As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I’m on course to complete twenty Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) sometime this decade, so that I can book myself on a a Mountain Leader course. On this occasion, and for the first time, I took our 12 year-old son Ben with me to the Lake District.
By way of context, inspired by the film School of Rock, our family has a saying that we trot out, usually with a wink or a glint in our eye: “You’re not hardcore, unless you live hardcore.” It’s our way of encouraging one another. What Ben completed today was impressive for a boy of his age. I didn’t take him over Striding Edge, despite his pleas, because people die on there and, well, that’s for another trip (not his first!)
A few days earlier we had planned our 17km route together using map OS4 and a HB pencil. I also booked us into Ambleside YHA, which is one of my favourites in the Lake District. As it was Bank Holiday weekend, the prices were all over the place, and it turned out to be cheaper for us to get a 3-person private room that for both of us to stay in men’s dorms. Crazy.
Before going, we transferred the route we’d drawn out on paper onto the OS Maps app on my phone, and then logged into my account on a computer to view the fly-through. The initial ascent looked quite steep and, indeed, it proved to be just that. At one point I thought it was raining, but it was just the sweat dripping from my head!
Thankfully, it was an almost-perfect day for walking. Not too cold, not too sunny, and virtually no wind. We did had the world’s most gentle hail at one point, which was almost laughable.
Further on, I remember looking up at Grisedale Pike after coming down Fairfield and saying to Ben that it looked like entering Mordor. He smiled and, a few steps later, I realised that he’s never watched The Lord of the Rings films. Note to self: fix that Dad fail right away!
At about this point, Ben was tempted by a shortcut, but I convinced him to stick to our plan. After sliding on the scree down Grisedale Pike and Ben falling over three times (yes, I counted), we decided to walk around the right-hand side of the tarn instead of the left. This was mainly because we wanted to go across the stepping-stones, next to which we stopped and had a snack there.
The way up Dollywaggon Pike was perhaps the most arduous section of the walk. It was at this point I taught Ben about what to do if one of us got hurt, how to use the whistle to make short blasts, when to use his mobile phone, and how to keep injured person warm. I’m not sure how much went in, as we were trying to ensure a bald guy with a dog didn’t overtake us. (Ben’s quite competitive, a trait he must have inherited from his mother…)
Once we got up Dollywaggon Pike, the walk across to High Crag and Nethermost Pike was easy. We avoided the mountain biker coming down Helvellyn, and had lunch at the top. It was a bit smelly as I think someone into the joys of public urination had marked their territory. We also got talking to some people who delighted in telling us that part of the route that Ben was proud to be achieving had been completed by their sons when they were five. Some people just make you 🙄
As I’ve already mentioned, we had already decided not to do Striding Edge this time around, and instead came down Swirral Edge. This seemed like particularly hard work, which makes sense after reading this article on the ten most dangerous British mountains:
[T]he most dangerous part of the mountain [Helvellyn] is actually the short descent onto the start of Swirral Edge which, particularly in winter conditions, can be lethally slippery.
After seeing no-one for the first part of our walk, this section was a lot busier. I noticed that a lot of people didn’t seem very prepared for a mountain walk, wearing pretty flimsy trainers. No wonder they were going so slowly!
The route back was pretty straightforward, although I did find it hilarious the number of times Ben adjusted his estimates of when we would get back. Now, fair enough, we did get back earlier than I thought we would, but his first guess was way off. The optimism of youth!
In the end, after tracking it on my GPS-enabled watch, it took us 5 hours 37 minutes to walk 17.58km. To his credit, Ben didn’t slow me down at all — in fact, I had to ask him to wait for me a couple of times! I’ll be taking him again.
Things I learned:
Despite our preparations, we forgot gaiters, towels, and hayfever tablets. We didn’t need the gaiters, thankfully, and I managed to hire towels and buy the tablets.
There was no place to park where I’d planned, which added a bit extra onto the walk (which we actually reclaimed via the shortcut around the tarn).
We wasted 30 minutes driving back, as I went the wrong way. There was no signal and I’m used to using Google Maps. I should think and plan more about that.
Regular readers will know that I’m trying to complete twenty Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) so I can book myself on a a Mountain Leader course. Every one of these I’ve done so far has been by myself, partly because I enjoy it that way, and partly down to logistics.
After QMDs 13 and 14, my friend (and TIDE podcast co-host) Dai Barnes offered to come with me on my next jaunt. As a result, we spent all day last Friday, and part of Saturday, walking in the Lake District.
