Series 2 – 09 – Three Passes: Sty Head


Our first three walks were all up Passes. I’ve accepted that as a solid piece of memory for eighty percent of my life, but now, in coming to recollect those walks, I’ve begun to question that certainty. Where did the ‘stock’ valley walks come in? Did we really start off doing only ascents and then give that up for lazy, flat walks?
What about my Uncle: was he really there for Wrynose, because he definitely wasn’t for Hard Knott or our third destination, Sty Head? If so, when did we do these walks? If not, did we really go so long walking before introducing him to the fellsides? I’ve had concretely-sure memories proven wrong by external facts before.
But that third outing was to Sty Head Pass, from Wasdale Head, under the shadow of Great Gable, and it was only the four of us: the nuclear family. It was our first away from the comfortable accessibility of the road, and it was the first one when I learned to shut up and not grumble, for good.
Even more than before, I had a target. Everyone had told me that Great Gable had a sister fell, Green Gable, smaller, less famous, invisible behind the face you saw from Wasdale Head. I wanted to see it. I wanted to go behind Great Gable, see the other one. I couldn’t read maps well enough to make connections: to me, Green Gable was invisible to the world and I could only get to see it by climbing Sty Head and peering round the corner.
So we four set off across the fields from Down-in-the-Dale, where the cars gathered: past the Smallest Church, one of Wasdale’s four great attractions (the Highest Mountain, the Deepest Lake and the Biggest Liar being the others), towards the side-valley that ran across the foot of Gable, rising into the mountains.
From Wasdale, Sty Head is simple and direct. Beyond the fields, the path parts with the beck and rises across the fellside ahead. High above, great rock buttresses and sweeping screes rise at crazy angles, until the nature of the path changes underfoot: it reaches the first long fan of scree, it narrows, it gets steeper, it gets serious.
Mam took one look and refused to let my sister go any further.
I was disappointed, and so was Dad, but the solution was simple: Mam would take my sister back to the beck, where they’d paddle their feet whilst Dad and I – the men of the family – would go on. So we continued, the big, gruff men, strong enough for the added deprivations of the scree. Just me and my Dad, a circumstance of which I have far too few occasions to recall.
And I didn’t grumble. I had a destination to reach, and I wanted my Dad to think well of me. We went on, across the loose stuff, tiny cairn after tiny cairn marking our route, though there would have been no mistake underfoot. Until we rounded the last, fixed rocks and descended slightly to the official summit of the Pass, by the blue Stretcher Box.
Styhead Tarn was below us, and half left a sliver of green fell: no summit, no shape, but now I’d seen Green Gable.
We had to go back now. No time to explore, no time to descend to the Tarn, to go forward and see more of the invisible Gable: we had half a family waiting for us, and maybe there’d be time for us to have a short paddle too. Our feet would welcome it by then.
It was the day I grew up, the day that began my walking career. The day it first sunk in to me that there were things to be seen, sights in amongst the hills where beauty and strength lay, that would be forever hidden unless I got of my podgy little arse and got out there on my two hind legs to find them. It’s not that I didn’t ever complain in future, but the utter resentment of Hard Knott was done with, for good.
The picture is of the ascent from Wasdale Head, just as the scree section starts. I think we came back another time, so that the distaff side of the family could get to Sty Head, though I have no memories of that expedition. Though I’ve climbed the Pass in my later years, both times it’s been from Borrowdale: I have never come this way again.

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