Allen Crags from Esk Hause
Rain, cloud, snow and wind: what other extreme weather experience can you have out on the fells? That leaves sun, or heat, and I’ve a story to tell about that as well.
Ordinarily, this wasn’t a problem. I scheduled my holidays for April and September, just outside the holiday season either way, spring and autumn, away from the extreme weathers, and I nearly always got what I planned for.
Besides, if the day happened to be sunny and hot at valley level, it was rare for me not to find cooler air and breezes once I got above a thousand feet, where even gentle ones were all that were needed.
But I did get caught out once, and it could have gone very badly.
This happened in 1990, at the beginning of my April week. For reasons I can no longer recall, I had booked a very late holiday, late enough for the latter half of the week to roll over into May. That made it a good fortnight later than my normal practice, and there was a consequent effect on the base weather conditions, for this was to be a very sunny week, more so than I usually got.
In keeping with my usual practice, I motored up leisurely on Sunday morning, booked myself into Bridgedale, in Keswick, and spent the afternoon stretching my legs on something local and low, just to get warmed up. I can’t now remember why, but for Easter Monday I had chosen an unusually strenuous walk for so early in the week.
My plan was to drive down to Seathwaite, park as close to the farm as I could manage, climb Esk Hause via Grains Gill, and return along the northernmost extension of the Scafell massif, over Allen Crags and Glaramara.
This was going to be a day of firsts: though I had been to Seathwaite previously, I had not been as far as Stockley Bridge, nor had I seen Grains Gill or Esk Hause, and it went without saying that I had climbed neither fell before.
I’ve returned from Stockley Bridge a number of times and, fittingly, it’s still a rough, undulating walk, but on a morning approach, contemplating the steep-sided valley ahead, it’s a rousing start.
At Stockley Bridge, which shows not the slightest sign of being almost washed away in the great flood of 1966 (in which we were caught, driving home from a week in the Lakes in the most appalling, drenching conditions that I remember of my young life), the path crosses the infant Derwent and divides into two famous paths, both of which will take you onto a glorious days in the fells. Directly ahead, scaling the fell-side in well-graded sweeps, the scars of the clumsy walkers now healed, is the main route to Sty Head Pass, but on this occasion I turned left, for the only time, into the narrowing valley ahead, with Great End dominating its ultimate skyline.
Though I’ve since descended Grains Gill on a couple of occasions, this was still the only time I’ve used it in ascent, much to my regret. Of highways into the hills, it ranks amongst the finest in the Lakes: straight and narrow, rough underfoot but without danger for the experienced walker, between high fell walls and heading directly for Great End’s terminal cliffs.
The day was hot, the Gill enclosed, though strangely I cannot remember conditions being particularly onerous, or experiencing any difficulty in proceeding. The sun was high and hot, unusually so for early April. The serious mistake that I had made was that this wasn’t really the best walk for a Monday.
This was only the second walk of the year, and the first had only been the afternoon before, on Gowbarrow Fell, an overland stroll on primarily level ground from The Hause, on a route subsequently locked, barred and bolted against walkers. It wasn’t much preparation for a rock-based walk encompassing two fells over 2,500′, in the Scafell range.
As Grains Gill progressed, the valley narrowed yet further, the gradients increased and the path crossed to the left side of the gill. I was now moving into more enclosed surroundings, as rock gathered around me. There was certainly no breath of air on this section, and I toiled upwards, focusing my attention upwards, on the figure of a walker making a direct assault on Great End, carefully picking his way up virgin slopes, looking to find a way around/through the cliffs.
Where he went, I don’t know, because I finally emerged onto the Sty Head – Esk Hause path and turned left for the latter, turning the face of Great End between me and this intrepid scrambler, doing something I’d never have the nerve to do.
The path I’d gained would, I knew, bring me only to the wall-shelter, the highest point on the west-east route from Sty Head to Great Langdale that, before Wainwright came along, was what was usually spoken of as Esk Hause. Properly educated years before by The Southern Fells, I was after the real thing, the Head of Eskdale, and the easiest way to do this was to break off along the ‘short cut’ path, angling upwards across the base of Great End. It was a graceful, stony, well-graded route that I thoroughly enjoyed, and it emerged at the top end of the wide plateau of Esk Hause, by the cairn that is the crossroads for so many routes, all of which save only the unmarked descent into Eskdale I would go on to walk in one direction or another.
I then descended from the watershed to the wall-shelter and contemplated what I should do next.
Glaramara and Grains Gill
By that time, I did not feel at all good. I was hot and thirsty, there was no wind or breeze to cool me, and I felt not just heavy-legged but heavy-bodied. Under this sun, I had already used up more of my strength than was generally good for me, and the logical, indeed only sensible thing to do would be to head back to Grains Gill and descend.
But I have always been extremely stubborn when out walking. I could be flexible when the circumstances permitted, or demanded,but when I had started a walk, I thought of nothing other than reaching the summit I had targeted, and I did not give up lightly. Before now, I had only turned back once without a top, that being the day of snow on Pavey Ark’s North Rake.