The thing you need to know about Dai is that he goes barefoot almost everywhere. So when I jokingly reminded him that he’d need some boots for our walking trip, he replied by saying that he’d tie some to his backpack, but was planning to go barefoot. 😲
Although Dai has helped out with students at his school doing The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, he’s not a regular mountain walker. That’s good, because if he had been, the day wouldn’t have counted towards my QMDs.
I sent him a map of the route I’d planned for our first day, and said that we could plan the second one over dinner afterwards. The map below is our 21.1km actual route, which took us around 8.5 hours — including plenty of stops for food and chat.
We actually recorded an episode of the TIDE podcast while walking, so if you’re interested, you can sample that here.
Meeting at 10:00, we set off from the car park Borrowdale YHA after I’d checked we had the right equipment. We started walking (and recording) but after about 30 minutes I realised we had taken the wrong path. I hadn’t really been paying enough attention!
So we continued around and down towards Seatoller and Honister Hause. We agreed while we were down there that we’d go up towards Great Gable the next day. From Honister we ascended directly up towards Dale Head. That approach is probably the best for someone like Dai who hasn’t been up there before. It’s a magnificent view.
We had a great moment at the top, as Dai had brought his tiny but very powerful speaker up to play one of his stepson’s latest songs.
After something to eat, we walked along Hindscarth Edge and round to Hindscarth itself. We could see the clouds drawing in, which began to obscure our view of Dale Head. We came down via Scope End, which was zig-zaggy in places. All the more annoying as I’d forgotten my walking poles.
Heading across the river at the bottom of the valley, engrossed in conversation, we merrily kept walking into Little Town. Once we realised, we backtracked a little and went around High Crags. It was around 16:00 by this time, so we didn’t fancy going around Cat Bells and Brandelhow. Instead, we aimed for Black Crags.
In an error that I refer to on the podcast as ‘sheepfold shortcut’, we got confused between where we were in relation to two sheepfolds (indicated by the purple arrows on the map above).
That meant we didn’t have much choice but to make an extremely steep ascent up to get along and round to Bull Crag. It wasn’t much fun, but necessary given that it was late afternoon.
From there, we walked along Maiden Moor, Narrow Moor, and then arrived at a misty High Spy. Given that the light was beginning to fade, we attempted to get down Rigghead Quarries as quickly as possible. The fact that Dai did this barefoot quite frankly beggars belief.
By the time we got past the quarries it was dark enough to turn my head torch on. We walked the last section in single file along the river in pitch darkness, being careful where we placed our feet. Dai did put on some very thin sandals for this bit.
After a shower, a change of clothes, and a couple of very well-deserved pints, we plotted our route for the next day over dinner.
Things I learned:
It’s easy to get carried away and not check your map when you’re having an interesting conversation.
Just because something looks like a path, doesn’t mean it is.
Double-check your equipment before leaving the house, and consider having a list (so I don’t forget my poles!)
After a decent night’s sleep and a good breakfast on Saturday morning, we drove over to Honister Hause and started walking a circular route towards Great Gable. However, the wind and the rain was so bad that I had to put on full waterproofs and we sheltered for a while in a bothy near Dubs Quarry.
We started descending, realising we would then have to go up again. So, after three hours, soaking wet, and with plenty of the route left to walk, we decided to call it a day. We’d had such a great time the day before, that spoiling our trip by trudging through inclement conditions on Saturday seemed a bit pointless.
So, after getting back to our cars, getting changed, and saying our goodbyes, we headed back home — Dai back down to Oundle, near Peterborough, and me back to Morpeth, Northumberland.
Thanks to Dai for some of the photos featured in this post!
Yesterday, after 24.63km as part of Quality Mountain Day 13, I followed a route that was both similar and different to what I’d experienced the previous day.
The similarities? It was a horseshoe route, and around the same overall distance. The differences? The ground was boggier, and I wasn’t following a pre-defined path.
As it wasn’t a defined route, I had to find somewhere to park. I decided to park next to the church at Selside, which meant a slightly longer overall walk. I began properly at where the path crossed the A6.
Interestingly, there were a few occasions during the route I chose where notices posted last week indicated a change to public rights of way. This was the most interesting one, near the start of my walk. Evidently, the farmer had padlocked the gate and the notice was re-enforcing a public bridleway. I just jumped over the fence.
