I’m going to describe this ride in a few key words
THRILLING …and many more INGS!
Without doubt the most exhilarating mountain bike epic I have ever tackled.
The day started off with a planned route to ride a loop around Skiddaw, described as medium to challenging ability wise. After our 30km ride from Keswick the previous day, doing the Borrowdale Bash, our Sunday ride was going to be the easier of the two. I sometimes find tackling 2 big rides on consecutive days can be an overwhelming challenge but I was persuaded by Nick that it was the best option and would be far more adventurous and exciting than a walk… he wasn’t wrong.
I think of the ride now in two parts.. the first part… a wonderful mountain bike route with challenging singletrack, fun wide doubletrack, mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and open moorland views.
I was totally satisfied by the challenge and loving everything and we stopped several times to take photos. The sun was beaming down and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky which I have never seen before in the Lake District (I’m sure it is rare, it certainly felt like a gift from the Universe). I kept saying “we are so lucky, we are so blessed” because the conditions really were perfect…apart from the ice, and there was a lot of ice.
Historically I have had my fair share of tumbles onto it when I first started riding and kept slamming down hard as I was foolishly riding clipped in. It was a recipe for creating cut knees and multiple bruises! Nowadays I ride with flat pedals and 5ten rubber soled MTB shoes, which are excellent for when you are riding but pretty dam slippery when you are trying to walk up an icy or muddy steep incline) as I discovered by face-planting twice on this particular route!
Anyway, back to the ride…there was a fair old bit of ice around which was fun to crunch and smash through icy puddles but riding over thin sheet ice was a bit scary. We climbed steeply through woodland to start, which was a real lung-opener and warmed me up pretty quickly. Views out through the trees were mesmerizing – a brilliant blue backdrop providing the perfect palette to emphasize the green fields in the valley bottom, the sharp fell-sides adorned with vibrant rusty brown ferns and finally the snow-capped hills and mountains dusted like festive bakes with a powdery white coating.
From the woodland we took the bridleway around the back of Skiddaw, dipping in and out of the suns glare, which cast incredible light and shade contrasts. The air was so fresh and still and quiet, with only the sound of rushing water when we neared a stream, or of a bird-of-prey searching overhead as it cast a watchful gaze over the ground below. I was in such a good place mentally, enjoying every moment and wanting to absorb every bit of this good feeling. For me it is the perfect soul food.
As we crossed past Skiddaw House, a remote but intriguing bunkhouse, the ground became frostier and harder and was white-over in places. we took a fun, fast descent all the way down to a tarmac farm track, now crossing through farm land until we reached the road and apparent civilization.
A group of Swaledale ewes in a sorting pen watched us inquisitively as we checked the Garmin to see where the next Bridleway would be from here. Much to our disappointment it seemed that there wasn’t to be any more Bridleway on our intended route; “is that really right?” I kept saying as I felt a bit cheated, like I wasn’t ready for our incredible blue-bird day in the Lake District to be over. It was only 1pm and we had been riding for 3 hours.
We spotted a nearly Bridleway on the map, with no obvious idea where it went. Being determined not to be beaten by the prospect of a dull pedal back to Keswick, we forged into the unknown, through a farm and into a field with wide open views ahead. It was the ideal place to rest, refuel and contemplate our next move. I found a perch on a fallen tree and we had some coffee and snacks while we discussed what would potentially be involved in taking the unknown route back. We knew it would be slower than the road and my concern was that we only had until 4pm before we would lose the light. The last thing I wanted was to be lost on the moors in the dark! We wrangled with our options and eventually seemed to persuade one another that we would take the risk and go for the adventure of navigating our own way home via Bridleway and Footpaths!
It was half one by this point and off we went, on foot pushing the bikes as we were unsure if we were on a Footpath or Bridleway. This is where I think the second part of the ride began, and the thrilling, terrifying experience unfolded. The hill immediately in front of us was a reasonably steady climb, but ahead of us (where we were heading) was a seriously huge, steep mountain side with a tiny path that wound its way vertically until it disappeared out of sight. To the right the mountains were even higher, clearly defined by the snow-line they were like giant snowy mounds.
They really did look vast, barren and devoid of anything – no trees, no bushes, no stones and no people. The thought that we were even contemplating crossing them seemed ridiculous, but apparently we were (at least that’s what Nick said!) I couldn’t see any other way to go, so it was a case of.. “well we’ve made a start now, let’s press on!” We crossed a river and began the very steep ascent, each pushing our own bike. Going was extremely tough from the start, it was hard to get your balance or footing and the path was very skinny so the option was to either walk up the path and lift the bike over rough tufts of heather, or to walk up the heather and try to guide the bike up the path. I think we both tried every possible scenario and combination. I was getting tired physically it was draining so I channeled my frustration with the lack of progress/slow going into determination. At one point I was grabbing handfuls of heather by the roots and using it as an anchor to give me enough stability and balance to drag the bike behind me. I slipped and fell on my front, with the bike in an awkward tangle on top of me. We pressed on…I was grumbling now and again that we were not getting any closer to the top as it didn’t feel like progress was being made. The path was getting steeper and the further we climbed the further it seemed to wind its way up and away. The next moment i had put my foot into what I thought was a foothold and turned out to be a deep hole filled with peaty bog liquid…. up to my shins! We kind of laughed about it but it was a sign that things were starting to get ridiculous.
