Great Langdale, 17th and 18th November 2001

The day I received my Ben Lairig handbook, for which I paid a grand £7 thinking I could trust it, I learned that, according to this little orange bible, Ben Lairig meant beer. Or it meant Hebridean sheep. I also learned that we’re not supposed to give a ‘XXXX’ about what it means. Just one small problem: Allow me to tell you that this sacred word lied. Ben Lairig doesn’t mean beer, or sheep, or even walking, and it does matter what it means, if you want to live. Ben Lairig, plain and simple, no matter what a real Scottish dictionary might tell you, means Suicidal Mountain Goat. And if you doubt the truth of my words, read on. I’ll wager a fiver that by the end you’ll agree…(don’t take me up on that unless you intend to pay me, as I have no money to pay anybody, including the bank).

Long days in Langdale – Day 1

So there we stood, our little group of avid walkers, patiently waiting the arrival of our missing members. Every now and then a member from the canoeing club, parachuting club or outdoors society wandered by and inquired whether this was where they were meant to meet. Trick question, really. Even though we told them it wasn’t, causing suspicious glances at all our gear and a disgruntled shuffling towards another corner of Goodricke car park, it actually was. Over the next 3 days we would get very wet, be very much in the outdoors, and come very close to the land of people mad enough to jump out of perfectly good planes. But they didn’t know that and nor did we – or at least Lizzie and I weren’t informed – and we blissfully clambered into our mini van, lugging assorted backpacks which were then hurled towards the cavernous depths of the vehicle, before settling down for the ride by breaking out the chocolate.

I took the time to tease Lizzie about how colour-coordinated her walking outfit was. “I hope it doesn’t get too muddy,” was her reply. And we were en route to the Lake District, which is not notoriously dry. Um…

Sleep soon set in for most, but I remained mesmerised by the green glow of Daniel’s laptop. ?!!! Take a left on that street and I’ll bring mine along too!

Halfway to the camp, the obscene language from several people’s stomachs alerted Jules to the fact that he might soon be in mortal danger if he did not a) stop soon or b) dispense large bags of sea rations. He chose to pull over at a small fish n’ chips place, which, incidentally, had no place to sit, but was cheap and fast. Eight out of nine people in the group ordered either sausage and chips or haddock and chips and set about munching eagerly, juggling drinks and food and shuffling around other local customers. The ninth person ordered a chow mien roll, a cheese and onion pasty and a box of Vimto, due to the fact that her sharp ears had heard rumblings earlier in the ride from Daniel, geared towards coercing the group into a night hike.

And so, bellies bulging, back into the van we piled. Not much later, we arrived at the campsite in Langdale, where the new members of the club (i.e. all four girls vs. the veteran four males) were duly inducted into the society with the reminder: “Don’t leave the lights in the van on to put your tents up!” Someday you too shall know this secret and its reasons.

By torches, then, the tents were assembled, to the tune of ‘where’s the nearest pub’ to speed us along. Thirty minutes later (Yes, some of us had never put up tents before. SO?) Ben Lairig descended upon Langdale’s pub, causing the locals to mutter “bugger &^$^%&$, Ben Lairig means drunk locusts!” [Landlords are usually very pleased when Ben Lairig come to visit. The new BMW has normally been ordered before we’ve even bought the last round. Ed]

Said locusts had soon consumed enough alcohol to fill the Dead Sea with and decided that a nice jaunt in the dark would be amusing. Mind you, and I quote verbatim, what was suggested was a “SHORT WALK.” Would you kindly look up the definitions of ‘short’ and ‘walk’ in their respective sections of the dictionary and then add them to the correct definition for Ben Lairig?

Off into the wild black yonder we staggered, the four girls merely following lager fumes to keep up with the men. A quick stop at the tents to pick up torches, and back on the road. Ah. Lovely. Flat ground…flat ground…flat ground…okay, slightly inclined ground…sloping ground…vertical mountain scramble…

About 45 minutes into it, an anonymous person turned to me and whispered, “What happened to SHORT WALK?”

I refer you to the above commentary.

It should be noted that at this point we were crawling up a mountain at midnight, with an average of one torch per three people. Yet another anonymous person suggested that keeping the torches off was a smart idea, as that way ones eyes became accustomed to the dark quickly.

The silhouettes of hills around us and ghostly white aura of sheep were truly surreal and when we stopped for a break – or rather, when the group ahead stopped to let us catch up – it was amazing just to sit and quietly absorb the birth of night into the arms of chill mist.

Peeling off layers of fleeces was also quite handy before continuing our stroll. Not long after we re-commenced, a member of the female sector stopped, apologised and explained that the melange of fish, chips, chocolate, alcohol and heavy exercise were having an effect on her cast-iron stomach. It was suggested that we wait a few minutes to see how she felt before continuing, but this saintly person put both her feet down literally and said she couldn’t go any farther. It’s a pity torches were in such scarcity, as she might have felt better had she seen the glee on several, less honest people’s faces: “We’ll follow her down!”

