I spent an unseasonably cold August Bank holiday wandering the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. I’ve been there before, twice. But in winter and from the Northern side where all the skiing is. I’d never really ventured far beyond a few km from the ski station car park. As this part of Scotland is 6 hours away from home by car I need to have a long weekend at least to make a visit feasible. On Thursday morning I loaded the car and set off up the M6 and over the border. By 5pm I was getting out of the car in the Linn of Dee car park and swatting away the infamous midges.
I quickly applied some insect repellent, steeling myself for the airborne plague I would undoubtedly suffer for the next few days. Its rare I get from parking the car to getting on the trail as quickly as I did that day but I didn’t fancy getting eaten before leaving the car park.
My route began with a few hundred metres down a forestry track to the edge of the woodland. Out here on the open moor there were no flies, I suspect the breeze had grounded them all. Stopping to put on my gaiters I surveyed my intended route. Uphill, through calf-deep heather towards a little hill called Carn an ‘Ic Duibhe. Halfway up the hill was a long and apparently recently erected double fence. The fence had little signs along it at intervals. The signs said ‘Caution! Electric Fence’. Hazard number one. There was a sufficient gap at the bottom of the fence to squeeze through without my pack on. I through my walking poles over lay down on my back and shuffled through taking great care to avoid the wires. Reaching back through I pulled on my backpack. Once on the other side I was free to continue my journey.
Puffing and panting up the heathery hillside I was feeling decidedly unfit. I hadn’t been backpacking for a few months and had put on about half a stone whilst on holiday. Coupled with the heaviest pack I’d had all year and the toughest terrain I wondered about the wisdom of my plans. After a couple of hours walking I reached my intended stop for the night, a sheltered area just below the summit of Sgor Mor (813m). I’d seen an area on the map just lower than the summit and on the Southern side. I’d hoped it would be protected from the Northerly wind which was blowing in. It is amazing just how much difference a couple of metres makes. Down at my tent it was calm and not too cold. Outside the shelter of the hillock it was breezy and cold.
I prepared my kit for the night and sorted out what I’d have for dinner. It made sense to have the heaviest food first so it was stuffed ricotta and spinach tortellini with meatballs in a tomato sauce. Pudding was a Mars bar.
I popped my head out of the tent to look around and saw a group of deer about 20m from me. As soon as they realised I was there they bounded away over the hill and were never seen again.
I’d brought the harmonica I’d been given for my birthday so I could continue my practicing while I was away. Checking there was no one about to be upset the noise of my terrible playing I played through a few short tunes that I’d learned from my ‘harmonica for beginners book’.
Bed time comes early on backpacking trips so I was into my sleeping bag not long after 9pm.
During the night it rained and so in the morning I had to put away the tent wet. This isn’t so bad if you’re going home but not great if you need to use it again. I checked the map and set off over the brow of the hill Northwards. Today’s target was Ben Macdui, the highest mountain in the Cairngorms and the second highest in the UK.
The reason I chose to head over the tops towards Ben Macdui was that in the weeks prior to my visit a ‘once in 200 hundred years’ flood had knocked out at least one of the footbridges over the river flowing from Glen Derry. Large parts of the footpath had also been damaged.
The route from my campsite to Ben Macdui took me down into Glen Lui towards a bridge over the river. The latest information I’d found on the net was that this bridge was still extant. I could see the water level was still high in the burn but the bridge was still there. I stopped to fill my water bottle from a stream, no large flocks of sheep or people here. The river flowing quickly and clearly over a stony base. -It ticked all the boxes to be drunk without treatment of any sort. As I proceded up Glen Lui I needed to re-cross the river to get on to the hill Sron Riach. My recently purchased map (OL403, 2011 edition) showed a footbridge at NO012951 but I could not find it anywhere. There was no sign of a bridge washed away or damaged by floods either. (Later I noticed on the older version of the map (2004 edition) the bridge is not marked at this point. I wondered if it was an Ordnance Survey ‘fingerprint’ to identify copying).
Fording the stream with the help of my walking poles I was on my way again, climbing into the mist. There was no footpath from Sron Riach to Ben Macdui either on the ground or the map so I followed the edge over a tricky boulder field to the stream running SW from the mountain. Following this stream to its source I got onto a clear track to the summit.
The summit of Ben Macdui has many stone wind shelters, (perhaps a clue to the prevailing weather up there) a trig point and a view point stone. I could see very little from the summit, certainly none of the peaks listed on the view point stone. After a short while I retraced my steps towards the ruin and the path. I’d taken a bearing from the ruin to the summit on the way up in case I couldn’t see it on the way back. I’m glad I did because with all the wind shelters the summit looks similar in all directions when its misty.
