Using digital to practice old school navigation

I love navigation challenges and having done my first orienteering event in the cold damp months of February I was disappointed when Covid hit that there wouldn’t be more over the summer.

Back in February when being given a paper map at the start and food at the end was what events were about…

Then a friend introduced me to a series of virtual orienteering runs via the East Pennine Orienteering Club (EPOC) and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Virtual Orienteering

Virtual Orienteering has become a popular activity with both Orienteering clubs and event organisers using technology to provide ‘events’ for people to continue to participate in activities.

Whilst there’s a few different apps available, most are using MapRunF which is free to download and simple to use. The app allows the facility to ‘cheat’ (assuming its not been disabled by the event organiser!) by following the red line you create as you move.

Given clubs are using it to replace the punch and card of old orienteering events, most are disabling this function and ensuring participants use good old paper maps which can be downloaded from their own websites.

EPOC events have been great fun as they’ve kept them both short and urban to encourage participation. Theres a choice of length for the linear runs and sometimes there’s score events if you want to freestyle.

I quickly became addicted to racing round villages and parks trying to get my phone to ping at the checkpoints.

A lovely event around Scammonden Reservoir area…

…but with my head down looking for the right spot I forgot about considering route choice as I headed through brambles

Having the opportunity to do a weekly event has been great fun for encouraging me to be active when I’ve been feeling lazy and fed up. It has also given me something to be competitive about at a time when there’s been little happening – which has certainly brought the fun back into navigating.

My attempt at Holmfirth Long event and how it looks on the result page of MapRunF
how the paper map looks to get around the course

During this never-ending period of ‘not-lockdown-but-not-normal’ a number of race event organisers have also been using the MapRunF to organise free events, enabling people to get remain engaged with their events and encouraging new people out.

While I’ve been running races for a couple of years the race in the cold wet months of February was the first time I ever tried an orienteering event. So full of the excitement of EPOC events I had a go at the Explore Events Peak Raid events series.

Set in the White Peak, an area not that far from home but not one I’ve really explored much, this ticked all the boxes for me. A chance to try 2 hour events and get more mileage in my runs at the same time as explore new places. I wasn’t taking the races seriously enough to try to win, it was more about having a go and testing myself.

Via the end of the 4 events I had battled through head high bracken, been eaten alive by midges on sweaty hot evenings, slide down the steepest path into Castleton and been chased through a field by a herd of scary cows.

While I’d happily finished the first event half an hour early as I’d had a nice run, by the 4th event I was definitely zigzagging to get as many checkpoints as possible and actually being frantically competitive!

Geocaching – a geeks treasure hunt

During Lockdown my mountaineering club had virtual catchups with members. During one of these Laura presented on Geocaching. I’m not going to explain what geocaching is as its been around for decades now and if you haven’t heard of it you’ve clearly been hiding under a rock.

Having had a look at the map and discovered I seemed to be surrounded by geocaches around my village, and being trapped at home I took myself out for a spot of hunting.

Now I have to say, there is nothing about geocaching which translates to traditional navigation skills. You basically look at the app on your phone and follow it to find a cache, sometimes solving a puzzle along the way to find the right location.

That said, it is a fun way to get out and find yourself in very odd locations – rummaging down the side of a fence in the long grass for a box, or under a rock on the top of the moors. Its certainly made a few of my local runs a bit more interesting when I’ve been fed up of running the same routes.

If you find yourself a bit bored, geocaching can certainly give you the excuse you need to get out. Many of the caches give you interesting information about the local area, history and geology.

Going digital then?

In a word, no.

I do use digital mapping for planning routes, or quickly checking something when I’m out running. But I love a paper map a bit too much and don’t trust phones to not die when I’m out.

I’m a firm believer that being able to navigate is a life skill everyone should have – that there’s nothing more confidence building than being able to head out with a map and have a fantastic walk. Its also essential to avoid being the idiot who had to call out mountain rescue as all you had was a mobile phone which ran out of battery.

I do promote the OSLocate app to all who come on my courses as its a fantastic free tool to give you a grid reference when you need it. And unlike What3Words doesn’t require you to have mobile phone coverage so will work even when you don’t have data. Giving you a quick grid reference allows you to see where you are on a map and get yourself back to where you need to be. (I might rant about W3W another time)

OSLocate is free on Android and IOS so get it downloaded.

Thank to all the Orienteering clubs and event organisers who have embraced technology and despite the massive organising effort have provided free events for everyone to participate in. I’m hooked on randomly running around the countryside to get my phone to ping, so long may they continue!

The 6 Trigs Circular

Stuck at home during the Covid-19 Lockdown I decided there had to be challenges I’d not done before right on my doorstep. Staring at an OS map it occurred to me my home in Marsden was surrounded by Trig points at some pretty good locations – and so the 6 Trigs circular was born!

The 6 Trigs Circular – 39 km /24 miles

Starting in Marsden village, the joy of this route is that it is possible to do as much or as little of it as you like. The route circles the Marsden area on mostly well marked trails with some good alternative paths to shorten the route.

The only exception to this is perhaps Black Hill – the route I took to get off the hill is the Old Pennine Way which is not very good, and I would definitely say avoid in bad weather as it would be easy to get lost.

While the route is mostly on good tracks and trails, definitely take a map if you don’t know the area well, as you could get easily caught out in poor weather.

If you want to see the route on OS Maps and download a GPX file here’s the link and here’s a zipped GPX file.

Route Description

Heading from Marsden cross the A62 and take the Kirklees Way path up the Wessenden Valley. The route here takes you past Butterley, Blackley and Wessenden Reservoirs as you head up the valley on the track.

As the track passes Wessenden Lodge it narrows and become a path. From here it then winds into Sike Clough and then Layzing Clough. Just before crossing the bridge at Layzing Clough you will see a faint path in the grass that heads uphill, and as you head further uphill this becomes more worn and easier to follow. While not an official footpath you’re on access land here so able to walk on this moorland. Follow the path as it heads uphill towards the visible Ravens Rocks.

Here you need to cross the fence and continue to follow the path, which eventually becomes a worn vehicle track, towards West Nab trig pillar.

From here you can see down into Holmfirth, Huddersfield and beyond.

From West Nab trig pillar head down hill and onto Wessenden Head Road.

Looking back up to West Nab from the road.

Watch the traffic as you follow the road, to reach the A635 Greenfield Road. Cross over here (definitely watch for speeding cars) and follow the paved Pennine Way path up to Black Hill summit.

This section is very easy to follow as its paved pretty much all the way, but as the sign says avoid this section after heavy rain as one of the rivers which you cross can be impossible if it is spate.

As you head uphill here you feel like you’re heading towards Holme Moss radio mast which is in the distant, but eventually the path steepens and leads you across the plateau to Black Hill trig pillar. Black Hill summit at 582m lies on the border of Kirklees in Yorkshire and High Peak in Derbyshire.

Looking towards Black Hill summit
The summit cairn
The summit Cairn on Black Hill

You can see from the height of the Trig Pillar (around a metre above the surrounding ground) there has been significant erosion of the moorland since it was erected in 1945. At the time the Pennine Way was created the route up to the summit involved wading through peat bogs, which had been stripped bare both through erosion from walkers but also pollution from the surrounding mills which had killed off vegetation.

Thanks to the construction of a paved path and moorland restoration work Black Hill is now grassy again. If you want to see the history of the landscape this is a great article.

From the summit of Black Hill head Northwest on a small worn grass path, which eventually becomes more visible as it wanders down the hill. The is the old Pennine Way path – if you’re not confident with a compass I would double back the way you came from the summit trig.

The path reaches the flattening plateau and around the spot height marked on the map as 506m (but frankly, good luck to you if you can ascertain the spot on the landscape) it crosses a few river beds and then totally vanishes. In poor weather you would have to have a compass, experience and faith. In good visibility you can just about make out wooden posts which guide the way across the moorland.

Time to follow your compass!

