Monday, 3 June 2013

Lakeland Eskapade

For a while now it's been an ambition of mine to go to the Lake District and walk the skyline of Eskdale: a horseshoe of hills beginning on Little Stand and Crinkle Crags and ending on Scafell. It's an imposing ridge: it ends on the highest hills in England and is pierced in the centre with the -from Eskdale- pyramid-like form of Esk Pike. I had a free day this week and thought I'd go over and at least have a look at it. If I got up early enough and if the weather turned out to be good, there was a chance I might do it all. I'd be pushing myself to the limit (a very modest limit when I compare it to some people's ideas of mountain walks and runs) so I had decided this was one walk I'd do alone.

The weather sounded reasonable - that is to say, no rain was forecast. So long as it wasn't going to be a wet day, some sort of pleasant walk would be possible... Unfortunately, with regard to the whole ridge, I didn't get going nearly early enough and, in the end, I did only a small part of it. Nevertheless, I had a good day out. To reach Eskdale I had to drive across the Dales to Windermere and then, rounding the Northern end of lake, take the single-track road that threads its way West over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes. These are not particularly high (there are higher passes in the Yorkshire Dales) but they are notoriously steep. Wrynose is not that bad for anyone used to hilly, rural driving. Hardknott, though, is a real challenge. Soon after leaving the bridge and farm at Cockley Beck the road -rutted and potholed at this point- rears up in a series of insane, steep z-bends. You might very soon decide it would be best to turn back but by that time you've passed the point of no return. The ascent -so long as you don't meet people coming the other way in bad places- turns out to be not quite as bad as you expected. What I dislike, though, is the descent of the Western side. Rocks throng the bends. In places it slopes down so steeply you wonder if you have a gear low enough to stop you careering off the unfenced edges of the road into space. The worst bends are smeared black with skidmarks. You mentally rehearse unclipping the seatbelt, throwing open the door and jumping out. If the technology fails you, would you have time to do this before the car plunged into space?

I felt unusually apprehensive and wondered why? Then it occurred to me I had probably never driven over Hardknott from East to West alone before. East to West has to be, I think, the most daunting way to tackle it. It had been a lot easier with a passenger or two to help lighten the atmosphere.

I arrived at the far side and parked just down the hill from Hardknott Roman Fort. It was noon. Not only that, but the tops were in cloud. The whole ridge would be impossible (well, for me) but I decided to set off anyway and drop out when I'd had enough. If I did manage the whole route later, it would help to have prior knowledge of the early stages. My plan was to walk back the way I'd come, back over Hardknott to the farm at Cockley Beck in the Duddon Valley. From there, I planned to ascend Little Stand, the rocky summit at the Eastern end of the route and from there to follow the ridge over Crinkle Crags and beyond. I'd see how far I could get. When I'd had enough, I'd drop off the West side of the ridge (not literally - I'd choose a comparitively gentle slope) and make my way down Upper Eskdale back to the car.

It didn't take long to walk back over the Pass. It was reassuring to see other drivers approaching its challenges as apprehensively as I had, minutes before. Once back in the Duddon Valley, I set off up the slopes of Little Stand, stopping for a rest just below the summit. I ate a sandwich and admired the view. I was now looking down on the area of Hardknott Pass. Beyond it, the rocky summit of Harter Fell rose up.

Shortly after Little Stand the cloud closed in and the wind got up. Walking into a strong wind, navigating with map and compass across rocky terrain, I found myself slowing down to a snail's pace. Everything but my immediate surroundings was shrouded in cloud. My fear was that I should accidentally turn to the East and find myself in Langdale, miles from my starting point. This approach to the top of Crinkle Crags was unfamiliar to me. The path boasts a "bad step" - a short, easy climb - which concentrates the mind wonderfully on a windy day when the rock is wet. I found this film on Youtube of a party surmounting it in better weather - the sort of day when you feel like hanging around and pulling out the video camera.

As it happened, the bad step was far less intimidating -I thought at the time- than driving over Hardknott Pass. The rest of the route to Crinkle Crags summit is straightforward. Once there, I stopped to eat again. Progress was painfully slow, so much so that I decided to continue along the ridge towards Bowfell but to then drop down into Eskdale as soon as I felt it was safe to do so. I did not want to descend a short way, only to find I had to reascend as I'd reached the top of an area of crags. I perused the map and chose a suitable-looking place - not only was descent there relatively crag-free, but the point where the descent route turned off the ridge looked easy to find,  as it coincided with a cluster of tarns.

