Glimpses of Scotland

The end of my planned running/walking/cycling/swimming holiday was scuppered somewhat by my car breaking down 35 miles from the nearest garage the day after our Liathach epic (see below) which lead to me hitchhiking from the garage across a range of Munros (with a lovely local lady who saved me from a night sleeping on the roadside by getting me back to Torridon) and then a bus ride back to the garage the following day.

That being said we got to see a little of beautiful Wester Ross and the recently developed North Coast 500 road despite the anxiety!

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The Loch Maree nature reserve.

Views around the hostel.

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View over Loch Torridon from the Torridon community shop and cafe.

Onward to Inverness

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The Battle of Culloden field

Down to Crianlarich on the way home.

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Lots of wildlife at the Crianlarich Youth Hostel. We even met this little guy – a shrew out and about for lunch. 
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Looking out to Ben More with another rainbow.

On the plus side I found out on Friday I passed my exam! Back into the revision now for the viva part of the exam and a few more boring weekends indoors. Fingers crossed I’ll have that out the way by the new year and can get back to some racing and a more relaxing holiday!

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Going Grey; Liathach turns mean.

Liathach – “The Grey One”, an 8km ridge on the north side of Glen Torridon rising to a peak of 1055m (3461ft) vertically from sea-level, six 900+m peaks joined by a grade 2 scrambling route known as the Fasarinen Pinnacles. A combination of Quartzite and Torridon sandstone, Liathach’s red flanks are topped by a grey shale that gives it it’s gaelic name.

I last visited Torridon, a pretty village in Scottish Highlands that gives its name to the surrounding valley and hills, in 2013 just after I had graduated from medical school. We tackled the Ben Alligin ridge last time around and got a taste of the views to the north over Wester Ross but we were quickly covered in cloud and didn’t get to see much after that.

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Ben Alligin 2013

Torridon felt quiet different this time around. Heavy marketing of NW Scotland has brought in far more tourists both in motorhomes and in hire cars traversing the narrow roads. Last time we were one of only a few groups in the hostel – this time it has been fully booked nearly every night. The mountains themselves remain quiet – most people are just touring.

Liathach’s ridge had been on my to-do list since the last time I was in Torridon. It is a serious mountain but generally described as one of the best summer traverses in the country. Following a recommended guide book route, our plan was to walk out to the far end of Glen Torridon and take the pass up between Liathach and Ben Eighe taking a direct ascent of the first peak, Stùc a Choire Dhoibh Bhig, rather than doubling back upon ourselves as most walkers do. We would then traverse the full length of the ridge descending the usual path just a kilometre along the valley from the youth hostel.

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A scale topographical model of Liathach in Torridon Youth Hostel

I’d read a few route reports on Walk Highland (available on t’internet) and decided that despite the fact most walkers had found it unnecessary we were going to take a rope, harnesses and helmets along with a basic climbing rack in case of disasters.  Many of the reports noted the scrambly ascent on the usual ascent path with some helpful photographs it had given me a good idea of the route and the major landmarks. We carefully checked the MWIS forecast and settled on the Tuesday of our stay as being the best option for climbing with a “90% chance of cloud-free Munros”, “low windspeeds by the afternoon” and “rain clearing as winds fall”.

10:00: We set off at around on Tuesday having left our contact details and route with the local mountain rescue post (with an estimated arrival time of 6pm) and set off up off the valley. The late start was to avoid the worst of the wind on the hills and local advice was a slow traverse of the mountain should take around 6 1/2hrs, although we were warned slightly ominously “Everyone around here knows someone who has died on that mountain”. The weather seemed to be rapidly getting better as we left our wet weather option (a circular walk around the mountain) after 9km along the valley bottom, we climbed steeply and steadily up to Stùc a Choire Dhoibh Bhig.

12.40: Around 30m from the first summit we hit a wall of rock around 3-4m climb divided into a couple of large steps. The guidebook had prepared me for this this but not for quite how slippery the rock was after a rain shower in the morning. After a considered but slightly anxious scramble we made it up onto the ridge and were treated to some stunning views.

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The first 3km or so over the first two peaks was spectacular with occasional short lived drifts of damp cloud.

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The ridge “path” was obvious but not easy going requiring a fair bit of scrambling and high steps and as a result after lunch I moved my map from its usual place (tucked over my waist band) and secured it under the hood of my rucksack. As you can see from the photo below (unbeknownst to me) it did not stay there very long.

