Sunday 25 June 2017

Fellbound's Tour in the Lakes Michaelmastide 2017

Many years ago I received as a gift a coffee table book, 'Wainwright's Tour in the Lake District, Whitsuntide 1931'.

The book describes a week long circular tour of the Lake District, devised by Mr Alfred Misogynist-Miseryguts himself. He planned to do the walk with some of his pals from Blackburn, staying at farmhouses and bed and breakfasts en route. Not that Wainwright would have used the expression 'en route'. Not keen on foreigners was Alf. Never went abroad, if you discount Yorkshire that is, and never ate foreign food.  As it happened, his plan was too ambitious for them and they never completed the walk. The book may no longer be in print, but I see that it is available second hand on Amazon from just a couple of quid. It's worth a look, not least to see his marvelously written handwritten plans of the route.

As a Lake District obsessive I have, for many years, thought it would be a good thing to do something similar. Thus, I have recently sketched out a 10 day circular backpack of the Lakes, which I fancy doing later this year. I describe it below, and welcome any comments and suggestions for improvement from readers who know the Lake District well.

In passing, it is worth commenting that despite the oft mentioned compactness of the Lake District, my 10 day itinerary hardly scratches the map, and leaves many wonderful parts completely untouched, including the entire Northern Fells, much of the central area and so on. However, having climbed all 214 of the Wainwrights at least once, almost all twice, and some 20 times or more, I am happy to limit my ambitions for the walk. It does not need to be a peak bagging exercise.

Fellbound's Tour of the Lake District, Michaelmastide 2017
Some larger scale maps of the route feature at the bottom of this post, together with a table showing distances and so on. The plan is to tackle the walk this Autumn if I can create the space in my diary. This is rather tight for reasons too boring to mention. I hope to camp out every night, mainly wild camps, but staying on a few commercial campsites when necessary. If the full 10 days is not available then I have an option of doing a semi-circular trek from Windermere to Keswick taking either 3 or 7 days, depending on whether I take the clockwise or anti-clockwise version of the full route.

When I finished my initial sketch of the route my first concern became the lack of resupply points on the western section -  potentially requiring seven days of food to be carried, something which I am not really prepared to do. A possible solution is to send a food parcel to the camp site at Boot if the manager there is prepared to allow this. I have not mapped out foul weather alternative days, but a quick look at the map suggests that these are easily available for each day that my main plan takes me up high.

Ascent (m)
Est Time

Windermere to Baystones / Wansfell Pike
4h 35m
Baystones (poss add Sour Howes and Sallows

Baystones to Greenburn Beck
5h 40m

Greenburn Beck to Boot
9h 25m
Great Carrs, Swirl How, Old Man, Dow Crag etc

Boot to Wasdale Head
6h 40m
Irton Fell, Whin Rigg, Illgill Head

Wasdale Head to nr Starling Dodd
7h 55m
High Crag, High Stile, Red Pike

Starling Dodd to Grasmoor
7h 40m
Great Borne, Whiteless Pike, Wandope, Grasmoor

Grasmoor to Keswick
4h 55m
Eel Crag, Sail, Outerside, Barrow

Keswick to nr Watson’s Dodd
7h 05m
Clough Head, Great Dodd, Watson’s Dodd

Watson’s Dodd to Brother’s Water
7h 15m
Stybarrow Dodd, Raise, Whiteside, Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywagon Pike, Fairfield, Hart Crag

Brother’s Water to Windermere
7h 40m
Thornthwaite Beacon

I now have to sort out some dates to put this plan into fruition. I also need to arrange some decent weather and make plans for the dog, as I will not be taking him with me. Frankly, I do not want the extra weight that would entail, or the extra responsibility of looking after him, nor do I want to have to leave him outside the shops in Keswick or Ambleside when I am buying food.

And one final thought. A ten day backpack? Sounds like a good excuse to buy any new gear that I might possibly need. Happy smiley face, cheeky winky face.

Days 1 to 3
Day 4 and part day 5
Day 5 continued to part day 9
Day 9 continued and part day 10 (which finishes in Windermere)

Tuesday 13 June 2017

Challenging Reflections on the 2017 TGO Challenge

Early Morning Reflections in the River Findhorn 

And then it was over.

The Beach at Redcastle

Paddling in the North Sea at Redcastle
Alan Sloman at Redcastle
We arrived at the wonderful beach at Redcastle in beautiful sunshine, I pouted for the last time as Al pointed his camera, then mine, to capture the moments, and after that we walked to the Lunan Bay Café to eat cake and ice cream and phone a taxi to get us to Montrose.

