Wednesday, 4 November 2009

How to Drown in the Open Air.

We really should have seen it coming. I mean going for a hike in the wettest area of the UK that isn't actually underwater at the end of October, you are going to get slightly damp at the least.

As we drove along the tiny B5289 towards Borrowdale valley we could see black lowering clouds ahead of us looking as though they had full bladders.

The road ended at Seathwaite which was nothing but a farm with a sorry looking campsite attached. The site was empty apart from one lonely tent, huddled against a dry stone wall to protect it from the wind in the exposed valley between the the hills.

We parked up and put on our kit. Although it wasn't raining the air felt wet and the tops of the mountains were hidden in the thick grey clouds that filled the sky. We put on full water proof gear, rain was going to come and it was simply a matter of time.

We set off south from Seathwaite long the bottom of the valley and alongside Grains Gill, a fast running stream to our right until we came to Stockley bridge. This was a stone, humpbacked bridge that crossed the gill. We crossed this then the path veered west and began to climb the lower slopes of Great Gable.

The plan was to climb Great Gable, a mountain 2951 feet tall at its summit then descend onto Windy Gap, as arrette that ran between Great Gable and its neigbour Green Gable. this was a smaller peak standing at 2629 feet. We would summit this then head north along Gillercomb Head before descending alongside a stream that poured down the side of the mountain called Sourmilk Gill.

We climbed the lower slopes, the path running along the edge of a steep defile with a fast running stream coming down from the hills. Pine trees studded the slopes of the Gill, its steep sides protecting them from the wind that frequently blew down the valley. Here and small streams crossed the path but these could easily be cleared with a jump.

The path climbed for around 1000 feet until it levelled out and the land opened up in front of us.

Now we were walking along the bottom of a wide valley, the hills sweeping up and away either side of us. We walked south west straight along the valley floor until we came to a Montain Rescue kitbox at Styhead Pass. From here the path veered to the north west and ascended the higher slopes of Great Gable to our right.

We heard the sound of footsteps behind us and turned to see two men in there early twenties wearing shorts and tracksuit tops and running along the path. We let them pass and nodded greetings, then watched them go bounding up the side of the mountain.

As we started up the mountainside it finally began to rain. The path was easily to follow but steep and we climbed hard. The runners were now out of sight, swallowed by the low lying cloud.

After a period of relentless climbing with our heads down and breathing hard the wind picked up and blew the rain horizontally across the slopes. Fortunately we were protected by a rocky ridge that ran up the slope to our left, this sheltered us from much of the wind but occasionally a gust would catch us.

It was as though a giant hand grabbed you and tried to pull you off the slope. All you could do was brace your legs and grip the soaking wet rock with soaked and slippery gloves.
After a time the two runners came bounding down the mountainside like a couple of exuberant goats.

"Be careful", they said as the bounced past, "it's pretty bad on the summit".

Can't be that bad if you went up in shorts we thought.

Eventally we came to the end of the protecting ridge and the summit of Great Gable was visible ahead of us, it could only have been 200 yards away.

However the route to it was a totally exposed boulderfield wth no cover and sheets of icy rain blasting across it, driven by gale force wind. We looked back the way we had come. The slopes on the opposite side of the valley were obscured by the never ending torrent of rain blown along by the roaring wind. By now my waterproof gear had failed and I was soaked in sweat and rainwater. My socks squelched in my boots, rain ran off the brim of my hood in a stream.

We had to decide if it was safe to go on, considering the route would take us across Windy Gap. The name says it all, arrettes are dangerous in good weather but in this there was a very good chance of dying. With one last look at the summit that was so close but so dangerous we turned back and began the difficult steep descent along the path we had just climbed.

It is easy to see why people get in trouble on the mountains. Some people go to the Lake District woefully unprepared and start walking along clearly defined paths that climb gentle slopes until suddenly the weather changes and they realise they are not walking in a carefully managed and controlled park but are out in the wild and at the mercy of the elements.

Others go prepared but run into bad weather and carry on anyway, pride pushing them into potential danger.

It was tempting to push onwards but as we descended we came to the small streams that crossed the path. We had been able to cross these with a single jump, now they were raging torrents that had to be waded through. As we finally approached the lower valley we came out of the low lying cloud and the slopes of Skiddaw mountain could be seen. These were only 10 miles away but were bathed in sunshine. In Borrowdale valley the rain kept falling.

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