High Spy

I should warn you that this blog contains moments of extreme stupidity and the resulting scenes of great peril.  I write it as a warning to others, and am relieved that I am here to be writing it.

I had taken a walk to Little Town in the morning which you can read about here, and while that had made me want to get out and explore more it was raining and very windy when we got to the Castlerigg Stone Circle (which you can read about here) so I began to wonder if I would manage another walk today.  However, just after lunchtime the weather had calmed so I decided to put my plan into action.  I would walk down the Newlands Valley beyond Little Town, following the footpath along the base of the crags as it took me towards Dale Head, then turning back on myself along another footpath to take me up and over High Spy and Maiden Moor, to bag me two Wainwrights, then coming down before I got to Cat Bells to bring me back to Little Town.  It all looked very clear and straightforward on the map.  In any event, I was carrying the correct map, my compass, two headtorches, walking poles, a first aid kit, a bivi bag, spare bootlaces, extra waterproof and warm clothing, and food and drink, so I was kitted out and ready for anything.

The plan...

The plan…

It was dry with no wind when I set off at 1300, crossing Newlands Beck to get me to the road into Little Town, and then taking the footpath and carrying straight ahead rather than turning left towards Cat Bells.  To my left, I was walking below Knott End and Little Mine Crag, and to my right was the stream, and given the amount of water on the ground at times I wondered if I was more walking in the stream than alongside it.  I passed a man with two dogs.  I did not know it at the time but he was the last person I would see until I came back down off the mountain.  The pass began to narrow as I walked below Lowthwaite Crag on my left, and then Red Knott was towering above me on my right and I really felt like I was in the valley at last.  It was also at this point that I felt the wind starting to pick up again, but it was not troubling me and was not so strong.  The path was easy to walk along and very obvious, and I was making good time.  I had no worries that I would be out and back before it got dark.  The valley became narrower as I came towards some waterfalls and the wind got stronger, very much making the valley into a wind tunnel, and occasionally making me bend into the wind with the force of the gusts.

I need to get higher up...

I need to get higher up…

I had chosen one track to walk along and now realised that I would have to get higher up from this bottom track to be able to get past the waterfalls, and as I began to climb the gusts of wind got much stronger and longer.  At times now I was having to stop and crouch down until it passed, and it is at this point that I should have decided to turn back, but I was blinded by my plan to bag some Wainwrights and was determined to push on.  I scrambled slowly and carefully up the slope, making my way over the ground between the gusts of wind, bizzarely thinking that if I could just get to the other side of the waterfalls the wind would not be driving down against me so hard, eventually reaching a high enough point to take me across the ridge and past the waterfalls.

Enough of the waterfalls, ok

Enough of the waterfalls, ok

I was back on an obvious track and gaining height, passing another waterfall on my right as I came to the shadow of a snow-capped Hindscarth.  I passed Miners Crag and the wind was blowing very strongly against me, but now it was joined by hailstones.  I pulled down the front of the hood on my Mountain Equipment Fitzroy jacket to protect my face but that meant my walking speed was slowed as my vision was impared, although the track was still distinctive and the surface was good.  It had got to 1530 and I considered turning back but honestly thought it would be easier to carry on by this time.  Not the best decision I have ever made.

I came to the junction of the tracks and turned back on myself to head along the other side of Miners Crag towards High Spy.  Except the first thing I had to do was crouch down as low as I could to protect myself from the hailstones which stung as they hit me.  It is worth noting that I did not feel cold or wet at this time and my equipment was certainly doing its job.  I also knew exactly where I was.  Looking at the map and bearing in mind the length of time it had taken me to get here, I thought that I would get to the other side of Maiden Moor before darkness and would probably be using my headtorch to follow the path to get me down to Little Town.  I carried on with the hailstorm blowing all around me, having to crouch down more often now as the strength of the wind increased.  If I thought having the wind to my back would make things easier then that idea was immediately put out of my mind, but I was away from any edge so I felt safe.