The ground was covered with heather and other low-lying vegetation that like boggy ground. I knew I was in for a bit of a hike. It was also clear that I wasn’t going to see many other people, unlike the previous day.
The first peak I ascended was Whiteside Pike (397m). The views were breathtaking, and the climb up there straightforward. I then had to decide how to get across to Todd Fell (401m).
The most difficult thing about this walk wasn’t the length or even the height I ascended to with each peak. It was the ground, which varied between clumpy and extremely boggy.
That mean that even the relatively simple task of getting from one peak to another often involved detours and figuring out the lay of the land.
I spotted a stile built into a drystone wall as I descended Whiteside Pike, and so made my way towards, and over, it.
As I looked over to the east, I noticed that the next valley had very low-lying cloud. Unfortunately, this had dissipated by the time I got round the horseshoe to have a closer look, but it did lend a certain ethereal quality to the walk.
My biggest problem during this walk, as I’ve already stated, was the boggy ground. This made things hard going at times, and also meant that I had problems with my walking boots. I’ve bought gel insoles that are great, but sometimes work their way loose and ‘ruck up’ inside my boots. This causes me pain, so I had to stop three times in total to sort them out.
I was walking with two poles which made life a lot easier. I learned to lengthen and shorten the poles depending on whether I was going uphill or downhill. One of my favourite things to do with them is to use them as a kind of way to ‘pole vault’ across small streams and boggy ground. On one occasion I put my pole into the ground and it… kept going!
I made my way up to Cappelbarrow (512m) and then round to Ancrow Brow, stopping to drink and eat occasionally. It was a glorious day, and this part of the walk was the easiest.
There was a real diversity of vegetation on the ground, including some areas that were almost red with a plant I’ve yet to identify.
As it was a bit of a trudge going through the boggy ground, I took the opportunity to follow trails made by animals and farmers’ quad bikes wherever possible. So my route around to Long Crag (493m) wasn’t as I’d planned, as I didn’t stick to the fence but instead followed the trails.
By the time I got to White Howe (530m) I was looking forward to making my descent, getting to the car, and driving home. It had turned into a bit of a slog. I phoned my wife to let her know I was OK and made my way towards what is marked on the map as ‘Lamb Pasture’.
I’m not sure whether it was because I was distracted while talking to my wife, or because of the streams of water that I had to navigate around, but I made a wrong turn which meant that I ended up next to Wolfhowe Plantation.
All that was left to do was to find the bridleway and make my way down to the A6. Due to the speed of the cars going along the road, and how intermittent the paths were, I took a detour to get back to the church. I’m not fond of going through fields full of cows (it’s the way they stop and stare at you…) but I found my way back eventually.
As I was pretty much out of water by this point, it was a good job that I got talking to an old guy who was busy doing some gardening. He allowed me to fill up my bottle from a tap attached to a bore hole. As he promised, it was perhaps the most refreshing water I’ve ever tasted!
By the time I got back to the car, I’d walked 21.57km. As I peeled off my sodden boots and walking socks, I saw the mother of all blisters on my left heel. From prior experience, I decided to do something about that, especially as I had a two-hour drive ahead of me. I got out my first aid kit, sterilised my scissors, cut a small nick in the blister, and drained it of fluid. I then covered what was left with plasters and drove home.
Things I learned:
Boggy walks are tedious and energy-sapping.
Always use poles to test the ground if unsure.
Stop still for phone calls to ensure I don’t get distracted and wander off-course.
I’m still attempting to get in the twenty Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) I need before I can book myself on a a Mountain Leader course. I contracted to work four days per week for Moodle. As I worked five last week, I took the opportunity to work three this week and sneak over to the Lake District this Thursday and Friday.
I’ll get my excuses in now: I developed a bit of a cold the day before I went, my right knee felt a bit weak, and the Mountain Weather Information Service was forecasting winds of 35-50mph on the peaks in the Lake District. That’s why, instead of plotting my own route for QMD 13, I chose one of the ‘premium’ routes provided to Ordnance Survey Maps subscribers (like me!)
In the event, I modified the 24km route a bit. It ended up being the same length but, of course, the bit I changed as a ‘shortcut’ ended up being the hardest part!
It was easy going at first. I parked at Low Fold, and walked down to Church Bridge, along through Limefitt Holiday Park, and along the valley towards The Tongue. I had nipped up the hill quickly to see if I could see the cairns supposedly on my left (I couldn’t) and stopped for a coffee.
