“I’d like you to take me from where you think you are, to this point here.”
The assessor moved his finger across the map and stopped on a tiny turquoise oval that marked a small puddle of a tarn just south south east of Cold Pike. By my reckoning it was about 200m away from where we were standing but, with cloud down and visibility at 10 metres at best, it could have been a million miles in terms of being able to actually see it.
I set my compass, lined it up with a tuft of grass in the gloom and paced out towards it. Repeating the process every 20 metres or so, I walked straight into the puddle and really didn’t care about wet boots. The assessor gave me the thumbs up and a smile and left me to resume breathing while he picked on another of my walking companions for their next navigation challenge.
The four of us were on our Mountain Leader Summer Award final expedition assessment in 1989 and the Lake District fells were on true August form – cold, immersed in cloud, extremely windy and rather wet. So wet in fact, that we went on to walk on and around Crinkle Crags for 13 very intense hours that day in conditions that left everything soaked irrespective of it being under full waterproofs or inside a waterproof linered rucksack. I think the decision to cancel the planned subsequent overnight bivi in Mickleden at midnight was made simply due to the assessor’s tobacco rollups being too damp to light.
Thirty years later I finally returned to the Crinkles in the hope of seeing them properly under blue skies and sunshine and to experience a ridge route that Wainwright refers to as being “ a fell walkers delight, A constantly changing scene, beautiful and dramatic views, fine situations and an interesting course throughout make this a walk to remember”
The forecast was good; a misty start with low cloud due to be blown away mid-morning by a strong north easterly to leave sunny spells. Graham and I set off from the Old Dungeon Ghyll just as the summits around Langdale unveiled themselves.
It was a glorious moment.
The stiff breeze proved to be a helpful hand at our backs as we clambered steadily along Oxendale and Browny Gill. This is Borrowdale Volcanic country and the views slant to the imposing side of awesome rather than being described as beautiful. Pike of Blisco, Cold Pike and Great Knott command the entry to the Red Tarn col and, surrounded by the lifted graphite cloud, their towering and rather ominous presence demands respect from any who walks in their shadows. It most probably explained Graham’s question when we then met a group of walkers carrying brushes and shovels, the shape of which looked morbidly familiar.
“Have you been digging graves?” he queried innocently.
“No,” came the reply, “drains.”
Our explainer was a National Park Ranger who had led his party along the route onto the Crinkles in order to ensure all the path drainage was in working order.
“If we don’t,” he said “then the drains block and rain washes the path downhill. Walkers then avoid the washed-out route and walk alongside it so the track becomes too wide. The erosion becomes unmanageable and we have to rebuild the path. At £150 a metre to build a path it’s much cheaper to maintain existing routes.
“So, a case of ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ then?” I suggested
“Exactly,” he confirmed.
He went on to explain that Lake District paths are graded by colour to show how much maintenance is required. Red routes, like the one we were on, that are in continued use throughout the year, are checked over every two months. Then there are orange ones, checked every three months, green paths, checked every four and blue routes checked twice a year.
“What’s you favourite blue route,” I asked.
“The one that ends at the Mortal Man,” he said, smiling at his colleague who nodded in agreement.
“Yes,” he added, “that’s a popular one to work on.”
Graham and I were reminded that we had a post walk appointment at the Walker’s Bar in the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel so, conscious of time and a need for lunch on the summit, we made our farewells and headed west.
I was very hungry by the time we sat down in the lee of the first Crinkle and my home made slung together chicken and mango chutney sandwich had never tasted so good. Walkers Ready Salted crisps turned into something more reminiscent of Harvey Nichols’ champagne savouries and even my flask of peppermint tea had an air of Harrods about it. Impending delirium happily prevented, we then noticed the surreptitious change in the weather as cloud crept in around us. Sun dappled views of the distant Irish Sea disappeared under a grey cloak, the wind replaced by a still silence as the heavens dropped their thick mist over our heads.
I time travelled back to the 1989 conditions as we ignored Wainwright’s advice and continued onto the ridge where “in bad weather, the top is confusing, with ins and outs as well as ups and downs and a sketchy path that cannot be relied on”.
This is navigation at its best and worst, that challenges any walker’s equipment, skill and attitude, and asks “are you up for this?”
We were, even though it was the last thing I wanted.
We trailed for a mile over slimy rock between summits that reared alarmingly huge above our heads in the fog and then mysteriously disappeared as soon as we stepped foot on them. In the deceptive gloom, these were just small rocky outcrops masquerading as their big brother mountains. We weren’t fazed.
The “most difficult obstacle to be met on any of the regular walkers’ paths”, the Bad Step, was greasy, cold and distinctly unpleasant to a woman who loves to scramble. But we climbed it anyway. We ignored Long Top’s notoriety for sending folk off the wrong side of the Crinkles and nonchalantly slipped and slid our way over and down through very little visibility to the Three Tarns.
“We’ll leave Bowfell for another day then?” Graham suggested as we glanced at 3pm watches on wet wrists.
He didn’t need a reply, just a confirmation of the path back to the car. We decided upon Hell Gill and followed Buscoe Sike as it dropped into a rift suitable for Smeagol to live in. Iron black sides carved a sudden gash under The Band where unrelenting cliffs dropped vertically into the hill and paved a way for a silken Sike to flow softly out into junctions with Crinkle and Browny Gills to form Oxendale Beck. The gentle rush of water ran with pace, yet velvet smooth, over unrelenting rock. An absorbing voice, it drew us along the widening and flattening path onto the valley floor as the last of the sun’s rays lit the underside of those clouds still cladding the summits.
It hadn’t been the day I’d envisaged.
It had instead reminded me of one of my greatest achievements as a walking whippersnapper and all that I have been blessed by as a result.
Crinkles, I salute you. I shall be back.