If you’ve ever been in the middle of nowhere at night, when there are no street lights, no city lights, and no nearby houses, then you’ll have an appreciation for how dark the mountain was. Scafell Pike is tucked away in the southern end of the Lake District and it’s pretty much as dark as you can imagine.
Although I’d walked this path before, in the dark it was disturbingly unfamiliar. Only the GPS reassured me that I was walking in the right direction.
The torch was giving me plenty of visibility so I could see where I was walking and I never felt in danger of stumbling, although I felt guilty about the light waking up a few sheep during the first part of the walk.
But I soon realised that the light from the headlamp was being drowned out by the light of the LED torch, making it redundant. The headlamp went into my pocket and didn’t come out again.
The path began to look more familiar and soon began to rise. I was keeping up a good pace and although the knee burn quickly came back I wasn’t far off the pace I’d set on Ben Nevis.
After you join up with the other path it isn’t far before you have to cross a small stream and join a new trail. Unfortunately, in the dark, I missed the junction. Again the GPS quickly revealed I’d gone too far and I only lost a couple of minutes retracing my step.
Immediately after I crossed the stream, the wrist strap on my torch broke and I dropped it. Fortunately, the torch didn’t fall down a gully or even break, but it was a relief to remember that I still had my headlamp as a fall back in case anything happens. Redundancies are rarely needed but they give you peace of mind that you’re prepared if something goes wrong.
I looked for the strap but I couldn’t find it. The mountain-walking rule is to leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs. I felt bad but there was nothing I could do but leave the strap behind and press on.
Immediately after crossing the stream I looked back down the mountain. I could see a couple of lights in the far distance but, otherwise, everything was just a jumble of shadows. There was some moonlight behind the clouds that allowed me to see the shape of the mountainside but that was about all.
A couple of times I thought I saw a torchlight in the distance behind me and I wondered if it was the father/son team I’d made on Ben Nevis. I’d expected them to be ahead of me but maybe we’d overtaken them on the road. As it happened I never saw them on Scafell Pike or Snowdon so I don’t know whether they took the longer, alternative route on the other side of Scafell Pike or something happened to cause them to give up.
I reached the Scafell Pike steps and I soon remembered how much of a tedious slog this mountain is. The only good thing about climbing in the dark is that I couldn’t see the steps stretching away in front of me and, in fact, I could only ever see the next half a dozen steps. No choice but to keep my head down and keep climbing.
I reached the top of the steps quicker than I expected and I studied my GPS hard as the trail became a little harder to see. Without the blanket of snow that I experienced last time, it was almost unrecognisable but the path was much easier to follow. I was beginning to get the hang of recognising the difference between natural rock formations and rocks that had been engineered into very rough steps.
For a brief spell the route turned into a relatively smooth path that wound its way up the steep mountainside. Scafell Pike may be the smallest of the three mountains but it’s still the steepest and the slightly easier walking was helping.
The temperature started to drop and the misting rain turned into a light drizzle. I looked back down the mountain as I pulled on my hat and gloves and I remember laughing out loud at the insanity of what I was doing. It was around 3am in the morning, the rain was coming down, and I was half-way up a mountain, alone, and with only a torch and a GPS to guide me.
If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be in this position I wouldn’t have believed it.
I was tired but exhilarated. This was exactly the adventure I’d hoped it would be.
The “nice” path soon ended and I was back to climbing. There were cairns all over the place and for the first time I really appreciated how deep the snow had been last time I was here. Hardly any of these were visible the last time around and keeping to the path this time was simple.
Around three-quarters of the way up I realised that the torch light had become unnecessary. Although it wasn’t quite sunrise, there was enough ambient light to be able to put the torch away.
The climb was getting steeper and I was slowing. I’d forgotten my watch and I didn’t want to waste time digging in my bag for my phone just to find out whether I was on schedule. But I felt as if I’d been climbing for a long time and I was starting to worry that I was losing time. The pain in my upper thigh that had started just before I hit the Ben Nevis peak returned with a vengeance.
To make things worse, my ability to move faster as I reached the final part of the climb was hampered by the weather. The track levels off quite a bit before one more short, sharp climb, but as the mountainside opened up in front of me I was hit with an incredibly strong crosswind.
