“Wild Camping: Wasdale Head, The Lake District – Part One”
12 minute read
Have you ever had one of those moments where you stepped back and asked yourself, what the hell am I doing?
This was exactly the way I was feeling as I stepped out of my car and onto the village green at Wastwater in the Lake District.
The drive up had been wonderful. It was late May and I’d been blessed with beautiful weather for my first wild camping experience. I’d last been up in this part of the country for the wedding of a good friend back in February, but on that occasion I was met by a cold, wet, and murky weekend. Today however, the Lake District greeted me with open arms made of blue skies, blazing sunshine, and fluffy white clouds.
I’d spent the early part of the weekend going through my final preparations. My girlfriend, Alex, had asked me question after question and came up with all kinds of scenarios as a way of helping me to think everything through and to work out if I had all the gear I needed. Other than having to make a last minute trip to buy a new camping stove which could withstand any adverse weather, I felt as ready and as prepared as I could be.
Yet as I stood at Wastwater looking up at Scafell Pike to my right and Red Pike to my left, I felt an increasing sense of self-doubt.
Much like when I travel alone abroad, I started to wonder if I’d make it to my intended destination, whether I’d encounter any trouble, and whether or not I’d be cut out for what I was about to do.
I felt myself stood once again at the edge of my comfort zone, but no matter how much doubt I was currently feeling, I knew that in the end this would be a great experience for me.
My chosen destination was Low Tarn which was situated up in the hills near Red Pike at an elevation of around 532 metres. For those who aren’t already familiar, a tarn is a lake or pool that is found high upon the plateaus of mountains and hills, and I had an image in my mind of camping next to this one while enjoying views out onto Wastwater below me.
I was to start at Wasdale Head and walk back down along the west bank of Wastwater Lake before turning into the fields at Overbeck Bridge. At this point I’d effectively complete a u-turn, coming back towards Wasdale Head, but heading up into the hills instead.
This was my original plan, but my plan soon changed, because as I pulled on my backpack I immediately started to regret my method of packing.
I knew I’d packed as minimally as possible, but my 45+8 litre backpack just wasn’t big enough. I’d not had chance to buy a bigger one and so I’d had to resort to hanging items off the outside of the backpack instead; this included my tent, sleeping mat, plus 8 litres of water.
Yes, you heard that right; 8 litres of water!
Other than once drinking from a waterfall on Ben Nevis, I had no experience of recovering water from natural sources, and as it was a hot day I’d decided to take all I’d need with me. While the additional weight was one issue, gravity was another thing entirely. The weight was pulling down on my shoulders, and the additional items were pulling me backwards. I felt I was fighting against my backpack, and I’d not even set off yet.
I had approximately 6 to 7 kilometres of walking ahead of me.
This wasn’t going well.
I set off from the village green, leaving my comfort zone behind me, and a new route unfolding ahead of me. Having already driven along the west bank of Wastwater it felt self-defeating to walk backwards and retrace my steps for almost 3 kilometres before heading into the hills.
I wanted to hit a trail straight away, and so I decided to head north-west into the valley of Mosedale. This route would take me between Red Pike and Kirk Fell, alongside waterfalls and streams, and once coming to the end of the valley floor I’d head up into the hills at Elliptical Crag. From here I’d walk along the ridge at Little Scoat Fell and Great Scoat Fell, before turning and heading back down Red Pike towards Low Tarn.
This seemed like such a great idea…
…while looking at it on a map where everything looked flat.
Despite experiencing some initial confusion as to where the correct trail began, I was soon on the correct path and heading into the valley. There was a gradual incline that began to prove challenging as I adjusted to the terrain, to the humidity, and to the weight of my backpack.
I quickly came to understand the importance of walking poles, which up until now had always appeared to be an unnecessary bit of kit to me. But now that I was moving over uneven surfaces with a heavy backpack pulling me in one direction and then the other, keeping a steady balance was absolutely imperative. I found myself eating my own words for all the times I’d made fun of them.
As with any form of exercise, getting started is always the tough part; but once you’ve allowed a little momentum to gather, it propels you forward and then you just get on with it. And this is exactly what was happening to me as I put one foot in front of the other, singing to myself, and feeling the sun on my skin.
