Some of you may know that I tipped off a mountain a few years ago. My life was saved by Keswick Mountain Rescue Team and, after multiple surgical-adventures, I was finally fit enough to do something for them, and looking around for a challenge. I settled on piling these two routes into half a day, together with Susan, Dahlia, Debs, Ewan, Jonathan and Mike.
Grisedale Pike (791m) is the thug of the Coledale horseshoe (and the day), glowering at
the start of the route, followed by the odd hook of Hopegill Head (770m). There’s long plunge down into Coledale Hause and then back up and round to 839m of either Eel Crag or Crag Hill (depending on whether you take Wainwright’s or Ordnance Survey’s word for it). There’s a prickly little ridge connecting you to Sail (773m) before you drop through Sail Pass and finally pick off the green cone of Outerside (596m).
Robinson (737m) is the first fell in the Newlands horseshoe, a long ridge with a wide, hummock of a summit, much like its neighbour, Hindscarth (727m). Dale Head (753m) is the biggest of this bunch, squatting over, as its name suggests, the head of the Dale. High Spy (653m) sees the route levelling out a little as you hoof onwards to Maiden Moor (576m). Final top of the day is the lowest; Cat Bells (451m).
It’s 05:15 when we set off from Braithwaite campsite toward the carpark just in the mouth of Coledale, on the Whinlatter pass road. We (I) have a minor navigational
blooper, but let’s pretend we (I) didn’t. So, at 05:30, we take the path out of the north side of the carpark. It pushes quickly uphill through birchwood and then roughly west southwest across open hillside. This is brutal stuff, steep then level then steep then level then steep then level. The weather is awful – cold rain in a stiff wind that saps the will. It reminds me of an old Tim O’Brien line “[…] we used to say, the wind doesn’t blow, it sucks. Maybe that’s what happened — the wind sucked it all away. My life, my virtue.” Just to be clear, nobody’s virtue is affected today, but the wind draws the life from us early on. We hit the summit just after 07:15 and plough on towards Hopegill Head.
There’s a long lope down and round and back up to the next top. We drop out of the wind for a brief spell and there is some pack foofling in that respite. Below, the myrtle heath of Hobcarton Crag – part of Buttermere Fells Site of Special Scientific Interest – glimmers green even in the dull, morning light. We pause very briefly on the summit of Hopegill Head, taking in such view as the weather allows, and then off we trot over the sub summit of Sand Hill, and down into Coledale Hause.
From the Hause, we ascend gently southwards, Grasmoor looming somewhere in the murk to our right. Where the track drops down from Grassmoor summit, we turn to the east, following a pretty much unmissable path up to the trig point of Eel Crag/Crag Hill. There’s a lovely little grade 1 winter climb that tops out here, but I cannot see it. Or indeed anything more than about 10m away. Still, I’m doing this for Keswick MRT and not for the views. Which is just as well.
As a special treat in low visibility and gusting winds, the next descent is on a narrowish ridge made slippy with rain. My friends have all spent a lot less time tottering across this kind of folderol than I, and as they take appropriate care for the conditions, bunch up and slow down. If there’s a benefit to the low visibility, it’s that they can’t see the drop. To be honest, the drop really isn’t as bad as all that but as I’ve already discovered, you don’t need to drop very far at all to smash your leg up for 4 years.
Anyway, we crawl down a wet, slippy ridge and then back up another and suddenly the land gets wide again and we’re on top of Sail. Possibly. For all we can see, we could be on Grassmoor or the Cheviot or Hoth. Continuing eastwards, the well-maintained track hairpins down toward Sail pass where we turn roughly north. We curl around under the outlying ridge of Causey Pike, finally dropping below the cloud base.
Everyone is a bit tired now; the weather has taken its toll on morale. Jonathan and I almost jog up the steep, bracken-clad slope of Outerside as the others descend to the road. Jonathan sets a challenging pace and I have a stitch by the time we reach the summit. There’s time only for a a quick photograph and discussion about the route down before we barrel down the northeast side and then curl around across heather and bilberry and bracken to rejoin the track and the group. Just before I leave the bracken, I see something flicker at my feet and a male common frog bounds off through the flora. We make good time down the wide track to the road in the valley floor.
Here, those of the party who are tired and cold and injured take the wise decision to drop out and head back up the road to Braithwaite. Ewan, Jonathan and I take a jinking route over sheep pasture, to the house of my friend, Jenny, near Swinside. We cached supplies there last night, and the kettle is on, and Jenny has baked. Jenny’s husband actually managed the KMRT operation that saved my life. Thanks, Rob.
We eat cake, drink hot beverages, change socks, and generally just be indoors for a bit. The joy of new socks cannot be understated. My boots have wetted out after about 6 hours in continuous rain and it is absolutely lovely to have dry feet. We bid farewell to the dry and the warmth and head towards the Newlands horseshoe. We have averaged about 1 mile an hour across the morning and we really need to pick it up a bit.
We turn downhill from Swinside on the road and then turn left for Little Town. I’m not normally one for road walking, but I have dry socks, and I don’t have to look at every single foot placement, and it is delightful. After Little Town chapel, we turn up towards Scope Beck, following it due southwest under the terrifyingly steep flank of High Snab. I have a cunning plan to avoid that dreadful ascent by climbing up past the dam and following a long diagonal path up to the summit.
