Archive for July, 2013

July 30, 2013

Ben Lawers via Meall Corranaich

by backpackingbongos

It was close to midnight when I parked the van in a layby near to the Devil’s Beef Tub.  What struck me when I stepped out into the night air was the temperature.  Even on high ground in the Scottish borders it was stifling.  With midge avoidance in mind I slept in the van with the doors and windows closed.  By morning the inside resembled a comfy oven.

The Devil’s Beef Tub is a superb natural feature, just up the road from the attractive town of Moffat.  The deep gash in the steep hills looked rather glorious in the morning sunshine, but the best positioned layby had been commandeered by a tour bus and scores of happy snappers.

I was not there however to enjoy the Southern Uplands as I had a date with some bigger hills in the Highlands.  I had a four day weekend and with excellent weather forecast I was keen to make the most of it.  Getting some mileage under my belt after work is a good way of ensuring a full day in the hills when I arrive.  Having a campervan is brilliant as it allows you to drive until tired and then find a quiet spot for the night.  I was soon pointing the Bongo north once more to navigate the tangle of wind turbines that welcome you to Scotland along the M74.

12 Kilometres with 1,110 metres ascent

Ben Lawers

The Lawers car park was busy when I arrived at 2.00pm.  The National Trust for Scotland appears to have a different tack with regards to parking in comparison to its relative south of the border.  There is a pay and display machine at the Lawers car park but it is only £2 and that is voluntary.  Compare that to the £7 that you are charged by the National Trust to park just about anywhere in the Lakes.

The sun was absolutely beating down as I prepared some lunch and packed my sack.  I had sadly left Reuben behind as the forecast was for temperatures up to 30 celsius in the Highlands.  Those sort of temperatures whilst being dragged over Munros would do the hound no good at all.

Ben Lawers has been on my list of mountains to visit for a while now.  However what has put me off is its popularity, I don’t like to share my hills with others.  Therefore I had hatched a cunning plan.  I would first of all climb Meall Corranaich by its southern ridge before picking up the path that contours beneath Beinn Ghlas.  That way by the time I reached Ben Lawers most people would have returned to the car park.  You have to be creative when you are a misanthrope.

Before I had even crossed the single track road and taken the path towards the summit I was dripping with sweat.  Already I was considering just finding somewhere nice to sit out the afternoon in the shade.  However that would be a waste of both a stunning day and the drive of several hundred miles.  I put my head down and plodded onwards.

Just before the main path crossed over the burn I took a narrow trod towards a ladder stile over the deer fence.  As well as the heat I was also glad that I did not have Reuben with me as it is rather hard to get a dog over a 12 foot stile on your own.  As I crunched across dry bog towards the southern ridge of Meall Corranaich I slapped at the Cleggs which had decided to attempt to feed on my flesh.

The initial haul onto the ridge was hard work up steep grassy slopes.  It was the promise of even better views that kept me going.

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The lower section of the ridge was a complicated area of small but steep-sided knolls.  Wanting to avoid too much in the way of ups and downs I skirted to the west of the ridge where I picked up a faint path.  This contoured steep ground above Lochan na Lairige, the craggy Meall nan Tarmachan behind.  I was looking forward to tackling the Tarmachan ridge the following day.

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As I climbed I could appreciate the size and bulk of the Lawers hills.  Ben Lawers itself being scarred by the final path to its summit.

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It was the view to the north that excited me the most however.  The nearby Glen Lyon hills gave a sense of space and wildness, the expanse of Rannoch Moor behind them.  I was keen to head that way later in the weekend.

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The summit of Meall Corranaich is nothing special in itself but the views are spectacular.  I sat in the sun enjoying a cooling breeze as I munched a late afternoon lunch.  Before setting off from home I had fanciful notions of doing an out and back to the Munro Meall a Choire Leith.  The reality of the extra mileage and a lot of climbing put that idea to the back of my mind as I sat there.  It’s all too easy to be ambitious when planning a hike from the comfort of a sofa.  Besides, I still had Ben Lawers to climb.

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The descent to the bealach was quicker and easier than I had anticipated, a good path leading the way.  I then picked up the path that bypasses Beinn Ghlas.  This was a delight as it contoured high above a lush green Highland Glen.

