When I say mountain day you need to understand what I mean by that. The Mountain Leader Training website defines it “In terms of experience, the quality of a mountain day lies in such things as the conditions experienced both overhead and underfoot, the exploration of new areas, the terrain covered and the physical and mental challenge”.
So here’s how it is…
We’d been planning this trip for a few weeks to get to Skiddaw House, the highest hostel in Britain. Clare had stopped here on her trek round the Western Lakes and it’s a perfect resting place for a Fell Pony Adventure for those who’d rather have a bed than a camping mat. But it’s a pretty straightforward hike up a bridleway and then either back the way we came the next day, or down the other side of Skiddaw (not great logistically as you have to get back to the start point for horse box and vehicles).
So after looking at the maps we decide to try a circular route which uses footpaths for a stretch over Allerdale Ramble (a longer day on paper to Skiddaw House). The weather on the first day looks the best so we decide to take the long day first. The weather looks OK and is forecast to clear. There are light to moderate winds. So all loaded up we’re away from my yard by 7:30am and get to Bassenthwaite about 9:00 to try and find somewhere safe to leave the vehicle.
On Bassenthwaite green we get chatting to a farmer on his quad bike who tells us to get up to Peters House Farm, a couple of miles closer to the Bridleway and footpath, and there we find Edward who farms there and lets us park up in his field. Within 20 minutes we’re packed and away, meandering along a short bridleway to the bottom of the fells.
Hades Hill Fay has already had a few adventures with us this year (driving to Appleby Fair and the Howgill adventure) and she’s loving seeing another new part of the world (like her mother Hades Hill Fairmile she’s a nosy parker).
Within an hour we are well up the side of the fell. The summit is in cloud but we are prepared for anything.
The Ramble is steep and rocky. We’re picking our way up rock steps and occasionally going off the path to navigate slippy scree but Fay is doing brilliantly taking it all in her stride. We stop for lunch. There are a few others out today who we cross on different paths who give us a wave (in disbelief). We ask where they’ve come from. One couple have come over the summit. “We expected it to clear up but its windy up there” they say.
We press on. It’s going to be a long day if we make it to Skiddaw House. As we climb higher the wind picks up. Visibility gets worse and it’s now hard to navigate - I can’t find any features to get a bearing from. As we get to the top of the first ridge we have to make our own way again as the path is to steep so we traverse under the ridge and manage to join up again before to long.
The wind drops to silence - so much that I make a point of saying so to Flo. It’s hard to know exactly where we are on the ridge and I’m grateful for the cairns and stone markers.
And then the wind comes in hard. We’re all getting tired. the wind gets harder. So strong that I insist on Flo being ahead of me so that I can see her. Its relentless. The wind, the rain and low visibility. This is not fun. This could be serious unless I use all my skills.
From here on in there are no photos - I have only our safety on my mind.
The path should join up with bridleway but it never seems to come. Flo is holding onto my hand now to stay standing up. Again the stone markers lift my spirits but we need to find the bridleway and get down off here.
And then we hear voices and out of nowhere behind a fold there are a young couple taking shelter. We join them, the horse as well. The girl can’t believe there’s a pony on the top of Skiddaw. They have come from the opposite direction (up the bridleway). We both say at the same time we need to get down off here ASAP. The winds must be over 50mph now. I have a map and compass but with no visibility I ask which direction they came from. There’s a Trig point just behind us so I’m able to get a direction to safety.
The couple leave us heading in the direction we came. I check the map and compass again and we waste no time. We have to backtrack slightly to pick up the bridleway. After 50 metres we pass new way markers. The path is much wider now. We are another 20 minutes or half an hour in this - low visibility and powerful winds but we’re heading down hill and the wind slowly eases.
And then we see a fence! Neither of us has ever been so glad to see a fence! There’s a gate and a latch of the kind you only see on a bridleway which is most reassuring. The winds die down and for a minute the clouds part and I can get a bearing.
We’re all tired now. Although I had a similar experience in severe weather on the top of High Street, this is the first proper Mountain Day for Flo and Fay and they are both tired. We still have another 5 miles to get to Skiddaw House and we are way further behind on where I’d expected to be so we push on a bit further.
Then the path gets steeper again. Its stone but slippy. At some point here the pony must have slipped because we notice she’s not walking right. We’re down below the cloud again and stop to rest the pony and make a cup of hot tea.
Its about 4:30 now and only a couple of hours before dusk. I reckon we still have another 3 miles to go (back round Lonscale Fell) but I don’t want to push the pony. We load the pack again and set off but as we get further down and closer to the next bridleway it’s decision time… Carry on or bail out. There’s a car park a few hundred metres away. I’m tired, Flo’s tired and the pony’s tired, so prudence wins the day and Skiddaw House will have to be another day.
We put the pony on a tether and set up a temporary camp by the car park. There are a few mountain bikers loading up their cars. I ask one for a lift into Kewsick so I can get a taxi back to Peters House Farm. His friend Henry offers to take me all the way back (its about 5 miles back to Bassenthwaite) so we chat about Mountain bikes, bridleways and circular routes. There’s a website called www.lakesmtb.co.uk which Henry tells me has a lot of the bridleway routes in the Lakes. Henry wont accept any money for the lift so I promise I’ll do a good deed for a stranger the next day!
2 hours later we’re home. We probably could have made it to Skiddaw house but there’s nothing to be gained by pushing it. We have already been physically and mentally challenged. We explored new terrain and know that we wouldn’t take clients on that route. We have had a proper Mountain Day and come out safely. That was a right of passage.