This was the walk of Sunday 13th March,2016.
For a number of years I’d frequently seen posts on various forums and blogs of people that had completed the walk from Bassenthwaite over Ullock Pike and up to Skiddaw and regarded them with jealousy! The view of the startling Ullock Pike strutting out from amongst Wainwright’s ‘Skiddaw family’ is without doubt one of the ‘must-see’, iconic views of the Lake District and I hoped to one day experience it for myself.
I was delighted then when Karl, my walking companion, texted me to say that he had decided on a walk for us…Skiddaw via Ullock Pike and returning via Bakestall. If one were to include the summits of Long Side and Carl Side that would make for four additional ‘Wainwrights’ with the added bonus of ascending Skiddaw via the ‘hard way’.
Thus we arrived at our destination at just before ten o’clock on Sunday and were booted and geared up a little thereafter. I’d read a lot about this walk and had readied myself for a stern challenge. At first I was impressed…with my walking fitness, I didn’t appear to be struggling. Then, we reached Watches where all that changed! Ullock Pike was trying its best not to be inconspicuous, it stood out like the proverbial ‘sore thumb’. However this was but a shrinking violet compared to the sheer ‘in your face’ attitude proffered by the broad side of the looming hulk of Skiddaw – the undisputed king of the area. I’d ascended Skiddaw in 2013 via the ‘easy, tourist’ route. What I could see of the path which began at Carl Side and appeared to climb up at a thirty degree angle, looked anything but easy. First we had Ullock Pike to traverse, and in itself that was no mean feat. Ullock Pike can be likened to Clougha…save for the fact that one (the former) is almost a thousand feet higher than the other (the latter). Clougha has numerous, well, cloughs, areas of depressions, sudden rises, Ullock Pike has these in spates! Some might refer to these rises as false summits, I could probably summon up some more robust sounding adjectives. After no more than thirty minutes walking, my thighs were nicely warmed up thank you very much, some might even say burning!
I found it surprising to see many people on this side of the mountain (Skiddaw) with this being the side for the more adventure, thrill-seeking, walkers. All the same, whilst we would have seen exponentially more walkers on the tourist side, we did see and say ‘hi’ to perhaps twenty or more walkers during our climb to the summit of Ullock. When we arrived at the summit, the views of most of the peaks of the Lake District opened out to us. Grisedale Pike looked (to me anyway) as tempting as ever, Helvellyn appeared quite near and Bassenthwaite lake itself looked enormous. What was most pre-eminent in my mind was that fearful looking path up Skiddaw, oh my it looked steep! Karl and Sue must have seen the colour wash right out of my face and both did their best to reassure me that it was wider than it looked and would not be the Skiddaw equivalent of Striding Edge. That being said, it was a good deal narrower than any ‘edge’ upon which I’ve placed my feet! I was nervous and excited at the same time.
From Ullock Pike we first descended then walked along the level edge which is Long Side or at least Long Side Edge – I don’t know if this is technically a mountain, fell or just a col on the route over to Carl Side. Nevertheless it made for a great stopping point at which we could consume our lunch, it was 12:02 after all. It makes sense to eat when there is significantly more of the walk yet to do – as opposed to some walks when we don’t eat until the apex of the walk when, invariably, it’s all downhill from there and the surplus energy gets put into reserve. The more that I walk, the more planning and preparation goes into that walk.
After lunch I pretty much charged across to the rounded summit of Carl Side as I wanted to start work on that unnerving track up mighty Skiddaw. We dropped down probably around fifty to one hundred feet in less than a quarter of a mile, this was great apart from the fact that it then meant that we would obviously have to climb up the same distance…and then some! I won’t lie, the first few yards of the ever increasing slope were tough but this soon subsided and was replaced by an even tougher gradient. I noticed with some trepidation that the path was at least half as wide as I had believed owing to the majority of it being covered in a three inch layer of snow. ‘Oh great’, thought I, ‘not only am I leaning into the mountain, but now I have to watch every footstep as well!’ And watch I did as the gradient once again increased and I began to stumble every few yards even though I now had my eyes glued to my feet! On six occasions I fell forward and had to put my hand out to steady myself. A few people on the way down passed close by me – a mid-twenties woman with deep brown eyes, a very young lad with blonde hair and his ‘meat-head’ of a father who had seen fit to only wear a t-shirt on the top half of his body – no coat (ah I’m only jealous really, if there was an ounce of fat on him it was a lonely one!). The most unnerving moment was the encounter with a group of mountain bikers (I’m not aware of the collective noun, pack, herd, crash?), one of whom seemed intent on descending the monstrous slope via my route! Fortunately for us both, his friends were able to persuade him not to commit at one and the same time suicide and manslaughter – believe me, if he had come my way he would have been the first of his ilk orbiting the earth!