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I was relieved to find a cold mountain spring in full flow under the shadows of Beinn Ghlas, the two litres I had carried were almost gone.  I love watching the condensation form on a water bottle when you fill them from a cold spring on a hot day.  I drunk my fill before the final pull to the summit of Ben Lawers.

I had hoped to have the summit to myself but shared it with three others.  All good friendly folk and I had an enjoyable time in pleasant company.  A young couple were on their first trip to Scotland and this was the first mountain they had climbed.  They were loving it.  The following day they were heading to Ben Nevis.  With stunning weather forecast I hope they had a cracking time and have started a long-standing love affair with the Scottish mountains.

The views from the summit were staggeringly good, its rare to have such clear air on a hot summers day.  They were the views of a crisp February morning with the heat of the tropics.  All around were mountain after mountain rolling towards a soft horizon.  Even Ben Nevis was clear to the north West, its bulk being unmistakable.  I talked about the folly of wind farms in wild places with another solo hiker for a while.  The conversation being started by him after noticing the very prominent Griffin wind farm to the east.  It really is a dominant feature in that direction.  Thankfully the mountains still take centre stage.  At the moment.

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Spending an early evening in a t-shirt on a high Scottish mountain is a novel experience for me.  It was hard to tear myself away and set off back to the van.  However I had one further Munro to climb.  Being on the main path Beinn Ghlas is an easy bag.  I was all alone on the ridge and made the most of the solitude and the view back from where I had descended.

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The path back to the car park is in excellent condition and well graded down a series of zig zags.  In fact the only scar on the hill is that on the final section to Ben Lawers summit.  I was soon back at the fenced in section next to the burn, an area of trees and lush vegetation.  Safe from the hoofed locusts that roam the hills.

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The van was the last vehicle remaining and I considered staying there for the night.  However I wanted solitude in the morning and a good launching pad for the Tarmachan ridge.  I planned to approach it from an unusual position, so in the evening light I drove up and over the summit of the single track mountain road.

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July 28, 2013

For the love of hill lists

by backpackingbongos

I have a bit of a confession to make.  I’m a hill bagger and I’m not ashamed of it!

For me though there is no single-minded obsession in completing a single list.  No, I’m going for them all simultaneously.  If a hill is on a list somewhere then it is worth climbing.

It is this list ticking that got me into backpacking.  Many years ago I purchased the Harveys Mountain Chart of England and Wales.  It’s a wall map with all the English and Welsh Mountains over 2000ft on it.  I later found out that these were classed as the Nuttalls.  The thing is until a few years ago I did not drive.  With rural public transport being what it is I found that the walk in to many of these hills was huge.  The bus or train station would be many miles away.  I soon ended up going out for several days at a time, sleeping on the hills that I wanted to bag.  Nearly twenty years later I’m still plugging away at the Nuttalls.  With over 400 climbed, the end is nearly in sight.  As with the Munros there is one peak that involves rock climbing.  Pillar Rock is going to be my inaccessible pinnacle.

I’m sure that many would say that focussing on a list of hills takes away the true spirit of walking in the hills.  However I find the opposite is true.  With the Nuttalls now nearly completed I can say that I have enjoyed standing on just about every patch of high ground in England and Wales.  I have visited areas that I may otherwise not have bothered with.  This has led me to hugely underrated places which see very little foot traffic.  Places that give a feeling of solitude and wildness.  Whilst the majority of hill walkers head for the Lake District over and over again, I have discovered the joys of the North Pennines, The Cheviots and Mid Wales.

There are famous and well-known lists such as the Munros and Corbetts.  But what about the Grahams?  These are Scottish hills that fall between 2000ft and 2500ft.  There are some real gems out there such as Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach and Stac Pollaidh.  So in the same way that you should not exclude the Corbetts in the quest for the Munros, you should not exclude the Grahams for the Corbetts.