We (I) have another minor navigational blooper and we (I) miss the path in a boulder field and so we (actually we) have to turn sharply uphill and traipse up over some surprisingly steep bog. How can bog form on that gradient? The wind is still sharp and cold and the rain is doing that feels-like-it’s-about-to-stop-but-then-suddenly-gets-really-heavy thing. And, you know, I know I can finish this but it will just be stubborn misery and I’ve dragged my friends into it and
now I (I) have made another beginner’s error with the navigation and made it all take longer. Then we crest the ridge of Robinson and look back. Through a gap in the cloud, ridge upon ridge fades back from clarity into the gloom and it is brooding and magnificent and somehow the rain is forgotten.
Re-energised by the view, we summit Robinson and begin the descent to Littledale Edge. Suddenly, around 14:30, the cloud base lifts right up from the tops. We can see Hindscarth and Dale Head, below us, Honister Pass, and opposite, Fleetwith Pike and Haystacks. Gills run down the face of Haystacks, ribbons of milk against the dark of the crags.
The path curves northeast, drawing us up to Hindscarth, where we take advantage of a drystone summit shelter. Looking across Little Dale, we can (for a change) see the last summit we were on. East southeast, Dale Head beckons us. The wind is still a bit pokey, but without the rain ahead of it, it is drying us out. A pair of ravens tumble and frolic in the sky below us. Splendid.
It’s an easy, gradual pull up to the Dale Head plateau, and someone has really made an effort with the cairn here. Skiddaw and Blencathra can be clearly seen; the Helvellyn massif is still firmly capped in wet, grey clag. Away off there to the east, in the sunshine, stands Glaramara. four years ago, I fell off the far side of that. It’s strange to see it from this angle, and in such glorious conditions. No time to linger.
The path down the eastern flank of Dale head is a steep, little affair – stone steps set into the side of the hill. It must have been a nightmare to build. We creep down, tiredness slowing us, Encumbering us with bleary caution. When my right leg was shortened, the tendons contracted with it. Although they’ve mostly returned to their original length, the outer two toes are still hooked over. They’re sort of almost hammer-toes and this kind of descent is their bête noire. Ow.
At a little tarn, we do some gill hopping as we turn due north for the pull towards High Spy. Fresh, this would be summat and nowt, but we are not fresh. Oh, no. After what seems like a geological era, we reach the cairn and…um…spy. Highly.
Maiden Moor is further way than I remember it. Everything is further away than I remember it. It’s easy going, mind, there’s just loads of it. To the north, Cat Bells taunts us with its distance. Undeterred (well, perhaps a little deterred), we plough onwards and downwards, past Black Crag and into Hause Gate.
We pause in the pass so that I can attend to my left boot – there’s been something pressing into the sole of my foot since Hindscarth. I strip off the boot and a sock to find a tiny nubbin of fluff between my sock and my liner sock. I remove it, redress my foot and continue. The strange pressure in my sole has been there for so long that I can still feel it. For. The. Love. Of. GOD…
We haul our sorry arses back up out of Hause Gate to the lowest summit of the day – Cat Bells. It’s weird to consider Cat Bells summit a triumph, but there it is. We’ve done it. We actually set off on the right path at 05:30 and we hit the final summit at 17:30, so we kind of made it in 12 hours. I’d like to have been back down in the valley inside 12 hours, but that hasn’t happened – safety before speed. We can see Grisedale Pike from our *coughs* lofty vantage point. Gosh, it’s a long way off. We allow ourselves a little moment of elation before we make our way down the prow of Cat Bells to take the fell runners’ descent off the west flank. We hit the road down to Skelgill 45 minutes after we left the summit.
It was an extraordinary day, and I’m really very pleased that I could complete the walk. I
expected my right leg to play up; it was actually fine. My feet were pretty sore and my thighs are still tender 3 days later – but my body did not give up. I (we) hoofed 35km distance and 2.4km ascent. I’ve done the Yorkshire three peaks three times now (41km distance and 1.5km ascent) and there’s no comparison – these two horseshoes linked are far more challenging. Thank you so much to Susan, Dahlia, Debs, Ewan, Jonathan and Mike for supporting me. At the time of writing, we (we) have raised £1,690 for Keswick Mountain Rescue Team, so thank you also to all who sponsored me. My fundraiser page is still open for another month, so if you want to help us get past £1,700, that would be lovely. Thank you also also, of course to KMRT for scraping my bloody ruin off the mountain and getting me to hospital.
In my pack (a Macpac Amp 25): Buffalo belay jacket, OL Sheet 4, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Highgear AltiTech 2 altimeter, iPhone, Veho Pebble phone-charger, coffee, 1.5 litres of water, Terra Nova 2 person emergency shelter, first aid kit, a lot of food. I wore Paramo Velez Adventure Light smock, Paramo Velez Adventure trousers, Isobaa Merino 200 zip neck hoodie, Isobaa Merino neck warmer, Millet Super Trident GTX boots, Outdoor Designs LiteFlex gloves.