The Easedale Skyline
Mountains are the classic metaphor for strength, resilience and fortitude. Always there to reassure us with their perpetuity, they are steadfast and strong, oblivious to the troubles of the world.
When you frame the mountains in our human timelines, the metaphor holds true. Even with the passing of the seasons, their underlying presence is undoubtedly permanent. ‘The mountains will always be there’ has been an oft-quoted phrase during lockdown. But switch your eyes to ultra long time-lapse mode, and you’ll see the mountains are, of course, changing all the time. Just very slowly. Forget about any human activity for just a moment and we’re talking here about millimetres over the course of several years. You’d have to be incredibly patient to see any noticeable changes with your own eyes.
We can trace the landscape of the Lake District back nearly 500 million years. That number blows my mind. It’s 250 million years before dinosaurs started wandering the Earth. And we homo sapiens didn’t come along until at least the last few hundred thousand years. Despite their apparent immortality, it’s taken a lot of activity to shape the landscape into the mountains and hills we all know and love today.
It was only recently that I started to open my eyes to this mountain building story. It’s still evident today, waiting to be discovered and pieced together on your mountain walks. It all started with the erosion and compression of tiny rock particles. Then followed a more dramatic period of volcanic activity. Rocks from graceful lava flows and explosive volcanic eruptions are apparent across the more dramatic fells of Lakeland.
Tectonic plates continued to jostle for position, bending and shaping the rocks into one huge mountain range known as the Caledonides. Then came numerous ice ages, with glaciers shaping the ridges, trenches and corries which attract so many a fell walker. The most recent ice age ended only around 10,000 years ago. Geologically speaking, that’s a few seconds. But this most recent ice age had a profound impact on what we see today.
And that leads me nicely to today’s walk – a traverse of the Easedale Skyline. It might not boast the highest fells. It might not serve up dollops of exposure nor miles of easy walking along lofty ridges. But it does have heaps of geological interest, particularly when you imagine there was a huge glacier creeping slowly across these parts not so long ago.
Elterwater is a beautiful little village at the gateway to possibly my favourite valley, Great Langdale. Much of my walk today will steer away from defined paths, so it’s a pleasure to spend the first half hour ambling along the cobbled path by Great Langdale Beck, gazing up to the hills, which are, and will remain for much of the morning, covered in a thick coat of fog.
The path leads me unerringly to Baysbrown campsite, a delightful spot and a perfect base for exploring the Great Langdale valley. I follow the course of the beck through pastures occupied by ewes and their newborn lambs. The scene has a calming influence and helps my mind to settle before facing the inevitable navigational challenges it’ll soon face, given the combination of tricky terrain and low cloud high above.
After negotiating a short section on the road, I take a vague track straight up the fell side to join the ridge from Silver How. The bumpy ground here is known as knock and lochan topography. You might also know it as that annoyingly disorienting hummocky terrain that’s particularly thorny in the mist. Take a look at the map and you’ll see scores of tiny ring contours dotted along the broad ridge, like spots on a leopard’s back. In poor visibility, it can be challenging to relate these ‘spots’ on the map to the apparently infinite number of knolls and rocky outcrops that appear on the ground. It’s often a case of trusting your bearings, reading between the contour lines and interpreting the broader changes underfoot, as you pick your way carefully towards Blea Rigg.
The terrain is no accident, of course. Our old friend, the glacier, is the culprit. The ice cap was centred on the nearby high fells and its icy reaches spread out across the Langdale Pikes before meeting these flat and boggy summits. The ice sought out weaknesses in the rock, creating dips and knolls which are nigh on impossible to plot on any map with a useable scale.
Pick a line
Three well-equipped walkers are moving at a similar pace to me through the gloom. We each commit to our own lines across the broad ridge, while clearly assessing whether the other party has chosen the better option. At one point, I am surrounded by bogs and resort to weaving around the gloopy soup while trying to stay on course. It’s perplexing at times but I somehow manage to emerge unscathed atop the more defined path down towards Easedale Tarn.
I don’t plan to stick with the clear track for long. After a few false starts, I leave the path and cut across to Codale Tarn, a peaceful spot away from the hustle and bustle of the more popular Easedale Tarn below.
Despite being a small tarn, I can’t see the opposite side through the fog. It feels denser than ever now, and seems to amplify all sounds in the silence. I hear the unmistakable rhythmic rustle of a waterproof jacket nearby. A solitary hiker emerges and we exchange a mutual nod. No words pass between us but a moment is shared.
I skirt around the water’s edge, seeking the reassuring handrail of a stream which will take me on to the ridge. Tarn Crag wraps itself around Easedale Tarn, cradling it like a warm brew. I nip around tiny pools of water and rocky outcrops until I can go no further, or higher. I feel a sense of height and a healthy dollop of exposure as I peer over the edge of the summit crag. But with no views to be had, it’s a case of ticking the summit off the list and looking for a safe descent.
Carefully leaving the summit outcrop, I locate a grassy rake heading in an easterly direction from the mountain. I lose height quickly and, when I have passed the worst of the crags, drop down from the ridge, aiming for the outflow of Easedale Tarn, which is now clear to see below.
Standing by this ever popular spot, below the dense cloud above, it’s tempting to think the hard work is over. I consult the map and observe the pathless landscape I have to negotiate before my final objective – Silver How. It looks remarkably similar to the terrain I’ve been navigating all morning. Not long or high but I know the undulating, knobbly ground means there’s still some work to do.
I cross the main track and head into the wild once more. It’s a surprisingly lovely part of the walk this. Despite looking deceptively dull on the map, there are sweeping views across to Helm Crag on the opposite side of Easedale. The scene is also home to myriad juniper trees. Fittingly, this tree was one of the first to colonise the area after the ice age. Ever the juvenile, one of my favourite facts about juniper berries is their use for the treatment of particularly windy bottoms.
I edge around the marshy ground of Blindtarn Moss. It’s easy to picture this bowl once filled with water; it would have been a marvellous spot for a tarn, giving Easedale a run for its money.
Another climb waits for me. And, with the day’s miles already in my legs, feels more relentless than it actually is. I aim for the plateau to the east of Lang How – an obvious peak on the ridge. Then it’s a case of heading east until steeper ground above Grasmere stops me in my tracks. An obvious cairn marks the summit of Silver How. It is extremely tempting to move at a more glacial pace but time is against me and there’s more to the descent than meets the eye.
Heading south, I pick up the ridge above the crags framing Elterwater. With the end in sight, I could make a beeline for the village. But it’s far more pleasant to continue along the broad ridge as far as Huntingstile Crag, before a track takes you back to Elterwater in a more natural manner.
I can now just about see the Langdale Pikes, a vista I’ll never tire of and one which always intrigues me. So many people must gaze upon these pointy peaks from below and imagine the towering pinnacles dropping into oblivion on the opposite side. But if you have already explored their summits, you’ll know the spiky persona instead masks a huge plateau. And for those who’ve done just a little more thinking about the geology of the area, you’ll be charmed by the thought of an enormous glacier steadily inching its way across the landscape, shaping the very summits we’ve just had the privilege of exploring.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Elterwater
Distance: 15.5 km
Wainwright count: 3
Navigation: A tricky test of navigation, particularly in the mist but even without.
Terrain: Lots of rough, pathless sections, rocky summits and steep ups and downs. Some boggy sections. The terrain makes this walk feel a lot tougher than it looks from the numbers.
Facilities: Refreshments and toilets in Elterwater. More options in this, the heart of the National Park, are only ever a short walk/cycle/drive away.
*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.