Near The Traveller’s Rest pub, on the A591, it is quiet. I can stand in the middle of the road, not usually a wise practice, but today following the floods a few weeks ago that devastated Cumbria, it is relatively safe to do so. The cars that pass me have nowhere to go, because a few miles further along, near Thirlmere, the road was washed away on the 5th December and is still not passable. Traffic now has to take the long journey northwards along the M6 and follow the A66 from junction 40 into Keswick.
No through road
The few cars that do speed past spray surface water into the drizzle. In the early morning gloom, we change into our walking gear. The bus stop has a soggy laminated note taped to the post, ‘No service, until further notice, because of the floods.’ Grasmere is the farthest village possible along the A591, after that Dunmail Raise and then the road is impassible.
The rain is expected to stop around 9 am; we wait. Dashing outside, we quickly put on our gear, then, just as quickly, jump back into the car as the next squall of wind and rain hits us. Curtains of mist travel over the fells. Another lull then we hastily pull on our boots before again dashing for shelter in the car
It is dark, 8.15am.
The sun sleeps in during these early winter days; good opportunities to get on the fell before sunrise, but I haven’t seen a sunrise for the past three weeks, only cloud and rain.
Seat Sandal (2415ft), our objective, and our 105th Wainwright slumbers behind us, its head capped by dirty, grey cloud. It doesn’t look inviting for our first Wainwright since the end of November when we climbed Wetherlam by head torch and held foot long icicles before breakfasting on a snow-covered summit. Since then it has rained incessantly, bringing unprecedented floods to Cumbria and turning once placid streams into horsetails that rage down the mountainsides, filling the lakes and flooding out over towns and villages.
I am confident we will reach the summit of Seat Sandal today. Already encouraging patches of bright, blue sky appear through the clouds, wormholes in a blanket of dark cloud and heavy rain. Hannah jumps as another car speeds past, showering her with spray.
It is 8.30 am, time to make a start.
While we walk along the bridleway, that many years ago used to be the main packhorse route to Patterdale, grey clouds become whiter, the dense air becomes thinner, and the squalls become less frequent.
At the junction of Tongue Gill and Little Tongue Gill I expected to jump stones or wade knee deep in water, but, surprisingly, the little bridge is still standing. We cross and head up the valley east of Great Tongue by the wall that runs above Tongue Gill. The cloud lifts off Grisedale Hause, as a solitary fell runner descends past us after his early morning run.
Bad day for photos
I consider ascending Great Tongue but decide to use that for our descent. Seat Sandal continues to slumber under a cap of thick cloud, dampening any optimism for great views later today. The forecast mentioned that the sun may burst through the clouds–always an encouraging thought for photography–but today remains sulkily dark. With my camera set for 1600 asa I attempt to take pictures, but, even with such high sensitivity, I am still shooting at a 60th sec in flat, dull lighting. The pictures are more for the record than for anything I will display on the wall or use in magazines.
A group of walkers with two collie dogs meet us as we approach Hause Moss. Hannah reminds me it is snack time, so we shelter from the chilling wind behind a large boulder, left behind from the last ice age that scoured through this valley.
Crisps and cake
After crisps and cake we pass above Hause Moss below Gavel Crag, and then after a short ascent into Hause Gap, we turn west and begin the climb to the summit of Seat Sandal, within minutes we walk into clag.
Five months ago we stood here followed our two-day traverse of the Helvellyn Dodds from Clough Head. Seat Sandal then seemed huge, and my attempts to persuade anyone to add this peak to our tally fell on deaf ears. We left it for a later time: today.
The path winds through debris, rocks that have eroded out of volcanic formations. It is not quite a scree slope, but still loose underfoot. The navigation is easy: just follow the wall. I had set a compass bearing just in case, but it isn’t necessary. Where the wall does a right angle turn to the north, then the summit is just on the other side. It looms spectral-like through the mist as we step over the crumbling boundary wall.
The wind howls over the flat, featureless plateau as we stop for lunch, crouching behind the summit cairn. There are no views, which is a pity because I was looking forward to gazing over Helvellyn, along the route we walked last year following the hottest day on record when temperatures reached 36.7C on July 1st. A contrast to today, where, in the wind chill, it struggles to reach above -6C.
Huddled underneath our military poncho, we eat sandwiches and chocolate cake while listening to the rain tapping on our backs. We warm up, but our fingertips soon chill gripping its edge to stop the wind whipping it down into Grisedale Tarn.
Time for a selfie
I have an idea. Time for a selfie. Selfies are not the prerogative of smartphones; they can be captured with an SLR camera. It makes a different summit photograph, albeit without a mountaintop in sight.
After about 15 minutes we are chilled. Cold fingers rake my back where the wind flattens the poncho against my jacket. I consider getting into our survival shelter, but Hannah wants to head home. It is surreal, emerging from underneath the warmth and colour of the poncho to stand in a cold, windy-battered, barren landscape of mist and rock.
After taking a summit photograph, we fasten our jackets and descend on a bearing of 190 degrees south-west into a fierce wind and thick clag. Our route will take to us to the edge of the crags then contour west underneath Hause Riggs and onto Great Tongue. But we left too early: five minutes later a fierce squall catches us, and we walk into heavy rain and driving wind.
Within minutes, drenched trousers cling to our legs. I consider hiding under the poncho again until it has passed, but it is too late, we press on hoping it will stop in a few minutes – it doesn’t!
After fifteen minutes we are still getting battered. In the thick mist, using short attack points, I navigate from one clump of grass or rock to another. We emerge out of the cloud as another curtain of rain races towards us over Helm Crag and along the valley. Behind it, the sun shines, perhaps we should have gone for Hardknott today, it looks beautiful over there.
Following the weeks of heavy rain, the ground is waterlogged, and we keep slipping down wet grass. The sharp contours I make in a desperate attempt to stay upright, seem to work; what I would have done for a pair of Walsh’s just now. On Great Tongue, the air becomes lighter, and the rain stops. Our trousers soon dry, flapping in the strong wind, as we follow the path leading to Tonguegill Force.
Sunlight sweeps the hillside, painting a drab, lifeless scene with splashes of colour. Cloud rises from the summit of Seat Sandal as orange patches highlight the route we have just descended. Moments later, glorious sunlight bathes the summit of Seat Sandal.
The Lake District is a landscape of surprises, regrets, and memorable days. I mention to Hannah that maybe we could go back to the top to sit in the glorious sunshine; she scowls at me.
I am only joking, honest, and anyway, by the time we get back to the cairn where we had lunch, it could well rain again, I reassure myself. Hannah agrees and reminds me I had promised her fish and chips.
It is 12.30.
Lunch time, again!
I turn, and she is already ahead of me. Gazing back one last time at the sunshine, I head for the chip shop in Ambleside.