We had checked out the popular and only easy to access climbing spot of the Cascade de Lilliaz at the start of the week. It looked like a good plan for when we would be too tired to do more long walk ins and when the weather was predicted to be less reliable.
The cascades is the only climb which isn’t a committing route as you can bail off at any point along the river route. This also means it is very popular with climbers and spectators.
We had only intended to do one day of climbing there but after Moliene wasn’t in condition we headed back there on both Friday and Saturday.
There had been heavy snowfall and any thin ice had been covered enough for us to momentarily forget about it. So on Friday we headed up and climbed pitch 3 on the right side.
The ice was actually quite good although it did have gaping holes in some places where you could see straight through to the waterfall below.
We went continued up the river gorge to climb pitch 4.
Pitch 4 felt much easier and while there was a mid way belay point we did it in one pitch.
We had such great fun we headed back down to do the left side of pitch 3.
The following day we couldn’t bear to pay for ski hire so we headed back to climb the first two pitches. Having arrived a bit late we discovered the truth about the Cascade de Lilliaz, it is a very popular ice crag. Especially for groups and for instructors to take clients. As such it took us a while to be able to climb up the middle of the waterfall.
I found this line incredibly tricky as the centre of the waterfall was cauliflower ice formations and very snowy and soft on the top. I didn’t feel stable at all so there was some severe whinging from me.
From here we walked around the gorge to pitch 2 which was much more fun.
Standing on mushy snow with my axes hooked around a thin lip of ice, I got that horribly familiar sensation in the pit of my stomach when I really don’t like where I am stood. And I had to traverse off the mushy snow to get on to the ice.
Having had a fantastic time climbing on Il Sentiero dei Troll a couple of days earlier, we headed back to the Valnontey valley to climb the waterfall next to it, Valmiana another WI3. My initial reaction was that the first pitch looked massive and steep, but I tried not to let that put me off.
As it was the first pitch was steep and felt quite hard for a WI3, but it was stepped out from previously climbers so didn’t feel that tricky.
The second pitch was a nice snow plod with an ice pitch in the middle, by which time we were already in the sunshine. The third pitch was also straight forward too.
It was the fourth pitch, when we were already about 120m up the waterfall that I met my match, the mushy snow and horrible traverse.
Just as the hard, not stepped out ice ended the mushy snow began, with a traverse aiming for the gap in the rocks.
I didn’t really enjoy trying to kick out warm wet snow to get across to solid ice, so when I emerged out of the top of the pitch I wasn’t very happy. Thankfully the final pitch was a long steep snow pitch, (in the shade so not mushy!) and a solid bit of ice, which was hard on the calves at least felt more secure.
After 3 days climbing we had got into the rhythm of climbing but I was also starting to ache all over. Despite the huge walk in to Flash Estivo, right at the end of the Valnontey valley we opted to try the WI3 route.
So on the first over cast day of the week we headed for an hour and a half walk down the valley to the bottom of Flash Estivo. The first issue was that it was starting to snow and we were heading up a 500m 45 degree snow slope to get to the bottom of the route. This wasn’t exactly the quickest route to get to.
As we walked down the valley you could see the aftermath of earlier avalanches.
As we started the route the snow set in for the day.
As we set off up the second pitch it became apparent that the ice was either solid or totally unstable so after much effort in trying to find a good route up it we eventually bailed off.
Whilst we were all a bit disappointed it was the right decision given how long it was taking to get up the route and the weather conditions.
Turning back on a route is never a bad decision. Others might have battled on, but given the remoteness of our route and the deteriorating weather it was the right decision. By the time we had abseiled back down and walked out it was dark and snowing heavily.
Having had an amazing time in Rjukan ice climbing last year I was very excited about our trip to Cogne this year, but very aware that it wasn’t going to be easy peasy climbing.
Rjukan is the ice equivalent of climbing at Stanage, something for every ability, lots of single pitch ice making it nice and short and 5 minutes from the car. Yes there’s multipitch routes and hard stuff to scare the pants off you, but there’s options for not doing these routes and still having a great time.
Cogne is the opposite in everyway.
In the heart of the Alps, Cogne has two main areas for climbing, the Valeille valley and the Valnontey valley – with climbs being on both sides of the valley from the sides of the mountains. The routes form in mountain gullies or from the edge of crags with terrifying chandeliers to huge walls of solid ice. All of the routes are committing multi-pitch ice which require abseiling to get off. This isn’t a place to come for your first ice climbing or multipitch climbing trip.
