Swellands, Marsden 10.5km

pule hill

A walk round the Swellands route will provide you with a sample of moorland walking on the Pennine Way, views across Colne Valley and a return on the Standedge Trail.

The walk starts in Marsden village centre. While not exceptionally long, it does cross moorland which can be difficult to walk on and navigate in poor weather. It also has some steep uphills to get high on the moors, so be prepared.

A full route description is available on the Marsden Walkers are Welcome website where you can also find the leaflet and a gpx file to download. The route is also well sign posted, with these way markers so look out for them as you walk.

Starting in Marsden village at the train station and head out of the village following the route to go under a road bridge and onto Fall Lane. Follow this right, to the roundabout. Cross the road here and head up Binn Lane. After the houses finish you will reach a wide track leading down the side of Butterley reservoir.

Follow this wide track as it heads gradually uphill passing another dam of Blakley Reservoir. Where you cross a cattlegrid there is a path on the right through the fence which heads downhill to eventually reach a bridge over the river.

Ahead of you the path climbs very steeply (and mostly slippy mud so take care) up to the top where you will meet another path.

Turn right here and follow the path above a deep valley. After crossing the stream help up the steps and continue to follow the path across the moors until you reach Swellands and Black Moss reservoirs. Cross the bridge and follow the path along the reservoir dam to the end. Here in summer you will find a tiny sandy beach, known locally as Marsden beach.

At the other end of the reservoir turn left and follow the paved path as it heads along the reservoir edge and then rightwards, all the way to a kissing gate, from where you will see. Pule Hill and Redbrook Reservoir.

Continue on the paved path till you cross a stream and arrive on the Standedge Trail track, a bridleway across the moors. Go straight ahead and drop down to be able to head right on the Standedge trail towards Marsden.

About 1km on you will drop down to pick up a track that will take you up to the road. Cross this and take Old Mount Rd and then turn on to the track signposted for Hades Farm. Follow this track as it heads towards Marsden and when you can see a stone barn on your right, drop down to take the path at the corner of 2 walls. This will lead you onto Old Mount Road. Follow this downhill back to Marsden and the A62.

Deer Hill Circular, Marsden – 6.5km

High above Marsden lies Shooters Nab, possibly the greenest crag around this bit of West Yorkshire due to its northerly aspect. Near it is Deer Hill Reservoir, the high point of this walk.

The walk starts in Marsden village centre. A full route description is available on the Marsden Walkers are Welcome website where you can also find the leaflet and a gpx file to download.

The route is also well sign posted, with these way markers so look out for them as you walk.

The route heads up past Crow Hill house, built in 1801 and now a large wedding venue. As it continues up the hillside it heads through a field gate and follows a muddy path between fields towards Scout Farm.

Here you pass through the National Trust signed gate and head onto the moors, following the broad track which turns right and heads uphill in the direction of Shooters Nab crag. As you head uphill you cross a stone bridge over the water conduit for the reservoirs.

Turn around and admire the view across the valley!

As the track starts to flatten out it reaches crossroads near another stone bridge. Turn left here and head along this track towards the building in the distance. This is the shooting lodge. As you pass the building the track becomes tarmac as it circles the reservoir.

Along the reservoir are steps, follow these down and past a wire fence where just behind there is a series of steps to cross the wall. Turn left here and follow the wall, heading straight down past a house and continue to meet the road junction.

Cross the road and take the first left up the bridleway towards Delves Cottages turn right onto Delves Gate road. As this descends turn left up a path and then first right to follow a series of paths which bring you out on another road. Head downhill to find the first path which leads downhill on your left.

From here you arrive on the Colne Valley Circular route. Turn right here and as you come to the second set of houses there is a path that leads downhill on your left. Follow this through the fields to the A62. Cross the road and head straight on following the footpath over the river and onto the Huddersfield Canal.

Turn left and follow it all the way back to Marsden!

Giro dell’Etna

Its impossible to deny that Mount Etna is fascinating – the most active volcano in the world, its impact on the local landscape and history of Sicily cannot be ignored. Surrounding the volcano the landscape is covered in smaller vents, plateaus of lava and rock formations from centuries of eruptions.

It is however incredibly touristy.

At Etna South, the southerly main active crater, there is a cable car and chalets reminiscent of a ski centre. It is indeed a popular ski area in winter, but in summer you must be guided to the summit on foot or by vehicle.

As two mountaineers the prospect of being guided up a large dome of ash and lava didn’t appeal to us. Thankfully there are alternatives and hiring bikes turned out to be the perfect day out.

All around the Etna national park there are trails, both hiking and mountain biking which are well marked and available on the national park map. As it was, the company we hired the bikes – Etna bike tours – from gave us a pre-loaded GPS for the main trail – the Giro dell’Etna. Including the descent back to the rental place in Milo the total loop would be 55km.

The Trail starts just below Etna South, so we were dropped off with our bikes and GPS on a gloriously sunny day.

The start of the Pista Altomontana track

The first section of the route is a relatively easy contouring of the volcano on the western side as you follow the Pista Altomontana in and out of the woodland as it heads north past mountain huts. There’s some uphill and some downs but nothing too difficult.

