Bowfell and Esk Pike
Think of a cloud. Chances are you’re picturing something resembling a sheep with no legs. Those fluffy, cottonwool, cumulus clouds floating across the blue skies above Springfield in the title sequence of The Simpsons. All pretty idyllic. But a hillwalker’s relationship with the imagery of clouds is quite different. After all, clouds in a mountain setting rarely bring good news, right?
They obscure the views for a start. And when they are full of water they have a habit of wringing themselves out like a sponge over your head. The more sinister-looking ones can bring thunder and lightning, which is never a good combination in the hills. And how dare they be so disorientating!
I’ve spent many a cloudy day on the hills. Waterproofs zipped up tightly around my chin. Glasses permanently steamed up. Staring down at a compass trying to navigate my way across a featureless mountainside. It’s enough to put you off.
But waiting for sunny days is a surefire way of not getting into the hills very often. So I’ve learnt to embrace the idea that clouds add a huge dollop of interest to my walks. Instead of dreading cloudy skies, I’ve become fascinated by their power, grace and beauty.
A recent walk up Helvellyn via the edges brought with it one of the most stunning scenes I’ve ever witnessed on a mountain. As I reached the summit, a carpet of cloud smothered the valleys in all directions, leaving only the tops of the highest fells peaking above the white. It’s a spectacle I’m not likely to forget in a hurry.
That single experience more than made up for every soggy day in the hills. And I fear I may have become obsessed with the weather – scouring the forecast for clues the conditions might be just right to get above the clouds and feel like a god.
Blanket of cloud
And so it was that only a few days after being on Helvellyn, I found myself at the Old Dungeon Ghyll looking up to Bowfell and Esk Pike. I say looking up, but I was enveloped in a blanket of cloud. Visibility was non-existent. The kind of day you look out the window, groan a little, then head back to bed. The drive in had taken an age, as I crawled through the Langdale Valley, careful not to run over any squirrels, sheep or anything else that lurks in the mist in the early hours.
Although I couldn’t see it, I could picture the scene before me. Pike o’Blisco and Crinkle Crags to the left. The Langdale Pikes to the right. And Bowfell standing proudly in the middle. Bowfell is truly iconic. A favourite of many fellwalkers. It’s up there with the likes of Scafell Pike, Great Gable and Helvellyn in the popularity stakes.
Despite its universal appeal, it’s never really piqued my interest in the way other mountains have. Granted it’s a handsome beast – its crags and grassy slopes make it both rugged and graceful in appearance. And there’s geological interest too – Bowfell Links, the Great Slab, Bowfell Buttress. The views are spectacular and it’s located in one of my favourite parts of the Lake District. It certainly ticks all the right boxes. Yet it’s never stopped me in my tracks and made me scream out ‘I’ve gotta climb that thing’.
But when Alfred Wainwright includes it in his list of the best half-dozen mountains you have to pay attention. You don’t simply ignore the views of so eminent a hillwalker. So I put aside any preconceptions, kept my mouth shut and started walking.
I’ve always liked the walk along the lane to Stool End Farm. On this misty morning, there was a bewitching atmosphere as sheep bleated softly in the fog. I was heading for The Band – a gentle spur on the eastern side of the mountain rising to the shoulder at Three Tarns. An obvious track marks the start of The Band. In fact it’s so well-defined I half expected to see a turnstile and queues of people waiting their turn.
The scenery from The Band is excellent, and it turns what could otherwise be described as a dull trudge into the best seat in the house. As I climbed higher, the mist that had seemed like a thick soup in the valley was nothing more than a thin layer of cloud. An illusion designed to keep most people away for a good few hours. And while this inversion couldn’t compete with the scenes I’d witnessed on Helvellyn, it was still profoundly beautiful.
With the mist below slowly burning off as the day warmed up, I realised I was caught in the middle of a ‘cloud sandwich’. Above me, the vapour was more dense as it swirled around the summits. Bowfell, bathed in an early morning glow, briefly revealed itself from one of the rises on The Band, before being lost again to its thick white cloak. I had to admit it all looked rather admirable. Maybe I was starting to get it.
Three Tarns marked not only the end of The Band but also the end of the views. As I climbed the rocky path towards the summit of Bowfell, it became clear the cloud had morphed into a more familiar Lakeland clag. With nothing to see but my hand in front of my face, I put my head down and ventured on through the gloom.
