It is true the best stories are about taking risks, enduring hardships, or overcoming insurmountable obstacles. Preferably, time is of the essence and the odds are against you. No one wants to listen to a story about playing it safe. Since we returned from our trip to the United Kingdom in 2017, I have told this same story countless times and probably as many different ways, yet it never fails to transport me back to a time when I was just a tiny speck on a massive and ancient peak in the Lakes District.
We arrived in Keswick, Cumbria on July 1st, 2017, barely stalling out as we crept our way up yet another narrow and unappeasable hill (Britain seems to be full of them) to the Ellergill Guest House bed and breakfast. Keswick is a small town on the shores of lake Derwentwater, it’s original occupants predating any written records. Derwentwater is surrounded by small settlements, smooth-topped peaks (called fells), and scooped out valleys. Hiking all of the fells is a lifetime pursuit, and in the 1950’s, the locally famous Arthur Wainwright published a series of seven books detailing each one. The photos are all hand drawn and given such care and attention, you feel as if you are reading a treasure map. I gripped the pages a little tighter, enveloping each word like honey on a spoon, and searching for some hidden but essential clue.
On our first full day in Keswick, we set out through the town for a hike to CastleRigg Stone Circle, a steep but relatively short hike from the city center. In the midst of a sheep pasture, a circle of thirty-eight megaliths stands guard over the valley below.
After this beautiful hike, I was feeling pretty ambitious and we headed back to our room to plan out the rest of the day. Our bed and breakfast had an assortment of hiking guides in various states of entropy. Feeling a strong kinship for all things worn and well-loved, I picked up a small yellow manual written for American travelers with black and white print and plenty of notes scribbled into the margins. I came upon a page that described a “highly pleasurable ramble for walkers of all ages and abilities.” The idea of a “ramble” felt so quintessentially English, I needed no further convincing that this was the “ramble” for me. Unfortunately, this hike was only 2.5 miles round trip, and we had the entire day ahead of us. Flipping through the book I found a longer version of this walk at 6.5 miles estimated to take about 4.5 hours. Perfect! It was just barely 1pm now and the last bus back home left at 6:55pm. What could go wrong?
Following the map for the route “Catbells & High Spy”, we hopped a ferry to the trailhead and began our hike. Though the climb was treacherous and often rocky, we saw people of all ages scrambling their way to the top of Catbells fell. We were in good spirits, and when we finally got to the top, we were triumphant. It felt like the thick white blanket of clouds opened up just for us; the summer sun poured over the valley below and illuminated the path to our hard won victory. It was breathtaking, so perhaps we lingered there too long.
The trail continued along the ridge to the fell Maiden Moor. Though we had completed our initial summit while climbing Catbells, the trail would plateau momentarily before whipping up and down like a dragon’s tail, obscuring our view to the even high and steeper climbs ahead of us. It felt like every rocky scramble we surmounted revealed an even longer, harder climb just ahead. It was mentally exhausting, and to make matters worse, this terrain made it impossible to tell when we had actually reached the top of Maiden Moor and also when we started to descend it.
Our final summit was High Spy, marked by a massive stone cairn. By this time we were exhausted, running out of water, and sick of “rambling”. The air was getting cooler and the wind picked up. With only an hour to descend over 2,000 meters before the last scheduled bus, panic set in. There was no clear trail marker to guide us back down the mountain. The manual mentioned turning left at a small cairn, but centuries of hikers had left stone cairns speckled all the way down the ridge. We came across one lone female hiker who attempted to give us directions, but after twenty minutes we were still not descending though we saw a trail below us heading down.
Rather than wait for the paths to converge, we b-lined it straight through a grassy peat field. Within seconds, our boots sunk into a hidden wetness below, the soil so waterlogged that murky black water flooded our boots. At this point, Britton had reached his tolerance level, and I did not blame him. He howled in anger and pain as he twisted his ankle dragging his waterlogged feet through the muck. We would miss our bus. We would be stuck on this mountain all night. We’d die from exposure. We’d never make it back to the guesthouse. The only pair of shoes he packed would never dry. We’ll break our legs. We’ll break our necks. He was panicking.
Barely half way down the mountain, we now had thirty minutes to spare. Still standing in water, I looked at Britton who was walking, slightly favoring one side. I did not know if we would make it down to our bus in time, but I knew we could make it down the mountain. I surged forward, kicking up grass and mud, and pulled Britton along by the sheer force of my will. “Where are you going?” Britton screamed.
We were going to get down this mountain. We were going to drink a beer tonight in a pub. I kept telling him to just keep moving, and though he resisted every single step, he dutifully followed me down pastures littered with sheep poop (I stepped in all of it – I did not care) and through an abandoned slate mine ripe with tripping hazards and plate-sized pieces of sharp, slippery rock. I was terrified every second that one of us would fall to our deaths, but I was a woman on a mission, ignoring my husbands pleas behind me in an all out effort to get us back to safety.
When our feet finally hit a stone road, I began speed walking with Britton still trailing behind me miserably. If I hadn’t been focused on finding the bus stop, a stroll through the small community of Rosthwaite would have been bucolic, peaceful. We zoomed past small homes and businesses, shuttered for the night. My legs objected to every movement, but I was just short of a sprint when we turned a corner to discover the main road and a small bus stop covered in vines. My watch said 6:55pm. Was the bus running late or early?
A minute went by but it felt like a heartbeat. A whirring mechanical sound announced the arrival of a double decker local bus. It swung around the corner, stopping abruptly. The bus driver pulled open to door in surprise, and said, “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
You and me both, sir.
What followed was the most cathartic bus ride I have ever taken. Collapsing onto a seat at the front of the bus, gazing out the second story windows, we watched the countryside roll by like a waking dream. The fells that nearly killed us were towering over us again, looking down with indifference. Our 4.5 hour “ramble” took 6 hours and left us mentally and emotionally drained. I felt terrible for leading us into this mess, but I also felt elated that I got us out of it as well.
In the year or so since this hike, Britton and I still look back on this adventure fondly, and appreciate the knowledge we gained. My love of hiking has only intensified since our trip, but I can assure you, any future trip to the Lakes District will include plenty of extra time, plenty of water, and the most updated hiking guide I can find.