Haystacks – Or walking in the mountains at 80 years of age

”I’m eighty this year so I think I’d like to do something to celebrate”, it’s Kathy, she’s from St Louis and we met her four years ago, almost to the day, on the Coast to Coast behind Haystacks Peak in Cumbria. That tale can be found by following the link at the bottom of this little missive.

Kathy’s excited and has decided that as a present to herself she’d like to climb Haystacks from Buttermere and would like us to join her.

Cecilia, George, Kathy and Ian

That was earlier in the year and now we’re driving across beautiful Honister Pass into the car park at Gatesgarth Farm where we’ll meet Kathy and Ian before climbing Haystacks from the opposite side of the mountain. It’s a bit more of a challenge from this side and involves a bit of scrambling towards the top, also, although we don’t know it yet, the weather will certainly add to the challenge.

Ian is a thoughtful and generous man and author. His pen name is Bruce Beckham and he writes ‘who done its’ books based on a Detective Inspector Skelgill who works in The Lake District. He’s hosted Kathy and brought her down here from Edinburgh. He’s also volunteered to act as our guide for this outing as he’s walked/climbed this route on several occasions. He is a thoroughly nice man as well as being a gifted writer.

We begin our walk across the flood plane of Buttermere that also acts as sweet grazing for some of the hardy Herdwick sheep that spend their summer months on the fell sides. It’s a bit of a transition time so some are being rounded up and brought down from the higher parts of the fell and we witness a small part of the process when a flock of these beautiful but dozy animals are delivered to the pen around the farmhouse by five dogs and a couple of humans. The dogs are the stars of the show though as they worry and crouch then dart off to deal with a couple of stragglers or streak across open ground turning and weaving to suppress the odd breakaway group and restore the flock to a single moving throng. We’re delighted with this sight and stand with cameras at the ready to record the scene. We’ll be meeting some of these hardy animals on several occasions and in the most astonishing and difficult places, we even see a couple of them grazing in the lea of some rocks at the top, they’re an utterly amazing breed.

We’re encouraged to go through a small gate by a gentleman who is doing a tremendous job impersonating a bouncer at the door of a popular pub. There are tents and helicopters near the edge of the lake and rumours abound. The name that keeps cropping up is Tom Cruise and as we pass the bouncer we mention said Mr Cruise and get no denial.

The first leg is across the flood plane then through a small gate and almost immediate ascent on well maintained but very rickety stones set into the fell side by dedicated volunteers who keep these wonderful ways open. There is a copse to our left that breaks the strength of the gusty wind and there is still a degree of blue sky that shows a promise that is yet to be broken.

We’re on a track that stretches diagonally up Buttermere Fell and, whilst not horrendously steep, it is persistent and we stop numerous times to appreciate the views unfolding with each step and, in truth, we catch our breath!

As we approach 1000 feet and glance back the sky is darkening and the wind is becoming a little more persistent so we make preparations for a period of dampness and don waterproofs on our tops (we’re already wearing waterproof pants) and also cover our rucksacks with the orange waterproof that should keep the contents at least the dry side of moist. Ian has raised a brolly and looks like an overdressed Mary Poppins but the brolly is going to be a boon in another 15 minutes when the denser cloud makes an appearance.

Below us, Warnscale Beck is wriggling, cascading and generally dancing its way down the fell from somewhere near Dubbs Quarry. I’m guessing that only the beck itself knows its source and I can’t find it on the map but it is a long way up in the fell and will become an interesting and challenging feature a little later in the day when both Ian and myself find a slippery stone that has us doing a little bit of ‘granddad-dancing’ above a waterfall. 

