Scafell Pike: A Second Chance – Grieg Barclay

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Greig takes on one of the three peaks

The wind whipped up the valley from the head of the magnificent body of Wast Water and the OS map i was holding fluttered like a terrified bird in my hands. I searched it for some clue as to the next step to take on my second attempt to reach the top of Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. At less than 1000 metres above sea level it’s not a particularly imposing mound but the lack of pathways and the steep incline at the peak makes it more of a challenge than the relatively short stature suggests.

The point at which I stood was within ten square metres of the spot at which I called off my first attempt to climb the Pike. That time I couldn’t see ten metres in front of me as the cold October rain drove into my face and the low cloud obscured the land. That walk was curtailed by various factors; injured knees, aggressive weather and the fact that we’d only just finished climbing Ben Nevis and had Snowdon yet to come. This time, I was focused on the one mountain and I had no intention of being beaten again.

Setting off up the valley

The path from Wast Water isn’t clear but by following a brook up the valley we were able to keep our place on the map. Steep screes rise dramatically on either side of the valley, ushering the hiker along until the flat basin rises sharply into the sky from whence waterfalls tumble down impossible heights. After an exhausting slog up the sodden mossy incline we reached Turnaround Buttress as it shall now be known to me. This time, with dry weather and eight eager companions I suggested we do some scrambling in the direction we knew we had to go rather than concern ourselves with  finding a path.

We set off up the rocky buttress, climbing over boulders and grassy mounds, with the occasional call of “Below!” ringing out as the face came free under grabbing hands and scrambling feet. No injuries were suffered by falling debris but one member came close to a 127 Hours moment as a large boulder sailed past his arm. After another 15 minutes of climbing we saw three hikers, two adults roped to a child. We looked about wondering which of us should be roped up and possibly who we’d least like to be tied to. The fellow hikers were descending a path from the summit and informed us they didn’t feel it was safe to attempt the peak with their infant. Using the path and various levels of geography education we could once again find our place on the map, a great relief indeed.

We followed the rocky path for a further 20 minutes before stopping for lunch. It’s an unusual path which occasionally tumbled down over rock faces which required scaling and across streams with slippery stepping stones.

The path becomes less clear

Finally we reached the promised screes. Loose rocks punctuated by snow-filled holes waiting to aid an ankle sprain stretched out above us. We set off, leaving significant gaps between each scrambler to avoid any rock-fall related injury. It was hard work and I was unable to have any real confidence in the surface beneath me; the jovial conversation which had flown about up to now froze in the bone-stabbing cold as the wind picked up. My Hi-Tec Altitude Ultra boots are fully waterproof and warm, the sole provides good grip and the ankle support helped enormously, they were finally getting the treatment they had been made for and standing up to the test admirably. I felt for the members of the team boasting urban hooves and the one clown in shorts. Some temporary respite was afforded us at a short plateau before the final climb.

 

We climbed through the cloud bank and over giant slabs of rock until finally we reached the summit with it’s rock mound. There we were: standing on top of Scafell Pike. In jubilation the nine of us danced about on the top of the mountain like celebrating pagan peons. A bottle of Scotch was passed about to accompany some wolfishly eaten snacks. After a few moments we succumbed to the exposure on the peak and pointed our boots back the way we had come. The descent was a hairy one, slipping and sliding down rocky snow-banks on our backsides while clinging to anything and everything to control the speed. Having offered my gloves to a friend whose hands had become numb in the wind, I suffered when attempting to use my palms as brake pads. Though it hurt I was able to prevent myself cartwheeling off the side of the mountain. The adrenaline pumping noisily past my ears made the danger no more than an exciting challenge, but looking back we really should have taken some precautions. Or an ice axe.

As snow and rock became grass and bog I felt satisfied that I’d climbed the smallest but most difficult of the Three Peaks.

At times it felt like we’d bitten off more than we were capable of chewing and it turned out that our route should only be scrambled in summer, not during the harsh back end of winter. Risks were taken but no serious injuries or ailments were suffered. Once again we’d escaped to the natural world, found it almost empty of people but full of dangerous beauty and enriching experiences.

Route back down, edging along rock faces (Images: Luke Doyle)

Greig Barclay
Oxford

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