I could hear the waterfall cascading over rocks somewhere to my left, but I was unable to actually see it due to tree cover. It was a mesmerising sound and so I took this as a perfect opportunity to sit down, take a drink, and check my bearings on my map.
The previous September I’d invested in taking a one day orienteering course in the Peak District, and so now, here in the Lakes, I was putting my skills to the test for the very first time.
Holding my OS map in front of me, I set a line of travel on the compass, turned the bezel and matched up the orienteering lines, and then holding the compass at waist level I adjusted myself to allow the compass needle to meet north, and thus finding my direction of travel. Looking up and into the distance, I allowed my eyes to scan the valley, taking in the terrain of the walk that lay ahead.
I needed to reach a particular part of a stream which according to the map was about 200m ahead. In the orienteering class we’d also been taught about timing and pacing, which essentially means that I could work out how long it would take to walk the 200m based upon my walking speed.
For example, the average walking speed is 3 to 4km per hour, and so if I were to walk at roughly 3km per hour (which is 60mins), I could break this down further as being 1km per 20mins. And as 1km is 1000m, this means 200m is 1/5 of a kilometre, and therefore 1/5 of 20mins is 4mins. This allows me to work out that at a consistent pace of 3km per hour, it would take me 4mins to walk the 200m. Using this method I could set the timer on my watch to 4mins and then start walking until the alarm sounds. Clever eh!
Instead I decided to approach it using the number of steps approach. I have a stride of roughly 1m, and because the land was flat in this part of the valley I knew I’d be able to walk with a consistent 1m stride all the way. On this basis I would reach 200m after 200 strides, and so I set off and sang my way up to 200, keeping my eye on the direction of travel on my compass.
Surely enough, after counting up to two hundred I found myself just a few steps short of my intended destination; it worked!
I continued forwards and repeated the process, and I soon worked out that it’s essential to check your position on a map at regular intervals. It only takes a few wrong steps or for your compass bearing to be a few degrees out and it can screw you up completely. The best approach is to progress little by little and to use landmarks wherever possible, because otherwise you may find yourself either completely lost or having to backtrack. And with a heavy backpack on, this is something you definitely don’t want to be doing.
Thankfully though there was very little chance of getting lost in this particular area given the terrain, the landmarks, and the presence of a well detailed map. But this was valuable practice and it was a huge boost in confidence to have used my new skills successfully, even if it was only at the most basic level.
We all have to start somewhere.
Pressing deeper into Mosedale valley I was mesmerised by the sheer scale of my surroundings. With Wasdale disappearing quickly behind me I steadily moved into a beautiful horseshoe of mountains (or fells – take your pick). The greenery of the lowlands was lush which continued up into the lower parts of the mountains, before turning into rock and shale towards the peaks and ridges.
The further I walked, the more insignificant I became; like a tiny man in a land made for giants. I could see the clouds descend and start to swallow up the tops of the mountains which had been visible just a few moments before. And just a matter of minutes later the cloud disappeared and the ridges stood proudly before me once again.
It was a stark reminder that I was nothing but a visitor to these parts. And it was a reminder that the mountains, the rocks, the grass that I stood on, the sky, the clouds, everything; this was all here long before I was and it would be here long after I’m gone. Nature is always in control, and whenever we become arrogant or cocky about our place in the world, nature will always remind us of exactly where we stand.
I’d only seen two other people for the two hours I’d been walking, both of which had been in the first half an hour. I checked my phone and was greeted with a ‘no service’ message in the bar that would normally boast a full 4G reception. I couldn’t be contacted, nor could I contact anybody else. I was cut off, I was completely alone, and to be perfectly honest, I was fine with this.
Although I love the company of people, whether that be long time friends or people I’ve only just met; I am actually a natural introvert.
There is a huge misunderstanding about introverts and extroverts. It is not about one being loud and the other being shy. It is not about one being socially adept and the other being socially awkward. And it is not about one being full of confidence and the other having none. Instead it is about what charges your batteries and what centres you.
