Picture the scene Etta – you’ve seen it before of course, you were there, but it’s doubtful that you remember it now: you are in your dining room at the table, your big eyes are looking out as you sit in your high chair. You can see us – your dad’s old friends – a raggle-taggle bunch from the east and west assembled; tired eyes, stubbly, grizzly-looking buggers with big grins just for you. It’s breakfast time and your dad has made eggs for us all, you included.
We’ve gathered in Nottingham, around your high chair, for a mission. Some months ago, a plan was hatched, a call put out, and we answered. The four of us – Sam, Ben, Tom (that’s me) and your dad. Together we were going to attempt to scale Scafell Pike, England’s tallest and toughest mountain. It came with the possibility of becoming, if only for a brief moment, the highest men in England. Such missions as these begin with eggs. It must always begin with eggs, although you were not fussed by yours at the time. And coffee. Coffee and eggs.
Having left you and your mum to your own adventures, we loaded the car with our dirty old boots, tatty rucksacks, assorted supplies and a big bundle of anticipation. Together again, with a shared mission, we were hungry and alive. Unstoppable.
We ate up the miles between the Meadows and the Lakes, with tunes on the stereo and chatter all around. We talked a lot, setting the world to rights, catching up, checking in. We hadn’t been together for a while, but you’ll realise that this doesn’t matter with true friends.
As we sped through Stoke, I chatted to your dad about my baby girl that had not yet been born and he told me all about you and how much love you had unlocked in him. This made me feel pretty good about things. It was an exciting prospect bringing someone new into the world and showing them all the best bits.
Hopefully you’ve visited the Lakes already (it’s one of the best bits), but just in case you haven’t, I’ll tell you a little about it. First thing you notice is their beauty. In sunlight, like today, it’s a neat and green kind of beauty: a wildness trussed up by snaking dry stone walls, patrolled by rugged sheep and the occasional heavy-hopping crow. The mountains rise out of the landscape, soft and undulating at first, above crystal clear lakes that mirror them precisely, reverently.
The roads that cut through this picturesque scene get windier and narrower as the car approaches the campsite. Our camp is a few miles from Ambleside and a long way from home, the air is crisp and clean here, and our lungs suck it up. We park up, load our bags into wheelbarrows and head across bumpy fields towards the tipis. Our tipi is called Blackfoot – a good name for a tipi, don’t you think?
The afternoon is spent exploring: a castle view, a lakeside walk, a cold beer and some stone skimming across Windermere, an amble, a shop, and a plot. When evening comes, we fry up giant steaks and feast on salad, thinking about the day ahead and the peril that awaits.
As is our way, when evening gathers, we crank the tunes, drink local brews and play cards. The sweet plucked guitars that emerge from the speaker join with the crackle of the fire we have built. Smoke and heat and laughter spiral up towards the sky, bright under a full April moon.
Knowing that Blackfoot would be cold when it came to bedding down, we thought it best to light another fire, this time in the small stove within the tipi. We placed charred logs on top of kindling and crumbled firelighters and hoped. Your dad blew oxygen to fuel the fledgling flames, and soon enough, against the odds, it took. We had a fire.
When the moon rose high above the trees, and stars pricked through the scurrying clouds, we knew it was time for us to retreat to the thick canvas folds of Blackfoot. Tomorrow was going to be a physical and mental test that none of us felt quite ready for. Sleep was important.
The hit of smoke and warmth was welcome on entering Blackfoot. The temperature outside had plummeted to somewhere around freezing whereas inside it was approaching snug. We cocooned ourselves in sleeping bags and blankets, and set about trying to get some shuteye.
There was a minor obstacle. Ben snores. You are probably familiar with snoring by now Etta, have a pretty good idea of the noises we make in our sleep. Forget all that you know though for now as I tell you about the noises that come from Ben. Like a storm gully in a deluge, a big game hunt in its gory climax, an atonal woodwind ensemble recreating the final death throes of a beached whale: Ben’s snoring is something to behold. Unlike the man himself, lovely to the very core, the noises that emerge from him are rotten.
To combat the disturbing cacophony that now fills Blackfoot, we all push wax ear plugs deep into our ears, wrap scarves around our heads and seal it all in with woolly hats. Alas, our efforts are no match for Ben’s snores that tear through each barrier like a wild pig through a bed of late blooming flowers.
We drift in and out of a half-daze for an hour or so. And then, somewhere above our heads, an incessant shrill beeping starts up. Ben splutters into alertness, I jump unsteadily to my feet. The carbon monoxide alarm has registered dangerous levels of the deadly gas in our tipi. Blackfoot it appears has been overcome by a silent killer. This odourless toxic gas sends you quite doolally before finally snuffing out your life completely – it is not to be trifled with.
Sam – impulsive, short-fused loveable Sam – rises from his sleeping bag, cussing and mumbling about the continued beeping. Like the proverbial bear with the sorest of heads, he lurches across the tipi floor and tears at the alarm with great, swiping motions. Eventually, the cable tie that secures it to the tipi frame is no more. In a frenzy of teeth and claws, Sam removes the batteries. The beeping stops. Sam defiantly returns to his bed and his sleep, and the silent killer looks down on him and slowly grins.
Me on the other hand, afflicted with being the ‘sensible one’, the long-limbed worrywart, has a serious situation to deal with. I open the stove where coals glow like magical eggs in a metal nest, slowly releasing the deadly gas. I begin shovelling them up and hurrying them outside to the BBQ, unloading them into the grill. The night air is colder now, angrier, with teeth bared.
