Saturday, 10 May 2014

3 Lessons From Scafell Pike Wild Camping

For last week's adventure, I chose the stunning Eskdale and the craggy Scafell and Scafell Pike. The idea was to make the most of the Bank Holiday with a 2 day Wild camp in practice for my ML. In practice I got soaked through to the skin, almost blown away (well, maybe) and fantasised about eating doner kebabs... but learned plenty!

Looking back down Lower Eskdale


I arrived at the bottom of the Hard Knott Pass at 5pm, an hour later than hoped, partly due to an unfortunate car who managed to slash both left tyres in a passing bay in the Wrynose Pass. Oh dear. I parked in the old bus turning bay just before the cattle grid (restriction signs have now been removed, yay!). Ready to go, I set off up the path on the east side of the  lower Eskdale. The sky was overcast, but not foreboding. The weather was comfortable and humid, but not oppressively so. All seemed well, suggesting that the weatherman had been wrong in forecasting light rain for almost 24 hours. We'll see!

Lower Eskdale offers a beautiful stroll along a reasonably broad glacial valley with the impressive Esk waters winding along its base, hissing and roaring their presence over every boulder, fall and meander. I'd walked this path to Lingcove Bridge before, about 18 months ago over the New Year. Then we'd turned east up the falls of Lingcove Beck and returned south via the summit of Hard Knott and sliding down to the Roman Fort. This time I continued over the bridge to the west, following the Esk itself up into a magnificent plateau backed by Scafell Pike and the imposing Cam Spout Crag. I crossed the river easily here once or twice without getting wet feet (this wasn't going to be an option tomorrow - read on, avids). Wild campers had already staked claims in the plain: a khaki teepee style tent and, a bit further on, a man with his dog in a small 2-man. We chatted only briefly because I still needed to reach the top of Allen Crags and Lincomb Tarns to camp. The man advised I went up the right edge of the valley (right of Tongue), which I kinda knew, but was nice of him to say.

Esk (front), Cam Spout Crag (centre) and Scafell Pike (right)

I carried on to the end of the plain & collected water just after Little Narrowcove. 
As I ascended the gorge toward the pass, the wind increased and the valley began to disappear in light cloud. Half way up, the rain began.

I arrived at the top in the cloud and rain, weary from the fast pace that I had set. I descended the right path past the shelter and ascended Allen crags. Some largely unnecessary dead reckoning found me south of the tarns but keen to settle for the night. I picked a relatively dry spot amongst the peaty bits and pitched the tent. I cooked up in the tent to keep out of the rain (a positive learning experience!) whilst wrapped in my sleeping bag to preserve warmth. I had a feeling that this was going to be a challenging night...

What a night! The winds picked up and it felt like my Wild Country Zephyros 2 was going to blow away! Several times I checked the tent pegs to see if they were still there. Luckily I was able to do this from inside the tent. One thing I did find odd was the light: it wasn't pitch dark here. Having checked the moon phases, there was only a waxing crescent that night, and there was so much cloud about that I was surprised that I could see inside the tent fine without using my head torch. It was nothing like being inside a cave or a mine. How strange!


Despite my concerns of a flyaway tent, I slept solidly between 1200 and 03h00 and 03h30 and 06h30. Only then did one peg actually pull out, letting in the rain and showing that my overly soft, peaty camp spot probably wasn't ideal. Next time I'll find a dryer, bigger space. Lesson 1 learnt: arrive at camp site early to allow lots of time to find a pitch in daylight. The rain getting in the tent was a bit of a showstopper: things started to get damp, like my down sleeping bag, dry bags, and everything else. The only solution seemed to be grab a quick breakfast of granola with cold Options chocolate milk powder, then pack up a soaked tent and get moving.

Lincomb Tarns in a fleeting cloudless moment.

The morning continued to be grim: a strange mixture of rain showers, heavy clouds, and brief spells of clear sky when I felt like I was being blown around in the clouds! I chose to bag Glaramara and did so by 07h40, being given very brief but impressive glimpses down into Grains Gill and to Seathwaite Fell in between mostly thick cloud. I then headed back to the shelter south of Allen Crags. I sat here for a while, ate some more, noticing the huge amount of rubbish that littering scumbags leave behind. I filled a spare bag with tea bags, apple cores, orange peel and two empty tuna tins that had been hidden under a rock!

