I awoke early. Dark and early. Then again, it would have been dark even had I slept late. Such is life at these latitudes this time of year. The sun barely pokes its head over the horizon now, even at midday when it reaches its vertex. At 54-degrees north, I’m far closer to the North Pole than I am to the Equator, about nine degrees nearer if my arithmetic serves me right. Those nine degrees of latitude may not sound like much, but they equate to at least as many degrees of change when calculated in Celsius.
Overnight temperatures plunged to the coldest they have yet on this trip, about minus-four degrees centigrade (or what in Fahrenheit we affectionately call, “fucking freezing”). The view from my single-paned window showed that a thick layer of frost enveloped everything, even some of the neighboring farm animals. The poor creatures know not about places like the Equator. But I guarantee they can equate this much: that it is fucking freezing.(1)
It had then dawned on me that most of what I was I laying witness to was the frost inside my window! With a frozen Mars bar I scraped it clean, only to come to the sad realization that there was an equal amount of frost outside. Frost does not coat windows without coating all that lay outside them. Donning my own coating, I’d debated staying inside all day, paying for another night’s accommodation, but soon grew bored and thus bored of the notion. I gathered the rest of my garments, packed what little I didn’t slip into, and then inhaled my usual full English feast. I then poured myself the last of the coffee whilst pouring over my maps. It was to be a tough day, perhaps the toughest one yet. I could only hope I too might be as tough.
Host Trudy and I soon enjoyed one last exchange, and as I hoisted my pack and thanked her again for all her hospitality, she told me to be sure to go slow enough to “soak it all in.” (Her words, not mine. “Soak it all in” is NOT something the Pennine Wayfarer generally cares to hear. Moreover, “be sure to go slow enough” was, well, a given, I assured her.)
Trudy promised me “some of the loveliest views in the whole of England,” and with good reason, I’m sure. But unfortunately, in the misty soup these peaks are habitually smothered in, there’s little difference between the “loveliest views in the whole of England” and, say, your bathroom mirror after a long, hot shower. There may have been vast vistas surrounding the area, but as I climbed out of Dufton (elev: 590-feet) and into the barren moors once more, all I saw was the end of my nose, and barely. (Admittedly, my schnozzle is quite elongated and the more I exaggerate like this the longer it seems to get.)
But luck would be on my side. Soon after knocking off Knock Fell (elev: 2,604-feet), the mist lifted, then receded, and then altogether vanished. It happened so quickly I had hardly noticed at first. But then it hit me. The panoramas had been pried open and the sun, low as it lingered, splashed upon my shoulders and the ground beneath me. Not only could I see my shadow for the first time in a while, but so too could I distinguish everything ahead of me and everything else around me. Views were far-reaching, especially those behind me, where the Eden Valley laid out the entirety of its splendor. I made sure I slowed down enough so that I could soak it all in.
I hadn’t given it much thought, but for once the ground would remain where it was supposed to: beneath me (and not me beneath it), since it was now frozen solid. Usually, walking atop snow and ice is loathed like no other form of locomotion. But on the Pennine Way, with all its bogginess and knee-deep mud, freezing temperatures come as a welcomed relief. I could now cruise along without the worry of sinking to the confluence of my anatomy each time I planted a foot.
It was absolutely splendiferous! Not having to lift myself up after each stride was altogether uplifting. Sure, there was a surfeit of slipping and sliding (and the resultant slip of a few dozen curse words), but there was no sinking feeling, nor any sinking. Order was restored and life was once again good.
Great Dun Fell, with its repugnant round radar station rising from its summit, was next on my to-do list, along with its sidekick, Little Dun Fell. Beyond them, at 2,930-feet, the Pennine’s and the Pennine Way’s highpoint, Cross Fell. The summits all looked manageable from my vantage and, even if the fog were to have arranged another homecoming party, I now had my bearings. For once, I knew where I was going and could see that the three crests were not nearly as intimidating as I had been led to believe.
It’s funny what visibility allows for. Without it, fear sets in. When you can’t see, you’re essentially walking in the dark…and into the unknown. And while I’m not afraid of the dark, the unknown is downright scary!
When you can see you can at least surmise a little. You begin to formulate expectations and, if daft enough, you even gain some confidence. You see where you’re going and where you’ve been, and nothing is stopping you from continuing forth or returning whence you came.
But without eyesight all is lost, just as you are likely to be. GPS may tell you where you are in a numerical sense, but it doesn’t always tell you about the risks immediately around you, the perils awaiting your arrival. Hell, some of the bogs, for example, are like canyons. And GPS, despite all its greatness, can’t even record their depth. Not only did I learn long ago not to put my life’s hands into anything requiring batteries, but also not to trust anything that comes with a disclaimer. No doubt that technology has saved many a life, but so too has it cost many. I shan’t let it cost me mine.
I began making my way toward the peaks, which, quite honestly, were just giant mounds of frozen mud, rock and snow. Peaks and mountains exist here in the UK, I’m told, but so far all I’ve seen (or not seen, in the case of those foggy days) is big mounds of mud. There have been no jagged peaks, no distinct summits and nothing requiring ice axes, ladders, ropes or supplementary oxygen. Of course, had there been, I would be elsewhere, almost assuredly in the South Pacific sipping a cold fermented beverage of some sort, the kind with a straw umbrella adorning it. Those are the umbrellas I like most, incidentally.
