My sixth day of walking on the Pennine Way started with a solid breakfast in the YHA hostel. Toast and eggs and sausage and lots of coffee. I ate with Margaret, the northern Californian woman I’d met four days before (at this point it felt like weeks before!), the one who had told me that she also went very off route on that first day of walking.
Margaret was planning to walk to Horton that day, and we looked at our maps and guidebooks together.
“This is going to be a really long day,” she said, pointing a finger at the elevation profile.
There would be two rather tough climbs- one to Fountain Fells, the other up Pen-y-Ghent- as well as a series of 421 steps up to Malham Cove, a challenge we’d encounter first thing in the morning
I slurped down a last sip of coffee and tied the laces of my shoes, and, after picking up the packed lunch I ordered the night before, was the first one out of the hostel. I’d gotten to breakfast as soon as they started serving food (here’s a pro tip for walkers who want to leave as early as possible but also take advantage of your lodging’s breakfast: arrive at breakfast about 10 minutes early, and often someone will come out and bring you coffee or tea, and get you started on toast. I’d found that breakfast could be a rather long, drawn-out affair if you let it, and sometimes that’s nice, but on long days I often wanted to get going as soon as possible).
It was another gorgeous morning. I walked away from the quaint village and almost immediately headed towards Malham Cove, a fantastic limestone amphitheater (and now home to peregrine falcons!). The light was soft and golden, the grass seemed to shine a beautiful green, white fluffy sheep wandered slowly through the fields and I was the only one around. What a feeling of peace! And for the first time, I noticed that my feet didn’t feel quite as bad. There was still a little pain from one of my blisters, but this was a noticeable change from the past several days. The realization put a grin on my face. Despite the difficulty of the day ahead, I might actually enjoy the walking!
And then came the stairs. 421 of them. The stairs were endless! This is when my counting trick began (and really, it’s not a trick at all, just something I started doing on the Pennine Way to help me continue to move forward). I’d count my steps, 1-10, and as soon as I got to 10 I’d start back over at 1. The idea was that I couldn’t stop to rest or to catch my breath until I got to ’10’, but often when I arrived at ’10’ I decided to keep going for another 10. I certainly stopped- multiple times- as I climbed all of those stairs, but something about the marching repetition of the numbers pushed me forward. It became almost like a game.
Before too long I was at the top, at the top of a field of limestone, large rocks that were smoothed and polished and shining in the sun. I hopped around the rocks for a bit, admired the views, and then looked around for the path. Where in the world was I supposed to go? When walking through fields, or the moors, the path is rather obvious. Sometimes it’s just barely visible, but if you stare at the ground long enough, you can usually find a path. But up here in the limestone any trace of a path was gone. There weren’t any signs, or arrows, and my guidebook was hopeless.
Well, the guidebook referred to a path that was the wrong one, and indicated that I was to turn right at the top of the steps, but of course I somehow managed to think the wrong path was the right one and I climbed halfway up a rather steep hill before realizing that I must be going the wrong way.
But, have no fear, I eventually figured things out, and breathed a small sigh of relief when I found a signpost. The path led through a narrow valley and I felt like I was the only person on earth (well, me and the sheep), and then there were another 150 stairs to climb to get out of the valley (of course there were), and then I arrived at a sign that pointed back to Malham, which was 1.5 miles away.
All of that effort for a mile and a half! I adjusted my pack, settling it more firmly against my back, and continued on.
The rest of the day followed a similar pattern to those first few hours of my day: climbing, counting to ten with each step, expansive views, sheep and green fields and sunshine, more climbing, more counting steps, more beautiful views.
The last climb of the day was up Pen-y-Ghent, and as I stood at the base of the mountain, looking up at the little peak that I would have to pull myself over, I felt tired. It had been a really good day but, in hindsight, I think I was still getting my walking legs under me. I felt like I could keep walking on a flat path for miles and miles, but the 600 feet I would have to climb that was looming over me? That was a different story.
I took a deep breath, and started. Before long I passed a man coming down in the opposite direction. He stopped and we chatted for a moment, and he reassured me that the climb wasn’t nearly as hard as it looked. “You’ll be up at the top in no time!” he said, and with a wave, he was off.
I used the old 1-10 counting trick to keep me moving up the mountain, and I stopped several times to take a video (it appears that most of the videos I took on the Pennine Way were when I was struggling. Hmm, maybe I needed something to distract myself with? A way to laugh at myself a little bit?).
