The First Ascent of Skiddaw (well the first on 4/3/93 anyway)

We are lucky enough to see Skiddaw from our window and breakfast every morning is dominated by that marvellous view. Sometimes it is not there at all. Very often the top of Carlside can be seen while Skiddaw hides its head in the mist. Despite the familiarity of this lovely prospect the morning of 4th March was exceptional. There had been snow on the hills for several days but low cloud had obscured the tops and made a high climb uninviting. On this Thursday morning however the mountain appeared pure white beneath a cloudless sky. Despite many jobs outstanding the prospect of climbing up into this white world was irresistible. Because of the jobs we wanted a half day walk and so selected the tourist path. This route is despised by everybody it seems and yet one meets them sneaking up that way with some excuse or other. Let's admit it, it's a fine route even yet! It makes an easy day not just because of the easy going path but also because of the flying start by driving to the top of the Gale road. Often parking is a problem here but today we were only the second car and the first to set off on the path as the other driver was eating breakfast. We thought that he might have spent the night in his vehicle here but it transpired that he had driven over from Yorkshire, still managing to arrive before the lazy locals!

The path starts off as a narrow strip between fences and the puddles here were frozen, calling for caution although the path is quite flat in this section. After emerging on the open hillside it climbs over a small subsidiary bump on which is a memorial cross to three local shepherds, with its moving verse

'Great Shepherd of Thy heavenly flock
These men have left our hill
Their feet were on the living rock
Oh guide and bless them still'

Beyond this the track starts to zigzag up to a double stile and then follows alongside a wall becoming steep and eroded. We possess a very battered copy of the Ward Lock guide to the Lake District of 1891 which states that this ascent has been popular with tourists for one hundred years. It also mentions two refreshment huts on the path and a slightly more recent guidebook, Baddeleys of 1902 describes these as temperance huts. It gives the fee, 6s for a guide and 5s for a pony and describes the ascent with little enthusiasm as monotonous, completing the description with a quotation from 'Travel' Feb1902 (presumably a magazine)

'Laal brag it is for ony man
To clim up Skidder side,
Auld wives and bairns on jackasses
To t'tipty top can ride'

Later it was a popular challenge for cars and a race for Austin 7s was held annually on Easter Monday. When it became too rough to proceed the passengers just carried the vehicle apparently!

Today cars would have faced a real problem, quite apart from the eroded state of the path, for we very soon climbed into the snow. This is where we had a big surprise for there were no footprints in the snow at all. Either there had been a lot of fresh snow in the night or the wind had been so strong that it had obliterated all yesterday's marks in the soft powder. Probably it was a combination of wind and snow for not only was the hillside spotlessly white but the fence, when we reached it, had every wire coated in windblown snow creating a spectacular grid of ice. Beyond the fence the path contours along the eastern slopes of Little Man and was almost obliterated by drifted snow. We struggled through the drifts enjoying the feeling of being pioneers on an untrodden mountain. The fence is crossed again beyond Little Man and we admired once more its wind-carved sculpture as we crossed the stile and started the last steep section which leads to the south top.

I can never walk this section of the path without remembering the day a few years ago when I was nearly blown from the top. Skiddaw seems to attract the wind and it must be a rare day indeed when complete stillness surrounds its summit ridge. However this day was something out of the ordinary. As today the top was covered in snow. Often the top of Skiddaw holds little snow for the wind blows it off as soon as it falls. On this day it must have melted a little and consolidated before the hurricane force winds began. Approaching the south top it was impossible to stand and crawling was the only option. The sensible thing would have been retreat. It was not as if this was an unclimbed summit to which I might never return. Yet these conditions were something worth experiencing and the soft snow made crawling a more attractive proposition than the usual stony going. Beyond the south top it became possible to stand up for a while but approaching the summit crawling through the snow was the only option. Another party appeared over the eastern lip having used a flanking movement to avoid the worst of the wind. I crawled to the trig point and clung to it to avoid being swept off the hill. Only the soft snow made it possible to retreat without being blown off. Only once before had I experienced such terrifying conditions, on the Munro Sgor na h-Ulaidh where the wind was perhaps not quite so strong but the conditions were more dangerous because the ridge was narrower and the snow more icy. Perhaps every experienced hill walker can remember one or more occasions when they stood on the edge of survival and instead of condemning some of the inexperienced who end up as accident statistics should humbly admit how easily they could have met the same fate. I would not like to speak in detail about Sgor na h-Ulaidh and the mistakes which I made that day but I would think about it long and hard before pointing an accusing finger at anyone else. The situation on Skiddaw was quite different although offering a sobering reminder of human vulnerability. On this occasion there was no danger, only exhilaration, to be snatched from the gale.

This early March day was totally different. The sun shone and only the gentlest breeze wafted across the ridge, too light to move the lying snow powdery though it was. It was pure delight to put the first footprints into the sweep of white which led up to the familiar summit. Familiarity may breed contempt but I can never reach this top without a stab of pleasure and never more so than today with the normally hard, grey ridge transformed to a shimmering softness and the larger slabs of slate converted into weird sculptures of blue, wind-contorted ice.

Yet less than three weeks before I had been here in conditions equally memorable. There had been an anti-cyclone across the country for a week with the low mists which such weather tends to bring in the winter months. Looking out of my window again I detected a hint of brightness and became convinced that the higher tops might be above this sea of mist. Where better to test my hypothesis than on Skiddaw? After lunch I drove up the Gale road; the excuse for using the tourist track this time being that there was too little daylight for anything else. The car park was still below mist level but it was only a few minutes before I was trudging up through it with only a few yards visibility. I met some people coming down and searched their faces for clues. Did they look despondent or elated as those should who have climbed through the clouds? They were engrossed in conversation, their minds far from this hill, whatever they had seen up there already only a memory or perhaps forgotten for ever. I climbed on, moving as fast as I could, driven by the shortage of daylight and the clammy cold of the mist. I had expected to be in sunshine before reaching the uppermost gate but the mist seemed as thick and gloomy as ever. Then I heard a snatch of conversation from a pair coming down, 'she'll be sorry she turned back', and I shot up the last steep section with renewed optimism.

It was true. Just in the last few feet to the south top I broke out into blue sky and sunshine. In every direction was a sea of bubbling cottonwool clouds. Only the summit ridge of Skiddaw was above them and there was no sign, looking south, of any other summit, not even Helvellyn nor the Scafells. Only as I strolled with delight to the north end of the ridge was the cloud drawn back just a little, from the slopes of the hill and here I saw a Brocken spectre. I stayed up there a long time wandering to and fro and trying, with limited success, to photograph the spectre and somehow do justice to this dramatic but essentially featureless scene. It was the lack of features which created the drama. Just clouds, the nearest a person could come to walking in the sky.

On that day I reluctantly left the summit as the light faded to return into the greyness and gloom below. Today we turned down quite cheerfully after a chat with the Yorkshireman who had reached the top hard on our heels. Despite the sunshine it was too cool to linger long in the summit shelter. Now there were parties strung out all along the path, exceptionally conspicuous against the white hillside. It was already churned up with footprints and, beautiful though the day still was, the special magic of fresh untrampled snow had departed, a treat reserved for us alone, another treasured memory of another ascent of Skiddaw up the boring old tourist track.


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