There’s a new fence line to cross just after the most northerly of the fords at Dean Head Moss. From here keep following the posts and/or compass to eventually pick up the end of the old fence line which is marked on the map. From here follow the path (black dotted line on the map not the green right of way which isn’t on the ground) to reach the road. Phew, thats your only actual trick navigation section!

Here cross back over the A635 and head left along the road to continue to the small car park to follow the path (thankfully paved).

There’s been three moorland fires already this year so to avoid the devastation we had in 2019 the Fire Service are out monitoring the use of the moors.

To reach the third trig on this route requires an out-and-back dog leg, which perhaps lends itself to being cut from the route for anyone wishing to shorten it.

Looking at the map it would seem like the route is a wander across a pathless moorland to reach the Broadstone Hill trig pillar. However, as anyone in the South Pennines knows, if you see a perfectly straight waterway marked on a map it’s an old waterway conduit and as such is highly likely to have a path running alongside it. As it happens this one does and is well worn thanks to it being used by the gamekeepers to access the grouse butts nearby.

The start of the conduit is picked up at a point where there is a wooden sign.

From here it is 3 km to reach the trig pillar. When you get to where the conduit starts to head down hill there is a sheep fold marking where the path turns off to reach the trig itself. See, you’re never the first person to think a route to a trig pillar is possible.

From here you can see across Saddleworth and into Manchester.

As I turned around to head back along the conduit it started to drizzle. Not proper rain but just enough to make my run along the route feel like it was perhaps not going to be completed. As I reached the paved path again I was wondering if it was sensible to bail off when I reached the Standedge trail path.

Once back on the paved path I headed north towards Black Moss Reservoir and towards Marsden, joining up with the Pennine Way path again just after the reservoir.

On reaching the Standedge Trail I convinced myself I could at least do one more trig point and perhaps bail off later on, so continued on towards the A62 at Standedge. This is another point on the route to watch out for traffic.

It would be so easy to bail off and head for Marsden here!

Here you continue along the Pennine Way to reach the Millstone Edge trig pillar overlooking Castleshaw and Delph.

The route here is rocky as it passes the Dinner Stone and continues on. When you reach the stone way marker continue on the Pennine Way, across the moors towards Haigh Gutter.

Once at Haigh Gutter it’s possible to drop down the path into Marsden if you wish to cut the route short.

At this point there’s another out-and-back leg to reach the White Hill Trig point, just outside of Yorkshire in Lancashire. Crossing the A640 continue to follow the Pennine Way for 1.5km to reach the trig pillar.

At White Hill you’ve also crossed the border into Lancashire.

Once you’ve doubled back to the A640 there’s no other way to reach Cupwith without a long slog along the road. By this point of running the route I was trotting rather than running and grateful for little traffic. This isn’t a super busy road but as its over the moors traffic does tend to speed along.

looking down to March Haigh reservoir

Unfortunately its about 3.5km along the road to reach Cupwith, passing Buckstones Edge along the way. Once you’ve passed the carpark at Buckstones the road has a better verge.

Turn off the road at the first lay-by where there is a gate and the trig is visible. From here take the worn grassy path to reach Cupwith trig pillar. Number 6!

From here the route back to Marsden is to drop down to the Kirklees Way/Colne Valley Circular path next to Cupwith reservoir. While slightly longer I’d head on the North side of the reservoir to avoid a bog where the drainage ditch on the south side ends.

From here follow the Colne Valley Circular path downhill, where it joins the old Huck Hill Lane and circles between properties to drop you on the road near Marsden station. From here you can stroll/ hobble down to one of the many pubs or cafes to refuel.

6 Trigs!

Deviations/ Escape routes

Along the route there are many options for shortening the route if you so wish. The two trigs of White Hill and Broadstone Hill for example could easily be missed out.

The Standedge Trail after Black Moss Reservoir can be used to head back downhill to the village, as can the path from Haigh Gutter and the A640.

There’s loads of fantastic paths to why not explore them all, just make sure you have a map!

Of course there’s one more….

Yes I missed a trig pillar out. The observant of you will note that very close to Marsden there is also the trig pillar of Krives just East of Deer Hill Reservoir. I opted to miss this one out knowing that is in in the middle of quite difficult to access fields and I decided didn’t qualify as it wasn’t on ‘moorland’ terrain…..

Perhaps there’s a more urban version to do, which sends me out towards Huddersfield but I suspect that might include a lot of wading in undergrowth!

Tackling the Colne Valley Circular

I first walked the Colne Valley Circular when I moved to Kirklees 11 years ago. All I recall of that time was the mud, failing to find the route properly above Slaithwaite and more mud.

Trapped at home over Easter I decided to run the route one afternoon and figure out if it really was as bad as I remembered.

The Route

Firstly, if you’re keen to walk (or indeed run) the Colne Valley Way you absolutely must have a map. This is a route which is NOT well signposted and at various points it actually feels like you’re being prevented from progress. Persevere though, as the route has some hidden treasures along the way.

If you want a GPX of the route download this zip file.

The Colne Valley Circular is 13 miles long. I began from my home in Marsden, a perfect place to start as there’s a great selection of cafe’s and pubs to eat at when you finish.

Heading out of Marsden you walk through the derelict Crowther’s Mill and up the steep steps at Butterley Dam. If you want to know more about the history of Marsden I highly recommend a visit to the Marsden History Group webpage and Huddersfield Exposed for history of the reservoir.

From here head up the road slightly and pick up the path heading up to the farms and continue up the hillside. From here the route circles the hillside, dropping down briefly to a little bridge and back up to pass old quarries and past the Piper Stones before reaching Meltham Road.

From Meltham road the path drops down and passes another fantastic bench before it turns to cross fields and follows old lanes, passing farms and houses above Slaithwaite. Take note of the map as its not always clear when you reach farms which way the path continues to take you across the fields ahead.

There’s some fantastic benches along the route, and my favourite is the one closest to my house with possibly the best view of Marsden.

As it reaches Varley Road at Slaithwaite you also reach possibly the muddiest section of the route, at Kitchen Clough. Here the route drops down below the road and heads into the first field on your left. You’ll never spot the hidden stile here, and the sign ahead makes it look like you should go ahead. Don’t – you really do have to head left and into the boggy field. Yes the broken fence is the exit from the bog to cross the river. Good luck.

From here stick to the right side of the field as you’re heading for the house above to exit the field and onto the road. Its again not obvious.

Continue across fields, passing Heywoods Farm and on towards Linthwaite. When you reach houses make sure you turn left to head downhill towards the road.

Crossing the road you drop down the lane to the mill, through the yard (past the Bat Tower) and pick up the Huddersfield Narrow Canal to follow it towards Golcar.

The route crosses the road near the Titanic Mill, at continues along the canal before crossing it, and heading up through the woodland on an old track. Here you emerge in Golcar and head continuously uphill, passing through one of the many ginnels on the Golcar Lily ginnel trail.

At this point I confess to no longer running along the route as it is quite a steep continuous climb from the canal to the high point on the Colne Valley circular at Golcar. As you reach the end of the lanes and into the edge of Heath House Wood, I had to wonder why the route didn’t follow the steep drop down into the woodland and back up again (a nice alternative) but instead did a huge dog-leg around the top of the Clough. Perhaps I was tired in the sunshine.

Whilst it does feel like a dog-leg, it provides a good view across the valley to Golcar. Follow the path across the fields and right at the lane towards the Golcar Lily pub (a good stop for food or drink).

Following the roads you eventually drop downhill to Crimble Clough, (where the path isn’t obvious to access at the houses); drop into the Clough and back up again into the fields to Highfield Farm.

Its best to follow the road around Heath farm to access the route, which then crosses fields to head to Wilberlee.

At Wilberlee the route follows the lane downhill and round to Intake Road, before crossing through the farm and fields towards Merry Dale. Keep straight ahead along here, as its not always obvious where the route goes, especially in some of the fields.

