Tuesday, October 25, 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: The Pennine Way 2

I had hoped that after a rest day in the youth hostel in Alston the weather might have had improved - and the forecast had predicted a less windy day. So off I went in the morning in order to go over Cross Fell - the highest and most exposed place on the whole Pennine Way. Cross Fell is just 893 meters high which is nothing really measured with German standards. But here in the UK with nothing between you and the Atlantic Ocean the winds on top of it were horrible. Again I had to be careful not to been blown over. I had realised before how dramatically the weather can change here but on top of Cross Fell a sunny and clear day turned into an almost complete white out with 10 meters visibility within 10 minutes! But with my GPS and following the flagstones I managed to get down Cross Fell into a nice and calm valley with no wind at the end of the day.

I still had seemingly endless days to go on the Pennine Way and I felt already thoroughly fed up with the miserable weather. Luckily another highlight of my trip should come up soon: A visit to my old PCT hiking friend John who lives close by the Pennine Way. We had started the PCT together back in  2004 and had even hiked one day together. We both finished on different days but had always stayed in contact - and this would be my chance to meet him again. We had arranged a date and place where to meet and due to his schedule I could walk at a leisurely schedule now. This came in very handy when one day at 2.30 pm I came across a very nice shelter on the trail. Of course this shelter was not mentioned in any guide book or any map: Brits seem to think that hikers do not need to know where shelters are - I had found that out already in Scotland with the mountain bothies.... I could not resist the temptation and settled into the shelter reading a book and relaxing - when all of a sudden all heaven and hell broke lose and it started pouring down hard. It rained so hard for half an hour that water was flooding into the shelter from underneath the door!!! I was very glad not be out there hiking and was rewarded with an incredible rainbow the next morning. Of course as soon as I left the shelter it would start raining again....

Crazy John 
By the time I arrived in Horton-on-Ribblesdale and was picked up by John's partner Steph I was thoroughly fed up with the whole Pennine Way. It did not really boost my morale when John explained to me that the insufficient waymarking on the Pennine Way was done intentionally in order to achieve a sort of wilderness experience for the hikers! I was already way behind my original time schedule at that point and was getting worried about the ever deteriorating weather and my equipment that might not be really up to an English autumn. I was especially worried about my sleeping bag which at that point was just a synthetic quilt. I had already woken up in a frozen over tent in August and thought I would not survive colder weather without a proper winter sleeping bag. When I told John about my worries he just asked me: "What sleeping bag do you want?" First I did not understand his question but then he explained to me that as a freelance writer for outdoor magazines he gets a lot of equipment for free - for writing test reports. He actually came up with 4 synthetic sleeping bags I could chose between as a present. He wanted to clear his storage rooms and claimed that I would actually do him a favour by taking one. What hiker can resist such an offer? I mailed my quilt back to Germany and continued my hike with a new winter sleeping and other such goodies as replacement tent stakes and a new gas cannister. And of course we had a lovely time chatting about the good old times on the PCT. I left his place in relatively good spirits only to be drenched by a major downpour a couple of hours later and getting nearly hypothermic on another exposed ridge the same evening...

Malham Cove
I knew that in a few days another couchsurfing stay would come up in Hebden Bridge and also the trail offered a lot of very scenic highlights : Lots of waterfalls, High Cup Nick which is a fantastic glaciated valley and Malham Cove to name just a few. But the weather and the hard walking had ground me down. When I arrived in Hebden Bridge I was already counting kms before I could leave the exposed Pennine Way and return to some gentler hiking. And I had given up all hope on the weather ever improving. I still asked my couchsurfing host Karen to have a look at the weather forecast and we both could not really figure it out. We could not find the column for the probability and amount of rain. After a lot of guessing around we found the solution for this mystery: The forecast predicted a 0% chance of rain for the next 4 days. And that is something almost unheard of in Britain I assumed. I could hardly believe it but it almost turned out the be true. Only a little bit of drizzle for the next couple of days and then a major change of weather occurred: I was to experience a British Indian summer!

High Cup Nick
But to sum up the Pennine Way: It is a really very nice and incredibly spectacular and scenic hike - if the weather is good or decent. But if the weather is miserable you are in for big trouble. There are hardly any less exposed alternative routes to escape the wind and rain and hiking along these exposed ridges of the Pennines is a sure recipe for hypothermia. Do not assume that you can compare conditions between other countries and Britain at the same altitude - anything above 400 meters in the UK will be exposed and hard to walk in in bad weather. The lack of waymarking and fog with little visibility can make navigation a big issue. More than once could I see less than 10 meters and mistook cows for signposts! And of course you will be wading in mud most of the time.... No wonder that the popularity of the Pennine Way has steadily declined during the last 10 years. Half of the youth hostels along the trails have closed down you meet very little hikers along the trail. Still, it is a great trail - if you are willing to suffer through all I have mentioned you will be rewarded with unique sights.

1 comment:

John Manning said...

Glad you enjoyed your stay in Stainforth Christine!

I ought to set my statement about PW waymarking in context, as I was referring to a policy the PW manager 15 years ago or more had. The waymarking policy on the PW wasn't for "insufficient" waymarking, but was for the minimum necessary to ensure a walker doesn't get lost – there is an important difference between the two. At junctions where there was likely to be confusion, waymarking was done, but when the way ahead was obvious, there was no need to adorn the countryside with more paint, plastic and fingerposts. It was always sufficient for a walker to get to where they needed to be; the perception of "sufficient" or otherwise therefore had more to do with an individual walker's confidence in the trail, in themselves and in their own ability to navigate.

I don't know what the policy is these days but thankfully the Pennine Way round here isn't over-waymarked