I’m not sure when I started to get an itch to start bagging Wainwrights, but Ros noticed it before I did. A couple of Christmases ago, among my presents was something tube shaped with a tag reading ‘for accounting purposes.’ The package contained a chart of the Wainwright fells and a ‘tick list’ where you can mark off the date you reached the summit.
The only slight problem with it was that there were some fells and routes that Ros wasn’t keen on tackling. That’s fine. This is about enjoyment, after all. Everyone has their own relationship with the mountain. One of the great things about Lakeland is that there are astounding views on offer everywhere. There’s no direct relationship between the quality of the panorama, the sense of peace, the interest in a walk, and the height, difficulty and the timid fell walker’s version of what proper climbers call ‘exposure’ – the obviousness of just how much falling space there is beneath you. Now, put me in a cablecar and I’ll get an attack of acrophobia so powerful it could vibrate the mountain like a violin string but I’m OK on narrow ridges or precipitous paths. Ros is the other way round. So if, one day, I’m going to complete the list, there are a few fells where I’m going to be on my own.
Just the drive over there with the sun setting over the fells was spectacular and worth the trip. I was fairly confident in the weather, but there had been snow earlier in the day and it sat thickly on the heights. I’d walked in snow before, but had never done a walk of this level of ambition in the depths of winter. Earlier I had decided to add Bowfell to the route – the temptation to add another summit if possible too strong to resist – but as I was pushing myself, the route I planned had ‘escape chutes’ if I fell behind schedule or found myself struggling, though once you’re on the heights of Crinkle Crags itself (themselves?), the best way down is generally back the way you’ve come or to continue forward. (A few years ago a man was killed after trying to descend in poor visibility and getting off the main path onto very steep ground around the crags on the Eastern face). Still, I could easily cut out Bowfell if it was likely to be beyond me. I left a copy of my planned route with the hotel just in case.
Anyway, some facts and figures: Crinkle Crags is made up of a row of five summits abutting Great Langdale, the slopes forming a steep wall at the head of the valley, as it swings to the North West and becomes Mickleden. The highest of its summits is 858 m/2,816 ft, and it’s the 17th highest fell in Lakeland. Bowfell is 902 m/2,960 ft, the 6th highest fell in Lakeland, and is connected to Crinkle Crags by a saddle at about 2,300 ft, so there’s relatively little need to lose height that you’ll then have to climb again. And Bowfell was well worth going for, but I’ll get to that.
The path stays fairly close on the left of Browney Gill after passing the lumpen rock outcrop of Brown Howe. Wainwright’s directions and sketches (updated by Chris Jesty) are beautifully clear as well as just beautiful, and I had no trouble whatsoever finding my way. I never go walking without an Ordnance Survey map as well as any walking guides, but I don’t think I looked at it once that day. The views back out over Great Langdale were already impressive, showing the steep-sided valley scooped out by glaciers millennia ago, with verdant farmland carpeting the floor.
As I was ahead of my self-imposed schedule, I decided to take a short detour to Red Tarn, a little way along the path to Wrynose Pass. Every Lakeland Tarn is unique, and most are beautiful. Red Tarn sits, not in a bowl like some tarns, but, nestling on a saddle between Cold Pike and Pike O’ Blisco at 1,700 ft altitude. It was completely frozen over. As I got my breath back from the initial climb, the sheer peacefulness of the location washed over me. The air was clear and sharp and there was hardly a sound to be heard. But I had to press on if I was going to get to Bowfell and back down in daylight.
The panorama here is interrupted by the bulk of the rest of Crinkle Crags ahead, but there are tantalising hints of what is to come. The Scafell massif peeping out to the left. To the right, across the ‘Great Cove,’ a wide scree gully, the second and third ‘crinkles,’ themselves separated by ‘Mickle Door,’ a narrower scree gully (not to be confused with Mickledore on Scafell Pike). That day, Mickle Door resembled a frozen waterfall or the beginnings of a glacier, covered in snow as it was, between black rock peaks. Almost unbelievably two tiny black marks I had taken for rocks started to move about on the snow – people – and one of them began cautiously descending the snowed over scree slope. Rather you than me, chum!
