2020 Retrospective – The Wettest Walk

Of all the walks Jo and I have undertaken, the path to Haystacks in the English Lake District seems to be the most prone to failure. The attempt we made in 2020 was no exception, although a sudden change in the weather led us to an alternative success.

Why head for this summit in particular? Because it was the favourite of renowned hiker, illustrator and author Alfred Wainwright, whose earthly remains were scattered near this, his favourite fell, in the early 1990s.

All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks. A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone. And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.

Alfred Wainwright, from his book “Memoirs of a Fellwalker”

We struck out in the wintry cold of my 40th birthday a few years ago and were forced to abandon the hike in favour of an alternative route. Beaten along the second half of the hike by strong winds and resounding amounts of horizontal hail. This was a truly epic trek; one which will stick in my memory forever and which first took me across a part of Cumbria to which I now return as often as I can.

Driving hail across Haystacks and Buttermere in 2012

When we next had the opportunity and drive to consider a hike in the Honister area of the Lake District three years later, we made it to our goal although the patchy sun casting light across the huge landscape neatly retreated behind grey cloud by the time we’d arrived at the summit cairn.

The summit of Haystacks
The summit cairn of Haystacks in 2015

Our third attempt, in the infamous summer of 2020, remained true to tradition and we were forced to don full waterproof gear before we even left the car park. We generally enjoy our walks when the weather is more interesting than beautiful and such was the case for the first section of the walk. Because continual light rain fell, the clouds sweeping across the fells and the lowering temperatures kept idle hikers away, meaning that we had much of the day to ourselves. The occasional couple or small group with which we crossed paths were all as incongruously cheerful as we were, in a particularly English-in-the-rain kind of way.

The beck below Dubs Quarry was in full spate, making the irregular stepping-stone crossing a little more adventurous than usual, although we made quick work of it thanks to our waterproof gear and obligatory gaiters.

Jo crossing Warnscale Beck
Jo waiting to cross Warnscale Beck in the rain

A stopping-off point was inspired by one of James Bell’s photos in the fish-and-chip restaurant we’d visited the previous evening: Warnscale Bothy. Whilst Jo sensibly waited near the path along which we’d been merrily wading, I slithered down an all-but-unmarked path to the old building which enthusiasts maintain as a basic shelter for hikers to stay overnight, or in which to seek shelter when the weather turns particularly inclement. Alone amongst the discarded slate around the bothy, I found my spot and shot half-a-dozen views of the building and its surroundings, before sliding my way back up to the main path.

Warnscale Bothy
Warnscale Bothy

By the time we passed Green Crag and began heading for Innominate Tarn, we began to realise that the chance of reaching Haystacks’ summit were quickly slipping away. Horizontal rain had turned the path to more of a small stream and whilst the walking was still relatively easy-going, the cloud had dropped to a level which completely blocked any view further than the next few dozen metres of path.

Wading across Green Crag
The path-cum-stream across Green Crag

At Blackbeck Tarn, the first signs came that the relentless rain had finally begun to invade our jackets, so we decided that there was little point in continuing and so we re-traced our steps. After fording Warnscale Beck again, we headed for the dryness of another bothy – Dubs Hut – for some respite. After taking quarter of an hour to eat some sandwiches and let the worst of the water drain from our gear, we returned to the path back toward Honister Pass.

Dubs Hut in the rain
The respite of Dubs Hut appearing out of the gloom

With little warning, the clouds began to lift as we headed through the slate residues left around the mine, and the fells around us began to lighten. Deciding to change course and head for a different summit – one which we’d yet to visit – we bore north-west and squelched our way along the slightly boggy and rising path towards the summit of Fleetwith Pike. This alternative would be another “Wainwright Fell” to add to our list; one of 214 Lake District fell tops which Alfred Wainwright compiled into his series of Pictoral Guides.

Following the path in the increasingly dry weather, and not knowing which of the bumpy crags ahead were to be our goal, we suddenly crested the summit and were presented with a glorious view down to Buttermere and Crummock Water, with a rocky meadow leading down the fell in front of us and with the village between the two bodies of water doing its best to catch some of the unexpected sunshine.

Buttermere from Fleetwith Pike
The view down to Buttermere from the summit of Fleetwith Pike

After this unexpected success and glorious view, we followed a more defined path back along the top of the cliffs, beneath which more adventurous thrill-seekers are known to get their kicks on the Via Ferrata. The path was easy-going, our spirits were high, and the walk back to the car in the much less challenging weather was a stroll, in comparison to the drenching we’d received at the beginning of our day out.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing my personal highlights of 2020.

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