There are then some quirky lists out there.  How about the Deweys?  These are hills in England and Wales over 500 metres with a 30 metres drop.  This list now gives some structure to my backpacking in places like the Yorkshire Dales.  Many of these hills are totally unknown and ignored by the masses who head for the bigger hills.  There are some real gems out there such as Meugher.  Anyone out there climbed Meugher?  No?  I suggest you do, possibly the most isolated hill in the Dales.  You are guaranteed not to bump into anyone up there.  By linking a few Deweys together you can come up with a wild pathless walk.

The Donalds have led me into little known hill country in Southern Scotland.  This until a few years ago was a gem of an area.  Velvety hills rolling up to the far horizon, easy walking without spotting a soul for days.  Sadly they are now prime candidates to plonk wind turbines on.  Still, there are some great hills out there if you fancy a quiet Bank Holiday wander.

Will I finish all these lists?  Almost certainly I won’t, that is not the point for me, although I may have a push if still healthy after retirement.  They are simply a guide with which to discover new country and a way to put some structure into my backpacking.  If I did not have some form of goal when I head out for a few days into the wilds, I would probably just end up festering in a bothy somewhere.  Although that in itself is fun too.

Are you ready to become an obsessive?  If so there is a great resource on the Hill Bagging website.  There are all sorts of databases you can use there.

As for me, this is where I currently stand.  I should be busy for a long time yet.

Total hills climbed2

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July 23, 2013

Was it really the Scottish Highlands?

by backpackingbongos

Sun, blue skies, blistering heat, dry crunchy ground, rivers reduced to a trickle, a strange lack of midges.  Oh and the heat has to be mentioned a second time.  These are not usually words used to describe the Scottish Highlands.  As I plunged naked into a mountain stream I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming.

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Ben Lawers from the ascent of Meall Corranaich.

July 16, 2013

Backpacking hot dogs on Wild Boar Fell

by backpackingbongos

It was late afternoon when I parked up off a minor lane in a scenic spot opposite the Howgill Fells.  I had picked Chrissie and Dixie up from the Western Peak District after she had finished work.  Somehow we had avoided the Friday rush whilst escaping Manchester.  The weather forecast for the weekend was for hot sun and no rain.  A bonus for us humans but not so good for our canine companions.  Therefore with Dixie and Reuben in tow the plan was for short days and extended lazy periods whilst camping high on the moors.

Day 1 – 4 kilometres with 420 metres ascent

Day 1

Our destination for the night was Sand Tarn which nestles below the western summit of Wild Boar Fell.  The distance was short but the amount of contours between the car and tarn meant a big climb.  The limestone boulder clad Stennerskeugh Clouds provided interest, before a plod across boggy moorland.

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There was a welcome wind when we reached the grassy shelf next to the tarn.  Tents were quickly pitched, boots kicked off and brews made.  It was good to lounge around the tents and enjoy the location.

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With lounging duly accomplished I spent a while simply wandering around our campsite, enjoying the surroundings in the early evening light.

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When Dixie finally came out of her tent she had powdered her face so that she could do her Alice Cooper impression.  She is well-known for this on the northern club scene.  Check out dixiedoesalicecooper.com

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After dinner I was keen to do some further exploring so set off with Reuben to the trig point on Wild Boar Fell.  We managed to spend over an hour to do the short return trip.  Every few paces I found myself transfixed by the changing colours under the setting sun.  The Howgills slowly turned to the softest velvet.  The sun as it descended was a tiny red disk amongst the haze, slowly fizzling out as the cloud overwhelmed it.  The wind had finally dropped leaving just the sound of moorland birds and the bleating of sheep.  A great moment shared with the dog on the edge of the high plateau.

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Sunset still comes late in July, so by the time it was dark I was more than happy to go straight to sleep.  In the tent I finally lost the battle with Reuben over which sleeping mat was his.  He wanted the one that I was laying on.  The inner of a Scarp is a bit of a squeeze when sharing it with 25kg of fur and muscle.

Day 2 – 10 kilometres with 480 metres ascent

Day 2

The haze did not shift overnight and the Howgill Fells across the valley were hidden under a blanket of cloud.  Every now and then the sunshine above us would disappear as banks of mist drifted by.  We managed to keep up the relaxed theme by lounging outside the tents until mid morning.  It would have been all too easy to have spent the whole day just reading and paddling in the tarn.  Finally by late morning we managed to pack up.