Descending towards Loch Etchachan I met a walker coming the other way. We stopped and chatted for a while. He was in shirt sleeves and feeling warm, he expressed surprise and my fastened up coat, hat and gloves. He said he was staying at the bothy below the loch. I had intended to camp near the loch but as I was cold and the weather was not expected to improve I decided to give the bothy a try.
The Hutchinson Memorial Hut (Coire Etchachan Bothy) is a simple stone hut recently refurbished by the Mountain Bothy Association. It has a small entry porch with space to hang a few coats, leave boots and some backpacks and a larger room with a bench along one side and a stove. Bothies are free for anyone to use and are very popular. This was my first night in a UK bothy but I have stayed in similar huts in the Picos, Pyrenees and Sierra de Gredos in Spain.
At the same time as I arrived at the Bothy a young French couple arrived from the opposite direction. Already inside was a German chap whom I’d expected as the man I’d met on the mountain mentioned he was there. We got chatting and worked out how many people were likely to stay in the small hut and thinking at least some of us will need to camp. I didn’t mind the thought of camping but I was looking forward to be able to sit and cook indoors.
Eventually there were 7 people and 2 dogs at the bothy, this would have made it more than cosy. The man who’d brought the dogs and the German pitched their tents outside leaving 5 of us to sleep in the hut. We all cooked and ate inside and spent the evening chatting about mountains, veganism, Scottish independence and a variety of other topics. The conversation was helped along by a hip flask of Jura I’d brought along, just for this sort of occasion. Bed time came early and with three of us on the floor and two on the bench we said good night.
The next morning dawned cloudy and cold but not raining and after breakfast I headed back up to Loch Etchachan. Three of the others took the opposite direction, back towards Braemar.
I climbed up to the Loch feeling heavy and unfit, but happy after my enjoyable evening in the bothy. I crossed the stream as it left the loch and headed Northwest towards Loch A’an.
The wind picked up and the rain started and got heavy. I stopped to don waterproof gear and carried on into the wind, descending to the Western edge of Loch A’an. I’d been told that I might see reindeer near to the loch so I kept my eyes open to see them. I saw no reindeer but I did see a couple of tents pitched on the loch shore near to a sandy beach. A beautiful spot, I made a note of it for future use.
My path on the other side of the loch was a steep track up the side of a cascading stream. I stopped to remove the waterproofs before beginning the climb and set off. I made surprisingly good progress up the 250m or so climb to the flat ground at the top. Looking back over the loch to where I’d come from I remembered why I was there. I love being in wild places, hardly a sign of the modern world. For a while even the weather seemed kind. It didn’t last.
Waterproofs back on I continued along the path towards the summit of Cairngorm itself. The heaviness returned. I felt slow and unfit once more. Eventually I reached the summit which was marked by a large cairn and a radio transmitter. I took shelter on the southern side of the cairn and made myself some lunch. I had to remove my gloves to prepare my food and by the time I had got them back on they were numb and losing mobility.
I wasn’t having the most fun being SO COLD IN AUGUST and thought about my options. I knew the weather wasn’t going to be brilliant but this felt like Winter and I wasn’t quite equipped for that. I had cold weather gear but I was missing my thick down jacket and winter gloves.
I looked up the weather facts when I got home. When I was sat on Cairngorm it was 1.5°C. The wind was blowing at 25mph and above. This calculates to a wind chill factor of below -5°C!!
It seemed like I had three choices;
-Descend towards the ski stations and work my way around to the car at lower level. -Maybe through Glen Feshie. No. That’s too far and I don’t have all the route on my map.
-Stick to the plan and head West across the northern edge of the plateau, descending in to the Lairig Ghru. -This was a high level walk using the edge of the plateau as a ‘handrail’ until I could descend. I was confident in my ability to manage the walk but it didn’t seem like a ‘fun’ trip in the weather.
-Retrace my steps and get back to the bothy where I know I’d be warm again and could dry off -This looked like the most sensible option. I’d be walking with the wind behind me and descending out of it.
Right then. Back to the bothy it was. I packed up, wrapped up and set off. After less than 1km I’d reached the fork in the path; left to the bothy, straight on across the plateau.
At that moment the wind dropped, the rain stopped and the mist lifted. I could see the Northern coires ahead of me and took it as a sign to carry on and not retrace my steps. I pressed on, stopping a while later to remove my waterproof gear once again.
The walking felt easy, over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, Cairn Lochan each footstep felt good. The views superb. I heard a helicopter below me and looked over the edge of the cliffs to see the search and rescue chopper hovering close to the rock walls before turning and flying away.
The mist returned and a little drizzle but thankfully the wind stayed away. As I approached Lurcher’s crag I looked down into the coire I saw a small herd of reindeer. Too far away to photograph but definitely reindeer.
