own right, if I can put the incomplete route out of my mind, it’s a clear success. But this wasn’t just a Lake District trip – there was a purpose in my preparations for the Cambrian Way, so how did it measure up against those objectives ?
1. To help me assess where I am physically in terms of undertaking a strenuous multi-day mountain backpack
The winter conditions effectively stopped me doing enough of the route to get a really good idea. Some extrapolation is needed. However, the walks on days 5 and 6 gave me some idea, though. The key remains having a not too difficult first 3 days of the Cambrian Way, allowing fitness to accumulate and treating it as an extention of my pre-trip training. No change in the plan is needed in that respect. But I might look at reducing the intensity of some of my planned daily stages. This might in turn mean adding extra days, which itself may mean a decision to split the walk into two trips. That sounds like failure, but as the objective was to give me the information to make that sort of judgement, it’s clearly succeeded.
2. Rehearsing gear choices and testing certain new items of gear
I didn’t get to test the key items I wanted, largely due to the necessary substitution of full winter equipment. However, I did play around with my ULA Epic when attempting to pack it, so got a bit more comfortable with it. The bivvy still needs a proper field test though. The trip did help me clarify what I want to do in terms of gear. So half success, half failure on this one.
3. Trying out Social Hiking in multi-day scenario
This worked fine, although I had a few dodgy and/or missing beacons from my SPOT. On a longer route, this won’t matter as much. The main thing is that I am starting to get used to using it now. I learnt a bit about the tag team feature too. Having set one up for the Wales meet-up on the way home from the lakes that was then cancelled last minute, I was shocked to see a tweet saying I was out and about, and moreover one that someone replied to! I wasn’t, but quickly realised that one of the team was out and their data was populating my map, so sorted it out. Overall Social Hiking was a success.
4. Can I stomach 6 nights wild camping straight ?
I actually looked forward to the camps each night – more than the walking – and I’ve found before that I enjoy more the camps the longer a trip goes on. But once I’ve had a night under a proper roof, it does become hard to camp again. I think I will most likely split my 6 day stretch in two, coinciding my resupply with a non-camping night if possible. I reckon I could do 6 if I had to, but I wouldn’t want to risk starting to not enjoy it.
5. Can I carry 6 days provisions ?
Yes, I can, but I don’t want to.
6. Physical training for the big one
This trip didn’t really provide much – I fell short of my planned walk by about 20 miles and 4,000m of ascent. I never really got to “feel the burn”. However, I have recognised that I’m in much better physical shape than I usually am on the first big mountain walking trip of the year. I’m reasonably happy that if I carry on as I am, treat the first few days of the Cambrian Way as training in themselves, and am realistic with the planned daily walks I should be ok.
7. Can I make good decisions ?
Apparently yes. Although some of my decisions were motivated by comfort more than anything else, I nevertheless made the right call on some more serious decisions – not continuing on the Sunday, turning back on the Monday, keeping off the tops as much as possible on the Thursday. Apart from a couple of tricky descents that were more a case of requiring concentration than feeling unsafe, I never felt out of my depth. The decision to go for the camp on Hard Knott paid off, although my sexing up of the write-up may have made it look a bit more edgy than it was. Certainly that camp was comfortably within the capabilities of my gear and my skills, if not fully within my ideal comfort zone. The decision to avoid further heavy-laden snow walking on Tuesday in order to salvage some proper walks from the trip was also the right call. Some might question the wisdom of even attempting this trip and the winter camping, but I don’t. I had the gear, I had the skills, I could keep warm, even if I couldn’t do the full planned route. Clearly if I’d attempted to camp out on the Thursday or Friday, with the heavy snowfall and gales, then that wisdom might have been doubtful. But I didn’t.
So overall, against the objectives I had for the trip, it has to be judged a success.