Monday, 28 November 2022

A wet, windy wander

My friend Chris suggests a couple of night's backpacking, away from our home in the Peak District and leaves it me to choose. After some thought I suggest a couple of nights in far eastern Cumbria, setting out from the little town of Sedbergh.

It's late November and a couple of hours up the motorway sees us early-lunching in a Sedbergh cafe. Fortified, we set off uphill, Baugh Fell in our sights. 

We're's a dry day and we're soon plodding up the open moor towards the steep incline to Garsdale Pike. We stop for a break and Chris makes a brew.

It's almost four by the time we arrive on the plateau near Tarn Hill Rigg. There are many tarns up here but it's a wild, desolate place.  


We've been following a track so far, but here we turn off piste to find a camp. By the time we've settled on a spot we need headtorches to pitch. The ground is very wet and it's tricky to get to a nearby tarn for water. Luckily, our MSR Guardian purifier only needs a shallow supply to function.

What with one thing and another, it's only the second time I've used our Hilleberg Nallo 2, but it's straightforward to erect, being a classic tunnel design. With water filtered I'm settled, in dry clothes, preparing food and drink

It's a night noisy with wind. I'm estimating around 30s with gusts of 40mph.
I have a settled night though, relishing the fact it's been a while since I've been in a tent. This has been a busy year, for all sorts of reasons.

We've around seven miles to cover the next day, so agree on a lazy departure at 10am. Having reached the edge of the plateau of Baugh Fell we set out across pathless moor down a broad spur to Rawthey Gill Foot. 

We've had only the vaguest of phone signals, but Chrissie manages to send me a screenshot of the Met Office weather forecast for Wild Boar Fell, our final destination for the day. It shows constant heavy rain for the whole day and windspeeds in the 40s with gusts as high as 62mph later that day. But, at the moment, it's dry and not especially windy. So, disregarding a safe exit along Wainwright's Pennine Journey route in the valley, we agree to continue and climb the easy slopes up to Holmes Moss Hill, where we break for lunch.

Chris likes brewing coffee for lunch. I'm far too lazy and since I'm slower than him, I leave him to it and begin the steady slog up to Swarth Fell. I find it bloody hard. Takes me almost 45 minutes until we meet up again to rest in the shelter of a wall on the summit. It's getting a little windier now, but it's on our backs as we walk.

It's only a couple of miles now, to the summit of Wild Boar Fell. We eventually find the summit shelter and, with the briefest of pauses, Chris spots a worn trod heading vaguely in the direction of Sand Tarn, our planned camp spot. The wind still doesn't feel so bad. At the edge of the plateau we catch sight of Sand Tarn and find we can easily pick our way down the slope towards it.

Having got down there, we set about finding the best place to pitch. Only now do I begin to think it feels quite windy. I find a place, away from the worst exposure beside the tarn. I filter water first then begin to erect the tent. Positioning the tail into the wind I fix the two rear pegging points, using the MSR groundhogs we've used with all our tents for many years now. Setting the two poles, I'm just about to insert the first into the sleeve when the tent rears up into the wind. One of the two pegging points has come loose. I can't see the peg so quickly re-fix it with another. The rest of the erection is straightforward but I can't see the missing peg anywhere. Not sure if it flew out of the ground or the metal ring on the tent just came off it, not being under any tension, leaving it in the ground.

I settle into the routine of organising my kit inside the tent. Once sorted, I make a brew and devour two Eccles cakes. It's now around 4:30 and darkness has fallen. Not until I've eaten an excellent Adventure Foods goulash, followed by semolina and jam, do I begin to notice that the wind seems to be steadily increasing, so before settling down properly for the evening I go out and re-tension all the guy lines. It's only now starting to rain, despite this morning's forecast.

As I watch a Louis Theroux documentary (with Bear Grylls) I realise I can't hear it, with the volume on maximum. So I dig out my earphones. I enjoy the video and only after it's finished do I really begin to focus on how loud the noise in the tent is, and just how much it's buffeting in the wind.

As the evening progresses the wind continues to increase. By 9pm the noise and movement of the tent has become quite alarming. With a good phone signal, I check the latest forecast, to find there are gusts of up to 70mph forecast on Wild Boar Fell, just 50m above us, by 10pm, with steady speeds around 47-48mph. Slightly worrying. Lying on my back, watching the fabric of the inner tent billow wildly is quite unsettling, and I begin to ponder what the outcome of this onslaught might be. I try to sleep but the noise is ridiculous. Earplugs make little difference.

So, the relentless saga of sitting out a serious wind in a tiny tent continues. I start to wonder if I have any options. Without my wind meter I can only make a sensible estimate of the actual windspeed. I think it's at least 50mph and I have enough experience over many years in mountain rescue to know that walking is difficult, if not impossible, in such winds, especially with a backpacking load. So, I reckon packing up and moving to lower ground is not really an option. I have to trust in the tent, which is one of the best lightweight ones available. But I am worried. As a compromise I decide to pack as much of my kit as possible into my rucsac, so, if the worst happens, at least I won't lose lots of kit to the wind. I contemplate fixing a broken pole. I've done this before, but not in these conditions. and wonder if it would be possible. 

The noise makes sleep impossible. I see 11pm and get the latest forecast. The wind is due to ease by about 3am. I begin to think that the tent has withstood these conditions now for at least four hours and hope it can continue to hold for four more. At some point I realise the zip on the inner door is not fully closed. For some reason, I peer through it to see the front door on the fly fully open. There's no damage and I zip it closed, this time remembering there is a small toggle at the base of the zip to lock it closed.

The next thing I remember is waking at 2:45. The wind has eased. The danger has passed. I drift back to sleep to be awoken by my alarm at 6:30.

I enjoy a relaxed breakfast and check Chris is ok. I find that one of the two front guys has come loose, the peg lying on the ground nearby. Otherwise the tent is fine. Despite searching, I never find the peg lost last night.

Our walk back to Sedbergh, mostly along the valley, is uneventful, save for a couple of amusing fords...

...but I'm seriously tired by the time we reach Chris's car. We enjoy a late lunch in the cafe again and drive back home to Derbyshire.

Chrissie and I once spent a night in a Terra Nova Voyager at 12000ft, below the summit of Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevada, California. We sat through a terrific lightning storm, striking the jagged peaks all around. I've always considered that to be the worst night I've ever spent in a tent. But now, I think it was this night at Sand Tarn.

Could we have done anything different? Yes. I think we could and should have gone down to lower more sheltered ground to pitch. Maybe we'd have been better escaping down the Pennine Journey route at lunchtime, given the forecast.

In any event I've no wish to repeat such an experience. I reckon, henceforth, I won't choose to camp with a forecast of more than 30mph, gusting maybe in the 40s.

Of course, this is easy to say and not quite so easy to do on a long journey. We had one very windy night on our Kungsleden trek in 2019, when we double pegged the rear of our Terra Nova Polarite 3 tunnel tent.

We learn though by experience and I now have a better knowledge of the strength of our Hilleberg Nallo.

Smile, and have fun!