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Suffering in the Pennines: Middleton to Alston

PostPosted: Wed May 23, 2018 9:46 am
by Cricket
My friend Alex and I have been on various adventures together: from cycling to Paris at 16 or cycling 5000 miles down the west coast of North America at 20. This however was by far the most at risk I have felt on any of our various adventures and taught me a great deal of respect for the 'small' mountains we have here in Britain.
As we now live in separate places (myself in Manchester and Alex in Oxford) we rarely get out on adventures but as we were both home just before Christmas we decided to make the most of the time and hike 40 miles (more like 45 with our navigation issues) of the Pennine Way from Middleton to Alston on the basis that we could stay in Greg's Hut so wouldn't need to carry a tent (MISTAKE!) and it hits so many iconic places on the Pennine Way: Low Force, High Force, Cauldrons Snout, High Cup Nick, Cross Fell etc.
Alex got to my house nice and early at 6:15am meaning we were able to get to Alston for 9:30- the taxi we ordered arrived just as we did which we took to the start of our hike in Middleton. The weather was holding out nicely and we enjoyed the easy hiking past low force, high force, catching up on each others lives all the way to Cauldron Snout. The section leading to the snout (being on rocks and wet planks) took slightly more concentration as, although it had not been raining, the surfaces were very wet making slipping a real risk. Cauldron Snout is one of the most spectacular places I've been to in the UK as although any individual fall of water was not as large as high force it was collectively an enormous cascade which seems to go on for about 400 metres!
At this point we started heading away from the river and up into Dufton Fell. Here the going got boggier and the visibility reduced leading us to accept that High Cup Nick wouldn't be looking at its spectacular best for our visit (an excuse to go back at least!). Indeed our first stop of the day was by this landmard and we enjoyed a pack of pringles (which Alex was delighted to discover I had brought) relieved that, despite only staring down the foggy valley, the pub was now less than two hours off and would be our next stop. After no more than 5 minutes we were off and after marvelling at the horse tracks up some very steep slopes were blasting down to Dufton and the promise of beer!
By the time we got to Dufton, the sun had well and truly set which put us in the wonderful position of not caring when we ventured off again as it was going to be pitch black whatever and, as our overnight spot was to be Greg's Hut, we didn't need to worry about putting our tent up in the dark. We were slightly perturbed on finding we had 9 miles left rather than the expected 4 miles but, after (foolishly) deciding not to stay in the youth hostel whatever, we shrugged our shoulders as something we would simply have to deal with.
The Stag Inn was great, in fact perhaps a bit too great, as pie, beer and a fire kept us far longer than was probably sensible and after over 2 hours we dragged ourselves away putting on our shoes and gaiters with some trepidation but relieved that the visibility didn't appear too bad.
The going started quite easily and our head-torches meant that we could see where we were going. As we climbed higher however we noticed the fog getting thicker. By the time we reached the top of Knock Fell we were aware that what we were walking through was practically a bog, with fog meaning we couldn't see each other's headlight past 20 metres away, the rain started and the wind began howling.
I went into my hiking 'zombie trance' which is used whenever I realise I am up a creek without a paddle and I just need to put my head down and get on with it. The three peaks which remained (Great Dun Fell, Little Dun Fell, and Cross Fell) seemed a world away. We put on our last few layers (a down jacket and extra buff for me) and after failing repeatedly to put my waterproof cover on my backpack without the wind ripping it off shrugged and started hiking north.
Some of the tops of these mountains are paved with slabs which meant that navigation was easier but the darkness was disorientating and the visibility so bad that we rarely found ourselves on these and instead were constantly slightly off track- dragging our feet out of mud, not caring about the water seeping into our boots as long as we were getting closer to our shelter for the night. The going was really slow with the next mile taking at least 45 minutes. At this point we found a road leading up to Great Dun Fell and took it. This was a relief both physically and mentally as we had a solid surface below our feet and could simply follow the white line before us. Having got to the top we debated knocking on the door of the weather station asking for shelter but didn't know if there were people inside and if there was where they would be staying and were worried of getting cold standing about. We kept going and were delighted to follow the paving slaps for a few hundred metres before once again losing it. This time saying goodbye for good. Dragging ourselves over Little Dun Fell we made our way up to the final peak relieved by the snow which meant we could see a couple of metres in front of us rather than just at our feet. We got to the top exhausted but relieved. Both of our GPSs were on low charge so we didn't stop but instead charged down to the bothy. We started heading down but found ourselves in mud which was even deeper than before coming up to our high calves and every so often losing an entire leg into the bog. There were stones about though and so cautiously, not wanting to slip and add new problems to our situation, used these as stepping stones down from the peak. Our route to the bothy was amusing as, having been trying to avoid the worst of the bog and with no idea where the trail was, we came to it from the east rather than the west. Having said that we didn't care as we finally could stop just at the clock ticked past 12:30am with our mileage up to 31 miles (not including detours into/avoiding bogs!)
Thankfully a gentleman had hiked up from Garrigill and had the fire going so, after shoving some M&Ms into our mouths, we got into our beds more than a little relieved.
As if to mock us the next day was glorious sunshine and we slowly trundled our way back to the car and after an easy 10 miles down from Greg's Hut and then along the river, we were delighted to get back to the car in the dry and to give our legs a break after what had been a more intense work out than we had originally anticipated!