My annual Coleridge Kick began in 1987. My father had a Winter Fell-walking trip booked with a friend of his who dropped out, so I took his place and I got a real taste for experiencing the great outdoors in the kind of conditions that keep most people sheltering indoors or heading off to sunnier climes. I’ve always been a fairly solitary individual, so the idea of spending a whole day out there without seeing a soul was part of the appeal and the excitement.
It wasn’t called the Coleridge Kick back then, of course: that came much later. Although Wordsworth’s association with the Lake District is stronger and more widely known, Coleridge also spent significant periods of time there, and I find Coleridge far more interesting, both as a poet and a character. Despite being one of, if not the first to record an ascent of Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak, Coleridge’s importance in the history of Fell walking is spectacularly eclipsed by Wainright, but Coleridge’s relationship with the mountains has long fascinated me, and I consider the darker, deeper shades of his verse to correspond and resonate with my experiences of the mountains far more vividly than Wordsworth’s.
In the intervening times since that first excursion during the February half-term week, I’ve missed a few years here and there, but have been making the trip each year since the new millennium. It’s pretty much the only time I can truly empty my mind and find a moment of inner peace, and in that sense, it’s become a sort of pilgrimage, a duty I undertake for my own mental health. Immense physical exertion, coupled with a need to concentrate on staying on the mountain while battling with snow, ice, high winds and difficult terrain requires focus, and the mind tends not to wander into the domains of fretting about one’s bank balance or getting churned up over how much you hate your job. Recording my walking experiences directly has never really been of interest to me in the past. I much prefer to absorb the atmosphere and draw on it – or otherwise escape there in my mind – when required. This year, however, I decided that I would record a few notes, not on the summits as Coleridge (supposedly) did, but each evening, at the end of the walk when I would reflect on the day’s walking.
Having been pretty busy over the last few months, I was keen to get out in the open air. The absence of snow or true winter conditions wasn’t going to impinge on my enjoyment or appreciation of the time out. No internet, no television, only sporadic mobile phone signal while on the fells and none whatsoever in the hotel nestled in the Borrowdale valley, it’s like stepping out of the century.
Day 1: 25th January 2011
The Langdale Pikes. 3 summits, relatively low – Pike o’ Stickle, Harrison Stickle, Pavey Ark. Total distance a little over 6 miles. On paper, a veritable piece of piss. In practice, rather different. The simple facts – even considering an extended distance, including a double-back detour, totaling 7.8 miles and a total ascent / descent of a fraction over 3,400ft – don’t convey any of the other factors: high wind, low cloud, rain, wind-chill, terrain that all contribute to the fatigue such an excursion can cause. Having started rather late – a little before midday – and lost time to an unplanned detour, the light was beginning to fade on the final descent from Pavey Ark. The atrociously-pitched path down didn’t help, either.
As the daylight began to fade, I felt myself growing anxious. My ever-present internal monologue, usually a reasonable travelling companion who keeps quieter when hard concentration is required, begins to take over. Today, it makes a fairly rapid transition from a calm but endless narrative to a manic scream as darkness descends. Toward the bottom, I manage to lose my footing on a stone, landing with my right leg halfway underneath my body. I bounce back in an instant and it doesn’t hurt much, and within another few minutes, I’m back at the Dungeon Gill car park, relieved to be down and uninjured, and to have made it before it became properly dark. It’s not that I’m afraid of the dark, I’m just fearful of being on a mountain in the dark. Having emerged from my state of high anxiety, I’m beginning to realize that I really do need to take more steps to address my stress levels. More headspace is clearly required, starting with a few pints, a decent meal and a hot bath.
Day 2: 26th January 2011
Skiddaw via the Edges ostensibly represents a single-summit ridge-walk on the face of it. But this nevertheless comprises lesser peaks en route – Ullock Pike, Little Man and Blakestall. The continuous, straight and clearly-marked ridge path which is, in most places, broad and not too severe in terms of gradient generally makes for comparatively easy walking (although these things are all relative), with the valleys unfolding below from the top of Ullock Pike. There are, however, steeper sections, notably toward the summit. That the ground was frozen solid on this section was frozen solid, thus rendering a purchase rather difficult, was cause for panic and it did extend the ascent time by some minutes, which felt like an eternity as I scrambled, slipped, puffed panted and panicked my way from one moment of paralysing fear to the next. Once over this short steep stretch, I found I was able to feel the joy and elation of being out there once again. I was doing this! It felt good to be alive.