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The beautiful Glen Torridon and an omen of the times to come.

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13.30: When we started ascending to the third peak Richard asked the name of the particular Munro we were ascending. Taking off my pack I realised somewhere in the last 30-45 minutes my map had fallen out. Having descended through an labyrinthine scree field from Dubh Mor where the path divided into several smaller “pathlets” and walked along a connecting ridge I thought the chances of us finding by retracing my steps it were small – it certainly wasn’t visible locally and that it had quite probably already blown itself off the mountain.

At this stage we had a decision to make. The ridge was clear of cloud and we were probably only 4km from the hostel. Moving briskly and including the decent I estimated this would take us just over a couple of hours to get down to the road. None of the walk reports, nor the guidebook had mentioned any difficulty in the decent path. Turning back would have extended an already 16km walk and involved down-climbing either the ridge scramble we’d come up ( which I was not keen on as the easy bit of it would have been much less obvious from the top down) or trying to find the usual ascent path we didn’t see earlier as we traversed the ridge. We decided to keep going

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And there was no longer a map.

Within 20 minutes a heavy rainshower had started and as we reached the summit of Spidean Choire Leith the visibility rapidly dropped to around 5 meters. We decended along a path from the summit only to find it lead to a sheer cliff – on a good day it must have been a nice viewpoint. I got Richard to take the compass out his pack with the view to taking a westward bearing from the summit to discover (to my horror) that a new bubble was now floating around the arrow, making it completely useless. Heading back up to towards summit I saw what I’d been hoping to see, the cloud cleared a little and showed first of the Pinnacles with both the direct and escape paths winding around them which we contoured around to. Luckily we only lost 10-15 minutes on the detour and continued on.

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The Pinnacles “easy path”

The heavy rain shower had made an attempt over the Pinnacle’s scramble an absolute no-no plus at this stage we both just wanted to get off the hill.

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15.30: After a bracing kilometre or so we found ourselves on a rather wider ridge and began to ascend slowly but steadily to the last peak of the climb. Although under a kilometre it felt like a long way up to the second Munro of the day. Luckily the path was obvious and took us right to the summit cain before swinging back south.

16.15: We started the descent from Mullach an Rathan along a clear path which became less defined as we descended lower. We found one cairn around 200m from the summit, then a second cairn around 50m further down before the path became indistinct. I followed what I thought was the most likely path off the right side (to the west) of a north-south ridge, which was more gently sloping than the eastern side which from what I could see was mainly crags, sadly a map would have told me the real descent path was just below to the east.

16.45 The gentle slope became increasingly steep, which I knew we should expect for a short time. Then 10m crags rose up to left and to right and we were gradually funnelled into a dry river-gully. Underfoot was a mixture of mud, wet scree, loose boulders the size of footballs and boulders the size of small fridges, some fixed, others less so. After we had descended around 50m further vertical height from the ridge it was quite clear from what was underfoot that we were not on the usual descent route but I thought we might be running parallel to it. We discussed climbing back onto the ridge but concluded that we might not find a safer route down but just ended up back where were were but in the dark. Every 10-15m we descended I traversed out out horizontally to the left and right trying to find the true path which gave Richard time to catch up with me, but with no luck, just more impassible crags. A slip now would probably result in a broken ankle at best. Ever step triggered small-rockfalls bouncing down the gully at which point we became very thankful for our helmets. We resorted to a combination of shuffling on our backsides and down-climbing facing the hill, digging fingers into the occasional heather tussock. Every now and then there was a big step in the gully which could only be assessed when you were directly on-top of it. Footholds and handholds needed to be tested twice. I considered briefly whether we should be trying to abseil as a faster option but I could find virtually nothing that was fixed enough to the ground to offer a secure placement for a sling or nuts so I decided to save the rack in-case we came across something entirely impassible. We slowed to a crab-like crawl.

18.30. We were both exhausted and very cold and it felt like I’d been in the gully for an eternity. Lowering myself down most of the hill left me soaked in muddy water from the waist down. I put on an extra layer which helped my mood and we ate the last of the chocolate. At this point we were now 30mins past our estimated arrival time back at the hostel. Towards the end of the gully and I took one more excursion outside of it to the right and was finally greeted by a large expanse of heather sloping steeply down towards a stream with less scree and crags. Hurrah! We were still about 450m above sea level (and the hostel) but the worst was over.

