Surviving the Lakes
In the wake of this summers’ lockdown, experienced arctic expeditionist Ash Routen chose a more domestic and, at least on paper, relaxing mini expedition. His experience was a masterclass in Lake District appreciation. It was also a timely reminder that more than ever, we need the outdoors as a welcome distraction from the slightly chaotic and unstable world around us.
Lockdown hit only a few days before a friend and I were due to fly out and spend a month or so dragging a sledge along the frozen coastline of an island in the arctic. Near pristine wilderness was now swapped for a few months chained to my desk, so the search began to find an alternative outdoor fix a little closer to home.
I eventually settled on heading to the Lakes and following an out of print Cicerone guide, for what promised to be “a scenic tour away from the crowds.” Wild notions of dreamy August afternoons wandering along sun-drenched valleys filled my daydreams in the interim.
Half of the fun of any trip comes in the planning stage, so I revelled in getting to grips with a neat online tool called LighterPack to marshal a week of food, clothing and equipment into order. I kept my base weight down by ditching heavier shells and insulation layers for some of Montane’s lightweight and innovative offerings. I even discarded my trusty walking boots for trail running shoes. Only a decade or so behind most lightweight backpacking enthusiasts.
Having obsessively refreshed the weather news in the days before leaving, it was no surprise to be greeted in Kendal by a barrage of rain. My plan was to hitch a ride with a friend to Ambleside, then meander down to Windermere by early evening. From Windermere the route winds over to Coniston, then the idyllic Eskdale valley, onto the more remote Wastwater and Buttermere, before making its way to Keswick, Patterdale and then Ambleside.
Big skies, cooking and sleeping under canvas – this was going to be the perfect antidote to lockdown lethargy. Except the weather, as always in the Lakes, had other ideas. The first few days were mired by constant rain as I made my way into the heart of the Lakes. Because the Minimus waterproofs I took are designed for fast travel in the mountains (much faster than me), their breathability and minimal weight meant they dried out rapidly in the rare moments of clear weather and speed underfoot.
The benefits of taking a less travelled lowland route became apparent on the first day of good weather between Coniston and Eskdale. Following the Walna Scar, an old drove road, was an absolute joy. It winds slowly upward over Brown Pike before opening up into the peaceful Duddon Valley, and climbing up and over mossy fells to reach the lush glacial valley of Eskdale. The vistas were huge. The Irish sea and Sellafield power station are visible from the highpoint on the Walna Scar, and on a good day the eagle-eyed can spot the Isle of Man.
This all sounds like pastoral bliss, but in reality, I’d spent three and a half days wading through waterlogged and sometimes tenuous paths. With Storm Francis due to hit and projected 70 mph winds, I didn’t fancy my chances of stringing together two long days over into Wasdale and Black Sail. I decided to take the sensible option and cut my route short and wind back to Ambleside by more gentle terrain.
Just like plans for arctic wanderings, my humble Lakeland dreams were somewhat scuppered. But one thing you learn when planning and undertaking arctic travel is flexibility, patience and a philosophical outlook. A storm can roll in, ice conditions may force a route deviation, or a ski binding might snap. Taking my change of plans on the chin, I meandered over the vertiginous Hardknott Pass, through Hawkshead and back to Ambleside. But not before a series of stunning wild camps where I was treated to some of nature’s best in the shape of a double rainbow, crimson red skies and long drawn out sunsets.
Now a few weeks or so back at my desk, I’m longing again to feel the trail underfoot. I’d take damp, boggy and occasionally miserable moments right now.