I turned north and climbed over Lurcher’s crag looking for a path down off the plateau into the Lairig Ghru. The map showed it as indistinct and I saw no trace on the ground. I checked my distances from summits and points on the map, I was definitely in the right place. Scanning the hillside below I saw a path a little way below me but nothing close by. I made up my own route to join up with the path and made it with no trouble.
The descent was long and tedious. The path was rocky in places, boulder in others, long and occasionally steep. I was very pleased to get down to the river. I refilled my water bottle and set off South into the Lairig Ghru. Seven km to the South of me was another bothy, the Corrour bothy. I had no intention of trying to make it there as my feet were tiring and a bothy in the middle of the Lairig Ghru would be absolutely heaving on a bank holiday Saturday evening.
My map showed some potential camping spots a couple of km away, flat spots on the map -but would they be bogs? I needed a place which was flattish, levelish and with a little breeze to keep the midges down. The first potential spots turned out to be bogs but a spot a little further along, too small to see on the map turned out to fit the bill. It wasn’t the most level site (I spent the night sliding down the tent) but it was midge-free and close to water.
The rain began again and the wind picked up. I spent the evening in a very damp tent. Dinner was Super Noodles (I’ve remembered why I gave up on them as camping food now) and a dehydrated stew which was better than the noodles. A spot of harmonica practice and then bed time again.
The next morning dawned cold and wet and I decided against getting a brew on in favour of a sharp exit. By seven o clock I was on my way to the car. I wanted to get back for about 1pm so I could arrive home before it was too late.
The first two kilometres took me 1 hour as my legs refused to move quickly over the boulders. After the terrain improved my speed picked up and soon I was striding along past Corrour bothy and greeting my first passer-by of the day.
I had chosen to follow the River Dee from its source to the car. This was because It looked good on the map and didn’t require me to cross any missing bridges.
The final section of my journey began at the Chests of Dee where the track turned into hard-packed land rover trail back to the car. The final five kilometres flew past but my feet felt worn by the end of them.
The journey complete I dived into the car before the midges realised I was there.
I’d spent three days wandering the cairngorms in the height of summer and had barely seen the legendary pests. It had been close to freezing though and occasionally below.
I got the harmonica at the end of July and immediately went on holiday for almost three weeks. Since I’ve been back home I’ve practiced for a couple of hours or more almost every day.
I’d thought the harmonica looked easy to play but it turns out that perception is VERY wrong. Its like every other musical instrument, (except the triangle) it requires work. There are many YouTube tuition videos to this effect.
I reckon I’ve put in between 10 and 15 hours playing time now and I can…
- Hit single notes some of the time (but not all the time or all the notes)
- Play some simple tunes from my book (sometimes less than terribly).
Lets see how we get on over the next few weeks.
From Wild Boar Fell to Baugh Fell
We awoke quite early, the rising sun shining on the back of the tent warming us up nicely. With a mix of dozing and chatting we passed the time until about 8am when Edward finally persuaded me to get a brew on. Breakfast was a sort of Alpen Porage -I always pre-mix the Alpen with sugar and dried milk so it gets stirred into hot water as a quick, warming fix.
After breakfast, while I was doing the necessary camp chores Ed went off to play on the ‘beach’ next to the tent. Amazing how such a simple thing brings so much pleasure to a small boy.
A while later we were packed up and ready to leave. Retracing our steps to the summit plateau we headed across to the fence line which we followed West then South before descending to Uldale Gill. The going was quite easy, not too boggy but still no paths. Definitely an area to test navigational skills in poor weather. We kept to the right hand bank (Northern) of the gill and contoured across the hillside before tracking around Grain Gill. We followed another fence line down Needlehouse Gill to the farmhouse access road where we stopped for a lunch break.
After a 25 minute rest and a fill of tuna wraps, lumps of cheese and chorizo we were on our way again. We descended to the very young River Rawthey and followed it upstream to Slate gill where we searched for a way up onto Baugh Fell. Near the gill were old quarry workings which made access to the fell quite tricky, unless you fancied climbing crumbly rock faces. I didn’t think Ed’s mum would approve of such a route so we sought out an easier grassy slope. From the top of Slate Gill we set off on a bearing of (more or less) South which would take us to West Baugh Fell Tarn -our expected home for the night. The walking was heavy going. Tussocky grass and patches of bog all on a reasonably steep hillside. After an hour (which felt like forever) Edward was getting tired and beginning to complain loudly. To distract him from his tired legs I’d ask him a question about Minecraft, a computer game he’s obsessed about. “Can you… …make cakes in Minecraft?” “Oh yes Dad, you can…” and so on for a while before remembering he was tired. “Are there… elephants in Minecraft?” Another period of forgetting the ache.
