I became a bit obsessed with the weather in February. Reading different forecasts. Reading between the lines of different forecasts. Trying my best to see the positives in a month of storms battering the mountains.
Everyday I hoped for a break in the weather. And one which fell on a day I didn’t have work commitments. But it didn’t come. And I really started to miss the mountains!
Just as my patience was starting to wane, I spotted a day in the weather forecast where the winds had dropped, the temperatures had risen and clear skies were expected. Could it be true? I checked another forecast. Then another. All the same. A trip to the Lakes was back on.
Lowering my sights
With only one mountain walk under my belt this year, I had plenty to choose from. But looking through the list, most of the routes head above the 800m contour at some stage, meaning I’d have to negotiate any remaining snow and ice. I needed to subtract a few metres.
So I jumped to the final chapter of Wainwright’s Favourite Fellwalks to find a classic walk up a diminutive mountain which packs one hell of a punch – Haystacks.
At the end of Book 7 of his Pictorial Guides, AW lists his top six fells. Haystacks doesn’t make the list. But it does get a special mention so it clearly made the grade. And if proof were needed of its merits, remember that Wainwright chose Innominate Tarn on the summit of Haystacks as his final resting place.
It’s all down to stature. Haystacks stands at just two-thirds the height of its loftier pals. But it still has all the best features of the giants. In fact, I’d argue it’s Haystacks’ size that makes it such a cracking fell. You gaze up at some of the most iconic mountains in the District. The summit is a lovely place to spend some time. And the cliffs on its northern face are truly frightening.
Haystacks is a predictable favourite of mine. I’ve been up it a number of times but always via the same route – from the shores of Buttermere up to Scarth Gap before the steep scramble to the summit. Up and down.
Wainwright’s recommended approach was a new route for me and takes in the drama of the Warnscale amphitheatre. With the weather set to be perfect, I went to bed full of excitement for the next day’s adventure.
I arrived early and parked in Buttermere. Another option is Gatesgarth but that would cut the walk short and surely do Haystacks a disservice. Walking around Buttermere is always a joy and I didn’t need any convincing to bag another circuit.
It was a beautifully crisp morning. The water crystal clear and only the faintest hint of a breeze. The sounds of the Lake District waking up were in the air and I inhaled the unmistakable smell of cold mountain air and felt it deep within my lungs.
Haystacks dominates the view as you edge along its northern shore. I’ve always thought it looks like a sleeping stegosaurus, its northern cliffs like the spines along the back of this Jurassic favourite. My mind drifted as I gazed into the skies for sight of a pterosaur. A distant moo of a cow brought me back to the present.
Regular readers of my blog will know I like to have an early start in the hills. Today was no exception, and there were no other walkers around. But there did seem to be a few people gathering around the foot of Fleetwith Pike. All dressed the same and stopping to chat to each other like old friends, gazing up at the fells through binoculars.
Then I saw the dogs. Scores of them. With a couple of athletic looking men scrambling across the fells like mountain goats. They were coming down from Fleetwith Pike into the valley before heading up beneath the cliffs of Haystacks.
This meant a particularly serious-looking chap had installed himself on the bridge crossing Warnscale Beck at the foot of the climb. I’d intended to ascend on that side of the beck but my own insecurities meant I didn’t want to trouble the chap to move off the bridge and get caught up in a pack of dogs! So I changed plans and took the left hand path which rises quickly and certainly felt no less dramatic.
Crossing the beck
As I reached the top of the climb, I looked for a way across the beck. I wanted to locate Warnscale Bothy, and the path I was on would loop round to the main path from Honister. There were very few safe crossing points but I eventually found a spot where the water was calm and shallow with some solid stepping stones. Once on the opposite bank, I could scramble up and glimpse the bothy, blending perfectly into the rocky scenery.
I saw a couple of walkers looking down from above and I soon caught them as I scrambled up to join the main path. Turns out they’d slept in Dubs Bothy the previous night and were looking decidedly chilly! They were looking for Warnscale Bothy when they saw me and I pointed them in the right direction so they could grab a brew to warm up!
The hard work of ascending now done, I soon reached Blackbeck Tarn for a cup of tea and mid-morning pork pie. It was nice to pause and enjoy the stillness. The waters of the tarn were still. I could see across to Great Gable and the Scafell range. And the plunging cliffs to the Warnscale valley below.
Haystacks is definitely a place to linger on days like this.
So with that in mind, I left the path and took a bearing to intercept the Brandreth Fence on the opposite side of the fell. Here I began to appreciate why Wainwright loved this place so much. Scafell Pike sitting in the gap between Great Gable and Kirk Fell – the summits shining brightly in their Winter coats. Pillar across the Ennerdale Valley, with views down to Ennerdale Water and the coast below. It’s a truly spectacular view.
Traipsing across the high ground, I passed a perched boulder and thought about how it must have been plonked there thousands of years ago. I couldn’t quite make out Wainwright’s observation of the ‘old woman’s face’ in profile but it did remind me of his blatant sexism!
I took my time following the fence west before looping back round to join Innominate Tarn. A rather poignant location, being the final resting place of ‘the greatest fellwalker’. Surrounded by his old friends, I’m sure he’s resting in peace, although probably doesn’t appreciate the hoards up there on a summer’s day!
There’s a short scramble up to the summit. Or should I say summits? The northern summit is generally regarded as the highest point but wherever you stand along the ridge between the two is a joy. The summit was quiet as I snapped away with my camera, dreaming of scaling some of the surrounding giants through the course of the year.
Time to leave
But all good things must come to an end and it was time to start my descent. It can be tricky to find the path towards Scarth Gap but head West, follow the polish on the rocks and you’ll soon find an obvious way down. You’ll need to use your hands to lower yourself down the first two pitches but there’s nothing too exposed – it just takes a little care.
The path soon becomes apparent and you can enjoy the majesty of the steep crags to the north and the views to Buttermere below.
You lose height quickly and are soon at the Scarth Gap junction, where you turn left for Ennerdale or right to Buttermere. Right it was and I followed the well-trodden path to the lakeshore.
I’d twinged my knee running a week before and it started to niggle on the descent, making for slower progress than usual. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that middle age is creeping up on me! It might even be time to look at some walking poles. Maybe I’ll give it another go before succumbing, as I’ve always just seen them as an extra thing to carry. If you are a pole-convert, I’d love to hear from you…
My aching joints soon settled down as I approached the final few miles around the lakeshore towards Buttermere. It’s a lovely little hamlet in the Winter when the worst of the crowds are absent and I munched my sandwich by the beck near the car park.
Mighty mountain in miniature
So while it’s not the tallest, Haystacks is a mighty mountain in miniature. Incredible views, a summit you can explore for hours, scrambly bits, hidden bothies and some cracking geology mean it punches above its weight. Save it for a clear day and you’ll get to observe some of the biggies at close quarters and this will whet your appetite for future adventures.
Unfortunately, it looks like that’ll be it for a while given the difficult circumstances caused by COVID-19. I never thought I’d see the day where the hills would be closed for business. But, as responsible hillwalkers, we have to do the right thing and stay at home.
The hills will be waiting for us once we’ve kicked this virus into touch. And I hope this period of respite gives the flora and fauna of the mountains some breathing space.
Perhaps some good will come of this as people realise what’s important in life and we start to show our wild places the respect they deserve once more.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Buttermere
Distance: 7 miles (11.2 km)
Wainwright count: 1
Navigation: Moderate but be careful on the summit in bad weather
Terrain: Well-trodden routes to the summit. Scope for some off-piste exploring on the tops where the going is slower
Facilities: The Bridge Inn, Buttermere
*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.