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I was keen to show Chrissie the Nab on the Northern edge of Wild Boar Fell.  It is one of the best viewpoints in the Dales, giving an impression of being high in the mountains rather than on featureless moorland.  The escarpment drops steeply down into the Mallerstang valley, a finger of land giving a sense of exposure.  The dogs had to be kept under close control as they were keen to get as close to the edge as possible.

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The escarpment gave a grand promenade, dry cropped grass keeping the feet happy.  We were heading for a group of cairns in the distance, giving the impression that they were people.  Reaching them they made a good foreground feature on which to photograph the escarpment in full.

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However if there is no cairn I can highly recommend taking a Reuben with you as he is more than happy to pose.  For full effect you need a bit of a breeze to make his ears flap around.

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It was an easy walk to Swarth Fell on a grassy path, the bulk of Wild Boar Fell showing itself on the climb to the summit.

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We sat for a while on the summit rocks to have lunch number one (all good days out have at least two lunches) enjoying a cooling breeze.  A large group of walkers following a woman with a fluorescent tabard passed, the last people we would see all day.

Following the wall we took a right angle and headed directly for Holmes Moss.  Our destination for the night was to be Baugh Fell and we were aware of the long descent followed by a long ascent.  Something neither of our legs were looking forward to.

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The top of Holmes Moss was covered in the most amazing display of cotton grass.  Parts of it were absolutely plastered in the stuff, this gave us something to look at whilst we sloshed through very boggy ground.

We were all gasping for water by the time Rawthey Gill was reached.  We collapsed on its grassy banks to have lunch number two, my feet welcomed the chance for a bit of airing.  Dixie decided to be a grumpy old lady and tried to take a chunk out of Reuben, he was quite clear in letting her know that sort behaviour is unacceptable.  They pretty much ignored each other after that.  The politics of being a dog eh?

Thankfully Chrissie and I did not start brawling as well.

The climb to the summit of Baugh Fell if I am honest was a bit of a grind.  An endless plod up pathless slopes, frequent breaks to catch our breath only served to show how little progress we were making.

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The plan had been to camp right on the summit itself.  However there was a perfect grassy patch right next to one of the East Tarns.  There was no hesitation in getting the tents up.  Once again there was a strong breeze to cool us down.

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Settled into our respective tents I found myself falling into a deep sleep.  The heat had taken it out of me and I was absolutely knackered.  I had to force myself to get up and cook some food after an hour.  It would have been all too easy to sleep right through until morning.

Chrissie was feeling unwell and decided to have an early night.  Dixie was already out for the count.  I fancied doing the same myself but decided to make the best of being on the tops in such good weather.  I had a stroll to the highest point with Reuben, getting a great view of the distant Lake District.  There was layer after layer of hills stretching to the horizon under a silvery light.  I stood for ages taking it all in before walking a boggy route back to the tents.

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I brewed a mint tea and walked to a nearby rocky outcrop to watch the sun set.  Reuben was sitting at my side when he suddenly sat bolt upright with his ears back.  He rarely makes a noise but he started a low growl, his eyes fixated on something.  The growl started to be punctuated with a quiet wuff, his back legs quivering.  I could see absolutely nothing in the direction he was looking, not even a sheep.  It was a bit unnerving to be honest so once the sun had set I returned to the sanctuary of a flimsy tent which is known to keep the ghosts at bay.

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Day 3 – 11 kilometres with 160 metres ascent

Day 3

By morning the wind had dropped and even at 7.00am it was hot.  The lack of a breeze meant that midges made their first appearance of the trip, not huge quantities but enough to be a nuisance.  At least they speed the packing process and we were on our way early, keen to get back to the car before it got too hot.

Looking at the map I assumed that Baugh Fell would give difficult walking across its expansive plateau.  We stayed below the summit ridge, picking a route across grassy and stoney areas.  The going was rather pleasant.  This is a hill to come to if you want to get away from it all, we had a feeling that it is very little visited.  There is a sense of space and wildness to it.

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West Baugh Fell Tarn was our first destination, somewhere to filter water and rest in the building heat.  Another spot marked for a future wild camp (it is very exposed up there though!).

