Monday, 14 February 2011

A night in a tent with a big woman

I wish I could promise a more exciting narrative, but the big woman in this case is my new "Big Agnes Lost Ranger" sleeping bag. I thought I'd get that out of the way early on in case you, dear reader, are entirely disinterested in walking and found this blog searching for outdoor shenanigans with generously built ladies! No, this is a story of my recent trip to Scafell Pike and a wild camp thereon, (or nearly thereon).

Its also the story of how the death of my Dad last year caused me to be on the trip in the first place. For any reader who doesn't want to read about the death of someone they never knew, its fine - leave it here.

It is nearly a year since I lost my Dad to pancreatic cancer - it will be a year on February 22nd, and I had made all sorts of plans to do the three summits of Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike last summer with my sister, Joni. Of course, the best laid plans etc and we did nothing of the kind, so I felt I could at least do Scafell Pike, which up to now has not been a tick on my list, in remembrance of the old man. I hope this post doesn't come over as morbid - its not my intention, but I can't imagine I am the first person to have carried part of their ordinary lives onto the fell with them and been enriched by it. I think fell walking is something we do to bring ourselves closer to nature, learning something about ourselves in the doing of it, and when we do, we produce something which has ingredients of the mountain, and of us in a combination that isn't always obvious or expected. Sometimes a trip report that says, "I did this, then I did that, and it rained..." is fine, but "I did this, and it made me feel that (and it still bloody rained)..." is probably nearer to the way it is for all of us who wander the scree and the heather.

Anyway, here's a tip for those thinking of a little bit of recreational pancreatic cancer - don't do it. Its a fecker. Or at least it was in the case of my old man. Once diagnosed, it took him in about 10 days, and not having seen Dad for a year or so, when I went to his bedside the day he died I was shocked silent at his appearance. My Dad wasn't a big guy - about 5' 7'' in stocking feet, and had been in good shape most of his life. About ten years ago though he developed a lung condition brought on by heavy smoking called, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease , or emphysema to you and me. This in effect means brittling of the lung tissue so it can't expand and contract as it needs to for breathing. He had to give up smoking, or die on the spot more or less (because his wife would have killed him), and with massive irony gave up the gaspers with little or no craving at all - I was merciless in my criticism for waiting so long. I know he felt more than a bit irritated that giving up smoking proved to be so easy for him, but I did point out in mitigation that lots of sacrifices would seem easy at the point of a gun. As warned by the doctor, he found that his appetite increased as a non-smoker, and he put a little weight on but not unnaturally so. However, as the disease progressed he was prescribed steroids, and thereafter put quite a bit of weight on, especially showing in his face. He still wasn't a real big guy, but the contrast I found when I went to him on his last day was distinct to say the least. I could have picked him up with little or no effort from that bed. He was the colour of Coleman’s mustard from liver failure and his bones showed through his skin. I will never forget holding his hand after he died and all my (many) brothers and sisters had left the ward. I can remember my sister asking if I was joining them as they left - I quietly said "I'll be the last to leave", and waited. His skin was like cellophane and his hands and arms were so frail and thin. During the last part of his illness he had not shaved and his hair had grown long and straggly, but a very elegant silver colour - to me he had a lovely dignity about him even though his colour was all wrong. I saw him later in his coffin and his hair had been cut and he'd been given a shave, something I know he would have wished for, but I did like his unkempt look. A bit like an old wizard! What passed between us in those minutes before I left him is for the two of us, but a lifetime of talking wouldn't cover those few tender moments. I know this is not just my story but that of many who lose someone close - its the way we are when you strip away all the silly nonsense.

So, pancreatic cancer - just say no! Oh, I should also say my Dad was just 67 when he died, and the sight of my Granddad, who is 90, watching his son dying will live with me for the rest of my puff. You're not supposed to outlive your children, and you're not supposed to see your Granddad weep. But, putting aside the thing about Granddad, and noting that he left a few hours before Dad actually passed, I remember the whole day as one of tremendous joy as well as grief. Dad was not able to speak, or move, though we think he was aware of what was happening around him. He could just about grip your hand and once or twice smiled at some of the things we were talking about. Most of my brothers and sisters (I have 3 brothers and 4 sisters) were there; along with aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces and so on. We sat around his bed recounting old stories of his life and ours. Holidays and Christmases, marriages and birthdays - the whole gamut of our collective memories, and despite losing Dad, I would say most of those who sat through the day with us will agree it was as uplifting a day as could be on the whole.

