Nine Hours On Scafell Pike

In my head, mountains are things that are thousands of metres high, and usually covered in snow. When someone suggested hiking up Scafell Pike in the Lake District, my first thought was “that sounds fun” (my first thought about most things), and on finding out Scafell is ‘only’ 978m, my second thought was “shame it’s not a bit higher”. This turned out to be one of the more naive thoughts I’ve ever had.

I’m part of a group of 16 people who are raising funds to provide a day centre for vulnerable children in a remote part of South Africa, and the Scafell trip was part of our fundraising plan. We are a mixed group in terms of age, fitness, and experience with this sort of challenge, so when the day of our hike turned out to be one of those grey, wet and miserable days that England does so well, spirits were not exactly high as we drove to our starting point at Seathwaite.

While it wasn’t raining particularly hard, after an hour or so of hiking we were all wet through, and already a few people were starting to question the wisdom of the trip. The weather made navigation tricky, and when we met a mountain guide who told us that she was not intending to take her group to the summit as conditions were too difficult, the cautionary voices grew a little louder – and understandably so. Already, I was realising that I had underestimated Scafell Pike.

We decided to continue. This is a group of people that have come together in order to challenge themselves, and it was agreed to go higher, via a slightly different route, and see how things went.

The rain kept falling, turning paths into streams and making the rocks dangerously greasy.

As we got higher, the fog came in, limiting visibility to around 20-30m at times.

But we kept climbing.

Then we came across a father and son who were basically lost on the mountain. They were not really dressed for the conditions, and didn’t have a proper map – only a tourist guide to the top which was hopelessly inadequate on a day like this … we added them to our group – and kept walking.

After around five hours, we came to last part of the hike, which is over shattered volcanic rocks, ranging in size from small stones to large boulders. It’s almost other-worldly – barren, and harshly beautiful. Navigation by now was extremely demanding – the cairns marking the path were difficult to see in the fog, and in the end we didn’t make the summit. The last few hundred metres is quite steep, and was too dangerous under the circumstances. We turned back around 400m from the top of the mountain.

We descended via a different route – faster, but with it’s own set of challenges. Many of the paths had by now turned into small rivers, there were some steep and narrow sections of path, and obviously we were all tired by this point … despite this, the spirits in the group remained remarkably high. We made it back to our cars at about 6pm, nine hours after setting off.

Had you told me that morning that I would be happy to turn back only a few hundred metres from the summit of a mountain, I would not have believed you. That day, we all learned something about ourselves as individuals, and as a group. Personally, I realised that the overall success of the group was more valuable and more rewarding than any individual success might have been. With the weather pitched against us, for all 16 people to get that close to the top, and back down again without any major issues or injuries was a remarkable achievement.

Edmund Hillary famously said “it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”. It might seem a little conceited to compare climbing Everest with hiking a rainy mountain in England, but on that grey day in the Lake District, all 16 of us came a little closer to understanding what Hillary meant.

Let’s go do it …
Scafell Pike is a ‘proper’ mountain, I know that now. I recommend it 100%, but I guess the important thing here is to understand how much difference the weather makes, and to be prepared for that. Even on a clear summer day, jeans and trainers probably aren’t a good idea! Having said that, it isn’t like climbing in the Alps or something – while there are challenging sections, you can walk to the top of Scafell Pike … and on a clear day, the views are amazing. Or so I’ve been told.