Having spent years hiking along popular trails in the UK, I thought it was time to take things up a notch and start exploring ‘the road not taken’, as Frost would say. To prepare for these new explorations however, we signed up on the Mountain Skills course with North East Guides, ready to learn the ropes – or should that be maps?
Our weekend course took place in Scafell, home to the highest mountain in England and the main draw for most visitors to the area. Which is a shame in some ways, because there are equally challenging and beautiful mountains to explore in the area. After a brief chit-chat about the course and what to expect, we headed on up to Base Brown with our guide Peter, to put our skills to practice use.
The start of the trail began at Seathwaite Farm but quickly ascended eastwards, using the waterfall as a handrail. Peter trains the mountain rescue dogs, and luckily we had two of them on our weekend course: Rhona and Bess. With two excitable dogs eager to dash up the mountains and play fetch in their spare time while waiting for us, they quickly led us up towards the summit.
The Mountain Skills course is an excellent introduction to navigational skills to help you go ‘off-road’, and more importantly understand the environment around you and read it on the map. While popular trails are regularly signposted, if you want to explore the areas in between the trail markings on the map, it’s helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve in case you wind up in a tight spot…literally.
After reaching the source of the waterfall, we abruptly went off track and, reading the contours on the map and ground, zigzagged our way up to the summit of Base Brown. Lesson 1: it turns out that sometimes the easiest route to the summit is not always the most straightforward. Lesson 2: ‘false summits’ are definitely a thing and appear more often than are wanted….
Within minutes of reaching the summit of Base Brown, the clouds that had been hanging over us all day moved in, greatly reducing visibility. Luckily Peter also had some good techniques for navigating in limited visibility, as well as ensuring groups do not become separated in adverse conditions. As for Rhona and Bess, they simply used their sense of smell and dashed off into the fog – it was always a surprise when they reappeared suddenly out of the clouds!
At this point, the wind picked up and ploughed into us – they don’t call the area Windy Gap for nothing! Keen to get out of the wind we made our way downhill via Aaron Slack, eager to tuck into some lunch at the bottom by Styhead Tarn (Rhona and Bess included). Lesson 3: always make sure you pack for all weather, because good chances are you will get it in the UK…
The inclement weather followed us down the mountain, and so after a short stop to gobble our lunch we continued northwards. Our path used the River Derwent as a handrail, but gradually we found ourselves climbing higher, away from the path, and onto some exciting scrambling routes. Each one was higher than the last, and in my elation to be outdoors climbing on rock, I completely forgot about the rain and wind, which had by then left us.
The grand finale of the route was the last scramble, a fairly challenging climb that emerged onto the stunning Taylorgill Force waterfall.
Admittedly, the thought of spending weekends in the rain and wind to hike up boggy mountains isn’t an idea that appeals to many. But the Mountain Skills course teaches the basics of navigating and assessing hazards in the great outdoors. It gives you the ability and freedom to go off the path well trodden, at any moment you like, and explore parts of the UK that few venture. And I’m sure the promise of new adventures is something everyone can sign up for.