I have not always been drawn to the outdoors. Like most of us, my childhood pursuit of adventure had been all but extinguished by layers of pressure and expectations brought upon us by life.
I was 29 years old and I had never been up a mountain. The idea held no particular desire to me. I had never been very outdoor orientated and found little in the way of adventures. I may never have got past this place that I found myself in. I may never have realised that I was lost and would have had no chance to find how to start living and not simply existing if not for a chance event that would change everything. It was early in the summer of 2012 and I heard that a friend of a friend was organising a hike up Scafell Pike. I thought to myself, why not? Sure that it would be a doddle I agreed to join the hike. The plan was simple. We would take the 3 hour drive in the morning, hike to summit of England’s highest mountain at the heady heights of 978m, come back down and stay over in a B&B before driving back the next day. What could possibly go wrong?
Just to be on the safe side we arranged the date in mid August, a guarantee of good weather for the day. Or so we thought!
So that was it, we booked the B&B, bought ourselves boots, bags and waterproofs, looked at the route and waited for the day to come around. In the weeks before the trip the weather was untypically British, warm, dry and totally calm. Combined with the reassurances from the group organiser, who had several ascents of Scafell Pike and Snowdon under his belt we became confident of our success and made light of the task. On the evening before I listened to the weather news about a strong storm that was due to sweep across the country the next day. It would bring heavy rain, high winds and would be at its strongest in the English Lake District – right where we were heading! This made me a little anxious but when I put these concerns to the group I was assured by the most experienced member of the group, who in hindsight had very little experience himself in objective terms, that there was nothing to worry about and that everything would be fine.
In the morning we awoke and set out to the start in the kind of rain rarely if ever encountered in my lowland town. "This was the rain that the forecast had warned about" I thought - but there was no sign of the high winds that were predicted. Little did I know that it was only our position, deep in a valley at the base of the mountain that was shielding us from us the winds that raged above.
So we donned our boots and jackets and set off into the pouring rain, following our leader into the unknown. Our first obstacle was a small stream, barely a few hundred metres into the hike. This was barely ankle deep and could be easily crossed by stepping over from stone to stone. It was crossed without a second thought, for now. Despite the deteriorating conditions the initial mood of the group was positive as we headed up the path as it meandered alongside the gentle stream. We chatted, laughed and joked but it soon became apparent that the pace of the group was not matched and that one member in particular was struggling. She had recently had an accident where she had hurt her knee and it was clear that it was causing her pain and slowing her down. I stayed walking with her with one other whilst the rest of the group went ahead. Several times they waited for us to catch up before moving ahead again. After about 1 and a half hours they began to separate from us and did not look like they were going to stop. This would leave the 3 of us, with no mountain experience between us, alone on this mountain and struggling in bad conditions. And what made it worse was that the wind had really started to pick up and was driving the rain horizontally into our waterproofs. I made the decision to make a break and power forward to catch and stop the group in an attempt to keep us together. After about 20 minutes going as quickly as I could I caught the fastest members but they were anxious to make the summit ahead of the ever deteriorating weather.
They did not believe that the struggling member would make it and suggested that I came with them to the summit and we would catch the others on the way back town. I was unwilling to leave the others and walked back down alone to meet them.
Struggling but determined the stricken member and her friend refused my suggestion that we walked back down and insisted that we push on despite the worsening conditions, I did not take much convincing. The desire to reach the top had gripped me, we would get to the summit and we would prove them wrong! As we continued, and the wind strengthened there was no let up from the pounding rain. I had never experienced anything like it, the path became a river and the hillside began to erupt water from fissures beneath its surface. What made it even worse was that as we continued we ascended we broke into the cloud and visibility dropped to a few metres. We didn’t have a map or compass, and we wouldn’t have been able to use it if we did. The situation was serious but the path was good and we thought that if we just kept going we would soon reach the top. After some time we saw the rest of our group, on their way down after reaching the summit and then quickly heading back down. ‘You have got to turn back’ they shouted to us over the wind, but we had come so far, we weren’t going to turn back now. The group leader told us that it would probably take us another hour at our pace and that conditions towards the summit were extreme and that it was almost impossible to stand up against the wind.
