A Slow Lake District Backpack

It’s been over 2 years since I met someone at a station to set off on an adventure. That time the station was Euston, the (well one of them) person was Darren, and the walk was the TGO Challenge. This time the station was again Euston, the person was again Darren, but the walk was the Lake District.

It was Darren’s idea to go to the Lakes – he’d never been. Something I find truly remarkable for someone who has walked coast to coast across Scotland 6 times, and works in the outdoor industry. It was truly time to remedy this unacceptable state of affairs.

As Darren, obviously, didn’t know the area, yours truly was the one armed with the knowledge of where the buses go, where the good bits are etc, and so I naturally fell into the role of guide.

Day 1: Old Dungeon Ghyll to Angle Tarn

We were still making our minds up on the train exactly where we would head – all we’d committed to so far was getting off the train in Windermere. This left Langdale, Coniston, Patterdale and the A591 corridor most obviously at our mercy.

We eventually decided it would be Langdale for an easy way into the middle of the scenery, and we’d just make it up after that. I was armed with times of the latest buses back to Windermere for all of the places we might realistically end up.

With the Old Dungeon Ghyll as the end of the bus route, dropping in for a pint was a pretty easy decision to make, so we did just that, before shouldering packs and heading up Mickleden aiming for the Rossett Gill path. We set out with no fixed plan other than to reach the top of that path and see where we got to.

It was quite a slow ascent, and for once I was not the one at the back, and it was getting on for 7pm when we arrived at the top of Rossett Gill. I was reluctant to camp at the obvious place (Angle Tarn) due to its popularity, and lack of originality, so we popped up onto Rossett Pike to see if there was anything up there. Nothing great apart from a bit more breeze than was ideal.

So, ultimately, as the light started to fade, and it looked like we weren’t going to get much further, we bit the bullet and plumped for the tarn. We had a good look around it, though, to find the best spot that was flat, as off-path as possible, and where we had a chance of getting pegs into. As it turned out, Angle Tarn wasn’t that popular that night with just two tents there – ours.

Day 2: Angle Tarn to Lingmell

Mist was what we woke to. Thick, cloying mist.

I still hoped, aided by the collection of weather forecasts I was continually referring to, that it would burn off, lift, or (best of all) fall to a much lower level.

We started off in full make-it-up-as-we-go mode, and stayed that way the whole day. We continued where we left off the previous night and carried on up the path to Esk Hause. Mist swirled around here making it impossible to see the shelter from much more than 5-10m away. We had a good “tactical discussion” (ie rest) in the shelter, and a motion was carried to the effect that we’d head up onto Allen Crags and keep going to look at some of the tarns. That would mean we could either continue further along that ridge if we wanted, or otherwise it would still be easy to retrace our steps.

The mist briefly cleared at the summit of Allen Crags giving a momentary look along towards Glaramara, and adding a bit of atmosphere. Three tarns then came in quick succession – the weedy one:

…and the one perched on top of some crags…

…then High House Tarn, a personal favourite spot. We took a break here.

Darren seemed to like tarns, so we decided to continue the theme, and a plan naturally evolved from that. Back up to Allen Crags and Esk Hause, then we turned right to head down below the imposing bulk of Great End to Sprinkling Tarn.

Surely among the finest of tarns, but not today. The mist wasn’t doing it any favours, making it look claggy and dreary – all the interesting bits hidden away behind a bank of cotton wool. We still stopped beside it for a brew stop though – we’re not nutters.

Still hopeful of the mist reducing I came up with the idea of heading along the Corridor Route to Lingmell. This would position us nicely for an attempt on Scafell Pike, which was pretty much the only thing Darren had specifically said he wanted to do.

I’ve only attempted the Corridor Route once, and that was in descent (also from Lingmell). On that occasion, I took a wrong turning and found myself heading for Piers Gill, and even though I knew to avoid that, I still had some pretty nasty ground to cross to reclaim the route.

Going the other way, it became obvious where I went wrong the previous time more than a decade ago. We found this when the path brought us to a rocky precipice that required some care to downclimb. Looking back there was a clear arrow pointing up that miniature cliff – and that must have been what I’d not seen last time.

We had a lengthy stop to filter water as near to Lingmell as we could reliably be sure of getting some, and then set about the climb. A bit of discussion about the route and we headed up alongside a collapsed wall to meet the main path from Lingmell Col. Darren then popped up onto the summit rocks in the mist to look for a spot due to my imperfect memory of where I’d camped before and the distorting effect of the mist. I scouted out some flatter ground right below the summit rocks, which ultimately proved to be the actual spot I’d had in mind.

We got the shelters up and I sat inside mine doing tent admin, before seeing the top of the mist trying to dissipate. I scrambled out and we both grabbed every visual recording device available as we were in for a treat…

Not just a really good inversion, but the late afternoon sun was also well-positioned for a decent Brocken Spectre too.