The man was right- the climb wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed, all except for the bit of scrambling at the top. I’m not a big fan of needing to use my hands and arms to pull myself up over rocks when I’m hiking, though the scrambling at the top of Pen-y-Ghent was minimal and really not too difficult. I think the hardest part was the fact that I had a heavy pack strapped to my back, threatening, at times, to pull me backwards.
But I made it! I was dripping with sweat and my face was beet red and as soon as I found a place to sit I threw down my pack and took off my shoes and peeled off my socks and gulped down as much water as I could (bonus points! Drinking water makes your pack lighter!). I sat on the summit for awhile, watching as people arrived at the top and took photos at the trig point. Everyone sprawled out on the grass, people and sheep mingled together in the bright sunlight. I didn’t recognize anyone up here; most, if not all, were day hikers, and were here to climb Pen-y-Ghent, rather than walk the whole Pennine Way.
The rest of the way, to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, was all downhill, and it was mostly enjoyable walking, though under a very hot sun. I arrived in town tired but rather triumphant. Aside from the unexpected challenges of Day One, this was the most physically challenging day yet, and I’d done it! I headed straight for the “famed” Pen-y-Ghent café, a place that my guidebook describes in great and glorious detail. In addition to drinks and snacks, the café doubles as a tourist information center and sells camping gear and maps and generally provides a great service to Pennine Way walkers. There are volumes upon volumes of “guestbooks” that Pennine Way walkers have been signing for years, and I was excited to add my name to the register. Unfortunately, the café was closed when I arrived! I’d made it in time- well before the 5:30 posted closing time- but it appeared that it had been closed all day.
I peered through the dark windows for a minute, and then continued down the road to my lodging for the night, the bunk room of the Golden Lion Hotel. I checked in at the pub of the hotel and was given a tour of the bunkhouse, which I would have all to myself. There were triple bunks but by now the novelty has faded a bit, and instead of climbing uncertainly to the very top, I unrolled my sleeping bag on one of the bottom bunks.
After I took a shower and rinsed out my clothes from the day, I headed out of the bunkhouse to see about getting a drink in the pub. But as soon as I walked out the door of the bunkhouse I ran straight into David, my friend from the first day of the walk! We stared at each other and started to laugh. “What are you doing here?” I asked, a great smile on my face.
David was staying in the hotel that night, along with his nephew, who had driven out to meet him for the evening. The three of us gathered in the pub for a drink and stayed through a long and lingering dinner, talking about the last few days. David had several adventures since I’d last seen him- wild camping at the base of Stoodley Pike, wandering off route for miles around one of the reservoirs- and he was behind schedule.
“I haven’t walked this last section yet,” he said, referring to the day’s walk I’d just done. “But since I had plans to meet my nephew here, I took a cab and tomorrow morning I’m going to get dropped off back at Malham, and continue from there.”
I told him all about Pen-y-Ghent, and advised that he take more water than he thought he would need for the day’s walk. We talked and talked, and it felt so good to have a friend who could understand the journey that I was on, because he was on a very similar journey of his own. His nephew asked lots of questions and we ordered another round of beer. Just as we were winding down, who shows up in the pub but Margaret! We ushered her over to our table and she sat down with shaky legs. I glanced at the clock on the wall- it was after 8:30pm. “Margaret,” we asked, “Have you just arrived?”
She looked at us with wide eyes. “That walk took longer, much, much longer, than I thought it would.” David bought her a drink and we told more stories and for what I suspected might be the last time, I sat around a table in a pub with my little Pennine Way family. They were people I’d only known for a few days, but who had nearly instantly become friends, comrades of sorts. I truly love undertaking these walks alone, and continuing to walk alone. The sense of isolation and solitude and freedom give me such an expansive, open feeling; I feel a deep sense of myself, my truest self, when I am out alone on the moors, or on a hillside, or scrambling up a mountain.
I love being alone, but there’s also something about this: a tableful of people who cheer for me and support me and understand what it means to be on this particular journey. I know that their footsteps are ahead of me or just behind me, and that knowledge brings me such comfort. Charlie was out there somewhere, and so were Nigel and Judy. That night I would say goodbye to David and Margaret and I wouldn’t see either of them again, but it was okay. We were all part of the same walk.
Up in my room I crawled into my bunk and read a few chapters of Jane Eyre and ate ginger biscuits, wiping the crumbs from the mattress. The bunkroom was empty, but I didn’t feel alone. I doubted that I would ever feel truly alone on this journey.