Despite the uncertain weather I often faced, I was rarely frustrated from my object. Pavey Ark in the snow, Green Crag in a blue funk, and then Yewbarrow, one of the symmetrical frames for the image of Great Gable, over Wastwater.
I’d switched to Saturday expeditions by then. These allowed me to stay later without fear of ten miles of crawling on the M6 to get past the end of the Blackpool Motorway and the weekenders pouring out: on a Sunday, I had to leave the Lakes not later than 4.00pm to avoid that.
I forget the weather in Manchester before I set off, but for some inexplicable reason, I had brought with me a change of clothes, something I had never done before, or since. Usually, I was perfectly happy to drive home in the sweat-stained gear that had seen me into the heights.
The sky above Wasdale Head was grey but there seemed no risk in going ahead. I wanted to tackle Dore Head and approach Yewbarrow’s summit over Stirrup Crag, which meant the alternate path into Mosedale: across the packhorse bridge immediately behind the Hotel, on lush grass, rising to cross a small saddle of land at the mouth of the valley, and locating the bottom of the broad, grassy ride that led confidently upwards: no difficulties but steepness.
Ahead, across the screes of Dore Head, a narrower path continued, inviting in its twists and turns, but to my dismay it was inaccessible.
Dore Head used to be known as one of the great scree-runs in Lakeland, a steep drop of loose stone down which enthusiastic and energetic walkers and climbers would hurtle themselves, body upright and tilted back, leading with the edge of the boot, descending in a series of controlled slides at immense pace. Unfortunately, too many years and too many runners had scraped all the scree away, leaving a bare, ground-out slope, and at this point a trench at least ten feet deep, with overhanging sides, no rock, and no visible means of getting down or, worse, getting up.
I don’t doubt that walkers slimmer and more agile (and braver) than me would have been across without a thought, though not without a struggle, but it wasn’t on for me. What, then, was my alternative?
Very simply, it was up or down. There was no path on this side of the scree, no route, just broken slopes, increasingly steep, and overhanging cliffs. On the other hand, I was not about to give up 5-600′ of fellside and then hunt for another way to start the walk, so up it was.
And carefully. I scrambled carefully across towards the crags, figuring I would at least have something to grab on to, and with slow and cautious steps, no more looking down than was unavoidable, and a very thoughtful examination of the ground before me, I slowly got to within ten feet of the ridge, at the foot of that unnerving groove down which I had refused to descend on that hot afternoon returning from the Mosedale Horseshoe. I crossed the nascent groove quickly but with everything alert, then found an easy way up onto level ground.
During this time, I had been oblivious to the weather. The cloud was down to almost the ridge, Stirrup Crag just a few dozen feet of forbidding rock, above which all was invisible, and Yewbarrow was clearly out of bounds.
Once more I would have to retreat down Over Beck, and settle for circumnavigating Yewbarrow, rather than climbing it. And, since rain now looked inevitable rather than probable, I got into kagoul and waterproof trouser.
It came down. I’d last been out in such rain descending from Great Gable into Seathwaite, but this was immense: solid, unceasing, sheeting, hammering rain, down the length of Over Beck and all the way back along the road. I learned that my waterproofs weren’t, that after a certain point they became waterlogs. I was soaked to the skin.
But I’d, improbably, brought a change of clothes with me, and there was a towel in my rucksack. I squelched into the car, drove the short distance to the hotel car park, pelted into the Men’s Toilets and got my roughly towelled self into dry clothes. Shirt, pullover, jeans, socks: no underpants.
Only a couple of years later I’d have unhesitatingly ‘gone commando’, but I was sufficiently inhibited to feel uncomfortable at that thought so, after as much squeezing out as I could physically produce, I slipped the wet things back on.
Which proved to be an embarrassing mistake since they, still sopping, immediately started to soak back, giving my jeans a two-tone effect not dissimilar to Superman’s red trunks. I stopped in both Cockermouth and Keswick on an extended way back, having come out of the hills far sooner than I’d planned, and there were plenty of eyes on me.
Of course, I had to go back. It was over a year later, in mid-October, the year’s last walk, at the end of a week of preternaturally clear skies that I longed would last until I could get up there. United were at home Saturday, so early on Sunday I was off to Wasdale.
Had I realised just how crisp and clear the atmospheric conditions were, I would have been out of bed two hours earlier, before dawn if I needed to, to give me the time to climb Scafell Pike. In clear conditions, not only is Snowden in Wales visible from its summit, but also the Mountains of Mourne, away across the Irish Sea: if they couldn’t be seen that day, they would never be visible at all.
My first inkling of just how good the views could be came when I crossed the top of the Corney Fell Road, and the seascape smashed itself into my face. The Isle of Man, familiar enough, but never so large, so sharp, so near, almost as if the sea behind it could also be seen. The Irish Sea a brilliant turquoise blue, a colour deeper than I had seen before, and as placid as a painting. And further along the coast, a mysterious silver coin laid on the water, a circle of white in incredible contrast to the Sea: the freshwater of the Ravenglass Estuary, pouring out into the turquoise, and not mingling with it. An astonishing sight.
And so to Mosedale again. I ignored the inviting green ride, passed beneath the bottom of the old screes and went looking for a route upwards. I found a small channel, like a dried grass rivulet, first of a succession of such guides, carrying up some 3-400′ on grass in which the cold sparkle of frost had already begun. From there, on leveller ground, I worked back towards the trench, crossing above bluffs, until I’d regained the height I’d reached the previous year and picked up the twisting path, which contoured back and forth and led me easily to the ridge. I fixed the point of arrival in my memory for future descents (I haven’t descended there yet, but I will remember for when I do).
Wainwright describes the ascent of Dore Head as “a tedious plod”, but by this route it’s anything but.
Stirrup Crag was a joy, a real hands-and-foot, where-will-the-next-bit-take-me scramble, that disappointed only in ending far too soon, after which the rooftree of Yewbarrow was simple to negotiate and the summit an easy upthrust. In the October sun, the western wall of the Scafells was a magnificent sight. My favourite view of the range is of the Pike and Ill Crag rising above Upper Eskdale, but this side wasn’t half bad.
I descended to Great Door, a tremendous, shattered gap in the skyline, seen as a square notch from the road below (the door opens, and closes). We got this far once, as a family, my sister so young and the area sufficiently treacherous that Dad roped her to a convenient rock for safety if she should fall. It’s not a good place for anyone insufficiently appreciative of danger.
From here, the path turned inwards, descending to Over Beck to avoid the impassible rocks of Bell Rib, before regaining Yewbarrow’s long, boat-like prow, and once again that walk up the road into Wasdale Head. Once in warm evening sunshine, a golden glow, once marching cheerfully under sluicing rain, once in October cool and clarity, this time in triumph.
The picture is of Dore Head, showing the screes, and the two flanks up which I made my separate ascents. No need to have been there to decide which one is the preferable route.