There isn’t a great selection of guidebooks in English for this area either. The new Alpine Ice guide by Mario Sertori is the only one and while it does cover routes in Cogne its isn’t a complete guide and only provide highlights of the popular routes. There’s plenty of French and Italian guidebooks, if you can translate them!
The best sources of information in English are:
free comprehensive route maps online – Iceclimbing Cogne has route maps of Lillaz and Valnontey valleys
Bar Licone – the climbers bar in town but also THE place for climbers to share route information online. Many of the routes have handy topos created by climbers, so worth a look to check distance between belays and where the difficult sections are on routes.
Despite the challenges of finding information on the routes, ice climbing in Cogne is a dream for those with experience. There’s nothing better than the delightful warmth in the midday sunshine, which is something that you definitely don’t get climbing in Norway!
Il Sentiero dei Troll, Valnontey
We had opted for our first route to be a WI3 in the Valnontey valley called Il Sentiero dei Troll.
Il Sentiero dei Troll provided a good initiation to ice in Cogne and set the tone for the week. If you want to get out and climb ice you need to be out of bed early (out of the door before 8am) and be prepared to climb all day.
We did the route in 4 pitches of 60 metres with two of these being at bolted belays. The joy of Europe is that many of the routes are at least partially bolted, when you can find them under all the ice! That said make sure you know how to do Abalakov threads as you will still need to do these for some belays.
It was freezing when we left the car park at Valnontey for the walk in and on getting out of the car we quickly put on extra layers. Close to the end of the valley it wasn’t too far to walk in but did give us change to check out some of the other routes. With the warm temperature the week before we noticed some of the routes at the end of the valley weren’t quite formed.
While Cogne is committing ice climbing, it is still pretty accessible with most of the routes being fairly well sign posted at the bottom of the valley (though a guide book is needed to know which is which) and the walk in was on a clear track adjacent to cross country skiing runs.
Ascending the steep snow slope to the bottom of the ice was the first task, reminding me that the best place to put on crampons and a helmet is long before you actually need them.
The route was a mix of steep ice pitches and graded snow slopes and by pitch 2 we were climbing in the sunshine and had taken off quite a few layers of clothing.
The climbing was fantastic and when we reached the top of pitch 4 we decided we’d enjoyed the best of the route and so abseiled back down.
At which point I stopped to take this photo of Jared next to the ice on pitch 3, did I really climb that?!
Disappointed by Fenilliaz
I have to start by saying Fenilliaz isn’t a rubbish route. Had I been in Scotland I’d have been super happy spending the day in a snow covered gully. Having flow to Cogne though to get my axes into some ice I was a bit disappointed by the lack of ice on this route.
Fenilliaz in the Valeille Valley starts by ascending another long snow slope (a recurring theme in Cogne). We started the actual climb from a good belay spot under a huge boulder.
From here the route takes a long steep snow slope to a short ice pitch, before another snow slope.
Unfortunately that was where the fun ended and the route seemed to pitter out. Disappointed, and with not enough time left for another route we opted for a short day and a chance to check out the popular Cascade de Lillaz.
I’m going to start by saying that I’m not rubbishing those of you who have set New Year goals. I’ve got some for 2018 too. But the trouble with goals is the pressure you put on yourself to achieve them.
Take my 2017 goals.
• Do winter ML training and also do 15 winter days for log book – ✔️
• Lead climb VD outdoors
• Try ice climbing ✔️
• Half marathon ✔️
• Climb 6b indoors by the end of the year and be able to lead 5s.
• Reach 60 parkruns
• Lead an Alpine route
• Try skiing ✔️
• Learn to ride a motorbike
Now the ticks hide the real story behind last year. I’d already committed to doing the winter ML training and where’s the stress in going on a training course? Getting 15 days for my log book became quite stressful as this winter started though. I found myself putting unnecessary pressure in myself to do routes and weirdly became quite nervous about navigating in white outs. No logical reason why, I love navigation challenges, and I had a blast in Storm Eleanor on a rescue team night nav training this week. The pressure to be out in Scottish winter became less fun though.
Lead climb VD and reach 6b and lead 5 sport climbs. Where do I start with that one? Climbing terrifies me. It’s the one thing I do that I really have to be in the right frame of mind for and I’ve learnt I have to be with the right type of people too. So last year wasn’t that successful for climbing. I had lots of incidents of crying seconding routes and only managed to lead 3 diffs. I did get up to leading 5s indoors but again it matters a lot who I’m with and I found myself having wobbles on 4s sometimes.
