This weekend just gone we scaled Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. To my overseas readers, hiking up England’s highest mountain might sound about as impressive as wrestling England’s tallest dwarf, but take a look at the shots coming up (click on them to get maximum size!) and see what you think.
Scafell Pike is not a big mountain by European standards, but the ascent itself is 917m from base to summit. On the day we climbed, freezing point was 200m up and the summit was at -8 degrees with -15 degrees wind chill. The water sloshing about in a bottle on my back pack soon froze and hellish blasts of weather were roaring down the valley, taking us from great to near-zero visibility, and back again, in seconds. We were in a state of constant awe from the moment we pulled off the M6 and saw the mountain range in the distance. It’s known as the Lake District but I think the peaks up there are far more impressive than the puddles; I was expecting we would find some rugged low hills to explore, not the vaulting sides of the likes of The Screes and Great Gable.
Scafell Pike, Sca Fell, Lingmell, Great End and a few other peaks make up the Scafell Massif; oh aye, proper mountain terminology up here lad. If you check this link, you’ll find a story to a helicopter rescue of a stricken climber on the day we went up, the 7th rescue this year. Last winter I went up Snowdon, and a couple of years before I walked up Ben Nevis (though this was June, but then I was wearing skate trainers and jeans) and I’d say Scafell Pike is by far the wildest. There is certainly no visitor centre like the one at Snowdon, and no signs or marked paths such as you find on Ben Nevis. Because the Pike is set back in the Massif, it’s hard enough finding the bleddy place in the first place.
We met hikers coming down as we were going up who had turned back before reaching the summit because of snow, ice and zero visibility. We pressed on thinking we would just turn back of things got heavy. We reached the lower part of the Massif and decided to go up Lingmell since it looked clear and doable. Not long after, a couple wearing crampons passed us and we asked them out of interest where Scafell Pike was. They pointed to a spot up in the mist, saying it was just 200-300m, and that directly ahead of us was the worst part, so based on that we thought we might as well give Scafell Pike a go after all.
That bit directly ahead of us was tricky. Reb lurched about all over the place, oblivious that her paws seemed to be grip like sandpaper to a sappling whilst I scrabbled about behind her, often using the lead for stability. We reached the false summit which was feet deep in snow. To our east we could see the weather from hell rolling down the valley, at this point I was thinking we should be heading down to the Massif where we would be able to sit it out or at least bum shuffle down the slope we came up on without exposing ourself to that much risk. But just ahead of us a pure white slope emerged out of the whiteness. This was the final climb to the summit of the highest mountain in England and on this day I was surprised we’d made it even this far, with no crampons, on effectively what was a long dog walk. I was ready to turn away happy enough when I saw Kate just start walking forward and up it. Just like that, like some perfect Cribbar set wave that suddenly stopped being so threatening, it was there for the taking. Reb obviously caught on right away that that was where we were going and I stepped forward and began kicking my boots into the slope, toe poking up it.
The summit was insanely windy. Clouds and weather were blasting in, broken patches were revealing incredible glimpse of the mountains all around us. Everything was in flux. It was brutally cold but so energizing. A few hardy types with crampons and all the gear were hanging around up there, one bloke was swigging something from a hip flask. It was a brilliant feeling; I’m very naive to this mountain lark but to me it felt like being on the surface of the moon. Earlier we really thought we might not make it but there we were. It was that moment that galvanised us to start planning future adventures, more of which I expect to be blogging soon…
The graceful, nay, ethereal Northern Inuit x Czech Wolfdog really did her ancestry proud that day and showed her true mettle and connection with the wild, apart from the fact she didn’t. Reb you see, pulled like a runaway train ALL THE WAY UP SCAFELL PIKE and then pulled like a runaway train powered by rocket fuel ALL THE WAY DOWN SCAFELL PIKE. Finally, five and a half hours later when we reached the base, she found a stick and invented a game of solitaire catch just to burn a few more calories.
We saw just one other dog on the mountain, a long-haired collie owned by a mountain rescue-fell runner who had made it to the summit. The collie was wearing a jacket and didn’t seem to want to hang around. After the fell runner and his dog left the summit Kate and I exchanged surprised remarks about how anyone would want to actually run on the mountain on a day like this, for surely the chance of injury alone would be too great? I mean I don’t mind taking the odd risk, but you’d never find me on a fell run.
The whole day long Reb tugged and pulled against the lead. If nothing else she displayed a level of stamina and tenacity I never knew could exist in a dog (pity it can’t some how be channelled, I could save quite a bit on meter readings). Reb’s never seen snow before but when it started falling and we were walking over great swathes of the stuff, she didn’t give a shit. She showed no appreciation that we were taking her back to her roots on a glorious frozen, wild mountain. She didn’t seem to notice the minus 15 wind chill, the fact that we were climbing for three hours, the massive expansive wilderness stretching out all around us, it was all completely within her stride for all Reb was bothered about was the f***ing sheep. She smelled them on the wind and spied them miles away hunkering in hollows. In the photos where she looks serene, she is in fact gazing at distant sheep, plotting her assault. I made sure I kept a very tight grip on her lead that day for the fell runner at the summit had told us he knew the farmer, and that the farmer would shoot loose dogs he saw chasing his sheep.
The unwitting fell runner
My introduction to fell running was sudden and unannounced. We were descending a particularly tricky stretch of steep grassy stuff about 500m up. There was of course no path, the ground was uneven as hell, on one side was a horrible snow covered drop off to death and on the other was a rocky stream. You couldn’t see that far ahead because of the convex nature of the slope. I was kicking my boot into the slope to take another step down when Reb made a sudden lurch. Just lately the bugger has become even stronger and I even find myself struggling to hold her. With my concentration and weight focussed else where, it was too easy for her to take me by surprise and she whipped the lead from my hands before shooting down the hill after a lone random fleeing sheep.
I was white hot with rage. I flew down the hill after the bugger. Never mind the farmer shooting her, if I’d had a gun on me at that point I’d have shot the bloody dog myself. With Canon DSLR hanging from my neck, pack bouncing about and 4lbs of boot on my feet I proceeded to set my personal best (albeit gravity assisted) 200m sprint, completely anaerobically and I know that for a fact as I was shouting in wild fury for Reb to let up as I gave chase. It’s probably luck that I didn’t turn an ankle (or good boots, or years of edging myself across the sand to the water against the pull of a powered up kite) but I finally caught a glimpse of that familiar grey and white menace and she stopped and turned to look at me. I was so surprised when she began to creep up the hill back to me that all anger melted away and I was soon patting and rubbing her while she flattened her ears down and nuzzled me back as if to say ‘I’m really so sorry, but it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?’.
Wuh, you Bugger-Lugs!