Lakeland’s Greatest Adventure, Cumbria, England

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Lakeland’s Greatest Adventure, Cumbria, England
Lakeland’s Greatest Adventure, Cumbria, England

Walking and camping the Wainwrights and Outlying Fells as a continuous route makes for the ultimate Lakes adventure

Walking and camping the Wainwrights and Outlying Fells as a continuous round is an incredible experience for ambitious backpackers, says Colin Ibbotson

SURELY THAT’S NOT the way, is it? Standing on the summit of Carrock Fell
I looked down at a wall of gorse blocking my path down to Mosedale. A check of the watch showed it was 7pm and I had nowhere to camp, and no water. I could see my next fell, Bowscale. It was only 3 kilometres away but it may as well have been 30. My plan was to ascend it from Mungrisdale, picking up water from the beck on the way, and camp high just before the summit. I quickly checked the map again. A path was clearly marked on the map so I decided to take my chances.

The descent started slow but was at least on a faint track – this was a good sign: the track had to go somewhere. But by White Crags it had faded away. Another check of the map confirmed I was in the right area and needed to keep heading down. By now the gorse wall looked huge; it was clearly taller than me and around 10m deep but also on a steep scree bank. I slithered down past Kelt Crag, cursing and questioning my decision to continue.

Standing now by the wall of gorse it looked impenetrable, as dense as anything I’d encountered before. Eight years ago
I hiked across Arizona and there was a section where there’d been a huge forest fire a few years previously. Where all the trees had been destroyed, the trail was blocked and the forest floor was carpeted with razor-sharp cactus. I emerged scratched and bleeding from head to foot, scarred for life. This now felt like it could be a repeat performance.

Parting the nearest gorse branches, spikes pierced my hands and I let go with a wince. Throwing my pack to the ground in frustration, I sat down and weighed up the options. Clearly brute force wasn’t going to work. But studying the gorse I noticed it was only spiky on the upper green-leafed area and if I grabbed it lower down, on the main trunk, it might just be passable. Very carefully I eased myself through and into the heart of the gorse, which closed shut tightly behind me. No going back now! I made progress slowly, branch by branch, slipping and sliding on the scree.
Eventually I broke through and emerged surprisingly unscathed, just a couple of cuts and some ripped trousers to show for the experience. Smiling now, I knew this was a section of my trip that I would remember for life, just like that one back in Arizona. It’s always the highs and lows of a hike that remain in your head the longest.

A 330-fell super-hike

Although I’ve never considered myself a peak-bagger, for many years I’d been thinking of hiking the 214 Wainwrights as a continuous walk. A friend attempted them a few years ago, and Alfred Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast was my first long route. But until recently, I’d never even looked inside Wainwright’s classic Pictorial Guides. And it was only when I started route-planning for the trip that I discovered the eighth book in the series, The Outlying Fells of Lakeland, which features another 116 hills. I knew immediately that if I were to complete a continuous round, I had to add them to my journey.

Bagging Wainwrights is extremely popular and many have hiked, or run, all 214 as a multi-day walk before; but, surprisingly, the Wainwrights and Outlying Fells hadn’t been done. To me, it made perfect sense to combine them into a 330-fell super-hike.

From the start it was clear that the success of this trip would be all in the planning. With 330 hills crammed into such a small area, getting from fell to fell efficiently would be crucial. I started with fell runner Steve Birkinshaw’s record-breaking Wainwrights route and modified it to accommodate the fact that I’d be carrying a heavy pack with camping equipment, wouldn’t be able to choose my weather, and would need to pick up supplies along the way. Once I’d finished tweaking the Birkinshaw route, I added spurs to the walk for the additional 116 Outlying Fells. As these are generally in the furthest corners of the National Park, this involved a lot of extra distance. I finished by studying aerial photography for the entire route, as paths and tracks are not always where they are shown on maps – as my experience on Carrock Fell was to demonstrate.

I chose Kendal as my start for easy access by public transport and also because it was where the original Wainwright Pictorial Guides were first printed (the old print works is now a Booths supermarket). It would also allow me to bag the first few fells quickly. But the start of the walk proved somewhat disappointing. I climbed out of Kendal through a 70s housing estate, over a dangerous golf course, and then across the busy A591, onto some rough ground – used mainly as a dogs’ toilet – to a small lump in the ground with a pile of stones on it. I had arrived at my first Outlying Fell, the unglamorous Cunswick Scar. I hoped the rest of the walk would be a bit more interesting than this. To be fair, as I discovered over the next five weeks, a lot of the Outliers and some Wainwrights only look at their best when viewed from a particular angle. Had I climbed Cunswick Scar from the steeper and more dramatic west side, I’d probably have been more impressed.