As I sipped my less-than-stellar brew, I looked up and realised what my ‘shortcut’ entailed: a steep ascent up Park Fell. I girded myself and plodded up it, stopping occasionally to, ahem, ‘admire the view’.
I continued on to Thornthwaite Crag in the glorious sunshine and more to eat and drink. There were quite a few other walkers out and my walking poles made this shallower ascent much easier. The next bit was just a saunter around the corner to the top of Racecourse Hill. Annoyingly, it was just off the edge of my paper OS map, but I’d seen on the online version that it wasn’t much further.
As I started back from Racecourse Hill, the weather started to turn. I could see it coming in from a distance, so I had to decide whether to continue with my planned route or whether to modify it. I decided to keep going as modifying would mean either walking further or a steep descent.
By the time I got past High Street and on to Froswick, I couldn’t see the top of the next summit, Ill Bell. In fact, as I got to the incline to start the ascent up Ill Bell, the girl who was walking in front of me abruptly turned round and decided to go back. I, however, decided to power up it. It’s not often I put on music when I’m walking, but I needed some motivation. Getting to the top felt like an achievement.
From there, walking over to the Yoke, and then down to Garburn Nook was straightforward. I was tempted by what looked like a shortcut down to Limefitt Holiday Park, but when I got there saw that there was a lot of bracken. I’ve been seduced by that option before, and it didn’t turn out well. I kept going.
Six hours and 23.63km later, I arrived back at my car. It wasn’t the hardest walk in the world, given that I stuck to the paths, but I had to make decisions along the way and deal with changing weather conditions. So I reckon that counts as a QMD!
Things I learned:
Think carefully about ‘shortcuts’ before taking them.
My wife and I had been up Merrick the previous day. The way down had been interesting, mainly because I’d just taken the quickest route, whether or not it was actually a good idea.
With this route, we wanted to make sure we were on the correct side of the Galloway Hills so that we could get home in good time for our children. I planned the route with Hannah, my wife, but decided we’d have to play it by ear a bit depending on the terrain.
The Mountain Weather Service report said that the Galloway Hills on 7th May 2018 would be sunny and warm, with very little wind. Here’s a PDF of the report.
It was a straightforward walk up past some standing stones and a farm. I’d wanted to go and explore them, but there were lambs in the field so I thought it best not to disturb them.
Further on, some of the rams had very curly horns.
The route took us up past a disused lead mine. Some of the smelting chimneys were still standing. The air shafts were well marked and fenced-off.
After looking around the abandoned buildings (apparently there were 50 dwellings here at one point) we set off, but on the wrong track. I realised when we started entering the trees, and turned around.
However, instead of going all the way back to the path, I decided that we’d go along by the fence and then join the train. That meant we had to traverse lots of grass hummocks, which was hard going. In fact, this was the least steep of the hills but the most difficult walking.
Eventually we found a track up Knockower (511m) and followed that.
We got near the top and stopped for some coffee. It was at this point we made a decision to only go up Black Craig.
We headed down Knockower and towards Black Craig. This part involved tramping over heather, which was difficult for Hannah’s knee (which was already hurting a bit).
I suggested that on the way back down we use the stone wall as a ‘rail’ and head down into the forest.
The top of Black Craig (528m) was beautiful with magnificent views over Loch Doon. As we ate lunch, Hannah saw a track up Coran of Portmark and suggested we go up it. I agreed.
We trudged down Black Craig through boggy heather. Hannah spotted a moth, and we saw a lot of bees.
Crossing a wall and stream, we started our ascent of Coran of Portmark (which is an odd name for a mountain).
We walked at a steady pace near to the fence. It was straightforward but reasonably steep.
We made it to the top of Coran of Portmark (623m) and then looked for a track back down.
By this point, I’d realised that my watch had stopped tracking our route, which was annoying. Nevertheless, we just wanted to get back to the car and home.
We headed back past the disused lead mine. I wanted to investigate the air shafts, but Hannah stayed well clear.
We made it back to the car. My watch had stopped recording walk after about 5km but we did around 17km in about 5.5 hours.
Things I learned:
The second day is always harder than the first, especially for less experienced walkers.
I shouldn’t just rely on one method of tracking my route.
The terrain can make the difference between an enjoyable walk and a tough one.
It’s been almost a year since I’ve been able to get away to log more of the Quality Mountain Days I need to eventually get on a Mountain Leader course. This time, I went to the Galloway Hills over the Bank Holiday weekend, and I didn’t go alone. I’m going to write each day up separately, as I took quite a few photos!
