Like many of us gathered around the wireless on Monday evening, I felt a range of emotions. Despair, sadness, fatigue, fear, anger. This tiny virus certainly seems to have us by the short and curlies with no signs of letting go.
I’d ordinarily turn to the mountains to escape. But even they are closed for most of us right now. ‘The hills will still be there waiting when this is all over’, I hear you cry. That’s right, of course, but this well-intentioned advice still feels like a cruel twist of the knife to those for whom the mountains are more than just a playground.
The good news is that if mountains are indeed a part of your soul, then you’ll always have something to call on in turbulent times. Memories of past adventures are forever etched into your brain; available for download whenever you need an escape from the madness of the world.
So while the hills are off limits (again), I’d like to share some of the highlights of my 2020 mountain year with you. So grab a brew, put your feet up, forget about the global pandemic for just a moment or two and escape to the hills with me…
Our National Parks are more popular than ever. And in these socially-distanced times, I’ll admit to feeling nervous about running into crowds on much-loved routes. In the summer months, the car parks and major roads in and out of the Lake District were the busiest I’ve seen them. But contrary to popular belief, I found the fells were no more crowded than usual.
Even the meccas of Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Great Gable and Bowfell, I had to myself. Whether that was down to the weather, exquisite timing, or sheer blind luck, I’m not sure. But it’s always a nice surprise to find solitude on these most celebrated of summits.
I wrote about what makes the perfect view when reflecting on the Mosedale Horseshoe. Picking the right ingredients might be easy but there are more subtle underpinnings to the perfect view: that sweet spot where the the right location, conditions and emotions they invoke all come together before smacking your senses with a knockout blow.
With scores of staggering views to choose from this year, narrowing it down to just one isn’t straightforward. But I may have found that sweet spot standing on High Stile on a chilly morning in November: the inky blue waters of Bleaberry Tarn below, the crimson slopes of Red Pike with its steep tourist path nonchalantly draped across the ridge like a discarded ribbon, the elegant curves of Crummock Water flanked by Grasmoor crowned in its veil of cloud and the dromedary of Mellbreak, before the flat expanse of Western Cumbria leads the eye out to sea with the Isle of Man appearing as a hazy silhouette on the horizon.
A cloud inversion is one of nature’s great spectacles and a not uncommon occurrence in the mountains. I’ve witnessed a few, but somehow never quite manage to be in just the right place at the right time. I’ll find myself underneath the thing, or too far away, or it’s breaking up as I get into position.
Not so on Helvellyn. Traversing Striding Edge in perfect conditions – warm temperatures, the merest hint of a breeze – I reached the summit and looked back to survey my efforts. The most awe-inspiring inversion had crept in behind me. The Edges were shrouded in fluffy clouds. A soft glow in the sky over the Yorkshire Dales and a stillness even the most disciplined meditator would be proud of. It took my breath away and I’ll admit to shedding a tear.
The hairs on the back of my neck stand just thinking about it. Conditions like these make the days of wind and rain and clag worth it.
Choosing your favourite mountain is like choosing between your children. I love the feeling of just being in the mountains and would climb any of them again in an instant.
But some affect you more than others. They vie for your attention when picking them to be on your team, as others with just as much to offer fade into the background.
I sat for a while on Catstycam, watching mid-morning adventurers teeter along narrow edges like tiny ants silhouetted against the rising sun. There was a certain tranquility to sitting in silence on this discrete vantage point, while being so close to the throng scaling the most popular fell in England. Catstycam deserves a place on the team.
Then there’s Grizedale Pike. I can’t get enough of that long, relentless ascent which starts as soon as you leave the warmth of the car and doesn’t ease up until you reach the summit.
Red Pike on the Mosedale Horseshoe offered the perfect lunch stop. Inches away from an impossibly steep drop with the best view of the mightiest peaks in town.
Unless you are a climber, Great End is often overlooked in favour of its more enticing neighbours. But remember this is the fifth highest Wainwright with an enviable location and stunning 360 degree views. You might just be missing a trick.
But there’s one fell that has it all. One that’s always intimidated me slightly, so a healthy respect remains. It’s the figurehead of the Great Langdale Valley. It gets you up close and personal with giants, as well as some of the prettiest hills in Lakeland. There’s a properly technical scramble in the Bad Step and five-for-the-price-of-one separate summits, each worth a visit. Crinkle Crags is the star player on my team.
Best walk of the year
After the easing of the first lockdown, I became quite adept at opening gates without the need for skin to snecklifter contact. This prolonged and over the top affair took the following agenda: clean hands with sanitiser, extract square of kitchen roll from quarantined pocket, use said towelette as a makeshift glove, carefully operate gate mechanism and swing the barrier open, catch with foot, walk through the now open access and use kitchen roll to close, place soiled item into separate carrier bag, seal and isolate carrier bag in rucksack, wash down body with copious amounts of hand sanitiser, continue.
This is my defining memory of the Coledale Round, a walk I completed on a hot and sticky day in June. If it wasn’t for my shredded nerves every time I came to a common surface, this walk might have made the top spot.
As it happens, I preferred the more remote setting of Kentmere. And while I still exercised the same level of care and attention when negotiating wooden obstacles, I’d adapted the technique by then and was able to enjoy the ride.
At the time, I wrote this about the Kentmere Round:
‘The Kentmere Round doesn’t include the biggest and most iconic mountains. It’s not one for families, thrill seekers or socialites. And you needn’t bother if you want easy access, excellent parking and a coffee shop at the end.’
If you understand why that’s a good thing, then you’ll also understand why it’s the best walk of the year.
Need more fells?
Find out more about Wainwright’s Favourite Lakeland Fells by clicking on the link below.