Eventually, after a couple of false horizons, heads of two other people appeared over the hillside. The first people we’d seen since mid-afternoon the day before. They were a couple with a dog out for an afternoon’s wander on the moor. They hadn’t expected to see anyone else either. We chatted a while about the emptiness of the fells and they expressed surprise that Ed was only six and carrying his own pack. We set up our tent on the shore of the lake while the couple enjoyed the view before setting off, leaving us the fell to ourselves. This time we’d set up the tent with the lake behind us. This was to allow views of the Howgills and of the sunrise and also to keep the porch sheltered from the breeze.
We spent the afternoon lazing in and around the tent, just chatting and playing top trumps (Transformers). An evening meal of roasted vegetable couscous with chorizo and dried apricots, instant soup and Jamaican ginger cake replenished our energy levels.
From certain angles the tarn looked almost like an infinity pool. The area surrounding it was barely above the water and dropped away steeply. Looking out of the tent made it look like we were on top of the world.
Bed time came quite early as I wanted to get a decent early start the next day. We had a train to catch and more importantly, I wanted to get to the pub in time for lunch before the train.
The Sunday morning sunrise shone brightly through the open door of the tent waking me at about 5am. I took a photo, rolled over and tried to get back to sleep. Half sleeping, half shuffling around in my bed I finally gave up at 6.30 and made coffee. After the usual breakfast we packed and were on our way by 8am.
The clear skies had given away to patches of mist and a cloud inversion between us and the Howgills. By the time we set off it was compass work to get us to the trig point at Knoutberry Haw, a handy marker point on the fence line we would follow for the next few hours.
The terrain here was some of the most challenging yet and progress was slow. There were loads of large patches of bog, some of which were alarmingly deep -my walking poles went in an awfully long way! After about three miles of hard work and descent from the fell (and distracting Minecraft conversations) we came to the road. I’d promised Edward that at this point I’d lighten his backpack and he could eat the last remaining cereal bar. Promises kept, we set off towards the pub.
After 2 days of isolation we were all of a sudden back into the busy world. Packs of motorbikes whizzed past. Lycra-clad cyclists slightly-less-than-whizzed past -some looked downright knackered. I checked my watch, we had plenty of time for the extra mile to the Moorcock Inn. Edward was keen to get to the pub as he insisted he would have an adult portion. My wallet longed for the days where he’d be satisfied with a child’s portion. We arrived at the pub at 11:40 -twenty minutes before opening time. We took off our packs and sat at an outdoor table enjoying the sun and the views and wondering what we’d be eating.
The pub opened at 12pm on the dot and we were first inside. Half a coke, a pint of the local ale and a menu were ordered. We pored greedily over the delicious sounding choices, settling eventually for a pork and apple burger (Ed) and Lamb Koftas with feta cheese salad (me). We sank into some chairs by the window and relaxed, Edward happy to be finished walking.
The food arrived and was consumed rapidly. I enjoyed mine but was quite jealous of the plump burger with large slab of local cheese which topped it.
Another round of drinks, the bill paid and we shouldered our packs for the final time.
We took the Pennine Bridleway back to the train station as it was slightly shorter and not along the road. I was surprised to find it as it was not marked on my recently purchased OS map of the area. We got to Garsdale station with about 20 minutes to spare, just a little while longer to enjoy the views.
This was my first visit to this area but it has whetted my appetite for more. I’ve not felt isolation like it anywhere in England. No people, no paths. Definitely my cup of tea.
If Wordsworth wanted to ‘wander lonely as a cloud’ he’d be hard-pressed to manage it in the Lake District these days. A much better option would be to head to the far Eastern edge of Cumbria, in a place which is partly in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
The valley of Mallerstang is North East of Sedbergh, East of the Howgill fells and South of Kirkby Stephen. It is bordered by rugged fells and contains at least two ruined castles. There are suprisingly few visitors, despite it being clearly marked on Ordnance Survey maps and not requiring teleportation to reach it. It has a train line and everything.
Edward and I took took the train from Shipley at around 11am on Friday morning. By 12.30 we were in Kirkby Stephen at the Northern end of Mallerstang. We shouldered our packs, checked the maps and set off. Within 5 minutes Edward had stumbled, unused to carrying a pack. I removed some of the gear from his pack into mine and we were off again. We headed East towards the River Eden which flows through the valley, aiming to follow it towards Pendragon Castle.
The going was very easy, footpaths marked on the map were either farm tracks or trails of discoloured grass across fields.
After a short while we came across the ruins of a castle that I’d not noticed on the map, Lammerside Castle. We had a poke about inside it -as had several sheep from the look of it. A few photos later we continued south towards Pendragon Castle which was doing a good job of not being seen. We arrived at the castle to see several signs declaring it closed for repairs and there was no access to it. Oh well, best get onto the fells then.
We retraced our steps a little way and began to climb up the valley side towards Wild Boar Fell. A farmer fixing his dry stone wall would be the last person we’d see until late the next afternoon.
