The Tarns of Missed Opportunity


The head of Great Langdale

The sun is shining again, and my head is in the high fells, which is where the rest of me wants to be. I’m remembering another walk, and remembering a moment where I didn’t take an opportunity that presented itself, under the sun.

It was the last day of the holiday, the one I always reserved for the Big Walk, something that covered miles and thousands of feet of ascent, and took me to the major mountains, the ones that attract walkers every day. Usually, this would be the Thursday of my week away, and I would make a leisurely return the following day.

But for once this was a Friday walk: United had had a European Champions League game in mid-week, and I had darted back to Manchester for the match on Wednesday night, and back to the Lakes the next day, but into a day of incessant rain. But it was September High Summer the next day, and I was going to pile into my car once I got back to the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel car park, and aim for the M6 and sleep in my own bed that night.

My walk was a cracker in prospect and in actuality: Crinkle Crags from Oxendale, Bowfell and Esk Pike, returning by Esk Hause, Angle Tarn and Rossett Gill. Long, difficult, demanding of strength and stamina. Satisfaction all but guaranteed.

I’ve written about this walk before, in a rather more impersonal manner, as a Great Walk (insert link). Ascending out of Oxendale’s narrow confines, the long approach along Crinkle Crag’s shoulder, gradually nearing the first red meat of the day but for the moment enlivened by the views backwards towards Windermere, or south into the Duddon Valley.

I was operating by Radio 4 when it came to time-keeping: I’d taken my watch off at home on Wednesday night but left it on the couch, and returned to Cumbria without a timepiece. Oddly, it disturbed me to be potentially out on the fells for a long walk with no means of keeping track of time, but I’d bought a Test Match Special cap radio the summer before, with a built-in miniature Long Wave/Medium Wave radio and earpieces on curly cables. The only channel I could decently get was Radio 4. This timed me round the fells, and was my longest ever exposure to the channel.

So when I got to the Bad Step on the Second Crinkle, I knew it was 12.30pm and of all things they could have been featuring, it was a programme about Manchester Town Hall!

I did what you’re supposed to do about the Bad Step, visited as if to size it up for next time, not that you’d have had me trying to go up it if there had been a next time, not without a certified rock-climbing companion to guide my every step and support me on a rope. Instead, I contoured across the broken ground at the back of the Crinkle until an easy semi-scrambling route was available, and semi-scrambled easily up that to the summit.

Of course, it was mandatory to visit each of the Crinkles in turn, especially as they were so close at hand. Then the long walk over Gunson Knott to Three Tarns, with the parallel scars of Bowfell Links directly ahead, and the long shattered tongue of scree-stone curling around its right hand side and onto the top.

Bowfell Links and the riiver of stones

Bowfell was the only one of the three fells I had previously climbed, from Mickleden and Rossett Pike, to Ore Gap. At that point, the cloud that had been teasing Bowfell’s topmost couple of hundred feet all day came down with some finality. I fell in with two walkers from Trafford Ramblers who were just coming down off Esk Pike, and we picked our way up onto Bowfell’s summit and found its highest point.

This was where it got sticky. We thought we’d picked up the path, but before very long found ourselves crawling out along a rocky route with an obvious steep downfall to our left. I gave in first, told them I was working back. I would find a path downwards, even if it wasn’t into Langdale.

I was very lucky. The number of times I have been lucky would make a less atheist person wonder if there wasn’t someone looking out for him. I immediately found a path and, despite my voice sounding thin in the cloud, I attracted the guys’ attention. We headed down, and of course it was the route to Three Tarns, and the Band, that river of stones I now regarded from below, in perfect sunshine.

It was a drag to ascend, but I found myself on the summit in clear daylight, the views to enjoy. Over to one side I could see the head of the Great Slab. But I didn’t divert over to look at it then, missing another chance I should really have gobbled up. Instead, I made for Ore Gap and beyond it onto Esk Pike.

Shamefully, my memories of Esk Pike are more fragmentary than of most other summits. It was an energetic, enthralling walk, and the summit itself lay off to the right of the main path, which crossed a shoulder about fifty feet below the summit, and I diverted to it and over it to tag it and return. And I remember the slow descent to Esk Hause, the path sometimes using rock ridges for short distances.

Esk Pike

It was my third, and last visit to Esk Hause and I came to the cairn at the top of the Pass from the diametrically opposite direction to my previous visit, a Saturday outing not more than six weeks earlier, Scafell Pike from Seathwaite via the Taylor Gill Force variation and the Corridor Route, and along the spine of the Pikes to Great End. From the cairn down to the wall-shelter, and then the retreat began towards Angle Tarn and Rossett Gill.

