Trip completed: October 2020
Location: Lake District, UK
Target: Walk the total elevation gain & distance of Poon Hill, Nepal
Great bursts of wind rattle the straps on my rucksack. Rain pelts against the clean sleeves of my shell jacket and drips over the front of my hood. It’s cold, contrary to the heat wave of the last few months, so my hands withdraw from the freezing chill to the lukewarm conditions inside my pockets. Where I am, and where I should be, don’t quite match in temperature, culture, or landscape. This isn’t the holiday that I desired, nor is it the expedition that I had wanted to write about. There is still half a day to complete, and the false summits are becoming frustrating. We have stupidly planned an uphill, followed by a downhill, followed by another uphill, so it feels like we are climbing two mountains in the same day, and I realise now that I am such an amateur.
This is only day one.
Planning A Hike with a Nepali Twist
With the world in lockdown, international travel was off the cards. Many people were hiking England’s highest mountains, so I wanted to create an interesting alternative, something challenging and unusual enough to call an adventure.
I was looking for a trip in the mountains, so Nepal had to come somewhere in my research. Seventy-five percent of Nepal is covered by mountains, and it has eight of the highest in the world. According to the Nepal Tourism Board, the first of these to be climbed was Annapurna. Within this region exists the Ghorepani Poon Hill trek.
- 46km route
- 2140m total elevation gain.
- 3-4 day hike
The route can be perfectly squeezed into short holidays for those without the time or expertise to complete the larger mountains in the area. The route also promises, in good weather, panoramic views over an unsurprisingly stunning region.
There was only one place in England I could imagine coming close to the views atop Poon Hill: The Lake District… Well, just like that, I discovered the challenge that I could call an adventure:
Hike the total elevation gain and distance of the Ghorepani Poon Hill Trek – but do it in the Lake District.
It’s not completely random. Hundreds of people lit the peaks of the Lake District with torches in 2017 in a charity effort to raise money for victims of the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Keswick has also been hosting a small ‘Mountain Wear Bazaar and Himalayan Craft Exhibition’ in Moot Hall from August to November in recent years.
Arriving in Keswick
Namaste. Discovering prayer flags is a welcome surprise on a trip that is meant to mimic a Nepal expedition. The only thing that’s missing is a bit of dal-bhat-tarkari.
Relieved that I have extra justification for choosing Nepal as the theme of this trip, we choose our mountains, double-check the distance and elevation gain, and hope for the best weather the Lakes can offer.
The first day begins with a bitterly cold morning but the promise of sunshine. We park our cars by Seathwaite farm and head directly into the fields. There are at least a dozen other people here, but we won’t see them until the peak. We’re walking up Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain.
The start of the route is stunning. The trail winds its way through fields, alongside dried-up waterfalls and over rough rivers. Wooden bridges enable us to cross these rivers. They are small and quaint, and so well placed that rather than disturbing this wild place, they enhance the landscape. They also aid in distracting us from the long hike ahead.
The way up begins gently but then seems to rapidly escalate, as if the hill suddenly remembered it was meant to be a mountain. The ground turns from soft grass and drying mud to large stones that have partially sunk into footprints, memories of the years of heavy feet that have come before my own. I line up my heels with the arches of giant prints and feel grateful for the stability it offers. It dawns on me that we will never experience the same challenge that our ancestors once did because the ground has given in to these recurring feet stamping on it, creating these steps of sorts. In many places, steps have even been purposely carved into the hill. Also, our boots – if we are wearing them, rather the trainers some seem to glide up the mountains in – are likely to be lighter, our rucksacks softer, our food and snacks made easy to cook and eat, and the cafes and toilets are a promise of warmth and luxury at the bottom of many mountains or at the opening to many valleys. None of this was available to our ancestors.
We also have the benefit of mobile phones and weather applications to guide us on our journeys. Subsequently, we must tread further and harder, and train more if we want to compare ourselves to those who first hiked to unchartered land in the 1800s, like Wainwright himself. Realising all this only spurs us on with the idea of not just going up, and then down Scafell Pike, but reaching a target total elevation gain over three to four days, weather dependent. But despite the relative ease of hiking mountains today compared to the 1800s, each mountain is a still a tough challenge.
We edge past an older couple who hike Scafell Pike every year. ‘I’ll stop when I’m eighty,’ the woman says. Every time I pause to photograph the view – and catch my breath – I’m acutely aware that I might be beaten up this mountain by a couple who are forty years my senior, and suddenly I feel unfit. Still, I press on, into the valleys that sit above other valleys, and up to the drifting clouds. Behind us, the sun is finally rising. Blue clouds fulfil the weather predictions. Parts of distant lakes can be seen between gently sloping hills. Then, like I have just passed the threshold at which the window opens, the steep incline juts across the landscape, and I can see where we’re going.
At least, I think I can.
Harry Griffin described Scafell Pike as ‘a secret mountain. It is hidden from many parts of Lakeland by its neighbours’ so one thing that is becoming clear is that it’s easy to set yourself targets – hike to the next ledge, to the next turn, or to what you think is a peak. It’s also easy to feel deflated when you realise that the peak isn’t here yet.
Between a green and brown landscape is a dry section, barren except for untidy piles of spiky rocks that jut in all directions on flat-ish land. It’s weird to scramble when you’re not climbing at all, but that is the only way to pass this section. I clamber over one rock and squeeze between another two, cautious to avoid anyone coming in the opposite direction – we must be socially distant, after all. This creates an unease. How much must I stick to my own path through this Mars-like segment, even if I’ve decided that someone else is following a better route?
