It is amazing how the trials, tribulations and temptations of late adolescence can quash the excitement and adventure a young teenager sees in packing a rucksack and walking up a mountain.
Swiftly following our return from California I moved into student life where the pull of social activity and acceptance made camping and map reading sound far to Boy Scout to choose over what turning 18 had to offer.
It was actually to be five years before Chris and I made our first trip back to the mountains as a fully-fledged young adults with jobs, cars and the freedom to start exploring beyond the sunny South Coast without parents or guardians. By 2004 we were grown up and socially fulfilled enough to realise that packing a rucksack and walking up a mountain sounded much more like an adventure again.
With this rekindled appetite for adventure we planned a three day hike up to the Lake District unknowingly taking our first steps into terrain that would turn out to be so much more than a hike up a mountain. In the years to follow it would turn into terrain that not only challenged us physically but also mentally, terrain that taught us determination and resolve, terrain that brought people together and created new friendships and terrain that ultimately became our place of happiness and inspiration.
Sat on Chris’ living room floor, Ordnance Survey maps sprawled around us, we pulled on forgotten and limited orienteering knowledge and debated suggestions from his parents on possible route ideas to determine an achievable three-day hike. We measured paths with lengths of string, counted contour lines and studied Wainwrights infamous guides to make sure we were as prepared as we could be.
Preparations for trips such as this also included making sure you have all the right equipment. Due to lack of interest and money over the previous five years our gear was compiled from a miss match of cheap, heavy underperforming items designed for a mixture of Scout camps and family camping holidays in the south of France. Our rucksacks were going to be massive!
It was naïve of us to think nothing of Friday evening rush hour traffic or checking weather reports. Chris met me at work at 3pm on a Friday with the aim of getting to a campsite 350 miles away by last light. At 11.30pm that same day soaked to the bone and still 15 miles from our planned destination of Keswick, we climbed into our cheap summer tent thrown up on a steep slope in an unidentified field with a handful of other tents. Well, it wouldn’t have been an adventure if we had got to Keswick in daylight and set up camp in Tourist Park would it?
Due to our late arrival we probably could have set off the next morning without notice but our good nature got the better of us and we found a farmer to pay for our damp accommodation. After the pleasant job of rolling up our soaking wet tent, now doubled in weight, we set off to Honister pass and the start of our hike.
As we drove we searched through the drizzle looking upwards straining to see a glimmer of the peaks around us. It had been such a long time since I had last seen the mountains and I could feel an almost childlike magic returning, desperate for the feeling you get when you glimpse the first summit of these enormous hills rising impossibly high above us.
Unfortunately our continuous surveillance was consistently met with heavy, low lying cloud revealing only ghostly beginnings of the steep slopes lining the valleys we were driving through. Without even a tease of how big the hidden rocks above could be our anticipation, excitement and apprehension continued to build.
That moment, that feeling and the ones that followed shortly after encapsulate the perspective that the mountains can give you. I still get that childlike giddiness today whenever the first summits come into view and you try to comprehend the inhuman scale that they possess. To witness the sheer magnitude and beauty that millions of years have produced can really help ease the thoughts and stress carried from everyday life. It is a therapy. I would challenge anyone to remain burdened by their thoughts in an environment of such natural grandeur.
This however, is written in retrospect. At the time we were still only 21 and driven by the thrill and the challenge of climbing mountains on our own for the very first time. We could get lost or injured. We might not make it to our planned camp due to the weather. We could run out of food and water. We had no idea how good or bad this first expedition could go but despite all of that we did it anyway, blissfully unaware of how these feelings and actions would shape us for the future.
The national trust car park at Honister pass was empty. It was a desolate and steep drive up climbing ever closer to the heavy cloud line. The deserted looking slate mine adjacent to the car park along with a dark, empty looking hostel added an eerie feel to the isolated habitat. The pay machine only took payment for up to one day not the three that we needed and wouldn’t print a ticket. For the second time that day our kind nature kicked in and saw us feed three days’ worth of payment into the machine and leave a note explaining our actions in the windscreen of our car.
