Walla Crag

Bivvybagging the Wainwrights

Ronald Turnbull
By Ronald Turnbull
10 minute read

The wildest, most satisfying and – quite often – the most enjoyable encounter with a favourite hill is to bivvy on it overnight. In the first edition of The Book of the Bivvy, Ronald Turnbull set himself the challenge of a bivvybag sleepout on every one of the 214 Wainwright summits in the Lake District. Here he describes his 25th overnight Wainwright, and 85th summit in the UK as a whole.

The Wainwrights are wonderful – so why do we mostly go up them at the least wonderful time of day? From late morning to early afternoon the sun, high in the sky, sheds its least exciting light. The cairn is thronged with other people who – friendly and sociable as they are – add little to the scenic appeal.

At around 4pm, a change happens. The sun slants low, the curvy hillslopes fling out their limbs like models posing for artistic shots in a studio. At which point we go: “Isn’t it almost teatime?” And we turn our toes and hurry off the hilltop.

Equipped with a bivvy bag, you get to enjoy the sunset without having to go down the hill in the dark afterwards. You get the following morning’s sunrise, which happens in a quite different direction and, with any luck, reflects itself in Ullswater.

But the best views of all are the ones in the dark. The fell-tops are black shapes against a brilliant sky of stars. Down in Buttermere, a single farmhouse light reflects in the dark lake.

above Grasmere
Heading up Helm Crag above Grasmere

And so it would be an excellent, long-term project to bag the Wainwrights properly, in an actual bag. A green nylon bivvy bag, to be precise. And yes, that’s all 214 of the Wainwrights. In my youthful enthusiasm, I reckoned this might keep me going for a few years.

In the 20 years since, some things have changed. Tony Blair is no longer on the throne. They’ve invented the Internet. Bobblehats are back into fashion. Some things, however, have remained the same: I’m still bagging Wainwright summits in the bivvy bag. Because if you really love Great Gable, then naturally you want to spend the night together.

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The Book of the Bivvy

Tips, stories and route ideas

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A guide to the bivouac - the pinnacle of minimalist wild-camping. Accounts of bivvybag adventures, both nice and nasty, alternate with practical chapters on lightweight kit and long-distance bivvying, and the book finishes with a selection of bivvybag expeditions. Informative, honest and highly entertaining!

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Bivvy kit

You don’t need much. And what you do need doesn’t need to be expensive.

Bivvy bag: good bags are priced from £50 upwards (try Alpkit, Outdoor Research, Rab). The simpler styles are at least as good as the fancy ones.

Sleeping mat: should be small enough to fit inside the bivvybag. On lower summits with heather or sedge-grass you don’t need one at all.

Sleeping bag: you need a warmer model than you would in a tent. For summer, a three-season one (either synthetic or down-filled) is ideal.

Sense of humour: yes, it is a bit ridiculous. But nobody’s going to see…

Woolly hat: to sleep with your head out in the open.

Waterproof rucksack cover: to protect the sack overnight, and for protecting things from the dewy morning.

An actual camera: you can’t stand a phone on a convenient stone for the six-second exposure. Work out in advance (with warm hands) how to take pictures in very low light.

Don’t forget: torch, dry socks for overnight, midge net (just in case: summits are usually insect-free), small stuffsack so spare clothes can be a pillow.

Of course there are those days when you wouldn’t want to be up there at all. Days when the Met Office says heavy showers in the morning, rain in the afternoon, cloud on the tops, possible thunderstorms, and none of this clearing away until 6 in the evening. You wouldn’t be going on the hills on a day like that.

Well, not unless you were me and my bivvy bag, up out of Grasmere at 5.30 in the afternoon. And the cloud’s blowing away beautifully in the way it loves to do just so as to tease those people who go, “Oh, the Met Office, they never get it right, do they…”

Low on the slopes of Helm Crag, I passed the last couple of walkers coming down, after what must have been a rugged day on the fells. They seemed pleased at getting slightly dried out by the late-arriving sun before having to get in the car and go home.

The midsummer bracken, bushy and tall, was still soaking wet. Where the path levels on the southern ridgeline above the village, I paused to look down. Grasmere lake looked back up at me, blue stillness among a froth of treetops and small, lumpy hills. After the rain the air was sparkly clean, and Easedale shone like a wet snake in the evening sunlight.

Howitzer Helm Crag summit
Howitzer, Helm Crag summit

A true summit sleepout is impossible on Helm Crag. Given its imposing summit rock, you’d have to sleep standing up. Anyway, the snippy breeze that had sorted out the afternoon cloud now meant I was looking for somewhere to snuggle down low; even if that did mean missing out on the overnight view. However, it’s surprising how little “down” you need to arrive at “snug”. Two thirds of the way along Helm Crag’s bumpy summit ridge, a hollow about a metre deep, lined with moss and rushes, did the trick.