Ice climbing seemed an easy one to tick off, weird since rock climbing scares me. But it was a holiday with friends who knew it was my first time out so there was no pressure to perform at any level. As it was, I loved it.
I managed 2 half marathons and a 25km race, with mixed success. The trail races nearly killed me but the Great North Run felt like a blast. I’ve failed to get a proper training pattern though so I never reached 60 parkruns, although I did get to 50.
While I did have a fantastic Alpine trip and did some great AD routes I did not lead anything, again down to confidence and being with people more experienced than me.
Skiing was an easy tick at the end of the year and I lost interest in riding a motorbike.
So you see my dilemma?
The things I really care about succeeding at are the ones I fail to achieve. The goals I set to achieve them become my barriers, no matter how small they are.
So here’s the plan for 2018.
To be kind to myself.
• I want to lead 3 severe routes and 7 VDs.
But it’s ok if I cry. It’s ok to say no to a route. It’s ok to pick easy stuff too. It’s ok if I get to the end of the year and have only got part way to this too. I’m going to try to second more harder stuff too though. I have a friend who would thing that’s a poor attitude to learning climbing and I should be sucking it up and getting stuck in. That approach didn’t make for happy climbing last year so I’m not doing that again.
• I want to run a marathon.
I might find this easier to do if I can find the time to train as I’m not the competitive person who needs to beat a certain time. Finishing is always my goal.
• I wanted to do my winter ML assessment in early 2019, but my recent winter experience had made me rethink this goal. I’m putting too much pressure on myself to perform, so instead I want to just get 20 winter days in and have fun. Then I’ll see what happens.
And that’s where I’m leaving it this year. I want to be kind to myself. Life isn’t about smashing out goals and punishing yourself for failures. I want to have fun in my adventures.
So if you have set goals for 2018, make sure you enjoy them. Don’t punish yourself for any set backs, just get outside and have fun.
You’ve probably heard of type 2 fun – when fun challenges you and might scare you but otherwise leads to massive personal development.
I actually imagine fun to be a bubble that I’m in. Its a fairly massive bubble that most of the time I never notice the edges of where it becomes fear. As I’ve pushed myself to do harder and newer things the bubble has grown.
For example, I now love running in the dark on my own. I enjoy hiking long distances in the mountains far from civilisation and love being out in the cold Scottish winters with my face freezing. I love travelling alone to countries that don’t even share the same alphabet, let alone have English speakers.
I like to test the edges of the bubble to work out how far I can push it without popping it. For me this translates to sobbing pathetically or having to concentrate so hard I can hardly think straight and end up with a massive migraine.
There have been some surprises on this journey to stretch my bubble – for example I’ve never been great with heights so was surprised to find I loved paragliding.
I never expected to want to climb higher after reaching Kilimanjaro summit and to continue to want to push this limit in Nepal and Bolivia, going higher and more technical. And to wonder what else I could achieve too…
I never thought I’d enter a 25km trail race after my first 10km only 2 years ago. While I was physically knackered at the end I was proud of my time, given the heavy rain and sliding around on the rocks and falling over in the mud. I certainly never thought after feeling broken at the end I would run another 2 half marathons in the same year and be considering a marathon.
I still have a love/hate relationship with climbing due to harbouring a fear of falling. I really have to be in the right frame of mind and with the right people that I trust to feel confident. And even then I can still break out the disco legs and drop an f-bomb.
Trad lead climbing is still on the edge of what I’m happy with, I still shake with fear too much but its a fear I want to conquer. It’s on the right side of the edge of the bubble. I know if I conquer this fear there’s a whole world of challenges to complete.
There’s been few activities that I’ve tried and would never do again; things that were just too far the wrong side of the bubble for me. Caving is possibly one – I don’t enjoy abseiling at the best of times but in the dark and wet was possibly a step too far. Sobbing at the bottom of Alum Pot wasn’t my finest hour, and I’m grateful to Ben and Aly for giving me the opportunity; but sometimes in life you find things that you just don’t have the stomach for.
In striving to expand my bubble and I’m either going to run out of experiences to try, or keep finding myself shaking like a leaf wishing I was somewhere else. Thats the thing with the fun/fear relationship though, trying to find out which side of the bubble you’ll be is addictive.
I’ve driven down the Glencoe valley numerous times and looked up at the jagged line of the Aonach Eagach ridge, impressed with the shape and both desperate and terrified at the prospect of scrambling the ridge. I’ve wanted to tackle the ridge since I first visited North West Scotland aged 18, so when I was recently rained off a trip to scramble the Cullins I decided this was a perfect substitute.
