I looked out of the window and sighed. The sky was clear blue and from our balcony a full panorama of cloud-free mountain tops taunted me. It was too good an opportunity to miss. But what about my soggy boots? The answer came to me in a flash of inspiration. Waterproof socks! In a recent walking magazine article they'd been recommended for this exact predicament. In Keswick just about every other shop sells outdoor clothing and so a quick shopping trip was all it took to see me suitably kitted out. In the process I also discovered that George Fisher's shop operates a boot hire service, which would have been an option worth considering, had I been unable to purchase the socks.
Having solved the squelchy boot problem, that just left us to decide where to walk. Tom tentatively suggested another attempt on Great Gable and I briefly considered the idea. By this time, however, it was already mid morning and so we decided that a shorter climb would be preferable. Having made that decision, as far as I was concerned, this left us with no choice at all. There was one very special place I was longing to climb and photograph, and the conditions seemed ideal.
At 1,900 feet (579 metres), Haystacks falls just 100 feet short of being classified as a mountain. And whilst its lack of height prevented Wainwright from including Haystacks in a list of his "best half dozen", its summit so captivated him that it was here he chose to have his ashes scattered. Writing in his Pictorial Guide to the Central Fells, AW described the summit of Haystacks as "a fairyland" and a place where "one can forget even a raging toothache". Perhaps, I hoped, I could also add to that "one can forget being bashed about by Great Gable"? There was only one way to find out.
Our ascent began from the little settlement of Gatesgarth, which sits between the end of Honister Pass and the edge of Buttermere. It was approaching midday by the time we'd sorted our gear out and driven the 12 miles from Keswick to Gatesgarth and we arrived to find that the little car park was full. I had no idea where else we could park and was about to drive away when a man standing by his car waved to attract our attention. If he shuffled his car over to one side, he said, there'd be just enough room to squash in beside a picnic bench. I thanked him profusely and, one slightly awkward parking manoeuvre later we were on our way, striding out along a path which led us past the head of Buttermere and to the foot of our climb.
After a clear start clouds were now starting to gather, but the sun was still shining strongly and I was grateful to not have a completely featureless sky. The path led us by a field of sheep grazing by the shore of the very pretty Buttermere.
A little further along and a wooden footbridge (known as Peggy's Bridge) crossed a crystal clear stream feeding into the lake. Here I paused for a while to relish the beauty of the scene from the bridge.
And then I turned to the other side of the bridge to capture a stunning view of Haystacks and its craggy summit.
After Peggy's Bridge we began to climb steeply up the side of Buttermere Fell. The sun continued to shine brightly in spite of the increasing cloud cover and the lack of a breeze made the going very hot and sticky. This was not a walk to be hurried, however, not only because of the heat and humidity, but also because with every upwards step the view became increasingly spectacular.
The scenery was so beautiful that I only seemed to be able to walk a few feet at a time before I had to stop again to take yet another photograph. Just when I thought the view couldn't possibly get any better, I'd climb a little higher and find myself gasping, not from exertion, but with sheer delight at the beauty of the landscape below.
The higher we climbed, the more of the landscape below was revealed. On the fells across the valley clouds were casting large shady patches like countries on a map and yet all the while we continued to enjoy unbroken sunshine.
Looking down to the valley floor I could clearly make out the line of our return path as it curved its way downhill. From this vantage point it didn't look too steep.
The path now passed through a gap in a drystone wall where we met an elderly couple taking a break from their descent.
"The next bit is very steep", the man told us. "It's also very rocky. I found it tough going."
We chatted with the couple for a while before beginning the rock-strewn ascent of the area known as Scarth Gap. Although the ground was rougher here, and the path less defined than it had been to this point, it really wasn't too difficult at all. And at the top of this short section we were once again rewarded with some spectacular views as Buttermere began to edge out of sight and more of the distant fells became visible.
I wandered a little way from the path to the edge of the grassy slope from which point I enjoyed a view of Fleetwith Pike across the valley, our return path just visible as it descended at the foot of the mountain.
Looking up from this point the summit of Haystacks beckoned. I could see that the final section was rather craggy, but from this angle it didn't look particularly daunting.
A grassy slope led us to the foot of the final stage of ascent. As I approached the foot of the rock face I looked over to the south. And that's when I noticed him. Great Gable. Cloud-free, handsome, calm, and almost placid looking Great Gable. The summit looked brightly lit and almost within easy reach. On a day like this the view from up there would be magnificent. I felt as if he was blowing a raspberry at me, so I did likewise and turned to scramble upwards.
The final scramble was easy enough, with short sections of rock face punctuated with areas of stony path. The sun was still shining and I was really enjoying myself.
