After the struggle of last year’s Challenge, disrupted by hayfever that went so rogue it turned into full-blown asthma, I’ve been determined to make up for it this year. With the summer following the Challenge largely wiped out by getting the condition under control and finding a new normal, no sooner had I tentatively started backpacking again, than it was pretty much the end of the season. Coupled with an intensive period of art-focused rather than outdoors-focused activity, I went into the winter still in not great shape.
As is common, New Year came around and the inevitable statements were made about getting in shape. I re-started Parkrun on the first Saturday of the year. Despite some initial calf cramp problems, cured by a good pair of compression socks, I’ve started to get into the running, and have even been out mid-week. (*Whispers: I may even have started to enjoy it a tiny bit*). The hiking, though, has been sadly lacking.
I did make a point of finishing off the Essex Way in January, but that’s all apart from a 15-miler on the North Downs last weekend. Paul meanwhile has been regaling me with tales of weight lost and walks done. He seems determined to make up for last year’s withdrawal a couple of weeks from the start line. But he got me thinking that maybe I’ll be the weak link this year.
So far, each year before the Challenge I’ve been able to slot in a shakedown trip, or two: a section of Cambrian Way and a 4 day Dartmoor backpack in 2017; a short trip to the Lakes last year. It’s becoming a bit of a tradition, but to date the focus has been more on honing gear choices than training as such. This year’s trip felt like it needed to be more about training, or at least testing what sort of condition I’m in. After all, my gear is pretty stable, and the only decisions that really need to be made are clothing layers – ie whether to lean more towards a colder or warmer set of weather.
So with an invite to a 50th birthday do in Kendal, I decided to tack on a bit so I could get out on the fells and see where I was at…
Cath and I caught the train into Windermere, raided Booths for breakfast and lunchables, hefted our packs and set off on the climb up to Orrest Head. Over the other side to the byway that leads past Dubb’s reservoir and onto the ridge, bagging Sour Howes. Here we found out that Rich had unexpectedly turned up in Staveley and was heading vaguely our way. We waited for him at Garburn Pass and soon we were a party of 3. A slow climb up onto Yoke saw us call an early finish, the decision aided by light rain and diminishing visibility. This was fine – I’ve been wanting to camp here for a while.
The cloud poured into the Kentmere valley whilst in the opposite direction vivid orange pierced through the clouds. The temperature plummeted and we retired to our shelters. Few words were exchanged as we all fell into our own camp routines: sleeping for Rich; moaning about the weather in Cath’s case; and simply enjoying lying in my tent in my case.
We woke to frost on the tents, and amazingly given the clocks had gone forward, were away not long after 9am. Heavy banks of cloud obscured the fells, breaking now and then to reveal the Kentmere valley below and glimpses of the fells ahead. Oddly, I found myself leading the way and even having to wait for the others. This is unusual for me, I’m usually right at the back. I think Cath was struggling, having not done much backpacking recently, and with her deciding to return home that evening with Rich, they seemed to naturally fall in step together. I was staying on longer and at the summit of High Street, the last banter was exchanged and we set our faces in opposite directions – Rich and Cath for the long walk out over Harter Fell and Kentmere Pike; me to the north, now on a bit of a make-it-up-as-I-go thing.
I arrived on The Knott with vague ideas about moving onto the Eastern Fells, which would necessitate a walk through Patterdale and a chance to satisfy a craving for crisps. Standing at the summit, admiring the flat ground and nice view, a few ideas came to mind, but first and foremost was crisps. So I took the direct way down to Hayeswater and the back way into Patterdale, to find the shop closed. No crisps. I couldn’t even be bothered to go in the pub as a consolation. A decision was made to re-ascend and see if I could get back to the spot I’d liked on The Knott.
The slog up to Boredale Hause was slow and painful – I was about done for the day really – with several late walkers passing me as if I was standing still. A chap with a larger pack approached and I took the opportunity for a chat: we mutually recognised the tell-tale signs of someone else out for the night. He was out testing a few bits of gear before embarking on the PCT soon, and proved to be quite talkative. This helped pull me up the hill and soon we were at Angle Tarn where he planned to camp.
Back on my own, I climbed out of the bowl in which Angle Tarn sits and slogged it out past Brock Crags and Rest Dodd. I filled up with water and looked up at The Knott, now not very far in front of me. Every step hurt though, and my legs had pretty much run out of go. Somehow, I pulled myself onto the top of The Knott and stuck the tent up. At this point a leisurely start tomorrow and using the whole day still seemed like a good idea.
The wind, though, had different ideas. A forecast 5kph wind speed must have been several times that, as it battered the tent in the night and left me awake and unable to get back to sleep at 3am. Now the idea of an early start and making an earlier train started to appeal, and I was packed and walking for 6:30. Not before scraping ice off of everything though. I don’t think I’ve had such a cold start since a full-winter camp on Hardknott 6 years ago.
The first couple of ascents onto Rampsgill Head and High Raise were hard work, but soon the gradients eased and I was doing my favourite kind of walking – on rolling open moorland where I could build momentum. Loadpot Hill came pretty quickly and then I was on the much-longer-than-it-looks-on-the-map descent into Pooley Bridge. I just had time to grab a bacon roll and a tea before the bus whisked me off to Penrith and the train home.
The walk was done, and it felt like a sterner test than last year’s pre-walk walk. 6 weeks out from the Challenge, and despite the lack of hiking, I already feel in a better place than I was at the start of last year’s Challenge. Now I just need to keep it up with an active Easter break in Cornwall, and plenty more walking and hiking at every opportunity, and I think I’ll be ready.
It’s now just a matter of running the clock down to Mallaig…