I haven’t previously written of the High Stile Range as a Great Walk because, although it undoubtedly is, my experience of it was in large part a frustration. Not wholly: there was much that was good and the start and the end of the walk, but when the main fell, the highest peak, is covered with cloud during the part of the walk where you’re crossing it, you can’t really call it a success.
The High Stile Range is three high peaks in a dead straight line of under two miles, between Buttermere on the rocky, impressive, challenging north-east and Ennerdale on the dull, grassy, featureless south-west. Most walks tackle the ridge from Buttermere, for reasons that will be immediately obvious to anyone who sees the Range from that side: you don’t even need to view the Ennerdale flank to make a decision.
Those of us who hate to cross trodden ground during a walk find ridges like this a bit difficult. There is no Horseshoe element whatsoever, or if there is it’s one that’s been straightened out by Desperate Dan. You have to gain the heights at one end and drop down off the other and find some reasonable way of connecting the walk-foot at each end.
Fortunately, this is not an insuperable problem with the High Stile Range.
The day began with the usual engine-stressing, brake-busting crossing of Newlands Hause. Parking at the Village end of Buttermere is at even more of a premium than the Gatesgarth end, and I took refuge in a small roadside quarry a quarter mile or so before the Village, where, if I recall correctly, I still had to pay for a day’s parking.
At either end, the ridge is across the valley from the road, and there is a long, flat, green walk to the base of the Range, rising steeply from the edge of the lake. At the Village end, the path across the fields is narrow and bounded. It felt like a long way to go just to get to the bottom of the walk, especially as I was eyeing cautiously the cloud level, sweeping about at just below the top of High Raise.
I’ve done this before, setting off for a walk that might take me under cloud cover, anxiously raising my eyes but ploughing on determinedly, daring the cloud to still be there when I get up with it. Helvellyn, that time I went round by Sticks Pass, Raise and White Side, ending up sitting in a wind-shelter too crowded to get into the lea side, watching people arrive out of the cloud at least every thirty seconds. A first attempt at the Coledale Horseshoe, having driven up Friday night during the 1994 World Cup, and having to descend to Coledale Hause after feeling my way to Hopegill Head, the water droplets catching in my beard. Bowfell the first time, via Rossett Gill, Rossett Pike and Ore Gap, nearly coming to grief on Bowfell Links when we lost the path down. I should know better by now, or then, but I pressed on.
The walk didn’t really begin until we reached the further lake shore, and then the lines of walkers turned towards the head of the valley, until a gate at the foot of a long, diagonal path. And it was through the gate and up, up and up, single file, through the woods on a long, narrow route that kept to the same gradient and never ended, left, right, left, right, nowhere to turn aside and take a break without holding up a continual procession behind.
That’s exactly what it was like, a procession going up the stairs. I’ve never had an experience like it on the fells, before or since.
Not until the route emerged from the woods did the way widen to enable people to settle to their own pace. And after a short section directly up the broad fellside, the way turned right, and we could enjoy an extended level section, dashing or strolling, all across the face of the fell, below Bleaberry Cove, on rock. I couldn’t resist the urge to stride out and overtake a lot of the stair-climbers who had preceded me, whilst allowing the younger and fitter to burst past me.
The openness and the levelness was like a rush of fresh air, especially after the confines of the woods. I have never liked not being able to see where I am in height at any time on a climb.
At the far end of this extended terrace was the confused and tumbling outflow of Bleaberry Tarn, white water to hop across to gain the far bank and turn back uphill, scrambling into the lip of the cove, the tarn bright under a heavy sky, and High Stile’s buttresses beyond it.
The cloud was still hovering, this time around the top of Red Pike, my first destination. The path moved away to the right, onto the saddle separating the Pike from its subsidiary, Dodd. I wondered, on the saddle, about turning towards the latter, but it would be a strenuous day and Dodd was a literally backwards step, a few hundred feet of climbing I would have to repeat when I got back to this point. An actual Wainwright, of course. A subsidiary summit, no.
So I committed to the long, straight ascent towards Red Pike, and to the lowering cloud cover that was making the day grey, and doing the same for my mood. For the first time today, the walking was tedious, and I found wisps beginning to float around me and across me.
Red Pike was almost exactly the same height as the cloud base. I did get a full view, but it was from under a very low roof and through grey air that robbed the panorama of its richness. And as the clouds were unshifting, I had before me the prospect of crossing to High Stile in complete invisibility.
The ground underneath was not too difficult, though the path was far from being as distinct as I would have liked, and the presence to my left of steep and dangerous cliffs had me like a cat on hot bricks all the way to High Stile’s summit cairn. There was nothing to see, not through the swirling grey. I had Wainwright’s word for it that the supreme viewpoint was down the slope towards the lake, at the end of a rocky nose.
I went in that direction with ultra-caution as to what might lie beneath my feet or, rather, what might suddenly not lie beneath my feet. This viewpoint was lower than the summit, maybe it might, just, peep beneath the cloud, but as ever my optimism was merely hopeful. For a moment only, a swirl of wind blew away the screen, and I caught sight of the lake and the Village and the deep valleys opposite, but it was literally a moment only, and then the enclosure again.
I made my way back to the summit cairn, collected the rucksack I had, trustingly, left there, and started towards the rough descent to High Crag. It was still a bit nervy: I do not like cloud on the tops. But I came out below the cloud level, the ridge started to narrow, and then I was walking the narrow path along the top of Burtness Comb, and behind me the cloud had burned out and it was all sun and afternoon glory, and I was alone on this narrow, level ridge, with steepness on both sides, and behind me High Stile bare, proud and clean of cloud.
Not that I was going to turn round and add that extra climbing to my day. There’s a psychological dimension to descending from a summit, and I have found that once I have gotten more than a token distance from the top, steps retraced are heavy and draining. Onwards, ever onwards, not backwards. Though I regret not summoning that extra energy now, and going back for the view that now was unobstructed.
I was now above Burtness Comb, on a flat ridge that felt as narrow as a rail, and the sun was now burning down on my exposed position. It was one of those crossings that felt endless, with little change in the scenery to suggest I was getting much further forward, High Crag not seeming to loom at all, and care required in view of the lack of width.
But at last I reached the third fell, and made the short climb to its little top, bare of summit furniture on which to sit.
With nothing to wait for, and the sun slowly dehydrating me, I set off down the unremittingly steep ridge towards Scarth Gap. This was a strain on the knees throughout, and I quickly made a mental resolution that when I came back to the High Stile Range, I would not reverse the order of ascent. This ridge was not merely steep, but well-scraped, and hard underfoot.
By the time I got down the worst of it, to the base of Seat, the soles of my feet were burning. I had the option of the easy route, bypassing this long, subsidiary upthrust to the south, and joining the Pass lower down but, purist that I am, insisted to myself on crossing it along the ridge, before finally reaching Scarth Gap.
This made the third time I had dropped down off that particular Pass, to the Buttermere valley, but this time there was the matter of returning to the Village, not Gatesgarth. However, rather than the road, I had left myself the lakeshore path, which was cool, and quiet, and level, and uncrowded. There was no need for hurry, and the presence of the Lake lifted the spirit of my feet, even if I couldn’t physically plunge them in it for cooling.
In the end, I met the gate where the diagonal stair debouched onto the route, and not too much further was the turn across the valley to the Village, and the little quarry car park where I could relieve myself of my boots and transfer to soft-soled trainers for the drive over Honister and back to Borrowdale.