Hitting Rock Bottom: the Darker Side of the English Countryside

Old Man of Coniston

Old Man of Coniston

So there we were in an isolated cottage in the Lake District in February 2006, my friend Neil and I, attempting to replicate the Withnail & I experience by spending a wintry weekend boozing and mucking around in a remote Cumbrian village.

For our final afternoon we misguidedly decided to push the boat out and climb the famous local mountain named ‘The Old Man of Coniston’, height: 2700ft, not far off of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike.
We’d heard you can see most of the Lake District from the peak plus Blackpool Tower and the Isle of Man on a clear day, and a clear day it was.

However we had to ignore advice to embark in the morning to reach the summit and get back down before sunset. It was our final day and pushing lunchtime, and we’d heard from one local that the ascent could be achieved at speed in just over two hours and a bit less for the descent, convincing us that if we pegged it we’d complete the round trip just before darkness fell.

Of course there were several key factors that doomed our plan to failure from the outset. First and foremost, the local’s short timescale advice applied only to those knowing the exact route to take, using a map or previous experience. We had neither, nor anything near the fitness levels required to scale a mountain almost 3000ft high and get down again in less than four hours. In keeping with our fictional aliases any earlier vestige of stamina had been drowned by a weekend of beers, our lung capacities diminished by packets of Bensons, and our callow minds not sharp enough to grasp the folly of the endeavour.

Old Man of Coniston outset of ascent

And if we weren’t handicapped enough already we got lost in woodland on the way there, putting us further behind ‘schedule’, so to make up the time we had to take some sort of shortcut upon arrival rather than the long sinuous trail snaking up the slope. This meant climbing vertically up a much steeper gradient from the tail of the S-shaped trail in a straight line up to the head. Halfway up this tangent we realised we’d made some serious miscalculations.

Immediately obvious was the fitness factor – clambering around and over rocks up a steep gradient is strength-sapping even for seasoned climbers. A further inadequacy we established after spotting other climbers en route was that we weren’t really dressed or equipped for the part. Instead of mountain boots and padded clothes we were in trainers and tracky bottoms. On my upper half I’d plumped for a light tracksuit top while Neil had settled for a t-shirt and suit jacket, and a Trilby hat.

These deficiencies were duly noted as the temperature dropped with altitude and the afternoon slipped away. But it was one of those dazzling bright winter days which spurred us onwards and upwards; though hands and faces were numb we were internally fired through exertion, and determined to reach the apex for the rewards of view and sense of achievement.

Old Man of Coniston summit

By the time we’d breached the halfway point we were both gasping wrecks and kept having to halt to gulp water and regain breath, pushed on only by the view of the ever-increasing heights we were attaining and the sight of the summit ahead. The big dilemma arrived at the final stretch, meeting some climbers turning back after deciding they couldn’t make it in time.

We realised then that we’d actually been climbing at such a rapid pace that we’d caught up with those who’d set out well before us, and peversely this persuaded us to continue rather than surrender – we’d reached this far this quickly, why couldn’t we go all the way and back down with the same speed? Convincing each other with talk of fortune favouring the brave we foolhardily took the gamble, and with the sensible elders shaking their heads and retreating we hastened onto the final ascent, the only two left at that height.

As with every race scenario the last lap’s always the hardest, the stretch for the finish-line. With limbs and lungs burning we rallied and reached the summit just as the sun was setting on the other side, the sky turning brilliant pink to herald our arrival. It was one of the most euphoric moments of my life, the view extending for what looked like several hundred miles, and the adjacent mist-veiled peaks making it look like not just another continent but another world, like Middle-Earth.

Old Man of Coniston summit views

The photos we hung around to snap don’t come near doing the scene justice, and no words can relate the sense of accomplishment. Once the exhilaration began to subside, however, we realised the temperature had dropped below zero and reality bit hard.

Our troubles commenced at the outset of the descent, just as the remaining twilight was beginning to fail. At first we thought we had it nailed by fast-timing it down the winding well-beaten trail instead of our original steeper tangent and taking a shortcut down a declivitous grassy verge cutting through one of the windier parts.

This stretch exposed the limitations of our footwear – ice patches had begun to form and our trainers couldn’t grip the slope anymore. My sturdy Pumas didn’t serve me too badly but lanky Neil was coming a cropper in his cheaper brandless pair, slipping and taking drops every few seconds. We could no longer spot small rocks and scree dotting the route, so bad crunches were now being inflicted and the danger of proper injury escalating.