Darren could barely believe his luck. We should probably have sacked off the rest of the trip there and then, as we probably weren’t going to improve on this. As it was we both turned in pretty satisfied with how the day had gone.

Day 3: Lingmell to Mansey Pike

We made a pretty slow start, so much so that we were very much in the thick of the people climbing Scafell Pike. Once again I was ahead, reaching the top with enough time to clamber up onto the summit thingy, take a good look around then find a comfortable rock to perch on.

The peace was shattered by a couple of drones being flown overhead. One in particular looked like quite an expensive model, and the owner was one of those extravagant moustache, not quite long enough trousers and no socks sort of cove, and smug with it, so it wasn’t really hard to audibly hope it would crash into Little Narrowcove. I suspect I wasn’t the only one harbouring such thoughts.

After a bit of a sit, we headed down. We’d had a bit of debate the previous night about whether to turn left or right at the top – the latter likely to result in a lot more climbing and a longer walk overall. It was pretty clear we’d be turning left. Down to Broadcrag Col and then up over the boulder field itself. We didn’t bother turning aside to bag Broad Crag or Ill Crag, and simply made our way towards Great End. We had a bit of a sit there too.

The plan “officially” was now to head down towards Stake Pass and up onto High Raise, positioning ourselves for a detour into Grasmere for some creature comforts the next day.

Well, we got the first part right – down to Esk Hause and towards Angle Tarn, diverting to look down from the Tongue into Eskdale and stopping to grab some water from Allencrags Gill just in case the meagre streams that the map shows running off High Raise didn’t amount to much. Also an insurance in case we didn’t feel like going the full distance.

Luckily, a path leading from Angle Tarn stays low and avoids the need to go over the tops of Rossett Pike, Black Crags etc. But as it petered out, we found ourselves catching the tail end of Black Crags – the Mansey Pike end, and climbed the short distance to take a look at the view.

It was one of those of moments where we both knew instinctively that was our stopping place for the night. OK we were a little short of water, as we’d only grabbed the barest minimum, but we’d cope.

Day 4: Mansey Pike to Seathwaite and Wythburn to Bell Crags

During the night an idea came to me: instead of continuing up onto High Raise and thence down to Grasmere, we could simply walk out along Langstrath for a bus to Keswick. That afforded more options for filling our faces, and also meant we could relocate wherever we wanted to resume the walk. I even floated the idea of doing the full ridge walk from Clough Head to Ambleside.

We went with this plan, or at least the first part. Langstrath, as ever, was delightful, but it was even nicer doing it in reasonable weather for once.

We arrived in Seathwaite just in time for the bus to Keswick, found the Honey Pot Cafe for brunch, then had a wander of a selection of gear shops, along with a gawp in the window of Atom Packs. Ok, yes, we may also have stopped for a pint. A restock of food (mainly in the form of cake, chocolate and cider) and we were back on a bus.

It hadn’t taken long relaxing at the cafe to ditch the idea of doing the Helvellyn ridges in favour of something less full on. Thinking about ways of cutting that walk short by getting the bus down the Thirlmere valley, made me also consider the other side of the valley, and the idea of walking back up onto the central fells from Wythburn took hold. This would also give me something new as I’d never climbed up that way.

The bus duly dropped us at Wythburn and we walked around to the start of the path up to Harrop Tarn. A lot of bracken at the start as we steeply gained height, then we were looking out over Harrop Tarn.

A brief stretch of woodland brought us to the open fell and a decision about where to gather water. The streams had faded out pretty much, and we didn’t fancy hacking our way across the fell through a load of bracken, so settled for a slow moving rivulet crossing the path. It actually looked pretty clean anyway, and I’m still alive to tell the tale.

Then up onto Bell Crags, where I found the very top a bit too exposed for comfort, and we looked for something suitable nearer the small tarns. This was a bit of a challenge given I was carrying the biggest footprint backpacking tent I’ve ever had. Having a slightly sloping pitch was unavoidable, but I did at least manage to make it so that my U-shaped pitch stopped me sliding in the night. The view right back towards Raven Crag and High Rigg was also quite acceptable.

Day 5: Bell Crags to Thunacar Knott

Our latest start, partly because I was happy to have a slow morning routine today, and also because Darren said he had a terrible night’s sleep. Unsurprisingly we didn’t set off until after 10am.

“Officially”, the plan (to the extent there was one) was to head over Ullscarf to High Raise, and pick off some Langdale Pikes before finding somewhere to camp that would make for a straightforward walk out the following day. It sort of happened….

It was a bit of a slow climb up to Ullscarf, partly because we stopped on Standing Crag to take in the view over Blea Tarn.

Darren was struggling on the bit up to High Raise, but I coerced him into at least making it to Low White Stones for a rest there. At which it started raining. My waterproof, which had been a mere decorative addition to the top of my pack so far, now transformed into a functional item.