My next destination was the Corridor Route. I headed down past Sprinkling Tarn, passing a handful more wild campers and gathering extra water. I took an executive decision to cut over the top of Sty Head and get some steep ground practice in. At this point the cloud was clear, so I could see easily where to go. I picked up the path and continued onwards and upwards. I chose the Corridor Route for today on a recommendation (not a personal one!) by Joss Naylor MBE in Terry Abraham's "Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike": it is a very worthy route, with a mix of easy scrambling, and some beautiful and exposed paths: today it passed by and forded over the now very full and impressive falls down Skew and Greta Gills. Nobody here but me and the Herdwicks though!

Greta Gill(?) fights the clouds off briefly

I continued until I joined the scree slope heading east toward the bwlch between Broad Crag and Scafell Pike and followed it to the top. At this point I was really flagging. Time, I thought for a brew! I sheltered just down from the path, and boiled up half a litre of water. Once boiled, I decanted enough water to fill my flask and kept some in the kettle pot to cook some noodles. Oh, what blessed reward! Those noodles and a few cups of hot green tea revived my flagging spirits. Lesson 2 learned: If the weather is getting you down, get a brew on!

I was ready for the summit. I measured on the map, and paced until I found the summit 'cairn', a large round stack of boulders, which I then clambered up. Wow what a view! I was assured by a couple of local runners (who had summited moments before me) that I could see the whole of the Lake District from here on a good day. But not today: visibility remained limited to only the first path cairn down to the north. Poo!

At this point, I tried to navigate my way off the summit of Scafell Pike on my own. This is very hard to do for several reasons: the vast number of path cairns are difficult to ignore; the over-busy Ordnance Survey map of the area is strewn with words, path lines, but few helpful artifacts; and today's limited visibility. All this knocked my confidence, not to mention that my first bearing took me to some VERY steep rocks. So I wimped out a bit, took the easy option and followed the cairns. 

After all this rain, I was beginning to lose enthusiasm (what took me so long?!) as I headed toward Scafell. And there it loomed, out of the misty clouds: Broad Stand. I had originally planned to summit Scafell, but given the foul conditions and the sheer, wet, rock, this direction just looked foolhardy, and today, I was gonna be nobody's fool. I remember that there was the Lord's Rake route, but looking to the north of Broad Stand, I wasn't inspired to descend the steep scree slope with poles and heavy pack in that direction either. So I made an executive decision: now was the time to return to the Eskdale plateau and consider my options; maybe explore the east side of Eskdale.

The path to the south of Broad Stand, although very loose at the top, is actually quite impressive in the rain, with falls tumbling over the edge of Scafell from Fox's Tarn and onward and down to How Beck. There is, however, one 'river' crossing necessary. Generally, I expect, this isn't a problem. But the last 20 hours of rain had swollen the becks and made a simple step into a large jump or a wet wade. I chose a calculated jump! I carried on further and the clouds lifted enough. How Beck threw itself negligently down and over the waterfalls back into Eskdale, while I tottered carefully over the same rocks and warily down the peaty slopes.

The negligent How Beck Falls

As I reached Eskdale plateau once more, two things became evident: firstly, that all the rain had transformed the Esk from a inch-deep trickle into a full and dangerous flood of cold mountain water; and even now, How Beck wasn't going to be a walk-over either, metaphorically-speaking. Although it was: I followed it toward the impending Esk until the beck inexplicably split into two. Below the split by some distance the beck reached a shelf of stones on a corner that caused it to narrow and deepen along one edge. Crossing was now like walking through puddles and stepping over a half-metre wide stream. That was lucky! I headed to the banks of the Esk to inspect my chances of crossing. The flow was fast, wide and at least 60cm deep. I decided that I didn't need to completely retrace my steps. I would find a route on the west side of the Esk that precluded the need to wade! I continued to Sampson Stones, where Cam Spout Crag and other terrain offered some respite to the huge boulders and me from the wind.

It was now 2pm. I had a choice to make: stick it out for another night, or bail and go home. All of my layers were wet through; my tent was sitting in the bottom of my bag, full of water; I had only enough clothing to keep me dry sleeping in a dry tent in a dry bag. I was tired, and I was fantasising about Doner Kebabs! Surely that's a sign? As I sat in the light breeze, I shivered. Lesson 3 learnt: it's not worth risking hypothermia when I'm here on my own, irrespective of how beautiful Eskdale is! I checked the map and chose a route that removed all need to struggle across the Esk, down south along a shallow valley carrying Damas Dubs, running toward Scale Gill and my start point. I hurried along this route with renewed energy, anticipating a warm bed for the night! I arrived back at the van at 4pm, a mere 23 hours after I left and a good 5kg heavier due to wet kit. Thank you, Eskdale and Scafells, it was certainly an experience. I will be back!

Crossing Damas Dubs. Did I mention it had rained?

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