Scottish weather scuppered plans for our first adventure trip to Glencoe so instead we opted for tamer climes in the Lake District: this is part one of the Buttermere Skyline.
We were confident in the forecast the day prior and so packed our bags, grabbed the maps and made our way to Glasgow to meet Ruth. Things took a turn and after checking various weather apps, the threat of thundery rain showers and lack of waterproof trousers meant we had to change plans and migrate south to the sunshine. Though still north for us Peak District dwellers, the Lake District is a happy half-way house between us and Ruth and has been home to our previous adventures many times.
An old edition of Trail Magazine revealed a route which started from Gatesgarth Farm car park (just at the foot of the famous Honister Pass ascent from Buttermere) and scales Fleetwith Pike, Green Crag and down the other side. At just five miles and with the whole weekend ahead of us, we searched for something longer. Eventually, I naively suggested a walk along the lake, up to Red Pike and along the ridge to just beneath the Honister slate mine. We planned to enjoy a night in Warnscale Bothy or Dubs Hut, pick up the next morning and do the other side of Buttermere before descending to enjoy a few lemonades to celebrate.
I was naive. Incredibly naive.
Torment of the tarn
I lugged my 15kg rucksack on to my back and with my OS map in one hand and disposable camera in the other, we hiked. The path along Buttermere was as pleasant as expected: a compacted gravel path close to the lake’s edge through the forest dappled with sunlight and the sounds of local fauna. The trees stood to attention without so much as a blink – there was no breeze and with that, sweat ran from every crevice both imaginable and unimaginable. It was at this point that I wished I’d paid more attention to the contour lines on the map: step after wicked step took us higher in elevation with minimum distance. Once we’d emerged out of the trees, the exposure to sunlight forced us to take frequent bag breaks perched on rocks easing the weight of heavy packs as we continued to ascend. Before time, we were overtaken by three men who, while they looked well versed in this sort of thing, were also suffering in the heat up the ladder we were all climbing.
With every false summit there was disappointment at the lack of tarn – at this point, we were all desperate for cool water, a sit down and an emergency snickers. We picked off the contours to what we considered the halfway point of the day’s walking and were greeted with what I had to double check wasn’t a mirage. Tools down, bathers on and a not-so-graceful clamber into the water was just what we all needed. We floated in awe of the landscape, in awe of the effort it took to reach this point, in awe of what lay ahead. Dwarfed in the towering mountains, we took a moment to acknowledge how lucky we were to be here now whilst simultaneously appreciating our insignificance in the surroundings. The power of mountains is something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.
One final push
Another glance at the map and another look at the two options we had from the tarn: the footpath to Red Pike or a grade one scramble up the other side of the bowl to skip some of the ridge. The latter looked as though there was plenty of grass to pick through rather than it being completely on rocks so I thought I’d be pretty safe despite my clumsiness. After Andy had taken a bearing to the cairn at the summit, I followed in his footsteps tracing his every move with my own and instilling my confidence in his abilities rather than my own.
It wasn’t long before we were all a bit complacent and Ruth took a tumble. Thankfully nothing worse than a knock to the ego and a couple of rather harsh bruises, but we all made sure to check our footing and focus on our balance from that point onwards. It’s interesting doing activities with an extra 15kg on my back: I tire quicker and my temper is a bit shorter when I come across obstacles I know I should be able to tackle but with a cumbersome rucksack, it’s much harder. From this point onwards, my attention was on points of contact with the rocks and slow mavoeuvring across the surface.
I’m always pleasantly surprised when I complete something that’s well out of my comfort zone. There were moments on the rocks where I thought about going back down and taking the designated path but I wouldn’t have got the same amount of satisfaction at the top. I also wouldn’t have liked to have descended what I’d already gone up!
It was just approaching dusk as we set foot at the summit of High Stile. The four of us turned to take in the view over Crummock Water and beyond to Dumfries and Galloway. The sun created a warming glow to end the day but this was quickly contradicted with the onslaught of our little friends.
We’d dodged Scotland not only because of the impending apocalypse of thundery showers but also for the midge swarms we’d seen earlier on videos scattered across social media. Having learned that midges love still, warm, moist conditions, it was no surprise when we settled down for the evening that they gravitated towards us. As I was the only one in our group with a midge net, the others quickly became envious and forged their own from whatever garments remained in the rucksacks. Still, they nibbled at my calves and my lower back leaving me with polka dot skin to flaunt the next day.
Fed and bed
We pitched our tents on the flattest and least rocky ground we could find at the top, while dancing between the swarms of midges hoping none found their way inside. With water boiling for our tortellini and tenderstem broccoli and the sun constantly delivering increasingly beautiful sunsets, we hopped from rock to rock enjoying the panoramic views. We ended up with boiled midges peppered all over our food so I guess I took a day off from my vegetarian lifestyle! Still, we can’t argue that we don’t eat well on our trips and good food means good energy for the next day.
We all retreated to our various abodes in our tent village for the evening and while Andy’s final words suggested he’d be up with the sparrows to see the sunrise over Fleetwith Pike, I knew this to be wishful thinking.
The kettle was on, as were the sun’s rays, as were the midges from the night prior. My thighs and lower back weren’t allowing me to forget the torture of yesterday but my mind was poised for the day ahead. It looked like we had a short descent on to the ridge to our right then a couple of small lumps to get over before beginning the descent to the car park. We were so very wrong in so many ways.