Before we set off, and while I was still at home, I planned the route for the first day and had a rough idea of what we would do on the second. I used a paper map (Galloway Forest Park North, OS Explorer Map 318) and the OS Maps app (I’m a premium subscriber). Hannah, my wife, came with me.
I find that the OS Maps app underestimates the distance and time it actually takes to do walks I plan. In the event, we walked 20km and it took 6.5 hours.
I downloaded a PDF (see here) of the Mountain Weather Service forecast for the Galloway Hills. It said it that the cloud base would be low, but summits should be clear by midday.
We set off at 08:39 so we expected to walk through the mist until we reached the summit.
The route towards Merrick was well-signposted, with the only challenge being poor visibility. The wind was very light.
There were some tricky bits, as you can see below! However, it was mostly a straightforward ascent.
In Scotland, it’s always difficult to know how much of the ‘forest’ area shown on a map will actually be wooded. It’s a managed forest, so sometimes there’s no trees at all, just stumps!
The climb through the trees was steep in places, so I ensured I kept encouraging Hannah. She was fine, despite having a bit of a dodgy knee (which is stopping her from running at the moment). She kept up find.
It wasn’t difficult to keep on the track, but I nevertheless kept checking that I knew where we were.
The first peak we ascended on the way to Merrick was Benyallery (719m). There is a cairn at the top, and Hannah took my photo.
The Mountain Weather Service forecast said that there could be some wind, and so I was a little concerned about going across the ridge from Benyallery towards Merrick. In the event, everything was fine.
Visibility as we got closer to Merrick decreased to about 50 metres.
We made it to the top of Merrick (843m) and had lunch, using the trig point as shelter. I made sure we both kept warm as soon as we sat down.
As we started the descent from the top of Merrick, we began to pass more people. The temperature dropped, and we took our off-path route towards Bennan.
Had the cloud base not been so low, it would be have been obvious which way to go. However, with poor visibility, we needed to make sure we found the best way.
A new, high deer-proof fence had been erected by the Forestry Commission since the OS Map was published. We found a way to cross via the largest stile I’ve ever seen.
The track up to Bennan (556m) was an easy walk. Once we reached the top, the cloud base lifted very quickly. Within minutes, we could see the top of the peaks we’d just climbed!
From there, we headed down the track. I’d planned for us to deviate from it once we got round and down to an altitude of about 270m.
It’s always difficult to know in advance what you’re actually going to discover when you see a black solid line on an OS map. It means a boundary, but fence or wall? In this case, I’d planned to use it as a ‘rail’ to help us down, instead of continuing on the track. That would have added another 5km to our journey.
It wasn’t a good decision. This was Hannah’s first mountain day, so when I went ahead to have a look, I should have turned back and stuck to the track. In the event, she coped really well, but it was a pretty treacherous route down: sheer drops, boggy ground, and felled trees.
In the end, we made it. I’m not sure what I’d have done had she or I had hurt ourselves, however. I certainly learned a lesson there. We made it back to the car park.
By the time we got back to the car, my smartwatch told me the route had been 19.97km. So, like any sensible person, I walked around a bit so that it reached a nice round 20km!
Things I learned:
Plan the last part of the route as well as the first bit.
Go at the speed and ability of the least experienced member of your group.
As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I’m aiming to get on a Mountain Leader course by 2018. To do so I need to complete (and log) twenty ‘Quality Mountain Days‘. This time around, I headed back to the Lake District on Sunday and Monday.
The two days couldn’t have been more different, which goes to show how the weather can really affect both your safety and enjoyment when walking at altitude. Sunday was glorious; I wore my sunglasses virtually all day, and enjoyed an ice-cream by Lake Windermere when I came back down. Monday, however, was a completely different story: 40mph winds, incessant (freezing) rain, and low visibility.
I planned my routes by using OS Explorer Map OL7, and by using the Premium features of the Ordnance Survey website. I’ve found the latter extremely useful since its launch, particularly the 3D mapping feature. It means I (should) know what to expect before I get there.
Checking the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS), I could see that Sunday and Monday were going to be very different days. It’s actually the first time I’ve opted to go out at this time of the week, a decision we made as a family so as not to interfere too much with our children’s activities. However, as it happened, that meant an extremely difficult day on Monday, with little time for recovery before work on Tuesday.
Sunday (QMD 9)
The route I planned for my first day of walking took me up Red Screes, across over Dove Crag and Hart Crag, round by Great Rigg, and back past Rydal.
