Walking: The heights of treachery: Paul Gosling in the Lake District

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AS WE scrambled up the rather too steep hill, the dominating view over Great Langdale became ever more beautiful. By the time we had reached the top we could see clearly not only the valley, but also Windermere at its head.

We had set out from Preston by car on a sunny clear day, which promised to be fine for a hill walk. When we arrived in the Lake District some of the mountains were covered by heavy cloud, but the Langdale Pikes were mostly clear. It soon became obvious, though, that there had been a fairly heavy snowfall overnight on the mountain tops.

We parked in the car park by the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. The path from there up Stickle Ghyll was initially not too severe. We rose past the waterfalls, keeping close to the river. On most days it is probably just a stream, but with the heavy rains and snows of this winter it had become a torrent. As a result, the usual crossing points were impassable, and we were obliged to keep to the eastern side of the water.

As we travelled further up Tarn Crag, our progress became less often walking, more frequently crawling and scrambling. The first of our ascents was completed when we reached Stickle Tarn, dammed but an apparently natural pond on the hillside. It was a good place to stop and admire the view. If we had realised how cold it would be higher we might also have had lunch.

There are several routes up from Stickle Tarn. My companions seemed interested in taking Jack's Rake, which I was told was something between a scramble and a very easy climb. We decided against it, partly because the Rake is enclosed and we would lose the view while ascending.

Judging by the comments of Alfred Wainwright - whose opinions on the Lakeland Fells cannot really be challenged - it was the right decision. 'Walkers who can still put their toes in their mouths and bring their knees up to their chins may embark upon the ascent confidently; others, unable to perform these tests, will find the route arduous,' he wrote in The Central Fells. As I fail on the first count it is just as well we took a less steep track.

Our route, alongside Bright Beck, was also reasonably hard work. Much of the path was covered in ice, and walking treacherous. To reach the path we first had to cross another stream which had flooded its stepping stones. I went upstream to find dry stones to walk across. The effort was wasted when I rejoined the main path, mistook a muddy quagmire for part of the path, and sank up to my ankle.

When we reached the top of Pavey Ark a large plateau emerged, linking a number of peaks. It was covered in snow and ice, as were the nearby Great Gable and Green Gable hills. To the east were the hills of Helvellyn and Fairfield.

Moving on to the neighbouring peak of Harrison Stickle we looked over the valley below; it was far too cold, though, to enjoy the beautiful view for long. Looking to the south, where the Coniston Fells should have been, all we could see was heavy black cloud.

A ferocious gale was hitting the hilltops, and it was almost impossible to stand up. Where we walked owed little to judgement: wherever I intended to place my feet they ended up somewhere else. Snow underfoot proved to be covering sheet ice beneath, and I fell over. As we moved on to scree my foot slipped again and my ankle twisted. I tried, but failed, to remind myself that walking was fun.

As we descended we could see Blea Tarn ahead of us. Quickly the path became easier and more grassy, and the weather more clement. Just off the path, at Pike Howe, we even found a sheltered spot for our picnic, before heading down Dungeon Ghyll to return to the car.

In the pub at the bottom we indulged ourselves with mugs of tea all round. Next to the warmth and comfort of a real fire I began to remember the pleasures of walking.

(Photograph and map omitted)