Dales and Lakeland Walk 2008

Author: George Tod

This walk is illustrated with photographs. Click on small photo to enlarge in situ, or click caption to enlarge into new window.
Part 7 - Wast Water to Ennerdale

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Day 10 - Thursday 26th June - GPS 7.5 miles - 1,600 ft ascent

Wast Water to Black Sail Hut (YHA), Ennerdale via Black Sail Pass

Two chaps in my dormitory got up at 06.15, getting themselves ready to go, which always has the effect of disturbing everyone else in there. Breakfast started at 07.30, but I was in no rush to get started, my plans having changed because of the weather conditions. I had intended to go up the mountains via Seatallan, Haycock, Scoat Fell and Pillar before dropping down Black Sail Pass to the youth hostel at Black Sail Hut. With the cloud at quite a low level and the prospect of more wind and rain, this seemed pointless, and the more sensible option was just to take a direct route to Black Sail Pass, thus minimising the time spent in the bad weather.

I went for breakfast at 08.00, along with the Belgian. There was a hot buffet of bacon, beans and hash browns as well as the usual cold buffet plus hard-boiled eggs. A few others joined us, including some of the group of women walkers, and we sat chatting about different walks for a while. It was quite peaceful, as the party of youths didn't come down until 08.50, just as we were leaving.

The detailed weather forecast gave winds of 35 to 40 mph, with heavy rain in the morning, clearing in the afternoon, so I decided to set off with an open mind, playing it by ear as far as my route was concerned, depending on whether the weather changed or the cloud lifted. Fortunately, my knee felt better this morning, so that was one thing less to worry about. As expected, the drying room was useless and did very little for my wet things: even my handkerchief was still damp, never mind my thick socks. I delayed my start until 10.00, thinking that the later I started, the more chance there was of the weather starting to clear up.

As I set off along the lakeside path from the hostel, the cloud was still low at about 1,000 to 1,500 ft above sea level, but at least it wasn't raining. The path soon joined the minor road, running by the side of the lake, to Wasdale Head, giving some good views, even with the low cloud. There was very little traffic, so I didn't mind treading tarmac too much, and, at least, it was a lot easier walking than the lakeside path by the scree slopes. I kept an eye on the weather all along, as I wasn't sure whether the heavy rain had already passed over or was still to come, and I still had the option of heading up into the mountains if it looked at all worthwhile. Over by the scree, it looked reasonably bright, but elsewhere much darker clouds were looming.

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West Shore of Wast Water towards Wasdale Head
West Shore of Wast Water
Head of Wast Water
Head of Wast Water

The place where I had intended to turn to head for Haycock passed by, and the next high-level option was over Yewbarrow, but I passed that with no sign of the cloud lifting, leaving me with the final high-level option of climbing Pillar from the top of Black Sail Pass. As I passed the end of the lake and reached the footpath to Wasdale Head, which ran parallel to the road, the rain started, making me stop to put on my waterproofs. The rain was not very heavy, as I made my way past Wasdale Head, and along the path by Mosedale Beck. I didn’t bother to check my map, as I could see that I was heading in the right direction for Black Sail Pass. It was some way further along before I realised that I had been too blasé about my route and had taken the path along the wrong side of the beck, so needed to be on the other side for Black Sail Pass.

There were two options to resolve the problem, the first being to return to the bridge at Wasdale Head, which, after all, was not all that far back. The second was to try to cross Mosedale Beck. The beck was quite wide, but there was a stretch where it was fairly level and separated into several parts, none of which looked either too deep or wide. I got most of the way without any trouble, but was just faced with the last bit that was too wide lo leap across and yet would come over the top of my boots if I waded across. Inspired by my quick dash across a stream yesterday, with my over-trousers preventing all but a small amount of water getting into my boots, I made a dash for it. However, whereas a couple of quick steps may work fairly well, this required a few more, and far too long an immersion to get away with unscathed. My boots were now full of water and squelching as I walked along, so I stopped to take them off and to wring out the water from my socks. I had spare socks that were dry, but there seemed no point in putting them on if they were only going to get wet again in the bad weather. I any case, my feet were now only marginally wetter than they had been when I set off, with socks that had spent 12 hours in the drying room.

