While England doesn’t have many big hills, the biggest are concentrated into really just one small area of the country, the Lake District. For my annual September walking long-weekend I decided to tackle the Lakeland 3000ers, described in the excellent Big Walks book by Wilson and Gilbert which is sadly now out of print.
There are six 3000ers – Helvellyn, Scafell, Scafell Pike, Ill Crag, Broad Crag and Skiddaw – which can be linked into (as the name of the book suggests) a big walk. They’re not Munros according to the hill list-tickers, but Furths; that is, the 3000 feet peaks of the British Isles furth of Scotland. As walks go, this is a fairly sizeable walk at 46 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing. And as I discovered, it was to prove just too big a walk to fit into the 48 hours I had available – although I had a pretty good stab at it.
I’m hoping to gain my Mountain Leader award next year so I can lead Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, and this weekend was designed to give me broader experience of other mountainous areas of the UK. The Lake District isn’t new territory to me – in fact, my earliest hillwalking memory was of being caught in a whiteout on the top of the Langdale Pikes one Easter aged about six with my family, wrapped up in a bright orange cagoule – but in recent times I’ve given all my focus to climbing Scottish mountains.
Friday night finally arrived and I found myself at Burns Farm campsite near Threlkeld, a well-located site on my route within easy reach of Skiddaw. However, Skiddaw was to be the last of my 3000ers and instead I turned east (clockwise) to follow this good route by Dan Bailey. I chose this route in preference to that described in the Big Walks book since it follows the high-level ridges for much of the way between the peaks rather than the roads. As everyone knows, roads are often a bit of a trudge and, given the Lake District’s narrow, winding lanes, potentially dangerous.
So this was to be a skyline route, following the tops as far as possible, wild camping over two nights and only visiting civilisation (aka Keswick) once in order to cross the A66 en route to Skiddaw.
Finding the right route (the old railway track) at the back of the business park beside Threlkeld Quarry was my first challenge but after a bit of head-scratching I was soon climbing the hillside to Clough Head to reach the start of the first long ridge which culminated in Helvellyn, the first of the 3000ers. Views of purple-heathered Skiddaw and Blencathra were stunning in the warm sunshine. The steep path up Clough Head was indistinct for some of the time but once on the ridge it became much clearer. This is a well-trodden route with lots of people out walking this particular Saturday and by the time I reached the large cairn on Great Dodd I shared my lunch spot with another half dozen people.
Did I say that this is a well-trodden route ? The quality of the paths over the next two days varied but along this ridge many sections consisteed of well-built paths, sometimes almost paved with flat stones. Given the fine, sunny weather it was almost as busy as Sauchiehall Street (or at least Ben Lomond on a fine day). I’m not used to being on busy hills !
Beyond Great Dodd came Watson’s Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, Raise (with its short ski tow) and then a pull up to Helvellyn itself. The good paths made for quick walking, with this north/south ridge being the tamer route up Helvellyn compared with the narrower access along Striding Edge and Swirral Edge.
Leaving the crowds on Helvellyn’s summit behind I was almost alone descending steeply down to Wythburn at the southern end of Thirlmere which I reached at about 5pm. It was hot work and after taking a long drink I took the boggy path up the Wythburn Valley to Greenup Edge. The recent spell of dry weather didn’t seem to have made much impact on the bogs in the upper valley and in fact, one chap commented to me that it was the driest he’d seen it all year. I’d decided to lighten my load and wear my Innov8 trail shoes instead of my usual Goretex boots and consequently my feet were soaked, even though I tried to hop, skip and jump over the wettest bits. I’d hate to walk this section after it’d been raining.
I must have taken a different path to that marked on the map since I realised after a while that I wasn’t where I thought I was. Rather than taking a clear path from the col at Greenup Edge to High Raise I found myself on crags a kilometre or so east which required some corrective navigation to traverse past Sergeant Man to Stake Pass. By this point the light was quickly fading. I’d planned to camp at Angle Tarn but instead found a peaceful spot at Stake Tarn with no other company save the stars.
