Sunset on the Fells

    Wordsworth’s evening walk was leisurely and introspective. Ours was more hectic: a sudden challenge thrown out and accepted without thought or planning. But then, that is often the best way to do things, as it opens the door to the unexpected.

Dave had recently undertaken a Mountain Leadership introductory course In the next year before completing his assessment, he would have to climb at least 30 2,000-foot peaks. He was eager to begin, and Dollywaggon Pike seemed a good starting point. It was nearby, straightforward and safe,  and the weather was clear. And if we had time, we could make a quick dash back down to the pass and up Seat Sandal, thus taking in two peaks.

Within five minutes of making our decision, we were speeding up Dunmail Raise in Dave’s car. A further five minutes saw us slogging up the deep defile of Raise Beck, already breathing heavily.

The weather was unseasonably cold, for late spring, and the evening sun held little warmth. Nevertheless, we were sheltered from the cutting wind by the steep sides of the ghyll, so that we soon broke into a sweat. Dave, a keen distance runner, had done little training lately, and had dropped out of the London marathon because of a chest infection. He clearly saw our excursion as a resumption of his training and sustained a fast pace up to the pass.

The tarn was grey and bleak. An east wind blew up Grizedale, gathering chill from the snowy patches which still lingered in the gullies of St Sunday Crag. Channelled through the pass by the slopes above the valley head, the gusts rippled and sprayed the tarn’s surface, then slapped, cold, onto our perspiring flesh. Though the sky was clear, the sun lacked all strength. The hillsides were bright, but the usually hard-edged profiles of the crags, so characteristic of the sharp light of evening, had softened, and only a blandness remained.

We paused briefly until our breathing subsided. In terms of height gained, we were still only half way. The slope of Dollywaggon was steep and grassy, and held little of the aesthetic. We moved fast and breathed hard. As our legs tired, the gusting wind, which ripped round the contours, made us stagger drunkenly. Occasionally we stopped, backs bent, hands on knees, and glanced, gasping, back to the tarn, to reassure ourselves that we were gaining height. We knew we were winning when distant peaks began to appear over the top of Seat Sandal. Then the gradient eased suddenly and we stood on the summit.

The wind, now freed from the confines of the pass, gusted less, but blew with a steady strength that numbed our cheeks. A narrow cornice of hard-packed snow fringed the ridge between Dollywaggon and Nethermost Pike. The cold sun cast an eerie glow onto the slopes around us, and threw a deepening shadow over Grizedale and Ullswater. To the west lay Thirlmere, also in shadow, and beyond that the sharply outlined profiles of peak after peak, receding into lighter shades of blue, toward which the sun was slowly dropping.

I pointed out several peaks to Dave, and recommended some that he should not fail to add to his list. We looked back to the pass and up the steep slope of Seat Sandal, which, after our hard struggle up Dollywaggon, appeared less inviting. By contrast, the almost level walk to Helvellyn became quite seductive, so that little discussion was needed for us to agree to go for the latter before dark.

We set off at a run, slowing down only to ascend Nethermost Pike. Without pause we continued, beckoned on by the now fully visible knife-blade of Striding Edge, and were soon racing up the final slope. The cruciform shelter just below the summit was covered in horizontal, wind-blown icicles, as also was the memorial to the landing of an aeroplane on Helvellyn. The top was hammered by the wind, which seemed to have increased its ferocity, so that we had difficulty standing still. The entire precipice, between Striding and Swirrell Edges, down almost to Red Tarn, was an unbroken concave wall of snow. Gazing down the snowfield, we regretted our lack of ice axes, crampons, and time.

We had little time, for the sun now hovered just above the tips of the western hills.

We moved back the way we had come, skirted around Nethermost Pike, then down the slopes of Willie Wife Moor, toward the middle reaches of Raise Beck. Then we stopped.

We were sheltered from the wind. Everything around us was quiet. Only the sounds of our breathing disturbed the silence. The sky to the west was clear of cloud, but the light haze of dusk softened the glare of the sun, so that we could stare straight into its cold fire. The lowest tip of the sun hung just above the highest reach of a distant peak. The gap between narrowed noticeably while we watched, becoming a thin thread, which was then cut as the orange ball settled, as though resting, on the summit of the peak. We could almost have believed that it would remain there permanently, but a few seconds later, a distortion ate into the perfection of its curve, and grew to a partial eclipse which swallowed the bottom quarter of the sun.

I have not witnessed the rising of the sun from Helvellyn, though friends have described its magic. This was the antithesis, yet was filled with the same magic. I glanced at Dave. The expression on his face told me that he was experiencing it also.

Half the sun was now gone. The upper and lower curves of what remained were etched sharply against sky and mountain. The sensation was strange. It was not so much a feeling, but rather a watching of time passing. And yet time seemed hardly to be moving, as though a single point were expanding outward, in all directions, toward something that was without bounds. Lower and lower the sun sank, shrinking to a final needle tip of light, which was then extinguished with a suddenness that broke the magic.

Dave and I looked at each other and smiled. We could not communicate what we had seen, so we did not try. We resumed our rapid descent, and reached the car in the gathering gloom of a now hazy twilight, three hours, almost to the minute, after having left it. We had missed our evening meal, but regarded that as a sacrifice of no significance.

 Back to England

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