If it was meant to be easy we wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be preparing to hike a bike into high and rocky terrain, we wouldn't have considered this route at all.
Words by Dave Anderson, photos by Sim Mainey
Mountain weather rarely checks the forecast and so, is often at odds with the prediction for the day. Nowhere is this more true than in the West Cumbrian fells, a region dictated to and dominated by the power of water, the first line of mountains that rise abruptly to meet the cloud laden westerlies that blow in straight off the Irish Sea. So it comes as no surprise that the valley of Seathwaite holds the dubious title of wettest place within the wettest region, an area renowned for its days of inclement weather, and named after its repositories of rainfall – The Lakes.
With three route options and two days to play with a choice had to be made. We opt for what Styhead and Stake Passes have to offer, making the most of available time and current weather. Two days of valley bottom approaches, steep climbs, and good long testing descents. Two days of dodging squalls and riding everything on offer, early starts and late finishes, a tour of the tarns and the high paths that link them.
The plan had been a simple one. Take two new Genesis Tarns on a tour of their namesakes, the mountain lakes that reside high amidst the Lakeland fells. Our destination, known affectionately as the ‘jaws of Borrowdale’ are steep sided, volcanic, brooding peaks that tower over a landscape that’s both glacially scoured and water worn. The whole area is criss-crossed by a trail network of steep paths and valley tracks, a legacy of the shepherds, packhorse trains, wadd miners, smugglers and outlaws that have helped create the potential for big days in and amongst the mountains.
There’s a badge on the seat tube of the bikes that claims the frames are built from Mjölnir, a steel named after Thor’s mythical hammer, a hammer capable of levelling mountains. So it seems especially fitting to be heading up the Seathwaite valley with the goal of Styhead Pass in our sights. The initial track we’re following stretches out ahead along the valley floor, an easy spin to warm up on, tyres crunching into the gravel bed interrupted by short sections of rock that provide a little technical challenge to break up the approach. Steep valley sides lead to the summits of Glaramara and Base Brown defining the near horizon. To the front the view is dominated by the sight of Stockley Bridge, and the right hand turn of the path as it abruptly heads directly up the fell alongside Styhead Gill, a stepped and rocky path that gains altitude quickly and efficiently.
Needless to say the forecast blue skies never materialise, instead we find ourselves riding under a more familiar low and fast moving cloud base, driven by a wind that provides just enough chill to the summer temperatures to make the donning of waterproofs more acceptable. It’s a typical UK mountain day of briefly glimpsed peaks smothered in plenty of brooding atmosphere. It’s day to be embraced and to revel in the extra dimension of challenge it adds, another in the bank that will make the good weather days all the more special when they inevitably come. If it was meant to be easy we wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be preparing to hike a bike into high and rocky terrain, we wouldn’t have considered this route at all.
Hike a bike: the perfect example of deferred gratification. Time and effort expended in the pursuit of the perfect mountain descent. A necessary evil to get up high because there’s bound to be something worth riding, justifying all the effort of step after steep step up, one foot in front of the other, false summit after false summit, because sometimes you just can’t pedal to the start of the good ride. A brief bit of graft that’s soon forgotten when the trail heads down and the mind focuses on the good stuff, and nowhere is that truer than in the mountains.
The pass is a bit of a grunt but the steepness of the track at least means that height is quickly gained and we’re soon riding alongside the beck under the looming presence of Great Gable – a mountain more hinted at than seen thanks to a cloud level so low it feels like we can almost touch it. As we approach the cirque that houses Styhead Tarn the wind is finally felt, gusting and whipping cloud up and over the lip of the pass from Wasdale and beyond. It’s wild and the wind carries alternating white cloud and dark squalls of rain that have us scrabbling for shelter. The only bit on offer is tucked in behind the mountain rescue stretcher box that has been here since the nineteen thirties. An essential piece of history, ready to aid climbers and walkers who find themselves in trouble up here amongst iconic peaks from mountaineering history.
We’re at a crossroads and the descents from here all pay off the effort necessary to get to the top of them. The drop into Wasdale is steep, technical and the start of an epic route that takes in four passes for a long day in the saddle and on the shoulder, but the weather is against us and that route will have to wait for another day.
The path to two more tarns leads to the long and flowing drop into Langstrath down Stake Pass with its perfect turns which drop alongside whitewater torrents and waterfalls into the valley below. A sinuous gravel path of perfection, steep enough to ride at speed but with enough drift to keep you on your toes each time the direction changes. A challenge whether to look at the trail ahead or the whole valley that stretches out before you. A perfect loop of Cumberland climbing and descending that offers a taste of everything that’s good about riding in the mountains.
And then there’s the option of retracing the route we took to get here, pointing bikes downhill to drop into one of the best steep rocky descents in the whole of the Lakes. The stepped and hand built path offering plenty of rock drops and slow speed challenge to link together into a sustained workout of mind and body. The need to concentrate and steer a path through and over rock sections and water bars, an optimum speed and rhythm to maintain momentum without loss of control, an unrelenting technical challenge that keeps the pressure on right up until the valley bottom is reached. There’s a sense of achievement in riding it cleanly and smoothly.
Two descents with very different characters are on offer, so why miss out when it’s easy to accommodate both? A mountain loop approached from opposite directions with different end goals in mind. The same ride seen from two differing perspectives, new views with each direction, the character of the mountains altered when seen from a new approach. While the route traced on the map is the same, sharing a combination of contours, landforms and paths, the experience is subtly different. Each ride is a different combination of effort, challenge and flow, a reinterpretation of the familiar that serves up something new.
Two rides with the same ultimate outcome – riders heading down a homeward valley, happy with what has been achieved. Elevation gained, mountain time added to, and both rides polished off with a suitably good descent. Two rides that will always end on a high note, a flexible approach to get two perfect days in the UK mountains.
Many thanks to Genesis Bikes for their help with this feature.