The Route: Skiddaw & Little Man
Distance: 11.2km (7 miles) aprox | Time: 5 hours | Ascent: 3,054 ft
Start: NY280254 | Map: OL4 | Date: 21/06/2010
Skiddaw dominates the skyline like no other. From the town of Keswick it can feel like whichever way you turn you are confronted by it. Eventually a day of reckoning has to happen. I had sat in my tent on many summers evenings and stared at its great featureless expanses, its barren summits and the imposing shadow that it cast all over the campsite at Derwent Water and knew that very soon I would have to climb it. That day had arrived.
The ‘Classic Route’ takes you up on quite probably the easiest trek in Britain to the top of a three thousand foot high mountain. Skiddaw is the fourth highest mountain in England at 931m above sea level and although considered easy there are many cautionary tales that abound. It may not have any defining dangerous features such as a ‘Striding’ or ‘Sharp Edge’ such as other luminaries around have, and it may be devoid of crags and steep gullies, but underestimate this colossus at your peril! It’s exposed summit can suffer arctic conditions in winter, and even in summer there are often gales blowing up there strong enough to knock a man over.
The summit of this giant runs for nearly half a mile and consists of four distinctive separate tops, several of which could easily be mistaken for the summit. The true summit is known as High Man and just south of this is Skiddaw Little Man upon which is a fine mess of a cairn, all jagged rocks and twisted metal railings hewn together to form one of the most unfriendly looking summits I have ever seen.
Our hike would take advantage of the Latrigg car park at the end of Gale Road which is already 250 feet above sea level and takes off a a nice slice of the total ascent, a fact we would be very pleased about by the return leg of our hike. We left the car park and started on our way. No sooner did we start than we reached the monument to three shepherds of the Hawell family who were a notable sheep breeding family of the area. The monument stands in wonderful isolation with spectacular 360 degree views around all the neighbouring fells. From here a daunting yet obvious trail led up the mountain side revealing switch back after switch back until the first false summit of many could be seen.
Evidently this was the route first taken by tourists some centuries ago and was once described as ‘…easy, even for ladies, who have only to sit their ponies to find themselves at the top, after a ride of six miles.’ Romantic exaggeration played a big part in Victorian exploration where ever it was in the world and it seems Skiddaw was no exception to the rule as the distance along the pony track isn’t, and never was six miles, although I confess I bet it sure felt like it atop an old leather saddled pony plodding up the rocky path.
On and on we plodded without the aid of ponies, upwards ever upwards toiling along Jenkins Hill desperate to reach Little Man at 865m. After much puffing of lungs and burning of thighs we summitted Little Man and sat beside the ugly rocky Cairn (a mixture of slatey rocks and gnarly twisted metal fencing). The wind was blowing a hooley and you were battered the moment you tried to stand horizontally, Skiddaw was living up to its reputation of a peak not to be underestimated.
After gathering our breath we pressed on. The trail became stoney underfoot with jagged slate protruding at rude angles cutting into our strides. The wind picked up some more and fewer people could now be seen in the immediate local of the route. Only the hardy were left at this elevation pushing on toward the top. A series of false summits adorned the ridgeline and its not until you reach the lofty height of 931m do you actually top out. On the summit we hankered down in one of the many hastily made rocky wind shelters, ducking down out of the ever increasing wind speed and chill.
All too soon our food supplies had evaporated and together with the wind, which was picking up, it seemed like a good time to leave and start the descent so as not to out stay our welcome at the top. There are other routes down from the ridgeline such as Carlside and the Allerdale Ramble which offer fresh views and different rock underfoot but as we had parked at Gale Gill (unfortunately for us) we would have to toil all the way back down along the route we had taken for our ascent all those hours ago.
So with burning kneecaps we descended much more slowly than we had ascended. Back along the switch backs and back over Jenkins Hill, back past the tiny monument to the shepherds and eventually, and totally knackered by now, back to the car park, which sheltered nestling behind the ever so small looking mini mountain of Latrigg.
Once back at the campsite and on reflection Skiddaw is without doubt a massive mountain, one that stands alone and aloof at the very edge of the northern lakes. It is not to be underestimated and offers a tiring challenge even to the fit among us. The summit is suitably rugged and desolate and the views are spectacular, but the trudge to the top is unfortunately devoid of any excitement, and so the challenge is in the endurance and the making of the summit, not the joy of the climb. Unlike Blencathra it does not offer up multiple routes and near alpine ridges to the top, and for that and that reason alone, having made it to the summit once I doubt I shall be attempting it again by this or any other route, but never say never, especially in the mountains. One day I may well find myself back on the top of Skiddaw and I could certainly think of many worse ways to spend a day than in its company, but maybe next time I will take the advice of those intrepid victorians and get myself a pony to the top instead.