Old Man of Coniston descent

With the constant waiting for fall-pain to recede and speed decelerating to a crawl it took thrice as long as planned to rejoin the trail, before the awful realisation that in the absence of visibility and orientation we’d joined the wrong path going the wrong way and now terminating at a dead end. At that moment everything went black, leaving us stuck halfway up the mountain: no light source or anyone around, and no mobile reception to ring for rescue. We were in serious trouble.

Panic kicked in. After screaming at each other for a few minutes we concluded we couldn’t sit and wait in those temperatures for the 14 hours until sunrise, our only option being to inch our way down using only powers of touch to feel ahead. It wasn’t just hazy or gloomy but pitch black, and it’s difficult enough climbing down in daylight, so risk of falls and injury threatened every step, slowing us to sub-crawl.

We started seeing things that weren’t there, nebulous black shapes and precipices that we were terrified of plunging into. We had to stop to slurp a rivulet of rainwater trickling through some slate as we were also badly dehydrated and long out of water. It was then we could suddenly hear a river ahead of us in the distance which, if we weren’t imagining it, we could follow to the bottom of the mountain or wherever it led.

With renewed urgency we began bumping down the slope painfully on our backsides until we arrived at a wide rushing river, strewn along its course with boulders. Weak half-moonlight reflecting off the water gave us a semblance of illumination. To get to it we first had to scale a barbed wooden fence, a spike snagging horribly on my calf on the way over. Then we had to cross to the other side because ours was too craggy and treacherous, which meant staggering through torrents of thigh-high ice-cold water, instantly tightening the lower limbs.

dark river

For about a kilometre we limped around and over slippery rocks, intermittently slipping and bashing or twisting the ankles, though the pain was unfeelable now through numbness from immersion. Finally the bank gave way to what seemed like a smooth plain but what was actually our biggest crisis to be. As we edged into its expanse we suddenly felt ourselves sinking – we were walking into a swamp.

In a panic we back-stepped and side-stepped until luckily we found a patch of firmer ground, where we paused to re-evaluate what was now our direst position. All we could see was partial moonlight and the peaks’ silhouette high above us, and empty blackness everywhere else in all directions.

Then, from nowhere, something miraculous saved us, from what would have been hypothermia and shutdown. A tiny moving light appeared on the mountainside, bobbing along like a floating lightbulb. We bellowed for help, and lo and behold the light halted, did an about-turn and started floating jerkily towards us. The source soon revealed itself – a man wearing a miner’s hat.

After his “What the fuck are you doing down there?” greeting, he shone his light ahead of us, exposing a solid area where we could scramble across and onto. In doing so, the final indignity occurred: the ground wasn’t as firm as it appeared and with almost comic timing we both plunged stomach-deep into icy swamp water, the worst shock to the system I’ve ever felt and a final straw that seemed to tip Neil over the edge. Alarmed by our filthy hysterical state our saviour pointed us in the right direction before scarpering. We didn’t hang around either, racing off down our new route on relatively flat terra firma.

Our remaining problem was that we’d become numb from the waist down, drenched in water now crystallizing in the freezing night air. Pins and needles were swarming, but autopilot propelled us along the final stretch at frantic speed, knowing we had to get back to our cottage to defrost as rapidly as possible. When at long last we reached our sanctuary, again elation immediately gave way to despair as there was no hot water and we had to wait for the central heating to fire up. I pulled on every item of clothing I’d brought and got into bed while Neil paced about distractedly.

Only then did it sink in what complete fuckwits we’d been, ignoring sound guidance and attempting to outfox nature. We passed out after bath time, then woke the next morning racked with deferred pain. Not only was every bone and sinew throbbing, the insides of my cheeks were badly ulcerated from hyper-shivering and gnawing.

Coniston cottage

Hurt and trauma were eclipsed though by relief of surviving the ordeal, saved in the end by a random bloke in a miner’s hat. It was the biggest watershed moment in my growing up, understanding that certain risks aren’t worth taking, certain advice should be heeded, and that the English outdoors can certainly kill you if you give it the chance. Don’t climb mountains without proper clothing, equipment, fitness or orientation.
Don’t learn the hard way.

Kris Griffiths recently returned to the Lake District to reattempt the climb and review some local hotels – read his report here

For a more luxury Lake District experience take a look at some of these 5-star hotels

Comments are closed.