Maybe Dad knew he would bring us all together, but the experience changed my life for the better, making me less conservative and cautious. Bringing me to realise that we inhabit this world for so little time and at the most make our tiny little scratches on its surface changing nothing much in the wide perspective. So to idle the time away waiting for a rainy day is pointless. I think I also decided that not to enjoy life abundantly and in the present is to disrespect those for whom life is short. It was not a conversation I had with Dad, but I think just getting on and doing stuff is something he would have understood and encouraged. So, when I saw a chance to get a weekend walking alone with my thoughts, and near to the anniversary of his death I wasn't going to let it go - not that Cumbrian weather would necessarily agree with my plan! I seem to get up to the Lakes about every other week these days, so in a way there was no pressing need for it to happen this weekend, but somehow it seemed right to be doing it alone. I had not forgotten my idea of visiting the three big peaks, the original scheme being to scatter a pinch of Dad on each. This plan was stymied by his wife, Bev, having all of his ashes buried at sea off Norway where he used to be a fisherman around the time I was born. Apparently, he'd mentioned it in the past, so my cousin, who is still a trawler-man, was asked to scatter the ashes at sea. I think Bev also thought that my idea might catch on and everyone would be asking for a spoonful. By the time she got what was left of him, there wouldn't be enough to pepper a steak. So, off I set for the summit of Scafell Pike, without Dad's ashes, and stupidly, without malt whisky to toast him ('cos I forgot it!!).

I drove up to Borrowdale overnight leaving at about midnight from Kettering where I live. Its normally about a 4 hr drive to Keswick, so I expected to be well there before dawn and planned to start in the dark so that I got up to Sty Head at first light. In the end I got all drowsy driving up and like a good boy pulled into the services on the M6 to have a snooze. I snoozed too long and must have been a good 4hrs asleep in the car, so decided to stop at McDonalds in Penrith for a breakfast and eventually got to Seathwaite at about 9.15. I swigged the remains of my McD coffee and got my stuff together, got fully waterproofed up and set off at about 9.45 towards Stockley Bridge where I would turn uphill for Sty Head taking the path to the west of Seathwaite fell. I'd toyed with the possibility of using the path by TaylorGill Force, but that will have to wait for another day.

The Sty Head path from Stockley Bridge is a great route as it seems to ascend quite gently but makes very good height seemingly for little effort. I've tried to work out how this can be and it doesn't make much sense. All I can think is that the gradient, which is not severe doesn't really change much until you get past the level of TaylorGill force, at which is lessens. I always think its a killer when gradient changes all the time. I also think the path to Stockley bridge from Seathwaite farm is a good warm up path to get the legs going - so many times have I cursed the first half hour of a walk, wanting to go back to the car after ten minutes, and then done far more strenuous climbing later in a walk without fuss. I notice that many walkers embark on the first mile of a walk like a greyhound with an elastic band round its doggy vitals, when they should be barely shuffling along and getting settled into a rhythm. So, its a great route because Sty Head tarn and shortly after the stretcher box come into view much sooner than you expect, or would have done but for the thick fog that cursed the day. I took very few pictures because of this fog, so apologies for their scarcity, but it just wasn't worth taking anymore. Even my victory snaps were dismal as you will see, but of course they have to be taken regardless.

At Sty Head Stretcher box a foursome were debating over a map, and asked me if I knew where I was. I said yep. They asked if I knew where they were. I said yep, you're at the stretcher box. I then showed them on the map and remarked that, but for the fog, they would easily be able to see Sty Head tarn and all would be obvious. They had ascended from Wasdale and not having got as far as the tarn, were a bit bemused as to how to get up Great Gable which was their target. I explained the way to find Aaron Slack taking them up to Windy Gap, and they made due note, offered me a Werthers Original (very gratefully accepted), and promptly marched off....back towards Wasdale! Might have been something to do with me comparing Aaron Slack to a ladder. Shortly after, I set off across the col in the direction of Esk Hause intending to cut right to the Corridor route up to the Scafells. I'd made due note of Wainrights warning that some people go astray at the beginning as the path goes down for a little way, persuading some walkers it is going down to Wasdale, (which I suppose it is in a sense), but before I could make this choice I had to find the blessed thing and the thick fog was not helping. About halfway across the col, a man suddenly appeared. Well, that is to say, we both appeared to each other, only about 10m apart as the fog suddenly cleared like curtains had been drawn and all around opened up. We remarked on the improvement, I spotted the tumble-down wall where the Corridor route begins and off we went our respective ways. Then the fog returned as fast as it had cleared and I was grateful for the path to navigate by. The ascent of the path up as far as Lingmell Col was uneventful. The fog cleared a few times allowing me to snap a few shots but too few to make much of a story in themselves.
I was overtaken by a group of teenagers on a "led" walk, a bloke stopped me to confirm he was on the corridor route, and three runners passed me coming down. Running. Madness. Otherwise it was straightforward. Piers Gill is impressive from Lingmell col end, and I noticed a relatively easy descent on a boulder scree into the Gill, so I'm wondering now why its considered impassable and impossible as a route up from Wasdale. The part I could see looked very navigable, but perhaps there are sudden bad steps and changes of level etc. One day, if the weather is dry and warm I may explore the gill after researching it a bit more. It would be good to find out why its stated as a no-go. I notice there's a lot of mountain rescue stories about it, so maybe I'll give them a ring, or ask on one of the forums (fora?).