I should caveat that as entertaining as the Aonach Eagach ridge is, if you’ve not yet completed routes such as Sharp Edge or Crib Goch then consider getting some serious grade 1 scrambles under your belt before you have a go at this. Its a serious undertaking, as nowhere along the route can you escape and some of the sections of scrambling are exposed and committing.
First things first…
The first thing to note doing this ridge is that is essential to have a plan for transport between the start and finish as the last thing you want to do is end up walking back up the busy road for your car at the end of the day.
We had planned on hitchhiking – but a summer weekend is the moment to try this with traffic being too busy to stop. After 15 minutes of trying we were not getting anywhere; then two other hikers arrived with the same idea – 4 of us had no chance of getting a lift. Thankfully they were off to do the ridge too so we decided to car share.
The car park at the start of the route is tiny and usually filled with tourists wanting to quickly photograph the mountains as they drive through the valley so I was lucky to squeeze my car into a spot.
We set off from the car park at a slow pace; the path up to Am Bodach might be easy to follow but it’s quite steep. Initially the path is across a broad ridge and is easy to follow, but its not long before the scrambling starts and route finding is required.
Scrambling on the Aonach Eagach ridge is really downclimbing, which requires good foot placements and a slow pace. The first of these sections comes after just leaving Am Bodach summit.
I was surprised to find the scrambling isn’t relentless, there are sections of the route where you resume walking. It is apparent from the views though that you really can’t escape the ridge once on it and the scrambling varies from terraced ridges, knife edge aretes, greasy gullys and towering chimneys.
Towards the end of the ridge are the Crazy Pinnacles, which we took by heading right and down climbing a fairly greasy gully. This is definitely not a route to do in the rain!
Once off the Crazy Pinnacles and over Stob Coire Leith the serious scrambling ends. From here make sure you continue on to the large shelter and trig point at Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.
From here in good visibility its possible to see the path heading south west down to the Claichaig gully – do not take this as it is widely considered a dangerous descent route. Instead continue across heading north west towards the Pap of Glencoe. As you cross the broader peaty plateau you will pick up the descent path to take down to Glencoe and the valley.
We met a group of older men half way along the ridge who were definitely having trouble with the scrambling and taken 5 hours to get to the Pinnacles. Later when we were in the pub with a whiskey they were only just off the hill (12 hours after starting) – a reminder not to under-estimate the ridge.
“Pull me up!” I yelled as I clung on with my fingers jammed in a narrow crack of slimy wet rock and my huge mountaineering boots failing to balance on a tiny ledge bearly visible. I was sliding and failing to remain attached to the rock face. ‘There’s a reason there’s only English climbers up here today’ I thought as it crossed my mind we hadn’t seen anyone else climbing all day.
Sliding on La Somone
It was more than disappointing when after only one day of Alpine climbing we ended up trapped in the valley by poor weather. Like good Brits who are used to torrential rain and getting soaked to the skin, we didn’t want a bit of rain to prevent us having a great holiday. So after a good soaking on the first wet day walking through the woodlands, we decided it wasn’t that wet really and headed out to Le Brevent to climb La Somone.
‘It will be like climbing in Wales’ we remarked as we got on the empty cable car. It was cold when we got off at the top of Le Brevent but not freezing so why not climb?!
I’m not sure how we decided La Somone was a great route to climb, or how we found it in the mist. I’m also not sure why we hadn’t decided to stay in the Valley to climb something slightly less slimy. The thought did cross my mind that it might be a bit ridiculous when it started to snow as I stood at the bottom of the route belaying my partner.
When it came for me to climb the third pitch – 4c – the ‘excellent flakes’ as described by the guidebook, were not really appealing for standing on in big mountaineering boots and especially not in the rain.
It wasn’t my finest hour wailing and sliding on the rock and ultimately requiring me to be hauled up. Perhaps I should have gone gear shopping in Chamonix?
Multipitch sport climbing on Vois Caline
After the slime fest the prospect of sport climbing in the valley sunshine the next day was very appealing. Especially since the route finished at a Buvette where we could get lunch.
Vois Caline is one of three long multi-pitch routes at Les Mottets crag and at 350m of 3c climbing it was a nice scrambly route compared to the day before and one I had no worries about doing in mountaineering boots.
Ok the grade was easy, but I was still impressed with myself for leading three of the 5 pitches (my first ever sport climbing leads!) including one horribly damp slab traverse. There’s plenty of bolts on this route and since its a low grade its easy to move together. I really enjoyed this route which was a massive contrast to the day before!