Summits and Spectres
My initial disappointment at not being able to see the striking rocky décor on Bowfell’s summit soon waned when I stumbled across the top of the Great Slab. This geological masterpiece depicts the tilting and folding of beds of rock as the mountains were formed millions of years ago. I lingered momentarily in the vain hope the mist would lift, allowing me to see the Great Slab in all its majesty. But I soon accepted I’d been swallowed by a thick bank of cloud and views were off the table today.
Despite the lack of visibility, the high point of Bowfell can be in no doubt. A magnificent tower of rock marks the summit, with plenty of flat rocks shaped and polished by the perching of countless bottoms over the years. The biting wind was not conducive for hanging around, so I climbed down the summit structure and pointed my compass north.
I was aiming for Ore Gap – an obvious saddle reddened by haematite in the soil. Wainwright gives walkers the option to call it a day here by taking the path to the right which descends quickly to Angle Tarn. Tempting as this was given the cloud, Esk Pike intrigued me. Mark Richards in his Fellranger guides suggests ‘this fell is often ignored on ascent and dismissed on descent leaving its special summit for the smarter fellwanderers’. Not wishing to be left out of that distinguished group, I made the short climb to the summit.
And here’s where things got interesting. Shrouded in mist still and with the winds blasting up from Esk Hause, I dug out my down jacket and sheltered on the opposite side of the cairn for some scran. As I sat there gazing into the fog, the mountain suddenly lifted its veil to reveal the most awesome panorama of the central and eastern fells. No sooner had I grabbed my camera did the mist obscure the scene again, causing me to question whether I’d seen it or not.
Then it happened again. A momentary glimpse of the exquisite scenery as another gap in the unstructured bank of clouds appeared. The pattern repeated itself and I settled back to watch the show. The clouds added a huge amount of drama to the views. The mountains seem bigger. More majestic. And the impact of being revealed so suddenly without any period of acclimatisation was enough to knock the breath from my lungs.
I’d not been able to see the details on Bowfell which make it such a special mountain. But this was altogether better. I yearned for just a peek of Bowfell through the cloud. And when I did I found my mind screaming ‘I gotta climb that thing’. Except now I could say I had. Perhaps the trick to understanding Bowfell’s charms is just to go right ahead and climb it.
Sitting around taking photographs wasn’t making me any warmer, so I stood to continue my journey towards Esk Hause. Then I noticed I wasn’t alone up there. Below me, something sinister was standing on the clouds. A little guy with long legs, carrying a rainbow arc across its shoulders. It copied my every move and my brain couldn’t quite process what it was seeing. Brocken spectres are a relatively rare phenomenon and hillwalkers often have the best chance of witnessing them. I never thought I’d see one in real life but here it was. The mountains never fail to astonish me.
Full of excitement, I skipped down the rocky ridge of Esk Pike to the sloping plateau of Esk Hause, a notoriously confusing place in the mist. The trick is to aim for the cross-shelter, from where you ought to be able to get your bearings. Then it’s a pleasant descent towards Angle Tarn, idling lazily at the base of the moody Hanging Knotts crags.
A final rise takes you to the head of Rossett Gill. A pitched path sweeps around the steepest ground to guide you through fabulous scenery to the head of the Mickleden Valley and your long walk back to the start.
The skies above the valley were now awash with blue but clouds still gathered on Bowfell high above. I finally understand what others see in Bowfell. It’s a fine mountain for sure. One of the greatest. But I’ll remember it for less conventional reasons. It’s proved that when less-than-perfect weather decides to work in harmony with the hills, we can be rewarded with our most awe-inspiring mountain days.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Old Dungeon Ghyll
Distance: 8 miles (12.8 km)
Wainwright count: 2
Navigation: As with any mountain walk, strong map and compass skills are necessary. The route from Bowfell’s summit to Ore Gap is pathless but well-cairned for reassurance in mist.
Terrain: The summits are rocky and there are some nasty crags to avoid. The Climbers’ Traverse (not tackled on this walk) is rough and exposed so best avoided in bad weather.
Facilities: Old Dungeon Ghyll, New Dungeon Ghyll, National Trust Great Langdale Campsite, Baysbrown Family Campsite
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.