For those who have looked at the Corridor route and wondered if its tough, I can recommend a detour to Lingmell when the level of Lingmell col is reached. The reason is that not only do you bag another summit, where Lingmell has a rather fine summit cairn, in slight disrepair these days, but it provides an opportunity to avoid a rather tough last mile or so getting up to the final boulder field near the summit of Scafell Pike. Typically, followers of the corridor route turn left to ascend the Pike, or straight on, then right to Lingmell, and just straight on to Mickledore for Scafell, (eventually choosing left for Foxes tarn or right for Lord's Rake as options up Scafell when they arrive at Broad Stand). The route from Lingmell to Scafell Pike is more or less a straight line between the two summits and allows the walker to enjoy the benefit of much of the climbing they already did from the col to Lingmell summit. This is bacause the depression between Lingmell and the Pike doesn't lose all that height. I reckon it saves you about 50m climbing.

Sadly, the fog was thick as I reached the summit of Lingmell, (see picture) and I didn't get the hoped for view of Great Gable, which is said to be one of the finest vantage points of the mountain. The last mile is tough nonetheless and I didn't exactly skip up it. Something was holding me back, and I realised I was slowing down and down as I neared the top for reasons other than physical effort. I think I was worried about the emotion of finally doing something that had the significant connection with my Dad's death, and would I feel a bit choked up when I got there? So I asked him. You can laugh if you want, (I did), but I asked my old man out loud if this was going to be OK, and immediately (immediately means 1 second) the fog disappeared and I could see the whole extent of the fell for maybe 10 seconds, not even enough time to whip the camera out, but I did turn and see upper Wasdale and the flanks of Great Gable glowing gold and rust in the low sun - its was glorious. Then the fog returned just as fast, and I took it as a cue to finish. I'm not a spiritual person, and I don't believe in all that paranormal mumbo jumbo, but you can see how people think of these things - I could have imagined my question was being answered. If it was you Dad, leave the fog out for a good hour next time eh? I would have liked to see something from the top!

For those of you who have not climbed Scafell Pike, the top is prosaic at best. I am confident the view is breathtaking, but without a view the top is...well, cold, windy, rocky and without romance.

Its also rather wide and flat and puts me in mind of Great Gable which I have been up in clear weather.

That too is a bit of a miserable flat boulder field, but the views are amazing. So, I can tick Scafell Pike off, but I will have to go back and see the full experience in clear weather, take the pictures and so on and maybe consider doing Scafell at the same time. I knew I was not going to do Scafell on this trip as I couldn't make up my mind which route from Scafell Pike. Do I take the Lord’s Rake route with its "Death Stone" waiting to fall on some unwary walker? (Note: There is a large flake of rock wedged at the top of Lord's rake - a steep and narrow scree gully - which detached from the right hand side about a decade ago and came to rest leaning against the opposite wall. This flake is about 20ft-odd tall and 10ft all round and must weigh hundreds of tons. Apparently its got compression cracks all over it and a wardrobe sized chunk broke off in the last few years on the uphill side, visible if you compare pictures spanning the period. One day this thing is going to fall down, and will make an almighty mess of the scree run killing anyone on it at the time, or no-one at all if it happens in the night. It gives me the willies thinking about it). The alternative is to go clockwise round Scafell and ascend another less severe scree gully above Foxes Tarn, a puddle that someone named. By all accounts its more likely to be called Foxes Tarn because it was made by a fox, its so small. This route loses a lot of height and the born-idle like me hate the thought. I suspect I may do Scafell from the village of Boot this summer and take in Slight Side en route. I understand the valley walk leading up is delightful.