“I’m going to struggle with that crux pitch” I said, as I watched an Italian guide following his client up the rock face and wobbling on his crampon points as he went. When his foot slipped it crossed my mind that if he was finding it difficult to keep his crampons on the tiny slots cut out of the face, I was going to do more than struggle.
I started the year with a goal to do harder Alpine routes, so when the KMC organised a trip to Chamonix it was a perfect opportunity to get high and tackle more complicated terrain. My ultimate goal requires me to have all the skills I need to no longer rely on anyone else.
I love being out the snow, be it the harshest winter in Scotland or Alpine days in the sunshine. I know though that these will always lead me to a moment where I’m muttering under my breathe, or worse swearing out loud.
But for all the complaining I know that I’m capable and just need to get on with it.
Tackling alpine ridges
The Cosmiques Arête is a 350 metre ridge of climbing and scrambling. The guidebook recommends around 4 hours, but you need to factor in the 1 hour of descending the snow arête from the Aguille de Midi station and crossing the glacier, and any potential queue you might encounter on this popular route.
I’ve previously only done Alpine routes which require basic winter skills, ability to walk in crampons and front point up snow slopes. But after a winter ice climbing in Norway I was ready for routes that were more challenging.
I was excited when I led us out of the Midi station and we descended the steep snow slope. Looking down on Chamonix from 3800m is always exciting. The route to the bottom of the ridge is relatively straightforward, following the arête to its end near the Cosmiques hut.
Much of the Cosmiques Arête is nothing more than a winter scramble. We had been unlucky to be tackling the route on Saturday and hadn’t been able to get on the first cable car, so our first challenge was to overtake as many of the groups as we could. Particularly the slower guided groups.
Trying not to self sabotage
My worst trait when I’m out is self doubt. Can I really climb that route? Is my prussic really wrapped right for this abseil and will it hold me? What’s after that difficult bit and can I do it?
I find that questioning myself like this leads to a negative cycle of feeling like I can’t achieve something and lack of confidence in the skills I have. I’m not rubbish – I’ve been climbing for 2 years now and while I struggle with confidence and fear of leading, I’m perfectly capable of seconding VS routes when I put my mind to it. Even the odd HVS.
So when I arrived at the first abseil and muttered out loud that I needed my partner to check my abseil set up before he headed off, I immediately sabotaged myself. In giving a voice to my fears I made them real and also made him worry about my ability; which just made it worse. I hate people assuming I can’t do something; I hate being taken care of.
The first abseil was straight forward and despite swinging into a chimney I had no problems. But voicing my fears meant my partner insisted on abseiling the next pitch together, which didn’t impress me.
Dangling the Crux
From the bottom of the abseils we traversed round to reach the crux – an 8m slab with a thin diagonal crack, graded ay 4c. Should be easy enough, especially since there’s pre drilled pockets for crampons, and especially as someone had left a cam in the crack to pull on. But climbing a rock face in crampons at altitude was not going to go well for me. Was it lack of skills or confidence? Did I just sabotage myself as I’d said out loud that I thought I was going to struggle?
As I was dangling, struggling to get my crampon points to stay in the pockets and get my weak arms to pull me up the crack I discovered a general dislike of Alpine guides.
Yes I caused a queue. But then there was one there before we arrived.
Yes I complained and took ages. But there wasn’t any need for the French guides to be rude and abusive. (I’m generalising by saying French as the Italian guide directly behind me was encouraging and helpful).
It was also clear once I’d dragged my sorry self up the face that the guides were dragging their clients along with little regard for them and relying on other climbers to help the clients make certain moves over rocks. Their only concern was to get the route done as fast as possible, with some of the clients not even understanding to pull out gear from a route. I collected 2 cams and a sling as swag before the end of the route.
I know I’m generalising there, as we met some other guides I met during the course of the week who were amazing with their clients – but the ones I met on the Arête were not.
The final gully
The final section of the arête isn’t complicated at all, a scramble up a steep gully onto the top and up the ladder to the top of the cable car. However, the queue at the crux and it being midday meant that there was a hoard of climbers now headed up the route and guides dragging clients behind them. It made me think of the images of climbers queuing on Everest and how I never want to be in that sort of place. Its not what I want out of climbing routes.
The joy of being fatigued at the end of completing any alpine route from the Midi is that if you look sufficiently knackered you can queue jump the hoards of tourists to get back down the cable car by looking a bit tired and smiling at the staff. I can easily adopt my best pathetic-tired face if it gets me to ice cream quicker!
