Wednesday 30 July 2008

Trip Report - The Coniston Fells

Hello folks. My apologies for taking such a long time to write up this trip report. Things have just been hectic and I've had other things on my mind - more about this in another post....Oooh the mystery!

Here it is in all it's glory and I hope people don't find it too boring!

The Night Before the Big Day
Although I'd been pretty much packing for a week prior to the trip, I knew it would still be a rush on Thursday because I had to go to a work do that night straight from work. I don't know about you guys but Thursday's have found a place in my heart as the new Friday, so any chance for a beer is hard to resist! I knew I had to be disciplined so I'd planned on leaving the pub at around 8pm (thinking this might stretch to 9) and I'd be home and merrily packing by 9.30. As it turned out it went even better than that, since Charlotte had to prepare for a visit from Prince Charles on Friday so would pick me up on the way home at 8pm. Thank God she did that because I doubt I would have got out of there upright!

When I got in I basically spent 2 hours running about the house like a real twerp trying to sort out my bag, checking the list and generally doing a really good job of looking like I had no idea what I was doing. I think I was panicking because in the back of my mind I knew I'd be alone and didn't want to leave anything to chance.

I got a fairly late night considering I was after a good sleep but I dropped off with a feeling of nervous anticipation mixed with the sheer excitement of being in the hills. The beer seemed to keep any intelligent thoughts at bay.

Friday - The Big Day
I woke at 6.15am with a bit of groggy head on and it took a few moments for me to realise what day it was. When I finally realised I couldn't wait to get out of bed but my instincts had kicked in (thank God) and I was calm trying to work out what I needed to do before I left.

I left Coventry for Conistion at about 7.15, chose the toll road route and headed for Ambleside as the first stop. I hadn't planned to stop there but noticed that the sun was out to burn me so had a forced visit to get some suntan lotion. I decided I liked Ambleside despite its silly one way system and vowed to return on Saturday to check out a few outdoorsy shops.

Ten minutes later I found myself looking for free roadside parking in Coniston but at just before 12 on a bright sunny day, this was always a misguided plan. I paid my £6 for 24 hours at the car park opposite the Tourist Information centre and headed for the Crown! My plan was to set off into the hills at 1pm so I relaxed with a roast ham Bloomer and a cold pint (a decision I would regret later) whilst sitting in the glorious sun. I watched people come and go and I was surprised at how few people there were around considering the weather. Two mancs caught my attention, mainly because they ordered to bottles of Blossom Hill Chardonay and seemed set for the hills with a large rucksack, a net of kindling wood and a rather large Pit bull terrier! Had I brought all the wrong gear after all!

I finished off my pint and by 12.45 was at my car liberally applying walking boots and sun cream. I headed off towards the main road north west out of Coniston to pick up my route, passing the local sports centre and a sign advertising the Coniston Music Festival. Leaving behind the fears that I'd miss an appearance from the Kings of Leon that night, I found the road and bumped into the guys from the pub. They were headed out along the same road and whilst we chatted briefly about the music festival, I was of course hoping they weren't headed for Grey Friars for a night of Chardonnay and a fire!

I made the same mistake as usual and practically jogged out of Coniston, quickly realising that I couldn't keep that punishing pace in the heat soon enough. The shade of the trees along the cycle path (parallel to Yewdale Beck) was welcome as I adjusted the Litespeed's various straps - quickly finding comfort. I found myself at the bridge below High Tilberthwaite before I knew it and the trail began where the path ended. The track ascends fairly sharply after the white slate farmhouse but the views west across to Holm Fell seemed to distract enough that I tripped on a rock. At this point I was feeling great about being out and the fears I had about going alone had been quashed. I was a little worried about water because I was needing to drink far more than I expected but I reached the stream before the ascent of Above Beck Fells and refilled, taking in a few melted Jaffa Cakes for energy. By this point I was sweating and lookin at the map and then up at the ascent I was about to make via Lads Stones - I quickly realised this was not going to be an easy walk and that beer was now a mistake!