As I started the ascent of Black Sail Pass, the weather down in Wasdale seemed reasonably bright, but there were thick black clouds up ahead. The wind grew stronger as I climbed upwards, the rain got heavier, and I finally lost what little view I had as I entered the cloud. It always seems to take so much longer when climbing up in these conditions. Every time I stopped for a breather, all I got from turning around was a face-full of driving rain and nothing of a view. I plodded on upwards, meeting a couple on their way down, who confirmed that the weather conditions on the mountains were not very good. At one point, a sudden, brief gap in the cloud allowed me to see the top of the pass, which was now not very far away, then, twenty seconds later the view was gone. At one point the path crossed the beck, which was a little tricky, but I was able to step across on some stones. At least, at well-used crossing places, the stones are well enough trodden to wear away most of the lichens, making them less slippery, but they still need some care.

Near to the summit of the pass, the wind grew yet stronger and the raindrops bigger, as they rattled noisily against my waterproofs. The gradient eased and then levelled towards the top and, at last, I was on my way down, where I might have a bit more shelter from the elements. The descent was a bit tricky at first, especially with all the water that was about, but I soon dropped below the cloud level and could see the welcoming sight of Black Sail Hut across the valley. There had been no opportunity to stop for lunch, so I had been planning on reaching there to have some in comfort, sheltered from the elements. Lower down, the slope lessened, with an easy grassy path to the footbridge and on to the hostel. Past the bridge, the hostel gets hidden from sight behind the drumlins, mounds of debris left there by melting glaciers from the ice age, now smooth and rounded grassy hillocks. Right at the last minute, it springs back into view.

When I arrived, the place was full of wet bodies. The hostel is left open for the use of passing walkers, and is widely used by those walking the Coast-to-Coast Walk. Tea and coffee are available, with a list of prices and an honesty box for payment by non-residents, whereas residents can use them for free. Most of the walkers were heading for Borrowdale, which is a convenient walking distance from Ennerdale. Not many choose to actually stay at Black Sail, because it is only a half-day walk from Ennerdale, unless, like I did in 2006, they want to spend more time around the local mountains. Although the hostel is open for shelter during the day, the toilets remain locked. A septic tank is used for drainage, and the large increase caused by passing walkers would put too much of a strain on the system.

The stand-in warden and a friend of his arrived in a Land Rover with supplies from Ennerdale Youth Hostel. Graham, the warden, was a tall chap, full of bonhomie, with long, blond locks of hair and a red bandana. The permanent warden was on holiday for a while, so other wardens had to cover for him. Graham was just doing this as a temporary thing, as he spends most of his time out in Asia. The only road access is via a forestry road, with locked gates, so it is not open to the general public, everyone else has to come either on foot or by bike for at least four miles. According to Graham, this is the most visited hostel in the YHA, with the exception of some of the city hostels, though most of the visitors are just passing by. It also has some of the highest occupancy rates and the highest spend per head, as there is nowhere else to go for food and drink.

Last time I was here, I discovered that it was just possible to get a weak mobile signal from outside. There is no landline to the hostel, the warden having to use a mobile phone with an external antenna to give a more reliable signal, so there is no payphone. My first attempt at a call home ended up with a very poor connection and it was impossible to hold a conversation. My wife was rather alarmed, as she thought I must have a problem if I were calling this early in the day. I climbed to the top of the nearest drumlin to see if I could get a better signal and, just then, she rang back and I was able to put her mind at rest for the few minutes that the better signal strength lasted. It is quite ironic that it is possible to get a mobile signal in one of the most remote places in the Lake District, but from places with much larger population, there is nothing at all.

At first I didn't bother to shower or change, as I was still waiting to see if the promised improvement to the weather materialised, allowing me to go out for another walk. The rain had stopped and the cloud had lifted a little way, but not enough to tempt me out on a walk, and, as the afternoon gradually passed by, it was obvious that no great improvement was likely, so I may as well just change out of my walking things, and sit around and relax for a change.

As well as a few hostellers who arrived to check in, there was a family party of seven who arrived. They had been here last night and had gone for a walk over to Buttermere today, arriving back rather wet. There was then a big queue for the shower as they all wanted to use it, and all the wet clothes were put onto a clothes rack that was raised up towards the ceiling on pulleys, and also on another rack above the stove, with wet boots on the beam running across the room. They set about getting the fire going in the wood and coal-burning stove, got out the cushions for the benches and generally made themselves at home. There was plenty of friendly chatter and then it was decided to have drinks before dinner. The hostel had a good stock of beers and wines, unlike when I was here two years ago and the temporary warden said he didn't have the key to the beer cupboard.

