This weekend I hiked in the Lake District.
In other words, I murdered my muscles, froze my body, endangered my life a few times, tested my limits, and gained an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
I will recap this adventure in narrative form, so read on for the story of 20 study abroad students and two tour guides in the mountains of northern England (more specifically, we were in Borrowdale of the Cumbria region).
The beginning of the hike consisted of optimistic conversation with the tour guides about the history of the area, accompanied by sweeping views of massive hills where sheep meandered lazily and stone walls trailed around the landscape. The domineering peaks of the snow-capped mountains lingered in the distance, but their haunting presence could not ruin our excitement.
For the first hour, the gradual incline included tumbling waterfalls, rushing streams, picturesque bridges, and challenging but manageable rocky trails. I had no concept of time or distance since I was so absorbed in the scenery, but the hike doubled in difficulty sometime before we reached the first peak (at the time, no one knew we would be hiking more than one mountain). The upward trail of stepping stones soon became a steep jumble of jagged rocks, and conversation soon faded as people started to realize that the easy part was over.
Though my legs started to burn at this point, our climb was situated along the side of a gorgeous river dotted with waterfalls, so my spirits were still high. As we ascended the height of the river, the temperature dropped significantly, and patches of snow made the path slippery. These small patches of snow continued to increase in size and frequency until the ground was completely smothered in white, and the physical strain of trekking uphill became insignificant compared to the imminent possibility of slipping down the mountain.
After a few hours, we reached the top of the first peak and settled down for lunch in the snow. Despite the lack of visibility, the inevitable wetness of everyone’s clothes, and the difficulty of eating with numb hands, everyone was thrilled to have a break. The following photo shows the spot where we ate lunch, and this is the only photo I took for the next few hours due to said lack of visibility and numb hands.
Feeling re-energized and proud of ourselves for our progress, we slithered around the mountain’s peak and descended down the other side. Just as hard as ascending, going down required slow, careful, sturdy steps through the thick snow, and I don’t think a single person made it without slipping a few times. Every time someone stumbled, my heart dropped because cascading off the mountain and into the foggy abyss seemed like a likely possibility. But we all survived, and our spirits lifted as we finally reached terrain without any snow.
As our descent continued, grassy hills and fresh streams once again entered our view as the thick fog began to subside. Just as everyone’s adrenaline was cooling off, the guide turned a corner, crossed a river, and embarked on another incline.
The last upward climb then seemed like a brisk stroll in comparison, because this stretch of the hike was basically vertical. I’ve never been so out of breath in my life because again, on top of the aggressively steep hill destroying my leg muscles, the layers of snow, slush, and ice that clung to the jagged rocks threatened my stability.
As we battled our way up the treacherous hill, icy rain pelted our faces and a ferocious wind slammed against our weathered bodies. I was intensely focused on my steps, though occasionally I glanced upwards hoping to see an end in sight. But every time I looked ahead, all I saw was more vertical slope slathered in rocks and snow that soon became swallowed by fog.
Though the group stuck together for most of the journey, people slowly began to disperse as this steep stretch tested people’s abilities. There was a period of time when I couldn’t see or hear anyone else around me, and this was actually the coolest moment of the hike. The only sounds were my own frantic breath and my feet crunching through the icy rocks. I felt isolated, yet oddly relaxed.
At one point I glanced to my right and was stunned by the surreal emptiness of the sight. Next to the path, the smooth untouched blanket of snow stretched on for a few meters, before the mountain’s edge dropped off and succumbed to the thick, endless void of the fog. All I saw was white, and all I felt was my own insignificance in comparison to the raw power of this earth. It was a beautiful and terrifying moment.
As exhausted and soggy as everyone felt when we finally reached the summit, the sheer relief at the thought of downhill walking made everyone ecstatic. This relief soon faded when I realized that walking down was just as dangerous and strenuous as walking up. Again, the slippery ground complicated the descent, and this time we were basically scaling the mountain sideways with no trails.
While diagonally trudging across the mountain, the terrain changed from snow, to pebbles, to moss, to thick grass, to mud, to boulders, to odd combinations of everything. Since the fog still obscured our vision, we had absolutely no idea what lay a few meters ahead of us. But shuffling down an extremely steep mountain on unstable surfaces with no trail in sight was nerve-wracking and physically demanding.
When we finally reached patches of relatively flat land, we were once again able to look around without fear of slipping to our deaths. At one point, the sight of a lake emerged out of the surrounding clouds. It sat completely still and utterly silent, with its dark, glassy surface resting peacefully as thick layers of mist rolled eerily over the top.
By the last hour of the journey, we had surpassed the lingering blanket of fog and could finally see civilization. Colors re-entered our line of vision, as rolling green pastures stretched across the valley below.
But the hike was not over yet, as we still had to descend the last stretch of mountain, which we did alongside a powerful waterfall. To put this into perspective, let me remind everyone that waterfalls are usually close to vertical. So this last leg of the hike consisted of climbing down a near vertical slope on top of rocks that were soaked and slippery from the waterfall. Though we were moving downwards, and this was definitely not the most physically challenging part, I feared for my safety the most at this time.
But nonetheless, we all made it to solid ground. Our quivering legs and soggy feet were nothing compared to the bliss of having completed that tremendous journey. Walking back along the road towards our lodging, everyone’s optimism was just as high as the beginning, only this time it was tinged with immense relief and little bit of hysteria.
At the end of the day, we had hiked for 7 hours, reaching a high point of about 3,000 feet and covering around 14 miles. The mountain definitely pushed my physical and mental limits, but I do feel like I conquered the elements and immersed myself in the terrifying yet mystifying wilderness.