Usually, I record my actual route using the OS Maps app. However, for whatever reason, my battery was extremely low by the time I arrived in the Lake District. I think that was down to a faulty cable that made it look like my phone was charging while Google Maps was giving me directions, but that wasn’t actually the case. I prioritised being able to make calls in the event of an emergency over recording my actual route.
On the way up I met a retired guy coming down Snarker Pike. We got chatting, and he mentioned that he’d gone up there early to watch the sunrise! I noticed that, although it was dry where we were, he was wearing gaiters, so I decided to put mine on.
A bit further on, I ended up deviating from the route I’d planned after making a mistake. After checking my map and compass, it looked like I was heading for Middle Dodd. I made a course correction to ensure I was going to Little Hart Crag, but that actually took me off in the wrong direction. As a result, I had to traverse the side of a mountain. That wasn’t much fun on the knees and ankles!
Once back on track, I decided to go up the steeper route to Scandale Head. As my detour had added time onto the route I’d planned, and I knew the next day’s walking was going to be challenging, I decided to come back down via High Pike and Low Pike. I didn’t want to be out for longer than I needed to be.
On the way back down I met a guy using walking poles. I asked him about them, as I’d intended to buy some when I got back home. He said how inexpensive they were, and how much of a difference they made. I resolved to buy some when I got back down to Ambleside.
It was a pretty straightforward route back to the car, the only slightly tricky bit was getting down Sweden Crag. I walked back to the car, and then straight into Mountain Warehouse and bought some walking poles. I was out exactly five hours, from 09:15 to 14:15.
The rest of the day I spent eating ice-cream, reading the newspaper in the pub, and talking to people at the hostel. There was one guy in particular who was really interesting and ended up telling me his life story.
Things I learned:
Double-check before doing a ‘course correction’ just in case you were actually on the right path.
Always wear gaiters.
When it’s been dry for a long period of time, overnight rain can make everything slippery.
Monday (QMD 10)
After Sunday, it was hard to believe that Monday’s weather could be so different. However, I trust MWIS, so had planned a route that I thought would be challenging yet safe. Parking the car at Sadgill, I plotted an anti-clockwise walk up to Harter Fell, then Kentmere Pike, and back down and round to the car.
I usually enjoy my walks, even if it’s physically (and sometimes mentally tough). I did not enjoy Monday at all. There were times I could barely see. The four layers of clothing I was wearing were so wet I could wring them out along with my gloves. The wind was brutal and the freezing rain and low cloudbase meant I couldn’t see much.
While I had my phone with me, once I’d put it in the right mode to record my route and took a few photos, I left it alone. There was too much rain to use the touchscreen, and any time I put my arms down from the 90-ish degrees of using my walking poles, water gushed out of the opening to my coat. It was pooling in my sleeves.
There were a couple of times on the way up to Harter Fell that I thought I was going the wrong way. It’s easy to get disorientated and, stupidly, I’d managed to leave my compass in the car. It was only after triple-checking my map that I was convinced I was on the correct route. Thank goodness for the distinctive shape of some fields. I probably should have done some pacing, but I was too miserable.
While it wasn’t too catastrophic, I did make one mistake on Monday. I mistook one corner of a field for another, went over a stile, and then realised I was rather close to a very steep edge. I retraced my steps, got my bearings, and got back on track.
Everything was going fine, and I was looking getting back to the dry warmth of my car. I could feel myself speeding up, as the BPM of the songs going through my head were getting faster.
As happened the day before, I had to climb down a crag on the way back. This one, Wray Crag, shouldn’t have been an issue. The problem was that it was my first day with the walking poles. They’d been great up to that point, really saving my knees. One thing I hadn’t done, however, was keep checking that the clasps keeping the extendable bits in place remained tight. It was as I used my left-hand pole to steady myself as I come down the crag that it gave way.
I must of only tumbled down a couple of metres, landing on my elbow and hip. I got up straight away, cursing myself for my stupidity. Realising I was alright, I counted my blessings, as if I’d hit my head it could have been very different. I tightened my walking poles, and strode on.
Getting back to the car, I looked at my watch. I’d set off at the same time as yesterday (09:15) but got back to the car by 13:45. So a four and a half hour walk, instead of the five hours I’m supposed to do for a QMD. I’m still counting it, as it was extremely challenging for me, I didn’t stop for more than two minutes at any point, and I learned a whole lot.