I look up and spot the faint spike that is the peak of Scafell Pike and the memorial to the First World War. It’s bitterly cold here, an advance warning of the winter that is due, and the final clamber over uneven, loose rocks is a test not only of fitness but also of balance.
We breathe in the fresh air but dislike the crowd that has formed at the summit, and hurry down to find desolation and peace. But we are not going down the usual way. Instead, we take the long route into Upper Esk Valley, a place where it seems only occasional dog walkers, fell runners and climbers criss-cross acres of land. We have found true silence and wilderness in England.
The slow-flowing River Esk winds its way through flat land in a green, fertile place that seems to have been untouched and undiscovered by the majority. Only a narrow muddy path resembles the dotted green line on the map. It’s so faint that we are forced to play hopscotch over the slippery patches of mud until we can be certain we are on the right path. This means climbing over the river as it reaches up until it finds the same path we stood on earlier, where like an opening window, Scafell’s ladder was revealed. It is beautiful here, and it boosts that feeling of freedom, but the incline is so gradual after hiking all morning that what should be easy is exhausting. We had already come down to nearly no elevation, to go back up on what feels like the longest trail we could have picked. But it’s good and necessary, especially when we count up the total elevation gain later and realise we have completed 853m, with 19km total distance. It completes a good first day, and we have already beaten the estimates of day one hikes of Poon Hill, which should be around 10km.
We return to the self-catered flat in Keswick that we have rented for the week. It’s not as adventurous as camping, but it means that we can keep ourselves away from other people as the tier restrictions begin to tighten in surrounding areas. It also means that the cold and wet beginnings of winter don’t steal away our enthusiasm for the long walks.
Before we know it, and still achy, day two begins. The plan for today is to hike Haystacks. We had originally aimed to complete it with High Stile to add some elevation gain and extra mileage to reach, or go over, our target. However, the weather has other plans, and a fast-approaching litter of clouds is chasing us up the first mountain. We wouldn’t be able to reach both peaks safely.
The route begins in Buttermere, a lake so beautiful – and pictured in most books I can find on the Lake District – that I just want to stand here for ever, taking photos and admiring the still blueish water that licks the feet of the surrounding mountains. On the other side of the lake is a path that climbs reasonably quickly until Buttermere is forgotten and the clouds draw in, and every so often, out of the fog appear smaller lakes, idyllic and mysterious. These are the sort of places in which the concept of adventure clambers out of lockdown and into reality, and if it were warmer – or I could tolerate the cold – I would happily jump in. It is adventure that inspires imagination and wakes us all.
Instead I focus on the scramble that leads to another spike, that marks another peak. Clouds surround us like we’re leaving one world for another. Wind howls and rain hurtles at our jackets – I’m so glad I used my emergency service discount for a new one. Hood up, gloves on, hand warmers cracked open for the brutal reynauds, we shelter under half a rock and hurriedly swallow food as one or two other couples pass. I’m shocked at how many people come up here in leggings and trainers, soaking but pressing on. We realise it’s probably only the cold and tinge of regret that must make their pace faster than ours.
The way down is slow as I’m careful with my feet, but the weather steadily improves, and the view unfolds before us – Buttermere lake, again, sunshine, a landscape so green it might be an over-saturated photograph. By the time we have tracked our way back, we have hiked 493m total elevation gain and 15.02km, slightly more than the prediction for day two in Poon Hill, which was 12km.
Our final big day involves hiking Helvellyn. It has a sharp incline that doesn’t allow for any rest, but the endless number of steps here do make for an easier plod upwards. The cyclist, who seems to spit himself out from the engulfing clouds, ignites my imagination. We have enough visibility to see each other and track the edge of the path over the sudden drop below, but not enough to see the view over the reservoir that the mountain towers above. Again I picture transitioning into another world, but this time the imagery is more vivid, the story unfolding, the entertainment value awesome, and yes, it’s an excellent distraction from the cold and the kilometres still to complete.
By the time we finish this trek, we meet 738m total elevation gain, with another 11.42km. This is shorter than the final day of the Poon Hill trek, if opting for the three-day route (it can be completed in four or more). We have managed 2,084m of total elevation gain so far, which puts us just 56m short, and only 1km under the target, at 44.9km in total. We’re not arguing about 0.1km, but we are keen enough to meet the goal we had set for ourselves. In a year where it seems that everyone is walking up England’s highest mountains, this is exactly what we need – a new goal, and a new kind of achievement. Why complete only the mountains that are offered to us in this country when we can tackle the equivalent of a place we have never explored?
Our final challenge is to stretch our legs one last time for a two-hour stroll through the Greater Langdale valley. A popular starting point for hikers and school children on river trips alike, it also offers more views of a nearly untouched valley, save the occasional climber and lonely sheep. It adds 6km and 63m of total elevation gain, well over the needed amount, and enough to create a peaceful walk to end the week, and a picturesque picnic spot.
A browse through the Nepalese exhibition and images of Poon Hill and the Annapurna mountain range, which it overlooks, finalises this adventure. It also feeds us ideas for future trips when Nepal opens for more than just experienced mountaineers, and for other expeditions after lockdown here in the UK.
Our total stats:
- 2,147 m elevation gain
- 50.9 km
- 4 days of walking
- 3 peaks (Scafell Pike, Haystacks, Helvellyn), 1 gentle stroll.