THE closest thing to eternity is a cold night in a tent. Hope dies while hours limp slowly past. Supernovae fade and constellations shift as time distorts and clocks refuse to tick. Body heat is sucked into the ungrateful ground. Breath condenses and freezes on the inner tent. Dreams are short-lived and repetitive. Comfort is a dark stranger. Night is all . . .
This is a retro post for Because They’re There. It’s a letter from the past featuring a memorable walk and the contemporary events surrounding it . . .
It could be argued that all this discomfort can be avoided with judicial investment in decent mountain gear. A proper winter sleeping bag, for instance, thermal clothes and an effective mattress would be a start. But could George Orwell have written Down and Out in Paris and London without actually being down and out in Paris and London? No, he couldn’t.
Besides, this is 1979 and us outdoor types are used to roughing it. We were brought up in the days before central heating and uPVC windows. We know about frozen pipes, paraffin heaters, chilblain ointment and chapped legs. We’ve thawed our milk on the school pipes and watched our parents set mouse-traps in icy kitchens. We are the last generation to be taught how to create a draught with a coal shovel and newspaper in those crucial moments when the first wisps of smoke snake up a chimney. Our first sleeping bags were made from old eiderdowns, for Christ’s sake, not something posh and fluorescent. We’re tough, us lot. We were born cold.
And tonight, my God, it’s cold. This is Borrowdale in January. Borrowdale beneath a sky where the Milky Way stretches like a silky river from one black ridge to another. Borrowdale dark, still and unforgettably silent.
When dawn arrives it brings no succour. Hands, arms and faces require exposing to sub-zero temperatures. Butane stoves refuse to burn effectively in this intense cold. Water takes an age to boil. Tea becomes an ambition rather than an essential part of breakfast. And when the sun finally rises, tents remain rigid and frozen.
But that’s enough of the downside. We all know about the pros and cons of camping. Well, most of us do. The upside is that dawns like these bring crisp, clear skies and splendid colours.
I leave the campsite at Rosthwaite and trudge south to the foot of Honister Pass. Great sheets of ice cover the road. Climbing the pass, I am forced to keep to the verges to avoid the ice. Just above the steepest section is a sign that says, somewhat unhelpfully: “You have been warned.” Pity the poor motorists creeping slowly down the gradient.
I climb Dale Head, taking a haphazard path up the old incline through the Yew Crag quarries and slate mines. This is one of my favourite routes in the Lakes. Done it many times over the years. I get a great deal of satisfaction rooting among the rusty machinery the slate fellas left when the quarries were abandoned back in the 1960s.
From the summit of Dale Head (753m, 2,470ft), I cross Eel Crags to High Spy (653m, 2,142ft) and Maiden Moor (576m, 1,889ft) then descend to the valley. By now it’s mid afternoon and the fields are in shadow. There are certain stretches of Borrowdale where the sun has not penetrated and last night’s frost is still white on the ground.
Back at the campsite my tent remains frozen. I remove the pegs but it doesn’t budge, so I drag it over, fold it twice and stuff it in the back of the Mini. Then I hit the road for Keswick and the long drive back through the Lakes to Furness.
Raw heat floods the car from the engine and for the first time all weekend I am actually warm. The air filter is on its winter setting, there’s a lump of hardboard shoved down the front of the radiator, and I’ve spread tinfoil across the radiator grille. These are the things we do, we happy and competent motorists. Oh, the sheer comfort.
Top twenty on the radio. Ian Drury and the Blockheads at Number One. Good music, heat, satisfaction and tired muscles. This is what walking is all about. This is what a weekend in the Lakes is all about. These are the treasured moments. Hit me, hit me, hit me.
Ice cold in a frozen Borrowdale, January 1979