Don’t walk up Scafell Pike in a gale. (Just putting that out there.)
OK, it was… cold.
In the middle of the summer hols, we had a few days with nothing to do, so we galloped up to the Lake District to retrace a bit of my distant youth, and also my children wanted to see Scafell Pike (the highest point in England). At short notice, we booked a pitch in the Langdales, shoved our tent in the car, and drove up.
The first two days, spent with family en route, were so hot that we barely ventured outdoors. I’ve been to the equator, and this felt hotter. We arrived at the campsite and erected the tent in bright sunshine.
An hour later, southwesterly winds picked up and from then on, we had solid rain and gales for four days. My children experienced their first “classic” British Camping Trip: shivering in the mud while trying to divide two pork pies three ways using only their fingernails and a rock.
Followed by trying to find a dry bit of pillow at 3am.
So, Scafell Pike
The weather forecast gave us the choice between gales gusting at 55mph or 60mph, so we chose 55mph and decided to do a relaxed walk around the lower flanks just to see the mountain (a “pre-summit” look-around checking out nav points).
We picked the Wasdale (easiest) route up from the west, which basically starts at Wasdale campsite and heads east over Brown Tongue. This was easy and uneventful, with pretty views behind over Wastwater, and there wasn’t any reason not to enjoy it.
Predictably, though, as we edged up to 700-730m (level with Lingmel Col to the north) where the steady path opens into a slightly less obvious plateau of spiky rocks, the wind started to gust at over 50mph, and the clouds lowered to engulf us. Within minutes of being in clear sunshine, we stood in a vortex of cold, swirling fog, with almost zero visibility, knowing that the next 200m of climb was only going to make the wind feel stronger and the cloud denser.
It was one of those moments when you can sense the potential danger of the mountain.
I stood in the shrieking clouds, staring at the mass of dark rock appearing and disappearing between gusts, with my children huddled beside me. I rarely feel the cold but this was clammy and insistent, so I put on my coat which whipped around me, flapping like a sail on a bad tack. If we were to continue, we would need to get our navigation spot on and ensure that no one fell, because to be lost up here, or to fall down a gully or off a crag, would mean vanishing into the fog, leaving the unfallen to search for hours or days.
Summits are strong lures and turning back can be the most difficult part of a mountain hike, because of course everyone wants to reach the top. However, before we go on any big treks, I need my children to be mentally able to assess safety while ignoring summit temptation. We stared at the screaming cold fug around us, watching rocks just five feet away blur in and out of view, then turned around and stomped back down.
A few hundred metres later, we were back on the sweet little path to the sunny lowlands (the climate changes rapidly on descent), wondering why we couldn’t have dashed the last few hundred metres to the top? I tried to explain to the children that the Scafell Pike summit can be harder to navigate in low viz, as the path is scattered with rocks, and although I’ve walked to the summit before, I don’t know this mountain well — still they just thought I was a boring moron until we met other walkers who had also turned back. They took comfort in knowing that their mother wasn’t the only cautious one on the mountain.
Of course in theory we could have reached the top — provided we didn’t slip, fall, or get lost. But there was no guarantee of this. There never is; you only get odds.
There’s never a guarantee of safety on a mountain: only odds.
That said, if you can ignore ego and other humans, the mountains usually speak clearly to anyone listening – and this one was signalling, firmly, to take my children to the warmth of the valleys.
We wandered down, clad in cosy coats and mainlining M&Ms, and then I drove them back to the campsite across Hardknott Pass / Wrynose Pass — a route so steep that, at times, we’d crest a hill and find ourselves unable to see the road ahead over the bonnet of the car, and we’d have to lean out of the window to see which way to steer, while trying to avoid the burning clutch fumes.
The rest of our trip — local hill-walks and some very murky wild swimming — was a caricature. The following day, still in relentless horizontal rain, our camping stove failed (cue semi-cooked, watery Gollum sausages that I dropped in the mud by accident, I swear) and great gusts of wind whipped the rain in sheets from the roof of our ageing tent, before bowing the frame and finally snapping a tent pole, despite extra guy ropes and double pegs.
(Our tent, rather than the sleek two-man lightweights of my youth, is a giant, floppy demi-house that we bought when we started having babies. It’s ridiculous, but we love it.)
One of my children pulled on ropes to keep the tent up while the rest of us worked amid the streams of mud and water pouring across the groundsheet. Dripping pillows and stinking boots were bundled into bags and ferried across the squelching turf to be stowed in a car that would smell like fungus for a week. Muesli and loo roll festered in plastic bags fogged with condensation. Rucksacks were hooked out with tired arms and jammed in beside slimy roll mats. The picnic blanket was folded, footprints and all, and stashed with the UHT milk. Nothing fitted back into the car properly. By the time we’d finished, everyone was sodden, clothes clinging to our legs, rain-trickles cold on our sweating necks, and our knees lagged with earth. We sat with day-packs leaking yesterday’s drinks onto our thighs.
‘Sorry, guys,’ I said, ‘adventuring’s like this sometimes.’
‘It’s OK,’ said one of my sons, ‘I’d rather have a crap week up here than a cosy week doing nothing.’ The others nodded.
We will, apparently, be doing this again.
It’s in the Lake District, it’s 978m above sea level, it’s the highest point in England. There are various routes up including the one we took from Wasdale (post code CA20 1EX). It’s fairly straightforward in good weather, and like most mountains, unthinkable in bad weather. (This isn’t a perfect starter mountain – run up a few easier ones first.)
All the usual safety stuff: safety advice here – follow their links for weather and kit. Weather, weather, weather.
Check Mud and Routes for Scafell Pike routes and advice. Also www.scafellpike.org.uk and www.wmrt.org.uk/advice/the-easiest-way-up-scafell-pike and a couple of danger spots.
And here’s my personal kit list in case it helps. Feel free to add to it.
Wasdale campsite is close to the Wasdale Head route up. We stayed at the sister site in Great Langdale, and treated ourselves to a terrifying but gorgeous drive through Hardknott Pass. Blaaaah, burning clutch.
Overall? I don’t find Scafell Pike as pretty as many of its neighbours: it’s a lump, but it’s a fun lump with very gorgeous views, and the path is beautifully maintained, although watch out nearer the top when it’s not so clear. Nav skills.
Don’t do it in a gale. Or fog.