Over the next two days I bagged a further 12 Outliers, including Humphrey Head, which is the most southerly and at 53m the lowest on this hike. These early Outliers were different to the majority in that they had good paths and sometimes even a tower or other monument on the summit. As I would discover later, many Outlying Fells have no tracks and at best a small cairn of one or two stones.

Windermere to Ambleside By road, Windermere to Ambleside is only six or seven kilometres, but my route between them would take three days, covering 70km with 5000m of ascent, and summiting 24 Wainwrights. Hiking between the fells should theoretically be fairly easy – the Wainwrights are very popular and there are many good paths – but walking a continuous round meant I needed to do things differently, and many of the paths didn’t always go where I wanted. A lot of my walk would therefore be cross-country, moving trackless between sections just following a contour or sometimes a bearing in order to avoid losing unnecessary altitude. Often I would summit from unusual directions, surprising the walkers already on the tops.

I found these early Wainwrights much quieter than expected. It was April and the weather was cold, wet and windy.
It was chilly enough on the high camps that when I got to Ambleside, I bought myself a down jacket for extra insulation. I knew that would guarantee a change in the weather, and so it turned out! Later on, one of the final sections brought me very close to these same Wainwrights, but by then it was a month later, the weather had improved and they were much busier. I was glad to have had them all to myself at the start of my trip.

It felt good to get over 10% of the Wainwrights bagged in one quick section, and I enjoyed hiking over the rough, steep terrain, as well as the views from the high summits. The previous section had been all Outliers, and the Wainwrights are generally more dramatic and often more technical. Many have challenging rocky summits and some require a bit of easy scrambling. However, over the following weeks I came to appreciate the Outliers more and more. I liked the quietness I could find there, I liked that finding the actual top was sometimes a challenge in itself, but mostly I enjoyed getting into areas of the National Park I would never normally have travelled to.

Sleeping out

A hike like this really needs to be wild camped. I couldn’t imagine descending into the valley every night just to find accommodation and then having to climb back the next day. There were times when I used commercial sites or B&Bs, because I was close to a town or on cultivated land, or because I need a shower or to recharge my gadgets. But for me, wild camping is an integral part of the overall experience, and it allowed me to start walking at 6am and often hike through until 8 or 9pm.

The most memorable camp was on the summit of an Outlier called Caw. It was early May, and a Public Holiday weekend. After nearly two weeks of wet and windy weather things had finally turned good, the sun had come out – and so had the crowds. Climbing to the summit of The Old Man of Coniston was about the busiest I’ve ever seen any mountain: a mixture of walkers and runners from the Coniston Fell race.

It was hard to even find space on the paths, but by the time I’d passed Walna Scar Road the crowds had gone.
I continued on a little-used path south, bagging the Outlying Fells of Walna Scar, Green Pikes and Pikes before climbing up to the summit of Caw, where there’s a lovely flat ledge that, on perhaps only a handful of days, makes a perfect place to pitch a small tent. On any other day you would be blown clean off the mountain! Today was one of those rare perfect days, and the views were fabulous. It was late afternoon when I arrived and I hadn’t intended to camp so soon but sometimes a camp is just too good to let pass by. I kept the tent doors fully open that night and watched the sun set and then rise the following day over Morecambe Bay.

A surprise on Helvellyn

If the Old Man was astonishingly busy, Helvellyn turned out to be quite the opposite. Breaking camp near Sheffield Pike I glanced towards this most popular of mountains. I would be up there later but I wished I could be there now, at 6am when it was still quiet.

Leaving camp, I quickly bagged Sheffield Pike and Glenridding Dodd and was in Glenridding village shortly after 8am. Sitting on a bench outside the store I watched a group of American hikers on Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast. They looked to be travelling light with only small day packs… until they staggered out with their real luggage that would be transported to the next hotel for them by a luggage transfer service. I’d never seen cases so large, and they had one each. I looked at my own 40 litre pack, containing everything needed for a long multi-month hike, with camping. I wasn’t judging them – we all do things differently, we all have different priorities – but I was truly baffled.

Lakeland’s Greatest Adventure, Cumbria, England-1

 

Walking past the campsite in Gillside there was a lot of activity – not by campers as there were surprisingly few, but by staff hurriedly moving things around and preparing for the inevitable rush. Passing by quickly, I climbed to the summit of Birkhouse Moor and looked down towards Red Tarn. I was expecting to see a long line of walkers steadily heading towards one of the ridges but was surprised to see nobody. Soon I had bagged Catstye Cam and then onto Swirral Edge with its lovely scramble up to Helvellyn. Still there wasn’t a soul around. I’d never had this ridge to myself before and I couldn’t believe it now, at 11 in the morning on a sunny Friday at the start of a holiday weekend.

