A plan was hatched before Christmas with Martin to get in some training for the TGO challenge. Get some miles and hills under our belts and test the gear that we each planned on taking. The weather forecast the week prior to meeting up was not looking good and there were email discussions of Plan A’s and plan B’s. In the end we decided to just have a plan A and see what the weather threw at us. The Howgill fells are easy to walk out of within a couple of hours, if it got too bad we would stay low and head back home.
We hoped to meet up with Mike and Bruno on the morning after our wild camp. Mike forecasted that we were doomed…………..
Day 1 – 7.9 miles with 600 metres ascent
It was an early start to get to our rendezvous at the alloted time, the Bongo being rather thirsty if I do any more than a quick trundle up the motorway. I arrived at Bowderdale Foot ten minutes early and Martin had phoned to say he was seeking out a bacon buttie in Tebay. Time for a quick brew and some breakfast in the van. Parked up on a grassy verge I asked a farmer passing on his quad bike if it was ok to leave vehicles here. He did not even bat an eye when I said that we were heading up onto the hills to camp, he just warned me to be aware of gales tomorrow and said a couple headed off with large packs the day before. I feel more confident leaving the Bongo in remote areas after receiving the ok from locals.
Martin duly arrived and we kitted up, the weather already was damp, gloomy and a bit on the breezy side. We stepped off the road onto the boggy bridleway into Bowderdale and were almost immediately enveloped in mist. No views backwards, forwards or side to side. It would remain that way until dropping down to camp later on that afternoon. When the wall ran out we peeled off the bridleway and headed uphill towards West Fell and the long old ridge that would eventually lead to the summit of The Calf. We soon got into a nice steady pace and the conversation flowed easily. The TGO challenge and routes were discussed alongside blogging and the usual kit talk. As we climbed higher the wind got stronger and words would get torn out of our mouths and dispersed onto the surrounding fells. Approaching Hazelgill Knott we were staggering around like drunks, so after contouring its slopes we sought shelter in the lee of the hill for a quick snack and chat.
We both cooled down quicker than anticipated so we continued on up the ridge trying to imagine what the views would be like. Long grassy slopes are not the most fascinating places to be in poor visibility and a few checks of the compass ensured we were on track. It was a case of heads down and plod on.
Suddenly a strange apparition loomed out of the mist. To me it looked like an elephant standing head on to us, my heart did a little skip and then the elephant divided into two. It turned out to be a couple with huge packs bent over a map! Quick greetings and we turned onto the main Calf track and found the trig point, luckily just where we expected to find it. Martin phoned Mike to confirm that the weather was indeed rubbish and arranged that we would meet him at 9.00am if the weather was not too bad the following morning. At that point we were still being wildly optimistic!
The aim then was to find somewhere to camp within striking distance of Bowderdale head, close enough to meet Mike in the morning but with as much shelter as possible.
The bridleway down to Bowderdale head was easy to follow in the mist and we could sense the steep slopes to our right, eventually plunging down to Cautley Spout.
Readers of Martins blog will instantly recognise the profile above from the self timed photos he posts, indeed this is how I recognised him profiled against the sky when I bumped into him in the Lakes. I have to say that I tried my best to get a photo of his face but his mystical powers ensured that they all came out blurry. I can assure readers that he does have a face!
Just below the mist the higher reaches of Bowderdale felt like a wild spot, we almost could have been in a remote Scottish glen.
It was time to find a place to camp, hopefully sheltered as even here down in the valley the wind was gusty. A few pitches were identified but the gusts were too strong. We continued on down the valley to the nicely named Randy Gill where the air was as still as it could be. Unfortunately there were no ideal spots big enough to accommodate two tents.
Crossing and recrossing the river we eventually settled on a spot on a shelf above the river. There was a good strong wind blowing but it would have to do, darkness falls early and quickly in January. Tents that are good in the wind still have to be put up in the wind and until poles are threaded and pegs positioned it is just a flapping bit of nylon. Martin was testing his trailstar shelter for the first time in the hills and I have to say that it was amazingly stable, an equal to the Scarp1 with its three poles.
Some time was spent chatting under Martins shelter but before long I was feeling chilly so retired to my tent to change into dry clothes and get some hot food into my stomach. There was a brief respite for a couple of hours when the wind stopped gusting and the sky cleared with a bright moon shining. A false sense of security……………………..
Day 2 – 3.8 miles with 70 metres ascent
The wind built during the night, getting stronger and stronger, then around midnight the rain joined in the assault on our camp site. Steady strong winds buffeted my tent all night with stronger gusts tearing down the valley at random intervals. These sounded like trains roaring towards us, getting louder and louder until the full force hit the tent. The rigid structure did not flap but shook as a whole, the air pressure changing inside with each gust. The rain came down all night in bucket loads and I drifted in and out of sleep waiting for the fateful moment when a pole would snap.
7.30am my alarm went off and it was still dark, I popped my head out of the door into a violent grey world before retreating back into the dry sanctuary. A coffee and some noodles before I was greeted by Martin, it was immediately agreed that we would bail out. It was not a day to be on the hills, or even in the hills.
This is what my world looked and sounded like at 8.00am that stormy morning.
Tents packed safely away we examined the river which was now a foaming torrent and impossible to cross, anyone falling in it would be swept off their feet and carried rapidly downstream. Instead we found a sheep track that contoured around the hillside. Descending back down I had a nasty slip, my leg twisting at an angle behind me. A jolt of pain but luckily I was able to get up and continue walking, it was not a day for being carried out. Randy Gill was now in full spate, even though its source was less than a kilometre away the speed and volume of the water was astonishing. The depth and speed would have meant being knocked off your feet if attempting a wade, a jump was the only way. Martin had the height advantage and crossed with ease, I faltered and found it difficult to sum up the courage. In the end I took off my pack and threw across to Martin before doing a running jump. My heart was in my mouth for a few minutes afterwards.
The steep hillsides were literally streaming with water, large streams appearing that were not marked on the map. It was slow going with any flat bit of ground being totally waterlogged. A group of fell ponies added beauty to the bleak scene. Bowderdale Beck lower down had burst its banks, a huge dirty brown swirling mass of water. We began to worry that our vehicles parked next to it down stream would get washed away. The track that would lead us back to our vehicles was finally reached and we began to climb out of the valley just as further gusts tore at us, we had to brace ourselves and let them pass.
Luckily at the road head we could see our vehicles sitting happily where they had been left, although next to a river that was swollen and angry. It was almost exactly 24 hours since we had left them, 24 hours of wind, rain and mist. I would have much prefered sun and frost but it was great to experience weather like that and emerge unscathed.