Thomas P. Ogden

Day 11 - Dufton to Alston

Pennine Way Day 11, via Knock Old Man, Cross Fell and Garigill.

Rain was not what I wanted for the hike over the fells to Alston but I’d been fortunate with weather this far so I couldn’t protest much. I pointlessly tried to shake some of the water off my tent and got going.

The route skirted west of the steep, conical Dufton Pike and soon left the calm pastures of the Eden Valley for more forbidding Pennine heights. I knew I was to take on the biggest of the lot today, and that this was not the weather for it. Well, I’d slogged in rain before and could slog again.

The first ascent was Knock Old Man (A), at 794m. This is a significant climb from the valley floor. Just as on Shunner Fell, I lost all visibility as soon as I’d gained a bit of altitude and the wind picked up. Unable to use landmarks, I was perpetually checking my map and compass. The path was not obvious and, suddenly, it disappeared entirely. I had imagined some vague marks into a pattern, which vanished like a mirage. I searched around, and decided to track back on my bearing. I found a fork I’d missed in the fog, indicated by what in ordinary conditions would’ve been a prominent rock, with an arrow pointing right where I’d gone left.

Taking greater care now, I made my way to the Knock summit. The force of the wind encouraged me off again quickly. Reaching the bottom of the dip before the next climb, I stumbled across tarmac. This was very peculiar—why was there a metalled road so high up? The Guide informed me that it is, in fact, the highest road in Britain and that it heads up to the Radar Station on top of Great Dun Fell (B), at 848m. This conspicuously huge white ‘golf ball’, along with assorted masts and small buildings, watches air traffic over the North Atlantic, and would purportedly lead me to the summit: ‘No one will ever get lost trying to find Great Dun Fell in anything short of white out conditions.’ I suppose this was ‘white out’ then, because I couldn’t see a thing. The path was navigable, however, and I met the facility’s perimeter fence over which, right in front of me, was a huge white sphere I couldn’t make out the edges of. I shivered in the wind, and in the alienness and isolation of the place.

I carried on quickly to Little Dun Fell next door, only a jot littler at 842m. It is more of a ridge connecting its neighbour and Cross Fell. The side wind hit me even harder here, and I had to crouch into it. I spotted a small stone shelter and decided I’d run to it for a breather before the final push. As I slumped back on my rucksack, I turned to find a sheep’s skull on the rock inches from my face—as if it wasn’t unnerving enough up here. Just one more.

If I’d studied the topography of Cross Fell (C), I probably wouldn’t have got myself into trouble. The top was in fact a plateau, about 1km wide and nearly 2km long at a maximum height of 893m. As I was now a little tired, I didn’t scale it properly from the map. It had a brim of scree, which had to be scrambled up. At this point, several routes split but all seemed to lead to a tall cairn at the top. The wind up here—on the very top of the Pennines—was incredible. I could only open the map page in the miniscule shelter the cairn offered, and set off on the West Northwest bearing to find the summit marker.

There was no path at all. I kept checking for the obelisk behind me but it soon disappeared. It felt wrong—no markers and no foot erosion at all. I tracked back and found the tall cairn again. I reset my bearing and zigzagged a little to search for a trail. No sign. I stopped again to think, and realised I was getting very cold. I only wore a t-shirt and breathable jacket while walking so I would often get chilly if I stopped, but in this gale, soaked through, I was going to freeze if I didn’t keep moving.

Then, out of the fog, I saw a new cairn to the left. I headed straight to it. It was stupid of me not to check the bearing I was taking. It turned out to be just a pile of scree, and led nowhere. Now I was lost. It took most of my energy just to restrain from panic. ‘Keep calm and think.’ I decided I’d keep west, find the edge of the plateau and follow it north, where it had to meet the path to descend on the north face. Though not the easiest or most direct of routes, it would surely get me there. I strode with my head down into the howling wind and beating rain, checking each step to avoid turning an ankle on a rock or in a hole. There were still pockets of snow up there. I manically repeated, ‘Where’s the path? Where’s the path? There’s got to be a path.’ I had been up there a long time and was shivering, lost, slightly terrified and very alone.

Though poorly cited when I write, the Wikipedia article on Cross Fell gives some idea of it not being the most comfortable of places:

‘The fell is prone to dense hill fog and fierce winds. A shrieking noise induced by the Helm Wind is a characteristic of the locality. It can be an inhospitable place for much of the year. In ancient times it was known as “Fiends Fell” and believed to be the haunt of evil spirits.’

Finally, I found something. It was eroded only slightly, but had to be heading the right way. ‘Path. Path. Path…’ I murmured senselessly. Then it was gone again. But by now I was heading down the north side of the hill (forget the summit marker, I wanted off), and I knew I had to meet a miner’s track crossing perpendicular. I hit it. Just to the right I saw an isolated dwelling through the fog; it had to be Greg’s Hut, marked on the map as an emergency shelter for anybody stranded up there. Relief! Joy! I knew where I was, and I was safe.

I thought about sitting in the hut for a bit, but after sheltering behind it for long enough to get my breath back, I decided to march on. It would all be downhill from there. After half an hour or so I met three southbound Pennine Way walkers, the first people I’d seen all day. I was very glad of it. They were in good spirits, and one was even wearing sunglasses in the rain, which may have had something to do with him being Australian; I wasn’t sure. I told them to be careful, and described my fright up on the fells, but they didn’t seem to be taking me seriously. Perhaps they found their way over just fine.

I can’t remember much of the rest of the afternoon; Cross Fell kept going through my head. My trousers were frozen to my legs as the rain persisted. The long track descended all the way into Garrigill (D) before a quiet riverside walk to Alston.

Before I’d set off back in Edale I’d decided I would allow myself to make use of a hostel every few days to break from camping, though I hadn’t needed one in the first ten legs. The YHA at Alston was on the approach to the town, and I decided I could do with a proper rest. It was a great little place: the chap running it was friendly and helpful, I got a room to myself for £15, there were teabags and someone had even left a chocolate cake with a ‘Please Eat Me’ sign on it. I took a shower and hung my socks to dry in the laundry room. My friend Dave surprised me with a call from Calcutta to see how I was getting on and offer some encouragement.

It was wonderful to have a bed. I wouldn’t have to wear my hat and gloves and curl up in my sleeping bag. I wouldn’t have to turn over every time my sides went numb. I wouldn’t wake up at dawn shivering. I had a pillow.

Dufton to Alston
Profile Map.
Day Distance Ascent Duration ‘Where’s The Path?’s
11 31.4 km 1,069 m 8½ h 736