Going up...

Going up…

I was walking over open ground, gaining height again, passing some parts with a snow covering, before soon enough I reached High Spy and its distinctive cairn at 653 metres.  The wind was really blowing hard now, which made taking a photograph of my first Wainwright much harder than it should have been.

High Spy

High Spy

I was actually beginning to wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew, but what could I do from here but carry on.  Although that was easier said than done in this wind as it tried its best to blow me off the raised ground.  It was still light enough that I did not need my headtorch.  I could see the path ahead and after consulting my map to ensure it was the correct one pushed on for Maiden Moor.  What I could see from the map was that after a while one path went straight ahead while another went off at a right angle.  I would not want to be taking the right angle.  As I moved on from High Spy the hailstorm became more intense, the wind got stronger still at my back and the darkness descended.  The weather must have been bad because I stopped taking photographs at this time.

The final photo, and now I have no idea what it is of

The final photo, and now I have no idea what it is of

I reached a junction of tracks, more than just the right angle shown on the map, but I thought this must be the place and carried straight on.  That took me out to the edge of something but I was not entirely sure what.  I was very well aware that Eel Crags was off to my left and I really did not want to head too far in that direction in this hailstorm and wind.  I came back and followed a middle path which took me into the middle of some rising rocks.  Now the wind and the hailstones were really starting to affect me so that as I climbed on to the rocks it was hard to keep my balance, and as I walked across them I did wonder what I might find on the other side.  I certainly was not finding a clear track, so I came back and tried again to the left, decided against that because it really did not seem to be leading anywhere, tried again through the middle, still could not see where that was going to lead to, so came back again to shelter under a rock and tried the grid reference app on my phone to make sure I was where I thought I was.  The app did not work.  It felt colder, the hailstorm had turned to snow and it was very dark now.  I could not just sit on this mountain and wait, but I did not want to walk off the edge so I decided I had to go over the middle of what I now believe was Blea Crag and find a way down to Little Town once I was on the other side.  The idea of bagging a second Wainwright no longer had any importance.

I clambered over the top with the wind blowing hard at my back then got down into a sheltered spot, put on my headtorch and took my Leki walking poles off the back of my rucksack so I could put them to good use rather than just carrying them.  I had to get myself off this mountain and decided to try to find the path again now I was on the other side of those rocks.  I headed off to the left but it only brought me to what looked like a steep drop, so I came back again.  It was easy enough to retrace my steps because I could see my footprints in the snow.  It was around this time that I started wondering what I had dropped myself into.  I also had an overwhelming feeling that I did not want to be a bother for mountain rescue because of my stupidity.  I found what looked like another track and followed it, going forward while at times heading off to the left again to try to find the main path, but always trying to ensure that I was heading downhill because even if I could not find the real path I wanted to get off the mountain safely.  To be honest, I was wandering around quite a lot and was beginning to wonder where doing that was taking me because whenever I approached anything to the left which appeared to be a drop off a cliff edge I came back.  Clearly, I am stupid, but I am not that stupid.  With the snow on the ground everything looked like a track, so I decided that trying to find the path to the left was just wasting my time and my energy, and I would be far better off just going downhill.  Looking at the map now I think I must have walked around on Blea Crag before moving on to High White Rake, and while now I can see that was taking me away from where I wanted to end up in any event, at the time I had no idea of that.