We reach Scarth Gap Pass in good spirit and whilst the flat bits in the pass are short they do give us a little bit of respite for conversation between the steeper and rock-strewn steeper bits. We meet a couple of people going in the opposite direction. They’ve done a huge loop including crossing some of the crags that we can see the edge of but they’re heading back now looking quite wet from the exposure in the low clouds. As they pass and descend we naturally look back to see them off and I note a build-up of rather heavier clouds over Crummock Water to the north and slightly east of Buttermere. It’s much blacker than the stuff that keeps drifting past us and looks like there might be a period of rather damper conditions – it puts a bit of spring in our step, it would be really good if we could get to the top before it does but that becomes wishful thinking!

Scarth Gap is like a saddle that gives us a little time to get our breath back but the reward is tempered with some heavy-duty scrambling up to a point where Ian is shouting through the gusting wind that the next bit is ‘tricky’. I’m above Kathy and Cecilia and can see that the conditions are really impacting this part of the climb. Whilst neither of them is struggling they’re both well exposed to the squall and the rain is making the rocks even more slippy where the water has wet the green lichen, grass and moss. The rain stops momentarily and we can see the 1600 feet down to Buttermere and beyond. The lack of rain is welcome although the sudden disclosure of our height is a bit uncomfortable but, after a minor hesitation and some words of encouragement we’re lining ourselves up for the next challenge.

We’re on Hay Stacks now but not yet at the top. There’s a short traverse clinging to rocks and bracken. Ian’s already been along it and now returned to brief us. He’s done a sterling job keeping us all aware of the next ‘challenge’; what we don’t know, however, is how many of these false summits and subsequent ‘challenges’ there are but Kathy is built of extraordinary stuff and takes it all in her stride even if that stride is a huge leap of faith.

On leaving the mini-traverse we’re confronted with quite a rocky scramble requiring hands, feet and huge determinations as the squall returns with more torrential rain and gusts blowing at over 45 mph. The rain stings the eyes and our hands are blue with the cold but the excitement and positive words from each of us in turn get us to the top – or is it? 

Ian has been to another rocky peak only this one has a wooden post in it. He keeps disappearing and reappearing like a ghost in the cloud then he’s with us again. “That’s the top”, he’s shouting in the squall and has to repeat himself several times as the wind robs us of his words. He’s pointing at the post and smiling it looks like a grimace with rain running off his head and torrents of water running like tiny rivers down his (and our) clothes.

There’s disappointment and elation in equal measure, we thought we were at the top and more scrambling was not in our thoughts but with another lull in the storm we find ourselves climbing the last part and as we begin the ascent Ian pulls a blinder.

We’re looking up at where we need to go and pushing Kathy up the rocky scree when Ian, standing by the post and just as Kathy is arriving, unfurls the Stars and Stripes. Whilst there is no immediate stand to attention the American Flag has a wonderful elating effect on Kathy as she points wide-eyed and proud. 

As she approaches it the wind keeps it flapping as if it was alive. A wonderful, wild and exciting welcome for an inspirational and determined lady. There is much water streaming down our faces and it’s not all rain. The tears and smiles abound as we take turns to hold the flag with Kathy and Ian ensuring it remains flying in proud testament to her achievement.

The original intention was to have a cup of tea and a sandwich at the top. Ian, ever resourceful and generous, has brought with him a portable kettle but today is not going to be the day for genteel picnics; the squall returns and Ian feels that we should return using a route that I’d plotted a few nights earlier and shown him in the car park. He feels the loop route will avoid the tricky and dangerous scrambles and traverses now made even trickier with torrents of water fed from the contents of the clouds over the last two hours. He tells me he’s looking for the route down to Innominate Tarn and disappears momentarily but within a few minutes he has it and we’re following a satellite-guided OS Map on my phone towards the tarn.

Whilst this route is less of an issue in terms of acute challenges, it is very much a chronic challenge. Every step has to be planned. There are rocks that move and others covered in slippy lichen both of which carry the same risks and we all take turns in slipping, falling and flailing like amateur skaters, from a practical point of view we can only be careful and when the inevitable happens (and it does) we try to go down in a controlled and gentle way or catch the person in front to soften the fall. We try to mitigate the rock issues by placing our feet carefully in between but that carries its own risks when we find swampy peat that sucks at our boots and disguises the real depth of what we think is just a soft piece of earth – and it isn’t.

