All the Fells: Yewbarrow

Yewbarrow – The Western Fells 2,058′ (186)

Date: 17 October 1993

From: Mosedale

As befits the son of a family who never holidayed in the Lakes without visiting Wasdale and Wastwater, I have a history with Yewbarrow that includes no less than two failed attempts to reach the summit before I finally got there. As a family, we once tackled Yewbarrow the direct way, up its long prow. I can’t say I remember much of the ascent, which is a shame because it was the only time I approached the fell from that end, but I was only just in my teens then. I can imagine myself struggling with the long, tedious walk uphill, which was the kind of walking I hated still. Our original destination was going to be Red Pike, but it looked far too far from Over Beck, so we side-stepped onto Yewbarrow instead. We got as far as the Great Door, a scene of tremendous devastation, requiring care, a little bit hairier that we were used to, especially with my sister, who must have been six at the most, in tow. Dad was so worried about her safety in a place where a wrong step could have been disastrous that he actually roped her to a rock! It was obvious that we were going no further, but actually the men of the family, which included me, went on a bit further, onto the open ridge, at least as far as it took to be able to see Burnmoor Tarn across the valley and behind the ridge (why?). How near that took us to the summit, I can’t even guess. When it came time for me to go it alone, I had no intention of tackling that prow again, which necessarily meant Dore Head. I started off in decent weather, across the Packhorse Bridge and into Mosedale. When I reached the broad, clear, uphill grassy path, I headed up it. It was tough going yet, in its extra steepness, a lot easier for me to cope with: some slopes are just naturally draining but not this. The drawback came when I reached what remained of the old scree-shoot that gave walkers of the past such a quick route down to the valley. Unfortunately, their controlled slides down the scree had not just dispersed all the stones but had dug a nasty looking, raw earth channel down the middle of the slope. The continuation of the path was easy to see opposite, all I had to do was bridge the gap. Which was a good dozen feet deep, with unclimbable overhangs on my side. Dismally, I recognised that the only way I could get down that was to fall, and even then I wasn’t over-confident about getting out the other side. I was stymied. Rather than go back down and find a different starting point for the climb, which meant losing a good five hundred feet at the start of the walk, I opted to keep climbing on this side. This left me to tackle a rough, broken, steep and pathless fellside, very slowly. I made my way leftward, towards the base of the crags that were the bottom of Stirrup Crag. I would move about ten feet at a time, no more, focussing on what was immediately above me, seeking out the easiest lines, constantly looking rightwards to check my progress. It took ages, but eventually I was near the ridge. There was no direct way to it and to escape I had to cross the highest, most polished section of the channel, the bit where it would have been the simplest to have come a cropper. Grateful to have got up there, I then found my effort effectively wasted. Whilst I had been climbing up, the weather had turned. Cloud was down on Yewbarrow, swirling about Stirrup Crag, just a few feet above my head. The walk was obviously ended here. Since I couldn’t go back down that way, there was nothing for it but to descend the Over Beck valley and walk back up the road: in short, rather than climb Yewbarrow, I would circumnavigate it. As if to crow over me, I hadn’t gone more than two hundred yards when it decided to rain. I got into my waterproofs., but it came down so incessantly that I learned that after a certain point, waterproofs become waterlogs. I was soaked. And unlike the descent of Sour Milk Gill from Gillercomb, there was no perverse satisfaction to this, just sogginess. I was on a day out from Manchester. I never used to do this, and didn’t repeat the exercise, but as if I had had a premonition, I had brought a change of clothes with me. Once back at the car I drove into the Hotel Car park and, clasping the change set to me to try to keep them from getting wet, I sprinted for the toilets to undress. Unfortunately, my foresight had not extended to a dry pair of underpants. A couple of years later, I would just have cheerfully ‘gone commando’ but now, after wringing out as much water as I could (not much), I wriggled back into them. This was not a good idea. Almost immediately they started to soak back into my new jeans, producing a horribly embarrassing two-tone effect, as if I were some buckshee Superman. Gross. It had to be third time lucky and it was, and if it hadn’t have been for those two failures, I wouldn’t have had the unbelievably brilliant day I did. The weather had been gorgeous all week, bright blue unstained skies, a crisp clarity to the air. My fingers were permanently crossed that it would stay to the weekend, to Sunday in fact (United were at home on Saturday). It was the very end of October. The first I realised just how good the conditions were was coming across the top of the Corney Fell Road: the Irish Sea burst upon me in a blaze of turquoise blue from one end to the other and the Isle of Man stood out so massive and near that it looked as it I could see the other half of the sea, behind it. I have never seen it so clearly again. I was puzzled to see, ahead of me, a circle of clear water, like a silver coin laid on the sea. What on Earth was that? And then it struck me. It was the river water, emerging from the triple estuaries at Ravenglass, a different colour from the sea water, before it merged. What an incredible sight! To be honest, if I had known things were going to be so clear, I would have gotten up two hours earlier, given Yewbarrow the elbow and gone for Scafell Pike. They claim that in good conditions you can see the Mountains of Mourne from its summit, and if you couldn’t have seen them that day, you never would at all. Once again, I crossed the Packhorse Bridge, but this time I bypassed the broad grass path, crossed the foot of the once scree and started looking for a way up the other side. I found a narrow trail leading up, crystals of frost forming on it. I pieced my way upwards, a fascinating little climb, until I caught up with the ‘obvious’ path’s continuation, little spurts and angles, and lastly a grassy dell below the ridge, holding a big boulder. I fixed my eyes on it from above, memorising the scene for any later descent, and I can see that picture in my mind still. Stirrup Crag was a gorgeous hands and foot scramble, with never more than a couple of yards of rock visible at a time and, like all such things, too short by half. I was now on the roof-tree and it was a simple walk under the brilliant skies to reach the summit. I lived for days like these, stuck in a job I hated. I descended towards the Great Door, remembering our ghosts of nearly thirty years before: only myself and my sister remained. Then down the prow, back along the road and a drive home of pure contentment.

2 thoughts on “All the Fells: Yewbarrow

  1. Third time lucky and with style by the sound of it. I’ve only done Yewbarrow once, but what a tremendous fell. I went up the prow and came down Stirrup Crag (which was a little hairy in one place, where I should have turned in and down climbed, but we learn by our mistakes).

    I looked at the Dore Head screes from across Mosedale and didn’t like the look of them at all (they looked concave).

    It was your wet underpants story that made me squirm though!

    1. Oh yes. If either of the first two visits had succeeded, I would never have been there on that day. Probably I’d have been somewhere on the fells because these were conditions it would have been a crime to ignore, and maybe I’d have seen things just as good, but looking at the other fells left to be visited, I think Yewbarrow was the absolute best possibility.

      You squirm about my damp experience? Imagine how I felt…

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