Shovel after shovel of red hot embers made their way out through the flapped doorway of the tipi and into the freezing air until I was satisfied that the source of the fumes was safely burning under the Lake District skies. It was now time to address the gas that still lingered ominously within Blackfoot.
I tie up both flaps of the tipi and urge the clean icy air to rush in and displace the toxic gas. I watch from the bench outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the evacuating carbon monoxide. Although invisible, I half expect to hear a high-pitched peel of maleficent laughter or see a grey smudge applied to my vision. Nothing.
Too cold, I eventually return to the tipi and my sleeping bag. Nervously I reassemble the alarm, hoping for silence. It instantly starts beeping – it seems even louder than before. The gas turns its gaze to me now and winks. It wouldn’t be that easy.
Another half an hour passes, nervous and wired I watch and wait. The sounds of the night ring out all around, emanating from creatures that only come out under the cover of darkness – shrieks and scuttling, hoots and howls. Ben, now sound asleep and snoring, unknowingly engages them in an eerie discourse. Eventually, I reassemble the alarm with shivering fingers. The blissful lack of beeps indicates that the gas is gone. We are safe for the time being. Safe and very, very cold.
Now Sam may read this Etta and tell you (or scribble in the margins of the page) that there was never anything to be concerned about. That the alarm always sounds and that we would have been fine. He may well have been right, but worrywarts like me must take our heroic moments when and where we find them as they are few and far between.
The next morning, we awake at 7am to sunlight illuminating Blackfoot’s canvas. It is a glorious morning. It feels good, and perhaps a little lucky, to be alive. We eat everything we can and dress ourselves in layer after layer of clothing. Backpacks are packed, boots tightened, backs slapped. We are as ready as we could be; our success now dependent on greater forces.
None of us were in what could be described as peak physical condition. We had all lived lives that generated stories more than maintained well-being. We wore the good times and the bad in our very cells. Cigarettes and alcohol, late nights and loud music had taken its toll. If our bodies were temples then they were the type of temple you stumble across in a remote jungle: empty, unused, crumbling around the edges with vines growing through smashed windows and the occasional critter lurking in a gloomy corner. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The first ascent was the toughest. It was a suckerpunch to the system. We wheezed and sweated, felt unused muscles protest, and joints creak and groan. Layers of clothing came off, regrets were vocalised, water bottles supped enthusiastically. The occasional profanity slipped from our chapping lips. But step after step, we laboured on, one steep path leading into a yet steeper one. When we eventually reached flat ground, the view down the Langdale valley fell short of making it worthwhile, but boy was it good.
Little did we know that the first ascent was mere child’s play compared to what was to come. The terrain became increasingly tough underfoot, the climbs more protracted, and the sunshine and light breeze had become a distant memory.
As we approach the Three Tarns, a trio of miniature lakes, the wind rushes down the valley, blowing fierce and bitterly cold. The sweat that soaks our clothes now presses against our flesh in an icy compress, and our core temperatures take a nosedive. Nestled between Crinkle Crags and Bowfell, we scramble to put on jackets, gloves and woolly hats, trying not to face the onrushing winds or look at the grey rock face that await us.
Bowfell was the next in our series of peaks. At 3000 ft above sea level, it was going to take some climbing. The rugged pyramid of its apex was formed from ugly slabs of rock. It loomed over us, daring us to take the first steps up its precipitous face. Gone were the lush green canvassed slopes of the previous ascents. This was prehistoric: all angry angles forming rows of teeth, incisors to tear at our ligaments and molars to grind away the cartilage in our failing knees.
As we started in earnest, a lone sheep appeared and looked down at us pityingly from a craggy outpost. A custodian of another time and place, she watched our passage with tired, knowing eyes. “Fools,” she seemed to bleat. “Fools.”
Again, step by laboured step, we edge our way up the incline until eventually we reach the top. Looking back down the valley, our route, our hard-earned achievements so far are made instantly miniature by the enormity of the features around us.
Sheltering behind a rock, we sip tea and set about putting as much sugar as we can get into our aching bodies, knowing that this battle has been won but the war is far from over.
It is only now, three hours in, that we finally see the focus of our trip. Along a snaking ridge, away in the distance, is Scafell Pike. At last, we have a visible goal, something to aim for. The only problem is that it looks so far away, and the paths up and along the ridge as tortuous as any we have faced. Where were the crowds cheering us on? The appreciative masses chanting our names? It appeared we were on our own with this one.
The next hour’s walking was tough. As a group, we started to drift apart, the distances between each of us lengthening. An unrelenting series of lurching descents between giant boulders were followed by tall stepped scrambles amidst unforgiving fissures. The views were uniformly stunning – the distant glimmering lakes, the milky sea, the omnipresent silhouette of mountains against blue-grey skies – but it was harder to enjoy them. Lungs burned, eyes were blurred with sweat, and joints throbbed with every step.
And then we were there, at the foot of Scafell Pike. We had made it this far. One hundred metres above us was the summit. The closeness was almost overwhelming. There wasn’t much conversation though – we needed to retreat inside our own heads and find whatever was required to get us up this final ascent. A twenty-minute scramble up a steep grey slab of shifting sharp scree. You could not trust the ground beneath your feet.
Keep your centre of gravity low, we thought; prepared to grab something permanent, we thought. Each of us ignored the pains in our chests and kept the screams of over-stretched muscles in the background. We went on and on until there was no climb left. The four of us looked up and at each other and then embraced. We are the four highest men in England.
Enjoyed this? Try this piece on the Gaping Gill Winch Meet.