Sometimes in life the best adventures are those you don’t choose for yourself. The Dales Way doesn’t involve bog trotting or peak bagging, but instead winds through picturesque valleys and villages following the rivers. It was a beautiful weekend; full of wildflower meadows, sheep and sunshine. Except for the day we got thoroughly soaked in a thunderstorm, but more about that later.
The suggestion for Sharon and I to do a long distance walk together was first uttered over beers at Christmas (were we drunk?) and despite the potential for it to be forgotten about after the hangovers had vanished we committed to completing the Dales Way – a route which could be done over a long weekend.
Covering 80-ish miles (that’s the official length!) the Dales Way passes through villages as it follows rivers from Ilkley to Windermere.
Day 1 – Ilkley to Kettlewell – 22 miles
It was a very early start to get to Ilkley – Sharon’s dog Ted was as excited to be on a train journey to Ilkley as he was about the long walk ahead. Sharon and I were excited too but also aware we’d set the challenge of a 22 mile hike to Kettlewell and it was a very hot day.
The route from Ilkley winds along the River Wharfe northwards, through little clusters of houses and cross under the busy A59 as it reaches Bolton Abbey. This 6 mile stretch felt harder than it should as Ted was busy keeping cool in the river and we were baking in the sunshine. So arriving at Bolton Abbey at lunchtime we decided ice creams were in order.
Bolton Abbey is hardly a hidden delight as it is popular tourist attraction, but its the first delight you pass through on the Dales Way. The grounds of the 12th Century Augustinian monastery are worth a visit in their own right but provide a spectacular back drop to the walk and the route winds through the grounds woodlands as it crosses the River Wharfe.
Eventually we reached Burnsall, a usual stop over on the route but for us a quick stop before we carried on to the suspension bridge over the river at Hebden.
The narrow suspension bridge across the River Wharfe at the tiny village of Hebden was built by the village blacksmith, William Bell in 1885, with 262 yards of redundant steel rope. It is quite narrow so you might have a tight squeeze if you’re carrying a very large rucksack!
From here our next big stopping point was Grassington – at which time it had also become late enough to justify a stop at a pub for food and drink. This was a great idea but did make it very difficult to start walking again to reach our final destination for the day at Kettlewell. It was tempting to keep drinking in the pub!
Out of Kettlewell the Dales Way heads on to the fells of Lea Green, past old hut circles and across the limestone pavements above Swinebar Scar. As we started to descend into Kettlewell the sun was setting across the River Wharfe, making for a magical finish to our walk for the day.
Day 2 – Kettlewell to Gearstones – 16 miles
Our overnight stay at the Bluebell Inn had set us up for a day of walking, a good sleep and good food. It was such a good morning we didn’t start till 10.30am and following the river we meandered through wildflower fields towards Buckden, the sun was shining and Ted was having fun playing in the river.
Reaching Buckden it started to cloud over and as we joined the road at Hubberholme we could hear the thunder in the distance. By the time we got to Yockenthwaite it was already raining heavily. From there it rained on and off until the heavens opened at Beckermonds and we got totally soaked as we crossed the river and started to head along the road. With heads down we trudged along.
The route to Oughtershaw was a plod along the road, but once there we started heading along a track past Nethergill and Swarthgill farms before heading out on to the fellside.
Heading up to Cam Houses and onto the hill top to join the Pennine Way the rain started to come down heavily and we were totally soaked on the plod down the track to Gearstones.
This isn’t the most inspirational part of the route at the best of times, I’ve walked this previously when doing the Pennine Way and thought then it should only be tackled on a mountain bike. So to trudge down the hill in the heavy rain was a bit of a demoralising end to the day.
We’d been unable to get accommodation locally so we were lucky to hide in the hostel out of the rain while our taxi arrived to take us to Hawes. There seems to only be two taxis locally, both very competitive with each other but thankfully one was happy to pick up two soaked women and a damp dog.
Carrying all our own kit and travelling light, we were very grateful that the White Hart Inn in Hawes let us dry our clothes in their drier.
Day 3 – Gearstones to Sedbergh – 16 miles
Thankfully the rain held off for the route out of Wharfedale and into Dentdale as we headed across the fields and down the road under the Dent Viaduct.
This section of the route includes a lot of road walking on country lanes and so we were pleased to reach Ewegales and start to head through the wildflower meadows towards Dent. Late spring is definitely the best time to walk this section of the route to see field of Bistort, Eyebright, Buttercups, Yellow Rattle, Red clover and Meadowsweet.