I took my time on the ridge but my luck continued on reaching Helvellyn’s summit and I sat alone, by the cairn, for a break. Leaning back on my pack I stared at the racing clouds for what seemed like only a few minutes but was perhaps much longer because when I glanced down again I could now see a steady line of walkers nearing Red Tarn. Shouldering my pack I set off towards Nethermost Pike, saying hello to the many walkers ascending from the Thirlmere side. Somehow I’d timed it just right, and found unlikely peace on Helvellyn.

Wainwrights complete

The last fell, on the 37th day of my walk, was appropriately similar to the first. After basking for weeks in superb weather, mist had descended and showers had taken hold the night before. I only had two fells left to bag, both Wainwrights: Sallows and Sour Howes. Ascending Sallows was tough and off-trail. The ground was saturated after the heavy rain and my feet, which had been dry for weeks, quickly got soaked. Visibility was low in the mist and I followed a pre-programmed route on my GPS watch, which guided me around the fence line and then directly to the summit. From here there was at least a clear path, but Sour Howes looked even bleaker. It also had a number of false tops, so again I let the GPS guide me.

At the true summit, I went through the long process of recording that I’d bagged the fell. I’d done this 329 times now so it was almost automatic. I sent a beacon from my satellite tracker to update the live online tracking page, logged the fell on my phone bagging app, then photographed the summit with and without a selfie. That done, I headed downhill towards Windermere for an early lunch.

Finishing a hike is always an anti-climax for me. I don’t get emotional and I never celebrate. I’m probably already thinking about the next one! But I can absolutely recommend the Wainwrights and Outlying Fells for those with suitable experience looking for a tough challenge that’s a bit different. You don’t need to be a bagger to enjoy it, nor do you need to be a Wainwright aficionado. As a multi-day walk, it stands up there with the best – and as somebody who’s hiked many of the world’s greatest trails I can tell you this is as good as any of them.

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Coping with the weather

How Colin dealt with changing conditions on the fells Starting in late April I caught the end of winter and had 10 days of very wet, windy and occasionally sleety weather. With mist and low cloud, off-trail navigation was difficult.

By far the most dangerous aspect of the hike was getting safely off the summits, and picking up my route to the next fell, without ending up in a deep gully or on some other hazard. If I did this walk again I would spend more time looking at the recognised and established routes off the Wainwrights rather than using my own.

By early May the weather had changed exponentially, to almost three weeks of almost Mediterranean conditions. The bogs dried out – making progress so much faster and easier – as did my feet. But the lack of rain actually became an issue when looking for drinking water and I often had to drop into the valleys to find some.

Camping was more difficult and I’d have to carry three litres of water from the valleys, often for a few hours, because you could never guarantee finding any water up high.

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Wainwright’s Fells

The seven Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells are the most famous works by legendary Lakeland guidebook author Alfred Wainwright. Hand-produced in pen and ink, they describe 214 fells in the Lake District, accompanied by the author’s distinctive drawings.

The mountains included in the Pictorial Guides are now commonly grouped together as ‘The Wainwrights’. Walking all of them has become a popular bagging challenge. They range from 290m Castle Crag to 978m Scafell Pike, the high point of England. In 1985, Alan Heaton recorded the first continuous round of the Wainwrights, which has also been famously completed by runners Joss Naylor (who held the record for fastest completion for nearly 30 years) and Steve Birkinshaw (who has held it since 2014).

The Outlying Fells of Lakeland is
a further guidebook written by Wainwright several years after his other guides, which details 116 fells, each described as part of a walk. The Outlying Fells are not included in the standard Wainwrights list, and Colin Ibbotson is the first person to include them as part of a continuous walk.

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Wild camping in the Lake District

Although you should have the permission of a landowner to camp on their land, there is a tradition of wild camping in the Lake District. On its website, the Lake District National Park Authority acknowledges that wild camping “can be the perfect way to mix Lake District adventure, the great outdoors and an unforgettable stay in the National Park”.

Make sure you camp above the highest fell wall, well away from towns and villages, for only one night and in small groups of one or two tents. Camp as unobtrusively as possible with inconspicuous tents and leave the campsite exactly as you find it – don’t light any fires or leave any litter, and perform toilet duties at least 30m from any water.

More information on minimal impact camping is available on our website: tgomagazine.co.uk/skills/leave-no-trace/

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