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Finally out of the Gully (to the centre right of the image) at around 350m and on our way down the heather. This doesn’t really give the impression of the size/steepness/twilight of it all.

Three days earlier I had run down a similar bit of greenery in about 15 minutes but we were both shattered and walking boots don’t grip like fell shoes, so like Shackleton before me I sat on my backslide and we slid our way most of the way back to the hostel. Sadly we weren’t moving quite as quickly as he did on a sled and ended up walking the last kilometre or so in the complete darkness (luckily within sight of the road by the time we needed a head-torch). At this stage we were two hours late and mountain rescue gave us a quick ring to make sure we were ok (cue embarrassment on my part) but as we were only half an hour from the hostel with a road in sight I at least saved them a trip out in the rain! To top it all off we ended up fighting our way through a thicket, then a knee deep stream, then over a deer fence to get to the road but by that stage we really didn’t care! We finally got back to the hostel 11 hrs after we left.

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Benighted but heading towards the reassuring lights of the Youth Hostel

The irony of this happening just weeks after asking on this blog “when does risk-taking become uncontrolled?” is not lost to me. Although turning back when the map was lost may have been a better option in hindsight, we would still have been looking for a unknown descent route in thick cloud. So in future I will A) Not loose the map and B) Take some photos on my phone of the route when I’m in an area with limited mobile phone reception (as no internet reception meant we couldn’t access any mapping features to help with the navigation). I might also be investing in the OS mapping app!

Although it is probably least fun I’ve ever had on a mountain and at times the most worried I’d been I am glad of two things. Firstly that we had the skills and knowledge to self-rescue without injury or outside interference and secondly that our only casualty of the day was Richard’s walking trousers which did very much look like he’d just slid in them 800m down the side of a mountain!

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OMM Lite: Take Two!

I know, I’ve gone AWOL again!

I’ve spent the last few months revising for my RCOA Primary MCQ. A lot of letters that don’t mean a lot to everyone else but help me a little on my way to finishing my anaesthetic training. What it has meant is a lot of time sat on my backside and not very much time enjoying myself. Thats not to say that I’ve done nothing in the past few months of an outdoorsy nature. I’ve done my first outdoor lead climb out on Stanage Edge (most of which was the rain, not to be recommended) and I’ve been doing some indoor lead (scaring myself slightly witless in the process).

I booked a good chunk of time off after the written paper last week, just to give myself a bit of rest to come back nice and refreshed for the viva and clinical paper. The weekend following we headed off to the OMM Lite Yorkshire Dales, with quite a different mindset this time around – I’ve done virtually no running in the last two months so its very much planned for a sociable weekend in the Yorkshire Dales rather than any racing. For those of you who didn’t read about it last year, the OMM Lite is a mountain marathon series run by Original Mountain Marathon where teams have a set time limit split over two days to visit checkpoints – each of which are given a points value on how difficult they are to get to (usually related to distance and height-gain).

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The event area felt more like a classic mountain marathon this year – the fells felt a little less tamed than those in North Yorkshire last September, although due to the shape of the valley and a small number of access restrictions I felt the route choice was a little less varied for the short course this time around.

The organisers were very friendly and made everyone feel welcome which added to the sociability of the event. Competitors said hello as they went by – definitely a friendly mountain marathon!

The event centre field was right in the middle of the village and although it suffered a bit with the rain – most cars needed a push out – it had the nice heated marquee and tasty bacon sandwiches in the morning that we enjoyed a lot last time around. I even treated myself to a new pack – an OMM Adventure 20L. I got a big discount on it as OMM are discontinuing that particular line. It was super-comfortable for the race but I’ll have to do some inventive packing if I’m going to use it for an overnight mountain marathon I think!

Five hours racing on day one and four hours on day two (we made it back just 55 seconds within the time limit) was more than enough to feel like we’d earned our lunch. Here’s to next year – perhaps Iceland next time?

Muddy tent and very muddy shoes packed away in the car we spent the rest of this week in NW Scotland. Stay tuned for more blog posts coming soon.

When discretion is the better part of valour.

When it comes to sports, risk taking can be exciting and is the basis of adventure – but when does that risk go from being controlled and fun, to uncontrolled and potentially fatal? Sometimes those judgements are easy to make, getting behind the wheel of a sports car in the snow when you’ve never had a driving lesson is a dangerous proposition, but the same car and weather wouldn’t cause a rally driver a second thought. But as the cases of triple Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna and (more recently,) multi-award winning mountaineer Ueli Steck tragically illustrated even world leaders in a field can fall victim to risks they were unable to gauge perfectly.