Dinner was at 19.00 with spicy tomato soup, chilli con carne and sticky toffee pudding, which Graham the warden described as his ‘food of the gods’. Ambrosia, as anyone with a classical education, or who does crosswords, will know is the real food of the gods, and that is creamed rice in cans! I can still taste some of that from over forty years ago when my friend and I had some whilst camping at Wasdale Head. It got badly burned at the bottom of the pan through lack of stirring, and the horrible burnt taste that permeated throughout made it taste truly disgusting. I could, therefore, agree that Graham's sticky toffee was much more aptly described as food of the gods. Unlike other hostels, Black Sail still stick to the traditional fixed-price three-course meal, but the limited catering facilities there would make it difficult to do otherwise. Hostellers are also asked to do their own washing up, as there is no dishwasher. The main course generally consists of some dish that can be prepared in a large dish or dishes so that everyone can help themselves. I still prefer this style of things, as it brings everyone together, with people helping each other to serve food, clear tables and wash up, creating a great community spirit, even if it does mean a lack of choice of food.

Outside, there was still no sign of any brighter weather, except for a small patch of clear sky right down the far end of Ennerdale, and there was low cloud still over most of the fells. There was some talk about what the YHA were planning for Black Sail, part of which was to make some sort of moveable partition to allow the warden's kitchen to be used by 'rent a hostel' people, whilst still keeping all the warden's stores locked away. (Graham referred to 'rent a hostel' as 'wreck a hostel' in this context). There was also the possibility of making the hostel self-catering only, though it is hard to see why when it is so successful in its present format, but then who can understand the ways of the YHA in everything else they do.

At about 22.00, I went to bed, as most people were drifting away to their dormitories by then.

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Day 11 - Friday 27thth June - GPS 7.2 miles - 3,100 ft ascent

A Circular Walk over Kirk Fell, Great Gable, Green Gable and Brandreth from Black Sail Hut

A chap, who was trying to walk the Coast-to-Coast in ten days, got up at 5.45 for an early start. He was walking all the way to Patterdale, which was over twenty miles, with quite a lot of ascent on the way. Yesterday he had walked all the way from St Bees, except for the walk round St Bees Head, which he had done the night before as a circular walk. I have heard of others doing this, as, after five miles round the coast, the route comes back within one and a half miles of St Bees, thus reducing the next day's walk considerably. His reason for doing the walk in such a short time was that he had a young family and found it difficult to tell his wife that he was going to be away for a fortnight, which is hardly surprising.

The others started to get up at 07.15, and I followed a bit later. The hot breakfast cooked by the warden of bacon, sausage, beans, hash browns and scrambled egg was served at 08.00 and everything else was self-service. Outside, the cloud was still stuck at about 2,000 ft and looked as if it were set to stay that way, so I was debating whether I should take a walk over to Buttermere, as the group had done yesterday, to avoid having to spend a lot of time in the mist. Everyone else was leaving today, and I had to move dormitories from a 4-bunk one to the 8-bunk one because of the different male/female mix of people. I was not in a rush, so waited until everyone had moved out of the other dormitory before moving my bedding and other things in there.

I discovered that there were a few things in my rucksack that were still damp, so I spread these out and then emptied out most of the remaining contents, taking only my packed lunch, waterproofs, GPS, phone, map and camera to keep things as light as possible. Whilst I had been waiting for everyone else to leave, I suddenly noticed a patch of sunlight across the valley. The cloud, though still low, was lighter and breaking up a bit to reveal a few blue patches. This made me reconsider my walking plans, as it now looked possible that the cloud would lift further, making a high level walk feasible. Even if the summits stayed covered, I might still get some reasonable views for most of the way.

