One of the problems of planning a backpack many weeks in advance is the opportunity for the weather to throw a few spanners in the works. This is even more the case when the trip in question takes place in late November. There were optimistic discussions about wild camping on the summits of Ingleborough and Pen-y-gent whilst watching the sun rise over perfect inversions. In the end neither summit felt our boot prints let alone the nylon groundsheet of our tents.
I left Nottingham in the gloaming with a head full of impending cold and a hand clutching a print out with words of warning from MWIS about breezes caressing the Yorkshire summits. The weather was actually rather pleasant until I approached the Dales where I was greeted by a black sky obscuring the summits, whilst rain worked my windscreen wipers. In Austwick I was met by Alan Sloman and ushered into a rather lovely cottage owned by his friends Rick and Lindsey. Martin Rye and Andy Walker soon arrived and we luxuriated on comfy sofas with steaming cups of coffee in our hands. We had all managed to arrive on time but then spent as long as possible trying to avoid pulling on our waterproofs and setting off into the hills. It was Rick, who was not joining us on the backpack that reminded us that it would be dark in less than fours hours and that we should perhaps think about setting off.
Day 1 – 5.2 miles with 390 metres ascent
We set off in good spirits through Austwick and managed successfully to steer Alan past the village pub and onto the steep Crummack Lane. Cresting the first rise the weather suddenly decided to get rather biblical with a rather impressive hail storm. Small chunks of ice blown directly into the face by gale force winds is not the most pleasant experience. We all trudged onwards with faces to the ground trying to avoid the sensation of being pebble-dashed. As quickly as the hail storm arrived the strong wind chased it away, leaving a cloudless winter sky. The totally unexpected change in weather conditions put smiles on the gathered backpackers faces.
We passed the farm at the head of the dale which occupies an enviable position. Crummack Dale is one of those places which for some unknown reason escapes the attention of the tourist hordes. It’s a stunning spot with green pastures ringed by the limestone cliffs of Moughton Scars, hiding an unseen world of limestone pavement above.
A path slowly climbed through the pastures until a short ascent took us over a dry stone wall into a world dominated by limestone. Ingleborough was now visible on the horizon whilst behind us Crummack Dale glistened in the low winter sun.
A final short climb led to the edge of a plateau ringed by a high dry stone wall, marked on the map as Beggars Stile. The views from there are magical with a sweep of limestone flecked moorland dominated by Pen-y-ghent on the horizon.
The views towards Maughton was simply lovely with the pavements sparkling under a sky that was slowly turning pink as a large bank of cloud drifted towards the sun. This is an area worthy of further exploration, perhaps in spring when the grikes are filled with plants sheltering within their ankle breaking depths.
The wall provided shelter from the wind and we sat for a while eating our lunch and taking in the sweep of the dale. Between the wall and the low cliffs is a ledge of sheep nibbled grass which would make a perfect spot to pitch a tent to watch the world drift by. However it was too early to pitch and we had Ingleborough to climb, so packs were hoisted back onto our shoulders and we set off across Thieves Moss. It was impossible to confuse the main path to the summit of Ingleborough with anything else when we reached it. Thousands upon thousands of feet had trampled the ground into a boggy morass in a bid to reach the summit. Rick who volunteers for the National park later on told us that on most Saturdays between spring and Autumn, approximately 1,500 people set about climbing the three peaks. The ground really does not stand a chance unless paved across the soggy spots.
A sign post indicated that the summit of Ingleborough was still two and a half miles away and it was clear that it would be dark by the time we reached the top. The strong wind had put an end to any notion of spending the night on the summit. After a quick conflab it was decided that we would head for Borrins Moor and search for a spot to pitch there.
The path was followed for a distance beyond the ruined shooting hut whilst we searched the wall for a spot that would be easy to cross. Both Martin and Alan in the past year have ended up with nasty injuries involving dry stone walls and barbed wire, we were keen to avoid a repetition. A crossing point was soon found and we slowly trudged up a vague sheep path away from the boggy lower slopes.
After contouring across rough grass a patch of reasonably flat, lump free ground was spotted below and we made our way down to pitch. There was even a trickle of water at hand so we did not have to trudge across country to fill our bottles. Although reasonably sheltered from the westerly wind by the bulk of Ingleborough the wind was still strong enough to warrant me pitching my Scarp1 with its crossing poles. We were at roughly the 450 metre contour with Pendle Hill clearly visible to the south whilst across the Ribble Valley Pen-y-ghent filled the horizon. There was an interesting set of shelters on display, all having been imported from the States. A MLD Trailstar, a Tarptent Scarp1 and a pair of Stephenson Warmlite’s.
