The Mission - Scafell Pike Hike
Having completed Snowdon the previous Easter, we decided to move on to the next UK peak challenge and climb Scafell Pike.
We had inexplicably decided that in order for Husband to be allowed to wear his t-shirt, bearing pictures of the UK’s tallest mountains, he/we would be required to scale them all. Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England, was second on the list (as it was closer to Bristol than Scotland or Ireland).
Scafell Pike - The Mountain
Very pleased that the English contender was in the Lake District. As I’d Youth Hostelled around its scenic peaks and waters as a teenager, it was going to be a walk up a mountain and also down memory lane.
Nearly made a fundamental error in not knowing that Scafell is not the same thing as Scafell Pike. The former is the second highest peak in England rising to 964m, but at 14m higher, the Pike wears the crown. Would have been very disappointing to have climbed the wrong one.
The YHA - Wasdale Hall
A youth hostel with a family room needed to be found and, luckily enough, one was sitting very prettily a couple of miles from the start of the trail. And not just any old hostel either, but one I’d admired from a distance on the YHA website in the past. The half- timbered former manor house, Wasdale YHA, perches alone on the banks of Wastwater, the coldest and clearest lake in England.
The Kit list
From previous trips I knew to go for thin everything:
as I’d only end up carrying most of them.
The only thing that was thicker was the socks (waterproof).
I felt we had progressed, if only in our packing journey, from absolute novices to borderline intermediate.
The Journey - Bristol to the Lakes
The Lake District is a looong drive from Bristol. About 8 hours, and for the last 2 the satnav is happy to take you over the single track Hardknott pass, the steepest road in Britain, without so much as an exclamation marked warning
Like a road roller coaster, the car veered vertically upwards then nose dived down, interspersed with side flings round hairpin bends. Brakes and gears were tested to their limits and at one point we found ourselves perched in our non 4-wheel drive Volvo on scrub land at a 45 degree angle to let others in much more terrain-appropriate looking vehicles pass. Thankfully, the weather was clear; in winter it would be deadly.
The Arrival - Wasdale YHA
A fairly traumatic drive ended in our stately arrival at what for all the world looked like a 4 star hotel, standing alone, miles from anywhere on the banks of Wastwater Lake. Clouds strode dramatically across it before clearing and leaving the lake to fill with watery gold reflections.
We stepped back in time, following in the footsteps of former inhabitants, through the iron studded door into the oak panelled drawing room, which afforded views of the valley through lead paned windows. We even played some parlour games (although the original family probably didn’t go for Monopoly Jackpot), and adopted the on-site dog as a family member.
Scafell Pike Mountain weather
Having experienced Easter summit temperatures of -6 in the Welsh mountains, we had cannily picked July for this more northerly trip to Scafell Pike and crossed fingers for good walking weather. Although a heat wave was underway in Bristol, with the mercury touching 30 degrees, it was barely making the high teens here.
The receptionist was ready for the hostel’s outdoorsy crowds, with the day’s mountain forecast, promising a 70% chance of a view from the top of the pike, and with the weather clearing up as the day wore on. Good excuse of a bit of a lie in.
Laughably, I can see from the photos that I was optimistically wearing sunglasses at the start of hike day. In the end, as is the way with most English Weather forecasts, it was wrong, and it would not would not be turning out nice again.
Hiking the Pike – Wasdale Head route
As with all big mountains there is a confusing array of walking route options . We’d decided to take the path up Scafell Pike from Wasdale via Hollow Stones as it was a hat trick – easiest, shortest and closest to the youth hostel. Listed as a 5 hour hike, it was said to be good for novices. Thumbs up.
The Scafell Pike walk starts a couple of miles along the road from the youth hostel, at the other end of the lake.
Looking at the signs, the path seemed pretty straight forward and there was no mention or ridges of doom lying in wait for novices taking the wrong fork. This time, it was the unwelcome flood warnings that made us slightly uneasy. A river runs over the start of the trail, which rises in heavy rain. There is “no shame” the sign told us, in turning back and trying again another day, if this was the case.
The fields were green, the trees leafy and brooks babbled. Very different (in a good way) to the rock scrambling start to the Pyg Track trail on our other t-shirt mountain, Snowdon.
Approaching the river, it was fast but boulders formed huge stepping stones and we were able to cross without incident.
The path started to steepen and although the increase in elevation afforded good views down the valley, you could only see these if you were walking backwards. Some path renovation work was underway and rows of black bags lined the trail like it was bin day.
There were no corners to turn or tarns to discover on this straight line hike but looking back down the hill, when stopping for breath and snacks did reveal views worthy of calendars…
– on our way towards the inevitable (if you are us) whiteout at the stony top.
For the last stretch there was no discernible path, just a boulder scramble. We stood for a while on top of the white summit scree, looking out into a sea of cloud. A foggy “photo of triumph” later, we turned to leave Scafell Pike summit.
Looking to retrace our steps back down in the mists, we spread out like ants over the rocky terrain, searching for the easiest foot holds amongst the large stones.
In the nick of time, the more map-aware party members pointed out we would be heading out over a cloud-invisible sheer cliff face any minute if we continued on our current trajectory. Slightly shaken and feeling mountain-foolish (I think the sign would not have been so benevolent in its apportioning of shame at this point), we regathered the troops, stuck together like glue and proceeded with caution down the intended cliff “path”.
All I can say in our defence is that while writing this I have read multiple reports that the boulder strewn top is a “confusing place, especially in poor conditions” that “the path becomes indistinct and can be tricky in mist”. Mountain rescue are called out regularly to recover the lost.
Resuming our descent, silence fell. It wasn’t fun anymore. Just a bit serious. The path disappeared into thick cloud, which was rising weirdly from below, belting out thick rain. Stony former paths ran with mini- rivers. The slightly too fat socks made for slightly too small shoes, and were causing nasty blisters. And the need for regular sit downs on the wet path.
All the while, the river was rising below, possibly preventing our return passage. What if, by the time we made it back down the mountain, it was too deep for the children to cross? What if there was no phone signal for the emergency services?
Let’s never do this again, blister boy implored as I marched him on raw wet toes, refusing to let him de-shoe or rest for more than 5 seconds at a time.
We both slid over heavily several times on to the stony ground, and took to supporting each other, linking arms whilst wading down the mountain.
The valley views, which should have faced us as we made our descent, had been swallowed up by cloud. The rain was relentless, running down our faces and getting heavier.
When we finally caught up with the river, it was deeper and faster, but there was no need to call Mountain Rescue or spend the night on Scafell Pike. Crossing was tricky but achievable.
No one spoke in the car journey back to the youth hostel.
The Lake - boating the gold
And then the sun came out. Despite the frog marching, crying and falling, the kids decided there was still time and energy (how?) to inflate the dingy, put on a wetsuit and do a bit of boating. Which they did, and so it came to pass that sanity and tempers were restored, with a little help from a bottle of lake-chilled wine.
Maybe go somewhere hot next year? And bin the t-shirt.
Why not try staying in one of Britain’s best YHA’s – from Harry Potter – esque Grade 1 Mansions to former royal hunting lodges or lifeboat stations?
Family Snowdon hike up the Pyg Track and down the Miners in -6 degrees, with supporting roles roles from fog, tarns,and Snickers. And a surprise trip down memory lane.
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