It was about 10.00 by the time I got going, having decided to climb Kirk Fell from Black Sail Pass, then Great Gable and possibly other mountains, weather permitting. It was much easier climbing up without a heavy pack: I was able to go much further between rests on the steeper parts, and keep going continuously on the less steep ones. As I approached the summit of Black Sail Pass, virtually the whole of the Ennerdale valley was bathed in sunlight and the cloud had lifted from all but the highest peaks across the valley. I could just see the family group making their way up the steep path by Loft Beck towards Honister on the other side of the valley, as I started to make my way up Kirk Fell. In places, the route became very steep, with a choice of two or three different paths up the steepest part. I took the one up a narrow gully of red stone, which was rather crumbly in places, so care was needed to avoid slipping. The path then levelled out, with a gradual ascent towards the summit. I now entered the cloud, but had hopes that it would lift a little more in a while to give me a view.

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Black Sail Hut Youth Hostel, Ennerdale
Black Sail Hut
Haystacks from ascent of Kirk Fell
Haystacks from Kirk Fell
Kirkfell Tarn with lower summit behind
Kirkfell Tarn and lower summit

At the summit shelter, I stopped for some of my packed lunch, and waited for a while, as I was not in a hurry and thought that the longer I waited, the more chance there was of the cloud lifting. While I was there, a Scottish chap came along to join me. He was telling me that he had passed a lot of mountain rescue vehicles in Wasdale, as someone who was doing the three peaks (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) had gone missing, so they were out searching for him. As we were talking, a gap opened up in the cloud, giving us a fine view down Wast Water for a brief while. This was repeated another couple of times, so I was hopeful that the weather was actually picking up, and that the cloud would soon lift even more.

I decided to make my way towards Great Gable; going over the other, lower peak of Kirk Fell, which was still in the mist. Coming down from there, I got a little disorientated in the mist, which is easy to do, and had to check with my GPS to get back in the right direction. After crossing the rather flat plateau, the path descended steeply down to Beck Head, on the way to Great Gable. I was disappointed to find that, although I had now dropped down quite a way, the mist was still around me, and was even lower than when I climbed up Kirk Fell. The ascent of Great Gable was quite steep, but with my light pack, I didn't find it difficult, and it wasn't too long before the slope started to level off towards the summit. When I reached the summit, there were already several walkers there sheltering from the wind.

Mobile reception is quite good from here, as is often the case on mountain tops with line of sight to a mast, even if it is several miles away, so I phoned home to let my wife know where I was, as this was the spot where I proposed to her 36 years ago. After eating a bit more of my packed lunch, I made my way down towards Green Gable, as there was now little chance that the cloud would lift. The drizzly dampness of the mist had now given way to light rain, so there was little point in prolonging the walk much further. There is a path down from Windy Gap, between Great Gable and Green Gable, but it is rather steep, so I continued on over Green Gable and Brandreth. On the way, I met up with a couple going the same way as me. The chap asked me for confirmation that they were going the right way for Windy Gap, which I had passed some way back, so when I put him right, he had to call to his wife, who had already gone ahead and was some way further down, to tell her to come back up again. In the mist, it is very easy to completely lose a sense of direction, as there are no landmarks to go by, which is why a GPS or compass is so important.

It took me a while to find my way onto the path that would return me to Ennerdale, as the right of way shown on the map didn't exist on the ground. This is often the case, where the right of way has been drawn as a vaguely positioned line before a well-trodden footpath has been established. The actual footpath is then shown as a faint, black, dotted line, which is far less prominent than much thicker, green, dotted line of the right of way. This can be very misleading, especially when following a map in poor light with a rain-splattered map case. Once I picked up the path, it was a short, easy walk down to meet the steep, stepped path down the side of Ennerdale. It was not long then before I was back at Black Sail Hut, the rain now being quite a bit heavier.

It was about 15.00 when I arrived there to find a lady already in there. She was one of the people I had met in Wastwater Youth Hostel and I had assumed that she was with another group of lady walkers, but she was actually on her own. She was doing a circular walk round the Lake District but had had a rest day in Wasdale and then done the same as I did yesterday, coming directly over Black Sail Pass without any mountain detours. The rain started to get much heavier, and four chaps came in dripping wet. They had come from St Bees, having walked the coastal bit of the Coast-to-Coast the previous day, as had the chap who stayed yesterday. They were staying here tonight, at Grasmere tomorrow, as I would be, and then going back home.