I have to say that it is a bit weird pitching for the night at 3.30pm. By 4.00pm we were loitering on the moor in our down jackets with our hoods up, anti social rambler style. A menacing group of figures passing round plastic bottles containing alcohol beverages with high alcohol content. At home when the hooded contingent hang around my local neighbourhood I often wish for rain to send them indoors, perhaps someone on the moor was thinking along the same lines. All of a sudden the wind picked up and a mixture of hail and snow was thrown at us vigorously. Desperate to keep our down jackets dry we all scattered towards our tents and dived in, seeking refuge from the sudden downpour. It was a rather exciting ten minutes or so with the sound of ice and snow battering the thin nylon of my tent. Looking out when it had passed there was even a tiny drift against the back of Andy’s tent. The mini storm signalled an end to the evenings socialising and we each spent the rest of the evening and night enveloped in our separate nylon cocoons, watching the hours slowly tick away.
Day 2 – 9 miles with 240 metres ascent
Fifteen hours or so is a long time to spend in darkness whilst confined in a very small space. I was warm and snug in my tent but the hours the night before had passed slowly. The slight slope that I had pitched on appeared to somehow get steeper during the night and I would often wake to find myself and all my gear in a heap at the bottom of the tent. At about 5.00am the wind decided that it had been far too kind to us in the night. It started to push against my tent with more urgency, the gusts getting stronger and stronger. I dozed on and off, waiting for dawn before fully assessing the weather situation outside.
It was nearly 8.00am before the steely grey light outside meant that I could turn off my head torch. Upon returning to my tent after a rather breezy call of nature I noticed that Andy’s tent somehow did not look as it should. A short while later he exited and discovered that his rear pole had broken, tearing through the fabric of the tent. Everyone except Alan was now up and about and packing, getting ready to bail as the weather was getting worse. After some noodles for breakfast I wrestled my tent into its bag and joined Andy who was already sheltering in Martin’s Trailstar. It was a while before Alan left his tent, initially panicking when he noticed the tents around him had gone!
We all felt the pull of the cafe in Horton in Ribblesdale, visions of hot coffee and fried products filling our brains. We were soon on the eroded path towards Horton, liquid mud and polished limestone providing a treacherous surface. The limestone pavements were impressive though even through the murk, a brief opportunity used to take a photo during a lull in the precipitation.
Four damp and muddy backpackers were rather dismayed to find that the cafe in Horton was closed. We had to read the sign several times as it claimed that it would not reopen until the 26th December. I think that Alan was actually secretly pleased as he was quick to suggest the pub instead. We backtracked down the road to find the pub was also closed, but thankfully opening in half an hour. We hoped that by sitting outside in the drizzle the owners would take pity on us, no such luck the door was not opened until bang on 11.30am.
Earlier I had declared my intention of going home later that afternoon as I was not feeling too chipper. The pub was only about five miles from the car, an easy walk after lunch. The other three bravely talked about camping for another night somewhere low and sheltered. As we sat next to a warm open fire the weather outside deteriorated further and further. At one point it looked like someone was throwing buckets of water past the window with a giant wind machine behind them. Everyone who entered the bar looked like they had been swimming in the river rather than hiking.
I got up and declared that I was going to brave the weather and head over the hills back to Austwick as it would be getting dark in less than three hours. I think that the reality of it getting dark again so quickly and that the weather was rather shocking made everyone else decide that they would follow suit.
We set off back through the village climbing towards Ingleborough until a signpost pointed us in the direction of Austwick. The walk across the limestone plateau was tough going, a combination of gale force winds and heavy rain trying to blow us off course. Thankfully for part of the journey a high dry stone wall provided shelter from the wind. However once across the wall we walked directly into the wind, rain being blown into our faces and trickling down our necks. There gets to a point when even the best waterproof cannot cope, a major failing being the opening for your face!
It was a fast yomp down through the walled lanes of Crummack Dale and back into Austwick to Rick and Lindsey’s house. They did not seem that surprised to see us, the weather over the last twenty-four hours had also been rubbish at valley level. Tea and homemade cake were enjoyed whilst we steamed up their kitchen.
Despite the weather and coming home a day early it was an enjoyable weekend on the hills in good company. I have to admit that when I was eating curry after a hot bath later that evening I was rather glad not to still be out on the wet and windy hills!