I had not descended far before I found myself stepping out of the cloud. The ground was steep but at least I was out of the wind and could see my surroundings again. It was reassuring to see that the patterns made by the mountain streams in the valley below me corresponded exactly to the ones on the map and it wasn't long before I found myself walking along the bank of the infant Esk. I kept looking behind me just in case the mountains decided to have a laugh at my expense and shake off their woolly hats. It was good for morale to see that they did not. The whole ridge was reduced to a brooding mass of the grey stuff. Down in the valley the weather was wonderful.The forecast had been right. For all the wind and cloud, it had never really rained: wind, wet rock and dampness in the air, but no rain.

The Esk looked very inviting as I walked alongside it and I regretted not bringing a towel. Then, seven hours after I'd left it, I found myself back at the car. Time to go home, stopping off on the way to see friends in Windermere for coffee, conversation and (thank you) a timely bowl of chopped fruit.

I've recently been reading about Coleridge's forays into the Lakeland mountains and the day reminded me of his exploits in several respects. My wild afternoon on a rocky ridge would have been right up his street, I think. In particular, the "bad step" had me thinking of his descent of Broad Stand -an easy rock climb on Scafell, during which:

every Drop increased the Palsy of my Limbs — I shook all over, Heaven knows without the least influence of Fear, and now I had only two more to drop down, to return was impossible — but of these two the first was tremendous, it was twice my own height, and the Ledge at the bottom was so exceedingly narrow, that if I dropt down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards and of course killed myself. My Limbs were all in a tremble — I lay upon my Back to rest myself, and was beginning according to my Custom to laugh at myself for a Madman, when the sight of the Crags above me on each side, and the impetuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northward, overawed me. I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance and Delight...

I did not find myself overwhelmed on this occasion -either by a palsy of the limbs or a prophetic trance- but it reminded me that one has to know one's limits. I am not a good rock-climber and I have a well-developed sense of self-preservation: there is a line between the bad step on Crinkle Crags and the precipitous drops of Broad Stand which I personally would not cross without the security of a rope. However, with a little creative re-writing, Coleridge's account could almost apply to my earlier motorised descent of Hardknott Pass.

I was reminded of Coleridge again as I walked through the valley beside the Esk. The valley twists and turns, so that in the upper reaches of it one is surrounded by nearby fells and is denied any distant view. Did Coleridge walk here? (Anyone who has read more of Coleridge than I will probably know). If he had he would have seen almost exactly what I saw: water, rock, grassland, sky, just as now. There were no buildings, pylons, wind turbines, power stations, or cities to be seen. I tried to imagine what it would be like to see my surroundings through Coleridge's eyes. I found myself thinking of part of Wordsworth's Prelude I've been reading recently:

Those incidental charms which first attached
My heart to rural objects, day by day
Grew weaker, and I hasten on to tell
How Nature, intervenient till this time
And secondary, now at length was sought
For her own sake. But who shall parcel out
His intellect by geometric rules,
Split like a province into round and square?
Who knows the individual hour in which
His habits were first sown, even as a seed?
Who that shall point as with a wand and say
"This portion of the river of my mind
Came from yon fountain?" Thou, my Friend! art one
More deeply read in thy own thoughts; to thee
Science appears but what in truth she is,
Not as our glory and our absolute boast,
But as a succedaneum, and a prop
To our infirmity. No officious slave
Art thou of that false secondary power
By which we multiply distinctions, then
Deem that our puny boundaries are things
That we perceive, and not that we have made.
To thee, unblinded by these formal arts,
The unity of all hath been revealed,
And thou wilt doubt, with me less aptly skilled
Than many are to range the faculties
In scale and order, class the cabinet
Of their sensations, and in voluble phrase
Run through the history and birth of each
As of a single independent thing.
Hard task, vain hope, to analyse the mind,
If each most obvious and particular thought,
Not in a mystical and idle sense,
But in the words of Reason deeply weighed,
Hath no beginning.  

from Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 2: Schooltime 

There's so much in there that seems so perceptive - and modern in it's outlook. I like the way he looks forward to the ground to be covered by psychology and psychoanalysis (even though he concludes that it's a "hard task" and a "vain hope to analyse the mind"):

But who shall parcel out
His intellect by geometric rules,
Split like a province into round and square?
Who knows the individual hour in which
His habits were first sown, even as a seed?
Who that shall point as with a wand and say
"This portion of the river of my mind
Came from yon fountain?" 

And I like his description of

...that false secondary power
By which we multiply distinctions, then
Deem that our puny boundaries are things
That we perceive, and not that we have made.

There, in Eskdale: earth, rock, water, sky, cloud, ant, me - were these all merely "puny boundaries" imposed by me, myself, on my surroundings? I was reminded then of a Zen koan, collected in The Gateless Gate:

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: "The flag is moving."
The other said: "The wind is moving."
The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them: "Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving."

There is a verse attached to this koan:

 Wind, flag, mind moves,
The same understanding.
When the mouth opens
All are wrong