The view inland was fantastic.

Despite the woodland, the landscape on the west of Etna is quite barren as the route crosses the 1843 lava fields, with little growing in them. We passed lava channels and caves until the trail turns eastwards as it heads around the north of Etna.

Here the lava fields from the 1614-24 eruptions are even more barren with not even a bit of grass growing in them and the trail becomes single track, rocky and a bit more technical. A few steps on razor sharp lava was enough to make me a bit worried, even with huge 29″ tyres.

From here the route starts to climb upwards as it heads up to Rifugio Santa Maria and it heads into the pine woodland – which, after the baking sunshine provided a welcome break from the heat. The trail through the pine woods eventually lead to a road at a cafe. We’d been advised that it was worth the uphill ride on the road to the second cafe before having a break. It definitely was.

The second Refugio better catered for bikers and had loads of outdoor seating in the woodland. It also had details of the local trail routes being developed by mountain bikers locally. The woods on the northern and eastern side of Etna definitely have potential for some great technical trails to be developed.

From here, now on the east, we had about 10km uphill on the road before we zipped downhill and eventually into the woods again – following trails.

The descent back to the town of Milo was some of the best downhill tracks I’ve done – not technically and while they weren’t swoopy narrow single tracks, they were definitely fast and endless. Great fun!

If you’re looking for an alternative to joining the hoard up to the summit crater then I’d highly recommend hiring bikes. I think we saw more of the volcano on our tour, learnt more about the different lava fields that we crossed (there’s lots of information signs) and had a much more fun adventure.

Hiking Monte Inici

Having managed to escape the UK for only a week this year and finding ourselves in Sicily for sport climbing and sunshine, I was surprised that there wasn’t more information on hiking in the mountains given that Sicily is quite mountainous. In fact the only map I could find was of the Etna region.

Spending a few days in Castellamare del Golfo we were making the most of the beaches and the sport climbing in nearby San Vito. Castellamare del Golfo is busy little fishing town which has a typical touristy beach and restaurants. Its is also overshadowed by Mont Inici.

Despite the dominance of the mountain on the town it seemed few people walked up there, with no maps available and very unloved footpaths and trails. There were however intermittent signposts at junctions making it possible to see that once it had been a popular area to hike.

So, armed with digital mapping (which turned out to be pretty accurate on all our walks in Sicily) we set off on the tracks from the view point above the town.

While Monte Inici stands at 1060m and looks like an imposing mountain, its actually covered in wide tracks which are suitable for mountain biking as well as hiking. This does mean that Sicilians also drive off-road vehicles to the summit to forage for fungi and other delights.

From Castellamare the track zigzags endlessly up the steep hillside and heads into the pine woodland.

From here the path splits and we headed East towards Pizzo Stagnone and round to the East side of the hill before more zig zags upwards. The view across the other side of the mountain was fantastic.

As we reached the col between Monte Inici and Pizzo Delle Niviere we entered dense deciduous woodland and we met a German hiker who warned us about large pigs.

Wondering about if he meant wild boar and how dangerous they might be, we continued on to the rather disappointing summit of Monte Inici – and its radio masts. Ok not the summit trig point we were hoping for but worth it for the view.

Since we were here we walked across to the slightly more impressive (definitely only slightly) of Pizzo Delle Niviere. At least this had a trig point of sorts.

Sicilian Trig pillars leave a lot to be desired!

After a bit of debate we decided to make the walk a circuit and descended westwards before contouring round to reach the path across Pizzo Crastone and then northwards to Pizzo del Dottore.

On the descent from the summit we met 2 vehicles of Sicilians collecting mushrooms who also warned us of wild pigs.

At this point the endless switchbacks became a bit tedious in the scorching sunshine and we were pleased to finally reach the descent path on the Northside down to the road.

This section was the only bit that was on narrow paths, and these were a bit overgrown and like wading through the undergrowth and fallen trees, but even then relatively easy to navigate.

We never did see the wild boars/pigs, but I did find porcupine spines and this praying mantis.

The whole circuit turned out to be 26km so a good hikes albeit on relatively easy tracks. A mountain bike would definitely have been the best way to descend!

Have a go at Orienteering!

In the last month I’ve been working with members from East Pennine Orienteering Club to create a Marsden Virtual Orienteering course for their virtual series. Its live this week!

If you’ve never had a go at Orienteering this is a great way to try it out. From understanding the orienteering style of maps to learning how to navigate at speed and maintain the orientation of the map. The best bit is, you don’t have to be a fast runner – its all about ability to navigate accurately and come up with the best route between controls. You don’t even have to run at all, if you just want to use the courses for practicing navigation skills and techniques then just go for a walk.

So if you want to have a go, the Marsden courses – Long, Medium and Short – are all live on the website. If you don’t live nearby there’s lots of other virtual routes still live – as the courses will exist forever even after the weeks ‘race’ has ended.

Download the MaprunF app for your mobile if you want to log your time, and print out the maps. Instructions for MaprunF are on the EPOC website.

So get yourself outside and have a go!

(thanks to Richard for his help and putting up with my lack of IT skills!)

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.

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