Breakfast at Wetherlam

An early start, a beautiful sunrise in Little Langdale, followed by a chilly breakfast on the summit of Wetherlam made the effort all worth while

The light before my feet sweeps the path ahead, darkness lies all around us. Our steps are the loudest sound. My boots chase the light in front, never touching.

Wetherlam, Little Langdale — For three days at the end of 2015, the first snows of winter arrived, a week before the floods that devastated parts of Cumbria. With an opportunity not to be missed we ventured out by head torch,  Alpine style, to breakfast on Wetherlam hoping to catch the sunrise.

In Little Langdale, parked by The Three Shires, we lace our boots in the gathering dawn. The light from my head torch splays across the road; steel grey stones mellow in its beam. Ahead, in the shadows, Wetherlam rises out of the gloom.

Stillness. No birds. No wind. The air, crisp and fresh. Already the sky is turning blue, hinting of a sun rising somewhere in the east, hidden by mountains, far away. Dawn’s orange light edges the ridges above us. Beneath them, the valley slumbers, asleep under a starry-skied blanket. In the distance a stream flows, quietly whispering, never stopping, while people sleep and sheep bleat.

Our steps are the loudest sound. My boots chase the light in front, never touching. A gate appears outlined against the eastern sky and we step onto the fell. The light before my feet sweeps the path ahead, darkness lies all around us. Pinpoints of light expose eyes on the fell. Sheep bleat, then move.

Darkness all around us, ahead Wetherlam

Above us, looms the ridge that leads to the summit of Wetherlam. Our goal, our plan, is for breakfast on the summit, not exactly Breakfast at Tiffany’s but to us much better. Winter months offer the opportunity to get on the hill early and enjoy the peace and beauty of watching the sunrise. Our breakfast will be baguette and Emmental cheese with Salami, Alpine style.

Grey snow, tinged blue, is warmed by the approaching dawn. We cross the bridge that thousands have walked over through the centuries. A pack horse bridge, slate slabs over the River Brathay, once the main route through the Langdales. It’s still here and worth a visit.

climbing Birk Fell

Bacon butties and cottages

White cottage walls appear grey in the darkness. My head torch flashes through a window. We can hear voices. A dim light inside, on a table, the smell of bacon cooking, my stomach grumbles. We want to stop and ask for a butty, but refrain from tapping on the window. Figures move sluggishly inside, waking up, someone at the sink, washing up, someone cooking. Climbers get ready for the day. We pass by, in the dark, along the valley, towards the mountains.

Beneath our feet, the ground grows lighter; the path becomes recognisable, the sky bright, the valley dark. We ascend Birk Fell, directly, rather than trudge along the Greenburn valley. Above, the cloud settles on the tops, resting, gathering. Wetherlam and Birk Fell hide under morning mist, swirling and dropping.

We walk, straight up, fresh in the morning air. Just before Wetherlam Edge, the sun sits on the ridge, exhausted from its climb. Behind us, the Langdale Pikes burn, their heads aflame with sunlight. In the distance Helvellyn’s snowy peaks, pinkish in the sunrise, rise into a broken cloud sky. Then the moment is gone, extinguished like a candle, once more hills dull in dawn’s soft light.

ascending birks fell

Sunlight and Snow

A shaft of light illuminates a solitary farmhouse in the valley. A woman cooking breakfast peers through the window and smiles, happy for the chance of a great day. But the sunlight is on the move, it swings west, brushing the fell side, before disappearing behind Pike O’Blisco.

A shaft of light illuminates a solitary farmhouse in the valley. A woman cooking breakfast peers through the window and smiles, happy for the chance of a great day. But the sunlight is on the move, it swings west, brushing the fell side, before disappearing behind Pike O’Blisco.

ascending wetherlam edge

Along Wetherlam Edge

Above us, cloud settles lower, reluctant to move. We climb Wetherlam Edge, not far now. Soon we are walking through snow, on icy rocks. The cold wind bites, whistling around the crags. An icicle, a foot long, hangs in the shadow as the sun caresses Crinkle Crags.

Into the cloud, we follow the compass, over paths that lie under a carpet of white, no footprints. Only crags, rocks and ice in front of us, no visibility. How far to the summit? Our bellies are grumbling. Breakfast time. Behind a rock we settle down, huddled out of the wind, and lay before us our food.