Merry Dale is a lovely little valley; a cobbled lane takes you down into the woodland before it rises back out again on a stony track.

From the top of the track I would personally continue straight up to the road to end up near the Rose and Crown pub (another good stop), as the route across the fields towards Wham farm is not only not clear, but barred at one point by a temporary fence.

I’m inclined to think its down to the renovations at the farm to create expensive houses which has lead to the path no longer being attractive to homeowners there….

Eventually the road runs out and you pick up the path across Slaithwaite Moor. Where the path meets the Kirklees Way and heads downhill to Marsden, there’s another fantastic bench – you’ll have to go and check this one out as by that point I forgot I was taking pictures of them!

In winter the route downhill can be muddy but dries out quickly in the sun and sections have been paved in the last 10 years.

As you head downhill through the farm, you pass what I think is the only finger post which marks the CVC.

If you’ve headed out along the route I’d love to know your favourite bits and those you found a nightmare to navigate!

Pioneering First Ascents in the Western Zaalaisky, Kyrgyzstan

The KMC expedition achieved four new unclimbed peaks in the Pamir Mountains of Kyrgyzstan during a three week period of exploration and climbing. The expedition was 18 months in the making. We were a team of : Steve Graham, Stuart Hurworth, Jared Kitchen, Andrew Stratford, Andrew Vine and myself.

The Team along with our Russian support crew. Left to right: Andy S, Roslan (driver) Alex (cook), Andy V, Steve, Stuart, me, Jared and Sasha (cook)

The planning involved a significant amount of research to identify a location with enough scope for first ascents. Whilst there are still a significant amount of unclimbed peaks in Kyrgyzstan, some areas have had a lot of exploration in the last 5-10 years, so honing our focus down to the Western Zaalaisky took some time and advice which I sought from the Kyrgyz Alpine Club.

It also involved organising the logistics of getting there (enabled by our awesome driver Roslan), hiring base camp cook team to support us (the amazing Sacha and Alex), organising satellite communications and emergency procedures, procuring high altitude first aid supplies, ensuring we were all up to scratch with crevasse rescue, and of, course being fit enough to haul 25+ kg of kit each into the mountains to set up advanced base camps.

It was a time consuming feat of logistics. We are grateful for financial support we received for the trip from The Alpine Club, The BMC, The Mount Everest Foundation, Austrian Alpine Club, Karabiner Mountaineering Club and support with kit and supplies from Montane and Expedition Foods.

The Western Zaalaisky, Pamir Mountains

The Western Zaalaisky is in the Pamir Mountain range, 280km south of the Eastern city of Osh.

On arriving in Osh our first task was shopping for three weeks worth of base camp food at the local supermarket with Sacha and Alex, a process which involved filling a staggering eight supermarket trolleys with supplies.

In our six- wheel Russian truck it took us two days to get from Osh to the entrance to our intended valley, just beyond the town of Daroot Korgan. On the way we crossed high mountain passes and passed through the Silk Road Town of Sary Tash, where we stopped for the night in a little motel, popular with Silk Road motorbike trips.

Our Beast stopping on the mountain pass to let the engine cool

The Altyn Daria valley

From Daroot Korgan we headed immediately south, on dirt roads into the mountains towards the Tajikistan border. Despite the appearance of isolation the Altyn Daria valley isn’t as much of a wilderness as you’d expect.

Providing the main route from Daroot Korgan into Tajikistan, the valley does have a dirt road all the way through, albeit one which can only be crossed by a four-wheel drive vehicle. To enter the valley requires a border permit, checked by officials as you leave the tarmac road at Daroot Korgan. Even if you don’t intend to cross into Tajikistan, and this is checked at the bridge before you enter the valley.

The Beast on the dirt road through the Altyn Daria valley

The road through the valley follows the course of the Bel Uluu river which runs from the mountains at the Tajikistan border to the road at Daroot Korgan. Dotted through the valley are farmers nomadically herding cattle and sheep. During our stay we found they were keen to help us whenever they could, providing donkeys to help us cross the river and transport kit up one of the valleys, as well keeping base camp stocked with regular cream, bread and cheese.

View from our base camp to the Min Terke Buttress

The Altyn Daria valley also has a temporary army base at the foot of the Bel Uluu valley where Tajiki troops are based to check passports and permits of individuals in the area. You cannot head south of the base without a Tajikistan visa. As you can imagine they were particularly interested in us as foreigners, given few have visited the area; we had almost daily visits to our base camp.

Off the main expanse of the Altyn Daria valley lie other valleys where the remote climbing objectives lie. These alone could provide enough mountaineering for a full expedition.

Our base camp after a night of snow.
The Altyn Daria Valley with the main valleys we explored and some we intended to. The red stars highlight the first ascents climbed on this expedition.

Exploration in the Altyn Daria

The Min Terke

Crossing the Bel Uluu river the Min Terke valley runs east for around 14km. 4 km into the valley the Min Terke river forks where the Kash Casu valley and Min Terke valleys join.

We didn’t explore beyond this river junction of these valleys due to issues crossing the rivers, which are very fast flowing and very deep in comparison to the Bel Uluu river running down the main Altyn Daria valley. We tried to hire donkeys from local farmers but on being told we were heading into the Min Terke they were unwilling to loan donkeys to aid crossing this particular river. The river is so problematic that even the logistical force of the International School of Mountaineering (who arrived a week after us) quickly bailed on the valley.

If you have the ability to set up complex ladder crossings or Tyrollean traverses, then there are a wealth of unclimbed peaks in the Min Terke/ Kash Casu area which could occupy a whole expedition. We concluded that to do so it would be better to have a base camp established in Min Terke valley.

Jared on our morning exploration of the Min Terke valley
The junction of the Min Terke and Kash Casu rivers. This is as far as we explored into the valley as we couldn’t cross the rivers here and couldn’t convince farmers to lend donkeys to do so either.

The Bel Uluu valley

The Bel Uluu valley provides a great area for acclimatisation. At only 6km long it is achievable to gain altitude quickly without committing to a long walk in. The valley rises upwards to the Bel Uluu glacier, where, ascending the scree you reach three objectives – one of which, Ak Chukur at 4900m, our team got as a first ascent.

The Bel Uluu is marked by a temporary army check point, as it is close to the Tajikistan border, and they will definitely want to see your border permits to be in the area. From the camp a series of animal paths, some cairned by farmers, lead up to pastures.

The temporary army camp at the base of the Bel Uluu valley
Looking up the Bel Uluu valley
The high pasture at the head of the Bel Uluu valley
The screes onto the glacier
Glacier head wall.

From the pastures the land becomes broken and grassy moraine, though there is still suitable space for a high camp, before ascending the moraine to the glacier.

Jared, looking back down the valley, on our acclimatisation walk up to the glacier.

We each hauled 25+kg packs up the Bel Ulu valley to set up higher camps, this was a mammoth effort. Given the animal tracks it might be possible to hire a donkey to take kit up the valley. Had we done more research and reconnaissance before heading up the valley we might have realised this.

Either way, be aware that crossing the Bel Uluu river in the bottom of the valley isn’t easy without a donkey or a truck. We were lucky that the army were sufficiently bored that when we reached the river a second time to cross, they had built stepping stones.

The small corries off the Altyn Daria valley

High above the main Altyn Daria valley are high valleys which hide mountain summits.

Pik a Boo was climbed via the Northern Valley but Al Kalpak was better accessed via the Kok Kiki valley much further north.

The southerly and closest to our base camp Jared and I reccied and found only chossy moraine of big boulders and sand, making the whole area feel like a death trap. The glacier to the peaks wasn’t climbable either and any summits here need to be accessed from Tajikistan.

Looking at the back wall of the valley
The glacier on the valley wall – this is after the night of snow but still shows the heavy crevasses

We entered the northern valley via grassy pasture and a much more amenable moraine. Jared and I identified on our exploration that there was a potential route up the scree to peak 5171 (later named Ak Kalpak) and a line up the glacier avoiding the crevasse to the col, which could potentially take us to peak 5122 (named Pik a-Boo).