We pushed on and pushed on. I had a growing sense of panic setting in, as over an hour had passed and we must have only covered around a kilometer (although gained some serious altitude). At this point, feeling exhaustion and anxiety taking over I had to rest and asked Nick if he could take my bike too. He pushed mine a short section, then carried it just ahead of me and laid it down. Unimpressed and equally tired he suggested I try carrying the bike on my shoulders. I checked to see if I had phone signal and at this point decided to send a message to my friend saying “potentially in a bit of a situation. If you haven’t heard from me by 7pmplease call the Lakes Mountain Rescue and tell them we are on Skiddaw”. I felt more relaxed that now at least someone knew where we were and what we were doing as up until this point no one would have known. The weather was perfectly clear so I knew the daylight would be around for as long as it possibly, but it was approaching 3pm and we still had to reach the snow line and reach Skiddaw summit before making our way down. I had some mental conversations with myself and I got into my positive mindset. It was looking like perfect conditions and timing for us to see the sunset from the summit. This is something that I could only have ever dreamed of doing and experiencing, something I don’t think I could have planned or predicted.
As we reached the snowline I got into my rhythm, I’d found a reasonably comfortable position, holding the bike on my shoulders and I began challenging myself to take 100 steps, then another 100, bargaining with my mind that in the next 100 I would be able to see the summit which id been strongly visualizing. I felt excited, emotional, like the adrenaline must have kicked in at this point as the panic had subsided and I was generally feeling privileged by the experience that was unfolding. Storming ahead of Nick I was able to keep pausing to look back and admire the view while shouting some words of encouragement. The view was vast…the white snow was turned golden where the late afternoon light was hitting it, and a contrasting pale blue grey in the shadows. Dapples of brown turned to deep dark expanses of heather and then a dull green haze on the low ground dotted with expanses of water.
It wasn’t long before the wind, which had been absent for most of the ride, decided to make its presence and with a considerable amount of force. As I rounded the top of the mountain I tried to get back on my bike to ride a section. The snow was a few inches deep and crunchy, so the conditions weren’t easy but the strong wind made it near impossible, blowing me constantly off course. We rode a bit, pushed a bit, rode a bit more and then walked the last section to the Trigg Point and stone that indicated we had reached the summit.
I had been fixated with the setting sun for some time… stopping at a couple of occasions to take photos, but the fierce wind (almost blowing me over) meant that we could only pause for a short time before we felt our core temperatures starting to drop down so we had to keep moving. Being at the highest point also made it clear we still had a long way down to go so we definitely couldn’t hang around. It was a few minutes past 4pm and the sun was in its last few beautiful moments. The yellow and golden spectrum of colours were truly incredible and the mountains had turned into dark shadows and silhouettes.
We crashed our way down through the snow, as fast as we could. There were surprisingly few footsteps around Skiddaw so it wasn’t obvious where we should head up or down.
The surface was rocky, covered with a few inches of hard snow, but deeper in places. With no path to follow we just pointed our bikes down the hill and let gravity and the wind direct us. It was amazingly exhilarating and the bike drifted and slid all over the place but I was happy to go with it! If I hit deep snow or if a blast of wind the bike would suddenly be buffeted in a different direction. I was really enjoying the moment and the recklessness of it felt very free.
Following our Garmin we headed for a gate way in the distance. it was fast and the wind was knocking the breath out of my lungs but it felt good to finally be moving at speed again. We followed a fence line heading towards a pretty pink sky, before finally dropping out of the snow and onto frost and ice!
Following some footsteps but deviating away from the suggested Garmin route we reached a steep, rocky but fast downhill which wound its way down to a place I finally recognized from the start of our ride that day (which seemed like such a long time ago!)
Hanging on for dear life but loving the descent, (despite my legs screaming at me with intense muscle ache) we kept going right down, retracing our steps from the morning ascent, through Latrigg woods, splattering through thawed puddles before finally coming to a screeching halt just a couple of minutes riding from Keswick. My mind was literally FILLED with all of the mental pictures from the things we had seen and my whole body felt exhausted, cold, but exhilarated like I have never really felt many times before…if ever! There was the BEST sense of achievement and relief that we had made it back, and it wasn’t in total darkness. The Universe had been kind to us and I am eternally grateful. Now it was time to stick the bikes away and get a serious amount of food inside us!
This ride would no doubt be far more achievable and less risky during the summer months when there is more daylight around. It was the race against the light which posed the greatest potential risk. No doubt about it, the ride was physically exhausting and demanding, lasting around 6 hours and with just short of 1500 meters of climbing (4800 feet). The experience has totally reignited my passion for adventure and mountain biking and I literally cannot wait for the next time we can go out and have another day similar to this. BRING IT ON!
Photography by Nick Johnson and me
Map of the route