Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The English Himalaya

I recently went on holiday to the Lake District with a group of friends, and while we were there, three of us decided that we would mount an expedition to become the first people to climb Scafell Pike, AKA The English Himalaya.

With this decided, one morning we bid sombre farewells to our friends and loved ones, uncertain when or if we would return, and drove out to the Base Camp, where the National Trust has set up a car park. This might have proven an insurmountable obstacle, but fortunately one of our party, B, was a member.

Our Expedition at the base of the mountain, prior to the ascent and before casualties.
With the car parked, we prepared to begin our ascent. Our expedition did not begin in the most auspicious way. Within five minutes of setting off, B had realised he’d forgotten his walking stick, and I’d got suntan lotion in my eye. This was rather painful, but I consoled myself with the thought that I could now look directly into the Sun and suffer no ill effects, with my left eye at least. We’d also not gone very far when we were accosted by a man who was extremely annoyed because he’d just climbed the wrong mountain. Since it wasn’t our fault, and there wasn’t much we could do about it, we merely commiserated and moved on as quickly as possible.

We started climbing, and it immediately become extremely warm. I became concerned for the snack food I’d brought with me, and said that I wished I had a cool bag for my nuts. The others agreed wholeheartedly, which surprised me. I hadn’t thought either of them were the healthy snack types.

We continued our ascent, but it became inexplicably harder and harder, and we found ourselves growing increasingly weary. None of us could account for it at all, until I suggested an explanation. Every so often we would realise what a wonderful view there was from where we happened to be, and would stop for a few minutes to drink in the scenery and take photographs on our digital cameras. We would also breathe heavily to take in as much healthy mountain air as possible, and examine the local geology, primarily by sitting on it. Since we were taking so many pictures, it only made sense that the memory cards in our cameras would be gaining weight. B agreed, and pointed out that since his camera was an expensive one that took very high resolution pictures, his must be gaining weight much faster than mine and P’s. This explained why he kept on falling behind. With the mystery solved, we pressed on.

A particularly heavy image that weighed me down considerably, but gave me an excuse to stop climbing for a few seconds.

As we climbed, we discussed our roles within the expedition. P was designated as the guide, since he’d climbed Scafell Pike once before, seven years ago and from the opposite direction. He’d also won an orienteering prize whilst in the Boy Scouts. I was designated as the scout. This was largely, I suspect, because I kept wandering off the path or going on ahead while the others sat on the geology. We all agreed that B was along in case we ran out of food and needed to eat someone.

After climbing non-stop for several hours, we reached a fork in the path. P insisted that we go left. I pointed out that the path disappeared after about twenty yards, lost amongst the boulders. P was insistent though, so left we went. We picked our way through the boulders, and my feelings of foreboding were more than confirmed when we came across a burial cairn next to the path. There was another further up the path, and yet another further still. I pointed these out to P, and said that they must be the bodies of climbers who’d strayed off the path, as we had done. He stubbornly claimed that they were there to mark the path when there’s deep snow. I find this kind of wilful ignorance rather saddening. Based on the large number of cairns built at intervals all along the path, the death toll of this dreadful mountain has been horrific.

One of the very many burial cairns we passed. Oh the humanity!
Eventually, I suggested that we stop and make camp for lunch. P replied that we’d only done about a mile and a half, and that we should wait for at least another 45 minutes. I gave into despair at this point, and remember little else for some time.

I came out of my funk to find B peering at a boulder, and asking us if we thought it looked cubic. We cautiously responded that from certain directions it might. He was holding a gadget, peering at it, glancing around and tutting. It turned out to be a GPS, and he was trying to find a geocache that someone had left up there. We spent a little while trying to find a cube-shaped rock, since that was the clue, but without success. There were more cairns up here, no doubt for the poor souls who refused to give up, and died on the mountain sides clutching their GPSs with dogged determination. Idiots.

Eventually we decided that it was time to stop for lunch. We found a large outcropping of rock that we could sit down behind, out of the wind, and did so. We started getting out our sandwiches, at which point the wind shifted course, and started trying to steal our food. However, we’d sat down now, with no intention of rising again until we’d eaten, and just bore it stoically. After a while, B suggested that he would go for a walk, and might be some time. P and I knew that he was just trying to sneak back down to the car, and forbade it.

Our camp.

Once we’d restored our tissues, we continued climbing. We eventually reached the very top, but to our horror and despair, we discovered that we’d been beaten to the summit! A rival team had made it up here and left an enormous stone platform, a triangulation point and a carved plaque. Alas, according to this, we’d been beaten by only a bare hundred years.

Proof that we were not the first, alas!

Still, the view was impressive, and we weighed down our cameras with more pictures. Eventually, we bored of being the highest people in England, and began our descent.

The Expedition at the Summit, after casualties.

This proved a little easier, but was marred somewhat since we were continually being teased by sheep.  They would approach, stand in picturesque and photogenic ways, and then, just as we got our cameras out, they’d let out a baa-ing laugh and leap away. Especially cruel in this regard were the little black lambs, who were adorable to look at, but had souls as black as their fleeces, and would turn and run as soon as you focused on them.

As we neared the bottom, it occurred to P and I that although he'd guided and I'd scouted, B had completely failed to be eaten. He didn't seem to feel at all bad about this dereliction of duty, and after some thought, we decided that on the whole we didn't mind either. After all, we don't know where he's been. Also, he got us free parking, so we can't complain too much.

Eventually, we reached the base of the mountain, and returned to the car. Happily, I wasn’t driving, and was able to relax as we returned to our cottage, bearing the scars of our journey, but all a little stronger and wiser than when we began.

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