Through Hel and the Fells of Death

March 2017 – Lake District, England

A few days ago, I saw a man die on the climb to Scafell Pike. As I was approaching the first peak, I could hear the loud noises of a helicopter circling the site, and as I got closer at least three other hikers were surrounding a motionless body, pumping at his chest to bring back any sign of life. This route was certainly the longer one up to the peak, and the poor man was not in any shape to be taking this course. Only about an hour and a half into this trek, this tragic sight would be an ugly shadow that would follow me throughout my entire time in these cursed hills.

Beginnings

I travelled among unknown men,
In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
What love I bore to thee

Tis past, that melancholy dream!
Nor will I quit thy shore
A second time; for still I seem
To love thee more and more.

William Wordsworth, “I Travelled Among Unknown Men”

It was my final day staying in Liverpool, and I said goodbye to the regulars who were staying here. Every day, one of these guys—an older Irish gentleman—would ramble on about how he was finally gonna leave this place and go somewhere new. Once, I actually thought he was going to do it; he had his bags all packed, was shaking everyone’s hands, said he was off to Manchester, but by the time I returned to the hostel that night, it was to no avow: he was back to his usual routine drinking with his buddies. In my bag, I had been carrying around with me a scally cap that I really enjoyed wearing back in the States. It was part of my regular style and a testament to my heritage, but I hadn’t worn it much for months. The thought came quickly and I acted on impulse: Maybe these tiny treasures would give him the little bit of Irish luck and inspiration he needed to escape? I bid farewell and handed him the hat and an extra pair of socks to keep him well fitted for whatever the future may hold.

Hitchhiking out was an absolute nightmare, and it took me several rides to get any good distance north of the city. I really had no idea where exactly I wanted to end up, but I was just letting go to the good will of the several drivers brave enough to pick me up. At one point I saw a cool camper van, and I knew for sure that this guy would be traveler-friendly; and what do you know, with my thumb flying high in the air, he pulled right over. I told him I had been doing some hiking all along the UK and was trying to visit some interesting cities. We both shared various stories and he told me that I definitely needed to see the Lake District while I’m here. I guess I would point my beacon in that direction.

I arrived at the Ambleside Youth Hostel quite late on a busy Saturday night. Right beside the waters of Lake Windermere, it’s an absolutely stunning location, but beauty was the least of my worries in this moment. At the check-in of the hostel, I was left with a predicament: pay a standard fee to stay the night with a bunch of snoring travelers in a packed room, or sleep rough in the wide outdoors until I could check in when things slowed down. The guy at check-in told me about some secret areas that people would sometimes camp out if the hostel was too busy.

Lake District is a very popular destination, not just for backpackers and tourists, but as a fancy getaway for elaborate marriages or bourgeois parties. You ask anyone in England where you should go for nature, they will almost always mention the Lake District. I dropped my bags off and headed down the road with a light backpack and sleeping bag in tow, to find the nearest hideaway I could get at least a few hours sleep. This had always been a backup plan of mine while traveling on the road. You could say that sometimes I was just too cheap to pay the price for just a bed to sleep in, or that a part of me was determined to live rough and not rely on the comforts of the city to rescue me from my original plans. In the end, I felt I wanted to experience the authenticity of a real vagabond.

A Blaze of Inspiration

High on a mountain’s highest ridge,
Where oft the stormy winter gale
Cuts like a scythe, while through the clouds
It sweeps from vale to vale;

William Wordsworth, “The Thorn”