Loose scree off the back of High Crag pushed me to my limit. I don’t mind bigger pebbles on descents because they’re easy to gain traction on, but fine gravel made me feel like a dusty avalanche was imminent if I put just one foot wrong. As usual, Ruth trotted down the side unfazed shortly followed by Andy. Lorna offered moral support coaching me through my footing and how to position myself to get the best case scenario. I was so tense, which was counterproductive. If I just relaxed a little and went with the flow of gravel, everything would be fine but the terror must’ve been written all over my body. Older men, dogs and runners left me in their wake as I gingerly placed one foot in front of the other hoping it was solid underneath. The relief when I reached the steps that continued the descent to more solid ground was indescribable. One day, I’ll get used to these feelings I’m sure.
Some short respite in the humidity gave us time to assess the map and realise what we were in for. It would be a while until we could refill bottles from streams after using most of the water for last night’s dinner and this morning’s porridge so we had to ration what was left. Easier said than done when most of the walking is actually scrambling up rocky steps engaging the brain to see where the next move is. We were faced with another few hours of Tarn Torture: we knew there were two but it seemed like hours until we reached them despite them looking so close on the map. Rookies, is one word I’d use to describe us! Still, we sipped at our remaining water the only positive from which was the reduction in weight.
The turning point
As we dragged ourselves up the final proper peak of the walk, Hay Stacks, we turned back to take a look at what we’d just conquered. It was beautiful up here: the harsh craggy faces of the mountains were soothed by the calm lakes beneath them. In the stillness, the mountains stood loud. Asserting their presence, we tucked in around the back of Green Crag until we reached our much-needed water source. Warnscale Beck flowed where nearby streams had dried up. It was lunch time at this point so while we waited for the purification tablets to work their magic, we tucked into oat cakes and warm cheese. It tasted better than it sounds and there’s a lot to be said for an oatcake lifting the spirits.
Boots and socks off. Time for a refresh in the stream and a little lie down in the sunshine. Our resident waterbaby, Lorna, went one further and donned the swimsuit underneath her walking clothes for the whole walk knowing that at some point, she’d immerse herself in the cooling trickle of fresh mountain springs. I have to say in hindsight, I’m jealous I didn’t do the same – the view from her liquid seat was incredible.
The hunt for bothies
Despite not needed a place to stay high that night, Lorna had read about a bothy that blended into the landscape as it was made from the slate off the hill. We thought we’d found what we were looking for, however Dub’s Hut is a well established MBA bothy and wasn’t the clandestine dwelling we were after. We began our descent into the valley between Hay Stacks and Fleetwith Pike wondering whether we’d missed this secret abode. And then she appeared. Unless you were looking, you wouldn’t know it was there: grey slate stacked one on top of the other was the perfect camouflage for the surroundings. The waterfalls of Warnscale Beck as we got further and further down distracted the senses from sight to sound. Clear plunge pools were filled with our regret of not having stopped a little later to enjoy a free shower but we made a mental note to go back to the bothy and waterfalls for another treat some day soon.
Our legs somehow carried us the final flat stretch to the car park while weaving through puddles of what could’ve only been storms we’d managed to avoid. It was almost as though there were clouds in front, clouds behind and us caught in the middle dodging it all. It was like we’d cheated the weather and oh were we smug about it! We made a beeline for the pub and settled into a couple of well earned hops-based sports recovery drinks and some essential calorie replenishment (meringue with baileys and ice cream).
We decided for our final night in the Lakes we’d treat ourselves to a night at Syke Farm Campsite where we could worry less about the weather forecast and focus more on enjoying the surrounding lakes and relaxing. Within a couple of hours, we meandered down to Crummock Water for a much needed swim/bath. There’s no better feeling than being surrounded by Mother Nature and one of the best ways to do it is by drifting in open water which perfectly complements a sweaty couple of days walking. Lorna and I made a verbal commitment to go back the next morning for a swim to one of the little islands a couple of hundred metres away.
One more dip
Sunday morning was a flawless balance between efficiency and relaxation: porridge and pack down coupled with time at the lake. Lorna and I fulfilled our promise to swim to the island and we celebrated by bombing back into the water. The current was in our favour on the return leg, so we swam back to wash as properly as we could given the circumstances and kicked back with a cuppa.
A weekend with such thrill and serenity is hard to come by, but I’m making every effort to ensure it’s a regular occurrence.
In case you’re wondering how on earth I got my rucksack (Osprey Kyte 46) to weigh 15kg, here’s what I hoisted around with me:
- Alpkit Ordos 2 tent(older version)
- Thermarest NeoAir – I got mine from Pannier
- Alpkit PipeDream400 sleeping bag
- Eye mask
- Rapha short sleeve merino base layer
- Midge net
- Rab Microlight down jacket
- Merino headband
- Camping mug
- Full Windsor titanium spork
- Alpkit Kraku – ended up using Lorna’s bigger one for all the cooking though
- Lightweight metal water bottle
- 1L water bottle
- Patagonia shorts
- Black 3/4 leggings – but I wish I had full length to keep midges at bay
- Rapha merino t-shirt x 2
- Undies x 4
- Bra x 2 – but I just wore my Rapha sports bra the whole time #dirtbag
- Hiking socks x 2
- Patagonia waterproof – didn’t end up using but easily could have with the threat of the weather
- Swimsuit – would leave next time and just use bra and undies
- Microfibre towel
- Mascara – I wanted to feel less dirtbag by the end!
- Papaw ointment – I am never without this stuff. It cures everything I’m sure!
- Hand sanitiser
- Sunscreen with repellant
- Plastic bag for rubbish
- Plastic bag for dirty clothes
- Dry bags
- Battery pack + cables
- Head torch + batteries
- First aid kit
- Sit mat
- Nan Shepherd book which I didn’t end up reading the whole time
On top of this, we divvied up the food and snacks for the day. We also shared quite a lot: pots and pans, baby wipes, tissues, more insect repellant etc..
If you fancy having a go, here’s the route we did. Remember, leave no trace.