Again, the headline statistics don’t account for elevation – 4,600 of ascent in total, a distance of 9.2 miles and a temperature just below freezing on the summit, reduced dramatically by a steady 35-40 mph wind. It was enough to freeze my beard, with crystals forming on my eyelashes too. Views from the summit were limited by the cloud, but dropping down below the cloud level toward Dash Falls, and sheltered from the winds, the air felt balmy and the grass looked right and fresh.
Back at the hotel with a bottle of Conniston Bluebird by the roaring log fire, having made it down well before dark, I had a sense of well-being. My mind and limbs, too weary for activity, soaked in the warmth and the alcohol. I was in bed by 10pm, although again my sleep was rent with disorienting dreams. It usually takes me a night or two to adjust to a different bed, but the focus and effort of the walking on these trips tend to override that. Clearly, I needed more walking, more focus, more beer, more time in front of the fire.
Day 3: 27th January 2011
The Coledale Round: a pleasant ride-walk punctuated by some dramatic undulations. 9.4 miles, 4063 feet of ascent in total, taking in 6 peaks. Ascending to Grisedale Pike via Kinn is a steady climb until the final section toward the summit of the Pike, when it becomes steep and rocky, and can be particularly challenging in high winds or icy conditions. Today, there were neither, but I still found it hard work. Unaccustomed to walking with a pole, I found the instrument an encumbrance, worsened by the knee injury I sustained on the descent from Pavey Ark two days previous flaring up at possibly the most inconvenient time.
It was cold and windy on the top of Grisedale Pike, but the views – Scotland was clearly visible, including the Robin Rigg off-shore wind-farm in the Solway Firth – more than compensated. This is precisely what I do this for. It’s hard to describe the exhilaration and the ‘top of the world’ feeling such vistas inspire, but it’s a sensation that fills every corner and weaves through every fibre of one’s being.
A brief saunter across to Hopegill head yielded more rewarding views as the sun began to break through, making the relatively easy-going stretch to Crag Hill via Sand Hill all the more enjoyable. The subsequent summits were equally a joy, until it came to the descent from Sale, when my knee became unbearable and my pace slowed to an agonizing crawl only matched by the searing pain in my joint that rendered flexing my right leg – or putting any weight on it – almost impossible.
This dictated the adherence to the formal route, rather than the preferred extended version that takes in Causey Pike. Stepping cautiously, and, for the most part-sideways and using my pole as a walking stick certainly took the joy out of what should have been a downhill yomp to the finish. Still, I felt I’d earned my pint, and made myself comfortable in the Dog & Gun, Keswick for a while.
Day 4: 28th January 2011
My walking companions took pity on me with my painful and rather swollen knee, and so the planned ascent of Great Gable for the final day was shelved. Instead, leaving the car at the hotel once we’d checked out, we headed over from Rosthwaite to Watendlath, then round Watendlath Tarn, up to Dock Tarn and down through woodland back to the start – a mere 5 miles with around 2,000 feet of ascent in total. Even then, I found some of the going tough, especially on the downward sections, but a perfect blue sky and glorious golden sun on the frosted grass and frozen tarns had an undeniable capacity to lift the spirits.
I hadn’t really given Coleridge much thought over the course of the four days away. I hadn’t tried any insane descents via climbers’ routes using only my bare hands, preferring instead to keep to less risky routes. I might not have composed any great poems, and I’d barely made any notes, but I had managed to squeeze in a fair bit of reading for pleasure – a rare luxury – during the evenings. Returning home meant reconnecting with the things I enjoy about my home life, but also rejoining the world: very much a two-edged sword. I missed the Internet and wanted to escape it in equal measure. Nine-mile excursions followed by local ales and hearty grub, a spot of reading and an early night for a long sleep may be the perfect antidote to modern living, but in or out of the rat-race, life goes on. I’ve got some catching up to do…
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