My phone turned off as soon as I got it out of my rucksack, and wouldn’t turn back on. I was convinced it had irreparable water damage, and had to use my car’s inbuilt satnav to get back home. I dried myself and changed clothes rather awkwardly in the back of the car before driving home.
Given that I’d told my wife to phone Mountain Rescue if she hadn’t heard from me by 17:00, it was important I got home before that time. Fortunately, it’s only a bit over two hours from that part of the Lake District back to my house. I stopped at a service station for all of five minutes for a coffee, a sausage roll, and a cinnamon bun, and got back home in record time.
First of all, a bit of background: to get onto the Mountain Leader course, I have to complete and log twenty ‘quality mountain days‘. It’s been winter, so my last couple of QMDs were back in October. However, now spring has sprung, I’m off back up mountains.
My previous four QMDs were in the Lake District, but this time I thought I’d mix it up a little by heading to Scotland. This is a little further for me to drive from my home in Northumberland, but, as you’ll see, it was definitely worth it!
Given that it’s only March, I decided against the Cairngorms, leaving that area for the summer months. Instead, I focused on Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park.
The great thing about the Ordnance Survey’s OS Maps app is that you can see routes that other people have added, and use these as inspiration for your own. I decided to go up Ben Ledi on Friday, and Ben Vorlich on Saturday, staying over at Callander Hostel.
I knew I’d be tired on Saturday, as I never sleep that well when I’m away from home (especially in hostels where you can guarantee someone will snore) and I’d have spent a full day walking on Friday. It was for that reason, that I decided to walk further on Friday than on Saturday.
Friday (QMD 5)
The route I planned at home went up Ben Ledi, across to Stuc Dhubh, down the trail, through the trees and round past a waterfall, and then along the road back to Callander:
Driving from my home to Callander took a little over three hours. It was a straightforward journey, with light traffic and wonderful views. On arrival in Callander, I found the hostel, parked my car, and tried to find someone to give them a route card. However, there was no-one to be found, so I sent the route to my wife and told her to call Mountain Rescue if she hadn’t heard from me by 19:00.
Instead of driving from the hostel to the start point I’d originally identified, I walked to it, which added a good half an hour to the overall journey time. The initial walk up the path was pleasant.
However, I soon got to a scene of devastation. The timber forest around Ben Levi is a ‘crop’ and as such is harvested. What is left, though, looks like what I imagine parts of England looked like after the Harrying of the North.
I sat down on a few logs and sent my wife the image below. I put down my hat, gloves, and sunglasses. When I got back up, I must have knocked them off onto the ground somehow, as I realised about an hour later that I didn’t have them.
The route up to the top of Ben Ledi from that point involved some steep sections, but it was the snow that surprised me. I hadn’t expected it to be so deep!
Just before I made the final ascent to the top of the mountain, I sheltered from the wind behind a rocky outcrop. My hands were dirty, so I rubbed some alcohol gel into them in preparation for eating my lunch. That decision ranks as one of the stupidest I’ve made while on the side of a mountain, as without gloves, the wind on my hands then made them feel extremely stiff. I ended up putting spare woolly socks over my hands.
Once I got to the top of Ben Ledi, I followed a trail on my map rather than a demarcated path. The snow got even deeper at this point, to the extent that I had to start being very careful about the route I was taking.
My route took me via a couple of tarns, which were partly iced over and beautiful to behold. I just stopped and looked for a couple of minutes, before the cold wind encouraged me to keep moving.
The purple line on the map below shows the edge of a boundary between areas looked after by different organisations. It’s also, however, a path. I’d intended to head up to Stuc Dhubh and then down the track to Allt Ghleann Casaig.
However, by the time I got to the top of Bioran na Circe, the snow was thigh-deep, so I made my way down the slope towards the two fords. To make this easier, I kept the stream to my left, and the gully to my right.
It wasn’t easy going, and I slipped and slid down. I was thankful to get to the bottom. From this point onwards, I was walking along tracks and roads back to the youth hostel. It took me what seemed like ages to get back, and by the time I was on the last stretch, I had my head torch on. I’d already contacted my wife by that point, but I got back just before 19:00.
As you can see from the above, I use the OS Maps app to track my route. I was out for over seven hours, walked over 18 miles, and ascended over 4000 feet. I was pretty tired by the time I checked into my hostel, staggering out after a warm shower to get some fish and chips.
I slept reasonably well, despite the inevitable snorer, and the two drunken idiots who burst in at 02:30.
