An English fell is nothing if not brutally honest. Stark and void of trees, anyone considering an ascent can never claim not to know what they’re getting into. Weather permitting, you can often see straight to the summit and most everything in between.
Their simplicity is probably a big part of their appeal. How hard could it be to get to the top? There is the pesky matter of those few thousand feet of elevation gain, but hey, there’s nothing in the way.
I hadn’t planned to climb a fell during my stay in England’s Lake District. I wasn’t entirely sure what a fell was until I made the connection between the use of the word on my maps and the green mounds all around me. (Fell is an old Norse word for barren mountain.) As it turned out, one of these mounds (Skiddaw) just happened to be the main attraction looking out my B&B window. And when the sky finally cleared and could see Skiddaw in all its glory, I investigated what it would take to get to the top.
Not much, my B&B owner assured me – just drive across the highway, past a few wee farms, and up a winding road. There I’d find a place to park and a trailhead. Seemed easy enough.
At just over 3,000 feet, Skiddaw is the fourth highest mountain in the Lake District and the sixth highest in England. What the mountain lacks in elevation it make up for in incline, with some sections of its trail averaging between a 25 and 30% grade. There is an option to follow a switchback trail in places, but as this consists largely of scrambling over loose granite it doesn’t really make the climb any easier.
An entire sport is dedicated to running up and down these things, apparently the nastier the weather the better. And sure enough, several of these enthusiasts came trotting by during my climb. When my knees were a little younger, I could have understood the appeal. Thankfully those days of self-flagellation have passed.
It would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had bothered to ask what was the best way to climb Skiddaw before starting out. Instead I impulsively forged ahead, following what I thought was the most direct route to the summit. The English apparently don’t like to humor visitors with much fell-climbing signage so I was left to my own navigational devices, which on Skiddaw had pretty much lost their bearings.
Even without instructions it probably would have served me well to confirm exactly what was the summit of Mt. Skiddaw. Wishfully, I assumed it was the nearest peak I could get to. As I grew close to breaching this first hill, a fellow climber informed me that I’d know I was at the official Skiddaw summit when I found a properly constructed cairn, not a pile of rocks.
A pile of rocks greeted me as I got to top of what was appropriately called Skiddaw Little Man. Climbing Little Man wouldn’t have been such a setback if it wasn’t immediately followed by a steep, scrambling descent on loose slate, and then another climb. At the top of the second, slightly higher summit was yet another disorganized cairn, a steep descent, and another climb.
The fact that I was alone on this part of the mountain was probably a dead give away that I had taken the wrong turn at some point. Sure enough, as I began what it turned out was my final push to the summit, I met up with steady stream of smiling hikers, with firm knees driving their forward progress
Even with the final steep climb completed, Skiddaw wasn’t giving up its summit so easily. A steady, howling wind accompanied me as I completed the last few hundred feet to the top. There I found a worn, concrete cairn confirming I had reached the top. I sat down, caught my breath, and took in some of the best views you’ll find in all of England.
But my moment of triumph was short-lived. Drenched in sweat, the wind blowing steady around 25 mph, and a chill setting in, I quickly took the requisite photographs and began my descent. As much as I wanted to sit around and discover my inner Wordsworth (the poet did most of his most famous work in the Lake District), the Skiddaw mount was not the most hospitable place to commune with nature.
Returning, I corrected my mistake coming up and found the path most hikers take – one that took me around, not over Skiddaw Little Man. With gravity on my side and surprisingly revitalized knees I made short order of the trip down, celebrating later at a pub in nearby Keswick. No question there are easier ways to see the Lake District – especially if you come prepared and informed – but few places offer the scenery or sense of accomplishment as getting to the top of Skiddaw Fell.