Series 2 – 14: A Salutory Experience

Come September, I was back on the Coniston Range again, this time at the southern end of the massif. It was familiar territory from family days, but I was planning to climb both Dow Crag and, officially at last, the Old Man.
I left the car near the village, in the car park where the old Railway Station had stood, and started up the lane to the road-head at the foot of the Walna Scar Road and the Quarry Route (now being called the Tourist Route, it seems, making me feel old again.) My plan was to take the former to the Pass, to gain access to Dow Crag along the ridge.
Easy walking, and familiar, for a long way: level-going with moorland to the left and the bulk of the Old Man to the right, to the crossroads with the Goatswater path from Torver, of old memory indeed. Then, after Cove Bridge, a steady gain in height on an already eroded path to Walna Scar Pass, where the views open out round the the eastern wall of the Scafells..
It was great weather for walking: sun and high cloud, no haze to blur the views and enough breeze to move the air about on the tops. The subsidiary summits of Brown Pike and Buck Pike passed underfoot and the sidelong views of Dow Crag’s buttresses were fearsome at close range, and that before the little rock climb needed to touch the Dow’s highest point.
Lunch: then off around the broad ridge of Goat’s Hause, walking the skyline I’d often looked up to in envy and desire, a wide trek with no great gradients, the tarn clean and cowed in its basin, no longer so wild. And the long, slow, steady trudge up the wall of the Old Man, joining the ridge path a mere hundred yards north of the cairn, this time in the clear air, with a 360 degree sunshine panorama.
I can’t remember, so far on, whether the original plan was only to climb these two summits, or whether I had always intended to divert north to Brim Fell, the innocuous whaleback, welling a mere half mile upridge. Or was it just that time was still in my pocket, and the Brim so easy of access, and I chose to bag that too now I was here? It could have been either, but once I had completed the walk to its uninteresting summit, there came the matter of descent.
Purism demanded a descent off Brim Fell, and the pathless east ridge, broad of aspect, easy of gradient, descending to provide easy access to the shores of Low Water, cupped on the eastern face, was a clear invitation and one I negotiated without incident. Here though, I had a choice. It would be easy to cross the beck at its outflow, and join the Quarry Path downhill, turning aside to follow a gently diagonal path down into the Village, rather than the road. But that felt like cheating, crossing back onto the Old Man, and wouldn’t it be better to complete the descent on Brim Fell’s turf?
After all, my route down from Brim Fell was but the upper part of a direct ascent begun up that very slope below me, sanctioned by Wainwright, whose word was law in the fells.
Here I made my mistake. Had I dug out The Southern Fells from my rucksack, I would have reminded myself that he described this section of the route as rough, pathless and steep, but if you must go this way, the best ground was along the base of the cliffs to the left of my position. Oh, and Not Recommended for descent.
Not only did I set off in blithe ignorance, I compounded the error by deciding that the vanishing ground before me looked easier on the right, towards the rushing Low Water Beck. And, when it started to get not just steep but increasingly steeper, I even worked my way across the beck, onto its far bank.
The sensible thing was to go back. I looked upwards at the steepness behind me, some 200′ of climbing now, measured it against the ache in my legs at this late stage in the proceedings, and carried on. Boulder Valley, and level ground, was in clear sight, about 300′ below, and getting no nearer, or so it felt.
I proceeded with extreme care, two steps at a time, literally. I would scan the ground below me for two steps I could take safely, make them, and study intensely for the safest two steps from there. Over and over, concentrating only on ensuring that the boot that stepped down would stand firm, not slide, slither or slip from under me.
All told, it was probably not more than a half hour, until I reached the bottom of the slope, and even then I retained the nous to maintain that iron level of concentration over twenty yards of littered stone and rock, until I reached the sanctity of the path: I was too aware that if I let it go now, I would probably trip over a six inch rock and break my leg.
But when I let it go, it all went. Almost a physical draining, out of me from head to boots: all energy gone, and with two and a half miles still to the car.
Nothing for it but to trudge. I remember the mile from Boulder Valley to the roadhead as being level when it bloody well isn’t. But I was still conscious enough of fellwalker’s courtesy, when I reached the gate, to hold it open for two women in a car about to drive back to Coniston. And I was rewarded for it: after I slumped on the gate whilst holding it open, I was offered a lift downhill! It was two women walkers in their late forties/early fifties again, joking about whether they were safe from a young man like me, though I wasn’t joking when I said I was so exhausted there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of them being attacked!
I was lucky. I put myself in a dangerous situation, through ignorance and arrogance, and the fact that I got through it by myself, through my far-from-developed fellwalking abilities doesn’t excuse the fact that I had put myself in very avoidable trouble totally unnecessarily. Though it meant an over-cautious approach to my capabilities for the rest of the decade, I never did that again. Once was enough to learn the lesson indelibly.
It would be a dozen years before I sustained my first and last injury fellwalking.
The picture is of Low Water, looking down off the ascent to the Old Man, the grey, twisting line of which scratched on the landscape below. Apparently there’s a rudimentary path from the tarn to the ridge leading to Brim Fell, but even the recommended approach to my rough slope is still trackless.

2 thoughts on “Series 2 – 14: A Salutory Experience

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    1. Hi Keira. Yes, I was looking at some of the links where my hits were coming from.

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