The Lake District was carved by glaciers. The valleys are deep and steep sided, the peaks rocky and thin soiled. The botany was carved by sheep and shepherds; there are few tress, close-cropped grasses, and sheep poop everywhere. The “trails” were not, as one older woman with a backpack and a thirty year old map informed us, built, but follow in the footsteps of early settlers, who took the shortest way between two points, which usually meant up and over. Switchbacks are rare. “There’s a reason,” she told us proudly, “that the British make such excellent mountaineers.” She’s right—I have not encountered such walks since I left New England, another glaciated mountain range with trails laid down before the switchback. The Lake District feels like Mount Washington.
Because all of the fells radiate out from a central point, there is no easy way to move across the Lake District, or from one valley to the next. You have to climb up, over, and down. The trail meanders along a stream for a bit, then turns drastically upward, following the “gill” or ravine of water. Trails climb 1000 feet in a mile. A maintained trail is often a series of steps made from local stone, swaying back and forth across the stream. Unmaintained, they deteriorate into a mass of scree and wet gravel. Slow and steady brings hikers to the peaks, where you can see the trails winding out along the range for miles. If you loose the trail for a moment squelching through a boggy area, climb the hill and study the landscape. The trail will appear, as will tarns and bogs, wild places and sheep.
Ridge walking is popular in Britain. Walking through woods is just—boring. Nothing to see but…well, trees. When you climb the fells, the whole civilized world spreads out under your feet. There’s Grasmere, where we are heading for a cream tea. There, around that other peak, is the final glimpse of the Irish Sea and the windmills. And there’s Stonethwaite, where we spent last night, nestled in the wooded valley. There is where the trail come in from St Sunday—the recommended route for people who want views but not scary drop-offs. And there, in front of us, is the base of Helvellyn, highest point of the trail. We climb, slowly, steadily up the granite constructed path, stare in amazement when three mountain bikers attempt to ride down (all three quickly dismount and walk their bikes), emerge on the moonlike surface of the ridge.
The biggest, best, more scary ridge of all is named “Striding Edge” and it drops off of Dark Helvellyn, as the Romantic poets called it. It was not dark, but bright, on the quiet late afternoon when we crossed the ridge, but we did not stride—we climbed and crept. The trail down began with some very slippery scree and gravel, shale falling beneath your feet. We moved slowly down, using hands and poles. A couple was climbing up at the same time and paused for us to pass; I remembered that up is always easier up than down on these surfaces. At the base of the scree slope (the worse part, by far), Mark tied up his poles and broke out his old rock climbing moves, moving, spider-like across the rock face. “It’s not bad,” he called back, grinning. I dropped my pole down and joined him. The rock was solid here, with perfect hand and footholds. Not bad, indeed. We moved downhill. At the base, the rock changed once again to square boulders and we clambered up like climbing a play structure. An older man appeared and assured us that we were on the right track, just keep going. We stood to walk along the ridge, open air on either side, steep drops down to a tarn on the right – we could hear the voices of people wading echoing up—and gravel and rock on the left. But we were solid on boulders, five foot wide path, world open all around.
Hiking the fells brings back muscle memories from the White Mountains. I remember the “run” downhill, when the trail is large boulders which shift underfoot. It is easier to loosen your hold on the earth, shift weight to the insides of your feet, and move lightly, channeling a mountain goat, down the hill, rather than carefully placing every step, watching up for unsteady rock. Touch it and be gone. Trust to balance. In wet areas, the game shifts slightly to “taking the high road” and leaping lightly from high rock to high rock, once again, not pausing to think about footing. Touch and Go. I try and explain the movement to Mark, but he is burdened by heavy boots, not sandals, and moves slowly downstream. He is also unwilling, the first day, to try the other method of moving down hill—the Butt Slide. When the trail drops off the edge of the world, and all you can see is steep slippery rock heading down—toss the walking stick over the edge, sit down, and slide. It’s not dignified but it is highly effective.
After a few days, I, too, am sold on the High Routes. It is clear that even the “low route” requires some serious climbing, so why not go a little higher and walk the ridge, rather than dropping back into the river valleys? Earn the cream scone? Come into town in the quiet light of late afternoon, head for dinner and a bath, and know that you have, once again, been to High Places?