“You’ve chosen the worst way to come up,”
A colourfully clad descender greeted us on Birkett Edge. I was nonplussed.
“Why’s that then?” I replied, a little too quickly.
“Well, it’s a bit of a slog isn’t it?” he looked at the five of us, who were currently enjoying the view and having a breather.
I was part of a group of ladies of a certain age who had decided it was time to revisit a few mountains after some time away, as confidence in hill climbing was becoming patchy. The last thing we needed was to be told we had chosen the wrong route and I certainly didn’t want to see any carefully nurtured enthusiasm evaporate.
We had used the Cumbria Way track from Peter House Farm to find our walking legs in the autumn sunshine and watched clouds unveil azure skies as we passed a rushing and tumbling Dash Falls. After a short coffee break at the path junction, we adjusted to a steeper route. Grumbling lungs complained about increased use and we appeased their bellowed demands with regular stops.
A necklace of pauses along the edge became viewing pearls. With the sun to the south, the Caldbeck Fells, Blencathra, Lonscale Fell and Skiddaw Forest were on highlighted display.
Gentle shadows decorated the canvas; folds and curves brought into soft relief under a velvet tapestry of greens still undecided about an autumn wardrobe. If hill walking success is determined by speed of travel then we were headed for last place. But, if it is measured by engagement with the surroundings, we were in gold medal position.
One of our party, profoundly deaf since birth, had explained how she “hears” by watching and her observational skills were acute as a result, spotting the flash of a dragonfly amongst patchwork heather and moss. With the sounds of the day unavailable, our multiple stops brought her into a full enriching inclusion with the group.
Our challenger and his walking companion had claimed Skiddaw via the tourist route and were on their way back via Bakestall and the Cumbria Way to his car near Latrigg. He wore a black patterned bandana against the cold north-westerly wind that temporarily moulded the short hair above and below it into hedgehog spikes around his head.
“I think the idea was to avoid the long grind up the tourist trail into a stiff headwind and leave that for the descent so we could enjoy some easy walking with views,” I countered, a little cross with the directness that had sliced into our reverie.
He seemed to back off slightly as the ladies began to move on.
“So, what’s the best way up then?” I threw back at him as I too started to head off.
“Ullock Pike, by far and away,” he declared.
“Well, why didn’t you come that way today then?” I queried, stopping above him on the hillside.
Bandana man’s companion interjected at this point.
“Ah well, that’s because of me,” he explained. “I’m new to all this hill walking and I wanted a straightforward path”
“Oh, I see,” I responded. “Well, that’s exactly the reason why we’re taking this route up; it is designed to be a confidence builder with the wind behind, no exposed edges and a variety of fantastic views along our whole route to Latrigg.”
Bandana man scratched the hedgehog mop.
“Yes, of course, and you also avoid that loose scrabble up from Carlside Tarn,” he pondered.
I nodded. We had at last found common ground and our conversation changed to one of sharing.
“Fantastic in thick snow though,” I said grinning, “You just walk up, no problem.”
“Oooh yes,” the hedgehog bristles waved stiffly in the wind as Bandana man nodded vigorously, “the winter is the time to do it, that bit anyway.”
We continued to chat of hill exploits until I realised that the group had disappeared over the rise. I wished the gentlemen a good day and headed uphill reflecting on my previous experiences of the section he had referred to.
That particular path rises steeply across Skiddaw’s upper flanks from Carlside Tarn and is notoriously unstable. A successful traverse needs the deft light footedness of a mountain goat. Dancing between loose scree and its solid rock stepping stones also requires a certain amount of nerve as the hillside drops away steeply into the upper reaches of Southerndale.
This was brought home a few years ago when a friend and I did indeed go up “the best way” via Ullock Pike; a day where the sun blazed and sweet bilberries picked along The Edge outshone our shop bought confectionery. We left the tarn and headed upwards; summit and lunch in mind. For some bizarre reason that day, my companion’s nerve got the better of her and, after slipping and sliding her way up half of the 500-metre nightmare, she resorted to a demoralising hands and knees crawl. This wasn’t the hill walking woman I knew and seeing her, struggling with such a mean-spirited path, upset me immeasurably. I reached out my hand and encouraged her to stand. Finding her feet and courage, hand in mine, we marched that final section together, bound by simple determination. It felt like our walking relationship shifted imperceptibly that day; a new layer of trust and understanding woven into a treasured friendship.
When I revisited the same path with another friend a few months later in winter conditions I found a very different story. Memory of the struggle still fresh in my mind, my perception was transformed as I retook the traverse. In deep snow where boots gently sink and snuggle onto a firm base, the path becomes a white surefooted staircase. We carved snow seats at the point of the previous problem and sat with lunch, front row seats, watching the clouds casually wash the summits before being swept away by a belligerent breeze. That day we were enthroned on heaven’s footstool as the ermine clad Skiddaw summit bathed in pristine blue skies and I saw the mountain anew.
Lost in thought, this time I reached the summit by a different way. Approaching from Bakestall, the gentle gradient over casual rock slopes brought our group comfortably up to the various stone sculptures on the top.
Each had someone draped over and around them, selfies and cameras busy, summiteers gathering evidence and memories of their achievements. We joined the throng and did just the same. Smiles and arms waved in great abandon as the wind whipped hair into the party and hurried us into some shelter for refuelling chocolate.
From there, with the wind at our backs, sun on our faces and views before us, it was all downhill. A sociable tramp into a living breathing landscape of light glinting lakes amidst ancient hills that too will have generated their own stories.
On all three ascents I have returned with a different perception of something; either in me, my friends or the world in which the mountain sits. Irrespective of disability, fitness or attitude, I wonder if Skiddaw manages to undo and remake everyone who explores its character?