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New Year Trip, 3-9 Jan 2020

Day 1 - Friday

A face, in the window, in the night. A rap on the glass and mist on the pane from mouthed words of entreaty announced to the bunkhouse the arrival of a third member of the group to the two already seated within. A fire in the grate; the rough stone walls reflecting its heat and the oak-beams creaking under the attack from the weather without; a steaming bowl of stew and the shared experience of complete isolation in the shadow of the Lake District fells; all these provided solace to the walkers, remembering the comforts of the world outside and yet forgotten by the inhabitants of the same.

This sublime situation, I am sure, was, at some time, in some place, experienced in that most beautiful national park. Not, however, by us.

Our fire comprised a lone accumulation heater; our stone walls the whitewashed plasterboard of a newly renovated schoolroom; our roof was obscured by the cold, hard light from fluorescent tubes lining the ceiling; and our steaming stew a solitary mug of tea brewed from a teabag sought out by Seb with all his tea-acquiring skill; our isolation complete save for the three pubs, a railway station and a coach hire company, all within walking distance. The only similarity, in fact, between the two superlative extremes, but arguably the only one of any importance, was the shared feeling of 'gathering', the anticipation of times to be had and the unique companionship of the bunkhouse.

And thus it was that after the four friends had recounted their respective Christmases and had explained their respective plans for the week ahead and had complained to each other about their respective work crises, Mary, Seb, Patrick and Ella retired to the bunks for a night's sleep. Sleep that was disturbed only by the harsh cold provided by the central heating, the incessant crash of a fire door which, the current climate contrasting starkly with the scenario in which it was intended to be used, was, at best, reluctant to provide its primary service of remaining shut, and the niggling worry that, by the time they awoke, the expected late-comers, along with the essential club kit, would not have arrived.

Day 2 - Saturday

The new day, however, brought an increased sense of optimism to the previously downcast atmosphere: the bunkhouse had warmed up, the contingent driving from Cambridge had arrived successfully and the weather, it could be construed, was passable.

It was a relief for many there, safe in the knowledge that they would be in the Lakes for the next week or so, not to feel the customary time-pressure of the normal weekend trips. With this in mind, Mary, Seb and Patrick decided to do a relatively straightforward walk to the north of the bunkhouse, passing by Burnmoor Tarn before ascending Illgill Fell and walking along the ridgeline. The weather, when experienced from this advantage, was not, in fact, 'passable'. Dew drops in the cloud, egged on by an enthusiastic wind, formed biting strings of oblique pain in our faces and rendered a glorious view over Wast Water a grey study in fog.

Matters improved, however, as we descended. A magnificent valley opened up to our left as we reached the end of the Water below and a little while later we were treated to a marvellous view of the Sellafield nuclear fuel processing facility. The reader - and I expect the singular is appropriate here - can decide for themselves the extent of any sarcasm in the previous sentence. Towards the end we stopped for a late lunch in a patch of woodland, saw the ancestral home and farmland of Patrick's godmother at Porterthwaite and Low Holme, the latter now relegated to a collection of abandoned farm houses, had some fun scrambling, and crossed over the Ravenglass-Eskdale miniature steam railway line, which, sadly, was not running during our stay, albeit to the relief of our club steam enthusiast, Elliot, who was not on this trip.

As mentioned, the lack of a fireplace was a grave concern. We awoke, however, to find the lack of an associated chimney was of more concern to Ella, who had suddenly developed a burning desire to sweep one out. What was more concerning, was the cockney accent she developed overnight in which she was now singing about going to fly a kite. In the hope that the fresh air might do her some good, we acquiesced, and saw her out, armed with her kite, on a low-level solo walk with the purpose of flying it. When our group arrived home, we found Ella conspicuous by her absence. This negative Ella-shaped space grew ever more noticeable as the afternoon wore on and, as the night drew in, we were on the point of mounting a search party and deploying the spotlights in the joint hope and fear that we might see her being carried away on the high winds at the end of a kite line, or perhaps more in keeping, an umbrella handle, when to our relief, in she rolled. Through the door. Not the chimney.