A little later a group of five arrived, also dripping wet, but they were just passing by on the way to Stonethwaite, and wanted to dry themselves out a bit before continuing. A girl in the group discovered that the things in her rucksack were soaking wet, having not been put in a rucksack liner. It is bad enough in this sort of weather even when things are in a liner, but without one they have no chance. They had come from Ennerdale Bridge and started to go up the high level route to High Stile via Red Pike. The foul weather made them decide to turn back and return to the low level route. They set off again at 16.30 with about five or six miles still to go. The rain, did, however, ease off a little for them, but it was still not very good, and they were heading straight into the wind.

A couple of chaps from Lancashire, who were staying for a couple of nights or so, arrived. They were intending to walk the Mosedale Horseshoe tomorrow, weather permitting. One of them, who was wearing shorts, had particularly unattractive legs; pale and skinny, with varicose veins, which brought a number of comments, though it didn't bother him. His friend also warned us that he was a champion snorer, so we could be in for a sleepless night.

There then arrived a group of four ladies, who were absolutely saturated. They were staying the night, and had come from Eskdale, via Esk Hause to the north of Scafell Pike, then by Sty Head Tarn and over into Ennerdale via Windy Gap. Their map, which someone had lent them, was soaking wet, with holes in some places. One of them left a particularly large pool of water both on the bench and on the floor, prompting the comment that she should use an incontinence pad next time! She was wearing some jogging bottoms that had soaked up a vast amount of water, and this was now gradually draining down onto the floor.

We got the fire going, and the warden put on the central heating, to help people to get things dry, and to warm the dormitories a bit. A while before dinner, a group of four arrived in the usual state of saturation, hoping to find accommodation, but the hostel was fully booked, apart from one female bunk. They wondered if they could order a taxi, but there is no public access along the forestry track, so that was out of the question too. Their only option was to make their way four miles down the track to Ennerdale Youth Hostel, either for accommodation or to get a taxi, which is what they did, after a brief stay for a rest.

Two younger ladies arrived just in time for dinner, but they had only come from Ennerdale Youth Hostel, so had not got too badly wet. The beer and wine sales were going well to help make up for the bad day that everyone had endured, and the dinner of tomato soup, five bean pasta bake and fruit crumble helped to lift any dampened spirits. I sat with the two Lancastrians, and there was a lot of convivial conversation amongst everyone, with more beer and wine consumed, making a very pleasant end to the day; the bad weather outside making it feel all the more cosy inside. This is the atmosphere that is now mainly lost in other hostels, with everyone sitting in their own little groups rather than joining in with everyone else. Again, everyone happily joined in with serving food, washing up and clearing up. Graham again described his crumble as food of the gods, and I had to admit that it was extremely good. In most hostels, the warden or wardens tend to keep themselves apart from hostellers, but the more intimate conditions here means that the warden tends to join in with everyone else, both before and after he has made the evening meal.

The four ladies were a little concerned about their walk back to Eskdale tomorrow. They had intended to retrace the route of yesterday's walk, which they had got from a book. It would be a very good walk on a fine day, but was not an easy walk, especially in bad weather. They didn't fancy, in particular, the steep scramble up to Windy Gap, so I suggested that they take a much easier and more direct route by going over Black Sail Pass to Wasdale Head, then taking the old corpse road over Eskdale Moor to Boot, which is not far from Eskdale Youth Hostel. They had not really thought about another route, but soon took to the idea, as they didn't fancy another walk like they had endured today. The one who had got her jogging bottoms saturated had decided that she would walk in her pyjama bottoms tomorrow to avoid a repeat experience. People do not always think about the suitability of certain types of clothing in the wet. Some types of material soak up far more water than others, so are best avoided, especially by those who do not come prepared with waterproof over-trousers.

Most people went off to bed by about 22.00, so I did the same. During the night, I get up to go to the toilet, which is reached from outside, and found myself gazing up at a star studded sky on the way, with the silhouettes of all the surrounding fells clearly free of cloud. This had happened once before on this walk, with a clear night between wet days, making me wonder whether it would be better to walk at night instead. Although I spent some time in the night lying awake, I only heard the snorer, who was in the bunk above me, snore for a couple of minutes before he turned over and stopped. However, his friend in the next bunk along claimed that he had kept tickling his friend’s feet whenever he started, having had much experience in coping with the problem.

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