Sunday 5 February 2012

Balancing on a Pinhead

Scafell and Eskdale from lower slopes of Harter Fell
On two occasions recently, once on Twitter and once on an outdoor blog, fellow walkers have praised the merits of Helm Crag in Cumbria, suggesting, in one case, that it is the only Wainwright that involves a climb to get to the top; and in the other that it is the only one that AW himself could not actually stand on the summit.

The Summit Rocks of Helm Crag

Now Helm Crag is a superb hill and I always really enjoy it, usually as part of a longer walk on towards Gibson Knott and beyond.  But I think these claims are inaccurate.

Setting aside the impossible to answer question about the boundary between a climb and a scramble, I think there are other fells that could potentially make these claims.  Well, they could if they could talk and they wanted to boast about their attributes.  Personally, I am absolutely sure that I could not get on to the tops of many of the Wainwrights without the aid of my hands at some point on the way up.  The last few feet of Pike O’Stickle spring to mind, as do half a dozen others involving at least a few handholds.

However, in terms of being able actually to stand on the top I would challenge any mere mortal to stand on the summit of Harter Fell, Eskdale, or to achieve the top without the use of the hands on what involves, I would suggest, at its easiest, an awkward little scramble.  The trig point is easily attainable, but this is a little way from what is clearly the highest point, a small rocky outcrop.  AW himself wrote that “The middle one of these three rocky tors is....the true summit, although it carries no decorations; at first glance it looks unassailable but an investigation of its east side discloses there a breach: the crest may then be reached by simple climbing”.

The Summit Rocks of Harter Fell

The photo below is of my hand holding the highest point!  I was actually gripping tightly as I balanced to take the photograph. I think it demonstrates the point about the near impossibility of standing on the summit.

A Long Reach to the Summit of Harter Fell, Eskdale!

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Is there such a thing as a poor hill?

Summit of Great Mell Fell, Cumbria
Pennines above a temperature inversion beyond
28 January 2012

The legendary Doug Scott was once asked why he climbed.  Doug is a very clever guy, and a deep thinker, as anyone who has ever attended his lectures or read his books will testify.  But Doug did not respond with some philosophical answer of the sort that George “Because it’s there” Mallory may have given.  Doug’s reply was simply “because I get fed up if I don’t”.

I was thinking about this as I headed up Great Mell Fell in Cumbria on Saturday last, 28 January 2012.  Great Mell Fell is not the sort of hill that most hill walkers would get too excited about.  It is low (537m); it is grassy rather than rocky; it is not connected to any other fell and so it’s almost certainly just straight up and down, probably by the same route as it does not particularly lend itself to a circular walk; and the whole “expedition” can be done in well under two hours, even allowing for some wandering round the summit cairn and for time to take photographs of the admittedly superb views to Blencathra, Helvellyn and the Dodds, the High Street Range and over towards the extensive Eden Valley and the Pennines.  So I may have spent the equivalent of many months of my life walking the fells of the Lake District, I must have driven passed Great Mell Fell four or five hundred times, usually heading for “bigger and better” things, but my recent walk up that hill was only my fourth trip to its summit.

Blencathra from Great Mell Fell
And I had the most superb couple of hours.  I felt alive for every moment of my short walk.  I did not look to Blencathra or Helvellyn and wish I was on them, fabulous though that would have been.  Yet I know that on other occasions I might have thought that Great Mell Fell was a pretty poor hill, an experience not to be repeated.  I have on occasions, on a variety of summits, from Snowdonia to Switzerland, thought that the hill or mountain I was on was not up to much.  I hope to be walking in the snow in the Lakes again this weekend and can think of dozens of hills I want to avoid.  I shall not be going on Mungrisdale Common; or Sallows; or Sour Howes; or Branstree.  I will certainly not be making the 15 minute trudge up Little Mell Fell from the road, or the 20 minutes stroll up Binsey.  Yet I have walked up all these before, and have had super times, as well as poor times on all of them.

All these fells are “Wainwrights”.  I first realised that AW was “having a laugh” at the expense of peak baggers when trudging up Mungrisdale Common in the rain and the clag.  No way is it a separate fell.  It is a flat piece of moorland at the back of Blencathra.  No way does it deserve a few pages in his brilliant guides.  He must have realised that there were those of us daft enough to have a tick list.  He was taking the proverbial.  Similarly, with Little Mell Fell and a number of others.  Yet all regular Lakes walkers will also know of a few summits or tops that are fabulous mountains, not in the Wainwright guides which we keep quiet about to deter the hoards.

Little Mell Fell from Great Mell Fell

But I have enjoyed myself on each of these nonentity of hills on certain occasions.  So what is this all about?  My theory is simple.  There is no such thing as a poor hill; just a poor route choice.  When I was ticking off the Wainwrights for the first time, Blencathra via Mungrisdale Common was a great choice of route and I had the satisfaction of adding the tick at the end of the day.  And similarly on my second Wainwright round.  Binsey was just the choice to carry my two year old up when his increasing weight in the backpack was starting to limit my options for introducing him to the hills.  But as I grow weary of tick lists, as my walking days, once apparently endless, now start to feel numbered (I will be lucky if I can manage another 10 summers and even fewer winters, after a lifetime of what I once thought would be never ending seasons of the fells), Mungrsidale Common would be a very poor hill indeed.

Better to use precious days to go to other places.  Not necessarily the classics but better for the circumstances.  Better for the day.  The hill you are on is a great hill if you have made the most of your opportunity that day.  If tick lists float your boat and you need another tick it does not matter that to others the hill would not be worth the effort.  If the weather is appalling, blowing a hooley and you haven’t got much time do not sneer at a walk up the forest road to Dodd or up the near motorway standard path to Latrigg.

Glorious view: Clough Head
From lower slopes of Great Mell Fell
January 2012

The heather clad, rock free mound at the back of Skiddaw or in mid-Wales, or South Shropshire can be the perfect hill for a sunny Bank Holiday.  Nowhere better.  And then on that sunny day, mid-week in early April or late September, when your countrymen are at their desks and you have a pass out, get yourself on to Striding Edge or Grib Goch; or if you aren’t keen on the exposure on to Grasmoor or Cnicht or Ben Lomond.  If your legs are getting on a bit, Pole Bank on the Long Mynd or the Lawley in Shropshire will do the trick.  It does not really matter.  There is no such thing as a poor hill.  I suspect almost all have their merits.

So Great Mell Fell last Saturday was a marvellous choice.  I had not set foot on a hill for three weeks.  I only had a couple of hours free.  It is only 15 minutes from my cottage.  I could get to the top and feast on the views of a multitude of much loved hills, snow clad in the near and middle distance.  I could set my eyes to the horizon of the east, and Great Dunn Fell and the white magnificence of the Pennines standing proud above the cloud filled Eden Valley.  It was the perfect choice.

Pennines Above Cloud Filled Eden Valley
From Great Mell Fell
January 2012
A Perfect Choice of Hill