I'm writing this on 11th January, 02013 at the The Inn at Keswick. A sign somewhere in town has informed me that Keswick's been voted the most dog-friendly city in the UK; the town even has a pub called the Dog & Gun where dogs are more than welcome. Here at the Inn, you can see its true: several people have large dogs lying or sitting next to them. This was true of Juneau as well, maybe it's just a thing that adventurous folk have dogs and want their dogs to be with them.
I'm eating the breadbasket which, for £2.75, seems a steal: two six inch loaves of warm coupled with a generous dish of butter and an equally-sized quantity of olive oil. The decour is dark wood everywhere and quite conversation from the tables around me, mostly older folk. A few younger men are sitting at the bar having a conversation with the bar lady. Across the worn wood floor some stairs ascend to the faded carpet of a hallway which terminates at a sagging radiator and, just out of sight, the reception desk for the hotel above me.
Yesterday, I decided to go on another walk. It had been clear—really clear—the whole morning. After days of clouds and intermittent rain, this was remarkable. In fact, it was so clear, and still early enough in the day that I thought I'd climb a big mountain.
But the biggest mountain in the area, Scafell Pike, turned out to only be accessible by taking a bus, which I wasn't too keen on doing. I decided instead on Skiddaw, which is close enough that it practically looms over Keswick from the North. Of course, it wasn't until sometime in the mid-afternoon that I got ready to leave.
Helen asked me if I was bringing layers and brought me a bottle of water, an orange, and a granola bar, “Just in case!” When everyone around you is treating something seriously, you begin to treat it seriously yourself. I decided to bring my backpack along and threw in the wind pants, the sweatshirt, hand warmers, the GPS, and the map—no random wandering on this approach!
And, because this has become serious, I text my uncle (“I'm going to head up Skiddaw via Slades Beck in Millbeck. Coming down via Little Man behind Latrigg. I'll actually take the map with this time.”) and then head out.
I head through town feeling happy and warm, the square is a mish-mash of people who are all milling about without discernible purpose. I dodge around them and swing into Booths, the grocery store. Where clerks point me in the direction of the sandwich selection. They have Cheese Plougman's! I grab this, a banana, and a chicken and bacon sandwich, which I eat immediately.
By the river I take a right and head up to the round-about connecting the town to the A-road. Wisely avoiding getting run-over, I cross onto a smaller road. One of the kinds that has high hedges, is wide enough for a single car, and sports a speed limit around sixty miles per hour. But there's a sidewalk, so it's okay.
Naturally, now that I'm actually heading for the mountain, which has been clear all day, a cloud drifts up from beyond and obscures the summit. For the rest of the walk I wait for it to go away, but there is no such luck.
Off to the South, I can see the forested hill my path wrapped around the other day…
…and Cat Bells, looking striking in the afternoon light.
And there's Barrow, amid a tumble of other peaks.
The road narrows and the sidewalk abruptly ends. But there are some grassy bits by the low hedges on either side, so I continue onwards. When cars comes, I jump up on the grass and squeeze myself into the hedges and wave at the drivers, who wave back. As I come around the corner, the sidewalk abruptly resumes. I pass a man loading hay from his truck into a wheelbarrow; his sheep, sensing a meal, are flowing towards him across the field. “You've peeked their interest!”, I observe. “Aye!”, he replies, “They know what's comin'.”
There's a sign saying “Footpath” next to a narrow sideroad; I head down it. A quarter-mile or so in, a sign tells me that the road is now private and another sign saying, “Public Footpath” points me across an undisturbed green field.
But beneath the innocuous green grass there's a little squishing going on. It's a damp field. I pass through a gate into another field, much the same. At the far side another gate lets me out of the fields altogether and back onto what I at first take to be a path. I quickly realize my mistake: it's more like a hundred-yard ooze-puddle through which sheep must be regularly driven. Eventually I give up on trying to find a dry route and just head down the middle. Fortunately, it turns out that the ooze is only superficial and I find a layer of hard rocks just below.
I pass through the gate at the end of this and follow the road around the corner into the middle of a farm yard. But it's easy to see where to go next.
The footpath goes a little farther and then into the middle of a farmyard where there are no signs. I point across it to where I think the footpath goes and a man driving a roaring frontloader points the same way and nods. More muck.
Abruptly, the footpath terminates in a narrow lane. Above me, the peaks are much closer. An old man with a face nearly as peaky is staring contentedly at me from his garden. “Is that the way to Skiddaw?”, I ask, pointing. He nods, “Aye, a left at the top of the lane and ye'll find the path on yer right.”
And, sure enough, just past a gate with a sign saying, “Eggs: £1.75 a dozen”, I find the path.
I'm immediately glad for the backpack. On my last couple of walks I've ended up carrying jackets and such in my hands while climbing, which is bothersome. Now I only have one layer on and am climbing cool. Which is good, because I've chosen the most vertical route on the map in order to try to make the peak before sunset.
Fences are not a problem, at least here. The whole way to this point I've been crossing different fields, lanes, and yards. Walkability seems well-established. Many fences have gates, which everyone seems careful to close, and those fences without gates often have ways to climb over them. I'm not sure why any particular gate, stile, path, or right of way is where it is, but as of 02000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act provides a limited freedom to roam.
