I found an epic walk online. Trail Magazine recommended YHA Black Sail as its #RoomWithAView back in February, and this weekend in July was the only one I was able to get a bed for. If I was going to drive all the way to the Lake District for a weekend, I was going to make it a good one. I planned for Phil and I to summit Scafell Pike on the Friday – the second peak of my Three Peaks Year – and then do this epic ridge circuit I’d found for the rest of the weekend. We would take in Red Pike and High Stile, Hay Stacks, both Green and Great Gables, and then drop down to Black Sail via Windy Gap just in time for dinner. We would finish off the circuit walking over Pillar on the Sunday, before a leisurely stroll along Ennerdale back to the car and home. It was a brilliant plan, and I was proud of myself for organising such an epic weekend.
Saturday morning started off with a gentle walk along the north edge of Ennerdale Water. The sky was iron grey and cool, but the path was wide and defined. As it wound further along and ran deeper into Ennerdale Forest, we had to hunt for our footpath which led off to the right. We began to climb up the edge of the river, and eventually moved across to a wider path, which was running parallel to the river, through the dense trees. We moved in a half-walk, half-scramble to make progress along the steep path. We had to get our hands involved to avoid slipping and losing ground on the hill. It was hard work, and warranted stopping for a Tunnock biscuit to refuel.
We could hear the rain overhead and the path was slick underfoot. Very little rain broke through to dampen us down on the forest path until, in one long straight line, the forest cut off and we popped out onto the open hillside. In the time we had been under cover, the clouds had come down a little further, and the peak of Red Pike was no longer visible. The wind picked up. The footpaths were barely trodden and they faded in and out. Our navigation skills were being tested on the exposed terrain with limited visibility. I checked my OS Maps app and saw that we had drifted off the main footpath and picked up the smaller track, marked in black. To head back to the path we wanted, we had to loop east around the side of the hill. There, we found the path, but we also found the wind. Following the ridge path towards the summit, we were buffeted relentlessly.
We made slow progress in the wind and driving rain. It was now getting on for midday. We needed a rest and began looking for a spot to have lunch. ‘Just ahead,’ I thought over and over, ‘just ahead there will be a sheltered spot where we can stop… ‘ but no such spot appeared. Our only option was to get out my little emergency shelter. We squashed ourselves and our gear under the flimsy protection. We heated tinned chilli, huddled over the Trangia, and scooped it up with stiff pitta bread. I took a few gulps of tea from my flask – it was, mercifully, still hot – and tried to keep the shelter from buffeting me in the head. We swallowed the last of the chilli and looked at each other. Phil’s wet face and hair were bathed orange in the light that was filtering through the nylon shelter. I pride myself on being able to choose my attitude in almost any situation but, today, the smiles got lost on the way to my face. I’d dragged Phil up here on his precious few days off work, and for what? We still hadn’t seen the first summit through the clouds, and our waterproofs were starting to give up. I was experiencing a phenomenon I’d read about in Microadventures by Alistair Humphreys; I diagnosed a serious case of ‘Type 2 Fun’. The first ascent was taking forever, and we still had the bulk of the ridge walk to go. Importantly, our dinner was due to be on the table at the YHA at 7pm: we had a time limit.
It was here that I had to ask myself a question that I get asked a lot by other people: why? Why was I here? Why did I think this was fun? Sure, we could press on and bag the peaks. I had only a vague idea of how long that would take in this weather – and I really didn’t fancy the risk of missing dinner. We would be enduring hours of being battered by heavy rain on the exposed ridge. We could make the summits, but we wouldn’t see anything. We could tick off some trig points, but we would also be cold, wet, and probably miserable. The alternative was admitting defeat, heading back into the sheltered valley, and taking the flat and easy track to the YHA. We wouldn’t be able to brag about all the height gain and the hard work but we would be warm, relatively dry, and on time for our food. Being a little more cautious than me in these situations, Phil was the voice of reason, and convinced me that we had to make the sensible call. Half reluctantly and half relieved, we packed up the sopping shelter and picked our way back to the main footpath to head back down into the trees.
Once we were back on the southern face of the hill, the wind dropped away. Finally, we could talk again. Back in relative safety and comfort, it seemed a shame to have come off the peak. I knew, though, that it was the right decision. We could finally take our hoods down as we entered the cover of the forest. The climb down took time as we slipped a little in the mud. I used branches and rocks to hold myself fast on the descent. By the time we reached the river again, I had my jacket unzipped and my sleeves rolled up.
The air down here was moist but still, and the rain stayed mainly in the peaks. The feeling of failure was palpable, but we were at least now free to enjoy our walk. Eventually, the trees cleared, and the view opened out to a beautiful and dramatic view of the cloudy valley. We looped up a small incline and around a bend, and had our first sight of YHA Black Sail.
The final obstacle to cross was a small number of stepping stones across a stream. Distracted by proximity to the hut, and therefore to hot tea and imminent food, I took a wrong step and plunged my foot straight into the icy stream. Water flowed over the top of my boots and dumped itself straight into my sock. I firmly believe that there are few things in life more unpleasant than a damp sock. However, thanks to our decision to leave the Type 2 Fun behind earlier, this minor inconvenience was the worst situation I had to deal with for the day.
We let ourselves in through the front door of the bothy. A woman and her young daughter were already there, drying their socks out on a bench. We hung our damp clothes from a rack suspended from the ceiling, and placed our boots on the designated ‘boot beam’. We padded through the main room into the kitchen, having changed into our dry socks, and made a welcome cup of tea.
A few hours later, we were sat in a cosy corner, sharing benches and beers with a retired dad and his two grown-up sons. Just up from us, two families with children played a board game. A large group of adults sat at another table with maps spread out between them. The room was full of voices and laughter. It smelled like damp boots and warm food. We had been served a dinner of steaming hot sausage and mash followed by apple crumble, and the bar kept us well supplied with local ale. One of the sons at our table had a bottle of whiskey which he passed around.
The next morning, I left the dorm for the main kitchen to make a morning cup of tea, and came face to face with a huge black Galloway cow. Overnight, they had congregated on the flat grass outside the hostel. Some were standing and others were sitting, all looking lazily around the valley. Another was luxuriating on the ground by the stream we crossed the day before. The morning was cool but clear, and I brought my tea back outside to sip. I sat on the bench outside, bare-footed and wearing a t-shirt. The fresh air cooled my skin, and I sat quietly with the cows. The hillside fell away before me. Smooth greens and purples swept through the valley to both sides, and the ascent directly in front of us towered above, its summit backlit by bright white clouds.
It turns out that my happy place can be found in a lot of different spots, and I’d found one of them here. I resolved that we would hang around a little longer and, just this once, take the easy walk back, too.