Winter’s final bite? – backpacking the Grasmere hills

by backpackingbongos

Looking back at my log book it appears that the last time I went backpacking in the Lake District was July 2011.  I think that is far too long.  The reason why I avoid the whole National Park is probably pretty obvious considering that I am a misanthropic backpacker.  It can also be a bit of a bugger parking for a few days.

I suddenly found myself with a Wainwright bagging itch, an urge to tick off a few arbitrary hills listed by another misanthropic hill walker.  I planned an illogical route lurching up one side of a valley to collect a couple of stragglers, before descending to yomp up another set of hills.  All good exercise for the calf muscles.

I arrived at a large and free lay-by on the outskirts of Grasmere late on a Friday afternoon.  Luckily enough the road system through Ambleside had confused me enough to prevent stopping to explore the numerous outdoor shops.

Total distance 23.5 kilometres with 1,400 metres ascent

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The plan was to camp on the summit of Stone Arthur for the night.  It has been a while since I have dragged a backpacking sack up anything resembling steep.  I was a wheezy and sweaty mess, frequently stopping to take in the view and have a few puffs on my inhaler.  It was a punishing introduction back to the Lakeland Fells.

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Stone Arthur although a Wainwright cannot be considered to be a summit in its own right.  The futility of peak bagging being that you are ticking off against a list of hills that someone else has deemed worthy.  It does give a good focus to a walk though.  Stone Arthur was however a great view-point.

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There was still a bit of daylight left and after the initial physical shock I was keen to gain a bit more height.  I now had the hills to myself, the day trippers having returned to the valleys.  The setting sun bathed the hillside in a warm glow as I plodded upwards before finally picking a spot on the 600 metre contour on which to pitch my tent.

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It was a quiet and wind free evening, dew and then frost quickly covering the fly of the tent inside and out.  Stars soon filled the sky, mirroring the lights down below in Grasmere.

I set my watch for 1.00am as there was the possibility of a glimpse of the Northern Lights.  There had been a good display the night before as far south as Norfolk.  Sadly when I stuck my head out of the door I was enveloped in cloud, visibility down to a few metres in the beam of my head torch.

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I woke early morning to the sound of rain that somehow was not quite right.  I opened the door to a swirling world of mist and snow, something that had not been forecast.  It was unpleasant wet snow, not the sort to get too excited about.  I punched the snow off the top of the tent and settled down for a couple more hours of sleep.

It was one of those damp and still nights where everything gets covered in condensation.  Luckily I had taken a MLD Spirit quilt to layer over a summer weight down bag.  This meant that the down bag remained totally dry.  The tent when packed was a soaking wet mess, fingers going numb as I wrestled it into its slightly too small bag.

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Suddenly the clouds lifted and my spirits soared with it.

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I had initially planned to head to Rydal via Alcock Tarn but decided it would be a shame to lose height so quickly.  Instead I climbed to 650 metres and contoured below Great Rigg.  Along this pathless section the clouds would come and go giving views of the snowy fells.

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In the end the clouds covered the hills in a thick blanket which was to remain until I had descended all the way down into Rydal.  There was a large amount of foot traffic as I followed the path over Heron Pike.  People were clad in everything from full Himalayan winter gear to jeans and canvas shoes.  It was good to be going against the flow.

Even down below Nab Scar the cloud refused to clear.  I sat for a while on a rock and watched it stream and rise across the nearby hillsides, occasional shafts of sunlight punching through.  All very atmospheric.

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I had planned to jettison some rubbish and an empty gas canister when I got to Rydal.  However I was half way up Loughrigg Fell when I realised I had forgotten to do this.  I also managed to misinterpret my map and took an unmarked path instead of the right of way.  This soon disappeared in a tangle of dead bracken.  Unfortunately a couple pointed my way from the car park and followed me. I hid in shame for a while behind a rocky outcrop until they passed.

Hunger pangs timed themselves perfectly with a hefty snow shower close to the summit of Loughrigg Fell.  This resulted in my hunkering down whilst trying to construct a tortilla wrap.  It was far too much hassle to get the Jetboil on for a cup of coffee.

The summit itself was a superb spot, views being much better than is suggested by its diminutive size.  The skies were turbulent after the heavy snow shower, layers of cloud drifting across the higher fells.

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Height was quickly lost on the descent towards the Youth Hostel, a narrow muddy path being wet and slippery.  I was soon climbing once more, the Langdale Pikes rearing up at the head of the valley.

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The undulating ground after Silver How was a joy to walk, easy-going and deserted.  A cold wind was picking up and the skies to the west were getting heavier.  Wet and windy weather was forecast to sweep in after dusk so I became eager to seek out a sheltered spot for the night.

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The Scarp was pitched in the lee of a grassy knoll, sadly the wind soon changing direction.  A scenic spot but one that I did not enjoy outside for very long.  Spots of rain were carried along on the wind in the gathering gloom.  The final job after collecting water was to deploy the crossing poles as insurance in case it got stormy in the night.