Potential access route to 5171 up the screes after the night of snow- we later decided this was objectively more dangerous due to potential rock fall, and opted for the glacier. Peak 5171 was later climbed from the Kok Kiki valley
The glacier covered by the night’s snow but even then we thought it had potentially to provide aa safe route to the col and onward to peak 5122, now known as Pik a Boo, climbed by myself, Steve and Jared.

The glacier at the head of the valley was at around 45 degrees which two days later made it possible for us to ascend and skirt around the ridge to reach 5122, one of the expedition’s first ascents and now known as Pik a-Boo or Skrytaya Gora in Russian. See this link for more details on our climb and route description should you be interested in repeating our climb.

Pik -a-Boo/ Skrytaya Gora topo

The Kok Kiki

About 6 km down the valley from our Base Camp the Kok Kiki starts with a cluster of farms at the entrance to the valley.

The walk into the Kok Kiki area is a gentler progression uphill following the river, through farm pastures with easy footpaths. 5km up the river the path splits to create two higher valleys. It’s possible to hire donkeys from the farm and take them up the valley to aid carrying kit.

Jared and the farmer loading packs
Steve walking into the Kok Kiki valley
The Kok Kiki valley just after our river crossing. To the right of the image is peak 5084 which Stuart, Andy and Andy attempted via the north facing glacier. This peak remains unclimbed.

We had teams in each of these valleys. Stuart and Andy V climbed the rocky ridge to reach the top of 5122 which they named Broken Peak. Jared and Steve climbed 5171 – now known as Ak Kalpak, named after the Kyrgyzstani traditional hat.

Peak 5171, now known as Ak Kalpak, successfully climbed by Steve and Jared.

Pik a-Boo First Ascent

On the 23rd August 2019 Steve Graham, Jared Kitchen and myself successfully climbed a first ascent of Pik a-Boo in the Western Zaalisky area of the Pamir Mountain range.

Whilst I explored all of the valleys on this expedition and aided the achieved of a two other summits by the team, Pik a-Boo was my only summit on the trip. For my personal account of this climb scroll to the bottom.

If you’re heading to the area and interested in repeating this route here is a route description.

Pik a-Boo (given name) 5077m.

First ascent 23 August 2019 Steve Graham, Jared Kitchen, Emily Thompson

Lat N 39 18’ 47.938 Long E 72 18’ 42.938

GPS: 5,077m (Soviet map 5,122m). (We discovered approx 50m differential on all of our summits).

Route topo

Approach

From our Advanced Base Camp climb 100m vertical and 1km across moraine scree to reach the glacier and the start of the route.

The moraine before reaching the glacier. (Photo by Jared Kitchen)

North Glacier route. Grade AD- 900m

Summit day climb: 9.5hrs.

Round trip (BC to BC): 3 days (2 nights).

The route across the glacier is climbing on ice and snow at an angle of 40-55 degrees. Initially follow the rocky band upwards to gain height above the crevasse and ascend across the glacier to the col at 4870m.

From the col head right and traverse several large undulating mixed and short steeper ice sections (up to 60 degrees) to the final summit approach. Final approach is a snow arete to the small rock pinnacle summit. The true summit is the last of three pinnacles.

Jared look at the route across the ridge and the snow arete beyond to the summit. The second col before the snow arete is hidden to the right of the photo. The summit of Pik a Boo is the high point on the right.

Note: unlike other valleys were the glacier is buried under moraine and it is possible to find a water source, there is no access to water in the valley even at ABC. This meant that we took additional water for our climb from base camp.

Climbing a Virgin Peak

The night before we left camp to reccie the Northern Valley, it has snowed and we awoke to the whole Altyn Daria valley looking picturesque and alpine.

Jared and I set off on the first of three reccie days with the intention of walking to the Kok Kiki but stopped short on the walk down the track to explore what I’ve called the Northern Valley. I was fatigued from portering kit up to the Bel Uluu advanced camp for the other group and was keen to cover less ground. The 8 km walk downhill to reach the entrance to the Kok Kiki was less attractive than a short uphill section to explore a valley closer to our base camp.

After much discussion we headed uphill. Of course it was a punt. We didn’t know what to expect as we couldn’t see into the hanging corries of the North and South Valleys from the Altyn Daria.

It turned out to be worth our while, not only for our continued acclimatisation, but also for what we found. On our reccie we ascended to over 4000m and left the grass and headed on to the moraine.

We walked up to a huge boulder on the moraine at around 4000m where we had a great vantage point to see the back of the hanging valley. From there Jared and I were confident there was at least one, if not two, climbing lines to the two summits from there.

The moraine on the walk into the valley was stable, albeit steep. We were also happy that the moraine was stable enough to be able to establish an advanced base camp from which to attempt a route.

The unknown was the final lines to the summit. Neither Peak 5122m or Peak 5171m are visible from the main Altyn Daria valley, so it wouldn’t be until we committed to climbing got the route we could determine if either summit were able to be reached from the Northern Valley.

It had snowed the night before our exploration day and so we had initially thought that the route to the left, on the scree was preferable. This would have taken us on the glacier to ascend point 5171m, later climbed from the Kok Kiki valley.

Scree route on to 5177m after a night of snow.

The North Glacier route on our exploration walk after a night of snow. The rock band would be bare when we returned.

Equipped with knowledge from our reccie we returned 3 days later with Steve joining us to attempt a route.

We left our Base Camp (3120m) around lunchtime. Carrying a lot more kit it took three and a half hour to climb up to the moraine and identify a site for our Advanced Base Camp, at around 4200m. We are grateful to Alexi and Sasha our base camp crew for supporting us by carrying additional water up to the end of the pasture. This was necessary with no available water sources in the valley.

This did mean Jared and Steve had to do a return trip from ABC to this location to collect the additional load. This left me about an hour or so to clear and flatten the scree sufficiently for our tent. As I moved rocks around and stamped down the shale I could see the snow storm in the valley, thankfully it never reached us and we were left with good conditions.

Spot the tent! (Photo by Steve Graham on our morning ascent)
Our pitch (photo by Steve Graham)

Once Jared and Steve returned and the tent was pitched we nestled in our sleeping bags for an evening of eating and chatting about the climbing lines.

With the surface snow melted and the scree on the left now bare, we decided that the left route was probably the least preferable to try, given the potential for rockfall. So we agreed to climb the glacier to the right, which would become our North Glacier route onto Pik a-Boo.

We awoke the following morning at 4.30am for breakfast and to kit up. We weren’t particular speedy as we didn’t start our ascent till 6.30am. A bit of kit faff and lots of breakfast eaten and tea drunk.

Jared and Steve ahead as we headed off to the glacier.

Climbing initially with head torches we soon had daylight as we reached the foot of the glacier, albeit we were in the shade right until the col at 4870m.

The initial climb up the glacier was slow due to the altitude but it wasn’t technical or strenuous. We ascended the glacier by its left edge, sticking close to the rocky ridge, before making a bold and committing traverse rightwards above the bergschrund to the col. The route had a 500m+ run out below us, but the good neve turned to good solid ice and the angle was not difficult so we climbed without protection, moving together.

Steve roping up as we head into the glacier. We headed up to the rock in the centre before traversing across.

Once at the col we had a break to refuel and assess the route ahead. The route to the left of the col would have led to a summit within Tajikistan, which we did not have a permit to enter and peak 5122m beyond it was a long way to traverse a ridge. So heading right was really the only choice if we wanted to claim a first ascent.

Me and Steve at the col looking at the route to the right leading to the Tajikistan summit. (Photo from Jared Kitchen)
Jared as we head across the ridge towards the final summit arête. To the right is the glacier dropping down to our camp. To the left of the rocky ridge is a drop over 900m down into Tajikistan

The traverse across the pinnacles looked like it should have been straight forward, but in fact the route undulates considerably. This meant we were never sure what was ahead and whether we would be able to progress.