The views around the valley were very good, nothing to dramatic or awe-inspiring, just good hill and moorland country, unspoiled by heavily worn paths or herds of walkers. The ground showed very little sign of walkers ever being there in the first place. As we ascended towards Little Fell (559m) and High Dolphinsty Edward began to tire. He’d not uttered a word of complaint so far despite walking for several hours and carrying a load of about 3kg. “Almost there” I said. Countless times. “Just a bit farther…”. The ground began to steepen as we climbed towards a rocky promontory called The Nab. It was a sharp rocky edge with steep cliffs below it -quite a different character to the rolling grassland we’d travelled across so far.
Our destination was a wild camp at Sand Tarn a little way to the West and below the summit of the Nab. We turned towards the trig point of Wild Boar Fell, every step Edward was getting more tired and a little grumpy. Immediately after passing the trig point the ground falls away and the tarn is clear to see. This had an amazing effect on Edward who was all of a sudden recharged and ready to go. We got down to the lake in no time and he’d already chosen a spot for our tent. Throughout the day we’d discussed what makes a good place for your tent (not a swamp, flat, not in the strong wind, good views). The tent was pitched a couple of metres from the lake shore close to the sandy beach at the end. As soon as the tent was up Ed was off circumnavigating the lake, all tiredness forgotten.
In a couple of hours we’ll be on a train to Kirkby Stephen to begin our exploration of Mallerstang and Wild Boar Fell.
The bags are packed and ready. Edward’s is 5kg, mine is about 17kg! -but I hope to eat a good chunk of that.
MWIS and the Met Office suggest we’ll do fine with the weather this weekend. I hope to be on the train home before we see rain.
Full report with photos after we’ve returned…
As with, I guess, most of us who’ve been backpacking for several years the kit I use has changed a lot since I started. Some of my kit is pretty new but a number of pieces have been with me almost all the way. I thought I’d write a piece about why, year after year, they keep getting put into my backpack.
My first backpacking tent lasted exactly one trip, broke, got returned to the manufacturer who failed to repair it so I got my money back.
After careful research in Trail magazine and TGO and feeling the merchandise in stores I decided to splash £300 on a Terra Nova Solar 2. I can’t honestly remember why I chose the Solar 2 over the Voyager but I imagine cost, weight and porch size were the key factors.
A close second was the Vaude Hogan but I found it too short (I’m 6’2″).
The Solar 2 has been with me on two of my three Picos de Europa trips, The Pyrenees and the Sierra de Gredos as well as many UK trips of up to a week. I’ve been out in hot Spanish summer conditions where I didn’t need the fly and in winter where I’ve needed to clear away the snow. In all these trips I’ve only had one problem with the tent withstanding the weather.
On the first Picos trip we were camped at Naranjo de Bulnes and a storm blew in, washing away the limited soil. The pegs came out and the porch began flapping about. We decided to pull down the tent and head to the refuge for the night.
Things I like about the tent: its 2.5kg full weight. There are lighter tents but the space in the solar two, especially the porch, mean it’s really comfortable to stay in. Pitching is a cinch. My regular camping friend and I have it down so well we can do it after many beers and in the dark! We can easily fit two 70L packs in the porch and still have enough room to cook or get in/out.
My second backpacking tent was a Hilleberg Akto. When I began to backpack solo more frequently I wanted a smaller, lighter tent. Initially I borrowed the Akto from Hilleberg to review for a website I co-ran many years ago. After a while testing the Akto Hilleberg asked for it back but I loved the tent so much I bought it from them (better than paying postage back to Sweden!). My feedback to Hilleberg was very positive, with a few areas for improvement: the zip on the door was straight, a curve at the top or a hood would improve ventilation without letting in the weather. Although I can sit up in the Akto, a few more centimetres wouldn’t go amiss.
When they updated the tent I was pleased to see they’d added a canopy to the fly sheet door. They’d also made it a little lighter!
Things I like about the tent: It’s so easy to pitch. Even in poor weather it takes no time at all. The pack size and weight are really good. I generally stuff the poles separately to the fabric parts and it squishes up easily. Living space is perfectly adequate for me and my kit. Nice big porch and plenty of sleeping room.
Since my first trip to the Picos (2001) I’ve favoured a multi fuel stove. The one I use is an MSR Dragonfly. I chose this one because I sometimes like to do more than boil water so a controllable flame was very useful. Over the years I’ve used unleaded petrol, white gas, kerosene, ‘essence C’ -which turned out to be a dry cleaning fluid and most recently turpentine. It burns them all very well and without much tinkering needed.
