Monday 10 October 2016

Hopegill Head via Whiteside

In Alfred Wainwright's words the ridge walk over Whiteside is "an exhilarating airy traverse" and it certainly looked it a couple of months ago when I gazed along the crest from Hopegill Head, the summit at the eastern end. On that day I'd been doing a variation of the Coledale Horseshoe and a jaunt down the ridge would have been more than a step or two out of my way unfortunately. I determined though that I needed to return sooner rather than later to experience it myself and the arrival of a high pressure system over the country at the start of October gave me just the excuse I needed to go up to the Lakes.

It took nearly two and a half hours to get to the parking area at Lanthwaite Green and we were lucky to find the last space, considering it was early afternoon by the time we arrived. Lanthwaite Green is a common grazed by sheep and a cattle grid limits any nomadic tendencies they might have. Once we'd crossed that barrier, we noticed one or two of them either in the lane or standing by its side. None of them seemed to have the least clue about the niceties of the Green Cross Code so we proceeded carefully to the parking spot.

Once out of the car, we didn't have to focus on our woolly friends of course and we could take in the scenery, with Grasmoor the most immediately impressive of the fells around us. When I'd approached Grasmoor from Crag Hill and wandered around the wide, flat summit it had seemed a rather formless, baggy monster of a hill but from Lanthwaite Green its crag-laden western aspect formed a satisfyingly pointy mountain peak.

Boat Crag at Whiteside End (l) and Whin Ben (r).
Grasmoor and Whiteside are separated by a steep-sided gill, down which Gasgale Beck flows from Coledale Hause, the col at the centre of this endlessly-fascinating group of fells.

Where the foaming waters emerge from this cleft, a handsome, new-looking bridge spans the rocky river bed and we followed a clear path in the grass over the common to this crossing.

Crossing Gasgale Beck.
Our first summit, if you can call it that, was to be Whin Ben, a small hump of rock and heather not too far above us; from where we were standing it looked like a less shapely and more unkempt relative of Causey Pike. As we'd approached we could see Boat Crag at Whiteside End, where the ridge drops down in the valley, but for the moment Whin Ben's prominence blocked our view of the climb to Whiteside's "official" summit (according to Wainwright), which was around a 1000 feet above it. Curiously, of the three high points along the ridge, the summit isn't the highest - that accolade belongs to a point around halfway along and above Gasgale Crags, which reaches 2359 feet.

As we ascended the loose stone path the ground underfoot began to change: there was more solid rock and the incline was steeper. All this made the going relatively easy and we seemed to gain quite a bit of height quickly, almost like climbing steps.  With each stride upwards our views back across the Vale of Lorton became more extensive: Melbreak stood watch over Crummock Water close-by and the Loweswater Fells were gathered as if in secret conversation further to the west. It was a wonderfully clear day, just as promised, and north of Loweswater a chequerboard of fertile farmland stretched out to the sea and to the Solway Firth, with the hills of Galloway beyond that. The last time I'd been up here in the North Western Fells the day had been a fine one but it had also been hot and humid, which cast a haze over any scenery outside of my immediate vicinity so I was made up with how far and how clearly we could see.

Melbreak at the northern end of Crummock Water.
The Loweswater Fells.
The hills of south west Scotland across the Solway Firth.

The start of the ridge above us to the left.
A short pull up to the top of Whin Ben's grassy summit opened up views along Gasgale Gill and of Whiteside above us; it also revealed how far away the start of the ridge still was.

There was another hump of rock, not dissimilar to the one we were standing on, which seemed to be halfway between us and our goal. The walking across to it looked good, a narrow path through the dark heather with a gentle incline until the very end so we decided to postpone breaking out the sandwiches until we got there. This didn't take long, especially with hunger egging us on, and it proved to be a good choice as this nameless hillock provided lots of dry rock to sit on. We relaxed here for fifteen minutes or so, tucking into our butties and basking in the sun.

Whin Ben in the foreground; Crummock Water and Melbreak (l), Loweswater and the Loweswater Fells (r).
Lunch with a view: Loweswater, Burnbank Fell (behind) and Carling Knott (l).

