Skiddaw, a promise kept and re-made

The Ascent of Skiddaw on the 13th of July, 2013

During a weekend break in the summer(?) of 2009 at Keswick, Christine and I attempted a walk up Keswick’s giant – Skiddaw. We gave up; thanks to an indefatigable wind, turned around and did Latrigg instead! Later on in the day a storm engulfed the town and local environment and we thanked our lucky stars for having the good sense to call off the walk up Skiddaw. I vowed to one day go back. This had stayed with me for four years and after my Scafell Pike walk last month had proved to me that I could get up the 3,000′ mountains Skiddaw seemed the next natural choice. I had high expectations for this walk and the weather, the mountain and my own performance did not disappoint:

Photo of the Hawell monument
The Hawell monument…worshiped by the sheep of Skiddaw

It was at roughly 9.20 that we (Karl and I) arrived at the car park atop Ormathwaite’s Gale Road: 54.618590, -3.115052, the previous ten days had been baking hot and there was every indication that today would be no different. I had packed into my backpack roughly 4.5 litres of water and was still only fairly confident that this would be ample. There would be nothing technical to our walk – go straight up the southern face of Skiddaw and maybe take in Little Man on the way back. The views although fantastic as always were somewhat hazy and that impacted upon their clarity. The Hawell monument was the first, in fact pretty much the only landmark which we passed and today it was surrounded by curious sheep whom seemed to be paying it, not us a great deal of attention. I had seen our path from the main A66 road several miles back and was fully aware of how long and steep it was…except that we are NEVER fully aware how long and steep our paths are going to be until we have done them! This was possibly the longest and steepest path I have ever attempted. Catbells, Winter Hill, Pendle Hill and even Scafell Pike are all fine, steep hills and mountains but not one of them compares to the sheer relentless plod up Skiddaw’s southern face…and the weather was not helping. After roughly one mile I had consumed my two half-litre water bottles…or at least their contents!

Whilst the views to our south included essentially 3/4 of the rest of the Lake District, to our immediate right hand side lay the more mundane face of Lonscale Fell – a mountain which was to stay with us for pretty much most of the walk. Lonscale Fell is probably my favourite illustration in all of the late, great, Alfred Wainwright’s pocket guides and I had informed Karl of my intention to get the best photograph of it that I could…but not from this angle which was of a rather banal lump! We stopped many times, on this occasion I took many photographs…except that I didn’t – I had inadvertently flicked the macro setting onto video and thus much later would discover that I had taken 40 movie files of roughly one to three seconds each!

After some distance we were confronted by a dilemma – to detour off our track and hike up the even steeper-looking path up to Skiddaw Little Man. This mountain is also a Wainwright and has a summit height of 2,838′ putting it into my “Top 20 to do” list, and it it were Autumn then I am fairly sure that we would have gone up it…but not this day in this heat, instead at the gate we were rewarded for our endeavour with the most wonderful gentle path with a very slight downhill stretch for a good three hundred yards.

Photo of Blencathra
Blencathra, shrinking violet? I think not!

Some mountains are relatively quiet and unassuming in their character, Sca fell for instance sits in its’ slightly bigger brothers shade putting obstacles like Lords Rake and Foxes tarn in front of one, almost stating “Leave me alone”. Then there’s Blencathara – the ultimate opposite! Blencathra entices and allures and for the rest of our journey Blencathra would dominate the view in no unassuming way, it’s an exceedingly attractive mountain and at 2,847′ is also on the “To do” list – thankfully not today! After many more stops and the countless cairns en route we started to hit the Birkets – first came South Top with its’ mighty cairn and then our goal- Middle Top the main and highest summit with trig point ‘an’ all!

Photo of The brilliant Ullock Pike ridge
The brilliant Ullock Pike ridge
Karl taking in the wonderful view of the Ullock Pike summit and ridge.
Karl taking in the wonderful view of the Ullock Pike summit and ridge.

A slight but very welcome mist had begun to descend but as our views had been pretty hazy there wasn’t a great deal to spoil…save for the entire Helvellyn range temporarily absconding from view! In my opinion the very best feature of Skiddaw is its’ very top…it is simply amazing. I don’t know whether this is down to the mist or a fleeting attack of high-altitude light-headedness, but to me the summit had a somewhat ethereal feel to it!