I’ve only had a problem with lighting the stove once. In the Pyrenees on a hot day we tried to light it to cook some couscous for lunch. Because it was so warm the fuel evaporated before we could light it to prime the stove. I’ve maintained it at home before long trips and made running repairs whilst away. The one problem I couldn’t fix was when a weld broke in Scotland. The stove was returned to MSR who repaired it free of charge under guarantee -I was very impressed as the stove was over ten years old at the time.
Things I like about the stove: Can run it on more or less any fuel I can find, field maintainable, variable flame -from candle to welding torch!
For years I’ve carried a Victorinox climber knife. Its got all the essential items, even the strange awl tool. It’s not the lightest knife or the most well equipped but for me it’s the best mix of useful tools.
I have two packs in regular use, both Lowe Alpine. An Alpamayo 70+20L for big trips and an Alpine Attack 50L for the not so big trips. I always rated Lowe packs because they are superbly comfortable and the build quality excellent. The bigger pack is now about 14 years old and showing very little wear beyond a bit of scuffing. It’s not a lightweight pack by any definition -about 3kg empty. I’ve never needed more room than it offered and it’s a very comfortable carry, even with 25+ kg inside it. The Alpine bag is about ten years old and gets used as my day pack as well as for lighter backpacking trips. It’s big enough for a week long trip in summer conditions. One thing about it that I have never liked is the attachment of the floating lid. It always seems to slip down and not stay in one place (the floating lid on the Alpamayo stays put).
Things I like about the packs: Their volume is what it’s meant to be. They’re both plenty big enough. Very comfortable adjustable back systems on both bags. Really hard wearing fabric.
Another weekend adventure. Its a hard life pursuing logbook days for ML (summer). I had decided that it was summer and packed accordingly. My backpack weight had gone down several kilos to about 11kg, fully laden. I’d changed to a lighter sleeping bag, left out the waterproof trousers and gone as ultralight as possible on the cook kit. The weather forecast was for sunny days, with a gentle breeze -strengthening on the Sunday.
It had been a long week at work, an Ofsted inspection on the Wednesday and Thursday putting everything into overdrive. I was feeling very tired by Friday afternoon but had thankfully perked up when it came to depart. By 8.30 pm I was locking the car at the Walna Scar car park above Coniston. Shouldering my pack I set off along the old access track towards Blind Tarn, my home for the night. A few other people seemed not to have noticed the ‘no unauthorised vehicles beyond this point’ sign and had set up camp, caravans and all, a few hundred metres down the track. There was ample evidence of previous campers -fire rings could be spotted on the flat green borders to the road.
Before long I reached a large flat area which was bounded at the west by the hill up to Blind Tarn and to the north by Goats water and Dow Crag. After a brief search I found a sufficiently dry, flat patch for my tent. Within a couple of minutes the tent was pitched and I was moving in. The evening was still bright enough to see without a torch, despite it being heading for 9.30. Once I’d moved in I got out my tiny stove and heated some water for a hot chocolate. I had pitched the tent so that the porch opened away from the prevailing wind to shelter my stove. This also afforded me an excellent view of Blind Tarn Screes, my first stopping point for the next morning.
Naturally, the wind had completely reversed direction in the time between putting the first pegs in and unpacking my rucksack. I knew the wind wouldn’t get too strong and I couldn’t really be bothered to re-pitch the tent so I just left it. As the evening was so pleasant I took the opportunity to fiddle about with my camera, try to take some photographs using long exposures and remembering to use the mini-tripod I always carry and rarely use.
By half past ten I was tucked into my sleeping bag with the door of the tent closed against the breeze. By midnight I was awake again, feeling cold. I put on some clothes and fell back to sleep. By two thirty I was awake again. I really needed a thicker sleeping bag. I struggled with being chilly and dozed until about 5.30 when I decided that coffee and beginning the day was the best option. The moon shone brightly above the crags, no sign of the sun at this point.
By half past six everything was packed away and I set off, first to the stream to collect some water then on to find Blind Tarn -a small tarn not visible from below, with no outflowing streams. A short climb later and the tarn was in sight, as was a fellow wild camper -a small tent perched near the shore of the lake. I took a few photos before scrambling up the screes onto the ridge. I’ve long wanted to be the first person to the summit of a mountain one day. Today wasn’t it. Ahead of me three walkers, catching up with me a fell runner. The weather forecast was proving to be spot-on. Not a breath of wind, clear skies and not too chilly. I followed the ridge northwards over Dow Crag, occasionally peering off the edge down gullies and over cliffs. After Dow Crag there is a short descent to Goats Hause before climbing again to Coniston Old Man (Or the Old Man of Coniston, if you prefer). By 8.30 I was on the summit of the Old Man, not another soul there with me. On this exposed summit the wind had picked up so I sheltered behind the summit cairn and looked down into the copper mines valley below.
