There was a spell last year, a prolonged and magical escape from the inevitable, when the mere act of choosing a day for a lengthy walk seemed to guarantee clear skies, sunshine and stupendous views. The walks were exhilarating and I felt almost blessed in some way. But at the same time, the longer my good fortune went on, the more I began to feel a sense of foreboding: this couldn’t last, payback was coming, the watching Gods must surely be sporting with me, biding their time, planning my downfall. Well, my inner pessimist was right: it didn’t last, the bubble burst, the debt was recalled; the rains came. I was whinging this weekend about my recent ill-stared forays into the hills to CJ, who seems to be doomed to share in my amphibian explorations. I enumerated a list of grievances: Arthur’s Pike and Bonscale Pike, our walk back from Wasdale to Borrowdale, our ascent of Gowbarrow. Days about which, if you were a glass half-full sort of person, you might say that they were a least good days for waterfalls. The occasion for this whinging was another walk with CJ. Another good day for waterfalls.
We’d met in the car-park by Tilberthwaite Gill and set off up the south side of the gill, through the spoil heaps and mine workings. We were heading for Steel Edge, which I had a vague recollection of having climbed and enjoyed before. “It’s a grade one scramble” I told CJ although I hadn’t bothered to check this fact in the guide book. Nor was I entirely sure that starting on the south side of the stream was the right thing to do – there would be some stream-crossing to do and now that we were climbing I began to wonder how easy that would be. In the event, even with the gill running quite high, the stream crossing presented no problems. The rocks on Steel Edge were greasy with damp and I found myself hoping that the scrambling would be as straightforward as I recalled from my previous visit. In fact we reached the top of the ridge, joining the wide and bulky south ridge by a small tarn, without really finding any scrambling of note.
From here the climb was very steady. As we climbed, the hillside and path became increasingly obscured by snow. Or, well,….white stuff which looked like snow, but which was thawing in the rain and which splashed and sloshed when we stepped in it. There had been, to my surprise, a bit of a path on Steel Edge, but this south ridge, rising gradually from behind Coniston Coppermines is, I suspect, little walked and with the snow to disguise it we couldn’t always find a path. We worked on the basis that uphill was the right direction. Pretty soon we came to a prominent cairn. “Is this the top?”. Well…it didn’t quite correspond to my recollections of the top of Wetherlam, but it did seem to be downhill in every direction from here, so it has to be the top, right? I took a bearing for our descent route, followed that bearing for a couple of strides and found myself looking down a forbiddingly steep slope. Nope, that’s not it. Check the bearing. Check the map. Peer over the edge again. Scratch head. Check the bearing. Check the map. Peer over the edge – still much too step. So – either I’m doing something horribly wrong with the compass, or we aren’t at the top. Where else could we be? Nothing on the map suggests any prominent tops before Wetherlam itself – nothing with even a solitary contour of its own. CJ wolfed down some coffee and a sandwich whilst I wondered what to do. It was really very cold, and between standing around for a few moments and fiddling with map and compass my hands had become quite painfully chilled. In the end I decided, more for lack of a better idea than for any other reason, to continue along the path we had been following. Within seconds the whole mystery was cleared up: the mist had fooled me and created an illusory descent ahead, in fact the ground only dropped very slightly before rising again. What had looked like a distant hillside was in fact just the continuation of our ridge. Before long we were at the genuine top and soon after were following the bearing I had wanted to follow before, but this time on less suicidal terrain. Nonetheless it was still steep. The map suggests a benign shoulder with steeper slopes either side, both with some crags. In reality all is pretty rocky and some care was required picking our way down, especially with the slippery melting snow over the rocks. We found a path, and followed it slightly below and to the left of the ridge, but in taking care where we put our hands and our feet we dropped a little too far below the ridge and once again found ourselves faced with increasingly steep ground ahead. This time I was fairly confident about what had happened and the remedy was obvious – to contour back right until the angle eased and hopefully we found the path again. We found less steep ground and eventually the path and descended below the snow to where all of our onwards paths had become streams.
The hillside to the north of Tilberthwaite Gill is pocked with old levels and shafts. It is also dotted with Birketts more plentiful than pimples on an adolescent chin. I had considered incorporating some or all of these into today’s walk to add to our tally of two so far (Wetherlam and Birk Fell Man), but frankly I was wet and cold and ready for a change of clothes back at the car, besides which I these would all be new tops to me and I decided that I would prefer to visit on a clear day. Of which, of course there will soon be more – in my list of wet days above I realise now that I had omitted to mention fine days on Pike o’Blisco and our mammoth walk over Glaramara and Scafell Pike to Wasdale, which came between the wet days. Roll on spring!