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After dinner I decided to rest my eyes for a moment before escaping into a good book.  I must have been tired as apart from being woken by wind and rain battering the tent I slept solidly for nearly twelve hours.  The book remained unread.

Thankfully the wind had dropped and the rain had stopped when I got up.  The higher hills once again had a dusting of snow, the clouds just above the summits.

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Packing my rucksack mist rolled in, quickly followed by rain.  Visibility was down to a few metres as I trudged up to the summit of Blea Rigg, tricky due to the complex terrain.  I had no qualms about navigating with my Satmap.  Even with GPS technology it took me a while to find the path that led me down to Easedale Tarn.  It was a thoroughly miserable day, even the lower Easedale Tarn was hidden in the clouds.   What surprised me was the sheer number of folk out on such a grim morning.  There was a constant stream climbing up the path next to Sour Milk Gill.

I was soaked by the time I reached the car.  My Rab eVent over-trousers had completely given up, even though they were proofed before setting off.  I could have wrung out my trousers they were so wet.  A naked bearded man then spent ten minutes drying off in the car with the windows steaming up……

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24 Comments to “Winter’s final bite? – backpacking the Grasmere hills”

  1. Wow, fantastic trip with a wee bit of drama thrown in! Superb and atmospheric photos. Nice one James, well done.

  2. I had a problem with a Rab eVent top on the last walk and caught the first stages of hypothermia as a result :/ it’s only around 2 years old and I do wash and iron it regularly, but it failed on me after around 6 hours of rain. I’m now wondering whether eVent kit needs replacing on a regular basis? Especially as it was very waterproof when first bought. How old are your trousers?

    • My trousers are about 2 years old Rob. Very worn from the knees down with a few holes along the seams. However it was the thighs that really wetted out. The fabric must have given up the ghost.

  3. James,
    Were you on Huntingstile Crag late afternoon on the 1st. march on this trip? I was coming off the ridge heading for the Youth Hostel accompanied by a Border Terrier. I passed a chap on his own heading onto the ridge. We acknowledged each other briefly. The person I saw was dressed in green I think and looking back towards Loughrigg Fell by the small tarn atop of the crag enjoying the view. I thought as I passed that lucky B….. is backpacking tonight!!! Was that you?

    • Hi Mick, yep I reckon that was me. I remember a Border Terrier anyway! It’s good to be heading into the hills just as everyone else is heading home.

  4. Such a stunning area. It never loses its charm for me.

  5. Looked like a very atmospheric trip there! What with wet snow and rain, bet Reuben was ever so pleased you left him at home in front of the fire. Obviously enough sun for those excellent photos mind. I expect your top half was in the comfort zone in Paramo though………..

    • I think that Reuben would not have enjoyed the weather on this trip, not a fan of wet and cold. Yep my top half was in the Paramo comfort zone, a bit of dampness on the shoulders but nothing to worry about.

  6. Btw, you probably already know this/have one, but just in case – did you know that Sat Map do a card for Sweden?

  7. James,
    Yes the dog, Alf is more memorable than me! I needed the GPS to get onto Sergeant Man that day even though I have done the wainwrights 12 times! What a pity I did not recognise you. I checked out camping spots in the Juniper forest by Blindtarn Moss, nice spot.

    Thanks for inspiring me to do more backpacking. I almost froze to death on High Raise in January because of you but enjoyed the experience. I camped by Scoat Tarn last Monday night. Stunning spot which you should have a look at some time. Pictures on Geograph.

    Best Wishes

    • Scoat Tarn is a great place to wild camp, woke up there on a sunny summer morning a couple of years ago.

      I had planned to walk over Sergeant Man the day after you passed me but I decided there was little point in such rubbish conditions.

      As for your near death, I take no responsibility for that whatsoever 🙂

  8. Looks a great trip – if a bit chilly! Just got back from Grasmere today but only a short one around Easdale and Tarn Crag. Nice area.

  9. What’s the name of that tent your using James, I’ve asked you before but I’ve forgotten, was in a laser comp tent this wkend and it was pretty windy and I’ve realised it’s the crappest tent I’ve ever owned, need a decent replacement for my 18 yr old space packer

    • Simon it is a Scarp1. I used to have a Laser Comp but ended up selling it. A great flapping mess once the wind picks up.

  10. That looks like a fine trip James and some atmospheric conditions too. You made me laugh with your hiding in shame behind a boulder after the nav error. Being something of a lazy map reader it sounds like the sort of mistake I would make 🙂

    • If I had looked at the map properly I would have realised that I confused the edge of the forest to one a few hundred metres away. The couple behind were persistent in following me through all that dead bracken though.

      You can’t beat some dramatic clouds on the mountains.

  11. Cracking trip James and the Scarp is ideal for that sort of weather. Fingers crossed we get decent weather for the Dales trip.

  12. Some great photos there mate. The hills round there are superb, pity everyone else in the UK and beyond knows that as well!

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