We walked up to High Raise and had a good look around, me specifically re-acquainting myself with the spots I’d camped before. I was fine with it, but Darren wasn’t that inspired by what was on offer (I should have showed him this camp), so we moved on.

The mist came down more fully as we reached Thunacar Knott, and we took a further pause towards its southern end. A bit of sitting around and Darren decided to go and pick off the Pikes themselves, which I’d lost enthusiasm for doing in these conditions. he was also pretty happy to combine this with a water collection excursion, so we decanted all of our existing potable water so he could take every possible raw water container with him.

I sat watching him for a while disappearing into the mist, heading for Harrison Stickle, and when I started to get cold, I went and scouted out possible camp spots nearby. Indeed I scouted them really fully, deeming it necessary to “test” the quality of the pitch by erecting my tent. I then sat inside waiting for Darren’s return, which was eventually heralded by a message from his inReach as he was struggling to find where I was. I stepped out to see if I could spot and/or guide him in and immediately heard him calling through the mist. A few moments later he was at camp and we were done.

I quite enjoyed this camp, although scenically it was of very poor quality. Although we were right in the middle of the Langdale Pikes, we were also sufficiently off the main paths that no one came by in the mist. We filled the time with hot drinks and in my case a 3 course dinner, making it my mission to lighten my food bag as much as humanly possible.

Day 6: Thunacar Knott to New Dungeon Ghyll

There were two main options for our walk out – the straightforward walk down between Harrison Stickle and Loft Crag for the Dungeon Ghyll path, or a descent by Stickle Tarn. Darren was keen to do the latter. It promised to be steep, but possibly fairly speedy.

I’d put out there that we probably needed to be away by 9am to be sure of making the 11:05 bus. Missing that wouldn’t be a disaster but would eat the time for a meal and a drink in Ambleside or Windermere, and likely constrain us to having it at the NDG or Sticklebarn. So a certain amount of alacrity was required – something which had almost deliberately been absent from this trip so far.

I’d never been down that way before, at least the bit to the tarn itself, so here was something new. Unfortunately, the mist was still with us, and it required a bit of zig zagging to find the top of the path. Definitely one of those times to pull up the mapping app and GPS, if we wanted to get it done without excessive, and time costly, faffing about.

The descent was certainly steep and over wet rock, requiring quite a bit of care to avoid a slip or stumble. As we approached the tarn, time felt tight and we contemplated admitting defeat there and then. Gradually though the NDG came into sight and it looked more doable, albeit still touch and go.

We arrived at the bus stop at 11:05, the time the bus was due to leave the ODG just over 1km down the road. Just as well, as the Sticklebarn wasn’t serving breakfast and the NDG wasn’t serving any food until 12pm.

We arrived in Ambleside, dived into a pub and then started the journey home.

Afterthoughts

Having completed the Wainwrights a long time hence, I never had any real targets for this walk. Indeed the main aim, for me, was to simply get out in these hills after a 2 year absence, and if anything revisit some old favourite places. So I was pretty much up for a relaxed make-it-up-as-we-go sort of trip. Darren, of course, had never seen any of it, so there were no constraints there. Maybe just a little pressure to ensure the quality level was high.

That aside, once we were out on the hill, I did have some urge to do at least something new – whether that be a new place or route, or experiencing somewhere familiar in a different way. And in this I included some things on my wild camp wishlist. I managed the following “new” things:

  • A camp at Angle Tarn. Not really something I was seeking to do, but that’s how events transpired.
  • The Corridor Route. I’d never done (all of) it before.
  • A diversion out to look at the Tongue which leads south from Esk Hause to overlook Eskdale.
  • A camp on the ridge between Angle Tarn and Stake Pass
  • A new tarn = Harrop Tarn.
  • A camp at Bell Crags – one from my wishlist, but not that great to be honest.
  • A camp in the Langdale Pikes area – not as good as it should have been due to conditions
  • The path down from Pavey Ark to Stickle Tarn.

Add to this some pretty benign to good conditions overall, and it was a pretty successful trip. That’s even before we get to the subject of the inversion.

Certainly that was one of the best inversions I’ve experienced, and quite possibly the best. The only real other contender was one I had on Green Gable in 2016, where the mist just came into the valleys, rather than lifting just on the tops. That was stunning enough, but this one was a better vantage point to start with, so probably just pips Green Gable.

For sure, the spectral figure (ie me) I saw standing between the two tents is easily my best Brocken Spectre.

The decision to start the trip on a Sunday, albeit subjecting us to a slower train journey, meant that we optimised the trip to fit into the less busy end of the week. Of course there were loads on Scafell Pike, and a decent smattering of people in the general Esk Hause to Scafell Pike area, but we managed all 5 camps with no one else there – including one of the most popular spots in the Lakes.

And Darren certainly seemed pretty happy with what his first Lake District trip yielded!

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