Lads Stones

There was no path on the map to the top, nor an obvious track so I made a few corrections to my route to the top. The grass ended where the scree started and I began to really find my sense of adventure. There were no difficult technical sections in real terms but with a heavy pack and in the heat I felt I'd conquered the world when I reached the top! I regained some composure at Weatherlam Tarn, puffed my inhalers and carried on. I began seeing people along the way and a couple asked me the way back into Coniston and I suddenly felt liberated to be out in the hills again for the night.

Coniston Moor

I made steady progress along the track descending Weatherlam down to Poison Band where, to the south, Levers Water was shimmering in the shafts of light breaking through the dark clouds that had begun to form. I couldn't help but think that Levers Water would make a nice wild camp and no doubt it probably has on many an occasion.

I decided I would stop here for a brew before the ascent of Swirl How and broke out the stove and my Orikaso cup. I was making perfect time, and didn't need to rush to get to Grey Friars so I took in the scenery for a while and was really taken by how amazing it was to have the hills almost to myself. I took the chance to reflect on my pack and my new walking boots. The pack was very comfortable to carry, easy to access I had no issues with comfort at all. I'd love to say that my boots felt heavenly too but by this point my feet were hot and the base of heel had began to feel a little sore. I wasn't sure if this was a blister forming at this stage so decided to wait and see once I'd set up camp later.

After my rest I found that the ascent of Swirl How was very pleasant. A mix of easy rocky ledges and scree kept me entertained and I'd noticed that the wind had now picked up and the temperature was far more tolerable. I could see that MWIS had its forecast correct - there would be rain within a few hours if not sooner! My pace took on a slight urgency as I curved north to Great Carrs. I had a real pang of sorrow as I viewed the memorial to the Canadian victims of the plane crash in 1944, near to the summit. I suppose it was because its not everyday you come across aircraft wreckage from WW2.

WW2 Wreckage on Great Carrs

I took in the views from the summit for a few minutes and consulted the map - looking for the spring where I hoped to pick up water. I had a real hang up about not being able to get any and spending the night hungry and thirsty - fears which now seem silly. Right then it was a big deal and perhaps I was feeling the insecurity of being alone more than I thought. I headed to the short plateau in between Great Carrs and Grey Friars and I decided it was GPS time to find this spring. As I approached I could here the faint trickle of water and as I popped the PDA back in my pocket I took a confident stride with my left foot and sunk knee deep into a bog. I initially panicked as I felt the cold water soak into my trousers and trickle into my boot. I was gutted and luckily nobody was around to hear my foul language! I was disappointed with myself for making the error, especially at this stage and continued on feeling like a real amateur. Luckily it had clearly been raining the day or night before because the water:peat ratio was high and I was easily able to retrieve my leg without any trouble. From that point I tested every step until I found an outlet to fill my water bottles. I remember at that point feeling relieved and almost like I was home free. All I had to do was make Grey Friars and find a reasonable spot to camp.

By the time I'd ascended back to the path the wind was picking up from the North East and I was in pitch finding mode all the way up Grey Friars. I found myself talking my way through various potential camping spots and weighing up the pros and cons - like a lunatic! By chance I spotted what looked like a perfect spot and so long as the fluffy grass didn't hold a mass of water I'd be camping. I couldn't believe my luck, the grassy patch was clear of rocks and was soft, long grass and fairly level too. The view was a good semi-panoramic view from the south west right round to the north east. Importantly though I had high sided crags to the east to block most of the north easterly wind - or at least it was at that time!

I began to smell the rain in the air and I unpacked the tent with gusto! I had great ideas of taking some pictures showing the various stages for a review later but that was not going to be. It went up like a dream, it was a pleasure and the only adjustment required was to the webbing straps in the four corners where the fly seemed a little too far forward. I dived in inside as the wind changed direction to blow in from the south and the rain pelted the flysheet!