It has been said that 'the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety'. True as this may be, I think in light of the reports from Ben, Scott, Swati and Mario, we may lend weight to the inverse of this statement. This group, unlike the others, were time-constrained - an unfortunate downside of holding down actual jobs and it had seemed, therefore, prudent to attempt a large horseshoe of local peaks totalling 20km distance and over 1300m of ascent. Propriety established, pleasantness was put to the test. In this respect, the walk was found strikingly lacking. If the weather on top of Illgill was bad, the verbal reports from the Scafell contingent and the visual report from their dripping countenances and exhausted demeanour demonstrated that no improvement was to be found at higher altitudes. This outer façade resembling half-drowned rats, for the most part, extended though all layers of clothing right to the skin, the notable exception being Swati, for whom staying dry below the 'waterproof' layers was not only a remarkable achievement in its own right, but made all the more impressive when we consider this was her first time walking in this country.

It was after this day's walks that our opinion of the bunkhouse began to shift. Amongst the advantages of a place whose lighting could give an operating theatre a run for its money are the effectiveness of its drying room, which unfaultingly provided us, each morning, with comfortable kit, and the reliability of the showers, which exhibited the oft-incomplete trifecta of providing heat, pressure and a quick response.

Our evening meal was cooked by Seb and plans were drawn up, based on the weather forecast, for the next day, which promised to be relatively dry, and the following one, which promised quite the opposite.

Day 3 - Sunday

Seb decided on a solo walk north of Wast Water to count as one of his 'QMD's for his Mountain Leader practice. A small group got up early to do some last-minute valley walking before being consigned, once again, to the plains of Cambridge.

Those remaining decided today was the day to summit Scafell Pike and set off driving, in two cars, to their start point further along the valley. A de facto game of hide and seek ensued, with both parties successfully playing the role of the former and ineffectually executing the duty of the latter, with the result that, although Mary, Oliver, Bill and Alexis began walking approximately 10 minutes before Molly, Linus, Patrick and Ella, neither group saw the other until the end of the day.

The first group set a fast pace and summited the peak successfully. The second group took it easier and, having forded a large stream - the treacherous crossing only made possible by a single pair of walking poles - they looked at the time, looked at the weather, looked at the sad orange mass of concentric contours they would still have to cross and decided that today was not, as it turned out, the day to summit the Pike.

The evening meal was provided by Patrick, but not before a well-deserved outing to the Boot Inn, in which we found the roaring fire and rustic warped tables our bunkhouse so sadly lacked.

Day 4 - Monday

"The rain it raineth every day, upon the just and unjust fella; but more upon the just because, the unjust hath the just's umbrella."

Like a scene from Dr Seuss, we whiled away the hours in the bunkhouse watching the miserable weather outside. A small group did an equally small walk up to Blea Tarn before some of their number returned to Cambridge, and Seb, in a bombproof combination of four waterproof layers, ventured out for a wild swim.

Out on the wiley, windy moors lie the remains of a Roman fort. Nowadays it is called Hardknott, but historically it was known as Mediobogdum (good luck pronouncing that one), and it was to here that we decided to venture as an excuse to say that, at the very least, we had all been outside.

Having avoided driving off the notorious 30% inclines of Hardknott Pass, the next step was to brave the weather, which, if it was bad in the valley (it was), was even worse at the Fort. We stood, miserably, in the remains of a Roman sauna, desperately trying to drive visions of real saunas from our minds. We spent a sum total of 15 minutes at that Fort, wandering around the admittedly impressive remains, occasionally pointing out details on the ground which had been mentioned in the literature: the headquarters building, the commander's residence and the buttressed granaries. What we did not point out, because it was not there, was any sign of accommodation for the private Roman soldier: they were likely housed in wooden structures, or even temporary leather tents - we could only imagine the suffering they must have endured, thousands of miles away from friends and family, and living in a climate so at odds with their Mediterranean heat.

The evening saw us playing a game of cards known as 'President'. This game forms a hierarchy of players: the higher ones benefiting by being allowed to ask for a certain number of good cards from those at the bottom of the rankings, who are thus disadvantaged. Suffice to say that the glimmer of hope given to these poor underdogs, and the sense of power to those at the top (forming a rather accurate microcosm of society as a whole) makes it a highly addictive game, and one which we played until the end of the trip. It should also be noted that, although the trip book records the majority of the rounds played, some early rounds were not written down, and it was in these rounds that some (rather disgruntled) players peaked by maintaining the 'President' and 'Vice President' positions in multiple consecutive rounds.

Day 5 - Tuesday

We woke up at 11:00am. It was still raining.

In the afternoon we managed to drag ourselves out on a low-level valley walk, which turned out to be very enjoyable: we saw Eel Tarn and, at the recommendation of the local pub owner, Stanley Force Waterfalls.