The start of the ridge still looked forbiddingly high above us and when we set off again the mode we were in was more a dozy "Yawn, I'm digesting my food" than "Hey, I've just replenished my energy levels!"

It turned out to be not as much of a slog as it looked, though a large section of the path was scree and this was hard work at times - two steps forward, one step back. That, combined with the early afternoon sun, which was packing out a fair amount of heat for October, prompted quite a few pauses to take pictures and catch our breath.

From left to right, the Whiteside ridge walk.

It was interesting to see Dove Crags from a different perspective, having walked along the edge of them last time I was here, and the fell side beneath them looked curiously like the paw of a huge animal as we looked down onto it.

The fell below Dove Crags.

Climbing the scree path.
Dove Crags with Eel Crag behind on the left.
Zoom-in on Eel Crag, on the northern side of Crag Hill; the col on the left is Coledale Hause.

The closer we got to the top, the easier the ascent became. I'd gone on ahead and while I waited for Rich to catch up I peered over the path edge, looking down the increasingly precipitous crags that stood on our side of the gill. Even before we'd walked along Whiteside, I began mooting the idea of a return visit in my head, one which would take us back to the car park via Gasgale Beck. It would be a shorter walk than today's but from above the crags looked imposing and I'm guessing from the valley floor itself the scenery must be tremendous.

Looking down into Gasgale Gill
Looking down into Gasgale Gill

We reached the summit together and there was the ridge stretching out before us. It was an exciting prospect, a broad swathe of grass with a spine of crags along its southern edge that rose and fell until the final abrupt slope to Hopegill Head at the far end. Eager though I was to get going, I paused to drink in the vistas all around, which were marvellous, and revelled in the thought that they were only going to get better as we headed east and gained more height.

Whiteside stretched out in front of us.

The ridge is wide enough that there is no sense of exposure unless you want it - if you do want that feeling of walking in the air, it's achieved by leaving the slightly lower level path on the grass to trace the crest of the outcrops along its length, but even up on these I never really felt like I was walking on the edge, as it were. Sticking to the lower path meant that you missed out on some of the views to be had to the south and after the effort of climbing Whiteside I had no intention of doing that.

Middle ground: Ladyside Pike (centre) and Grisedale Pike (r).
Background: Skiddaw (l) and a distant Blencathra (r).
Crag Hill.
Looking back down Gasgale Gill towards Crummock Water.

There was one section, just before the steep pull up to Hopegill Head, where I was walking along a smooth sheet of rock that curved downwards with increasing sharpness before dropping into the gill but on our walk at least the stone was dry and there was plenty of traction. I'm not sure I would care to be walking across it in wet weather or in winter conditions as one slip could easily launch a hapless walker downwards with momentum that would be difficult to arrest.

Walking the crest - there is a bypass footpath to the left.
Looking back at that section - would be difficult to arrest in wet or icy conditions if you slipped.

There are two steep sections at the eastern end of the ridge,which might look a little forbidding from a distance. That's mostly a matter of perspective though; once you're in front of them the first proves to be a short wall of rock, which you can simply walk up or clamber up, depending on how sure-footed you feel - or how long your legs are. Mine are relatively short so I used my hands to give me a bit of leverage at times. The second and final approach to the small summit crag of Hopegill Head is simply a matter of walking along the path. It's worth pausing here - as it is all along Whiteside - to look back at the terrain you've just traversed as it looks simply stunning from this point.

The two steep ascents at the eastern end of the ridge.
The slab of rock on the first ascent.
Looking back westwards along Whiteside.
Looking back from slightly higher up.

The top of Hopegill Head was quite busy and we stopped a while taking pictures and chatting with a couple of walkers who had passed us earlier in the day.

Looking north west along Hope Gill.
Looking south east towards the Helvellyn range.

Hopegill Head and the crags below it.
Other people came and went too, as we took a brief diversion downwards to the south east so Rich could see the summit and some of the spectacular crags directly below it.

Our plotted route, however, lay north, back over the top and down a steep rock face onto the Ladyside Pike ridge. I'd looked down here on my previous trip and it looked simple enough, seemingly a narrow path but a straightforward one.