It was lovely to get to The Park Hotel. It was heaving with Thursday finishers and too many old friends to mention. Robin Evans, Johnboy Sanderson, John Woolston, Andy “Mad ‘n’ Bad” Walker, Crocodile Dundee from Croydon with his new hat, Hugh and Barbara Emsley oozing their loveliness, Mick and Gayle, Humphrey Weightman and many, many others. Happy, smiley fit people. People who, as Al says, are made of “the right stuff”. The people who make the Challenge what it is, and why so many come back year after year. People were already discussing where they would start from in 2018.

As for me, I know I shall not be back (what I should write really is “I do not think I will be back”).

My 2017 Challenge was a very different experience to those I did in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The weather, in the main, was better for a start. And I climbed more hills on the way across, including five Munros, and generally walked longer days, with longer stops and pitched camp later.

Oh! Another difference! I bought an excellent cap, in which, at a hundred metres or so, I could be taken for Field Marshal Rommel. Yes that cap. Hideously overpriced at £20 in Braemar Mountain Sports when it is on sale for £19.99 in at least one online retailer.  Al loved it so much he got one as well, but in a different colour. Mine is a steely grey, which will nicely set off my eyes when I wear it in the early evening sunshine.  I later found that Johnboy also has one that is identical and, to quote him, “it’s essential backpacker apparel to engender fearlessness and occasional foolhardy actions. People will look at you in a way which says there goes a man who embodies the very essence of an outdoors expert”.  How right he is. I shall wear it on all future backpacks.

Field Marshal Rommel of the Africa Corps in a bunker on Driesh
The main difference, though, was the fact that I had a walking companion for the entire crossing. This did not, of course, make the Challenge any less demanding physically.  I was still exhausted at the end of most days. But it made an enormous difference. For me, without a shadow of a doubt, it is far easier to successfully complete the Challenge if walking with someone rather than going solo.  It’s all in the mind you see. The extra sense of reassurance, especially for a born worrier, of having someone with whom to share (or indeed take on) most of the decision making does make the event that much less daunting. The companionship goes without saying, although say it I just did.

It seems to me that there are three wonderful things about the TGO Challenge. Firstly, the sense of achievement it provides. I know that my crossings are something that I will always be proud of. That's always and for ever. Right to the end when I shuffle off this mortal coil. Secondly, the Challenge has a spirit of its own, especially of commaraderie. The people you meet, the friendships you form are what make it so special. This has to be so as we could all go off and do long backpacks anytime and anyplace rather than stumping up our £50 entry fee to the publishers of the TGO magazine. And thirdly, there is a wonderful, liberating simplicity in the rhythm and routine of a long walk. You get up, you walk, you cook dinner, you go to bed. Only if you have experienced this day after day can you understand, and the Challenge, at two weeks, starts to provide a little understanding of the motivations of those who through hike the much, much longer trails of the USA and Europe.

But I will not be there next May or in subsequent Mays. I think not. You see I did not relish the Challenge of the walk. I'm not made of the right stuff. On too many mornings I woke thinking more of the difficulty of walking up to 30 km in a mountain environment, knowing for much of that time I would be shattered. Too often I did not appreciate the magnificence of my surroundings, but rather wondered how much further I had to go to our chosen camp spot or B and B. I don’t think there was a single day when I was not thankful when it was over. For me, as I approach 60 years of age, walking for up to ten or more hours with a large backpack starts to make each day a chore rather than a joy, in a way in which a four or five hour walk does not. I am not made of stern enough stuff.

Then there is what is happening to Scotland. The wild landscape is being trashed with the connivance of rich landowners and the government. Wind turbines and massive electricity pylons blight extensive parts of the Challenge area. And the massive and numerous new hill tracks. I need to be clear that I don’t think on the Challenge I have ever not thought 'thank goodness' on getting on to one of these and being able to walk on it after being on rough or boggy ground. But they are despoiling the landscape in the most appalling way. Any mountain lover must weep, at least metaphorically, when they they see what has happened to large parts of the Highlands. Again, you have to see and experience these to understand the point. Those that run elevated over the the summit plateaus are perhaps the worst of all. I do not understand how the nation of Scotland, so proud of its Highland heritage, can have allowed this to happen.

And finally, when I am away I miss my family and I miss my dog and it puts additional burdens on them, even though they are able to eat salad every day and can skip meat and starch and puddings and stuff (not the dog obviously, as he shares my attitude to salad, which is distinctly hostile).

The TGO Challenge: In the words of Scotland's finest, The Proclaimers, it's Over and Done With

Despite the paragraph above I hope I will do more longish backpacks before I hang up my boots and bin the sleeping mat, and not just of the overnight variety. But it will not be on the Challenge. I am almost sure about that.

And my final words on my 2017 are simply this. Thanks, Al. It was a privilege to walk with you. Only eight more to go and you'll have done thirty. And you mind what you write about me when you get your own blog written.