Arriving at the peak of Scafell Pike felt like I had just climbed Everest. It was five hours to summit—not the three hours roundtrip that the guy misinformed me at the hostel—pounding through at least a foot of drifting snow for hours to reach the other side. The couple I was initially hiking with turned back at Bowfell, the first summit, because they could sense the difficulty going forward and the fact there would be no bus back home for them. I, on the other hand, knew I must continue. The highest peak in England was one that must not defeat me! At the top, I reveled in the satisfaction but—just like the hostel—I was faced with opposing emotions. I needed to make sure I got out of here. It was two hours down the other side to the parking lot and I thought for sure I would find myself a ride. This trail was the most worn path up to the peak, so even though it was getting late, there must be enough traffic to get me back to a warm bed. And yet, there were just a few cars in the parking lot. One was already leaving; the other said they were going back to Ambleside, but their car was too full. There was definitely room for me to squeeze in but I didn’t want to force the issue. The last car, realizing my predicament, were thankfully willing to help out. I told them to get me as close to a route as possible where I could try to hitchhike back to town. They dropped me off at Newby Bridge, a quaint town with nothing more than just a couple hotels and guest houses. I had little information about the roads, and with no sunlight, the odds of getting picked up were slim to none. I gave it my best shot to at least get back to Windermere, but I ended up turning back rather quickly. At the very least, there was a bus stop, so I knew I wasn’t completely stranded out here. I began to look around for “roughing it” options, and I saw an abandoned barn that was for sale across the street. There was no hay; the concrete floor felt like a slab of ice; the open windows were but little barrier to the chilly breeze of the night. I had no sleeping bag, but I put on all of my clothes and utilized my backpack as an improvised pillow. Fall asleep. Wake up shivering. Repeat. At about 6 a.m., I finally gave up and went into one of the hotel lobbies. What seemed like minutes later, I was woken up by the sound of a vacuum. I must’ve passed out for a good 45 minutes unnoticed, but it was now time to get the hell out of there. With all my gear on, the man probably thought I was up bright and early to go out and conquer the hills. Returning to the bus stop, it was just warm enough to curl up on the bench and get a little more shut eye. We were almost there.

To help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside, and appreciation of the cultural values of towns and cities, particularly by providing youth hostels or other accommodation for them in their travels, and thus to promote their health, recreation and education.

YHA Charitable Mission

The Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales (YHA) was established in 1931 as a way to encourage young people to get out in nature and explore the countryside. It was specifically geared towards accommodating low-income families who were hit hard by the Great Depression, and to address the poor living conditions of these urban youth. Throughout the years, YHA have established themselves as a major hostel organization throughout the region and offer services in both major cities and rural areas. When most people stay at a hostel, they often think of good location, cheap lodging, and an easy way to make new friends during your time away from home. However, the original idea of the hostel was very much centered more on shared living. Membership offered up opportunities to stay at multiple locations, but guests were required to participate in the daily operations of the hostel. Some “duties” may require washing up dishes or cleaning, while others were to help supply the essential needs of the place. Hostels today still emphasize communal living, as not only shared dorms expose you to various people, but common areas are often treated with love to make guests feel at home. Books and games may adorn these common spaces, or they might be brightened up with artistic images or cultural icons. Throughout my travels in Europe, many of the hostels were located in cities, and it was nearly impossible to explore the countryside without paying for a car and an expensive bed and breakfast or hotel. It was in Britain that this vast network of common-minded hostels allowed me to see both the beautiful British landscape and enjoy the culture of the city.

The Lake District has been the steady home and retreat for many literary authors. Along the edge of Lake Windermere, lie Wray Castle, the holiday home for Beatrix Potter as a young child. I first encountered the ruins of an ancient Roman fort, before stumbling upon this magnificent building on the morning after my Scafell Pike fiasco—a much needed break from the stresses of the day before. Potter is mostly known for her children’s stories such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, however, she was heavily involved in conservation and was an avid naturalist. She purchased land within this region and was dedicated to the conservation of farmhouses and antiquarian agricultural practices of the region. She was fascinated by the natural sciences, and her paintings of fungi are still referenced by mycologists today. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, offered a guide to Great Britain where he briefly mentions the “barren and frightful” fells of the Lake District. Others also provided written tours throughout the British land, and yet the authors of these “guides” would one day make a name for themselves and become the champions of English Romantic poetry.