I will gladly stand in front of a crowd, get conversation started, and to be the person that brings people together. I never feel lost in a room full of people, I’m outgoing and will try talking to anybody, and I believe in myself enough to throw myself into pretty much any social situation.
But despite all this, after a certain amount of socialising and making conversation, I find myself feeling drained and in need of being alone again. When my social battery becomes drained I then need to let it recharge; and once my battery reaches 100% I’m then ready to face the world again.
I love the company of other people, but it’s when I’m alone where I really find my strength. And this is exactly why I knew wild camping would be perfect for me.
I was walking through Mosedale valley with no company but by own, carrying my food, my shelter, and all that I needed on my back. I was walking past sheep that steadily chomped on grass while watching me through suspicious eyes, and I was walking alongside crystal clear mountain streams that trickled lazily by.
The effect was revitalising; I could feel my batteries recharging and my mind clearing.
I was becoming centred through the solitude.
About half an hour later I’d come to regret an oversight on my map reading. As well as understanding compass bearings, and timing and pacing, one other element that we’d been taught about on the orienteering course was how to read gradient lines.
To keep this as brief as possible, if you were to check an OS map you’d see a series of lines that run in parallel throughout the landscape along with some sporadic numbering. Reading this information correctly will allow you to determine the elevation of the changing landscape as well as understanding the severity of the inclines and declines and whether you can be expecting to walk uphill or downhill.
I’d reached Elliptical Crag but was suddenly cursing myself for ignoring the information I’d already seen on the map. This information included lines that were as close together as any could be, as well as proudly displaying the number 828. What this told me was that I’d be walking up an extremely steep incline, up to a total height of 828 metres.
This ignorance had come back to bite me on the ass. I’d been driven on by a stubbornness that reminded me of the first time I climbed Ben Nevis where I’d been able to push on to the summit at 1,345m through terrible weather. I’d told myself that if Ben Nevis was almost twice the height of what I was now facing, then I’d surely be fine.
But the determining factor here was that at Ben Nevis I was only carrying a daypack.
This ridiculous oversight was to be my downfall, but I wasn’t going down without a fight.
As I continued to stubbornly push my way up the incline of Elliptical Crag, I could feel my resolve slowly draining away from me. To begin with I’d been clambering over solid rock, putting one foot in front of the other, and telling myself “just one more step, just one more step”.
It was at this moment where I took a little video…
The heat was sapping my energy and my knees were becoming increasingly painful with each and every step that I took. Sweat was trickling down my forehead and off the end of my nose, but as I looked upwards I believed that I could see the ridge which I estimated was only about 100m ahead.
What was I thinking? Each and every step was becoming a mission in itself. How on earth could I expect to reach 100m? And even if I did reach 100m, was that actually the ridge? Or was it only the start of yet another incline?
But I continued to push on, with my skin becoming hot to the touch and the sweat stinging my eyes and blurring my vision. I became increasingly aware of not having drunk enough water and I was becoming dizzy.
The evening was steadily approaching which brought out those vicious little midges that manage to find their way onto any exposed skin and into your hair. I could feel them biting away at me and although I did my best to swat them away, this only led to increased frustration.
The rocks had now given way to a crumbling surface made of shale and each time I took a step forwards, my feet sank, meaning that I was barely moving forwards at all. And then I lost balance, with my backpack twisting me to one side and pulling me over on to my back.
I screamed out in frustration as I lay in a broken mess, high up on Elliptical Crag. My knees were throbbing, my head was spinning, and the midges continued to feast on my neck and my arms. I felt dejected, but I was determined to gather my thoughts, take a breather, and then press on.
But after taking a mouthful of water I looked upwards, only to see that the ridge had become completely shrouded in mist. I could no longer see the summit, and my stubbornness slowly gave way to rationality as I looked at my watch and realised that I didn’t have much daylight left.
Even if I was able to make it to the top, would I then have time to make my way over to Low Tarn? I still had 3 to 4km of ridge walking ahead of me, and in a thick mist and with absolutely no reception on my phone, it suddenly began to feel like an idiotic and even dangerous prospect.
My breathing began to steady and the adrenaline started to wear off, and then through a clear head I knew what I had to do.
I had to come back down the mountain and come up with a Plan B.
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