I’m not quite sure if it was at 2am in the middle of a gale, or during the third consecutive day of torrential rain and punishing hail that I officially declared the trip to have been a stupid idea! My intentions were good; spend four days in the beautiful English Lake District, hike a few fells, enjoy a spot of wild camping and test my gear set up before embarking on my PCT thru-hike. I wanted to stay as true to my intended starting set up as I could, and so it came to pass that myself and Mski (the only other person I know who is as stupid as me) set off for the Lakes with what might accurately be described as an ambitious plan and a limited amount of clothing!
After an uneventful 5 hour road trip, with a brief interlude for the obligatory full English Breakfast, we arrived at Great Langdale. This tiny halmet boasts Lake District scenery on a grand scale. With an imposing backdrop of iconic fells, stands of mature trees, droves of hardy Herdwicks and meadows full of wild flowers; Langdale Valley truly is rural England at its very finest . We wasted no time in pitching my trusty Terra Nova Voyager which would serve as our base camp for the microadventure. We then stretched our legs, before retiring to the snug of the New Dungeon Ghyll to sample the local specialty; Sticky Toffee Pudding. At about 8pm, as we made our way back to camp, it started to rain…
The rain showers continued on and off for the whole night. In the morning the weather finally capitulated and the showers transitioned into a steady pour. On the plus side I had enjoyed a warm and cosy night and awoke very happy with my new sleep system. The Exped UL7 Downmat and the Enlightened Equipment 20 degree Revelation 950 Fill Power Down Quilt paired perfectly and any doubts that I had regarding the Exped’s weight penalty were immediately resolved. The next challenge was breakfast and my tiny stove and simplistic cook-in-a-zip-loc-bag method proved to be remarkably efficient. Coffee and hot oatmeal for two in under 10 mins and absolutely no clean up … Result! After a period of rain inspired procrastination, we eventually set off, heading northwest along the Cumbria Way towards Borrowdale.
We headed up and over Stake Pass, by this stage I was wearing every item of clothing in my pack and my layers were just about winning the fight against the driving rain and bone chilling winds … Surely the PCT wouldn’t be this cold. After a slow 12 mile trudge, we reached the one-farm village of Seathwaite and the wettest inhabited spot in the UK. The skies had grown darker and the rain was now relentless … Seathwaite seemed keen to live up to all the hype! We finally found the farmer and asked if it was possible to camp in his field. He looked at us as if we had just slaughtered one of his new born lambs! Apparently there was a storm coming and he insisted that we stay the night in his barn. We accepted without protest and spent the rest of the evening reading ghost stories and marvelling at the convenience of an electric kettle.
The following morning the rain showed no sign of stopping and so once again, in full wet weather garb, we waded off into the wilds. In many places the trail was practically a river and when it was not a river it was a swamp. I was very grateful for my Salomon Gor-Tex hiking boots and consequentially dry feet (not what I’ll be wearing on the PCT, but essential on the English fells). Overall, my wet weather gear was performing exceptionally well and my ZPacks Arc Blast Cuben pack was indeed as waterproof as had been promised … I was confident that I could handle whatever Washington was likely to throw at me.
Meanwhile, back on the trail we made our way over Sty Head Pass as the rain levelled up to sleet, snow and eventually hail. The ongoing war between the elements and my somewhat limited layering system took a turn in favour of the former. There was nothing to be done except press on and get down into Wasdale valley as quickly as possible. When we eventually reached camp the rain had abated a little but the wind was now keen to show us exactly who was boss. The inaugural pitching of my ZPacks Soloplex shelter was going to be challenging to say the least! Much to my delight, the wafer thin shelter went up without incident. It was almost efortless to pitch and surprisingly cosy once I’d made myself at home inside. Next stop, The Wasdale Head Hotel for a warm in front of the fire and another helping of Sticky Toffee Pudding!
By nine o’clock we were warm, well fed and ready for bed. I was excited to spend my first night in the Soloplex and apart from a few drafts, I drifted off to sleep with no problem. At about 2am I was awoken by a strange noise, something that sounded a bit like a high speed train approaching. I sat up, plucked the foam plugs from my ears and promptly recoiled in horror. They say ignorance is bliss and, until that very moment, I had been blissfully unaware of the 60mph winds and driving rain that were battering my shelter! The noise was ferocious but my little Soloplex seemed to take it all in its stride and what’s more, I was still warm and dry! Mski wasn’t enjoying her solo camping experience quite as much, but her tent was still standing and there was nothing I could do about the wind, so I left her clinging to her poles, re-plugged my ears and went back to sleep.
In the cold light of the early morning we surveyed the damage … one slightly loose tent peg! My ZPacks Soloplex had been well and truly put to the test and had passed with flying colours. It had totally surpassing all of my expectations for such a lightweight shelter. I honestly cannot praise this tent highly enough and it was fantastic to have such an important equipment related confidence boost ahead of my thru-hike. Although I was ecstatic with the performance of my gear, Mother Nature continued to challenge us. The overnight storms had brought the snow level down below 500 metres and the winds were continuing to gust in excess of 60mph. We needed to make it back to Langdale today and our original plan, to hike over the high pass and bag England’s highest peak (Scafell Pike) on the way, was now definitely off the agenda. Our only alternative was a longer but lower route that involved an obnoxious amount of road walking. I wasn’t keen but our options were severely limited. Hailstones the size of M&Ms pelted us as we broke camp and my layers finally conceeded. It was now offical … I was freezing and needed to get hiking to warm up.
We lost a precious hour of hiking time after we had to double back on to the road to cross a very swollen Linhmell Gill. By the time we had climbed up onto Eskdale Moor I had at last warmed up. It was difficult to stay comfortable, sweating on the climbs and then being chilled by the cold winds on the descents, but I was very impressed with the performance of my Icebreaker base layers. Merino is seems is a magical material that not only keeps you warm when wet, but also dries quickly and doesn’t stink, even after 4 days of continuous wear!
Resisting the urge to stop in the village of Boot for more Sticky Toffee Pudding, we pressed on. The 10-mile road walk over Hardknott Pass and then Wrynose Pass awaited us. I’m defiance of the wind and sleet, I powered onwards. Mski had gone into shock as a result of her effort to match my pace, pushing herself so hard that she threw up at the top of Hardknott! My patience with this road walking was wear very thin and so I decided to do what any self-respecting thru-hiker would do … I stuck out my thumb. A very nice young man who was an outdoor instructor took pity and gave us a ride to within a mile of Langdale. I was so relieved to find base camp Terra Nova still in one piece and invitingly dry. We made a beeline for the drying room to warm up and then back to the snug of the pub for a slap up meal to celebrate our survival!
Upon reflection, early April in the English Lake District was possibly not the most appropriate training ground for 500 miles of hiking in the Southern Californian desert. Nevertheless, I did learn some very important lessons; what worked, what didn’t work and (perhaps most importantly) I gained an immeasurable amount of confidence in my equipment. Was the trip really a stupid idea? For any normal weekend hill walker … probably! But then I was never striving to be normal … I’m an aspiring PCT thru-hiker and there is no place for normality in my world!
If you are planning a thru-hike, I strongly recommend that you get out there with all you gear and really challenging yourself for a few days … Stupid but oh so very worth it!