I stopped on a number of occasions – I was jelly-legged and totally spent, including mentally, I hadn’t been this trembly since…well since nearly falling in Holden’s Brook during the Amble – before that it would have been since dropping (quite literally) down Great Gable in 2014! After a morning full of false summits I was expecting another…however, after chatting with the more sensible mountain bikers for a few minutes, I was rational enough to notice that one of Skiddaw’s tops (for it has two) was really not that far away, perhaps a hundred feet in distance. A surge of energy flooded through me, this was aided by the sight of Sue and Karl whom I had not seen for a good ten minutes. Full steam (or what was left of it!) ahead and within a moment I had caught them up – well okay they weren’t actually moving! Then, after a moment’s pause, I charged ahead on route to the real top – the one adorned with the trig point and other pieces of ‘hill-bling’. Although there is a drop and then an ascent, momentum carries walkers forward here from one ‘top’ to the other and in a few seconds I was tapping the trig point…and then being mobbed by a zealous group of women who wanted me to take a summit photo of their group, I obliged.
Excellent views from Skiddaw’s summit are seldom witnessed, good yes, but there is normally too much mist or haze around to facilitate the taking of breathtaking scenery. Today’s views could only really be described as fair-to-middling. Yes, we could see all of the Lake District fells, the Isle of Mann and Criffel in Scotland; both floated across their respective bodies of water beautifully and even the mighty Cross Fell and the Dun Fells put in an appearance ..but I would have expected to be able to see all of this and more – I know how greedy that sounds. I was not disappointed, I just wasn’t ecstatic about the views. The sense of achievement having ascended such a steep path – after already taking in the strenuous climb of Ullock Pike, was euphoric, if somewhat exhausting to achieve. I had meant to do Skiddaw again and this was definitely the best way to return to the giant.
I think we stayed at the summit of Skiddaw for ten minutes or so, just about long enough to get a decent ‘slurp’ of water from my under-performing hydration bladder – I really must look into buying something for those of us who don’t have lungs like an Olympic swimmer! I was a bit wary of the descent off Skiddaw – there was no way that I was going to descend via the route by which we had gone up – thank goodness. Karl had told me that we would be dropping down to Bakestall next but in all honesty he could have rifled off the names of any fells he wanted and unless they were really obvious (Helvellyn, Scafell, Grassmoor) I would have believed him, I just don’t know much about this area.
Ordinarily, when I am at the top of a hill, any hill, I only want to descend all the way back to the car- no uphill bits whatsoever. This shows some hill walking inexperience and is a bit lazy, hills aren’t made like that, and neither are valleys, where most hills are found. Fortunately enough for me, the drop off Skiddaw was monumental and a bit snowy in places, both of which led to an enjoyable drop, which seemed to go on and on. Karl did enjoy a slide down a few yards – which looked like fun, I only fell once. Before long we were traversing the top of Bakestall and found ourselves another spot to sit and eat (drink in my case) and admire the views across to Scotland over the Solway Firth. More locally a lake of which I’d never heard (Over Water) came into view and looked ever so cute being so near to Bassenthwaite – which is vast! Other fells that are on my to-do list came into view, Carrock Fell and the viewing platform of Great Calva had been getting larger and now were at their full viewing heights from this aspect.
In spite of the allure of the serenity, which could have kept us there all day, we chose to leave and drop some more…and what a drop. The descent from Bakestall to the Cumbria Way is pretty much like falling downhill. I couldn’t really guess at the gradient, suffice to say, I’m glad we never went up this way as this would have crushed my spirits, each time I turned around to gaze at what we had dropped down it seemed relentless. It’s true to say that certain patches of the downhill stretch were so we that they reminded me of doing the Anglezarke Amble. Ultimately our path down Bakestall led us on to the Cumbrian Way, we turned left and began the sometimes tarmac, sometimes grass track back to where we had parked. It was not all grass and tarmac for all to behold, the stunning Dash Falls were a sight for sore eyes (not that we had sore eyes) and Dead Craggs may have a terrible name but they are quite captivating. I practically welled with pride each time that I took in the whole view of the walk as we walked mile after mile along our tarmac / grass highway. If we had just done the whole of Long Side Edge, from Ullock Pike to Carl Side, this would still be a walk of which anyone could be proud. But we’d gone better than that, we’d done Skiddaw – the hardest way and that was a sensation of unrivalled pride onto which I will hold on for the rest of the year.
The walk’s statistics don’t make for particularly impressive reading, we ascended something like 2,800 feet over roughly nine and a quarter miles. We left the car at 10:02 and returned at around 16:20. I hope to make it back to Skiddaw again at some point, it won’t be this year, it may very well not be for another three years, but this old friend will always be in my thoughts whenever they turn to the subject of mountains, for this is truly a mountain of note, without doubt the king of its area (sorry Blencathra!)
Song of the walk: This Love by Ellie Goulding
Now available on You Tube:Click Here to watch a montage of photos of the day.