St Sunday Crag is a east-west ridge rising to over 840m (2700ft) in the eastern Lake District, it is part of the wider Fairfield/Helvellyn massif and forms the southern border of the Grisdale valley. Topped by an approximately 300m high rocky outcrop that offers good scrambling and climbing, in the right conditions it is (apparently) a good day out in both summer and winter.

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A grim looking St Sunday Crag

Now, you’re wondering, what does all that have to do with the price of tea in China?

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I’m currently in the process of preparing for my medical post-graduate exams in Anaesthesia which is involving a good amount of time reading books a not much time enjoying the outdoors, so I was desperate to get away this weekend into the mountains and have a couple of days days walking and climbing. At this point I’ve done most of the major peaks in the Lake District (St Sunday included) at least once so the idea of building on my indoor climbing which is gradually improving by getting into advanced scrambling was something that I’ve been keen to do a while. St Sundays’ grade III rated Pinnacle Ridge scramble has a short Diff rated climb at the end and offers fantastic views of north-east Lakeland and I had it on my tick-list for this weekend.

Sadly, the weather forecast had other plans. Torrential showers, 40mph winds – up to gale force on the peaks and low cloud coupled together to make an exposed and now slippery scramble seem like a rather bold undertaking. Despite this I packed up the rucksacks with a lot of heavy gear and set off enthusiastically up the Grisedale valley, waterproofs on, traipsing through the drizzle wishing more than hoping that the sun would come out and dry everything out in some June warmth. My keenness to do something exciting with my weekend had got the better of me.

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Footpaths turning to streams

After less than 15 minutes in the dank weather we joined the farm-track that would take us to the far end of the valley and we were passed by a Patterdale Mountain Rescue 4×4 which was shortly followed by two further rescue vehicles. This coupled with increasingly strong winds meant ideas about “somewhat bold” high level scrambles were rapidly abandoned as it became clear that as we’d expected (although I’d not really wanted to admit to myself) conditions were just too risky to be venturing vertically up the valley side.

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Windswept Richard

We headed up the southern track towards the climbing hut at the far end of the valley as Patterdale MRT were in the process of very efficiently packaging up a casualty for a carry out. I later discovered via Patterdales MRT’s Facebook page the poor lady had suffered a fractured ankle walking along the coast-to-coast footpath but had been transported to hospital safely. In this particular case the casualty was well prepared with a survival bag and warm clothing. We turned back at the climbing hut and headed back down the northern aspect of the valley. Not quite what I’d hoped but the 8 mile loop did offer some spectacular views. Super keen to return in July – hopefully for some scrambling this time!

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Not the exciting day out I’d expected to be blogging about but I lived to climb another day. It was a timely reminder for me that mountaincraft is not just about testing your physical limits but developing your understanding of nature and respect for the great outdoors.

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Trinidad and Tobago

For some reason I’ve found this particular blog entry difficult to write. Perhaps its because it was quite a different holiday from my usual “Rock that is higher” fodder, or perhaps it has been a reluctance to accept that I will never quite be able to convey as I would like the sights, tastes, smells and sounds of the Lesser Antillies.

After my grandmother died last year my mum and aunts decided it was time to revisit their home country of Trinidad and my sister booked a ticket to join in the fun. Finding that I could get leave at the same time, I booked flights for Richard and myself and we set off on Holy Thursday to the other side of the world.

If you know me or have followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that generally I pack in as much as I possibly can into my limited time off and usually try and climb a mountain or two whilst I’m at it, so the idea of a couple of weeks on the beach was in some ways a bit daunting. After an exhausting fight involving a delay on the tarmac, a stop over in Antigua and a domestic transfer from Tobago to Trinidad we finally arrived at Piarco International Airport.

From here I’m mainly going to let my pictures do the talking, but I’ve included a bit of context where I feel its needed. For any of the “Mosaic” pictures you can click on the image for an enlargement.

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Port-of-Spain from Diego Martin

The Asa Wright Nature Centre in the north of Trinidad has been recognised as a bird watching haven since the 1960s. With over 400 species of birds, it is amongst the most biodiverse parts of the Caribbean. The center was previously two large coco estates incorporating large stretches of rainforest, which are now re-naturalised. We spent a day here, guided through the rainforest and enjoying watching birds from the veranda.