There’d been good cause for that, a practical fear, but this was a sunny day! There was no wind, no rain, no prospect of interference from the weather. And I was at Esk Hause! Esk Hause, that mecca for all true fell-walkers. I could hardly turn round and go back from there with nothing conquered, especially not when Allen Crags was so near at hand, a mere one hundred feet of climbing, on easy ground. I couldn’t give up when I was that close, surely not?
So I headed uphill, though my legs felt like lead, and I duly reached my chosen summit, though I remember nothing of it: Allen Crags, hurrah! What next? Well, I’d only committed myself to climbing Allen Crags, nothing more, so I could drop back to Esk Hause and head down, honour fulfilled. But now that I was here… Well, it was actually shorter, and more direct, to go back over Glaramara, instead of down and around, and given how I felt, surely the less distance I had to force myself to cover, the better. Ok, onwards.
By such arguments do the stubborn convince themselves that it’s right to do what they wanted to do all along.
It was, like continuing to descend directly off Brim Fell when I’d clearly gotten myself into a rough corner, like ascending Dore Head under the shadow of Stirrup Crag, a stupid idea and one that was putting me into peril that anyone with my intelligence would normally shy away from, no problem. I look back at times like this and wonder how someone who was, for so long, unnecessarily conservative about his expeditions could so blithely ignore the obvious signs and plunge on.
And I try not to read too much into the fact that, every time, I got myself out of it, alone, without lingering consequences.
So I walked on, or more correctly stumbled on, along what Wainwright describes as one of the most delightful and enjoyable ridge walks in the Lake District and I cannot remember a thing about it, not even Glaramara’s summit, nor anything of the views, because I was now in a very bad way. My head was aching from the unrelenting sun, my eyes were hurting from the glare, my stomach was roiling and churning, I was horribly dehydrated and sickeningly thirsty, but unable to drink as the only liquid I had on me was a single can of Coca Cola, badly shaken about, warm and fuzzy, that I didn’t dare drink because I would end up vomiting all over the place.
And my legs had no strength and I couldn’t think, because I was using all my concentration to keep them moving, step after step, without stumbling and falling, because there was a fairly good prospect that if I fell down – or even sat down – I would lack the energy to get back up again. And I had no sense of time, all movement from past to future gone, I was in a bubble of the present, focussed only on the necessity to get down, to get back to my car in one piece.
Medically, I’d gotten a big dose of heat exhaustion that was bordering upon heat stroke. How closely, I don’t know: I wasn’t in a position to observe clinically. My condition was being made worse at every moment by the lack of shade or shadow. Apart from a period in the mid-Seventies when I became attached to a John Lennon Serious Young Poet Denim Cap, I have never gone on for hats, so I had nothing with which to cover my head. Except the hood of my anorak, and there was no way that I was going to struggle into another layer of clothing, not when I was as hot as I was already.
So I improvised, desperately. I’d set off in sweatshirt over something light, probably a t-shirt, and, as usual, once it had gotten hot enough, I’d whipped the sweatshirt off and tied it around my waist. With my head throbbing from the sun, at some point along the way to Glaramara, I had undone its sleeves and tied it together, over my head, as some kind of makeshift turban that, thankfully, stayed in place more or less, as I forced myself along.
Eventually, I reached the end of the fell, and the path began to seriously descend. It turned outwards, towards the Stonethwaite valley, giving me at last some shelter from the sun as the bulk of the ridge intervened. I still needed to take care: the path was narrow, slightly grooved, and the descent reasonably steep, and it was still all to easy to put a foot wrong.
And my throat had reached the point where, regurgitation or no regurgitation, I was going to have to drink that last fuzzy coke. The whole of my mouth felt as if it had been painted with glue. I came to a halt, cracked the ring pull and chugged it down. The liquid was definitely warm, and there was a strange furry taste to it, as if the bubbles had half-dissolved, and to my amazement, instead of inspiring me to spew all over the fellside, its effect was to settle my turbulent stomach and leave me feeling considerably more at ease than I’d been since at least Esk Hause.
It didn’t make me feel any less wiped out, or my legs less leaden, or the remaining half-a-fellside any less steep, but I got down to level ground in safety. In the Stonethwaite valley, admittedly, not Seathwaite, and the road walk still far longer than I wished to contemplate.
But there was a field path, curling around the toe of Glaramara, avoiding the road and the hard tarmac, avoiding the avoiding of cars, in pastoral silence and solitude and best of all, shorter. It still took me ages to negotiate. I was no longer so bad that I was at risk of falling at every step – the dehydration had obviously been the worst element, and I was ruefully furious with myself that I hadn’t had that last coke ages before – but my legs were still shot and I was rarely more grateful to get my boots off when I reached my car.
I never put myself through that again, though I never again encountered conditions where there was just no wind on a hot day. Instead of carrying cans to drink, I switched to the large bottles, enabling me to spread my hydration out in smaller doses. And I was a bit more circumspect about what I would and wouldn’t tackle that early in the week.
Though I’ve climbed both Allen Crags and Glaramara in clear weather, with the full arc of the view available, I’ve no recollection of either, the latter especially. Nor have I been back. But times will change, and once I am fit again, I’m coming back here. With something better than a sweatshirt for a turban.