The rock across this section is broken and friable and so it was preferable to stick to the ice.

Half way along the ridge we met a spicy section which required down climbing into the glacier, cross a crevasse and climbing back out again.

We climbed unprotected on this section and the condition of the ice was very good. On our return we placed ice screws to protect the descent on this section as the snow quality deteriorated in the sun.

Once we climbed out of the glacier we could see that the first of the rock summits was indeed the highest, but to reach it we would have to climb the snow arete.

We paused at the end of the ridge to eat and drink before Jared lead the final push to the summit up the snow. After the snow arête the final summit involved a scramble over friable rocky pinnacles to reach the true top. We arrived around 12pm.

The three of us at the summit!

We spent about 45 minutes at the summit taking photos and videos and taking gps altitude evidence. It was noted that the summit was actually 50m less than marked on the Russian map. Was it the poor quality of the rock which had crumbled over the years? Or a mistake in surveying initially?

As always the descent off the summit proved quicker, although the snow was deteriorating in quality so we were cautious about being safe. We protected the down-climb section on the ridge due to deteriorating quality of the snow. After a break at the col we headed off the ridge cautiously, down the glacier, to camp.

We arrived at the tent tired and elated. We stopped there for the night to refuel on food and sleep before descending to base camp the following morning.

Summit view into Tajikistan
Summit view into the Altyn Daria valley
Jared and I enjoying the view into Tajikistan as we descended. (Photo from Steve Graham)
Jared on the walk out to Base Camp

How do I feel about climbing a first ascent?

I’m still not sure, and that’s the truth. The expedition was a long 18 month of planning, and three weeks in country.

Having done all the exploratory work with Jared to aid the climbs on three of the route, I was certainly tired but happy to feel like I’d definitely seen everything and learnt a lot.

But I didn’t get the other two summits I reccied and walked into. Ak Chukar, the first, was an emotional acclimatisation period that changed the course of the trip for me and my outlook on how I would do this sort of trip again.

The second, Ak Kalpak, I have no hard feelings about. I walked up the moraine to see the glacier and was happy that for me it felt unachievable. Knowing that Jared and Steve found the route beyond the initial glacier challenging, and later graded it Difficile, I knew I’d made the right choice for me and for them.

Kyrgyzstan is an amazing country. Easy to travel within and the people are very friendly. Whilst unexplored the valley wasn’t entirely remote, with farmers and the border patrol so it felt as safe as alpine climbing in such a place could be.

Ak Kalpak summit is hidden from view on the right. If you zoom in you can see Jared and Steve by the bank of rock across the glacier to the left. Taken from half way up the moraine as I descended back to camp at 7am. Jared and Steve summited at around 2pm.

Montane women’s Prismatic Jacket

Our expedition to the Western Zaalisky was supported in part by the Montane Alpine Club Climbing Fund and some of the team were also provided with jackets too.

I got the women’s Prismatic jacket. Available in four colours, Blue, Black, Berry and Red, I chose the blue colour in a size 10.

It’s always exciting to be given outdoor clothing to test, but in all honesty this jacket wasn’t about to fill a gap in my wardrobe as I already have something similar which performs well in a variety of situations. So how would this jacket compare to what I already have?

Montane bill this jacket as:

The women’s specific Prismatic Jacket is an essential item of mountain clothing. Warm yet lightweight and packable, it can be worn on the move in cool conditions for a variety of outdoor activities. Using 40g/m2 PrimaLoft® SILVER ECO insulation throughout ensures that the Prismatic is warm yet lightweight enough to be worn on the move in cool conditions.

Great Features

The Prismatic jacket did provide great insulation and I wore it for a lot of the expedition for both pottering around base camp in the evening and high alpine days when the wind was cold or it was early in the morning. It insulated me from the cold without me feeling like I would get too hot and sweaty in it.

I like that the jacket is made in part from recycled materials:

Approximately 28 recycled water bottles are used in the production of each kilogram of PrimaLoft Silver Insulation Eco, which averages 6 bottles per finished jacket.

The jacket size worked well as it was fitted around the waist, without being too snug that I couldn’t get another warm layer underneath.

The length and cut was also good, as it tucked into my harness and didn’t ride up as I climbed.

Just before the final rocky ascent to the summit of Pik-a Boo (5122m)

Things that I’d change

Pockets. This is always my first complaint with women’s outdoor clothing. There seems to be an assumption that women carry less stuff than men. Despite being billed as an Alpine Jacket it only has two pockets, neither of which would be possible to put a map into. There is no internal pocket or chest pocket, unlike on the men’s equivalent Prism jacket.

For some reason the women’s hood is designed to fit under a helmet and the men’s over a helmet. I’m not sure why there’d be a difference, and to be honest I’m not sure which is better. I personally prefer to be able to put my hood over the helmet so when I heat up towards mid day I have the option of taking it off.

Colour is usually my other major complaint with women’s outdoor clothing – as we only get offered dark colours, with a predominance of pinks and purples.

For me, when I’m out in Scottish winters or on Alpine routes I want bright colours that make me stand out from the environment. That way if something happens and I want rescuing I can be easily found. They also look much cooler in photos!

To be honest, the men’s version of this jacket isn’t much better in this regard as they have black, grey, dark blue, a two tone green and a red jacket to choose from.

L-R – Steve in the orange Fireball Jacket, Stuart above in the red Prism jacket, Andy in the two tone green Prism, me in the women’s blue Prismatic and Jared in a black Prism.

My overall opinion

The women’s Prismatic Jacket is a good jacket that provides medium weight insulation. It moved well with my body and was long enough to fit under a harness and not ride up.

It is priced at £125 which about comparable to competitor jackets of a similar type.

Would I buy it? It needs more pockets for me, and at least one big enough to fit a map in. I’d also want it in a bright colour, lime green or orange, something I can be very visible in.

Vegetarian Freeze dried foods – Expedition Foods v Summit to Eat

On our expedition to the Western Zaalisky we took a range of freeze dried foods to cook at our Advanced Base Camps. We opted for the 1000kcal options for all as it enabled us to ensure that we were sufficiently fuelled for our strenuous kit hauling days and summit days.

As vegetarians Jared and I are used to having a much reduced list to choose from whenever we eat, but we were pleasantly surprised by the choices available to us.

When it comes to vegetarian options both companies have a great selection with 4 main meals each.

I should add that Expedition Foods supported our trip with a great discount on their foods, but this hasn’t affected the honesty of our reviews of the meals.

All the instructions for the meals are easy to follow with clear guidance of quantity of water to add and time to allow to rehydrate. That said the Summit to Eat meals have a fill line on the inside of the bags which makes it easier to do when wild camping, rather than trying to measure hot water.

Cooking dinner for 3 in a tent requires a bit of organisation!

Expedition Foods – Vegetable tikka with rice

I had this vegetable tikka with rice meal on both our climb up Pik a Boo and the expedition into the Kok Kiki when Jared and Steve climbed Ak Kalpak. I expected this to be very spicy but it was actually quite sweet and pretty tasty. This meal is available in an 800 and 1000 extreme calorie option with the extreme option weighing 185g and costing £8.49.

I did find on cooking that some of the vegetables, however remained crunchy, even after the recommended 8 minutes. I also found the 600ml recommendation for hot water was too much and made the meal a bit sloppy, so the second time around I only added 500ml which seemed about right. Nevertheless it was a good meal and very tasty and certainly one I’d buy again.

I’d scored this 4/5.

Summit to Eat – Spicy Pasta Arrabiata

Pasta is always a good option for camping meals as it guaranteed to fill you up. This is available in a 600kcal and a 1000kcal option. The big pack option seemed like a very large portion of pasta, but being hungry from long ascents it turned out to be just the right amount.

The big pack weighs 260g and costs £7.75.