So, whiskyless, I acknowledged the old man and set off to descend via Broad Crag, with the intention of camping at Calf Cove, and based on the weather possibly climbing Great End and Esk Pike the next day. Seems funny now.

Of course I set off in the wrong direction from the top of Scafell Pike. The path I should have taken is North East, tending slightly East North East, but a set of shelters and cairns tempt you East South East. Check your compass children at all times - not a mistake you'd easily make in clear weather. Luckily, I checked my compass after about 50m and corrected, but still had an awkward time picking my way over an unnecessary tumble of leg breaking boulders. I eventually picked up the path to Broad Crag and got near enougb to see it in the mist, and the disappointing descent necessary before climbing back up to the top, but its not a killer and I was soon up on the col between Broad Crag and Illgill Head. Now, I'd like to visit both of these summits, but with Fog and light fading, I thought I'd save those for a better day, in addition to which, Broad Crag needs care - the boulder field one has to cross to summit the crag is just horrible. As Wainright says - every step is an opportunity to break a leg. So, I set off following the obvious line of cairns towards Esk Hause, inevitably passing Calf Cove on the way where I would pitch camp.

Stop, stop, STOP!

Children, and persons of a gullible nature listen carefully. Never follow lines of cairns to your planned destination. They move in the night to confuse the unwary traveller. They may look benign, inviting and convincing, but they are the work of the devil and are there to lead you astray. And they did. Confidently, I strode, hopped and scrambled across the boulders towards Calf Cove and about an hour later in near darkness arrived at a nice grassy knoll with audible water gushing in nearby streams and plenty of places to pitch my tent. True, I could not see the crossed-walls shelter in Calf Cove, but it was getting dark, so it would be nearby. Well, probably it wouldn't be as I wasn't in Calf-sodding-Cove. Somehow, and I don't quite know how, even though I've stared at the map for ages, I managed to cross the spine of the ridge from Broad Crag to Great End and descend into the valley between Round How and Lamb Foot Dub and to within shouting distance of the corridor route path!! As I'd descended I'd noticed Sty Head tarn and thought I should not be able to see it from south of Great End. Perhaps Sprinkling tarn, but that is easily identified by the little peninsula that juts out into the water. No, Sty Head tarn had moved. I checked the map several times and was convinced I couldn't go astray from the path. Well, obviously I could. Not that it mattered really, but its annoying. I found a decent spot to pitch the tent, not quite flat, but I was worried of water collecting if it rained, so I was prepared to accept a bit of a slope, and despite a very strong wind, got the tent up and secured. I'd feared frozen ground, and made a set of rock loops from 6ft lengths of guy line looped at each end and with a sprung hook at one end, so I could make a lanyard around nice big rocks, and secure to my normal guy lines with the sprung hook. That way, the tent could be secured without needing to deal with the frozen ground. As it turned out, the ground was fine and ordinary titanium v-pegs did the trick. My tent is a Terra Nova Laser Competition 2 with which the supplied pegs are thin titanium wire. They would not have been sufficient in the wind, I'm certain, so I'm glad I brought the v-pegs along. Once inside I unrolled my closed cell foam mat, and inflated my (supposed self-inflating) mat to go on top. The inflating mat goes inside a pocket at the back of my sleeping bag, the aforementioned generously proportioned lady, Big Agnes. The backless design (backless in terms of goose down filling that is) depends on the sleep mat for comfort and insulation, so the two mats together should have been enough. I got into the bag with my walking trousers on, Paramo Cascada which were dry, walking socks and t-shirt. And I was freezing my rocks off. I was worried. This sleeping bag is supposed to be good for at least -7C so why was I cold at above freezing? I pulled the cord tight at the top and wrapped the collar of the bag around my neck and lay there shivering. After ten minutes I decided to retrieve my fleece and put that on too. Zipped up! Eventually, the fleece seemed to work and I was getting warmer, and things began to feel a bit cosier. It was early, perhaps only 6pm, but I had little choice but to settle down for the night. I had my mp3 player, but no book, and I wish I'd thought to bring one now.

