I walked back into the large meeting room that was our base of operations and immediately noticed the tenser atmosphere. All had been going swimmingly when I’d stepped out an hour or so before for another meeting, and we were looking good to complete this stage of the project over the coming weekend. I sat down and got on with my work while gradually the conversation swirling around me permeated my brain and I begun to realise what had changed. The upshot of this was a decision later that night to extend the testing by a further week. This was the right thing for the project but very much the wrong thing for my plans to get out into the hills the following weekend – now I would have to return to Edinburgh to work over that weekend, and my carefully constructed holiday plan was now in jeopardy through having to be moved and falling into conflict with the plans of others.
I gave the good news to Cath and Rich, who’d been expected to join me in the Lakes, and we replanned for the following weekend. As it turned out, Rich probably wouldn’t have been able to join us anyway, but also couldn’t do the following weekend either. Altering the timing of the trip to go up on the Sunday rather than the Friday, also made it possible for Cath to join without having to take time off work. She was itching to try out her new tent, having only “wild camped” in the garden with it.
I sat in Edinburgh working late on the Saturday I should have been in the Lakes, and didn’t feel so bad about not being there as it was still a feast of wind and rain. The forecast for the replanned weekend, however, was a different story – the wind and rain due to ease up and a warmer and more settled period beginning. I crossed everything and hoped this remained the case.
The choice of route was largely dictated by train and bus times and the desire to pick off a few Wainwrights I hadn’t already done. This really meant a trip in the northern or eastern part of the Lakes. With 10 fells still to do in the east, the choice was easy, but the preferred option of bussing into Patterdale to start wasn’t available as the 108 doesn’t run on Sundays in winter. So I dusted off an old idea of a walk-in to Patterdale from Troutbeck over Great and Little Mell Fells. After that it was to be a bit more spontaneous and to be a mix of visiting places Cath wanted to go and fells I needed to pick off, based on how we felt.
Planning what gear to take required a bit of thought given that we were now on the winter/spring cusp. This meant we could still expect some snow high up, potentially a lot of residual bogginess elsewhere from both the recent wet weather and some meltwater from disappearing snow. High pressure also meant warmer daytime temperatures but still cold at night. Added to this, I had some new pieces of kit to try out. In the end the decision was to treat this as a full winter trip just in case. So winter sleeping bag, warmer sleep mat, ice axe and spikes all went in. The food strategy was largely built around the expectation of an enormous sausage baguette being available at Patterdale post office.
Day 1: Sunday 9 March
Forgoing my booked seat in the quiet carriage in favour of a far superior forward facing table seat with power right by the luggage rack (which was probably a lot quieter than my booked seat would have been anyway, the carriage was so empty), I somehow managed to kill the time despite not having brought book or Kindle with me. Cath joined me at Crewe, dramatically increasing the ambient noise level on the train, as she turned the conversation to a more “earthy” set of subjects.
We stepped off at Penrith and just had time to grab some lunch and some water before the bus whisked us off the the rendezvous point at Troutbeck. There close to the pub, we met up with Sarah and John, friends of Cath’s who have recently moved to the Lakes. A plan was formed to head around to the other side of Great Mell Fell and undertake the climb from there, that being the normal point to do the walk from. It also offered Sarah and John the opportunity to join us on Little Mell Fell if time allowed. We headed onto the fell, first skirting the lower reaches before an insistence that the path we were on went nowhere near the top of the fell, saw us bushwhacking our way through the trees and trying to escape from the general dampness and softness of ground in the area of Routing Gill.
A bit of huffing and puffing later (Cath and I stupidly not taking advantage of Sarah and John’s car to leave most of our gear behind), and we emerged from the trees and made our way along and up across grassier terrain. The summit was reached soon after and the earlier warmth from our slog up through the trees was now replaced by a stiff breeze that more than cooled us down. Time was marching on and we headed for the bottom, this time taking the traditional route down the main ridgeline. We arrived at the car and Sarah and John departed, leaving Cath and I alone in the wilds of the Eastern Fells. Concerned now about the time and the breeze, a decision was made to cut out Little Mell Fell and to head for the pass to the south of the fell, find somewhere to camp and recover the rest of the walk in the morning. We duly headed along the country lanes and up the road as it wound its way up to The Hause.