As we pass the tarn I offer to scout ahead with the iPhone GPS and Ian accepts, the theory is that we won’t need to increase an already longer route by false trails and it works. At the end of Innominate Tarn, we turn to the left and start a descent to Blackbeck Tarn and we have a fall that’s hard to recover from but only minor damage; however, the thought of a headlong dive on a very rocky trail certainly sharpens the senses and even greater care is adopted by us all.

At Blackbeck Tarn we take a slightly longer route over a ridge that bears its own reward of spectacular views across the valley and a couple of funny if serious, signs that state emphatically that turning left or straight on ‘Is not the right way’! They’re complemented by a friendly little arrow that points us away from spectacular cliffs that could have been very tricky in low cloud or heavy rain.

We make our way across some flattish plateaux then begin a serious descent that requires significant concentration and considerable balance and culminates in a view of the alternative tracks from which we will be required to choose a good one and at this distance, they both look good! As we’re debating the alternatives a couple of young men come into view. They’re moving much faster than us but look like they’re using the same tracks so we pay attention to their deliberations regarding the crossing of Warnscale Beck which is now looking quite angry having been fed by the intermittent but heavy rain that we’ve had over the last couple of hours. There is a trail on our side but there are severe drops that would need to be scrambled especially further down the fell and the beck gains both girth and energy as the hundreds of tiny tributaries contribute to its flow.

In the blink of an eye, they’re over but we miss it and whilst we know where they crossed we don’t see the rocks that they use and that would have been most useful for our crossing. Ian has disappeared over the fell to scout upstream and comes back with some good news regarding potential stepping stones not yet submerged by the strengthening currents in the turbulent waters.

As we approach the stream I crouch down and reach across the rocks on hands and knees pushing at the bigger ones to see if they are stable. Cecilia is holding the phone/camera on the off-chance of the shot-of-a-lifetime and I nearly give her the opportunity as I make tentative steps on the rocks that I’d decided were safe and all goes well until the last rock which is covered in some slippy moss or lichen. I wave my arms around in a valiant effort to remain upright and win the fight. My heart rate is somewhat raised but at least I’m vertical; however, my granddad dancing is somewhat eclipsed by Ian’s desperate jive as he slips and lands in a small pool at the head of the waterfall. All breathing stops as he steadies himself and skips onto the riverbank in an easy stride; safe now, we breathe again! A little later we look back and see the waterfall and plunge pool that could have been the recipient of Ian’s body – it may not have been lethal but it would certainly have been a pretty chilly adventure and particularly cold for the rest of the scramble down the rocky trail.

Everyone across the stream now, we assemble at the top of the bank and survey the rocks that will be our path for the next two hours. We keep telling ourselves and even announce to the others that it will improve in 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes or; when we get to a bend, a tree, a rock or some scree – but it doesn’t. 

It’s a long and slow two-mile walk down the fell with little opportunity to appreciate the grandeur of Fleetwith Edge as the path clings to the scree and, on occasion, is the scree but we are constantly treated to the view of the rocky escarpment of Hay Stacks.

It’s gone seven o’clock now and the intention was to be up to the top and back again by three; however, we still have light although the weather has closed in again and we finish the adventure almost appropriately in storm conditions. 

We’re elated, joyful, proud and completely exhausted – but what a day!

Well done Kathy, you’re an inspiration, I hope I can do this at eighty…

1 thought on “Haystacks – Or walking in the mountains at 80 years of age”

  1. Thank you for this amazing story, George!!! I felt like I was there, with you all!! And thank you for being a part of the Team to climb Haystacks with Mom. I would have loved to be there too, but feel so happy knowing of the friendships and love that got her up and down in one piece. Much gratitude!! Becky Dahm

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