Photo of the top of Skiddaw
The Top(s) of Skiddaw

Although I aim not to eulogise about the top of Skiddaw it was a great pleasure to sit here at the top taking in the views of everything lower than us (remember Helvellyn was still under cloud), with Blencathra tempting and Munsgisdale Common apologising for looking more like a Pennine hill than a Lake District Mountain. I could have spent many moments here…eventually I stood up and started taking photographs of the other side of the ridge aiming at the spectacular Ullock Pike with The Edge and Longside Edge, Carlside and Bassenthwaite Lake, Derwentwater – the lake and the fells…

After some moments we walked across to the north top – if this was fifty yards then I would be surprised and then back to the main summit again before beginning our descent of the main path for a few hundred yards whereby we abandoned the increasingly steep and stony drop in favour of the grassy drop down towards our new target – the grassy mound of Sale How.

Photo of Sale How
Sale How

With a summit height of 2,105′ above sea level, making this technically a mountain, one might be forgiven for wondering why Mr Wainwright decided to omit this from Book five…in all honesty it has no outstanding features what-so-ever and as we already have the afore mentioned Mungrisdale Common as a mountain which resembles a Pennine Hill with no outstanding features…it would appear that Sale How has been usurped by its’ less than illustrious neighbour. The drop down to Sale How was in fact harder than the walk up to it! But then if one starts at an altitude of 3,054′ most things beneath this can be taken in one’s stride.

Photo of Lonscale Fell
Lonscale Fell
Photo of a valley
Valley of the giants, one side Skiddaw’s massif, the other Blencathra’s.

We strode on towards the YHA at Skiddaw House in order to pick up the Cumbrian Way path that would take us past the now ever-present Lonscale Fell which was now appearing altogether much more attractive than it previously had some hours earlier. The Cumbrian Way meandered its’ and our way alongside; then part-way up Lonscale Fell as views of Blencathra opposite completely transformed its’ mean edgy profile into one of a gentle grass-covered mound.

Photo of Whit Beck
Whit Beck

Admittedly the waterfalls and odd cave(?) did add a lot of interest – especially on an audio level as the sound of the water cascading across the valley was simply divine – given that my own reservoir was now somewhat lacking in freshness and getting warmer all the time, this added a feeling of revitalisation that my own water supply was unable to provide! We rounded a corner and the Eastern Fells came back into view as did little old Latrigg our final walking destination for the day…still at some distance away. We were to go over Whit Beck at first and I nearly said aloud my belief that this scene was so reminiscent of many little brooks and streams in the shadow of Winter Hill – surely this would border on the sacrilegious here in the Lake District?

At 16:50 we began our ascent of Latrigg via the green grassy path after ignoring Karl’s parked car, initially the idea was to drop off our backpacks at the car but we both agreed that to do so would result in our dropping off of ourselves at the car and us not completing our mission of bagging Latrigg – this being on Karl’s second Wainwright completion list and I was not sure that on my last time up Latrigg I had actually stood at the summit. Although I had wanted to simply charge up and down the little hill weary legs do not facilitate such frivolity – although Karl seemed to be coping with the day’s challenges remarkably well! All the same we made it to the summit soon enough, had a last lingering look over the beautiful Derwentwater and headed back down the less steep low-mobility route back to the car satisified with our day’s achievements.

An email from Karl on Sunday morning lit up my world as his mapping of the previous night revealed that our walk had been 10.8 miles and 3,200′ of ascent.

Photo of Stone from Skiddaw
I promise to return this….soon!

I can not simply ‘do Skiddaw’ once and be done with it. The mountain is too special for such a slap in the face, perhaps others will simply tick it off their list and that be an end to it..not I. I promise myself to re-visit more times that wonderful summit and drink in the gorgeous views, the sense of space and elevation being much greater than other higher summits that I have been to recently. One day – when fitness levels may be up to the task I would love to walk the Edge over Ullock Pike and up to Skiddaw, traverse the summit and take in Little Man as well…one day. But for now farewell very friendly giant and I promise to bring back the tiny piece of you that I have borrowed for illustration’s purposes!


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