My plan is to gain the ridge early on, if possible, and follow it towards the mountain. I avoid a few narrower side trails leading off towards what I'm sure would be epic views of the valley.
As I climb higher, clouds continue to seep across the head of the valley with a speed indicating a pass. The air moving past me is uncomfortable chill, but I'm still staying warm by moving. For all this there's oddly little sound and I can hear a river tumbling off of the peaks across the valley.
On the ridge top itself, everything is obscured in cloud. Occasionally these will thin and the world will, for a few minutes, be washed with the most ambient lighting of the most incredible shade of amber.
As I crest the ridge, which I now know to be a peak, I see a couple coming from the opposite direction. We reach the summit at about the same time. They're wearing all kinds of layers, and hats, and things over they're mouths and everything they are wearing is covered with frost. They stare at me.
“Is Skiddaw up that way?”, I ask, pointing without a hat or mittens, my pant legs zipped open, my jacket zipped down.
“Yes, you'll go down a ways and past a tarn then up the rocks. It's bloody freezing up there, though. Surprised it's so warm here! You have layers?”
I affirm that I do and we walk off in different directions as yet another sunset (rise?) sweeps through the clouds.
I descend through a ghost world to the tarn. Sure enough, the temperature drops considerably. I stop by the lake and pull on the wind pants, the Gortex jacket, the turtle fur neck warmer, the hat, the gloves, pack hand warmers in the gloves, and then continue. At this point, I usually imagine that the next thing to happen will be a heads-up display dropping down to provide real-time targeting in front of my eye. I'm suddenly ensconced in high-tech survival clothing produced by technologic processes which are themselves produced by other processes. These clothes are the net output of a century of scientific innovation.
Looking back, the summit on which I met the couple is just a memory of light.
The trail rises steeply now. It's dark in the clouds and occasionally I see precipitous drops off of neighbouring slopes. There's no danger of slipping far, if I do, but I don't fancy wandering about. Despite the wind and cold, breaks do appear in the clouds and then it's all worth it and I use those moments to plot my course upwards.
And then, with no warning, the trail lets onto a flat area with a stony windblock. I look around for the kinds of things you find on the top of a mountain, like metal tubes with books inside, but there's none of that. Conclusion, this isn't the summit. The ground looks like it slopes away in one direction, but not the other, though it's too cloudy to really tell much. I follow the level ground and discover another windblock, bingo.
At the next windblock I stop, take off my gloves (my fingers immediately are cold and red), and pull out the map. The summit appears as an elongated zone with two distinct peaks; I must be on the southern one. With difficulty, I get the map folded again, and head north. The trail descends maybe thirty feet and then comes back up to a small peak with unmistakable mountain-peak-things.
It's interesting to think that Skiddaw, at 931m, is only 745m above Keswick, which means that the minimal amount of energy to get something here is 530kJ (123 Calories)—less than the energy content of a Krispy Kreme Original Glazed donut (200 Calories). If my energy conversion is only 10% efficient, then the climb has been about 1000 Calories. Various online charts say that hill/mountain-climbing takes about 500 Calories per hour and this climb has been about 1.5 hrs, or about 750 Calories. Physics for the win! On the other hand, that means that climbing a mountain is only worth about 3.75 Krispy Kremes, so it's best to avoid those.
Still contemplating the above, I hunker down and pull out the Cheese Ploughman's. Now this is food! Dilemma: to eat it without the gloves and freeze my fingers off or to eat it with the gloves on and risk getting them foody. I try the first one, decide my fingers will freeze off, and finish the second one. But it's cold up here and I've either been carrying tension in my jaw or its very relaxed, because chewing is all kinds of difficult—I have only half of the sandwich.
This isn't really a place to tarry! As I get back to the southern peak, a man in a big red jacket appears through the cloud from the direction I came up. I gesture towards a different part of the cloud, “Is Keswick that way?” He glances around, “I'm pretty sure.”
Just as we finish this exchange, a gush of wind shoves the clouds out of the way, and this time I have my camera ready.
At first the trail is steep and rocky, then just rocky. Loosing altitude is so much easier than gaining it! The trail-highway is no problem to follow. Knowing there are other, smaller trails, which will go down steep slopes and not fancying this in the dark, I stick to my big trail. Another break in the clouds shows me that I've missed Skiddaw Little Man. That'll have to wait for another day.
Later, another break in the clouds shows that I am still high, high above Keswick, but at that point the trail begins to lose altitude aggressively. Off to the side, I can see the hill dropping away even more steeply towards a river.
Eventually, the path levels and sidles up to the parking lot behind Latrigg and joins a bridleway. A man jogs past me, heading upwards, with a headlight on and my isolation is abruptly broken. From then on encounters with torch-wielding people are frequent; I prefer not to use my torch, letting the skyglow light my way through the forest.
I speed walk back through town and burst into the kitchen. “We were debating when to call the rescue team!”, Helen jokes.
Sketch of Skiddaw from Castle Head by Alfred Wainwright