I heard water and it sounded like a river.  I looked on the map but could not see a river, which was a little confusing, but I decided to head for the noise anyway, because then I could follow the water downwards.  That was an awful lot harder than it sounds.  I was using my walking poles every step of the way to check out the ground I was moving on to, and digging my Scarpa ZG-10 GTX boots in hard as I moved.  It was slow going.  I seemed to mostly be on rubble and was either bent down or actually sliding along in a sitting position, using my walking poles to control my descent.  Even with my headtorch on it was so dark that I could not really see the landscape around me, so I was taking it very carefully.  What I could see were channels going downhill and so was following them towards the sound of the water.  I did not know it at the time but I think I must have been going over or near to Cockley How because I eventually came to a waterfall.  I looked around and could not tie up what I could see with what I was thinking, but I still managed to tell myself that this must be the waterfall which went down towards Little Town.  I could not have been more wrong, and while I thought I was following it to the left I was actually going to the right.  This is when I should have got out my compass and checked the direction I was going.  Not that that would have helped me because by now I was very much on the wrong side of the mountain and would have had to climb about 300 metres to rectify that, but at least I would have known where I was going and could have planned for it.  Anyway, I had got down below the snowfall and started following the waterfall to the right while thinking I was going to the left towards Little Town, so when Debbie sent me a text at 1725 asking “Are you ok ?” I replied at 1822 “I am ok just taking long time.” and continued on, thinking I was maybe 45 minutes at most from being back at the cottage.

I may have been out of the hail and the snow but that did not make the ground any less treacherous, and as I stepped on one particularly slippery rock I took my first tumble of the day, falling over on to my knees, then onto my left elbow, and sliding downwards before I regained control.  Thankfully I had kept hold of my walking poles.  I got away from the rocks and onto a grassy track which began to run away from the water but was still going downhill, and I was happy with that.  I still believed that I was going to walk out into Little Town, or maybe somewhere a bit further up the road from that and more towards our cottage.  I could see some lights in buildings now, though again I could not place them with what I remembered of our landscape, and the silhouette behind them did not really look like the mountain behind our cottage.  I carried on walking towards the light regardless.  I was down off the mountain now and following a rough track which was leading towards a treeline and beyond that some fields, which was very welcome terrain.  Or so I thought.  I crossed one field and came to a stream which I wrongly presumed was Newlands Beck because I still had it in mind that I had come down on the side of Little Town.  So I needed to get across this stream to be on the correct side for our cottage.  I found a gap over a stone wall and went through it, into another field which contained some machinery, then saw a gap in the trees over to the left and headed for that, which brought me into a field with a fenced-off mound which I walked around.  There were more trees ahead of me and I felt I needed to get to the other side of them.  That turned out to be a disaster because suddenly I was in amongst rotting trees and deep water, some sort of Lake District swampland.  With one step I was on firm ground and with the next I was up to my knees in water, with it sucking at my boots.  The Winter Wolf Run had been good training for this, but the gaiters which had served me so well up to this point were now proving useless.  I had been dry in my clothing and in seconds that had completely changed and my feet and legs were soaked, with the water coming up to my waist at times as I stumbled around.  Fatigue was setting in and I was fed up with it all.  I just wanted to find a way out of this place.

I pushed on through the trees and came out at another stream but this time I could see some lights in houses and a light at what looked like a bridge, so I headed towards them, into some heavy undergrowth and saturated ground.  Things were not getting any easier.  I was just below a house now but was surrounded by a barbed wire fence.  There was no way I was turning back so I climed onto the non-barbed part of the fence and carefully climbed over before walking up a driveway which brought me out at a road.  I was sure I must be in Little Town so now all I had to do was confirm that (because it looked very different to the Little Town I had walked through earlier in the day) and then find the road to our cottage.  It was now about 1930 and it really felt like the hour since I had sent the text to Debbie had been the worst hour of the six and half I had been out.  I found a church noticeboard but it did not specifically give the name of the town because the notices were for a number of churches in the parish.  It did have a sketchmap of the parishes, though, which appeared to indicate that I was in Grange.  I had seen that name on at least one of the roadsigns while we had been driving around, so that was good.  I had no idea where it was, though, and was a little worried that a footpath sign indicated that Seatoller was only 3 miles away because wherever I was I expect it to be a lot further from Seatoller.  I looked on my map, looking all around Little Town but could not see any sign of Grange.  Maybe it was not on the map.  Then I moved my right thumb and saw it.  I was on the other side of the mountain.  I had spent all that time and effort coming off the mountain the wrong way.  I looked at the map.  There was no way I could walk from Grange to Little Town.  I was exhausted but I could not quite finish just yet.  I saw a bigger building with lights and presumed it would be the Borrowdale Gates Hotel.  Maybe for the first time today I was right.  I dragged myself along the road and hung around at the door to the reception area.  I was wet and muddy and did not want to get their floor dirty.  One of their staff, Anna, saw me and I asked her if it would be possible for her to call me a taxi to take me back to Rowlings End.  She told me to stop standing about out in the hallway and to come in and sit down while she called me a taxi, and she could not have been more kind and considerate to someone who I expect looked an absolute mess by this time.  And in my now emotional state, as what I had been through began to really sink in, I was struck by the thought that this was Christmas Eve and I could not have been more welcome at the inn.