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It was a long and slow plod down Baugh Fell’s endless slopes, the Howgills across the valley filling the horizon.

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It took a while to descend to the upper River Rawthey.  With an elderly boxer in tow we decided to give the waterfalls a miss as steep ground is involved to reach them.  Instead we took to the bridleway on the south side through the lush green valley.

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Sitting for lunch next to a deep pool in the river I was very tempted to go for a dip.  However I am not sure of the etiquette of being naked in front of someone elses wife.  I therefore saved Chrissie some embarrassment and kept my clothes on.

The final walk along the lane back to the car felt like it lasted an eternity under the heat of the midday sun.  The dogs tongues were almost touching the floor by the time we got back, Reuben needing to be dragged along.  Aircon has never felt so good.

July 12, 2013

Backpacking Great Whernside and upper Nidderdale

by backpackingbongos

Sometimes it’s possible to over plan and plan too far in advance.  A long-standing commitment to spend a couple of nights in the Snowdonia Mountains with my good friend Rich was postponed because of the weather.  Rain, low cloud and gales do not maketh a fun weekend.  Rich had booked a day off work and we were still keen on tramping the hills, even if it would only be for one night.  Therefore instead we found ourselves parked in the small Yorkshire village of Lofthouse on a Friday lunchtime.

As we were getting ready a chap from a nearby house was watching us intently.  He managed to grab and interrogate Rich who had set off in search of a bin.  He was very keen on wanting to know why we had parked there, concerned that we were not using the car park.  Rich explained that we were about to set off for a night in the hills and car parks often do not allow overnight parking.  ‘Good job I had spoken to you then’, he said ‘as otherwise I would have reported your car as abandoned to the Police’.  I’m sure that the local police have better things to concern themselves with to be honest.  Rich was then quizzed on what he was going to have for dinner.  With the local busy-body satisfied I felt safe in the knowledge that someone had their eye on the car.

Day 1 – 23 kilometres with 900 metres ascent

Whernside day 1

Looking at a map the night before I just came up with a vague idea of a route.  We would head in the general direction of Great Whernside, see how far we got and pitch our shelters.  There were a couple of options for the return the following morning.  With a complete lack of planning I felt strangely relaxed.

It was warm, humid and rather murky as we set off up the steep lane.  It was forecast to brighten up later before a weather front arrived in the night to give a couple of days of heavy rain.  We were keen to make the most of this dry day.

Reuben is usually pulling at the lead at the start of a day in the hills, the excitement of new sights and smells getting the better of him.  However for once I was pulling him up hill, the heat of the day meaning he was lagging behind.

The track that contours high above the valley provided an airy promenade and easy walking.  Unfortunately the views were lost in the hazy conditions.

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Once we were high and there was a cooling breeze Reuben was once again in his element.  A happy dog on the moors.

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A shooting house gave shelter from the wind and somewhere to sit whilst we made coffee and ate lunch.  The bright and airy side of the building with its large windows and panoramic views was locked.  We had to make do with the dark and dingy unlocked section.

It did not take long to reach Scar House Reservoir, the high level track was flat once we were up high.  As we approached the reservoir the clouds started to burn off and the sun came out.

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An initial idea had been to pitch at the head of Angram reservoir, however with our speedy progress and improving weather we decided to aim for the summit of Great Whernside.  There were still hours of daylight left.  Descending off the moors we took to the track on the northern side of the reservoir.  It was an enjoyable walk up a valley I have never visited before.  The scenery was idyllic and we were surprised at the lack of people out on such a fine summers afternoon.

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Sitting in a grassy meadow for food and water it was tempting to just pitch and relax in the sun.  However we still had a way to go to the summit, yet alone find a place to pitch for the night.  A track which was horribly eroded in places took us onto the moors again.  We left it at the watershed and picked up the right of way to Little Whernside, a faint path through the grass.

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The conditions had well and truly changed since we had arrived at midday.  The skies were almost cloudless and the visibility was superb.  Even the distant North York Moors looked close and we could make out a distant city which we though was Middlesbrough.  Best of all though was the immediate moorland.  It was carpeted in the bobbing white heads of cotton grass.  I have never seen it so abundant before, in places it looked like the moor was dusted in snow.