So four girls and Jules headed back down the mountain, while the others continued towards the summit. Ten minutes into the descent, Lizzie and mine’s shared head-torch gave up the ghost. Before this, I had been walking just behind her, casting light as best I could by violent neck contortions. These bodily grimaces were then taught to Daniela and Maureen, who attempted to keep us on our feet with the glow of their quickly-fading lamp. In minutes, it too was gone.

Another great Ben Lairig moment! Stranded on the side of a mountain, with one torch, held by Jules, left to lead 5 people back to camp with. Enjoying all this immensely, I offered to ask a passing sheep the way home, but nobody took me up on the offer. I asked anyway and was informed that ‘down’ was a good route. Their intelligence is too often under-estimated!

Eventually several girls grabbed hands to steady each other on the slopes, and made their way down the mountain thus linked. The next two hours were a tango of Jules taking two steps forward, turning and lighting the path so that four reluctant girls could follow; turning and taking two more steps forward, turning and lighting the way for the waiting quartet…

At last we arrived at a farm which was somewhere on our map. Actually finding it on the map with our lack of feline eyesight was an exercise in acrobatics.

“Turn the map this way – okay, point that light here – no wait, hold that corner, I think it was over there…I can’t see what I’m doing, would you get your head out of the way!!!”

Naturally, after we had stumbled one direction and the other, greeted the various farm animals, especially the not-so-friendly dogs, and made useful comments such as “If we’re loud enough to wake the farmer and he comes out, do you think he’ll give us directions before shooting?” we realised that the path we desired was a few feet to the right of where we stood.

Onwards … now for a little practice in rock climbing. We reached a bog none of us remembered from before. This might not have been a problem, but it was a particularly voracious creature and wanted nothing more than to have all of our boots for breakfast, which it nearly did, had we not made it to a stone wall edging the entire rim of the muck. Clinging to this and to the fence that was impaled into its top layer, we crawled our way along blindly, since our light was long since on the other side of Swamp Greed, waiting our arrival patiently so that he could continue the pas-a-deux.

By the time we arrived back at the campsite, it was almost 4.30am. By the indigo light of my watch, Lizzie and I managed to unroll our sleeping bags and get undressed. Not the end of the saga, however. Before the night was over, I was serenaded by hourly moans of “ohhhhhhhh……..coooooooooolllllllddddddd…….” and received a visit from the sheep from above, who wanted to know whether we had arrived home safely and butted his head into the side of the tent – and my head – just to make sure. Thus ended day 1 of the adventure, with several people threatening cold-blooded murder if the afore-suggested schedule of rising at 7, walking by 8:30, was adhered to.

Day 2 – It’s a long way to Tipperrarrrreeeeeeeeeee

The only reason I use an alarm is so that I have an excuse to hit something first thing in the morning.

My tent-mate, astutely recognising the mad glint in my eye, fled as soon as she had pulled her mud-stiff trousers, damp jumper and rucksack on.

After morning ablutions with coffee instead of toothpaste, the groups of the previous night were reprised. (Aside: The group that had ploughed ahead last night got back at 5.00am.) And off we went, again.

This time, as we walked, we could clearly see the slope of the mountain rising above us. This led to scattered comments of, “We climbed THAT last night with no insurance?!” (So, it hadn’t been paid for some reason. We were in no danger so there wasn’t much need anyway, someone assured us.) Up, up, up … cold mist and baby raindrops nipped at our necks and noses as we staggered forward. Disconcertingly, numerous walkers passed us on their way down, as we started up. It was only 9.30am, and they apparently had already conquered the summit, while we were barely starting on a hill.

At this point, Jules became a permanent fixture at the back of our group, kindly keeping myself and another gasping member from completely being left behind. As I recalled, the requirements for joining Ben Lairig did not include having four-legged genetics in our DNA, but as we scrambled on our hands and knees to gain a foothold on muddy slopes, it became clear it should have been listed as pre-requisite #1.

Every now and then, as a distraction to pounding hearts and flaming lungs, our great leaders halted and let us ‘rest’. At these points, the whole masochistic scene (re: the postcard I bought in Langdale’s shop, reading “My feet are blistered, my back aches, but I’m having a great time!”) was actually proven to be worthwhile. The ground literally swept away below us, rising in small inclines of hills and deep dips of valleys. Curlews whistled overhead, rivaling the wind for noisiness, and every now and then what looked like a small bird of prey would dart ahead, egging us on the summit, to find its abode.