In 1799, William Wordsworth, along with his sister Dorothy, would move to Dove Cottage in Grasmere. The horrors of the French Revolution were finally over, and his radical ideals would seem like mere dreams in the face of a corrupt humanity. His disappointments would bring him here where his poetic visions of nature and recollections of mankind would further define the Romantic Age. Just a year earlier, Wordsworth teamed up with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another heavily political poet, to write the Lyrical Ballads, a work that was meant to redefine poetry and help build a creative vision for the world that would triumph over the bloodshed in France. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey would all become known as the “Lake Poets,” living and working in the region to define a new movement celebrating nature, youth, and a higher meaning for the individual placed within a heavily industrial and mechanized world.

A Crack in the Clouds

The weather was shaky, and I was unsure of whether or not I was going to be able to get back out into the hills. After a spending a rainy day in yesterday, either false confidence or anticipation was rising again to set back out on the trails. At about noon, I finally got a break in the clouds, and I was ready to book it straight to the hills. I chose a route that seemed fairly easy, and the employee at the hostel—why am I trusting them again?—said it was a fairly worn track and the hardest part was just turning around at Fairfield Peak. The entrance to the trail was about a mile up the road, so it seemed like a good choice, yet right as I begin the ascent to the trailhead, it starts drizzling again. It was a light rain and of course my stubborn brain thought, “Screw it, I’m just going to try my luck.” As I climb up and up, the fog is really settling in. The rain still feels light, but it’s definitely coming down much heavier and more constant. By the time I reach High Peak at 656m it’s a complete washout. I can barely see a few feet in front of me, let alone any of the terrain out in the distance. I really have no idea if I’m even going the right way. All I know is up must be good, and I’m trusting that the cairns pointing the direction are part of the trail system I’m supposed to follow. After slugging through the beating rain, I get to a point where I completely lose sight of where I can possibly move forward. The only answer is that it must be the apex of the horseshoe of Fairfield Peak. I go right for a bit. I try going forward. I even turn back just to ensure I didn’t miss a turn somewhere along the way. I’m wandering around the top for over an hour. Somehow I poked through just the right hole in the trail and I find more cairns to follow. Within minutes, they just stop again. I’m ready to just go down. I’d been hiking for at least three hours. There’s no way I must continue forward. I begin my descent, not seeing any cairns, but trusting this dirt path is a real trail and not the stomping of sheep hooves. Down, down, down…what the hell is that? The mist hovered over what seemed to be an ocean, but I don’t remember any water being a part of this trail. I quickly pull out my map and realize I must’ve gotten close to Grisedale Tarn, a legendary mountain lake that is said to have been the resting place of the crown of Dunmail, the last king of Cumberland. This is hopeful. Even if whatever I just followed wasn’t a trail at all, the way forward is definitely marked on my map. I’m almost home.

And now have reached that pile of stones,
Heaped over brave King Dunmail’s bones;
His who had once supreme command,
Last king of rocky Cumberland;
His bones, and those of all his Power
Slain here in a disastrous hour!

William Wordsworth, “The Waggoner”

I couldn’t tell how far the road was from where I was at, but it was getting very late and I knew I only had a couple more hours of sunlight left. I had never hiked in the middle of the dark in the mountains, and I wasn’t all that prepared to do it here. I confidently strolled forward, continuing to check my map and ensure that I took the right way. I see the first fork. I continue straight. At the second fork, left continues the long horseshoe back down to Rydal, while right brings you over a slight hill and down to the main road. With the weaning light, I would at least be on pavement when the sun goes down and have a good potential of catching a bus back home.

30 minutes in and I’m starting to gain serious elevation. Huh? This does not relate at all to the topographic lines on my map. I start to second guess myself. Did I make the wrong turn? Is the map wrong? There’s no way I can turn back. I had to keep pushing forward. With each hour it felt like an eternity, getting darker and darker while feeling like you are headed into the abyss. The words of an old traveling companion enter in my mind, and they were all I could think of to motivate me to continue: “Keep walking”.