Things I learned
Check you’ve got everything once setting off again after resting.
Don’t put alcohol gel on your hands in cold weather.
Plan interesting routes that don’t involve lots of walking on roads.
Saturday (QMD 6)
The route I planned at home took a straight route from the southern shore of Loch Earn up the path to Ben Vorlich. From there, it looked like a straightforward walk to Stùc a’ Chroin, along the ridge, round and up along the river back to my starting point:
I was anticipating a couple of things on Saturday. First, because it was the weekend and a beautiful sunny day, I knew that there would be plenty of people out and about. Second, from the map, I anticipated an easier day than Friday. I was wrong on both counts; there were about the same number of walkers, and it was much harder going than Friday.
I bought provisions in Callander, and then drove around to my starting point. I hadn’t needed my ‘proper’ camera or my waterproofs the day before, so I left them in the car to make my backpack lighter.
My optician had warned me earlier in the week of the need to protect my eyes given my pale blue irises and ‘larger than average’ pupils. Having lost my walking sunglasses on Friday, I was forced to wear my aviator-style driving sunglasses. This was less than ideal.
It was tough-going up Ben Vorlich. Thankfully, I had a couple of individual walkers ahead of me, meaning that the route through the snow was clear. The path was steep, and very slippery in places. It made me realise why people have walking poles.
I overtook a guy who had a couple of dogs with him, and felt I was doing well. However, life has a way of knocking you down a peg or two and, on this occasion, that was done in quick succession. First, I came over the brow of the hill to see the final ascent involved scrambling through ice and snow. Second, a guy in his early twenties ran past me. Unbelievable.
I did, however, finally get to the top of Ben Vorlich. It felt like an achievement, and the views were stunning. I stopped for a few minutes, and then pressed on towards Stùc a’ Chroin.
It didn’t take long for me to realise I hadn’t read my map very well when planning this route. What I had assumed was a ridge from Ben Vorlich to Stùc a’ Chroin actually involved a steep, snowy descent followed by an even steeper ascent. I sheltered at the bottom of the pass, enjoying my steak pie and bottle of Lucozade.
When I’m out on mountains, I talk to myself in my head. Not in a personality disorder kind of way, just in the sense that I think all of us do: having a conversation as to what’s coming up and what my response is going to be. Usually, I have no problem willing myself on after geeing myself a bit.
However, on this occasion, tired after yesterday’s walk, and surprised at having another steep ascent to make, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I decided to re-route and take what I assumed would be an easier route along the river.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Not only was the way down tricky, but the ground all the way walking down, keeping the river on my right-hand side was extremely boggy. I saw a herd of deer at fairly close quarters, but wasn’t quick enough to take photos.
I struggled through snow on top of sucking mud for what must have only been two or three miles, before turning the corner. I was hoping, but again it was assumption rather than close map reading, that the trail back would be reasonably straightforward. I had only paid attention to elevation, rather than what the ground would be like underfoot.
The journey by the river, however, felt like a walk in the park compared to what came next: walking over snow-covered heather, with small stream underneath. It was really hard-going, and I had to keep an ear out for the tell-tale sound a small stream under the snow. On a couple of occasions, I put my foot down through the snow and heather into a stream.
I was wet. I was tired. I was fed up. The photos all make it look beautiful, I suppose, but I had my head down most of the time, trying to not to stumble. The trail marked on the map was like Blackadder’s four-headed, man-eating haddock fish-beast of Aberdeen. It didn’t exist.
Eventually, I turned a corner and saw something so mundane, but so welcome: a bridge. If there’s a bridge, there’s a path. And from there, I walked down what felt like a motorway back down to my car. I collapsed into the boot, removing my sodden boots and gaiters, tore off a large piece of Soreen malt loaf, and greedily pushed it all into my mouth.
The above information really requires the context given above to understand the impact it had on me as a mountain walker. Despite a shorter route both in terms of length and duration, and the total ascent being less than Friday, nevertheless Saturday’s route was hard.
The drive back home was frustrating, both because of my desire to get home and drink all of the whisky in my house, but also due to the weekend traffic and number of speed cameras in the Scottish borders.
Things I learned
Assume nothing. Check and double-check your route, especially when it comes to elevation and ground underfoot.
Consider buying walking poles. It could save your knees.
Mountain water tastes amazing.
Next week, I’m planning to head back up to Scotland for my seventh and eighth QMD. Can’t wait.