From Long Top, the views are uninterrupted by Cringle Crags itself, and it would take far too long to list everything you can see. Looking at my photos, my gaze must have been magnetically drawn to the huge mass of Scafell Pike and its subsidiary peaks to the North West. As I was using a wide-angle lens on my camera, the photos don’t really do justice to the looming presence of England’s highest mountain, dominating the scene despite the two and a half miles between it and Crinkle Crags. There are also wonderful views over Langdale one one side and the Duddon valley on the other, the river clearly visible today as a silver thread meandering down to the coastal plain, beyond it the Irish Sea.
After taking in the scene and catching my breath, I made way to the third ‘crinkle,’ stopping for a look at Mickle Door on the way. All I can say here is that the walkers I had seen making their way down must have had crampons and probably an ice axe. It wasn’t just snow choked, the snow had frozen in the icy wind blowing up the valley. My photo shows the ice crystals glistening, and what look at first glance like footprints are not, they are miniature sastrugi, ridges in snow formed by the wind and then frozen.
After that I decided to give the fourth summit a miss, and followed the path around its base. Although I had met a fair few people on the way so far, the majority of my walk had been alone, or at least with the nearest people a tiny figure or two in the extreme distance. In the hollow between the fourth and fifth summits I was struck once again by the sheer quiet you can only find in high places. It’s not the quiet of being unable to hear – it’s the quiet of there being nothing to hear, despite sound carrying so well up there. That was until a sort of rushing began to impinge on the silence. It sounded like a tiny jet aircraft was barreling towards me – the mystery resolved when a huge raven glided round the summit, wings raised and feet outstretched for landing. It swooped past and out of sight behind the crags to the East. I just stood there for a few moments in wonder.
There was one more ‘crinkle’ to go, the fifth (from the South) also called Gunson Knott. Wainwright remarks ‘boulders on top.’ Indeed, and it seemed to me that there were boulders at the base and all the way up, too. Gunson Knott felt to me like nothing more than a pile of boulders, not a summit so much as a cairn on a vast scale. But at least it wasn’t carpeted in frozen snow, and although those boulders made for slow and deliberate progress, they also offered good grip. From here I could see the main ridge sloping down to the col between Crinkle Crags and Bowfell at ‘Three Tarns’ (or as Wainwright termed it, ‘two tarns and a puddle’). I clambered off Gunson Knott and eventually reached the easy path down. There is another summit of sorts along the way, the lower mass called Shelter Crags, which I bypassed to the West in favour of the main path.
I had a short rest at Three Tarns, took a few photos and ate part of the vast roast beef roll the ODG had provided me with. It was then to join the crowds pouring up the path to Bowfell
Once over the lip, I followed the majority along the path on the higher Western side. For a while I feared what was ahead was one of those annoying false summits that get your hopes up only to dash them, but after a while it became clear that, yes, that outcrop in front was the actual summit pyramid. There was plenty of snow on the ground but it was easy enough to walk on, not least due to having been pretty well stirred up by all the people who had been this way earlier. I found myself keeping pace with a group of teenagers, who stopped to try and take a selfie including all of them. I offered to take a picture so they could all be in it. They’d hiked over from near Loughrigg!
The ‘Great Slab’ was worthy of the name, and particularly impressive with a coating of snow on the charcoal colour rock. I only wish I’d broken my usual desire to keep my landscape photographs human-free, as a figure or two to give scale would have really shown how enormous the slab is.
Thanks to the route I had planned (well, thanks to Wainwright really), all the harder walking was done earlier, and the descent was straightforward down The Band, the tongue leading from the col at Three Tarns to the valley floor. It was mid afternoon by this stage, and there wasn’t too much daylight left, but at least I knew I would be down onto flat and safe ground before dark. Still, I was pretty tired, having left the ODG around eight hours previously, and despite the path being obvious and well marked, I found on a couple of occasions I was beginning to wander off it. I sat down and had something to eat, watching for the second day the spectacular sight of the sun descending behind Crinkle Crags. It was a hell of a day. I’d pushed myself about to the limits of my meagre physical capabilities, but been rewarded with a seriously enjoyable walk among airy summits and fascinating rock formations, stunning views across the Southern and Central fells and valleys, and two brand new ticks on my Wainwright chart.