New Years Day on Skiddaw

A curious phenomenon can often be observed on a mountain which has a tourist track. By using another route the walker may enjoy surprising solitude on a day when hundreds of people climb the hill. Never was this more strikingly displayed than on this ascent of Skiddaw on New Year's Day 1994. My car was the second in the car park at the top of the Gale Road. Skiddaw was not my objective. A midday rendezvous was scheduled in the Lingy hut on the slopes of Great Lingy Hill. In a short while I was round the icy corner into the valley of the Glenderaterra Beck in a world of silence and complete isolation. At half past ten I arrived at Skiddaw House. A quick calculation from the map showed that I could not possibly reach my destination by noon. Moreover the prospect of returning by this long low level route was not enticing. What was enticing was Skiddaw. Whereas the valley ahead lay brown and boggy before me the slopes of the mountain were spotlessly white in the sunshine. Although the summit was in cloud I resolved to go up and enjoy the snow.

At first there were footsteps on the broad ridge but beyond the subsidiary top of Sale How the snow was fresh and untrodden, the previous day's marks having been obliterated by wind or by new snow. Soon I climbed into the mist. At first a few tufts of grass were visible but a little higher there were complete white-out conditions. I was not at all apprehensive. On an unfamiliar hill it would have been wise to retreat but Skiddaw is an old friend. Even the compass was unnecessary for I knew that if I kept plodding upwards I must eventually encounter the fence which runs along the east side below the summit. I stopped to extricate the ice axe. The gradient was easy enough and the snow quite soft but the odd remnant of icy patch began to appear. There is often a point when, although its not really needed, one starts to think of how foolish one would look sliding off the hill with the axe still on the rucksack. The fence was half buried in drifted snow and easily stepped over. I veered a little left, just keeping the fence in sight, to avoid the steep slopes below the summit. I was not surprised to see two ghostly figures in that direction. As soon as they were spotted, a sure sign that the tourist path was nearby, I swung upwards again and reached the south top without joining it. There were not many fresh footsteps on the path yet. Despite my devious route it was only noon.

The ridge was swept clear of snow and exceedingly icy. I tripped along gingerly to the summit. The sun appeared faintly through the mist and I felt sure that it would clear any moment so I sat down in a windshelter just beyond the summit for a quick snack. I was soon too cold to linger longer and set off down the tourist path. I must have met hundreds of people coming up. Some gave a cheery greeting. Many plodded by morosely, doing the climb as a penance or a hangover cure perhaps. I pondered on the strange compulsion which drives us up mountains. As I dropped below the clouds one obvious answer was revealed before me as the sun glinted through the clouds onto the waters of Derwentwater backed by a splendid array of snowy peaks. The sheer beauty to be found up in the hills is reason enough to climb them. The satisfaction of the beauty as a reward for effort and the pleasure of physical effort for its own sake all come into it. However morose these people might appear no doubt they will get a satisfaction from their expedition, the first of 1994.

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