Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Skiddaw (The Lake District) - September 2013

For as many years as I care to remember I've wanted to climb a Lakeland mountain and at the start of this year I decided that I would achieve this ambition before the year was out.   It's not that I'd never climbed a mountain before.  I had done so once, many years ago in the Brecon Beacons and even before that, in my teens,  I had made an attempt on Ben Nevis, which failed due to lack of preparation and a poor choice of footwear.  Around the same time, on a trip to visit family in Cumbria, I recall a bus journey past the lower slopes of Skiddaw, peering upwards to the clouded summit at which point a lady sitting opposite me suddenly said "Ah Skiddaw, shrouded in mist as usual".  For some reason, that moment has always remained with me and so, for this reason if no other, Skiddaw was the mountain I chose to be my first true Lake District climb.

So it was, on the Friday of the second weekend of my week's leave in September, we drove out to Cumbria, to the little village of Braithwaite just a couple of miles outside Keswick, where I had booked a three night stay in a lovely guest house which enjoyed uninterrupted views across to the Skiddaw massif. 
My climb of Ingleborough the week before had left me with stiff and aching legs, which had just worn off nicely by the time we left for the drive to Keswick.  After an early departure from home we arrived in Keswick in plenty of time to attempt the ascent of Skiddaw immediately, but instead we decided it would be a good idea to warm up first, and so we spent the Friday on a nine mile circular walk along the shores of Derwentwater and up to Walla Crag, before returning to Keswick and then on to our accommodation.  The day was very overcast, the lighting poor, and so I only took a couple of very lacklustre photographs. 


 View of Derwentwater

Once we'd checked into our room though, the sun came out and looking out from our window it was wonderful to see the very top of Skiddaw actually bathed in golden sunlight (photo taken with iphone).


 Looking across to Skiddaw from Braithwaite
 
The top of Skiddaw remained clear into the evening and, on our walk back from a most enjoyable meal at the village pub, the sky was clear with an almost full moon and we could see the torches and headlamps of people making a night-time ascent.  Under a clear sky, this seemed like a wonderful thing to do, by the light of moon and stars.  It left me with high hopes for a clear ascent the next day.  Sadly though, upon waking at first light, I looked out to discover that once again Skiddaw was "shrouded in mist, as usual".


 
For a short time I considered delaying our ascent until the following day, but with no guarantee of an improvement in conditions, we decided to go ahead as planned.  I must admit, I was beginning to find the prospect a little daunting and so there was also an element of "now or never" about our decision.   
At 3,054 feet (931m) Skiddaw is the fourth highest mountain in the Lake District and the sixth highest in England.  Described in many books as "mundane" or "easy", I nevertheless viewed it with trepidation as we set off along the path leading to the lower slopes of Latrigg at the foot of the mountain.  As with most mountains and hills, there are several different routes a walker can take, and we had opted for the most popular, known as the "tourist track".  This wide and busy path passes along the edge of woodland and skirts around Latrigg before heading ever upwards towards the lower summit of Skiddaw Little Man and then the eventual summit of Skiddaw itself.  As we climbed the cloud cover grew ever closer.

 

At around 1,100 feet on the slope of Lonscale Fell we encountered a memorial in the form of a Celtic cross.  This monument was erected in memory of Edward and Joseph Hawell, father and son, who were two 19th century Skiddaw shepherds.   The monument is inscribed as follows:-

In loving memory of
two Skiddaw shepherds
Edward Hawell.
Of Lonscale.
Born Octr 21st 1815
Died June 2nd 1889.
And his son
Joseph Hawell.
Of Lonscale.
Born Decr 24th 1854.
Died Feby 20th 1891.
Noted breeders of prize Herdwick sheep.


Great shepherd of thy heavenly flock
These men have left our hill
Their feet were on the living rock
Oh guide and bless them still


We rested a while here, taking in the wildness and outstanding beauty of the place.  Upon studying the inscription I was curious to know how Joseph Hawell had died at the age of only 36 years.  I imagined hypothermia perhaps, alone with his sheep on the hillside in the depths of winter.  However, having researched this upon my return home I discovered he had actually died of tetanus following a trip to the dentist.  Somehow I think he may have preferred my imagined end to his life.  I know I would!

 

From the memorial the path climbed steadily and steeply upwards and it wasn't long before we were surrounded by cloud.  I had read that the views from Skiddaw were magnificent, but all we could see was the path immediately before us, leading ever onwards and ever upwards.  It was quite busy I believe, as we could hear laughter and voices ahead and behind us as we climbed, but the visibility was so poor it was only possible to make people out once they were within a few feet of us.

Make no mistake.  This was hard work for me!  I did, however, find a couple of techniques I'd read about in preparation for the climb very helpful indeed.  The first was to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth in a steady and continuous rhythm.  This helped a lot and although I occasionally had to stop due to being out of breath, my recovery each time took just a few seconds.  I had also read that it was important not to view a climb like this as a race, but to go at a pace that felt comfortable, regardless of how quickly others were walking.  The same advice also suggested taking what I can best describe as "fairy steps", which is to say not taking too big a stride but to just slowly and steadily take little steps, almost toe to heel.  This worked incredibly well for me.

The summit was fairly crowded.  It was also very cold, very wet and very windy, the wind being a bit of a surprise as there was barely a breeze at the lower levels.  Once up there I gave out a cheer and posed for a quick iphone photo before turning to descend.  It really was too wild to remain up there for very long.  I was nevertheless elated.  In spite of what all the guidebooks say, this was a "proper" mountain as far as I was concerned.

 

The descent it turns out was harder than the climb.  We chose to descend on what is known as the "White Stones route" leading to the village of Millbeck, described in guidebooks as "steep, stony and difficult to negotiate".  I imagine it would be hard enough to climb up this route, but going down it, for me, was very tricky indeed.  On more than one occasion I lost my footing or found the slope too steep to stand on and ended up sitting down abruptly and sliding in the shale.  Fortunately this part of the descent didn't last for long, although most of this route down was very steep and very painful on the knees, even with the aid of two walking poles.

As we descended through the cloud the view began to open up.  The lighting could have been better, but even so this was a truly magnificent view.  


 The lower we got the brighter it became and by the time we got towards the bottom I took a picture of one of the very pretty Herdwick sheep; the breed synonymous with the Lakes (and the Hawells of Lonscale).


Once back on level ground again it transpired we had a walk of three miles to take us back to our car on the outskirts of Keswick.  It was by now a lovely afternoon, with plenty of warming sunshine and not even a hint of a breeze.  I was in high spirits.  I had climbed Skiddaw and it hadn't been too bad at all.  In fact, I'd thoroughly enjoyed every minute and was only too keen to do more.  All of them in fact!  Every mountain and hill in Yorkshire and the Lake District at least!
As we happily tramped along in the afternoon sunshine I looked up at Skiddaw and smiled.  It was still shrouded in mist.

To end this blog entry I'd like to share a screenshot from the excellent iPhone app I use as a navigational aid and record of my walks (more on this later).  This screenshot is an altitude graph of the climb which, I believe, speaks very nicely for itself.

 

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