Before long I was past the mounds and trundling down the rubble-strewn path en route to Greg’s Hut, the first refuge of its kind along the Pennine Way and, perched at 2,300 feet, England’s loftiest. Chilly breezes had replaced the mist and the hut would be most welcomed and welcoming, no matter its state. It would turn out quite nice and accommodating, but I’m getting ahead of myself here (not necessarily a bad thing when hiking in such conditions!).
These huts are called ‘bothies’ here in England and, unfortunately, they are few and far between. Indeed, there are just three such shelters along The Way. Naturally, I had intended to take full advantage of each one, whether necessary or not. Greg’s Hut, which was named, oddly enough, after a climber named John(2), was very much needed. The breeze had gained some serious strength and was by now a full-fledged windstorm. Indeed, the gale was uprooting and kicking up snow from the ground, carrying it straight up and into my eyes. What visibility I had gleaned from the lack of fog was once more wiped out. Millions of miniature ice crystals blasted away at the eyes, like bitter bullets programmed to penetrate, fired from a ruthless killer (that killer being Mother Nature, of course).
I’d have been okay had I possessed some sunglasses, but I’d long since sent them home with Ruth, after deeming them superfluous. The sun had only made a few appearances to this point and, even when it had, it lay so low on the southern horizon that sunglasses were really just extra weight, something to worry about scratching or breaking. Eye protection, however, is always wise to carry (or, better yet, wear) when outdoors and I should have known better.
I did not know better, of course. Rarely do I know better. Here now I was in trouble yet again, dealing with nature’s theatrics and essentially just blindly stumbling down the massive molehills like a mole. Had I had one more eye I’d have been a Cyclops.
When I drew near to the bothy I staggered to it a beaten man. I could barely see and couldn’t operate my digits to open the hut’s door. The muscles simply balked. I removed my gloves and stuck my hands down my pants, deep down near the warmth of my crotch, until I regained the use of my fingers. Only then could I finally grab and negotiate the handle’s lever. The wind would rip the door from my hands and do the rest from there.
I’d hoped there would be others inside but on this day it was just the hut and I, both hounded by the now hurricane-force winds. Just as my joints had been, the hut creaked and moaned. But, unlike me, it stood strong and proffered the security sought. A string of Tibetan prayer flags hung from the thick wooden rafters above and a tattered visitor’s book sat atop one the five or six plastic chairs. I picked up the book and began to read through it, wondering just how many hikers---and hikes---the place had saved. One fellow would not be saved: “The Pennine Way and I are getting divorced. We don’t find one another attractive anymore.” It was weird but I completely appreciated his plight.
After reading, I began to prepare lunch---chocolate macaroons, trail-mix and some buttery shortbread---and attempted to re-gather my required reserves. It was too premature to discontinue for the day, I’d decided, but I needed to refuel and batten down the hatches before carrying on. All clothing would be donned and eye-shields fashioned by way of my balaclava and visor pulled low.
Thankfully, it would work. The route departing Greg’s Hut was, in a word, brutal (the trail was now atop a narrow rock-ridden path fittingly called Corpse Road), but with each footstep I grew nearer to the hamlet of Garrigill, where, no matter what, I was to halt progress for the day, which had now become night. I was going to sleep under a bridge or in an outhouse if I had to, my suitable lodging standards long since lowered.
As my usually infrequent fate would have it, I ran into a nice lady in town (town motto: “We’re not quite dead”), who happened to run one of the Bed & Breakfasts, a joint called Bridge View. I was all set to pitch my tent behind the Village Hall but she offered to reopen her business and put me up (and put up with me) for the night. Indeed, she insisted I stay and get myself cleaned up, and warmed up. I think she felt sorry for me, quite honestly, but in any case, it was an offer I could not, and would not refuse. When someone opens their doors to someone like me, they’re really just opening their heart, business or not.
So many B&Bs are closed throughout the slow season (that season being late fall and winter, when only the dumbest of hikers attempt the Pennine Way), since it’s not worth their while to heat rooms that will likely never be filled or to keep their fridges stocked with food that will likely grow moldy before the hungry hiker can get his or her dirty paws on it (never mind that moldy food would not stop the hungry hiker).
I was soon situated deep inside a bulky duvet flipping through the guidebook and watching Strictly Come Dancing (Britain’s version of Dancing with the Stars) on the telly, pleased that life could be so utterly rewarding after such a challenging day and having had to deal with nature’s countless theatrics. When I had read in the guidebook that Margaret, Bridge View’s owner, offers foot massages to haggard hikers, I knew I had reached Hiker Heaven. But I read on only to discover that such an offering only applies to those hikers without blisters. She was safe with me. In fact, when I’d given it some more thought, I came to the conclusion that she’d never even given a single foot massage, the wench! The Pennine Way assures the hiker of blisters, of both feet and ego.
(Footnote of the Day #1: The local animals have been through worse though, as Dufton was one of the hardest hit areas during England’s foot-and-mouth outbreak back in 2001; the last remaining cases of the disease occurred here.)
(Footnote of the Day #2: John Gregory, thus the name hut’s name. Gregory died following a climbing accident high in the French Alps in 1968, despite the actions of a climbing partner who held him on the rope and tended to his injuries throughout the night. Unfortunately, additional help would arrive too late.)