Lunch was had beside a beautiful, massive lake whose name eludes this writer. (Tarn something? Tan sticky? Sticky tam?) It would have been more firmly emblazoned on her mind had she been allowed to take a swim in it, but was forbidden to do so because of time constraints and hypothermia worriers.

Then the climb continued up a slope that the mountain must have regurgitated when it was having a particularly bad case of indigestion. Rocks R Us, baby! And yes, they rocked and rolled as we jumped from one to another to another to another…this path eventually led us to that distant summit, which the group of the night before had climbed. The look on several people’s faces was priceless as they realized that a bellyache the night before had probably saved 5 skins. In the daytime it was Rocks R Us. At night it would still have been rock and roll, but down the hill, with no torches to see the falling.

A twenty-minute break at the top, filled with the sounds of water being slurped and pictures being snapped, culminated in the next phase of this drawn-out suicide. Going down the mountain was equally challenging, as various levels of insanity took hold at the thought of warmth, food and alcohol waiting just below. This led to people charging down rocky slopes at full speed, nearly knocking other ascending walkers off in the process.

At a similar break neck pace, we landed at the pub of the previous night. After enormous quantities of game pie, nut roast and Langdale’s best bitter were inhaled, we all sat around waiting for people to finish their pints so we could allegedly go to bed. This lasted about as long as the sentence, “Would anyone like to do another night walk,” before a stampede of dust vanished down the road, leaving several mad-men to commit hara-kiri on their own.

We girls then had an amusing time discombobulating the men. They couldn’t understand why we had to go to the showers to-ge-ther. Sigh. Men. Don’t they know that a) when you only have one soap between the 4 of you, it’s necessary, b) playing soap-ball over the tops of showers is a requisite of all camping trips and c) It’s fun?? [No, we don’t. Ed][Speak for yourself. Ed. Mark Two.]

The showers were absolutely super-sonic in power. I would have liked to bring one back to my flat. They pounded away all traces of mud, though this was quickly replaced on ankles when muddy boots were pulled on for the trek back to camp, at which point we realised that wet hair in below-zero weather was possibly not such a good idea, whatever the benefits of being clean.

The night held no sheep for yours truly this time, but I was awakened rather abruptly at one point by Lizzie sitting bolt upright shrieking, “Oh my god! When?? Where! Is it time yet?? YEAGGGGH!” She has no recollection of this. They say walking is good for the mind.

Day 3 – It’s a long way, to go…

The bias is complete, I will admit, with no attempt to hide it. This was my favorite part of the entire trip.

We woke, drove a slight distance from the camp, and set out on a different path from the ones we had previously taken the last 2 days. For a very long time, it was marvelously flat. Unlike the previous day’s landscape, this area was full of waterfalls, rivers, streams and minute water works, flowing under rocks we walked on, rinsing a good deal of accumulated mud away in the process. Then the inevitable incline began.

Skipping some truly horrible moments of “Don’t ask me to do this, I can’t make it,” we made it to the first peak of our hill and stared, amazed at the view behind us. Still green grass, remnants of purple heather buds, blue-black water and scattered winter flowers contrasted with the bleak gray of sky and rocks, making an almost disproportionately Picasso-like drawing on the earth.

Granted, after we had splashed our way out to a rock in the middle of a large lake, had pictures taken by our leaders/photographers and splashed our way back, discovering that water-proof boots do fit the bill, there were still alarmed grumblings of, “You want us to climb wh-wha-wh-WHAT?”

These were caused by Jules casually gesturing at a vertical rock wall, rising seemingly directly out of our lake. May I once again refer you to the definition of WALK?

“Just a bit of a scramble…” said somebody.

So scramble we did. Up 400 feet at a 40-degree angle at the easy points and at 50-degree angles at the worst. Up Jacob’s Ladder [Jack’s Rake. Ed. Mark Two] we scrabbled, clawed and clung. At its narrowest point, several of our group members had to take off their rucksacks, hand them up to the people ahead, scramble up, then reprise their gear and continue on. If not, getting pinned between 2 large boulders was inevitable. It was absolutely, completely, unbelievably, fantastic. The views from the side of a mountain that high up are literally out of this world, and the knowledge that all that stands behind the grim reaper and yourself is an unsteady granite block is chillingly exciting.

After reaching a small rock outcropping on the Ladder, lunch was munched, stashed, and the journey continued, on flatter ground. About 2½ hours later, we began the descent to our mini bus, all the while casting backwards glances at the mountains now rising behind us, muttering, “We climbed that. We climbed that?!”

Naturally, the genetically appropriate group had already arrived in the pub hours before us and was calmly tucking away platters of food and pints of something or other. Then it was back into the van, curled up into the other four girls, to sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep…and dream of what the next adventure would hold. In the end, I suppose, we all had a bit of mountain goat in us after all. I would never have guessed.

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