Now, the Laser Comp tent used to be the lightest 2 skin tent in the world, but no more. There are tents whose gross weight is around 500g – Gram for gram these tents are dearer than cocaine. However despite not being the lightest in the world any more, I can tell you, in wind, it is still the flappiest. All bloody night that thing flapped and slapped and flapped again, and I feared it would rip out its moorings before morning, so I was sleeping fitfully at best. After an hour’s discomfort trying to resist the slope and ignore the flapping, I decided I was too warm. The socks came off, followed by the fleece and eventually, the walking trousers, so I was in T-Shirt and boxers for the serious part of the night. At one point I had to get out for a pee and the ground was now seriously frosted (that must have been about midnight), but inside the tent I was cosy. I can now say that, subject to getting it warmed up, the Big Agnes Lost Ranger sleeping bag is a good 'un. In fact, I'm wondering now if I wouldn't have been warmer quicker if I'd shed all those clothes and got the warmth into the bag sooner. I'm not sure how that works.

Sometime mid evening I made a cup of tea - very carefully, for fear of gassing myself, burning the tent down etc. I had a hot meal I could have cooked but I didn't want to cause too much condensation and no way was I opening the tent up. Actually, I did, briefly after making the cuppa, just to let any fumes out. I had some sarnies, so I ate one of those and an out of date cereal bar, which all in all seemed enough. I had an amusing hour or so on FaceBook talking to another walker about flappy tents and corpulent men with large breasts (you had to be there), and finally gave into sleep about midnight with alarm set for 6.30. As I said the slope was a mare and I kept having to jiggle back up the tent and unfurl my folded and aching legs. Oh, for the luxury of being able to lay out straight on the level (another lesson to remember)....and it was now snowing. Great.

About 3.30 I woke and checked the snow - there was about 3 inches, and it was only the good luck of high winds that stopped my tent from being weighed down with it. I poked my head out for a look at the guy lines and all seemed fine and tight, so was as it should be. Flap flap flappity flap. I must have slept OK for the next three hrs as the alarm woke me, and at my own pace, I gradually sorted out all my stuff, filling up the rucksack, getting dressed, clearing away the sleeping bag which had served me so well, sleep mats etc etc. When all was put away and I was ready to go, I sank back and found any number of reasons not to move, until all of 8.30. What I was fearing most was striking camp in the wet, because I had learned the 3 inches of snow was now half an inch of slush and a lot of rain. All booted and wet-suited I got out, pulled up pegs and stuffed the tent in its bag, finally donning my pack and starting down towards Esk Hause. Or so I thought.

Map, compass, map, compass, map, compass. This isn't bloody Calf Cove. This is Lamb Foot Dub! And that's the corridor route path. When you can see a landmark or two its easy innit? But what the hell, so I started down and the rain came down, and I encountered a section of the corridor route that I don't remember ascending, where suddenly there is no path because it seems to have collapsed leaving a sheer vertical wall and about eight feet to get across somehow. I MUST have crossed this coming up, unless the path splits here and I didn't notice. But I know it didn't happen overnight because at this point there are signs of a via/detour developing almost directly up the crag through a little scree gully for about 25m and over a grassy headland to rejoin the path perhaps 200m further along. From there its a steady tread back to Sty Head tarn, resolutely static as it turned out, and still due North. And the rain came down. I did meet one person at Sty Head tarn who smiled and said hello. I thought she must be mad - I had no choice being out in this weather, whereas she was doing it willingly. Then I met two more nutters with a dog. I'd swear that poor dog was shaking his head and muttering as he passed. And the rain came down. The last soul I saw on the path was a bloke of whippet like build who caught up to me, and told me he'd been up to Green Gable and was on his way back. I told him I'd camped out and his face filled with wonder and a trace of fear in case I was a desperate escaped lunatic from an institution. He moved on and I plodded down, waving to a couple on the TaylorGill Force path shortly after, and the rain came down. Eventually, very eventually, I arrived at my car in Seathwaite Lane. Despite my waterproofs I was soaked to the soggy drawers and had to change every stitch I was wearing - thankfully unobserved. It had taken me three hours to get down, and my legs were paying, but, an hour later I was in the Farmers Arms in Portinscale, ordering a roast beef dinner and a pint. The best meal I've had in ages, and an opportunity to finally toast the old man with more than just water.

If he was alive today, I know what I'd say. "Dad, I'm beginning to think Paramo is not all its cracked up to be!"


  1. Very moving. And proof, if proof were needed, of the benefits of walking, both physical, mental and emotional.