A look at the terrain to the right, and in particular the proximity of the outcrop we’d seen (Watermillock Fell) to the road, made us turn our eyes left again towards Little Mell Fell, which by now we’d effectively done half the ascent of. The breeze had eased and a “oh sod it, let’s camp on Little Mell Fell anyway” decision was taken.
But first a tricky patch of sheep-churned mud at the roadside end of the field had to be negotiated, my method for which involved landing with a sudden thump and splat on my backside right in the mud. I couldn’t have picked a much worse time to lend Cath my Pacerpoles. She was behind me at the time, but I’m sure I sensed at least a wry smile cracking across her visage, given my rejoicing about her wallow in a bog on our last backpack in the Lakes.
We inched our way up the fell, general unfitness ruling our snail’s pace. Cath led the way over to the trig point and took in the view. We found a suitably flat pitch a few metres from the trig and got the tents up, mine taking 5 minutes, Cath’s over half an hour. It’s fair to say that although she’s camped in the garden with it a couple of times, that clearly hasn’t locked in much in the way of memory of how to pitch the tent. My usual precaution of taking loads of extra stakes when camping with Cath again proved sound when I saw the uninspiring size of the Vango supplied pegs, and some of Monica’s toes made their way over to spend the night keeping the Apex on top of the fell.
Darkness came without much in the way of sunset owing to the rather grey afternoon, and as I wrestled with my last can of Greenheat and tried to coax a boil out of it, I was enjoying simply being out with my tent after such a long gap. Conversation gradually slowed and stopped altogether as sleep overcame us.
Day 2: Monday 10 March
During the night a band of rain and wind caught us, and I lay semi-awake listening to each wave of smeg strafing the tent at regular intervals. Whilst nothing to worry about, and well short of what I have camped in before, nevertheless it was noisy enough that I couldn’t hear whether Cath was ok. I worked on the principle that if she wasn’t I’d soon know about it, and went back to sleep.
Birdsong and light in the tent at 6am heralded the start of the new day and I stuck my head out of Monica to see if there was much in the way of sunrise. There was a bit…
I lay down again to give the colours a chance to brew…
I could also see that Cath, or her tent at least, appeared to have survived the night, and a brief call in that direction confirmed that the pair of them were still present. A mug of tea and some porridge later and we were striking camp and packing up, the whole process taking longer than it should because of pauses to take pictures of the developing day over Ullswater and the higher fells to the south and west.
We retraced our steps to the bottom of the fell, this time skirting the mud bath and found our way out to the road through a neighbouring field. We crossed the road, pretended to not have seen the “this is not a right of way” sign on the gate opposite and struck out along a rutted track below Watermillock Fell. Soon we were out of sight of the farmhouse below and reached the fence separating us and the sheep from the trees. A dilapidated section of fence afforded a crossing point, and we then kept the trees on our right as we kept a look out for an easy way to break through. This involved a bit of descent, but eventually light shining through the trees showed only a narrow band to break through, and I ploughed through, Cath following. After a face full of conifers, we took a brief pause.
I climbed up the mound we’d emerged right by to spy out the way ahead – a narrow undulating path keeping just this side of the trees but heading pretty much where we wanted to get to. We got on with the job. Shortly we came to a fence and gate and crossed through to begin the gentle climb up onto Great Meldrum. A few moments were spent taking in the views back to Great and Little Mell Fells.
Gowbarror Fell lay ahead and the knowledge of the buses running at a two hourly frequency quickened our pace.
A steeper pull up onto the top of the fell through the heather and we were at the top.
With the bus looking tight we didn’t linger and made our way along the top of the fell, before motoring down a good path to emerge at Aira Force.
We arrived at the bus stop with about 5 minutes to spare and were soon being conveyed into Patterdale. A drink in the Patterdale Hotel while we decided on next steps. Cath had pretty much decided to bail out by this point, but accompanied me to the post office to witness the promised 11 inch sausage. We sat on the step while I stuffed it down my gullet and confirmed the plan. Cath headed left for the bus stop and the journey home, while I turned right and headed south into the Far Eastern Fells….
Cath’s account of the trip can be found at http://wellycath.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/uncertainty-a-march-trip-to-the-lakes/