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In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out with 129 men and two ships to find a sea link between the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. The fabled ‘Northwest Passage’ had become the Holy Grail of navigators since the 1500’s, but all expeditions had resulted in failure, including Franklin’s – he died in the attempt, as did all his men. The link was finally made by Roald Amundsen on his 1903-6 expedition.
When I started working on the Y3P guidebook project in 2009 (see post #270), I had my own personal Northwest Passage problem to sort out. Much of the route was well established and obvious, and included a crossing of the bogs and mires of Todber Moss, Black Dubh Moss and Red Moss. I had fallen foul of these bogs on several occasions in the past (and when I say ‘foul’ that’s exactly what I mean!) so one of the aims for my version of the Y3P was to find an alternative route.
The Y3P route from the summit of Pen y Ghent to Ribblehead heads down a broad grassy rake, before setting off across country heading Northwest. What had become the ‘traditional’ route (shown in red in the map above) took a direct line towards Birkwith, crossing the area of bog on the way. Hikers tried to avoid the worst of the mire by going round it, resulting in a path about 30 metres wide which eventually became a part of the morass (note the figure in red in the second image below).
My worst ever crossing had been in the 1980s when I had run the route – I ended up knee-deep in foul mud, and every time I tried to lift out one leg, I got cramp in the other! The bog hadn’t been too bad when I had last done the Y3P in 2009, a few months before starting the guidebook project – despite that, the wanderings round the wettest bits had added substantially to the length of the trip. There had to be a better way.
There was a better way, at least there was on the map. It started with a direct descent on the Pennine Way route, heading for Horton Lane (shown as A on the map above). From there, the map showed a couple of paths heading over Whitber Hill. These were not Rights of Way as such, but since the introduction of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000, Whitber Hill was on ‘access land’ and could be crossed without committing trespass. The trouble was, the start to the possible link looked unpromising, to say the least (see photo above).
10 December 2009 had been a good day (see post #272) with Route 2 over Whernside completed in good weather. It seemed that there would be few chances, if any, to get out and find a solution to the ‘Northwest Passage’ problem before the end of the year, but four days later opportunity knocked. Chris and I took a wander up Horton Lane to Point A on the map above and set out to cross Whitber Hill.
The ground was sodden and we were ‘suckered in’ by a fairly new gate next to the stream of Sell Gill Beck – a faint path by the beck took us down to the lower part of the Pennine Way, which was exactly where we wanted to be. The local farmer obviously had different plans though, as the gate between us and the Pennine Way was chained and locked (it isn’t a Right of Way). We climbed it to head back to Horton, but we couldn’t have potential guidebook readers having to climb locked gates – the search continued.
So, that was that, at least until the New Year. Well, not quite – On 30 December, John Bamber went on a solo trip to Blea Moor Tunnel (Route 2) hoping to get a photo of a steam train for the book. After battling for an hour in near blizzard conditions, he arrived at the bridge next to Blea Moor tunnel. He bent down to get his cameras out of his rucksack and heard the “whoosh” of the train passing below him in the cutting, possibly the first time a train has ever been early in Britain! In John’s words, “It made no difference because you couldn’t see anything for the horizontal snow”.
27 January 2010 – Route 4, The Todber Moss alternative with John
In late January, John and I set out on yet another foray to find an alternative to crossing Todber Moss. We tried a different way down to Sell Gill Holes, but the route was far from straightforward to follow and had yet another padlocked gate. Still, that eliminated another dead-end. A misty day didn’t produce many useful photos, but I spotted a possible link joining the Pennine Way near to Sell Gill Hill, which looked promising for my next attempt.
We had intended to walk a long, linear route from Horton to Ribblehead. The plan was simple – we met at Ribblehead, left John’s car there, drove together to Horton in my car then started the route to walk back to John’s car. He would then drive me back to Horton to collect my car – what could possibly go wrong? Halfway through the walk, John started laughing, before telling me that he had left his car keys in my car! We trudged back through the mist to Horton.
10 February 2010 – Route 4, The Todber Moss alternative, solo
The weather forecast for 10 February suggested that sunny intervals were on the menu – good enough for me, then. To solve the travel logistics of a long linear walk, I took the train from Shipley (where I was living at the time) to Horton – the plan was to walk Route 4 over Pen y Ghent to Ribblehead, then to take the train back home. On the ascent of Pen y Ghent, it looked as though most of the winter snow had gone, but the summit shelter told a different tale.
At the shelter, I chatted to a couple of hikers I had followed up the rock bands of the South Ridge – after getting their consent for a photo, I carried on down the grassy rake heading down the Pennine Way. Except, the ‘grassy rake’ was anything but! The snow had been packed down by the effects of boots and weather and was lethally slippy. There were no huge drops, but the steep slope below the rake led straight into a collection of boulders. To make matters worse, I hadn’t brought Ice axe and crampons.
A slip would probably have been survivable but ploughing into the boulders below would have hurt – a lot! 40+ years of mountaineering experience without a serious injury, plus a ‘dollop’ of guile and cunning, got me down the rake in one piece, but I was glad to be off it. Looking back up the hill, I saw that the two hikers I had spoken to at the summit had also recognised the potential danger of the rake, but their solution was to try and pass above the obstacle. I don’t know how worried they were, but my heart was in my mouth as they teetered across the slope, and I waited below until they reached safe ground.
With all on solid ground, I headed down the Pennine Way to Horton Lane (Point A) and followed the faint paths over Whitber Hill. The gate photographed on 14 December was no longer surrounded by water, as the ground was frozen, and at Sell Gill Hill a five-barred gate gave easy access to the nearby Pennine Way coming out of Horton. Although the ground on this section had the potential to be wet, it was far better than the Todber Moss alternative – the ‘Northwest Passage’ had been found!
Although feeling quite pleased with the whole thing, I still had to finish off the rest of Route 4. Sunny intervals had been forecast, which is exactly what I got – however, the weatherman hadn’t mentioned the snow squalls in between the sunny bits, but there was something wild and elemental about the weather that added to the day, and it didn’t seem to take long to reach Nether Lodge.
From Nether Lodge, the route to Ribblehead becomes much less interesting, following a vehicle track to Ingman Lodge before joining the B6479 Horton to Ribblehead road – being winter, it was quiet with little traffic, though summer is a different story. However, there aren’t any viable alternatives for those on the Y3P route, so I pressed on to Ribblehead.
Beyond Ribblehead and its railway viaduct, Whernside looms above to remind Y3P hikers that they still have two more peaks to go. Not for me today, though – I had a train to catch to take me back home to West Yorkshire. With an hour or so to spare, I did what any sensible person would do – a couple of pints in the Station Inn went down very easily!
To be concluded in the next post.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock except images tagged (JB) © John Bamber.
Images tagged Steve Partridge and Bill Boaden are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.