The time is half past ten, roughly, and I pull into the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale, the car in a dull silence. It’s been many years since I have set foot in this neck of the woods despite it being a usual hunting ground of mine. Possibly out of habit, I make the foolish mistake of closing the boot of my car and wandering into the bar to enquire as to the occupants, hoping to see an old friendly face. Two pints later (two foolish pints) and I staggered from the pub with my Lowe Alpine rucksack on my back, my leather boots on my feet and I left up the valley towards Angle Tarn where I hoped to be spending the night, although within about twenty minutes I was starting to wonder if I could make the distance. Regardless I continued plodding on, determined to stick to my plan. Eventually I reached the footbridge that marked the beginning of the most excruciating pain I have encountered in a long time. The blood that surged through my legs pounded with every beat of my heart, my shoulders slowly separated with the weight of the pack behind me as the waistband failed to grip my hips as it should and as I continued through sheer obstinacy I started to wonder the reasons for being here…
The previous week had been not just a struggle but a personal testament to the strength I thought I had. I won’t go into the details of my week, but needless to say I was not in the best of places on the Monday previous and had decided that some therapy was in order. However, as a climber, walker, hiker, whatever I may be classed as, I knew exactly what was in order for me: in the words of oh so many Westerns, I had to “get out of town”. And so, after 9 hours of shop work on Wednesday and a rushed bag of chips on the way to the car, I made the long three hour drive north on the M6, a journey I have made so many times before. Now here I was, just arriving at Angle Tarn at roughly 2am having finally left my car at midnight, pushing the solitary pole through my bivvi and preparing to collapse in whatever state the ground was in.
You may argue that my therapy began on leaving Birmingham or perhaps on sharing a cigarette with an old friend of many summers previous, whose acquaintance I had not made in at least four years. Perhaps it was the point of the slight groan that I let out after having turned my headtorch back on following a feeble attempt at trying to ascertain just “how much bloody further is it?!” or maybe even the time at which I woke the following morning to gaze out of my bivvi to the view of beautiful blue skies, placid water, Bowfell Buttress and the view into Langstrath. The simple fact is that none of these factors, no matter how inspiring could motivate me to move at anything other than a snails pace, and soon I feared such exhaustion that I thought it might have to be the fastest descent back to the car and sanctuary. Thankfully, I continued, figuring “I’ve just come from there, I can at least go back a different way!”
Amazingly, as I reached the small shoulder between Great End and Esk Pike something inside suddenly kicked into life. I have not the foggiest idea what it may be, and reasoned that it was probably me simply waking up properly but nevertheless I was more than a little pleased and decided to continue up to Scafell Pike; a hill that for some reason had always eluded me. For want of a better phrase, boy am I glad I did. As I marched on, bounding over rocks and streams and re-filling my water bottles wherever I could, I basked in the wonderful mountains around me and eventually decided that it was time for a stop, made my way over to a nearby rock and perched myself down, pulling out my tobacco and the cake I had obtained from the Old the previous night.
As I stared out at Great Gable, Napes Needle and the surrounding streams, brooks and hillsides I suddenly remembered what I thought I had come here to forget and again almost as instantly, forgot it again. However, I think I achieved what many call an epiphany: a sudden realisation that I had not come to forget at all. My problems were still there (or as much as they were when I left) and my troubles had not all suddenly disappeared. In 24 hours I would have to begin the journey south, to all the things I had left behind and I could not simply hide away from them in the hills. My epiphany (if you can call it such) was that although they were my problems, and things I would have to deal with, they were not so great as to keep me from places such as this. Nothing would keep me from the hills and mountains I loved so much. With a slight sigh as my words were lost in the wind, I muttered, “I love my life.”
As the day wore on, the sun beating down on my heavily laden back, I carried on, saying hello to passers by, occasionally stopping for conversation, and continuing to the summit of England’s tallest mountain. While I saw no immediate achievement in this as a feat on its own, I was impressed at my own determination, and pleased that I had persevered despite the pain that it had caused. Calmly sat atop the hill, I started to brew up, and I spoke to a couple who were part way through a backpacking trip that made my jaunt look like a walk round Ambleside. To be honest, I didn’t care: they were enjoying their trip, I was enjoying mine and we felt enough mutual respect for each other that conversation flowed quite nicely. After roughly an hour sat on the summit, I began my descent.
As I reached that same shoulder as before where my determination had turned somehow to energy, I took the decision that it was not that late, that I had everything necessary to survive easily and comfortably, and that I would turn to go up Esk Pike and subsequently Bowfell. The thought of another night in a small single pole bivvi bag had been overwhelmed by the prospect of a three person tunnel in the car, so the new idea was to make it back down into Langdale for that evening. If I’m completely honest, I probably wouldn’t have made it were it not for a couple of climbers I met on the summit of Bowfell.
They had just ascended Bowfell Buttress and were heading back down in my direction, and so I tagged along. After a short while, I realised the main discerning feature between climbers and walkers: climbers descend a LOT quicker. The reason for this I have surmised is that they have only the climb in mind, not the approach or the descent, but this theory could be bollocks, owing to the fact that one was a train driver and had work later that evening. Either way, a brisk walk rapidly turned into a slight jog, and by the time we were descending into Stool End, we were all three of us at a full run. As we stopped briefly at a gate, I thought this was the perfect end to a marvellous walk. As the sun slowly began to set in the distance, the sweat dripped from my brow and my lungs worked overtime, although not lighting another fag would’ve helped.
The walk back to Langdale campsite was slow and savoured, and to be honest, the rest of my small trip north pales into insignificant; the necessary had been achieved. That evening was spent sat in my Therm-a-Rest chair, eating beef stew and dumplings from a foil bag, and reading the history section of a Llanberis guidebook (the only thing I could find in the car to read!) It was bliss.
The next day was spent mainly time-wasting: a quick shower with only a cotton t-shirt as a towel, a feeble attempt to try and find a belay with only four karabiners and half a dozen Rockcentrics to ascend Middle Scout on a shunt, wandering the shops of Ambleside talking to people about winter mountaineering boots I couldn’t afford before meeting Jude for a farewell drink and cheese toastie in Kendal. It could’ve pissed it down that day, I didn’t care. My therapy was complete, my sanity in tact (or as much as it was going to be) and my head held high. I just hope I can wait for my next trip to be after I’ve been paid again….