The taxi was not long in arriving and I was soon back at the Mouse House, with Debbie remarking that my lips were blue as I walked in.  I was quickly into a very hot shower and could easily have stayed there for the rest of the night.  I very much enjoyed a cup of tea with two sugars after that, got some bread and smoked salmon inside me, and in not too long I felt recovered enough to drive us into Keswick for midnight mass.  I had put myself in real danger that afternoon and evening, so the least I could do was offer my thanks for having come through it safely.  I had been very lucky.  Yes, having all the right equipment and a very good level of fitness had helped, but I had been very lucky and there were lessons to be learnt.  I had bagged my first Wainwright, but had it been worth it ?  No.  Not even close.

You can see more of my photographs from the walk here.

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6 Responses to High Spy

  1. patrick says:

    First off, glad you made it back. You were not just lucky as you had all the right equipment and were, as you said, in shape.

    This blog brought back bad memories for me – as I got lost in Anatolia in the mid 80’s when I had the hare-brained idea to go trekking into the mountains looking for a Bizantine fort instead of going with the students to run round Istanbul. I was lucky enough to find a friendly goat herder. Imagine my embarrassment when they came back – I couldn’t admit to them that the only ‘professional’ archaeologist in the group had got himself totally lost.

    Two things were quite clear though – how easy it is to lose track of time – if you’re not constantly checking your watch and even with a compass and an extremely good map you can get yourself into trouble.

  2. roger says:

    You might say luck, but your skill and preparation got you through, don’t sell yourself short. All that being said, I am glad you’re safe, brother!

  3. Catherine says:

    Glad you got back in one piece. Did you check the weather forecast before you left?

  4. jamesa says:

    I did check the weather forecast before setting out and thought that the worst of the weather had passed – I underestimated the time it would take me to get to the end of the valley, and just how strong the winds would be at 650 metres anyway.

  5. Steuart says:

    Hi James, glad you made it back okay and I hope your not put off walking. We all make decisions that are not the best when out and about and get away with most of them most of the time. As you did. There are enough salutary tales of people who make the right decisions and it can still go badly wrong. I attended a Winter Safety talk by the MC oS recently and a lot of discussion centred on highly experienced people getting caught out (and some of them tragically killed). You clearly recognise your errors, you got away with it and now is time to learn from it. Good luck. Calum

  6. dave nolan (cheers2u on Trail) says:

    What a tale….and well told! Thanks. I was there with you…visualising each moment (only because I know High Spy fairly well)….and yes, it is very confusing up on the plateau of High Spy as you descend north. By ‘eck, lad…….that was a narrow escape. I’ve learnt to turn around when the hail begins to bite…..but getting the compass out and keeping tabs on your relative place in the world when said compass is tucked neatly in the bottom of the top lid of your rucksack, and taking your rucksack off when you’re being lashed to little red pieces by snow and hail is a hard motion to carry out…when you’re more than willing to believe you couldn’t be THAT far our out from where you think you are. Yep. Been there done that. Brings back memories too many to count of stupid decisions! Nevermind, we are all here to tell the tales of yore thankfully. Yet again thanks for the read.

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