I expected the pasta to end up crunchy as with cheaper supermarket pasta meals but it cooked well in the 8 minutes. It was certainly a tasty meal and packed a punch with spices. I’d definitely get this again.

I’d score it 5/5.

Summit to Eat – 5 Bean Cassoulet

One of the new vegan meals the 5 Bean Cassoulet was a very tasty meal although it was another which was a bit sloppy. It was nice that it didn’t rely on lots of spices for flavour, and it was certainly tasty – a potato based bean stew. Being packed full of beans it did provide hours of flatulence afterwards though!

Available in 600kcal and 1000kcal option, the big pack version weighs 170g and costs £7.75. I enjoyed this, but it wasn’t the most tasty of the meals we tried.

I’d score it 3/5.

Summit to Eat and Expedition Foods Macaroni and cheese

Both companies provide a Macaroni and cheese meal. Cheese is always a welcome edition to the vegetarian diet while out on expedition, providing essential protein. However I’m not convinced Macaroni and cheese is the answer. Both of these meals were too watery, even when the water amount added was reduced. They were also quite tasteless compared to all the other meals.

Summit to Eat provide a 600 or 1000Kcal option with the big pack costing £7.75 and weighing 197g.

Expedition Foods provide a 800 and 1000kcal options with their big pack costing costing £8.49 and weighing 225g.

I’d score both of these meals 1/5.

Expedition Foods Mediterranean Vegetable Pasta

I expected this meal to be tomato based as most pasta meals are, this was however cream based and this made it a bit different to others available.

There are 800 and 1000kcal options with the big pack costing £8.49 and weighs 172g.

Lentil based with olives it was a tasty meal, albeit one which wasn’t spicy. It made a nice alternative to the spicier meals we had in our food stash.

I’d score this 4/5.

Expedition Foods – Vegan Couscous with Cajun spices and Vegetables

Couscous is so cheap to buy and make your own tasty meals I’m not sure I’d usually buy these as food packs, since not much in the pack was really freeze dried.

Available in 800 and 1000Kcal meals the big pack version weighs 245g and costs £8.49.

The meal cooked well and was actually really tasty and packed full of flavour with added beans and lentils for variety. The big pack however was far too much couscous to be able to finish the meal; I’m guessing the only way to get the calorie value was the quantity of couscous added. For me the extreme pack size was too much.

I’d score this 3/5.

Expedition Foods – Chocolate Chip Biscuit Pudding

Everyone loves chocolate after a day on the hill and a hot chocolate pudding was definitely on the list. This pudding requires hot water to make and was essentially like a chocolate custard with biscuit bits in it.

Weighing only 100g, providing 416kcals and costing £6.49, I was really happy to have gooey chocolate at the end of the day.

I’d score this 4/5.

Summit to Eat – Chocolate Mousse with Cherries and Granola

I’d had this dessert before and was extremely happy to buy more for this expedition. It only requires cold water, making the preparation easier. It definitely better with slightly less water than recommended so it is truly a mousse rather than just chocolate goo.

This seemed to be darker chocolate than the Expedition Foods dessert, and the cherries make a nice contrast to the chocolate.

Providing 416kcals and weighing 97g, this dessert is £4.50.

I’d score this 5/5.

Overall

Both companies have fantastic options and really tasty meals in their extreme freeze dried meals, and I’d recommend either for long trips.

Burnmoor Lodge and Scafell Crag – hidden gems

We arrived just in time for food at a pub in the valley. Andy asked for the key to the lodge and was met with a reply,

What’s the password?

Andy stared blankly but somehow got the key anyway.

Burnmoor Lodge is managed by the Burnmoor Lodge Club, set up by the owner of the lodge in order to manage and restored the building. The Club comprises of a very select group of people of which Andy is one.

Armed with a bunch of keys and heavy packs we set off up the hillside into the fading light and the clag.

Jared joked that this was another team expedition across a muddy hill, and that up here the sheep grew bigger in the damp clag. By the time we reached Burnmoor Lodge the clag was so thick the sheep could be the size of elephants.

The fourth key tried opened the door and by torchlight we were greeted by a room full of DIY and smelling of paraffin. A row of shiny Tiley lamps sat on the shelf above the fire.

The previous occupant had left a note apologising for not tidying as he had been on a 10 day working party and was tired. His sleeping bag and power pack were still in one of the rooms.

We unpacked sleeping bags and fell asleep.

Despite its remote location between Wasdale and Eskdale high on the hill, the Lodge has three upstairs rooms with bunk beds enough for 18 people – with new mattresses and pillows, and repairs to the roof and plastering ongoing. With only the Club to restore it, it will take a while, but I could see the place could be alright when renovations have finished.

In the daylight the hut actually looks organised – dining area with books and games, kitchen with all the usual stuff and a shelf choked full of jars of pickles and herbs. And a living room full of DIY stuff.

view of Burnmoor lodge
view of Burnmoor lodge
kitchen at Burnmoor lodge
living room at Burnmoor lodge
bedroom at Burnmoor lodge

Climbing on Scafell Crag

After breakfast and sorting kit we marched across the bog next to Burnmoor Tarn, watching a Duke of Edinburgh group misunderstand the point of pacing themselves up the hill. It was great to look back down the hill and see our rather large lodge.

view across Burnmoor Tarn to the Lodge

We stashed our bags at the top of Lord’s Rake and kitted up before descending the shaly, loose gully to the bottom of the routes.

Lords Rake
Lords Rake descent

Jared had chosen Botterill’s Slab a VS 4c 3-pitch route, while Andy and Stuart headed off for Moss Ghyll Grooves.

Getting to the bottom of Botterill’s Slab involved a slimy shuffle up green slippy steps to reach the start. We had to wait a while for teams to move up before we could climb, so we had the pleasure of admiring the drippiness of the route. It also faced north, so while crowds headed up Scafell Pike in the glorious sunshine, it was pretty cold in the shade.

The first pitch I didn’t enjoy much as it was very 3D and off balance and I took ages to wriggle up trying to avoid my hands being wet and cold. At least the cold kept the midges at bay. There’s something very British about putting your hand in a puddle as you climb.

The slab pitch was partly ok but the crux in the middle was a horrifying combination of tiny handholds and tiny footholds and Jared had a long moment before he could place gear. I did whinge my way up that bit. There’s a reason I only lead really easy routes!

Botterill's slab
Botterill's slab

The 3rd pitch was more straight forward and much easier, although it did involve a squeeze into and a thrutch up a green slimy chimney – which was definitely aided by the fact I was climbing with a bag with our boots in it.

Despite being green it has good holds and leads to a lovely little ridge scramble with an Alpine feel before the end.

final pitch of Botterill's slab
Scafell summit

We had a quick plod to the summit of Scafell before descending to our bags, and a quick refuel stop before heading down.

After a simple dinner and a beer in the sunshine (yes we carried beers up to the Lodge!) we heated water for a complex washing up session.

As the light faded we tried to light a Tiley lamp for light and heat but instead set it alight. Tiley lamps are not straight forward to light it seems!

The Lodge is in a beautiful location, perfect for wild swimming, and a great view of Scafell, especially at sunset. It felt like a privilege to stay at Burnmoor Lodge, and I’d love to return and see the progress the Club make in its restoration. I’d also love to see it used enough to keep it running, without the wildness of the place changing.

sunset at Burnmoor lodge

It will be especially exciting when the compost toilet proposed is installed – so the final days ritual of digging a pit is no longer required!

toilet block at Burnmoor lodge

Running Hadrian’s Wall

Firstly, I’m not an ultra runner and have only run a marathon distance once. So it was with this knowledge that I cautiously planned to run Hadrian’s Wall Long Distance Path. I set myself the challenge to complete the route over 4 days (and one evening) and while that is easy for walking, I wanted to be able to run as much of the route as possible which would make it a challenge.