Day 6 - Wednesday

With the last two days having been so miserable, many decided to take advantage of today's good weather, and the final full day of the trip, to complete some more ambitious walks.

Oliver went on a short local walk and Mary hiked to Ravenglass to catch her train.

Patrick, still smarting from having to turn back from the Pike earlier in the week and wanting to improve his map-reading skills was, at first, accompanied by Bill and Alexis until they branched off at Burnmoor Tarn to pursue Illgill Fell, leaving him alone. The approach to Scafell was a perfect playground for map-reading, with opportunity to practise footpath hopping, pacings, bearings and feature spotting; and yet, as the gradient increased, the situation took a downhill turn. Finding the location of a sheepfold (marked on the map but absent on the ground), pausing to take photos of rainbows and writing a short message in a patch of snow all ate up valuable time.

There is no safe route directly from Scafell to Scafell Pike. As the local mountain rescue website notes, walkers have a choice: they may either brave 'Broad Stand', a scramble more akin to a rock climb designated as a mountain rescue 'black spot'; or they may choose to descend 350m, past Foxes Tarn, before regaining their height on a steep, unforgiving, gravely footpath. It was at the bottom of this descent that Patrick, both with his heart set on Scafell Pike and with the knowledge of time hurrying him on, had to make a decision. Should he go forward? Should he summit the Pike and risk an unpleasant, even dangerous, descent in the dark? Or should he turn for home now, in the knowledge that his next opportunity for this climb would be in months, if not years, in the future?

No one else with whom to confer. Nothing but himself and his watch; the peak or the valley. He thought. He wavered. He committed. He turned his face upwards, and trudged on. Would this vaulting ambition, which o'leaps itself, now fall on th'other?

Sunset was at 1600. 1330 was his limit: if he had not reached the trig point by then it would be folly to continue.

1245: the rescue box at Mickledore was reached, most contour lines had been crossed, but 500, mostly horizontal, metres along the ridge remained until the summit.

1300: the trig point was seen, the climb complete, the challenge won.

1320: the descent was well under way, the terrain was becoming better underfoot, the line of cairns marking the path was clearly visible, the valley opened up before him and the lake was spotted in the distance through the emerging clouds.

It was the wrong lake.

It was also the wrong path. The line of cairns, seen once as an invaluable guide through the mist, now became a curse - a turning somewhere, ill marked and never seen, had diverted Patrick down towards Wast Water, the opposite direction in which he wanted to go. Continuing was not an option: Wast Water was too far from the bunkhouse to walk. Going back was not an option: the time taken to re-ascend, find the correct path and continue from there formed a serious risk of a night hike. The only course of action, and it was not a pleasant one, was to cut across country, on a compass bearing, at the top of the highest peak in England, in the mist, to intersect with the intended footpath.

And thus it was that, fighting down a panicked heart rate, in something akin to a bear hunt, he set off on his mission. Check compass; 20 paces, check compass; 20 paces; avoid a crevice; check compass; 20 paces... The repetition over what was, in reality, a few hundred metres felt like an eternity. Thoughts of stone-lined footpaths and tarmacked roads seared through his mind as he trod the unforgiving shards that littered the plateau.

1340: Mickledore again, and the rescue box, and the familiar path down. And most of all, relief.

The rest of the walk, blessedly, went without incident, although the o'leaping of various rocks certainly resulted in a fall on th'other until, tired from the mental stress and physical exertion, he reached the relative safety of the road back to the bunkhouse and, sending a text to let his compatriots know he would be late, set a weary course for home.

This text, in light of the events later that evening, seemed a trifling irony.

Seb and Bronwen, early in the day, had set off on a walk very similar to the group from day 1 (Little Stand, Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell, Esk Pike, Scafell Pike, Scafell and Slight Side): an ambitious walk at the best of times, but doable in a day, and with a nominal end time of 1615. By 1730, they had not arrived at the bunkhouse, and it was pitch black outside. We were stepping out side to drive up the valley to look out for them on the roads and attempt to make contact by phone when, in the distance, we saw two bobbing lights.

They had decided, after some knee problems on the ridgelines, to take an easier, but longer, route down into the valley, and to cut off the final two peaks. From their walk. Not the mountain.

Day 7 - Thursday

After packing up quickly and tidying the bunkhouse we set off home. Bill, Alexis, Oliver and Bronwen stopped off to climb Harter Fell, during which time they saw a rare atmospheric phenomenon known as a 'Brocken Spectre' - for Bronwen, this was second in two days!

Patrick Taylor