When the pandemic struck, aspiring mountaineer PETER WATSON was forced to put his DREAMS on hold and find a CHALLENGE closer to home. Fortunately, the PEAKS of the Yorkshire Dales provided the perfect backdrop.
It was mid-October last year and the ground underfoot was typical of that time of year in the Yorkshire Dales: boggy. I sloshed my way across to the trig point marking the summit of England’s newest and lowest mountain. In the UK, 2,000ft (609.6m) is widely accepted as the benchmark height for when a hill is elevated to the ranks of a mountain.
Until recently, the Yorkshire Dales National Park was home to 40 such mountains. In 2016, however, the height of Calf Top, a little Cumbrian hill near the town of Sedbergh, was recalculated by Ordnance Survey from 1999.9ft (609.579m) to 2000.02ft (609.606m). As such, Calf Top was re-categorised as the national park’s 41st mountain.
It was also, and not coincidentally, the 41st and final mountain of a micro-challenge I‘d set myself during the UK’s first lockdown: to climb every mountain in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
A CHANGE OF PLAN
If I’m honest, it’s not the challenge I was gearing up for at the beginning of 2020. Like most people, my year did not pan out the way I expected. It started well. In January, I flew to Argentina and slogged my way up Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America and one of the seven summits, the highest peaks on each continent. At 6,961m, with Asia’s winter climbs still at the lower camps, I was likely the highest person stood on Earth when I reached the roof of the southern hemisphere, if only for a few fleeting moments.
I was in high spirits and already planning for a summer attempt on Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest point. If successful, Denali would be my fifth mountain of the seven summits. Of course, soon the pandemic struck, borders shut, and Denali would remain unclimbed for at least another year. Like most, I found the lockdown and resulting restrictions intensely suffocating.
Like millions of people up and down the country, I wasn’t accustomed to spending so much time indoors. I was permanently bored and wildly restless. In a misguided attempt to stay entertained, I found myself reaching for my phone or laptop more and more, sending my screentime rocketing. Around midway through the lockdown, with talk of easing restrictions creeping into the news, I decided to make a plan. I needed something to focus on. I needed a new challenge. But with international mountaineering on hold, I needed one that was closer to home: a ‘micro-challenge’ so to speak.
In 2018, after 10 years of living and working in London, I moved to a small market town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Soon after moving to the area, I attended a regional book festival where a local hiking guide delivered a presentation about the highest mountains in the area. Back then, I’d considered the challenge but hadn’t set about the task with any firm commitment. I‘d crossed off three or four peaks during the odd trip into the park, but nearly two years on and I hadn’t really made any significant progress. I decided to get started on the remaining mountains with renewed vigour: The mountains of the Yorkshire Dales would be my new seven summits.
I dug out my OS maps of the region and began plotting all the peaks above 609.6m. In the UK, just like all over the world, there are several different systems used to categorise mountains and myriad lists available for peak baggers like myself. Probably the most famous UK mountain list is the Munros: the mountains of Scotland over 3,000ft (914.4m).
Unfortunately, if the same system was used throughout the UK, there wouldn’t be any peaks outside Scotland high enough to qualify. Therefore, 2,000ft (609.6m) is generally accepted as the minimum height for UK mountains.
As a former IT teacher, I put my waning computer skills to good use and created a custom Google Map with all the summits, potential campsites, and walking routes marked. This — accompanied by a colour-coded spreadsheet — would form my main line of attack. When the lockdown rules were finally relaxed, I found I could get into the Dales around once a week, usually ticking off a few peaks at a time. The most I managed to climb in one day was seven when I spent a long day hiking in the Howgill Fells near Sedbergh. I would usually go into the park for a night or two at a time and camp overnight — sometimes at a campsite, but usually, I’d just leave it until late in the day and pitch up in a remote valley or meadow. You can’t beat wild camping in my book.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park, established in 1954, is home to one of England’s quintessential outdoor landscapes. The park’s glacial valleys are defined by a unique terrain of high heather moorland, rolling hills and dramatic waterfalls, crisscrossed with miles of drystone walls and delightful villages. It attracts nearly four million visitors every year, but it’s unusual to see the kind of overcrowding that the Lake District can sometimes suffer.
Fortunately, as a freelance writer, I don’t have to follow a nine-to-five schedule and can take time off midweek to avoid busier periods. The Dales may not be home to the world’s — or even England’s — most dramatic terrain, but what it lacks in snowcapped peaks, glinting glaciers and aquamarine lakes it makes up for with rolling ridges, dancing becks and hushed forests. The park is famed for having some of the finest limestone landscapes in the UK with crags, pavements and caves carved into its deep dales (valleys). Malham Cove and its 70m limestone cliff is a particularly fine example.
I kicked off my micro-challenge by hiking Great Shunner Fell, located in the Northern Dales between Wensleydale and Swaledale. At 716m it’s the third highest peak in the national park. Despite its height, the peak is a moderately gentle ascent conveniently located along the Pennine Way. It proved a fine place to start.