There was a little bit of snow now and the wind was blowing great big swirls of loose powder across the mountainside and into my face. This was a much stronger wind than that which I’d experienced on Ben Nevis and the only thing that reassured me was that there was no edge for me to be blown off. The only real danger was being blown over and injuring myself in a fall.
And this wasn’t a steady wind. It was a strong flow punctuated with almighty gusts that blew for 3-4 seconds at a time and made it almost impossible to stand. I developed a system of walking 10-20 yards and then, when the gusts started, crouching down low with my back to the wind so I wasn’t blown over.
This was no exercise in exaggerated caution. I’m convinced that if I’d tried to walk forwards while the wind was gusting I would have ended up flat on my face.
This weird system of alternating between gingerly staggering forwards a few yards and balling up for a few seconds would have been funny but it was slowing me down and my final approach to the summit seemed to be taking forever. Again I started whittling about how much time I was losing.
I laboured up the final climb and the mound of stones marking the summit was in front of me. There are a few steps up to the summit mound and, for the sake of completeness, I felt the need to climb them despite my fear of being blown off.
I waited for a slight gap in the wind, jumped onto the summit, and stayed there for about two seconds before hurriedly climbing back down and sheltering behind it where it became a convenient break from the wind.
I checked my phone and discovered that the ascent had taken two hours and eight minutes, only eight minutes longer than my target.
Hugely encouraged I suddenly realised that I was extremely hungry and quickly wolfed down an energy bar. A quick drink and I was ready to head back.
The energy bars I brought for the journey are called “9 bars”. Gluten, dairy and nut-free, they’re a mixture of seeds, sugar and honey. They taste pretty good and are surprisingly filling.
The wind was still strong and for the first time I noticed how much the temperature had dropped. Despite my thick gloves my hands felt freezing and my fingers started to ache, much in the way they do when you try and have a snowball fight with bare hands.
I started wondering how long it takes to develop frostbite. A bit paranoid maybe but my fingers were really starting to throb (according to this article and my estimate of the conditions, without the gloves I could have experienced the start of frostbite in as little as 10 minutes).
I tried bunching my hands into fists but it didn’t help. And I briefly tried tucking my hands into my armpits before realising that this wasn’t a safe way to walk down a mountain. In the end I pulled my fingers out of the glove’s finger holes and bunched my hands into fists inside of the gloves.
This helped a little and I focussed on getting off the top of the mountain as quickly as possible and out of the wind.
After leaving the flattish area of Scafell Pike the wind dropped dramatically and the feeling in my fingers quickly returned. Which was little comfort giving the pain in my feet and legs. Walking down Ben Nevis was painful but this was much worse. Scafell Pike, for the most part, seems to be an endless series of steps.
It’s uncomfortable and also frustrating because it makes it harder to keep pace when the terrain is just one tiny step down after another after another after another.
The pain between right thigh and groin was the worst and I longed for a long, smooth stretch of path so I could stretch my legs out and get a bit of pace going, but the mountain refused to cooperate and continued to lead me down what seemed like the world’s longest staircase.
I started stressing about losing time again. I wanted to walk faster but I couldn’t figure out a way to do so safely.
I became irrationally irritable and, with hindsight, if I hadn’t been alone I probably would have got into an argument with someone. But with no one else around I became angry at the mountain itself. I anthropomorphised the mountain until it became a being that was trying to hold me back and ruin my chances of completing the challenge in time.
I became angrier and angrier at the mountain and came to detest everything about it.
Yes, I know this sounds weird, but I think it was a combination of pain, hunger and lack of sleep. I was frustrated and I had no way to vent it other than to become grumpy with the world around me.
By the time I got back to the car I was in a foul mood but, fortunately, the relief of getting the mountain done and out of the way was enough to calm me down and I didn’t try and pick a fight with my long-suffering father.
The time was 6:11am which meant the total time for Scafell Pike was 3hrs 55mins. This was a good hour faster than the last time I was here, and only 25 minutes over my target time.
Given that I’d picked up 45 minutes on Ben Nevis, my buffer was still just under two hours.
I should have been buoyed by this but I was very tired, very uncomfortable and the moment I sat back in the car, the hunger was replaced with another bout of nausea.
Category: Three Peaks Challenge
About the AuthorDavid Congreave began working online in 2001. He is now an SEO and Internet marketing consultant, a writer, and an editor. He lives and works in Leeds, UK with his wife, Leanne.
View Author Profile
There are no comments yet. Why not be the first to speak your mind.