Every step from Bowfell summit onwards had taken me further away from my car, and it’s a long journey in itself from Esk Hause to the Old Hotel car park. It was still a glorious sunny day, and the views were superb. As far as Angle Tarn, dark and sinister in its bowl despite the weather, things were fine: three descents, two levels.

But from the Tarn there was a late on the day climb of 300 feet or so to reach the top of Rossett Gill. And my legs were as heavy as lead and the last thing I wanted to do was to go uphill any more today (unless it was my stairs at home to my bedroom). Radio 4 was relating an interesting programme about a man who wrote biographies for people, not famous people or celebrities, but ordinary folk who wanted to leave behind a record of their life, for their children and their family. I listened interestedly as I gritted through every tortuous step.

At that time, the top pitch of Rossett Gill was still a hellslide of erosion. I started down carefully, eyes open to my right so as not to miss the escape onto the upper leg of the higher zigzag. This was safe and secure, re-laid crazy paving, essential to preserve the fells, but unlovely in idea.

I can’t remember if this was part of my planning all along, or an on-the-spot opportunistic decision, but when I reached the outermost point of the zig-zag, I checked the relevant page in Wainwright, girded my metaphorical lines and continued across the pathless fellside, maintaining the angle of descent that I had been following, in pursuit of the old pony route.

I’d crossed three of the ten highest fells during the day, but looking back my proudest moment is that I found and followed the old Pony Route, which according to Jesty and Hutchby can no longer be traced on the ground. I crossed the fellside on the correct line, arriving exactly at the little natural weir Wainwright identifies, working down the tongue of land on intermittent grass channels, appearing and disappearing, escaping onto the main body of Bowfell before the tongue narrowed too much, following the level path on the border of Mickleden and finding my way across the soft valley floor, through the moraines, to the main Mickleden path, though this last part was slightly marred by my stepping up to the ankle in too-soft ground, and as a consequence the final march was step-squelch, step-squelch all the way home.

Rossett Gill

But I described this walk as a case of missed opportunity. For the meaning of that, let us go back to the vicinity of Three Tarns, below Bowfell Links. Let me return to my memory of a young, enthusiastic, bubbly, bright female fellwalker, who’d just come down off Bowfell, and who stopped to talk to me.

And I don’t mean just saying hello in passing. I don’t remember how our conversation started, but it must have come from her because I would never have tried to start anything extended with someone that young and that attractive. I was thirty-eight, and I’d have been surprised if she was older than twenty-three, with curly blonde hair and a slim figure emphasised by electric blue cycle shorts.

Boy, she was talking to me enthusiastically, telling me that she was staying in Ambleside – the very place I had been the night before – and not giving any indication that she was part of a group, either here at Three Tarns or down in Ambleside. She was really cheery and she seemed to like talking to me, and this was the sweat-shirted, shaggy brown-haired, bearded and bellied me.

I had the ideal set-up to suggest meeting her later than night in Ambleside, for a drink and whatever else we might have agreed upon afterwards. You who are reading this are no doubt way ahead of me in realising that I signally failed to take advantage of this opportunity. True, I’d have had to find another guest house for another night, which on a Friday night might have been a bit difficult, with people arriving for weekends away, but I didn’t even think to suggest it until I was far away, on Esk Pike, when it was much too late.

In my defence – no, strike that, I don’t believe I should be defended –  I was away on holiday in the Lakes, where sex and related subjects was not uppermost in my mind, especially not on Bowfell, nor was I automatically attuned to the idea that an attractive and bubbly cycle-shorted hottie about fifteen years younger than me might be interested in my company, let alone my body.

I let her go. I didn’t suggest a drink later on, I didn’t try to get her number (I’d have had nothing to write it down with, even if I had something to write it down on), and I didn’t even think to ask her her name. Like all fellwalkers, especially the ones going in the opposite direction to me, she was a passing ship.

And who knows, she might have been enthusiastic about talking to me because she was enthusiastic about talking to people and the suggestion of meeting up at the Sportsman later on would have had her shying away in loathing. That’s what I tell myself when I remember this brief encounter. Romance (or earthier things) and the fells only ever mixed on those rare occasions I took an already girlfriend (or wife) out walking.

Still, those cycle-shorts were appealingly tight…

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