A fit of peaks

It's hardly the Himalayas, but there's plenty of Lake District mountains to keep hikers happy, writes Mark Rowe
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Where shall we walk tomorrow?" asked one of a group of hikers. "Skiddaw," announced a friend in the sort of hushed tone more properly reserved for K2 than for England's fourth highest mountain. This conversation, overheard in Bertram's restaurant in Ambleside, captures much of the awe that surrounds the Lake District's peaks.

However, while it is wise to heed the official line that you need a map, a good weather forecast, a compass and warm clothes even in summer to walk in the Lakes' higher regions, there is some nonsense put about with regard to the technical difficulty involved. Just as it would be misleading to say that anyone can walk up Scafell Pike on a pre-breakfast leg-stretcher, it is equally wrong to assume that you require some kind of Chris Bonington chromosome.

During a week's holiday we climbed three of England's four highest mountains - Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw - along with one of the most trampled, the Old Man of Coniston. The first two have their hair-raising moments; the last pair are straightforward ascents. Don't be discouraged; our most pleasant surprise was that the walking got easier as the week wore on.

Despite its height, Skiddaw is a baby. We started climbing steeply from a car park near Applethwaite and just kept going until, two hours later, we reached the top. The contrast in scenery is astonishing. To the west and the south around Keswick are beautiful valleys such as Borrowdale, looking as though they are freshly moulded. To the east are the sweeping flanks of Blencathra, resembling a high moor rather than a mountain. As the hills roll northwards, the furze between them looks like vast brown tributaries of a great river.

Scafell Pike, England's highest peak at 3,210ft, is a different proposition. We chose the ascent from Great Langdale in the east, an 11-mile, seven- hour return trip. Setting off from the Old Dungeon Ghyll hotel, we walked two miles along the valley with the Langdale Pikes far above us before climbing out of an apparent cul-de-sac via Rossett Gill. This steep and stony path was described by the Lakes' greatest authority, Arthur Wainwright, as the "least-liked" pass in the area.

We were now in a different, grassless world 2,000ft above the valley floor. An array of peaks surrounded us. Which one was Scafell Pike? we wondered. The answer, much to our despair, was none of them. The hardest part of this walk is more emotional than physical: the summit does not come into view until the last half mile and there were still two swinish and stony descents to negotiate, with the threatening shape of the appropriately- named Ill Crag to darken our mood further.

One pleasure of walking is greeting strangers in a way that would get you locked up if you did it on your regular journey to work. However, we noticed that one species of walker offers no such warmth. Usually male, they are distinguished by action trousers with multiple pockets, gaiters, beards and pipes. Perhaps they wish to give the impression that such piffling walks are way, way below their capacity; they would far rather be in a remote region of Nepal.

Things were more friendly on Helvellyn, an altogether prettier walk. We began in Glenridding on a nine-mile, six-hour route from the back of the village first leading to Lanty's Tarn with a view over Ullswater which, surrounded by trees, looked like the lake into Narnia in The Magician's Nephew.

The next uphill trawl was made easier by the delightful names on our OS map, including Dollywagon Pike and the Hole in the Wall, a stile where the summit is first viewed.

A walk along Striding Edge, a 6-ft wide plinth of stone, is one of the most thrilling experiences in the Lakes. However, little is made of the final ascent, a 50-metre scramble where we felt like Spiderman, gripping rocks to haul ourselves up. As we drew our breath, we studied a monument showing that there is an easier way up; in 1926, it is claimed, a light aircraft managed to land on the summit.

Wainwright urged us to take the scenic south-eastern route up Coniston Old Man. But it was time to see how man can blight a landscape by taking the traditional route from the village of Coniston, a path which led through a series of copper mines. In each direction vast holes were gouged out of the Old Man, disused now for 80 years or more. The wind whistled through the decaying cables and wheels, making the area seem even more forsaken.

From the summit we descended to the left of Dow Crag, popular with rock climbers, whose buttresses plunge steeply into the tarn of Goat's Water. We followed a path down to Coniston Water, scene of Donald Campbell's ill-fated Bluebird water-speed record attempt in 1967. Bluebird beer, in Coniston village, provided a pleasant end to the week's walking.

The walks up Helvellyn, Coniston and Skiddaw are described in the Ordnance Survey Lake District pathfinder series. For the Langdale assault on Scafell Pike, Wainwright's 'The Southern Fells' remains unbeatable; the author's gentle wit does not fail even at times of exhaustion. Ambleside Tourist Information Centre, 01539 435245.