Conscience clear we set about preparing for the cold, wet day ahead by layering our clothing as though we were preparing for the cheapest ever south pole expedition. We finished off the look with our incredibly unbreathable waterproof collection and hoisted rucksacks the size of body bags onto our backs. Map and compass in hand we turned to look at what appeared to be a near vertical wall. A fenced path led like a mythical stairway up into the dark grey clouds above. What the hell were we letting ourselves in for?
Soaking wet, more from sweat than the rain, I laid my rucksack against the large pile of stones, removed one of my many unnecessary layers and looked at my watch. Forty-five minutes! We’ve reached the top of the first fell in forty-five minutes. We looked at the map to see if this could be correct. Despite completing the relentlessly steep and slippery rock staircase to be greeted by a large pile of stones it seemed impossibly quick to reach a summit. Map in hand and facing visibility of about 50 yards we were none the wiser.
A heavy weight of panic quickly sunk through my mind squeezing out any previous feeling of euphoria gained by reaching our first summit so quickly. The fear of not knowing our exact location in a rock filled isolation shrouded by mist and rain sparked an unknown anxiety in my senses. “It’s not that bad, we can do this. Use the compass, walk in the correct direction for a bit and we’ll find something that we can locate on the map” we told ourselves. We did exactly this and after a few minutes we could make out the line of a fence ahead of us in the mist. On the map this fence ran parallel with the path, panic over. The pile of stones turned out not to be the summit but we were now at least back on track.
It is the sort of problem solving you wouldn’t normally deal with every day – make the wrong decision and I’m lost on a mountain range in bad weather. Although the burden of panic can feel uncomfortable at the time coming through it can be a boost of confidence that you can draw strength from in many future everyday scenarios. In the grand scheme of things getting lost in the Lake District isn’t the end of the world, you are never more than a day’s walk away from somewhere. We were sensible enough not to walk of a cliff, we knew how to use a compass and in the worst case we had tents to put up and mobile phones for emergencies. However, this was our first time doing this on our own and I am happy to admit that it did scare me a bit. I realise now though that you have to do things that scare you. Following this trip every time I was nervous or scared of a situation or a decision I thought of this moment and it gave me that extra boost of confidence and perspective I needed. Forty-five minutes in to our first adventure and a huge life lesson gained already. It wouldn’t be worth it if it were easy.
We found the path and kept going through the elements for a couple of hours disappointed by the lack of visibility but high on the feeling of being on an adventure in the mountains with only our own decisions to guide us. Eventually we came to what had to be a true summit. A dark, round silhouette slowly appeared up ahead its image sharpening with every step. As it emerged from the mist an obvious domed summit with what we could see was a stone built semi-circular shelter came into focus. Could it be that we have reached the summit of Great Gable already? Although we knew we were traveling in the right direction and on the right path our limited experience with maps in this terrain combined with the poor visibility meant we were struggling to judge the distance we were covering.
We decided this must be it and stopped for a bite to eat in the protection of the shelter but I remember a slightly underwhelming feeling of where were – this was supposed to be the highest peak of today’s hike. As we left the summit shelter increasing gusts of wind were creating tiny gaps in the mist but these breaks flashed past in the clouds too quick to take in the micro seconds of their reveal.
Then, twenty metres into our decent the other side a gaping tear in the cloud slashed open ahead of us revealing a ginormous, craggy, lump of granite towering high above. “Ah, that would be Great Gable then!” The feeling of naivety at how wrong we had been was swamped by the excitement of the impending climb ahead of us. Now this is an adventure!
It did not disappoint. We hurried down the side of Green Gable on to the aptly named saddle of Windy gap before practically throwing ourselves at the rocky scramble in front of us. Wet ground, oversized rucksacks and loose stones were overcome almost without notice as we excitedly picked our path up towards the revered summit, my first ever over 3000ft high in Britain. With the cloud lifting almost as quickly as we gained height ourselves we reached the top within no time. Such was the intoxication of the moment we had downed our rucksacks and shook hands before realising how severely strong the wind was up there. It’s frequent and sudden gusts brought our wired minds quickly down from their high and we scuttled a few yards down from the summit to shelter behind some rocks.