The initial path down.
The walkers we'd been chatting with told us that someone who'd just come up that route had warned them that the going was wet and slippy. Once we'd gone down a bit we realised that the path petered out into a sheet of rock, or rather many over-lapping sheets of rock that felt like they'd offer little in the way of grip even if the surface was dry.

They had followed us down now and we stepped aside at the end of the path to let them pass, as they were faster than we were and we didn't want to hold them up. They descended on their derrières and wisely we followed suit. It would have been foolhardy, I think, to attempt it any other way and even doing it in this manner we slid down some parts of the slabs as our boots failed to gain any traction on the treacherous stone. A crevice ran down the middle of these laminated slabs of rock and I followed their aim for this, feeling that within its superficial confines I would have more security; possibly it made no difference other than a psychological one but that's not something that should be underestimated.

The slabs below the path.

Finally we were on flatter ground and the sunlight gleamed across the damp surface we'd just covered. From below it looked more daunting that it had from above, and I could sense Rich was mentally cursing me as he picked his way to safer ground so I studiously avoided catching his eye and made myself busy taking snaps from this new vantage point below the summit.

At the base of the slabs.
Looking east, Grisedale Pike (l) and Hobcarton Crag (r).
The Notch.

The valley to the east of Ladyside Pike was dark with trees, Whinlatter Forest, and the fell from which this woodland derives its name looked dark too as larger clouds had built up during the course of the afternoon, frequently blocking out the sun. Looking back, the view of the Hopegill Head slabs we'd just recently slid down made for a more startling picture, from this angle looking almost like a sheer rock face.

The route ahead - Ladyside Pike.
Hopegill Head behind us.
Zoom in on the slabs we "climbed" down on our backsides.

Approaching the top of Ladyside Pike.
A collapsed, dry stone wall runs the length of Ladyside Pike and the clear path runs along side it. The top of the pike rises as a large hump halfway along the ridge but it didn't seem that much of a climb when we were walking it. Two cairns mark the flattened summit, one at either end, and today they seemed to be a meeting point for the local fly population, making stopping to take pictures and have a rest a more irritating process than we expected. We comforted ourselves with the fact that it was all downhill from here, though unlike Rich I actually find many descents harder work than the climbing.

One of the cairns on Ladyside Pike.
The path shown on the map splits into two not far below the summit of the ridge, one taking a sharp turn east down into the trees, the other continuing on a meandering but ultimately northern bearing; neither of these were our route - there is another path that follows the wall on its left hand side all the way down to the lane by High Swinside Farm.

In terms of navigation, this presented no problems but as the path (and wall) turned west, we found we were walking down a steep grass slope that was scarcely less slippy or treacherous than the slabs had been earlier. I found myself flying through the air and landing on my backside in an undignified and surprised heap before I knew what was happening and in the end Rich decided he'd had enough of this precarious and laborious walking business and slid down the majority of the hillside on the seat of his pants, as though he was on a sledge.

One of those Caspar David Friedrich moments...
Ladyside Pike and Hopegill Head.
Herdwick sheep.

By this time, the lane just below us looked much more inviting than a ribbon of tarmac normally would but the trail turned sharply south west and we ended up following a longer but more gradual route down to the road, a steady but not very inspiring descent through a wasteland of dead bracken.

The path follows the wall down.
The plan was to leave the lane and join a public footpath that runs around the western edge of this group of fells but when we reached Hope Beck, just below Dodd, the stream was in full spate. We wandered up and down the banks in the hope of finding either a narrow enough passing to jump the fast-flowing water or rocks that we could use to step across. There were some stones that looked like they'd be likely candidates in different conditions but today most of them were lost to the beck.

A twilit Kirk Fell (r).
We'd lost time here and we'd fallen behind (as well as on our behinds) during the steep descent from Ladyside Pike and, because of that, now we were losing the daylight. We had torches but the idea of stumbling around on the lower slopes of the fells trying to cross a stream and then navigate through bracken and bogs seemed like an obviously bad one. Reluctantly, we retraced our steps across the sodden and muddy hillside to rejoin the lane.

There followed a grim walk along the roads back to the car in the quickly falling darkness; it wasn't the pleasantest of ends to a day in the hills but it was certainly the safest option under the circumstances.

Date: October 2016

Walk length: 12.5 km

Total ascent: 857 metres


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