DIARY: Days in the Lakes Part 4

Thursday we attended the traditional Ambleside Sports and as Aoife would later say it was "a perfect day". I couldn't agree more. As I am still waiting for the results of the race (I believe I finished 37th and think my time was around 96 minutes but my watch fell out), I'll finish the report later and instead continue with our final recce of parts of the Bob Graham round.

The Rydal Round race we had done the previous day is a 10 mile course with 890m ascent and 7 separate peaks (Nab Scar, Heron Pike, Great Rigg, Fairfield, Hart Crag, High Pike and Low Pike) that need to be visited with Fairfield the highlight of the journey. Terrain varies widely from bridlepath, to dirt and grass track, to heavy grass, severe rock and ascent and descent grades go from where runnable to breathtakingly steep (the final fast grassy bit near cost me two broken ankles!).

Both our spirits had been lifted by our realisation that Fairfield is part of the Bob Graham Round and thus we had ticked off another peak before our final chance on the Friday.

Tomorrow: The tally and reflections on the Bob Graham.

Day 5 – To Hell or Helvellyn

Another day, another audacious plan and this time I was hell-bent on getting in as many Bob Graham peaks as I could especially with Great Gable, Scafell, Scafell Pike, Green Gable and Brandreth all lost in the mist.

Farewell to Borrowdale

We had moved from our BnB in Borrowdale to Ambleside and had celebrated a great final evening there at the Scafell Hotel. Like at the Royal Victoria in Llanberis, a large plaque hangs on the wall showing all the winners of the Borrowdale Fell Race and a picture of the course-record holder, the redoubtable and fiery local man Billy Bland. It’s great to see such appreciation of the events in the local community and they have much to be proud of: The Cumberland Ale there was easily the finest pint I’ve sampled.

It was from the race map hanging next to the plaque that we learned that Glaramara and Allan Crags were part of the race route (you make your way from the hotel over these peaks from the North before heading towards Scafell). That even this epic circuit is only listed as a “Long” rather than “Very Long” race in the Lakeland Classics Trophy tells you all you need to know. There is no harder fell competition on Earth (Borrowdale, Three Shires and Langdale are long, Duddon Valley, Ennerdale and Wasdale super long).

But those peaks were behind us now and we had to think of a different part of the Bob Graham in the Eastern Fells around Ambleside and Grasmere.

The next trek

Having used Harvey’s Lakeland West and Harvey’s Lakeland North for our previous route-mapping, the now mangled maps could be given a rest and the crisp, freshly-pressed Lakeland Central be brought into the fray.

So Plan A: Take the bus to Threlkeld and ascend Clough Head (726m), the first peak of the Helvellyn ridge, where most of the peaks are named “Dodd”-something and therefore often referred to simply as “The Dodds”. The plan would have allowed us to tick off eleven fells in one swoop. The second peak of the day Great Dodd (858m) would be the appetizer for the main course of Helvellyn Lower Man (925m) and Helvellyn (950m) itself. In between lay Watson’s Dodd (789m), Stybarrow Dodd (846m), Raise (884), and White Side (863m). Beyond Helvellyn we would conquer Nethermost Pike (891m), Dollywaggon Pike (858m) before crossing over to Seat Sandal (736m). Rounders would continue down to the Dunmail Raise changeover (colourfully named after the last King of Cumbria – Dunmail) whereas we plotted to follow the Coast-to-Coast route from Grisedale Tarn into Ambleside.

This plan saw itself quickly scuppered when we couldn’t find public transport to Threlkeld and adjusting ourselves we followed the plentiful walking paths out of Ambleside and up the Coast-to-Coast from the south hoping to reach as far as Helvellyn on and out-and-back course, leaving the northerly Dodds for another time.

On the Coast-to-Coast we could enjoy another verdant experience through Tongue Gill (Gill is another one of those Lakeland words it’s handy to know: Also spelled “ghyll” it generally describes a narrow valley (usually created by and featuring a stream). Wainwright calls this section one of the easiest ascents in the Lake District and we’d be inclined to agree, although the rocky underfoot always stays unpredictable enough to keep you alert and has none of the soulless characteristics of the new trails erected around Fairy Castle and Tibradden.

As fulcrum for our journey, we had Grisedale Tarn, where the soldiers of King Dunmail are purported to have thrown the Crown of Cumbria. We had not come to pay our respects our dive into the cool upland waters but rather to take advantage of the fact that Grisedale Tarn lies next to the Coast to Coast and trails lead from here to three Bob Graham peaks: Fairfield (the highpoint of yesterday’s race), Seat Sandal and Dollywaggon Pike. The trail also leads straight West from here to the Dunmail Raise changeover, so for Bob Graham aspirants, it’s a major traffic ore.

We easily spotted the correct trail along a ruined wall towards Seat Sandal. Our plan was to go to this summit first, then follow the wall down that a clockwise round would follow up before reconnecting with the rest of the wall on the other side of the Dunmail trail and taking the direct bearing at Dollywaggon Pike.

While the weather rapidly deteriorated at this stage, Seat Sandal had shelter from Fairfield and Dollywaggon Pike and our climb up its rocky slopes terminated quickly and we caught sight of the cairn about 10 metres from the end of the wall through the fog.

Once touched we turned back to the wall and ran downwards and northbound. Once we crossed the path to Dunmail, a bit of nasty boggy ground had to be skirted but then were once again on solid grass and following the wall. Much to our chagrin though, the climb up Dollywaggon Pike from this angle proved harder than any we had taken so far and seemed to go on forever. Perhaps it was the race, but even walking, I felt it was a struggle. An eternity later, the slope eased, however, and Aoife, who had easily outpaced me, gazed towards the bridlepath ahead of us. This was our road to Helvellyn. Now we just had to find the right place along the bridle-path to climb up the rocky slopes into the mist and locate the summit of Dollywaggon Pike and stay clear of the two major crags on the fell.

We searched for signs as we made our way slowly along the path, the wind now blew a gale and our fell-running gear for the first time seemed insufficient to cope with the cold. Then, the terrain suddenly seemed to match and we cautiously veered off the path and onto the rock-strewn slope. Before too long, we had secured another cairn and headed downwards, taking an exaggerated left line to ensure we didn’t accidentally stray into the northern crag with poor prevailing conditions.

Back onto the path, my brain calculated our chances of reaching Helvellyn and the price we’d have to pay and after some convincing Aoife and I decided to turn back (she was now in full “peak-bagging mode”). Continuing further on a ridge that would only get increasingly difficult in the wind, mist and rain and with our sparse attire, just didn’t feel like the right call and once the decent started and the chill set in, we were both glad of this decision and we didn’t feel fully relieved until Grisedale Tarn appeared out of nowhere having been hidden deep in mist. There were now visible waves on the legendary lake. The descent had not been wasted; the rocky zig-zags off Dollywaggon had taken significant time. I had doubted whether the extremely steep grassy descent suggested by Harvey’s Bob Graham Round map was really ideal, but it’s doubtful you would save much time coming down the rough bridle-way.

We knew the remainder of the track and a few hundred metres down the cloud finally lifted and the rain receded somewhat. Perhaps losing concentration, I slipped but managed to catch myself and avoid any harm. Not much further down Aoife to a skid of the side of a rock crossing one of the small streams and added a very elaborate blue colour-pattern to her shin and knee.

Finally back in Ambleside, we got changed and decided to have an enjoyable short day. The trip had still taken over four hours so we didn’t feel too guilty as we enjoyed the local tea-shops. England might not have much of a reputation for its cuisine but both the food and the ale in the Lakes are worth writing home about.