The Lakeland Four Passes (part one)

3rd Nov 2017

“Be it skinny wheels, skinny wheels with nobbles on, fat wheels or just your bog standard 26 inch wheel, Charlie was a master of them all.  His infectious smile touched the world and his love of riding spread to so many. Charlie was what makes our sport and community so great - more enthusiasm, talent and energy than most could wish for in a lifetime and a smile that could light up a room in a second.”  Trippin Fellaz talking about Charlie Craig

Ben Black Sail

I recently shared some ideas on Encouraging Children in the Outdoors (please have a read here) and it was great to get such a positive response from a variety of people - there are so many positives to getting children active and in enjoying family activities together.  For the Peak Mountaineering team 2017 has been packed with family adventures and we still have a few planned before the year end, but recently we completed one of our all time favourites.  The Lake District Four Passes proved to be a great challenge, a magical journey and, above all else, a very emotional experience…….

This trip certainly wasn’t on our radar until, back in late March, we saw the beautiful Trippin video charting a journey Nick Craig and his 15 year son Charlie had made with Joe and Sam Flanagan (please do take a few minutes to watch the video below).  The team had mountain biked from Seatoller and followed, via a night in Black Sail Youth Hostel, the famous Lakeland Four Passes route.  We’d have loved the video at any time, but on this occasion we were even more inspired - and yet also brought to tears.

The reason for our heartfelt response was because this video had actually become a tribute to a very special boy.  In January this year, only a few months after the group had biked the route, Charlie went to sleep one Friday night and never woke up.  Charlie had been good friends with our son Ben and we knew him well enough to know what a special young man he was.

Black Sail Group

Charlie was immensely talented on a bike (he won the National Trophy Cyclocross Series in impressive style in 2016 and finished seventh in the British MTB Cross-Country Series youth men’s category) but, by all accounts, he lived his life to the full in everything he did.  He was also part of an extremely loving family and had a broad circle of friends - everyone spoke so highly of Charlie and his passing has left a deep hole in so many lives.

Losing Charlie has hit all the Peak Mountaineering team hard.  Ben knew him better than any of us, but Cal and I were devastated too.  Considering that we didn’t know him or his family too well, it knocked us all for six (and we hear the same from many others too).  I can personally say that hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of him or his family.

We can never go back of course, and although a world without Charlie seems significantly emptier, what we have sought to do is take inspiration from him in as many ways as possible.  We’ve always been keen mountain bikers but somehow, in 2017, getting on the bikes as much as possible has become more important than ever.  

It also meant that, as soon as we watched the Trippin film (and we’ve watched it many times since), we knew we had to follow in Charlie’s pedal strokes and follow his Four Passes journey.  Nick kindly talked us through the logistics and we then got busy.  The Four Passes can be completed in a long day but, as you pass Black Sail Youth Hostel mid way, it is also a great trip to combine with a stay at this iconic wilderness shelter.

Black Sail Youth Hostel 

Nick warned us that booking for a night here can be tricky and so we felt lucky to find a half term date when we could all be housed.  When we first started planning it for the October half term holiday, we hadn’t actually realised that Charlie’s team had done their trip at the same time last year - being almost exactly one year later added even more significance to the trip. 

Once the hostel was booked we sorted all the other stuff easily and headed to the Lake District with a mixed weather forecast but all up for an adventure.  The first part of the Four Passes is a steep climb to Honister Pass and then it is down, via a lovely bridleway, to the end of Buttermere.  The climb to Honister certainly gives a sense of what’s to come (the route certainly has plenty of climbing!) and we battled this section in driving rain.  A few kilometres in and already we could see this was going to be one of those very unique adventures.

We had packed extremely lightly and this proved a good strategy because the route has plenty of hike a bike action. From Buttermere it is a long but steady carry up to Scarth Gap before a long sweeping and exhilarating descent into the Ennerdale Valley.  The hostel is out of sight for a while but then, as you sweep round the hillside, the small stone property comes into view.  It’s an amazing location and, as we headed down, the sun streamed through the breaking clouds to greet us.

Charlie's Bridge

The Youth Hostel Association ploughed a lot of money into renovating Black Sail a few years ago and they should be applauded for it.  They have kept an iconic hostel alive, but also managed to keep the unique character of the place. We cruised up to the door and soaked up the majesty of the valley and the surrounding Lakeland tops. There is always something so special about a night amongst the mountains and this place immediately felt like a wonderful stopping point.

Black Sail has a cosy lounge, a well equipped kitchen and a few small dormitories.  There are 16 beds in total and on our night there we were joined by a couple of other families and one or two single walkers.  We had got quite a soaking during the day but soon had fresh clothes on, biking threads drying over the radiators and a hot drink in hand.

The outside terrace benches of the hostel are a perfect place to watch the sun set and enjoy the stunning tranquility and we sat outside for some time.  Having said that, we had also booked evening meals and were certainly ready to duck out of the chill evening air by the time James (the incredibly friendly warden) gave us the nod to come for dinner. 

James served up a hearty bangers and mash and crumble and custard feast - perfect post ride food.  There is no phone signal, wifi or TV at Black Sail and so after dinner entertainment was the best sort - cards, Jenga, Monopoly and Uno.  It was a perfect fun and contented communal evening. We had spied the route ahead during our time sat outside the hostel and so knew the morning climb up to Black Sail Pass was going to be a shock to the muscles.  Luckily, fresh duvets and cosy bunks awaited and even after several games we were ready to be tucked up far earlier than I’d ever head to bed at home.

Black Sail Youth Hostel

To get from the lounge to any of the dorms means heading outside and we wandered out into a chill night blessed with a clear sky.  We stood for a few minutes staring at the millions of stars and I couldn’t help wondering which bright twinkler was Charlie watching over us.  I slept really well that night and yet can never say that thoughts of Charlie were far from my mind.  This felt like a very special trip and I couldn’t wait to continue the adventure in the morning…… (Part 2 is available to read here).

Posted by Paul

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