The path down to the copper mines was a manufactured zig zag. Good in terms of preventing erosion but not the most inspiring. About half way down there is the rusting evidence of the industrial past; a toppled pylon, corroded cables and pipes sticking up from the ground like petrified metal worms. A man with a confused face and apparently no map asked me which way the summit was. I showed him and said it would be about another hour to the top. There were more people wandering the various tracks and trails near to the Youth Hostel.
I didn’t have an exact target for the day, just a vague plan of where I wanted to go -towards crinkle crags. To this end I followed the paths which would take me to Levers water reservoir. I sat at the shore of the lake and enjoyed a snack, the view and refilled my water bottle. As I set off again I met a man hoping to fish in the lake. Due to the breeze he needed to go to the far side or else all he’d catch would be the grass behind him. Instead of the obvious path towards Black Sails and Wetherlam I made my own way up over a rocky rib parallel to the main path. It was quite hard work in some places but not technically challenging. I reached the top and turned north east towards the summit of Wetherlam. There were about a dozen people coming down from the summit and when I got there about another forty or so passing by or stopped for lunch.
After a brief, 25 minute, lunch stop I was off again. Heading north east along Wetherlam edge towards Birk Fell. I followed this ridge to the end before descending into the Greenburn Beck valley. My legs were getting a little tired now as they’d gone up and down over several mountains and into two valleys. Checking the map I considered my options. North west was towards Pike of Blisco and Crinkle Crags. West was back along another ridge which would eventually curve back towards Wetherlam. I decided to continue on towards the North. A short while later I was climbing again up onto the ridge which lead eventually to the unfairly named Hell Gill. Before reaching this scary sounding hill I turned and descended again to the Wrynose pass, crossing the road and climbing once more. By 4pm I was walking next to Red Tarn, under Pike of Blisco, looking for a place to set up camp.
By this point my knees had made it clear that they would not support any notion of carrying on to Crinkle Crags. The wind had picked up now and it was blowing directly along the valley which meant I needed to find a sheltered spot. If the ground was flat, it was probably exposed. If it wasn’t exposed it was a marsh. After about an hour of testing potential spots I found a place just big enough for the tent and not a marsh and not in the full force of the wind.
I set up my tent, moved in and made a coffee. I watched the final people descend from the valley and I was alone again. As I had such an early start I spent the evening dozing in my tent before cooking dinner -dehydrated chicken tikka and more coffee. The backpacking meal was tasty enough, hot and filling. For dessert an Alpen bar and a Mars bar. I spent most of my time inside the tent where it was sun-warmed and out of the wind.
Prepared for another cold night I slept fully clothed. It helped but wasn’t the most comfortable night I’ve spent in a tent. By five the next morning I was wide-awake. By five thirty I’d had my coffee and was onto the porridge -strictly speaking, hot Alpen. By six I’d packed and was off to find water. Below me I found two ladies out bivying. You’re never quite as alone as you think in the wilds!
Today I was taking a more direct route back to the car. Much less ascent, descent and fewer kilometres. Back to the Wrynose pass and on up to Hell Gill. The wind was strong on the ridge and cold. I was glad to have my windshirt which I fastened up tight. I was concerned I might lose my hat and so tightened up the chin strap as far as I could while maintaining the ability to breathe. Following the ridge south of Hell Gill I came across a memorial to the crew of a crashed WWII plane. A Halifax bomber. I didn’t linger long it was feeling really cold and I wanted to descend to the sheltered side of the hill where I could warm up again.
South of the memorial the path began to descend on the leeward side of the hill and almost instantly it became much warmer. I realised I’d not seen a single person since the two ladies near my camp site.
Carrying on towards Brim Fell and Goat’s Water I could see groups of other walkers heading for the Old Man. I descended to Goat’s Water where two men were preparing to climb something on Dow Crag. There is a mountain rescue box at the base of the crag containing emergency equipment and a stretcher. There are several of these across the Lake District. This was the second I’ve seen.
The path from Goat’s Water soon joined the Walna Scar path that I’d walked in on the Friday night. Before long I was back at the car, glad to get my boots off and ready for home.
A short walk from the Barroude hut and we crossed the border into Spain once more. The weather was warm and clear and the paths easy to follow. We continued along the HRP down the mountainside over 1000 vertical metres to a tiny village called Parzan. The best thing in Parzan was the cafe at the petrol station. We filled ourselves with chorizo baguettes and beer.
A hostal rural in the village cost €35 for the night for a room for the three of us. We booked in and immediately took turns in the shower, washing ourselves and our socks.
The next day we continued along the HRP towards the Lago de Urdizeto which turned out to be a busy, disappointing reservoir. The road to the lake was dusty, winding and steep. We didn’t stay long at the reservoir, we ate lunch and continued downhill to the refugio de Biados.
The last few kilometres of the walk were hard. We’d run out of water and the day was hot. The final climb to the refuge was exhausting. We arrived at the hut, collapsed to the ground then drank litres of water before finding the (very grumpy) warden and booking in for the night.
