By Nicky Jenkins
Easter Bank Holiday Weekend brought us the latest instalment of "Are You Tough Enough" - not the SAS version (although that looks pretty challenging) - but the "Are You Tough Enough to be John Withinshaws' girlfriend" version. Blistering heat, gruelling conditions and a true test of grit and determination.
OK, so I can be a little dramatic at times...
I'm not sure if it's as we grow into ourselves as adults, or as we grow into ourselves as athletes (or both) but the challenges we present ourselves with are getting more and more extreme. The purpose of our trip to the Lakes over the Bank Holiday weekend was to start the arduous and lengthy task of recceing (knowledge = power, confidence and foresight) John's biggest target to date - the Northern Traverse - 190 miles self-supported Ultra, following Wainwrights Coast to Coast from St Bees to Robin Hoods Bay, April 2020, with 5 days to complete (on foot).
We had discussed various options of how we were to go about this, John coming up with the idea of carrying a temporary home on our backs for a couple of days and doing a bit of wild camping. We decided (I persuaded) that as novice wild campers and carriers of really, really heavy backpacks and that one of us deals really badly with the cold, that perhaps we should ease ourselves into the dirt-bag lifestyle and do an out and back of the first leg of the journey, then move along the route in the car and do the same from point 2. We decided to leave out the first section for now (St Bees to Ennerdale - approx 14 miles) on the basis this should be relatively easy to navigate - fresh, daylight and among other people. So - park up at Ennerdale, walk from Ennerdale for as far as we could manage, put up tent for the night, wild camp and then head back the following day. Sounds straight forward enough.
Of course we had to buy a tent, a rucksack for me, a tiny stove, a new coat, freeze dried expedition rations and a poo trowel before we were set to go. I researched and studied maps like my life depended on it (I take my role as 2IC very seriously), made notes, and a book of Wainwrights route that a friend had lent us became bedtime reading. Be prepared. This is a good time to practice my own navigation too. I got out all the warmest layers I could find that wouldn't weigh me down too much - never has my packing been so minimal and organised... and then....
cue the hottest weekend of the year so far.
My anxiety was a little through the roof as we set off on the Friday morning - I can catastrophize better than anyone I know and if anything could go wrong on this kind of trip, I will have dreamt it up as the worst case scenario. I put my heavy rucksack on, breathed deep, pretended all was going to be OK and trundled along behind John, who was full of his usual enthusiasm and already 10 spaces in front, even though we'd only been going 5-10 minutes. We set off up Angler's Crag (on Wainwrights advice, rather than trying to shimmy round the very dangerous shale at the bottom) and I instantly realise that I'm in a bit of trouble. I can't breathe going up the hill, I feel slow and sluggish, but more than that - I'm in excruciating pain in my shoulders (and neck) with the rucksack. I don't think I can walk 20 minutes, never mind 20 miles. John recognises I'm struggling and insinuates I may need to adjust the pack.
"I can't do anything with the pack - it's just really heavy." I think I'm going to cry.
He finds a couple of straps at the top that I didn't know existed, pulls them tight, which brings the top of the pack into my shoulders rather than dangling/dragging 3 inches away.
"Oh..." that's a little better. FFS Jenkins.
The journey becomes a little easier after that, although we are picking our way through stony ground initially, so it's not fast going, and of course it gets hotter and hotter as the day goes on. As we hit the forest path on a steady uphill, I start to become a little conscious of how much water we are (or aren't) carrying and hope to god we find somewhere to fill up.
We reached the Black Sail Hut YHA after about 3 hours or so of walking non stop in the heat. Wainwright describes it as the loneliest of all Youth Hostels in Lakeland. Not on this day. It was like heaven on a hill, and there were loads of other people who clearly felt the same. Not only could we fill up our water bottles, there is also an honesty shop where you can make your own cups of tea, coffee, etc. and buy flapjacks and crisps.
We had a rest, a cuppa and a bite to eat (crisps to get the salts back in and some delicious flapjack). This set us up in fine form for the climb up Seavy Knott, which is a very steep, stepped hill and a challenge with a heavy pack on your back (weight distribution - lean in). Steady away, take your time, rest when you have to.
Over the top we were treated to some magnificent views. The bonus of the hot weather was that we could see for miles and as John says, "your eyeballs just aren't big enough to take it all in". As we headed down to Honister I knew we had done the worst of the work for the day and started to relax a little bit. John bought me an ice cream at the Honister cafe - bliss.
Seatoller was the next marked stop point in the notes, but there's not an awful lot there so we headed straight to Rosthwaite, at which point we had covered about 14.5 miles, and walked for 7 hours or so. We stocked up with more water for camping and treated ourselves to a well earned pint.
I have to admit it was tough to leave the pub. Feet were sore and hot and we still had a little way to go. John had earmarked a spot on the map a couple of miles away in Stonethwaite, but we had to walk past a campsite to get there - fields and fields (literally HUGE campsite) full of Bank Holiday revellers, relaxing, enjoying the sunshine, drinking beer, eating barbecues, children playing in the river...tempting.
We found a lovely quiet spot, and then the next challenge - putting up the tent together - the maker and breaker of relationships. We make a pretty good team - John tells me how he would like me to help, and I do as I'm told. Saves millions of arguments.
It went up quick and easy and once happy with the tent we cooked our freeze dried expedition rations, drank a little Benedictine from the hip flask, had a baby wipe wash and settled into our sleeping bags before nightfall had even arrived.
DAY 1 - A HOT BUT TIRING SUCCESS