The fields in Dentdale are not bounded by dry stones walls like elsewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, but by laid hedges creating habitats and making the valley look softer and much more picturesque.
After food at Dent we continued down the valley along the river and on country roads, eventually heading over the hill towards Sedbergh. By now Ted had worked out how to tackle the ladder stiles too. His first was a bit of a panicked scramble, a bit like me when I’m rock climbing!
Day 4 – Sedbergh to Burnside – 16 miles
Breakfast at the Wheelwright Cottage was an experience, sat with two ultra runners completing the route in 3 days we stuffed ourselves with a full English breakfast on fine china plates. Ted got leftovers too.
The route out of Sedbergh was a contrast to Dentdale – gone were the wildflower meadows as the path follows the river under viaducts and past farms.
The viaducts in this area are part of the former Lune Valley railway and would make fantastic cycleways if there was money to invest in them. The Lune viaduct is made of Penrith stone with a huge cast iron central arch which carried the track 100 feet above the river.
After a morning of drizzle the weather did as predicted and stopped at 2pm so we had a pleasant afternoon walk through fields, eventually crossing the M6 and into Cumbria.
We arrived in Burneside tired and pleased to be stopping at a pub for the night so we didn’t have to travel far for food, and the Jolly Angler certainly didn’t disappoint.
Day 5 – Burneside to Windermere – 10 miles
We’d planned to set off walking for 9am so that we wouldn’t have to rush our last day reaching Windermere station with plenty of time for the 3pm train we had booked.
However we both overslept and so had a mad dash out for breakfast and so we didn’t get going until 9.30am. Despite being tired we managed a decent pace to leave Burneside.
The route isn’t pretty as it heads out of Burneside around the back of the large Mill, but it eventually leaves town and heads through fields along the River Kent to Staveley.
This is an area of Cumbria I’ve never explored due to the lack of mountains and fells, but it is worth a walk through the farms and fields to see a quiet side of Cumbria without the crowds.
We had decided to branch off at the bridleway to finish at Windermere station making it easy for our journey home.
The Dales Way isn’t an adventure I would have chosen for myself, but was an opportunity for me to enjoy an adventure with a friend something I’ve not done often. What I learnt is that adventures don’t have to include mountains or extreme endurance to be achievements and the Dales Way is a fantastic route, accessible for all at whatever pace you wish to complete it.
I hate caving. I know hate is a strong word but having had a go I can honestly say, I hate caving. Wading around with wet feet inside cold wellies wearing a rubber boil-in-the-bag suit with a fibre pile onesie underneath so any physical exertion leads to being really sweaty. Having a mild panic attack in the dark, when the choice presented to you is to either wriggle through a tiny slot barely big enough to fit in or to slide down rock and somehow avoid landing in the pool of freezing water at the bottom. I feel a bit sick just thinking about it now. There’s always the choice to turn around but I’m not a quitter and like to push my boundaries of fear.
But I didn’t know any of this when I agreed to give it a go. I thought ‘It’s a bit like rock climbing, but underground’. Walking through passages marvelling at rock and fossils and wandering into huge caverns.
The reality is more like grovelling in the dark, wedging myself through rock and losing my dignity and nerve as I lower myself over the void to disappear into the abyss, dangling in free space.
The weekend was organised by Ben and Aly, both really experienced cavers and both in Mountain Rescue teams with experience in cave rescues, so if I was going to give it a go I was at least going out with experienced people.
Learning rope access skills
We’d spent Saturday morning learning rope techniques to ascend and descend the ropes, get past knots in the rope (re-belays) and also passed clips where the rope has been anchored to the side to make the descent better (deviations). In Bradford Pothole Club’s hut, a couple of feet off the ground, it was easy and fun. I enjoy learning rope skills, and this didn’t feel like it was that different than the rope rescue skills we do in my Rescue team. This was going to be a piece of cake.
On a hot sunny afternoon we then headed out to descend into Sell Gill, a cave system with all the rope work problems you could ever encounter. I didn’t have any problems getting down into the bottom of the cave. And yes, I had this look on my face all day.
Later on, hauling myself back up the rope to get out I managed to jam my ascender (croll) at the top next to a knot. I was less than impressed with the ten minutes of wiggling it required to get it off. As you can imagine I was sweating in my rubber suit as I dangled, frustrated, trying to free myself. Ben at this point was being very reassuring with advice about how to free myself and was about to come and get me himself when I sorted it out.
It wasn’t a horrible experience but Sell Gill isn’t the most attractive cave, as Ben pointed out its more of a training ground for learning the skills, so I was still wondering what the point of caving really is. Aly tried to explain that reaching the bottom of the cave is what cavers go underground for, but I’ll be honest I still didn’t understand.