At the summit is a large cross-shaped windbreak and trig point. Here, it’s possible to shelter from the wind no matter its direction and enjoy the sweeping views across the surrounding valleys. To the west lie the Howgill Fells with the fringes of the Lake District fells beyond. It’s also possible to see the line of cairns on the iconic Nine Standards Rigg to the north along with the road leading to Britain’s highest pub, Tan Hill Inn. Finally, to the south, there are views across Swaledale (my home dale), the ridges of Lovely Seat and Buckden Pike as well as the distinctive summits of Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside that make up the Yorkshire Three Peaks.
Arguably the park’s most famous hike, the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, is a 24-mile circular jaunt that includes 1,585m of ascent over the summits of the highest, second-highest and ninth-highest peaks in the Dales. The challenge should be completed in under 12 hours, but I spent the next couple of trips working my way through the peaks of the Northern and Western Dales, collecting the Three Peaks in the process. Ingleborough was my favourite of the three as it’s a proper little mountain with a couple of short but sweet scrambles, a wonderful summit plateau and some outstanding views from the top.
One perk of my challenge was that I frequently found myself led off the beaten paths. A fine example was during my weekend climb of Ingleborough and the adjacent Simon’s Fell. The 656m summit of Simon’s Fell appears to be on few hikers’ agendas as I discovered while wandering over the adjoining ridge from Ingleborough. I had the summit of Simon’s Fell all to myself while just a few hundred meters behind me, scores of hikers huddled on the top of Ingleborough. On the flip side, off-the-beaten-path isn’t always charming. At the top of Peny-ghent, I sloshed my way across open moorland to the somewhat less-endearing collection of peat hags that is the summit of Plover Fell. I shan’t be repeating that in a hurry.
Several of the park’s highest peaks are located in pretty lonely corners without summit markers or little more than a sheep track leading to their crests. I often found myself crossing and recrossing a peat bog on a summit plateau in search of its highest point, relying at times on a GPS reading to ensure I had found the true high point and could confidently cross it off my list.
Over the coming weeks, I worked my way through the different areas of the national park: the limestone scars and dramatic peaks of the Western Dales; the long broad ridges and steep slopes of Upper Wharfedale; the gentle hills above charming Wensleydale and Swaledale in the Northern Dales; the challenging but deeply rewarding trackless moors and deep valleys of the Cumbrian Pennines. But my favourite area of the Dales are the distinctive broad ridges of the Howgill Fells, aptly described by legendary fellwalker Alfred Wainwright as a “herd of sleeping elephants”.
t’s a quiet corner of the northwestern Dales defined by a long upland plateau that divides the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District. The distinct scenery includes deep ravines, craggy cliffs and the dramatic falls of Cautley Spout, England’s highest above-ground waterfall. I spent a couple of days in the Howgills clambering across gullies and high ridges and camping beside the River Rawthey. I think I saw two groups of hikers over the entire two days.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST
I completed my challenge with the park’s — and England’s — newest and lowest mountain, Calf Top. At the beginning of my quest, I thought about leaving the park’s highest peak, Whernside (736m), until last so I could finish on the top of the Dales. But given how 2020 had panned out, Calf Top seemed like an appropriate place to wrap things up. Surprisingly, despite it being the lowest, Calf Top enjoys some of the finest views in the entire national park. The summit is somewhat unassuming, but the steep hike up to its plateau reveals sweeping vistas across the U-shaped valley of Barbondale.
As with many of my climbs in the Dales, I found myself on the summit of Calf Top completely alone, which suits me just fine. There is nothing quite like the settling of the mind that comes with solo hiking. In a year as tumultuous and unprecedented as 2020, escaping the everyday monotony — the identical routines, the same four walls, the repetitive headlines — was essential. For me, finding peace on the fells of the Yorkshire Dales was as valuable as any vaccine.
Engaging with nature and getting into the outdoors has proven mental and physical health benefits and this is particularly important during the current climate of lockdowns, tiers, and restrictions. I would urge anyone who is finding life difficult in these times to have a look at their local area and pick a micro-adventure or create a micro-challenge to complete. There’s a function on the Ordnance Survey Maps (OS Maps) app that allows users to find their local green space. It’s easy to use and can reveal some unanticipated little treasures throughout the UK, often in the least expected places.
The mini-mountains of the Yorkshire Dales kept me balanced this summer and got me through a deeply challenging year. The mountains provided me with 41 impeccable reasons to put the phone down, get outdoors and go walking. I would urge others to do the same.
Back on Calf Top, I began my descent. The sun was setting, but I wanted to savour the moment just a little while longer. I paused beside a cairn at Eskholme Pike and took a seat on a flat rock. It was a crisp autumn afternoon and the early evening light drew long shadows across the checkerboard of fields below. In the distance, I could see all the way to Morecambe Bay on Lancashire’s west coast. It was a long way from Alaska’s Denali, but at that moment I was exactly where I was supposed to be: on the side of England’s smallest mountain.
Peter Watson is a photographer, writer, and founder of outdoor travel blog Atlas & Boots (www.atlasandboots.com). A keen trekker and climber he can usually be found on the trails of the Greater Ranges. He’s visited over 80 countries and is currently focused on climbing the seven summits — the highest mountain on every continent. So far, he’s scaled Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Kosciuszko in Oceania and most recently Aconcagua in South America. When not overseas he lives with his partner in the Yorkshire Dales.