On day two, I woke to another cloudless sky with the temperature soon rising. Another boggy path took me to Angle Tarn, a great wild camp spot beneath the towering cliffs of Esk Pike and which seems to be increasingly popular (but with just two tents there that morning). Following the almost paved path up to the broad saddle at Esk Hause the route climbed over increasingly stony ground over Ill Crag, Broad Crag and eventually to Scafell Pike, the highest point in England at 978 metres. By this point I’d climbed four of the six 3000ers.
I was lucky enough to have the summit all to myself at this early hour for a brief five minutes before a group of lads shattered the peaceful moment. Now the next section was the trickiest of the whole walk and luckily I had a clear view in order to trace the route. I dropped down to Mickledore, the narrow neck joining Scafell Pike and its near neighbour, Scafell, and left my pack at the mountain rescue box. I heeded the warnings to not take the direct route up Broad Stand (given I’m not a rock climber) and instead, descended about 250 metres steeply to pick up the rocky gully that climbs up to Foxes Tarn. From there, it’s a steep ascent up scree to the Scafell ridge. All of this additional ascent and descent took time and it was midday before I was back at Mickledore.
While I’d taken the chance to drink from the small outflow from Foxes Tarn I was out of water so decided to head to one of the streams below Lingmell Col to the north of Scafell Pike before lunch. It seemed a slow descent to pick up the Corridor Route followed by a hot and steep climb to Lingmell Col. I passed lots of families and other groups of walkers trudging up towards Scafell Pike. I was ready for lunch, very thirsty (the stream water tasted good !) and the blisters on my feet (from walking in wet socks and trail shoes) needed attention. I’d also forgotten the cable I needed for my phone charger so now had no phone or camera (which is why there are no more photos from the walk below …).
I was also well behind time. By this point (1.30pm) I still had about 11 miles to walk to Keswick followed by a two-hour ascent of Skiddaw before wild camping for the night. The steep ascent of Great Gable to reach the ‘return’ high-level ridge north towards Keswick was a killer with my full pack, and probably put my timetable back even further. By this point I was mentally running through various back-up plans. I clearly couldn’t make it to Skiddaw tonight. Would I camp on Cat Bells before returning to the campsite the next morning ?
I pressed on, over Green Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knott. By this time, I was away from the more popular routes and being late afternoon on a Sunday everyone else was away home. I dropped down to Honister Pass, keen to phone home to check in and confirm I was still alive. A service bus passed me as I was about to use the Youth Hostel phone, giving me an idea. I could take the bus back to Keswick, stay the night in my camper van at the campsite then climb Skiddaw the next morning. All I would miss out would be the 8 miles or so from Honister over Dale Head, High Spy, Maiden Moor and Cat Bells.
As luck would have it I only had an hour to wait until the last bus of the day back to Keswick, followed by a 3 mile road trudge to the campsite beside Threlkeld. But as I ate my meal after dark at 9pm I realised that, despite the best of intentions, I was just too tired to get up at 6.30/7pm the next morning in order to make the 3.5 hour climb of Skiddaw before I needed to drive home in time to meet the kids after school. Instead, I had a lie in and left the sixth of the 3000ers for another day.
In retrospect, this was too ambitious a walk to complete with a full pack in two days. Extremely fit fell runners might complete it in 24 hours carrying only water. A fit walker might complete it in two days in late June with longer daylight and less sleep. But I suggest three days would allow for a more much relaxing experience to fully enjoy the walking and wild camping. As it was, I’d walked about 32 miles in two days in warm conditions with a laden pack.
My first foray to the Lakes in recent years hadn’t gone precisely to plan but the hills are still there for another day. It was, after all, a trip to gain experience and I certainly notched up quite a bit of learning ! I finished the trip off with a quick visit to the stone circle at Castlerigg (between Threlkeld and Keswick), which gives a great vantage point of much of my route.