It was great when I sat and thought about it. I'd had the best of the weather, the tent was up and I was about to cook. I can say with certainty that I didn't feel lonely once the tent was up and I have no reasonable explanation why. I cooked and ate and posted to the blog before cleaning up and heading to the summit of Grey Friars for a view. The clouds were low in the valley and they rolled in and cleared again, with the rain coming thick and fast at regular intervals. I was sat in my tent away from the rain, contemplating some photos and a call to Paul, when I heard voices and I looked out to see two figures in the mist. They had clearly made Grey Friars and were probably trying to get their bearings. At the time the rock they stood on seemed a good distance away but later when it cleared it was more like 50m max! I can't say if they spotted my tent in the dip below them but they moved on in any case and I had the hill to myself again - bar a few sheep.

I settled down to some port and checked my blog for comments. I set my alarm for 6.00am and sent a text to my cousin to arrange to meet the following day. I dropped off around 10 and can admit to having a sense of achievement and I vowed there and then that I'd do this more often. Its a feeling I won't forget in a hurry and I can really see why a solo trip in the Cairngorms is appealing.

I woke several times during the night as the sound of rain made it past my earplugs and into my eardrum. This triggered a desperate need for the loo so out I went in my base layer and boxers cursing the whole time!

Day Two - Saturday
By 5.30 I was wide awake and the light put pay to any chance of a bit more of a kip. It had got quite cold over night and I slid out of my bag to find it that it still was! I opened to tent to find that the rain had gone and there was an inversion in the valley just to the north. What a privilege to have such a view with only the sounds of the morning to be heard for miles around.

Making morning tea on Grey Friar

I cooked porridge oats with fruit and sugar for breakfast and sat on the rocks overlooking the valley with a cup of tea. It was quite surreal but in the very best way. I packed away in no particular rush and said goodbye to what I think is now a benchmark of a pitch spot. I headed back down to the spring to find the ground even more boggy due to the previous nights rain - only this time I was ready! I left my pack on the higher ground and took my filter and bottles to be filled. This done I took the path running along the western slope to Great How Crags where I would meet my cousin Craig and his friends.
The Old Man of Coniston from Grey Friar

As it turned out they had arrived early and decided to the same route I did the day before so they were running late. In the end I walked back north along the ridge to Swirl How where I found them looking a little tired and taking on fluids! By this point the glorious morning sun had been blocked out by low cloud which swirled over the eastern side of the ridge and eventually engulfing the entire hill. We made our way to the Old Man of Coniston but we weren't going to see that view we all hoped for! We hung about for a bit but the fear of my car being clamped back in Coniston meant we were on a deadline. We descended via the beautifully clear Goat's Water only to find the mist cleared above and left Blue skies behind. There was talk of going back up for the view but clearly nobody was quite that serious about it! I wish I'd have had a dip in Goats Water though in hindsight - it would have been so refreshing in that heat.

We made our way back into Coniston, skirting the base of Little Arrow Moor and we all vowed we'd be back another day for that view. A car parking ticket was purchased for another hour and we ended the trip with a well earned pint and a burger - which I wasn't very impressed by - for the record!

In summary, my first solo backpack was pretty awesome and I feel inspired to get out again alone. I can see now that whilst going with a friend is a great experience, its completely different to a trip alone. I wouldn't say I found myself as such but I did find that part of me that likes solitude.

On reflection I would do that trip again and I dare say I might since Paul saw the picture of tent pitched on the hill and was adamant he needed that in his life! I'd love every minute if we did go back.....perhaps it would make a nice winter trip......


Martin Rye said...

Cracking walk and time you had there. I liked reading that and keep at it. Solo walking suits you I think.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great report. Like you, I worry too much!! The doing is where it's at!

Anonymous said...

Excellent report, I want to get out again, solo overnights could be the way forward !

Marcus said...

Ron, I thoroughly agree with that. As long as you have the basics its all about just getting on with it. I think the solo route leaves you with even more of urge to be back in the hills. Its addictive at the best of times anyway without the urge to be out solo all of the time.