We got our first experience of a Pyrenean thunder storm that night. Flashes of lightning illuminating the dorm and thunder booming through the hills. Looking out of the window we saw bolts of lightning striking the Posets massif.
Our next destination was the Estos hut, only another 10km or so further on. The walk started in good weather but a storm broke as we approached a high pass. Quickly donning our waterproofs we moved as fast as we could over the ridge, through the closing thunder. Descending into the next valley the weather improved and the waterproofs put away.
Daz walked on ahead of us and was soon out of sight. Helen and I arrived at the hut after a few hours expecting to see him propping up the bar but there was no sign. We asked the staff ‘have you seen a bald Englishman?’ but they hadn’t. We bought cokes and sat on the verandah to enjoy the view. Way down below us a familiar figure appeared. It looked up towards us and we waved. Daz had missed the path and descended too low! We didn’t laugh too much when he arrived.
Another night in another hut and we were ready for our final day in the mountains. We took the GR11 path down the mountains to Benasque, described in the guidebook as ‘the fleshpots’. We didn’t see much evidence of that but there were several nice bars, a good campsite and a bus station.
After a night on a commercial campsite we packed for the final time and went to the bus station and bought a ticket for Zaragoza, the nearest town of any size.
After a rest day in Gavarnie where we enjoyed restaurant food, ice cream and beer we packed once again and joined the HRP towards Barroude. The path climbed steeply up towards the Refuge des Espuguettes then dropping down along the Western wall of the Cirque d’Estaube. Plodding bored down some switchbacks on the road we were surprised when a British registered Nissan SUV stopped and asked if we’d like a lift.
We certainly did.
We were driven down to the valley and deposited at the campsite near Chapelle de Heas. We thanked our countryman and booked into the campsite.
The mist rolled in and we headed for an early bed.
The next morning we left Heas and climbed up towards the Aguila hut. The visibility was still poor and we decided to make a short day of it to see if the weather would improve. We settled down in the hut and played cards for the remainder of the day before spending the night there.
After Aguila we set off for the Hourquette de Heas to take the path to Barroude and the hut there.
The path was unclear. Part misty, part snow covered and all over a jumble of rocks. We weren’t confident we’d be able to stay on the right path so we decided on an alternative. Descending to the bottom of the valley we could follow an easier path and reclimb up towards Barroude.
A few hours later we were back on the snow, following boot prints to the hut. Walking the last few Km through the mist we felt as though we were on a wide open plateau -we could see nothing.
We booked into the hut and sat down for a coffee. The mist outside briefly lifted and the Barroude wall appeared. This is a long high wall forming a barrier beyond the lac de Barroude.
We were some of the first guests of the refuge this season, the hut had only reopened the day before. We paid for dinner and waited excitedly for it to arrive. To date, the food we’d had in refuges had been excellent; tasty, plentiful and restoring. We were keen to see what we’d receive in Barroude.
Steaming bowls of a rich tomato soup and plates of bread arrived and were scoffed quickly. The warden brought us a large kilner jar of homemade pate. Delicious.
Time passed and our hunger grew. What would be the main course? A stew? What delight awaited us?
Time continued to pass and we muttered amongst ourselves “I think this pate is IT!”. “Thats no good, I want something more”. “Well, if thats all there is, I’m going for it!”
I tucked in to more of the pate. Then more. Then dinner arrived! A stew of beef and vegetables. I felt bad that I’d eaten so much of their pate. Leaving too little pate for them and too little room for my dinner.
One of the places in the Pyrenees I was most keen to see was the Breche de Roland. A gap in the wall between France and Spain. Legend has it that when Roland was fleeing the Moors he smashed his sword against the rock in an attempt to smash it. Instead, the rock broke and he and his soldiers escaped into France.
Geology tells a less exciting tale. The rock broke because it was weak.
I’d seen many pictures of the Breche in guidebooks and on websites and I was excited to see it. We left the Goriz refuge at the head of the Ordesa canyon and set off for the border. As we climbed the snow cover got deeper. It was firm and not icy so it was good to walk on without crampons. The sun shone down on us keeping us pleasantly warm in our shorts and T shirts as we walked over miles of snow.
The final approaches to the Breche were steep and a fall and a slip would have been a very long slide. We kept to the foot-worn path and made it safely to the border. There is a chain bolted to the rock wall to help the ascent but this was buried deep under the snow.
The French side of the Breche is the Glacier du Taillon which slopes down towards the Cirque du Gavarnie. We slid down the glacier on our backsides, the cold ice strangely refreshing against our shorts-clad selves. We stopped at the Soldats hut for a drink and a sandwich before carrying on down to Gavarnie where we stayed for 2 nights at the same campsite as before.