Although still very much in the clouds the strong winds were revealing more frequent windows into the fractured panorama flashing around us and exposing the magnitude of our position within it. I remember the feeling of disbelief at how high we were and how small I felt in this giant’s landscape. Great Gable is very much a stand alone mountain and the valleys down below us seemed an impossibly long way away but growing from them were more colossal walls of rock so big that their optical illusion almost tricked you into thinking they were just a stones throw away.
I will never forget the elation I felt at reaching this first summit and from that day and forever more, Great Gable will always be a very special mountain to me. Reaching the top of any mountain is a feeling that cannot really be replicated and one that is difficult to do justice with words. It requires physical and mental strength, endurance and technical ability, navigational skill and preparation, teamwork and problem solving. Combine all this with the grounding perspective you get from being in a distant and remote area of such enormity and beauty then top it all off with the huge sense of achievement you feel when you take those last steps onto that highest point. A true ‘Peak experience’.
This elation however, cannot last forever, as our next long lasting lesson from these magical mountains was about to teach us – the top is only halfway. Looking around the desolate summit strewn with rocky outcrops we tried to pick out where the path was. As quick as the wind tore a hole in the cloud painting the way for us wisps of white cloud would erase the image as if a displeased artist angrily brushed white paint across an unwanted picture. We were not getting long enough slices of visibility to pick the correct route so we resorted back to the compass and decided to carefully head down in the correct direction as close to where we thought the path should be as possible.
We didn’t even come close to path but it didn’t matter. As we dropped below the cloud line instead of finding the path we scrambled upon a large steep scree slope which we could now see would take us all the way down to plateau between Great Gable and Kirk Fell. We should probably have looked harder for the path but we didn’t know if it was to our left or right and traversing both ways looking for it did not appeal as much as the prospect of picking our way down the arduous yet provocative looking red rock scree sprawled out beneath us.
The colour of our trousers did nothing to hide the fact that was spent as much time on our backsides as we spent precariously tying to find firm footings as we slid and stumbled our way down to the grassy plateau. Standing on soft grass for the first time that day we laughed at each other whilst comparing whose trousers had the thicker covering of red staining from the scree. The laughter continued as we stared back in awe at the scale of the slope we had just descended so directly and quickly, the true path now clearly visible 50 yards to the right of our unorthodox route.
On this virgin trip, which would lead to a life long affiliation with everything mountains and outdoor adventure, I was naively unaware of the legendary status with which Wasdale Head is regarded amongst the outdoor community I was later to immerse with. At the planning stage it was to serve the purpose as depicted on the map, campsite and pub. However, its powerful seduction captured me instantly and a love affair with this charming little settlement was sparked.
It is a simple path down to finish the walk from the Gable\Kirk fell saddle and it is on that path that the quaint and enticing collection of white buildings appear in view below dwarfed by the steep sided valley in which they seem so carefully placed. The charm only increases as, finally on flat ground, you continue into what feels like a real life painting following babbling streams, past old farm buildings and ancient looking stone bridges before arriving at the famed Wasdale Head Inn.
After paying for a pitch and perusing all the kit in the absorbing Barn Door outdoor shop we crossed the car park to the small field that was to be our home for the night.
Tent up, dry clothes on and a stiffness of muscles and joints starting to remind of us of how we had got here we opened the Inn door to a warm and enticing atmosphere that would not only keep us there all evening but would stay with me forever. It was evening of such blissfully basic comfort; a simple Inn with cosy cubbyholes and mountaineering pictures and artefacts decorating all the walls and shelves. Most importantly though there was a selection of local beers and home cooked food designed to excite and replenish the weariest of explorers. With a night in a cold wet tent ahead we took full advantage of all the basic luxuries afforded us. In these days before smart phones, wifi and even any signal we recalled the excitements of the day whilst playing games and looking at maps until the exertion and beer selection took its toll forcing us to retire to the discomfort of our damp field for the night – bliss.