Alan Sloman: A True Gentleman of the Road

Thursday 8 June 2017

Challenging Obstacles

Crossing Loch Ness, one of the Challenge's pleasanter obstacles, given the use of a boat is allowed.
It was Tuesday and Day 5 of the Challenge. We were supposed to walk from Struy to Drumnadrochit over the area of high ground called “The Eskdale Triangle”.

After a couple of miles along the road our route took us along a track and up into a forest. Except it didn’t. The landowner, known for his flouting of the Scottish Access Code, had installed a deer fence across the start of the track. This was on top of a small vertical bank. And directly behind it he had planted a number of saplings, all of which made it look like any attempt to climb the fence would be problematic. Al suggested a diversion that would mean walking several extra kilometres. We saw no alternative, and both reluctantly agreed. The road was eventually left three km further on, when we could head up another track through the forest. The first deer gate was unlocked; the second was locked but easily climbed; the third was also locked and leaning. I was about to try to climb it when Al spotted a smallish triangular shaped gap in the wood work.

“We can get through that”, he said.

I put my right leg through the gap. But the opening was too narrow to get my left leg through; that or my knee was not bendy enough.  I tried it with left leg first.  No joy.

“Head first”, said Al. “Go through head first then you don’t have to bend your legs”.

For the life of me I do not know why I didn’t just climb the fence. Against my better judgement I knelt down, then started to wiggle through, head first. The gap was some way off the ground. I had my head and one arm through, but I could not reach the ground with my hand. My other hand was bent backwards and my wrist felt ready to snap. If I went any further I would fall through, flat on my face. At this moment I realised that the bastard, for that is the only way he can be described at this moment in his life, was sniggering out loud and was taking photo after photo from behind me as I wiggled and squirmed, my backside sticking up in the air on one side of the fence, my head down on the other, making it look like I was trying to eat a grass sandwich. He asked me to turn my head around so that he could capture the look on my face. "You have to see the funny side, he said. And you're not pouting". I somehow extracted myself, tried it again leg first and managed to get through.

It was Al’s turn. I made him wait until my camera was ready. Revenge would be sweet. Then do you know what the bastard did? He climbed through with the grace and elegance of a ballet dancer. As I said. What an utter bastard.

The bastardry continued, although to be fair to Al the next time it was unintended. It was Thursday. Day 7. This was a long day, taking us ten and a quarter hours to walk the 30km, and climb almost 1000m, to get from Glen Mazeran to Aviemore. As we approached the top of Carn Dubh Ic n Deoir (750m) we spotted a new electric fence on our side of the cairn. Fortunately there was a gate which allowed us through and we sat in beautiful sunshine for thirty minutes having a snack at the cairn.

We set off again, back through the gate, then down hill for fifteen minutes, walking parallel to the fence. We then realised we should have stayed on the other side of the obstacle. Was it on? Al decided to test it, doing this in a very British way. He prodded it with his metal walking poles. Nothing happened. He then tapped it lightly with his finger. 

"It's off", he announced.

By placing a boulder near the fence we reckoned our legs were just about long enough to step over it. Al went across. I, too, then tapped the wire with a finger. Nothing happened. I started to follow. I realised that the top strand of wire was that bit too high. It could be dangerous to my manhood, such as it is. I then grasped the wire to push it slightly lower. I jumped back with a high pitched yelp. The sort of yelp you might let out if you’d just got an electric shock. In fact, it was exactly that sort of yelp. I do not understand electrickery but somebody later explained something about intermittent pulses. Well, all I can say is I wish those pulses were more intermittent. I walked back up hill to the gate, muttering darkly laughing happily about life’s little twists and turns. 

Fording a very low River Orrin

Al walks on water
There are pleasanter obstacles to be overcome on the Challenge, providing that the weather is benign. Water and peat are two. The dry conditions in Scotland in the weeks before our crossing meant that rivers were low. Thus, fording the delightful River Orrin, which was wide but shallow, just after the Luipmaldrig Bothy was possible. This allowed us to avoid a short but marshy detour upstream to the bridge. Clad in trail shoes I just walked across; Al in his boots managed to rock hop and remain dry shod throughout.

Descending through the peat
Peat is another notorious obstacle in the Highlands, making for slow progress on some trackless ground. It can potentially add significant distances to a planned walk as you must detour to get around the hags. The exceptionally dry ground this year made our lives much easier. Indeed, Al led us for long distances down gullies in the hags that would normally be impassable. What could have been tortuous sections of our route became thoroughly enjoyable. As a result of Al’s ingenuity and cunningness in this matter, I have taken him off my list of bastards, which he went on temporarily after the incident of the deer fence. Mind you, if he publishes those photographs of me attempting to get head first through that gap his name will be straight back on the list. In capital letters.

Al laughs to himself as he thinks up a shocking fate for me