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We stood for a while under a blue sky and decided we had made a wise choice by coming up with a plan B rather than staying at home.

Steep grassy slopes led us to the summit of Little Whernside.  The small plateau gave difficult walking as it is covered in bog, deep vegetation and peat hags.  Continuing down its south western slopes the going underfoot became easy again with another display of cotton grass.

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High on the Great Whernside plateau we came across the first person we had seen on the hills that day.  Being local he had nipped up after work, a great way to spend the evening.

The summit area is vast and flat.  In clear, warm and still conditions it is a place to linger and take in the expansive views.  Moorland gives way to a rock strewn grassy plateau.  We slowly wandered around taking photos and generally feeling pleased that we were high on the hills in unexpectedly good weather.

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Conditions can change though, and quick.  Cloud starting piling in from the west, the sky soon covered in a bruised sheet.  It was the edge of the weather front that was due to come in overnight.  We felt it wise to move to lower, more sheltered ground to seek a pitch for the night.

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The skies cleared as quickly as they had clouded over.  It was a fine late evening as we descended into the headwaters of Mossdale Beck.  Steep rough ground did not initially look very promising but we soon found a grassy patch amongst the tussocks.  The air was warm and still whilst we were pitching our Trailstars.  This meant that a few midges came out to play.  Not enough to make us thrash about in a music less dance but the annoyance factor was getting high before a nice breeze started to pick up.

It was gone 10pm by the time we were pitched, making the most of the longest day of the year.  After a 14 mile day carrying his own pack, Reuben was totally pooped.  The minute we arrived he curled himself into a ball and started on an evening of snoring.  I barely heard a peep out of him all night.  It was about 11pm by the time I ate my dinner.  It was not long before I joined Reuben in the land of nod.

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Day 2 – 12 kilometres with 130 metres ascent

Whernside day 2

The rain arrived as planned in the night.  I was aware that I briefly woke a couple of times with the sensation of moisture being blown onto my face.  The wind had changed and the rain was being blown straight into the Trailstar.  I can briefly remember thinking that I should be doing something about it but was soon asleep again.  Rich said that the rain had been hammering down at one point.

I woke up dry but Reuben who was nearer the door was a bit on the damp side.  Thankfully he was wearing a fleecy waterproof doggie jacket so was nice and warm.

Later as I cooked my breakfast he did the important job of guarding my shelter.  He had eaten a lot of wet food, he becomes fussy when backpacking so gets more meat than normal.  This leads to unfortunate squeaks and a distinctive odour.  I was pleased when he decided to pay Rich a visit.

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We managed to pack during a dry period, I almost considered risking not wearing waterproof trousers.  I’m glad that I did because it started drizzling, then raining before finally tipping it down.  It was a wet old trudge down the trackless valley.  During the heaviest rain Reuben would let out a little whimper and try to bury himself in the long grass.  The looks directed my way suggested that it was all my fault.  There were no endless views across the moors that morning.

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Just before crossing the watershed at Sandy Gate we came across this nifty little shelter.  It only fits one person and Rich made some excuse about needing to sort out a camera or something.  So he sat inside nice and snug whilst I enjoyed the rain with Reuben.  Whilst there he decided that a snack was in order.  Mates eh?

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From Sandy Gate a right of way led down the long and remote valley of Straight Stean Beck.  There is no sign of an actual path on the ground which made the going rather tough through the bogs and vegetation.  With the constant rain we were on the damp side by the time we approached the first farm.  A farmer out on his quad bike was mightily impressed by Reubens panniers.  He thought that they would be a good way to knacker out his collie.

Further down the valley we entered colourful meadows, the river lined by lush green woodland.  The sun finally decided to come out for a while and we had a pleasant loiter by a drystone wall to dry out.

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A very scenic stroll along the river and we were soon back at the car.

Although made up on the hoof, the route turned out to be a fine one.  Mid summers day was well spent.  Fish and chips in Pateley Bridge were the reward for the physical effort.

Reuben slept for a week when we got home, however I think this short clip demonstrates that he had a good time.