If you’re going to complete this route I recommend West to East as the wind will be behind you encouraging you on. For some reason more people seemed to walk it the other way. Its definitely possible to de entirely on public transport, as Carlisle and Newcastle are on main line stations, with good buses and metro service at either end to get you to the start/finish.

Finally, get yourself the Hadrian’s Wall Passport from either the Fort in Newcastle or Carlisle Tourist information, so you can collect your route stamps along the way. Its a nice memento of your journey!

Bowness on Solway to Carlisle – 15 miles

Having caught the train to Carlisle I dropped some stuff off at my hotel for the night and caught the bus to Bowness on Solway for an evening run of this part of the route. I had toyed with the idea of not bothering with this bit and doing Carlisle to Newcastle only, but the completer in me had to do the whole thing. The bus was £6.90 and was only 40 minutes, I had no excuse really. It was even sunny!

To be honest though, anyone who decides to start or finish at Carlisle still acceptably completes the route in my opinion. On getting off the bus in Bowness I trotted happily along the coastal path before the route winds on farm tracks into Glasson and then Drumburgh before hitting the long section of road all the way into Burgh by Sands. This would have been a dull section to walk but wasn’t much joy having to run.

From here there is another farm track into Beaumont before I discovered the disappointment of a path diversion resulting in more road. It was a beautiful sunny evening though so I tried not to complain.

Eventually I was able to pick up the path at Kirkandrew-on-Eden to reach the river and a lovely track into Carlisle. With all that road running my left leg was already starting to be unhappy as I reached Carlisle quite hungry. Despite the whinging to myself it was a beautiful evening of running in the sunshine.

Carlisle to Greenhead – 20 miles

I set off optimistic about the route today. I was finally going to see sections of Hadrian’s Wall and pass through open countryside. However, I’d barely left Carlisle before my knee started to scream so the pace was slow and tedious all day, though I ran as much as possible. The expectation of being able to run most of the route and actually having to stop and stretch every 4km, I felt disappointed and beaten.

The route heads out of Carlisle by following the river and country lanes towards the M6 and beyond. Upon reaching Crosby on Eden it heads briefly North to reach the remains of the Wall. Passing by the Wall’s Milecastles and following it’s ditch, the route starts to become hilly as it reaches the village of Oldwall and Newtown.

The miles of fields were a joy to run through and for every village the route passes through there is a house selling drinks and snacks or honesty boxes of snacks. I couldn’t resist the honesty fridges selling lollies!

The long slog uphill to Hare Hill felt hard work in the heat and with a sore knee, but the top marked a change to run on the flat for a while. I had a quick break at Birdoswald Roman Fort in order to collect my Hadrian’s Wall passport stamp before heading downhill to the river.

Marked on the map as a Roman bridge there is actually a large metal bridge over the river now but it’s still worth a visit for the impressive foundations of the former Roman bridge and the long section of wall.

From here it was a few miles more through Gilsland and into Greenhead where I finished running for the day. Of course I had booked accommodation slightly off the route and so had to stroll down to Blenkinsopp Castle for the night. Despite complaining to myself for not booking somewhere on the route, it turned out to be well worth the extra distance it as it was a lovely spot. A gorgeous pub with friendly hosts and a lovely room with my own patio! It felt like luxury on a sunny evening!

Greenhead to Chollerford – 17 miles

I woke stiff and feeling like the day was going to be a tough challenge. Having spoke to my partner that morning for moral support, he pointed out that I was running almost back to back marathons so I was bound to be tired and sore. Ok, I wasn’t doing marathon distances but it did make me realise that what I was doing was a challenge for someone who’d never done back to back long runs before.

I started the day with a trudge up the hill to get back onto the route at Greenhead. The running felt comfortable for a while and the views were amazing. This section of the route is pretty hilly as Hadrian’s Wall and the Long Distance Path follow the Great Whin Sill fault line. This long layer of dolerite rock surfaces in this area, forming a long crag and creating a natural boundary that made building Hadrian’s Wall here logical. (The Geological Society have a really interesting page about the Great Whin Sill – follow this link). At least the uphills gave me an excuse to slow down and walk for a short section.

This has to be my favourite section of the route, much of it I have walked before when completing the Pennine Way over 5 years ago. Passing turrets, Milecastles and old Roman Forts the route occasionally breaks for small country lanes before heading uphill again to wide views and more milecastles. The best views are from above Highshield and Hotbank crags.

I stopped briefly for a drink and to get my stamp at Housesteads Roman Fort, one of the biggest forts along the Wall. From here the was one more hill and Trig point before heading downhill towards the road. Here I met the Long Distance Walkers Association Hadrian Hundred participants. A string of walkers heading towards me, with the expected jokes that I was heading the wrong way, the stalwarts with their heads down marching and not expecting to see anyone walking towards them and endless smiling faces happy to say hi. I was pleased when I met the last of them at Brocolitia Roman Fort and the little temple of Mithras.

Here the weather also turned and the end of the day was marked by cloudy skies and cold winds. The remains of the Wall also start to become less visible and marked more by ditches in the landscape. So it was a pleasure to reach Chesters Roman Fort and finish for the day.

I stayed in Acomb at the Queen’s Arms Hotel which was a hidden delight in this quite little village.

Chollerford to Newburn Bridge – 17 miles

I woke to rain and the prospect of standing around waiting for a bus to take me back up to Chollerford. Thankfully by the time I disembarked from the bus it had stopped raining heavily and turned to drizzle.

This section of the route hadn’t inspire me when I looked at the map and saw that for most of the way the path followed the road. I had expected it to be just the other side of a fence in a field and fairly uninteresting. I was really surprised to find it winds through small woodlands, and fields bounded by amazing hawthorn hedges and wild flowers. However, this section does have the highest quantity of stiles, in some place 5 within 50 metres!

Reaching Whittle Dene reservoirs felt like a significant marker as the Path continues on a from here to the A69 and eventually heads South to Heddon-on-the-Wall and the River Tyne.

Of course I’d chosen not to stay on the route but the other side of the river near Ryton, in what turned out to be the quirkiest B&B I’ve ever stayed in. If you’re ever in the area and want to stay somewhere reasonably priced with a four post bed, slip bath and a hall of buddhas, armour and Chinese cats then Hedgefield House is the place for you. It was a lovely place for my last night.

Newburn Bridge to Wallsend – 11 miles

This section of the route is entirely on tarmac as it follows a cycle track and winds through housing and along roads. As a walk it could be a bit dull as Hadrian’s Wall itself has disappeared but it makes a nice run into Newcastle. Eventually it meets the River Tyne again and leads you into the City itself. Running in the rain with a very sore leg I was definitely pleased to see the Tyne Bridges and feel like I was making progress.

As the route leaves the city centre of Newcastle it continues to follow the River, though in places its not well sign posted and I did find myself running through an industrial estate before I eventually found the path again. Its quite unremarkable as much of this area is industrial, being once the site of Tar Works which have left its mark on the river’s water quality, and now being the site of large international oil and gas and steel companies part of the Port of Tyne.

Hadrian’s Wall itself takes a direct line through the City of Newcastle but I think the choice to make the Long Distance Path follow the River Tyne is a good one. The route at this point might be lacking in history but the Tyne does have woodland along its edge and is much prettier than walking through housing.

Reaching Wallsend felt amazing. The Fort has a fantastic museum and cafe so if you’re finishing your journey here its worth a stop and a look around before you jump on the Metro back into the City – and of course get your last stamp in your passport. It was lovely that the staff were excited to hear about how I’d got on and what I thought of the route.

I would definitely recommend the Hadrian’s Wall Path, either as a running adventure or even as a first long distance path adventure. It is easy to break down into manageable distances with lots of places to stay along the route. It’s also super easy to do by public transport, which can’t be said for all long distance paths.

Walking the St Cuthbert’s Way

Opened in 1996 St Cuthbert’s Way is usually tackledin 4 – 6 days and to be honest that’s a really good idea. Over the course of three very long days Sharon, Ted and I tackled the route and discovered that pilgrimages don’t always have to be religious.

