Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Walking Blog - Psycho Sheep, Amateur Scrambling and Scafell Pike

Rising from a light sleep at 4.30am is never welcome. Especially after hours drifting in and out of the same panicked dream. Yet my mood seemed optimistic, excited and eager. Today I would climb Scafell Pike, the highest peak in England.

Earmarked for months, this walk formed part one of a double header for the year. Part two comes in August as I attempt Ben Nevis via the North face. My year is packed with many similar hikes around the Moors and Lake District but the two summits of Britain are my highlight.

Most walks boast a sharp transition from urban to rural, concrete is left behind for bridleways and public footpaths, but our route was far more subtle. Old stone settlements outlined a dusty path in Seathwaite, which slowly opened out to share jagged mountain points and soft flowing streams. Dry stone walls took over where old outbuildings and a farmyard left off, in no time our hike had begun and the trail to Scafell Pike lay underfoot.

The early morning sun peaked  its warm, welcome rays over lower level mountain peaks, just enough warmth to warrant lotion and a baseball cap. We'd hit the jackpot in an ever changing game of Lake District weather Roulette. It wasn't long before I found some rhythm and lost my mind to random thoughts and wanderings.

I have a theory on sheep you know, their mental stability can be calculated purely by altitude. The lower level breed of my home town scarper at the whiff of human presence. A little higher up, in the Moors, they seem almost cocky and nonchalant. However, in the Lakes, around the highest peaks in England they stand proud with a sturdy almost intense stare. Exhibit 'A' pictured right not only stood his ground as I approached but even staggered a few feet forward. With the sun rising like many a Western movie I almost expected him to baa 'draaaw'.

Showdown over (the sheep won) my pace quickened through the valley best described as a miniature Norwegian Fjord with its great rolling hills climbing either side directing many a walker through the pass to classic climbs like Great Gable and Seathwaite Fell. With a base formed by large boulders, rocks and stone it accepts a steady trickle of clear, inviting water from mountain tops cascading down to form Gills, Tarns and eventually rivers.

My path toward Scafell Pike followed the River Derwent which accepted its birth from Styhead Gill among others, many great explorers talk about the value of understanding water, how it flows and how to follow it for the purpose of navigation, I abused the descending trickle to gauge direction until the infamous Stretcher Box. The route had proven kind so far, my feet happy accepting dust instead of stone and grass rather than rock. All that would change after Styhead Tarn, a collection of still water which reflected the shapely mountain landscape like natures morning mirror.

As the Corridor Route began so did our real ascent, a number of steep climbs and jagged dips forced my hands on rock and stone. Limbs awake and burning fuel, I could feel my lungs expand and my eyes gawp at the incredible view opening up ahead. Until now we could see little more than smaller peaks covering our line of sight but Scafell Pike, Scafell and Broad Cragg came into view, menacing and whispering a challenge to climb. The view back was just as spectacular, if not more so, winding its way between peaks and troughs the path twisted around landscape of great proportions. Staggering clusters of rolling mountains joined a pastel painting as far as the eye could see, one mountains end saw the next begin forming an almost hypnotic line of seamless, rolling arcs. Dark shades of grey shadowed each summit as fluffy white clouds left their mark and with the day turning overcast ahead, bright grass and vibrant stone turned dull like someone pulling a blanket over natures place of peace.

Balanced precariously on a rocks edge our eyes met, yes, another sheep. I remember thinking what are you doing here? Similar to my foe from Seathwaite the animal stood unwavering, staring straight at me. The tight track passed a few feet from its ledge and I felt a wave of uncertainty pass over. Its focus adjusted to follow my every step, now just a few feet away I reached for my camera and began filming, after ten seconds it slowly looked left almost as though to say "its that way." To the right you have exhibit 'B', and conclusive evidence of the insanity of sheep in a high altitude environment.

Brushing off another loss, I approached the foot of loose rocks and soft scree marking a start to our scramble for Scafell Pike summit. Looming high above the task seemed within reach but after a few small steps I knew some of my party would struggle. In the end I persisted with Bob and Neil while the others rerouted for a tamer climb and the Corridor Route. The final scramble can be best described as hell, loose scree moved with every step, boulders fell away from seemingly solid holds and every stride was like trawling through treacle. Legs burning, lungs busting this was the toughest workout I'd experienced in years and ended more like a crawl. Bob, a fell runner and Neil, preparing for Mont Blanc, were fitter and stronger than me so skipped on ahead. To my relief no one was around to witness numerous slips, trips and head buts with the ever increasing gradient. In wet weather this would be plain dangerous and I remember thinking about stories Bob relaid of Fell runners bouncing down scree in miserable, pounding rain which to my mind is crazy and an accident waiting to happen.

Numerous stops and expletives later the scramble gave way, leveling out to a steady climb across large, uncomfortable rocks. Visible in the distance was a man made stone structure, about five foot tall, this had to be the summit cairn. With renewed vigor I skipped from stone to rock picking up pace, anxious to reach my goal. Minutes later I stood at the foot of some steps leading to the cairns peak, climbing each tread with purpose I savored the moment and finally lifted my arms aloft on the top of England.

For my route directions, photography, video and route GPX download click here.
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