CUMBRIA is full of men with bald heads. They are everywhere. What is concerning me more, though, is that after three decades of fellwalking I realise I have underestimated the might and majesty of Bowfell.
Glancing at the map while plodding along Borrowdale, I note the mountain’s height is an impressive 902 metres – only 12 metres short of Munro status. This significant fact has been drawn to my attention by two men with bald heads – or possibly shaven heads – who are resting at the side of the path and eating super-nutritious, high-calorie cereal bars and energy gels to sustain them once they leave the valley floor. I overhear them talking as I pass. Bowfell, they say, is 902 metres above sea level. Better have another cereal bar.
So Bowfell is almost a Munro – or a Furth, as the English, Welsh and Irish 3.000-footers are called. Wow. I hadn’t realised this before. And I climbed it twice at least back in the 1970s – the first time from Wrynose Pass and Crinkle Crags one hot summer day; the second time up The Band from Langdale in heavy snow and lugging my father’s cine camera (some stills from which, thanks to a technical process way beyond my comprehension, have magically embedded themselves on this page). Two friends and me climbed up the Great Slab that day. Followed the Climbers’ Traverse under the northern crags then shot right up. Wa-hey.
So this morning I’m on the hoof for 8.10am, taking a path from Rosthwaite campsite to Seathwaite Farm, then bearing left up Grains Gill. I do believe I climbed along the beck bottom of the gill once. I was going through one of those phases, you know. Some people dangle keys from their belt; some sport a goatee beard for a month or two; some people like to wear socks with sandals. I went through a phase of climbing beck-bottoms as an alternative to slogging up recognised mountain routes. It was a good idea at the time.
At the top of Grains Gill I join the Esk Hause track and become entangled in an uncomfortably large number of walkers. Interesting thing is, as we enter a bank of mist they all stop to dig out GPS devices. Hmmm. I also note that a high proportion of the men have shaven heads. This makes me a bit self-conscious. I appear to be the odd one out and have a feeling they are talking about me. “Shhhh. Look. A man with hair and a beard. Take a picture of him but don’t let him see you.”
This happens at work. There are guys in my office who shave their heads in the bath. They talk about me behind my back. “McFadzean’s an odd bugger. He has hair. And a beard. Shhhh. He’s walking this way. Pretend we’re talking about golf handicaps. That’ll get rid of him.”
I am on the summit of Esk Pike, in cold wind but blazing sunshine, for about 11am. I drop down to Ore Gap then enter the mist again for the pull up Bowfell. It’s misty all the way but the gradient is easy, and I arrive in no time at all. On the last occasion I stood on the summit the snow was deep and I was dutifully wearing a bobble hat my grandmother knitted, apparently from every shade of wool available in the northern hemisphere. Must have cost her a fortune.
Dropping down to Angle Tarn there is a fat bloke covered in tattoos labouring slowly up the fell towards me. He has the mandatory shaven head. He also has a pit-bull called Jasper. I know this because he hollers its name. He looks like the sort of bloke who spends his nights standing outside clubs wearing a tight suit. You know the type I mean. Never smile. Just stare at you from behind dark glasses. Always wear black. Call you “sir” in a manner that gives you the impression they are taking the piss.
I say “Ow do?” or something similar, and Jasper sniffs my boots.
The fat bloke scoops a layer of sweat from his brow, looks at me with eyes that stare painfully from a flushed face, and says in a broad Yorkshire accent: “To tell you the trooth mate, Ah’m bloody strugglin. Ah don’t think Ah’m gonna make it t’top.” And he sits down heavily on a rock. He sits there staring at me, the dog snuffling around his feet, and his eyes fill up. I honestly think he is about to burst into tears.
I am suddenly overwhelmed with compassion. Here is a bloke who has set out to climb a mountain and the effort is proving just a little too much for him. But he’s having a go. He’s giving it his best shot. And he’s reached a point – several hundred feet beneath his goal but at a considerable altitude nonetheless – where he feels he’s approaching his limit.
He tells me he’s struggled up Rossett Gill from Langdale. I try to encourage him with the knowledge that the worst is over. My words seem inadequate. But he regains his composure, climbs to his feet, and sets off again with the dog scampering ahead.
Down at Angle Tarn I sit on a rock and watch him toiling up the fell high above me. I hope he makes it because he is a trier. He deserves to succeed.
Bowfell. It’s only 12 metres short of Munro status, you know. I am climbing up Rossett Pike from Angle Tarn when the mist half clears to reveal the Great Slab with the sun reflecting on its moist surface. It is an almost Alpine moment.
Again I am impressed by the mountain I have somehow buried in my sub-conscious. It is a truly majestic fell. And somewhere up there is a tattooed bloke with a shaven head. Pit-bull called Jasper. Whether or not he made it to the top I will never know.