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Copper-rumped Hummingbird
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White Chested Emerald Hummingbird
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Bananaquits and Honeycreepers at one of the nectar feeders

The Caroni Swamp is an area of mangrove on the west coast of Trinidad, facing Venezuela. We took a guided boat tour of these wetlands of whilst we were visiting the centre and south of the island.

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Flamingos in flight, a new visitor to the Caroni Swamp.
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Trinidad’s national bird, the Scarlet Ibis.
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Trinidad’s North Coast
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Maracas Beach, Easter Monday.

Transfer to Tobago

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Arrival in Tobago
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Store Bay beach, high surf

Pigeon Point for the classic Caribbean beach and blue waters.

A speedboat tour of the North coast of Tobago included a visit to the nylon pool offshore sandbar with its warm shallow waters.

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Frankie’s Boat Tour

We also took a road tour of Tobago with an excellent local guide, Kenny; visiting more of the historical and cultural sites including a fantastic meal at the gorgeously located Gemma’s Kitchen.

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A Trinidad Motmot eating a Doctor Snake
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Argyll falls, SE Tobago

Seeing a pod of dolphins pass meters in front of the hotel just as the sun was setting was one of the highlights of the holiday. Sadly I didn’t have a telephoto lens to do them justice, but it was truly magical.

Heading home.

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The last view of Tobago
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Stunning sunset from the plane.

I hope you enjoyed these pictures folks. More updates over the next few months if exams don’t get the better of me!

Winter in the Langdales

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View from the Pod

As a special treat to myself, I took a days annual leave on my birthday and headed off to the lakes with Richard in tow this weekend for a few days walking and enjoying the scenery. The Langdale valley was spectacular as usual so I’m mainly going to let the pictures do the talking for me!

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The Band, dawn Sunday
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Cumbrian Way
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Neolithic Rock Art, Langdale Head
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Harrison Stickle from the lower slopes of Lingmoor
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Sunset over Crinkle Crags and Bow Fell

Walking up the Langdale Pikes, Monday

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All in all another much needed and beautiful weekend away in the Lakes. Its exciting to think its now only 6 weeks until I head off to Trinidad for a two week holiday – my next post will be rather more summery I think!

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Good riddance 2016!

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Was that really taken yesterday? I can’t quite believe that it was taken right in the middle of winter on one of the shortest days of the year. 2016 was dark and gloomy for a lot of people, myself included, so after working most of the festive season I’m glad to have started 2017 full of sunshine – literally and metaphorically!

I’d spotted earlier that the forecast for this week of January suggested 48hrs of good weather and tempted by a youth hostels association 25% discount booked a very last minute overnight stay in the Lake District National Park.  Richard and I set off at the crack of dawn from Sheffield for an afternoons walking in the northern fells hoping the forecast would hold and boy were we lucky!

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Picking Skiddaw, one of the lakeland 3000 footers as what looked like a good sized hill for a half days walk we set off at midday with some trepidation as to whether we would need to turn back before we lost daylight but moving reasonably gently by our standards made it to the summit and back again in about 3 1/2 hrs on a nice loop walk with plenty of light to spare.

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Whilst Skiddaw itself is not the most interesting mountain the lakes, the views were spectacular and we got to see ravens feeding at the peak.

Up on the summit we briefly passed above the snow-line. Despite the minus temperatures it wasn’t windy so it was actually surprisingly pleasant, and we hung around so I could take a few snaps of Blencathra and the views over to Galloway.


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We got back to the car just as the sun was setting so decided to head down the valley to the stone circle at Castlerigg.

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After a spectacular sunset we drove south to Grasmere (home of Wordsworth for you english scholars out there) where were we’d managed to get YHA accommodation at a bargain £10 per person per night. We then headed down to Tweedies, a lovely restaurant and bar in the village for our evening meal. It was a victim of its own success and was completely packed but we had a fantastic meal there yet again.

The next morning we decided to squeeze in another walk so feeling a little weary of legs took a gentle stroll around Grasmere Lake and watched what seemed about half the British air force fly up the valley in a variety of planes – they were out enjoying the good weather too it would seem!

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Although exams are on the horizon and work has started for them for the sake of my happiness and my health I’m treating myself to more weekends away outdoors this year – how’s that for a new years resolution?