Hidden by cloud we eat, unsettled at not being able to sit and watch the sunrise on Langdale and gaze across to Scafell and Bowfell. Instead, we watch the wind create eddies before us. Snow swirls in spirals, the mist buffets and turns, while all the time we know that just above–but how high–the sky is blue and the sun is warm.

Two walkers surprise us; they must have followed our footsteps. They are on a weekend away, from Kent, and going back that afternoon. The lure of The Lake District, the draw of beauty. Walkers will travel the length of Britain for a weekend among the hills. The beauty of the mountains are intense, they call far and wide, come, come and see.

Now our bread is frozen; the mist has not cleared, time to move. I finish my tea and we pack up. Frozen fingers stuff cheese back into the brittle packaging.

We follow their footsteps, waymarks on snow and icy rock. It’s great to be on the hill alone, early, just after dawn. Following my compass bearing, we find the summit cairn. A dog jumps out, followed by a man, in shorts and t-shirt. A perfunctory greeting, then he bounds off into the mist, dog leading, he doesn’t need a compass.

The cairn is not much and the views are absent. I take a picture, just to prove we have been here, then a new bearing and along over rocks to Kell Kill Head. Then the cloud floats above our heads, showing patches of blue, like a swirling dancer.

climbing Birk Fell

Could we make it over Swirl How, Great Carrs, Little Carrs before descending along Wetside Edge in just over an hour? Course we can, but logic says we can’t. I want to, we have to, but we can’t. I know we can’t.

Can we make it?

The sun appears, a pastel coloured orb, desaturated by cloud. We watch it, appear and disappear, like a light show. Ahead, the ridge to Swirl How is stark. Clear blue skies act as a backdrop to the Carrs. The hills are beautiful. I look at my watch. I know we cannot walk those peaks, no time. I need to be back home by 3 pm. The cloud covers us again, making my moment of decision easier.

Could we make it over Swirl How, Great Carrs, Little Carrs before descending along Wetside Edge in just over an hour? Course we can, but logic says we can’t. I want to, we have to, but we can’t. I know we can’t.

It is 11 am. Stubbornly, I begin to walk towards Swirl How; then stop. We have to turn back, descend into the Greenburn Valley. I want to go up there, where the sun is shining. How can we turn back, after climbing all morning in the cloud, freezing in the wind, when ahead the glorious mountains are tantalisingly close? We cannot go down. I look at my watch, my heart sinks and we slip and slide through the snow into Greenburn.

ascending wetherlam edge

Looking back in anger

Anger builds. I descend sideways, gazing back at the incredible skyline, outlined against a rich, blue sky. My feet slide, no friction on snowy grass. It is tortuous. The ridge above would be a much more enjoyable route. We seem to descend forever. There is no conversation.

Hannah feels my anger and keeps her distance. After what seems like an eternity, we reach the bottom, by the extensive copper mine workings. Now I walk through a bog. The incessant rain over the past few weeks has turned this valley into a quagmire.

I give up trying to keep my boots dry and make a straight line for the path we left when we ascended Birk Fell; it is still nearly two kilometres away. Two kilometres of bog. Splash, splash, splash, squelch. Where would we have been now if we had kept on the ridge? Just going over Little Carrs probably.

I stamp my way through the valley, and then, as we reach the path, throw my rucksack on the floor, straight into a pile of sheep droppings. Hannah meets me. I turn and give her a hug and we finish the chocolate while packing away our sticks and waterproofs. Things seemed better now.

Descending into Greenburn

descending from wetherlam onto the greenburn valley

 

It’s not good to get angry on the hill, it compromises judgement, accidents can happen. Now, the trudge is over and we walk the final kilometres together, greeting other walkers, glad we had made the climb.

After the Slater Bridge, we sit on the top of a hill finishing the last of the tea and food while watching sunlight chase clouds, and gaze up at the ridges. There are walkers up there; I wish we were, but not today, next time.

I smile, it has been a great day, and we had a fantastic breakfast even if we sat in cloud.
“Let’s do it again,” Hannah says.
“You want to get up again at 5 am?”
“Yes, it’s great fun walking with a head torch.”
“
So, where next then?
”

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