Towards the top the scrambles became a little steeper but still reasonably straightforward. I was almost at the top when my left leg slipped and my foot became wedged in a crevice. And in this rather inelegant position I realised that I was stuck, unable to push my foot down to get sufficient leverage to move upwards. I had lost sight of Tom, who had by this time reached the summit and, as I floundered about trying to free my foot, a voice from above suddenly called down "Are you alright there?". I looked up to see two men, clambering their way down the rocks. To my embarrassment I had to admit that I was stuck and to their credit neither of them laughed as they pulled me free and gave me a leg up the rocky step. I thanked them and then scampered as quickly as I could up the remaining scramble to the top.
Just before the summit we paused to stand by the edge of a small tarn, the summit of Pillar dominating the skyline beyond. We briefly considered sitting by the side of this little tarn to eat our lunch, but as quite a stiff breeze was blowing at this height we set off in search of a more sheltered spot.
A short distance away a small cairn and a rusty iron bar marked the summit of Haystacks, beyond which we found a sheltered grassy bank where we sat in the sun and ate our sandwiches.
The view from the summit was breathtaking, incorporating the whole of Buttermere and Crummock Water and the distant fells of Grasmoor, Eel Crag and Sail.
Over to the north a distant Skiddaw was visible, peering up from between the shoulders of Hindscarth and Robinson.
Time was pressing on, so suitably rested and refreshed, we set off to explore. The summit plateau of Haystacks is approximately a mile long and a traverse of its entire length was necessary to meet up with our downwards path. This certainly wasn't a walk to be rushed. Wainwright had not exaggerated when he wrote "for a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure". It's a magical place, almost too beautiful for words. And all the while, there in the distance, Great Gable taunted me with his gorgeous profile. From the top of Haystacks I could clearly make out the summit of Green Gable and the steep-sided col of Windy Gap. With the aid of binoculars I could also see people ascending and descending the mountain in all directions and I felt a small stab of envy at the view they would be enjoying. A view which had been denied to us just a short 24 hours before. What a difference a day can make! But then, I reasoned, those people on the rocky slopes of Great Gable were missing out on the wonderland that is Haystacks.
Strolling along in the afternoon sunshine, we soon found ourselves by the side of Innominate Tarn. I stood transfixed for a while, gazing in wonder at the sight before me. The waters of the tarn sparkled with sunlight and in the background Great Gable took centre stage. Unusually, there was no one else around us at this point and we stood for a while, silenced by the presence of beauty and majesty. I understand that it was at this very spot, by the waters of Innominate Tarn, that Alfred Wainwright had decreed his ashes should be scattered and, I suspect, many others have since made that same last request. I could see why.
Our solitude was short-lived and we were soon joined at the tarn by a small group of walkers, chatting noisily and skimming stones into the waters. We left them to enjoy the place in their own way and carried on with our walk, following a narrow path along a gap which gave us a clear view of our path back to Gatesgarth, the little stream flowing down the valley towards Buttermere and a distant Crummock Water.
Before we began our descent another delightful tarn awaited us and here we sat for a while to watch as little fishes leapt and sent ripples circling across the surface. This was Blackbeck Tarn from which the Black Beck flowed down to meet Warnscale Beck, the stream which flowed through the valley below. It was warm and sheltered, sitting on the rocks by the side of the tarn, and we were soon joined by other walkers who sat around in silence, just gazing at the view as if in meditation.
Glancing at my watch I suddenly realised that over five hours had passed since we'd left Gatesgarth, and yet the distance we'd covered was only just over three miles. It was almost as though we'd stepped into some strange kind of enchanted otherworld where time had stood still. I could have stayed up there for much longer, but I realised that if we wanted to get an evening meal at a reasonable time then we would have to leave right away. And so we set off on the descent, crossing a series of stepping stones over Warnscale Beck and then following a steep, rocky path down the side of Fleetwith Pike.
While descending the steep path I began to feel a sharp pain in the big toe of my left foot and realised that I must have bruised it when my foot had become wedged in the rock face earlier. I only noticed the pain on the steeper sections of the path, when my foot pushed forwards to the cap of my boot, and this slowed my descent considerably as I hobbled my way down. Warnscale Beck flowed rapidly by our side, cascading over rocks as it tumbled its way downhill.
My downhill pace was significantly slower than usual and as a result it took almost an hour for me to reach the lower slopes, where thankfully the gradient decreased and the path eventually became grassy as it wound its way back to Gatesgarth.
Once back at the car I looked up towards the craggy peaks of Haystacks. From below it looked almost foreboding, its dark, jagged silhouette contradicting the fairytale loveliness of its summit plateau. Its lack of height, in my opinion, should not exclude it from anyone's list of favourites because, as far as Haystacks is concerned, small is most definitely beautiful.
Coming soon....I spend my birthday on Skiddaw where I receive a surprise and enjoy the longest walk of the week.