Ahead of me, I start to see summit markers. 700m. 800m. My mind is gone but my legs continue like clockwork. I have become more of a machine than man. To my right, I curiously see a stone that reads some interesting facts about the first airplane to land on a mountain in Great Britain. Yet, still no reference to a name. Up, up, up! It’s pitch black and the rain has started up again. Visibility continues to be terrible. I can just barely make out shadows and lines to keep me from falling off the cliff but my small flashlight is the only thing really guiding my way. At 950m—unbeknownst to myself—I had championed the summit of Helvellyn, the second highest mountain in England.

There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams

William Wordsworth, “The Prelude”

My body is broken. I’ve been hiking for miles. The up and down of elevation gain throughout these hills is enough to beat you senseless. Everything within me just wanted to give up. For just a moment, I sit down and wallow in my misery. This is it. This is the way it all ends. Who was I kidding? I’ve been lost for miles and there’s no escaping this wretched place! If my mind could be a person in that moment, he grabbed me by the coat and lifted me up on my feet. This is no time for despair and you will survive! You MUST! You’ve made it this far. You will not stop until every last muscle in your body collapses. As the adrenaline flowed through my veins, I felt a surge of superhuman strength, and I knew at that moment that I was not yet read to give up.

It was almost like deja vu up at Helvellyn Peak. Left, back, right, forward; so many possible ways to go and I had yet to find a continuous path. I eventually settled on a descending trail and the regular sight of cairns gave me just an inch of hope. Either I was climbing ten more mountains that night, or I would finally stumble upon some glimpse of civilization. But after two more hours of just the flashlight and my narrow line of sight, a miracle occurs: The clouds break from their torture to reveal a set of lights in the distance. They were quite high up there and it was too far away to get a good picture in my mind. It almost reminded me of some kind of mining or industrial center. Whatever the case, I could see the trail descending that direction, and it looked like my only hope for finding a dry warm place for the night. Within an hour I get closer to the lights, and yet it’s still way too dark for me to figure out what it is, but the greatest excitement is that my feet finally cross over from dirt trail to pavement. I never thought the lifeless urban landscape would move me in such a dramatic way. And as I look to my right, I spot a building with actual people in it. I hurry over to the window and lightly knock to stir their attention. It’s about 10:30 p.m. at night and I’m really trying not to give off scary vibes, but I’m so desperate that I really couldn’t care less about social conventions. A man comes out of the building and asks me, “You alright?” In British lingo, this basically means “How are you?”; in my situation there was certainly no wanting of formalities. I related to him my story of getting lost in the hills, being soaked all the way through my rain gear down to my boxers, and having absolutely no idea where I had gone or where I even was at. He asked me where I was supposed to be. “Ambleside,” I responded. “Oh you are a long way from home mate.”

He brought me in and offered me some food and tea. I found out this place was a hostel and they were renting it out for a youth camp, but unfortunately they couldn’t let me stay there due to the fact they could lose their jobs allowing an unvetted stranger to be unaccompanied with the kids. They told me there was another youth hostel right down the street and I might be able to get a room for the night. In my state, there was no realistic possibility of camping out for the night; if the mountains didn’t kill me, hypothermia would. I walk down the street to the hostel and I’m able to get in touch with an employee. He tells me there is a family who have rented out the place and he has no way of allowing me to stay unless he woke them up to ask. He directs me down to the pub a little further, where I get more advice to keep going down the street. “Try the large hotel down by the water,” he says. I’m about to start just walking all night back to Ambleside, when I speak to the man at the hotel. I ask him if he has ANY availability—I’m willing to pay whatever price—and yet he tells me they are fully booked. However, if I was to leave by 6 a.m. in the morning, he would let me crash on the lobby couch. He took my things to hang dry for the night, and gave me some towels to use as blankets. Wet and shivering all night, I’m not sure I even got an hour of sleep, but I had won; I had conquered my body, my mind, and the mighty forces of nature—those of such beauty that they can deceive the Romantic soul and leave you scarred with everlasting terror.

Warblers I heard their joy unbosoming
Amid the sunny, shadowy, Coliseum;
Heard them, unchecked by aught of saddening hue,
For victories there won by flower-crowned Spring,
Chant in full choir their innocent Te Deum.

William Wordsworth, “Composed at Rydal on May Morning”