I was even more confused to discover some of the club’s cavers had spent the day digging underground, to excavate new caves. I understand the desire to be the first to do something, even if it’s be in a cave, but really?! In the dark, cold and wet, digging dirt out of the ground.
Venturing into Alum Pot
I admit to being filled with a sense of dread after hearing two cavers spent Saturday night trapped underground nearby and had not been rescued till 5am. So I was a bit happier that Sunday’s trip out was to Alum Pot, a day lit shaft that descends 80m into the ground. At least I wasn’t going to spend all day in the dark I thought.
We initially headed upstream, wading through the river to reach Dr Bannister’s Handbasin, a huge underground pool. We had an awkward climb up a short waterfall to exit the last bit of the cave, awkward enough but much more so in wellies.
Once back out in the real world, we walked back down to the entrance to head downstream and into Alum Pot itself. The route down wasn’t too complicated and involved mostly walking through passage ways or around the edge of pools.
It was along this bit of the route that I was presented with the option of squeezing through a narrow crack to wriggle through, or sliding further down rock to avoid a pool. I can confess that watching Jess crawl through the gap and even thinking about having to follow her, made feel sick and teary. I opted for the slide down and managed to avoid the plunge pool.
From here we continued to ‘Dollytubs’, a roped descent down 15m to where we could see Alum Pot and daylight. Descending Dollytubs required a traverse along a ledge and to reclip the rope past a deviation as we descended.
Even getting my descender (stop) onto the rope felt like a mental effort as I leaned over the drop. Ben did point out to me to just get my bum on the wall to balance, clearly logical thinking isn’t a skill of mine when I’m concentrating on not panicking! Despite always being clipped to a rope and therefore safe, I didn’t have faith in the gear, which is ridiculous I know. Clipped to a rope I wasn’t going to fall. So every time I had to faff with the stop I felt a bit uneasy.
I was happy to get into Alum Pot and see daylight, and the descent down Greasy Slab was actually pleasant in the daylight. Alum Pot feels like another world when you look up to daylight, surrounded by leafy vegetation, moss and slime.
It was like being in Jurassic Park, another world that I wouldn’t ever see again and that hikers who pass by the surface never get to see. I knew I was lucky to have the opportunity to be there.
The 45m descent down from below ‘The Bridge’ the large rock seen in the photo above, wasn’t really any more difficult that anything I’d done so far, only one deviation clip to get passed by unclipping and re-clipping.
Dangling in free space with daylight showing how far away the floor of the cave was, and the roaring sound of the waterfall pouring down made the whole thing feel a lot more scary. Plus having to sort out a deviation which was more than an arms length away and manage to re-clip it back on the rope without letting go of it was stressful.
By the time I eventually got to the bottom of the rope I only had to walk along and do one more 20m descent down to reach the Sump, an underground pool and the end of the cave system. But on seeing the last rope descend down into the dark again and trying to sort out my rope whilst getting soaked under a waterfall I’d reached the edge of my mental strength.
Am I disappointed I didn’t see the Sump? As I sarcastically put to Ben as he tried to encourage me to continue, “its just a puddle”. Ok, I’m sure to cavers out there the Sump is something special and worth a visit, but I just didn’t care enough at that point to carry on. I was mentally wiped out.
I’m still not disappointed either. I don’t have a great head for heights which is a problem with climbing at the best of time, but in dark and wet caves I’d found my limit. I felt bad for letting Ben down. For me it was a big enough achievement to have got to where it did.
Hauling myself back up the 45m rope was challenging enough for me.
Whilst I’m unlikely to ever go caving again, I would recommend a trip into Alum Pot if you can find someone to take you. Its not somewhere to go without experience – you need to be able to rig the ropes and understand ascending and descending safely. Being able to do that with Ben and Aly was great.
I was totally amazed and grateful for Aly’s calm and cool manner in dealing with me, being stubborn and sobbing at the bottom of Alum Pot. She’s an amazing caver and clearly really good at coping with novices like me. She was also out in front the whole weekend rigging the ropes and taking responsibility for safety. Whilst I’m not sure caving would ever have been for me even if I’d started younger, I believe girls need more role models like Aly. I found her totally inspiring.
I’d also like to say a massive thanks to Ben for letting me tag along, for being a good teacher and being calm when teaching me skills, and giving me the opportunity to see the amazing world of Alum Pot. And for taking photos – without which I’d have manage to banish all memory of the day!