We made the unwise decision to continue despite the warnings that were given to us, the obvious danger that we were in and our best judgement. We were going to make it to the top, whatever the consequences.
As we continued we came to know the full fury of the wind. We would walk a few metres before strong gusts would force us to stop in our tracks. This continued as we carried on up into the grey unknown and then disaster, the path disappeared and gave way to an indistinct jumble of massive boulders. The visibility was now down to a handful of metres. How would we find our way to the summit? Surely we can’t turn back after we have come so far! Luckily a group passed ahead of us as we contemplated our next move. This was our ticket, so long as we could keep them in sight in the fog we would be okay. Progress amongst the broken boulders was slow and we were barely moving a few metres a minute but thankfully the group ahead of us was also slowed to a crawl – the raging storm affecting us all equally. Thankfully, mercifully, the summit stones eventually came into sight. Thank god! We had made it! Elated but tired and cold we took shelter leeward of the wind behind the structure on the top. We rested, sodden wet and cold, we paused a few minutes to regain our composure before heading back down but soon realised that the other group had left ahead of us and was nowhere to be seen, we were alone. For now we were temporarily protected on the summit but the storm raged ferociously around us. We better head down, now! As soon as we stood up the full force of the wind once again rocked us as we slowly picked our way through jagged rocks and made our way off the summit plateau.
The possibility of getting lost on the mountain, in this terrible storm, was very real as was the fear that we felt. I could taste it in my mouth.
We followed a line of cairn markers through the boulder field in the cloud. Stopping at each one and assessing our next move. One by one they came into sight, a wave of relief as each one appeared. After sometime the boulders gave way and thankfully we found ourselves on the path. As we descended the wind died down and we eventually broke through the clouds and could see again. We were going to be okay, we just had to carry on down and we would be back in a couple of hours. We didn’t realise it at this point but our biggest challenge was yet to come. We continued down, now making good progress through the fast flowing stream that was the path that we were following and joked amongst ourselves about how nice it was going to be to get to the B&B and in front of its open fire that we had seen on the internet. It didn’t escape our attention though that the whole mountain was awash with water, flowing inexorably downwards. We saw several tributaries merge into one ever strengthening river of churning white water. And then it dawned on us.
This raging torrent was the very same stream that we had crossed at the beginning of the day, without a second thought. What were we going to do? Surely it would not be able to be crossed?
Another 30 minutes downward and the power of the river magnified over and over, roaring as it bulldozed its way down the mountainside. We turned a corner and our original crossing point, our final obstacle, came into view. What had been a few hops across some stones had now become 10 metres of chest high white water of immeasurable force.
Anybody trying to cross would be instantly overpowered and washed to their certain deaths; we were going to have to find another way. It became painfully apparent that our best chance lay upstream. Before the water became too powerful.
With heavy boots we began to ascend once again looking for a weakness that would let us cross the river. Half an hour or more passed before and we saw our opportunity. The river was briefly split in two by a small island of boulders before merging again.
We should just about be able to cross to the middle and then again to the other side but it would still be a dangerous challenge as the water was wide to jump across – one thing was sure, we were going to get wet!
One by one we crossed the first tributary to the island without too much trouble but realised that the second was deeper, stronger and wider. I decided to go first so that I could help the others from the far side. I lunged into the water, and could immediately feel its power against my body, another lunge forward and I was able to throw my arms to the grassy bank on the other side, just.
I hauled myself out of the water and flopped on the grass, but there was no time to waste, the others still had to cross. They took it in turns to throw themselves into the river, arms outstretched to mine. First one made it across and then two. We had done it – conquered the mountain, conquered the storm, conquered the river and lived to tell the tale.
The seriousness of the situation and the magnitude of the challenge that we had faced was brought into acute focus when, as we made our final descent we passed a team of 10 or more members of Mountain Rescue heading up the mountain to help other stricken parties attempting to cross the torrent.
We had faced down very real dangers, dangers that we had overcame through a foolhardy blend of determination and sheer luck. Dangers that we were ill prepared to meet and ill equipped to deal with. I made many mistakes that day, but I learned a lot too. The most important thing that I learned that day was that I loved every gruelling minute of it and that on that mountain, in that storm, I felt alive like never before. I did not know yet how far it would take me and how big a part of life my pursuit of adventure would become for me.