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Open Features: Lakeland Lure

David Hammond enjoys the ascent of Great Gable.

“Well, folks, this is the big one,” said Bob, our balding, quietly-spoken leader as the little party of anorak-clad workers gathered outside the guest house at Seatoller before setting out for Great Gable.

Despite an unpleasant experience not that long ago when I was lost in the mist on top of Coniston Old Man, the mountains of the Lake District still present me – a comparative newcomer to hiking – with a fascinating challenge that is difficult to resist.

When we had to decide, over breakfast, whether to join the “A” party going up Gable or the “B” party taking an easier walk, I could not stop myself from choosing the stiffer alternative. Bob’s warning that some rock scrambling was involved and that you needed a head for heights somehow seemed an incentive, not a put-off, and a dull, misty morning could not deter me either.

Half an hour later, as we negotiated some very slippery rocks on our way up to Sty Head Pass, my enthusiasm was already beginning to turn into apprehension as I wondered just what might be ahead of us on the precipitous side of Great Gable.

At Sty Head, a large mountain rescue first-aid box, and an increasingly strong wind, served to make me a little more apprehensive. Two young ladies from our mixed party of 10 decided they did not want to go any further because of the wind and the height involved, and I felt that Bob’s attitude was becoming a little more military as he announced, “I think conditions are suitable to take people out on to the Gable traverse. Wind is not usually a problem on the traverse, and the rocks should be reasonably dry.”

He’s a very nice chap, I felt, but I wonder whether he’s really talking to us, or rehearsing his evidence for an inquest.

As we began to negotiate the narrow path and ledges of the rather precarious route, I began to think that having the mist below was an advantage, rather than a hazard. Though I knew there were sheer drops of 1,500 feet or more, at least you could not see the bottom on a day like this.

The wind seemed very powerful, but fortunately seemed to be blowing us towards the mountainside, not away from it.

The traverse route was once mainly the province of climbers wanting to try out their talents on the Napes Needle, the Sphinx Rock or some other rocky eminence. It reminds you at times of a gasometer, except that there are no guard rails and the drop is much further.

The awesome drop that confronts you at the Angel’s Step means that there’s no need to ask anyone why it is so named!

I heard Bob’s voice, “Now take great care here. Please be very careful.”

Somehow he had placed himself on a little shelf of rock below and was showing us how to turn, place our feet in holes in the rock, get a good hand grip and step over to safety. The gap is quite a narrow one, and we all made it without panic, though some with a flutter of the heart like myself, I expect.

If one of us had slipped back for some reason, I felt we would have taken Bob with us to a horrible fate. “I didn’t enjoy that,” I heard him confide to a friend a couple of minutes later.

Even on the Gable traverse there has to be time for a packed lunch and, perched seemingly in the clouds on one of the few grassy places, we were thankful for small mercies as we were told that, though there was some more scrambling to come, the worst was over.

Getting up on the Sphinx Gully seemed interesting if rather tricky, and it did not seem long before we were on the final stretch to the summit, the walk over round stones proving a comparatively easy stretch after the hairy passage round the traverse. But rain, and then hail, took away some of the pleasure of reaching the summit, and what should have been one of the best views in the Lake District for us was nothing but a glance into the mist, with visibility down to about 50 yards.

The route back over Green Gable was untaxing, if wet, as the rain decided to stay with us, but when we were approaching Seathwaite, I thought, I’ll bet this walk has a sting in the tail.

It had. “I’m not going over these rocks quickly, so if any one of you wants to push ahead, please do so,” said Bob as we got to the top of Sour Milk Ghyll. Getting down the rocks in the downpour was like descending a ladder of soap. We searched for the best footholds, but did not always find them. And it was by hook or by crook that somehow we all got safely to the bottom, unscathed.

We all felt a lot better after a hot bath and a meal, but looking back, it was a day to remember more as an experience than a pleasure. I have told myself more than once that I’ll be very cautious next time about what kind of routes I’m prepared to tackle in the high hills of the Lakes. But the fells themselves and the company of fellow walkers will doubtless tempt me again.

Who knows, my next article might be entitled, “When it was hell on Helvellyn.”


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