What’s the best way to spend a weekend after a long, tiring week? For Mitch and I, the answer this Saturday was getting up at 5:50am to catch a train to the Lake District for a little hillwalking.
After a McDonald’s Breakfast of Champions, and an unexpected 2km slog uphill to our hostel, we were soon happily ascending the path to Red Tarn, a stunning lake situated at the base of Helvellyn, England’s third highest peak. After seeing the silhouettes of climbers along the Striding Edge leading to the top of the 950 metre mountain, we decided that a little bit of scrambling was definitely in order.
Meanwhile…the clouds were starting to settle in, a fact we somewhat ignored because of our sheer excitement. We quickly climbed up to the Striding Edge where we were treated to a stunning view of Catstye Cam, Red Tarn and a tantalizing chunk of Helvellyn ahead of us, revealing itself only for brief moments through the thick fog.
We found ourselves perched on Striding Edge, picking our way through the rocks and ice towards the peak. As we went on our merry way, we quickly noticed that other climbers (that we were passing, nonetheless) were wearing crampons and using ice axes. We took a few moments to assess our situation, trying to see if our bravado was leading us to stupid decisions, or if our British climbing counterparts were simply less sure-footed on snow than us Canadians.
After an amazing scramble across Striding Edge, featuring 200 meter sheer drops on either side of the knife-edge, we reached the snow cap on the peak of Helvellyn and used the steps already created in the snow to make the final ascent.
As we relished in our accomplishment, we promptly found ourselves lost and confused in the thick fog. Instead of taking a proper bearing, we figured that we would just use the edge of the mountain as a ‘handrail’ which would lead us right to the next ridge that we were planning on descending (Swirral Edge). We also neglected to properly figure out a rough time or set a landmark, so it wasn’t until we were chatting with some other climbers that we realised, quite sheepishly, that we had overshot our destination by quite a large margin. Now, with our confidence down, we somehow got turned around and began inadvertently returning the way we had come.
After a few minutes of “oh my god it’s going to be so embarrassing to be rescued by helicopter 50 metres from our path, our OE classmates will never let us live it down,” we consulted some other climbers and quickly realised our mistake.
It turned out to be a very good learning experience for us though as we were able to trace back exactly what led to our bad decisions (mainly our overconfidence). Ironically, while our minds were concerned about our lack of crampons, we forgot to pay attention to the much more pressing issue of navigating with severely limited visibility.
The next day we set out to climb Helvellyn again, with the goal of returning to find Swirral Edge. We were treated to a clear morning with spectacular views.
With a pronounced effort to be more vigilant navigators, we soon found Swirral Edge and made the exhilarating descent.
As we settled into the local pub that evening, we agreed on a few ‘takeaway’ points from our travels:
1). Looking at a map and reading a map are two very different things.
2). Despite British ‘wilderness’ mostly being dotted with human inhabitation, it doesn’t matter how close you are to the pub if you are stuck on a mountain in deep fog.
3). It pays to trust your own instincts and take reasonable risks. Especially when you are a poor student who can’t afford ice climbing gear. Crampons, pfftt…