The route

The St Cuthbert’s Way winds for 100km from the market town of Melrose in the Scottish Borders, to Lindisfarne Island on the North Sea coast. It crosses through the Cheviot hills in the Northumberland National Park, takes in Roman roads and endless woodlands, riverbanks and open moorland. 

The route starts in Melrose, where St Cuthbert started his religious life in 650AD and ends in on Holy Island, at Lindisfarne Priory, his eventual resting place.

scw_main_map-600x190@2x

Planning your walk

There’s a plethora of companies willing to sherpa your bags around and book you accommodation, but its not difficult to sort out yourself. The official route website provides fantastic links to accommodation along the route, but popular accommodation search engines are also useful. Decide how far you want to walk each day and plan your accommodation accordingly.

Starting in Melrose we found accommodation easily as there is a range of pubs and B&Bs available, with plenty taking dogs. Ideal places to stay, depending on how many days you wish to complete the route in would be: St Boswells, Harestanes, Morebattle, Town Yetholm, Hethpool, Wooler, Fenwick and Beal.

Depending on your fitness its possibly to carry your own kit and not have your baggage transported. We packed light with little spare clothing, and bought food en-route in the variety of local shops. Sharon even managed to carry food for Ted and we both carried knitting for the evenings (albeit we never actually did any!)

The real planning challenge with this route is dealing with how you get from the start and finish. We decided to drive to Melrose and leave our car. When we finished we caught the bus back from Beal, via Berwick upon Tweed to Melrose. This is straight forward but takes about 2 hours depending if you make the bus connections (we didn’t and had to have lunch in Berwick!) Bus timetables can be searched for via traveline.

It’s important to carry maps, although the route is very well sign posted with way markers, so we didn’t struggle to find our way. As a rough guide the Scottish section of the walk is really dog friendly, with all of the fences cross through gates. Once in England Ted had to clamber or be picked up over stiles.

Day 1: Melrose to Morebattle 40km (25miles)

Melrose is a lovely market town and worth a visit in its own right. We arrived on Thursday evening and only saw the Abbey in the dark so we intended to spend some time there when we returned.

The route starts from the town centre and heads immediately uphill to the Eildon Hills. These hills would be a significant feature of our first day as despite our progress along the route they remained visible for most of the day. This is the high point of this section.

Crossing through Bowden and into St Boswells the route follow the path of Bowden Burn till it reaches the River Tweed. In hindsight St Boswells would have been a good place to get lunch as there’s a range of lovely cafes and bookshops. But we were on a mission to walk 25 miles so pressed on.

From here the route winds along the River Tweed till it reaches Maxton and meets the Dere Street Roman Road.

Dere Street was a surprise. I expected a surfaced track, perhaps suitable for bikes but this section of the Roman Road is given over to woodland and is a beautiful walk between fields and trees. Eventually the route meets woodland and Harestanes Visitors Centre. We had planned to get a (very) late lunch here. The cafe is advertised as open till 5pm, but stops serving food at 4pm – worth noting if, like us, you arrive late. We luckily managed to get left-over sandwiches from the fridge and had to keep dreaming of soup.

From Harestanes we continued on. If like us you stop at the visitors centre it does mean circling back around through the woodland north of the Monteviot House and Gardens in order to get back on to the river.

Here you cross a suspension bridge and follow the river before getting back on Dere Street Roman Road – here it is a stony track. Continuing to follow the route along through woodland and fields we continued on, the miles slowly making our feet tired. Despite the late hour the walk through the rapeseed fields and woodland was magical, with deer and badgers appearing in the dusk.

The route eventually ends up on country lanes as it leads to Morebattle, and passes the impressive Cessford Castle, a huge ruined tower.

We had called ahead to the Temple Hall Hotel to pre-order food and they obliged by providing hot pizza when we arrived.

Day 2: Morebattle to Wooler 32km (20miles)

After a great breakfast and a visit to the community shop to find lunch we left Morebattle a little later than intended. The route starts by walking along the lanes before heading uphill to Grubbit Law. Its worth noting that on the map it looks like you need to ford a river to head uphill but there is in fact a wooden bridge just beyond the ford, making crossing easy.

It was a hot day and while not high it was a pleasure to be done with uphill and walk along the top of the fell to Wideopen Hill summit. The summit at 368m is the highest point on the route and is marked as the halfway point on the St Cuthbert’s Way. It definitely provides fantastic views across the Borders.

Once in Kirk Yetholm we enjoyed the shade and had lunch where the route joins the end of the Pennine Way. It was interesting to find myself back here, having completed the Pennine Way in 2004 and not expected to find myself in the tiny village of Kirk Yetholm again.

From Kirk Yetholm we walked along the road to head up the fell to the Scottish/English Border. Here the division in the countries follows the fell top ridge line, and while marked by a gate and a signpost, you’d be forgiven not realising there’s a border.

Crossing through the gate the landscape of the Northumberland National Park did seem different, as if the requirement to mark access land and the appearance of sheep somehow transformed the feel of the landscape.

We followed the route downhill through fields, a felled woodland and onto a long and tedious farm track guarded by sheep before reaching the quiet village of Hethpool. Ted hadn’t had that many opportunities to bark at sheep so far and so appeared to ignore the yank of the lead to keep him quiet.

From Hethpool the route heads East along the side of Wester Tor before briefly being redirected around the farm at Torleehouse, and heading uphill to grouse moorland and a landscape similar to our own Peak District. The moorland track continues for nearly 5km over Gains Law before finally dropping down towards the market town of Wooler.

We arrived late on Sunday in Wooler and the Black Bull Inn didn’t do food, but thankfully the Milan restaurant next door served food till 10pm so we had time to shower and make ourselves look tidy before we headed out for food.

Day 3: Wooler to Lindisfarne 29km (18 miles)

We managed to leave at 9am from Wooler and headed along the roads on to Weetwood Moor. I confess that I’d looked the map and decided it was entirely possible to miss this uphill and down hill diversion by walking on the road. However it is a lovely stretch of moorland with great views and provides a great aspect to see the Weetwood bridge from. The road is also quite busy and frankly this final day of walking has more than enough tarmac already in my opinion.

From Weetwood Hall the route takes in country lanes and track for around 8km, even when it crosses fields it’s still a stony track. In the hot sunshine this became a bit of a tedious walk with our tired feet. When we reached the woodland we sat in the shade to have lunch, a lovely spot for a break with a view across the fields.

Further on we came to St Cuthbert’s cave. The Cave is an impressive overhanging sandstone rock supported by a single piece of stone, making it look precarious. According to legend, monks carrying St Cuthbert’s body from Lindisfarne took refuge here.

From the top of the hill above the cave the path winds down through fields and the Sheillow woodland before it reaches the village of Fenwick and the busy A1 road.

We continued on from here, taking care to cross the mainline railway and wandering through fields the reach the end of the Lindisfarne Causeway. The traditional route follows the posts across the sands to reach Holy Island. We did follow them as we had a few hours before the tide started to come in, however the sand is really estuary mud and so is very sticky and unpleasant in places. Ted’s feet were also sore on the sand so we bailed off to walk the rest of the way on the causeway.

We’d luckily arranged a lift back from the lovely Fred at Brockmill Farmhouse where we were staying for the night, so we had an hour to have food in the Crown and Anchor before we had to leave and beat the incoming tide.

Reaching the priory, the end of the route, felt like a great place to end a tough 3 day walk, and we were pleased to arrive in Holy Island at the end of the day when it was quiet.

Finding our pilgrimage

Walking the St Cuthbert’s Way turned out to be a pilgrimage for us both after all, even if it wasn’t a religious one. It was a journey which tested our ability to walk long distances to reach our destination and provided opportunities for us to explore a new landscape, cross boundaries and see Roman and Christian history.

I’d definitely recommend this route – the variety of terrain as it winds through the Scottish Borders into Northumberland makes it worthwhile.