A very long day on the Scafell Massif
That unknown mountaineering duo Machin and Livesey were back in Lakeland for a big day out. Machin wanted to bag a load of peaks and walk down in the dark; Livesey wanted to get some dramatic photographs during the golden hour, bag a load of peaks and walk down in the dark. This is the usual recipe for an M and L day out with only the multi-pitch rock climb absent; it would appear the boys are getting lazy with age!
Anyway, if I can revert to the first person I’ll start by saying there was one mountain firmly on our wish list. A sin of omission had seen us inexplicably fail to put Scafell beneath our boots and it was high time we bagged the bastard, preferably via the infamous ‘Broad Stand’, though not before lobbing a few other tops into our bag first.
We left Seathwaite in Borrowdale relatively late for a big day and neglected to rush, enjoying as we were the wonderful walk up Grains Gill with Great End towering above at the valley head. And what a grand sight it is, its north east face a winter crag if ever we saw one. Rather than walk around it we went for a closer look and an ascent of Cust’s Gully which we found to be utterly minging. Still, there’s a lot of good scrambling on that face so we found an entertaining route to the summit where a good view of the Scafell Massif unfolded. Time for some peak bagging!
Ill Crag came and went, then Broad Crag followed by the roof of England itself where perversely we didn’t even stop to touch the trig point. No, we had other fish to fry. Now then, Scafell Pike is undoubtedly the highest peak in Lakeland but in no way is it the finest. It’s a contestable point but that accolade may just go to Scafell, our next port of call.
We had three options; one, a big descent and re-ascent via Foxes Tarn; Two, a descent from Mickledore to Lords Rake which for the last few years has been regarded as risky due to a detached pinnacle that threatens to collapse just when you are underneath it; our third option was Broad Stand, a notorious accident black spot and a place I had retreated from 7 years ago with my good friend Juggs. Broad Stand it is then!
I’ll admit that I was feeling a little apprehensive as we stood at the foot of our ‘scramble’ so before I lost my nerve I squeezed through ‘Fat man’s agony’ and scooted left, then up the delicate slab to the crux step, a 7ft high corner which has been polished to a high sheen. It was leaning past the vertical, slippery and on getting to grips with it I didn’t like it. The thing is, if you come off it then bad things will happen. Maybe we should have brought a rope! Peter joined me and threw himself at it, almost pulling over the top before coming to the conclusion that he was about to fall to his death. Fortunately a bit of combined tactics proved effective in preserving Peter as we all know and love him.
Taking stock we were both surprised at how this short piece of moderate climbing had proved to be a real stopper. I related a line I’d read in a book which stated that “Broad Stand is not to be attempted by walkers and can sometimes be an insuperable obstacle even to experienced climbers”.
Carefully we descended back to Mickledore and considered our remaining options. In the end we plumped for Lord’s Rake, affording the pinnacle great respect until we were safely above it. Half an hour later we were on the summit of Scafell and rather than enjoying a wonderful sunset we were putting waterproof jackets on and speculating on our future. The plan was as thus; we would descend the Foxes Tarn path (which in hindsight we were glad we hadn’t ascended), climb up to the pike again and go down the Corridor Route back to Borrowdale via Sty Head. Simples!
Back on Scafell Pike it was almost dark but there was nothing to be gained from rushing around so we had a short break , revelling in having the place to ourselves before setting off again. The well cairned path took us down to Lingmell col past an endless stream of three peakers, most of which seemed to be in as good a mood as we were. However, unbeknown to us our mood was soon to change. Try as we might we just couldn’t get established on the Corridor Route. For a good hour we floundered, following bearings that led into blind alleys, climbed low crags, finding cairns on nonexistent paths. With every passing minute the prospect of a fish supper and a few pints was growing more remote until we had to admit to ourselves that blundering around in the vicinity of Pier’s Gill was not the best thing to be doing in the dark.
We had two options. We could go to the summit of the pike for the third time and return to Borrowdale over the tops or descend to Wasdale and with a bit of luck get to the pub for some refreshment. The thought of a pint and maybe some food won out but we would have to be quick.
With five minutes to spare we stumbled into Ritson’s bar, ordering a pint of lemonade each and a packet of delicious crisps to share. I’ve never been a fan of the Wasdale Head Inn but this night I would happily have stayed there for hours. Sadly, it couldn’t be. Though wet and weary we were unceremoniously booted out into the night and commenced our return journey, in turn startling and startled by sheep and cattle as we stumbled through the fields of Wasdale Head.
Soon we would come upon the motorway to Sty Head; some time passed until we realised we had somehow missed it and were still on the lower path beside the beck. The map suggested that further on we would find some zigzags that would take us up to Sty Head. We searched and searched in vain. Dejected we collapsed onto the boulders, switched off our head torches and sat quietly as into the profound darkness we were enveloped. So black was the night that each to the other was invisible; only the sound of laboured breaths giving reassurance that we were not alone in our ordeal and, as mellow dramatic as that must sound, it is truly how we felt.
It was during this time that I began to feel at one with everything around, above and below me. Peter did too, and were it not for the rain we would have remained on that lonely hillside until the break of day. Far, almost impossibly high above us on the summit of the pike we observed tiny lights and camera flashes but no sound did we hear. Higher still the international space station (or maybe just a satellite) floated silently across the sky, a juxtaposition exhibiting tremendous perspective, speaking eloquently of that part of the human condition which reaches out to the unknown, be it the universe, a mountain top or just some lowly wrinkle in the earth’s surface.
Our reverie was unfortunately broken by the realisation that we were still a long way from our tents and no amount of philosophising would bring us closer to them. We decided to “stop fucking about” and give up on our fruitless search for the zigzags. We struck a course straight uphill with a painful slog and some scrambling on greasy rock putting us within spitting distance of Sty Head. I don’t mind admitting that when we hit that path I felt a lump in my throat. Peter and I had planned to come down in the dark, indeed it is part and parcel of our days out but after such a monumental error in our route finding I’d had more than enough and felt incredibly relieved.
At last we knew with certainty where we were and though we still had a few more miles to endure it would be a straightforward walk requiring us to put one sore foot in front of the other and nothing more. On those last miles we spoke little but both knew that our day had been a little bit special and come the morning we would laugh about it.
When our journey finally came to an end it was 3.30am and we had been on the go for 17 hours. There’s a moral in this story somewhere, but please dear reader, if you find it then spare us your wisdom, for it would be casting pearls before swine!