With an hour before sunset, I had time to ramble that interesting patch of ground between Helm Crag’s Howitzer rock and the Old Woman Playing the Organ at the Grasmere end.

Five minutes watching Easedale and a corner of its tarn. Ten minutes looking – and thinking – and looking some more, around the top of the eastern slope. A mighty landslip gave the hill its subsidiary sub-summit ridge and chopped the summit rock in half so that, when you stand on the top of it, you’re standing directly above some empty air.

Five minutes – the rock now sun-dried – to scramble up it and do that standing on the top. Fifteen minutes to set up the camera and try to take a photo of that scrambling…

Helm Crag
Bivvy hollow on Helm Crag

By this time I was ready to unroll the sleeping bag, squirm inside, and enjoy the three-course cold dinner culled from the Meal Deal shelf of the Grasmere Co-op. As I dined, green shadows crept across Easedale, and Helvellyn rose above Dunmail Raise like a banana in a bowl of avocados. So it was time to put a stone on the sleeping bag and spend another hour out admiring it all again and trying to take its photo.

At two in the morning, the moon woke me by shining straight into my eyes. It also glittered on the Howitzer rock, transforming it into a silver chandelier (one that poked up from the floor instead of dangling from the ceiling). This did mean climbing back into the boots and another stroll along the ridge, to see what the Old Woman Playing the Organ was looking like at the other end.

midnight moonlight
Midnight moonlight

There’s one problem with the overnight bivvy. After staying up late enjoying the sunset, and getting up in the middle of the night to enjoy the middle of the night – at four in the morning the sunrise gets you out of bed again, to start enjoying the early morning light, and the five hours of hilltop solitude before the rest of the world starts arriving.

Bivvy hollow
Bivvy hollow on Helm Crag, four hours later

Luckily for me, the clouds rolled back in during the end of the night like a cosy blanket. This not only kept me slightly less chilly than I’d have otherwise been, but also let me linger in bed instead of leaping around enjoying the scenery. It was really late – 6.30 in the morning – before I was breakfasted, packed away, and heading up the slope of Gibson Knott.

The cloudy greys and greens were restful to the eye after all the overnight excitement. A couple of sheep disturbed the solitude of Calf Crag, and there were marks of running shoes around the summit. (It was only later I found out that, as I slept two miles away, the Business Development Director of Cicerone Press had passed through while completing his Bob Graham Round in rather a fast time.)

I found a bird’s nest by Birks Gill, met another sheep on High Raise. A damp patch of sunlight broke through. Five hours into my day, on Tarn Crag, I came across a couple of other fellwalkers to have a chat to.

Over the 20 years since I wrote Book of the Bivvy I’ve learnt a few new tricks. The advantage of a down-filled sleeping bag, for example, the correct way up for your boots to be left overnight, and just how cold it can get before it stops being any fun. The new, 2021 edition of Book of the Bivvy also slips in a whole new set of photos and a couple of additional bad puns.

Scafell Pike
Close to the summit of Scafell Pike

In the meantime, you might come across me sleeping on a summit somewhere. Scafell Pike was grand, with a mossy patch, sheltered below two feet of cliff, just steps away from the summit. Bowness Knott, like many lower Lakeland fells, offers a luxurious bilberry-and-heather bed high above Ennerdale Water.

Gowbarrow Fell has rocky nooks with shelter from any wind, as well as sunset behind Skiddaw, the last steamer nostalgically trailing its wake up Ullswater, and sunrise over the lake as bright as a fried egg. Sheffield Pike is better, because the same sunrise is seen from higher up.

Great Shunner Fell was great, with a peat hollow just above the water table and a misty vision of Swaledale beyond a scatter of silvery tarns. But so were the previous 84 slept-on summits (apart from stony old Ben Nevis in the rain, that one was nasty).

And in May of this year, I celebrated my 100th slept-on summit, high above Derwent Water on little Walla Crag. Mist filled the valley below, the wind whispered in the larch trees overhead, and – the icing on the cake – a little snow sprinkled itself across my bag. But you know what? The next one’s going to be even better…

Walla Crag
Before sunrise
Walla Crag before sunrise

Bivvy tips

Rein in your speed to arrive at the sleeping place warm, but not sweaty.

Allow 20 minutes to find the ideal sleep site: slightly raised at the head end, dry not damp, in a dip for shelter, not in a dip for the morning views, on a patch of sedge-grass if you can find some.

Eat cold food (whether it’s pork pie and a Mars bar, or smoked salmon and pre-cooked asparagus) as fiddling around with a stove will get you even colder.

Your sleeping mat is better inside the bag, to avoid sliding off it in the night and then having it blow away in the morning. The exception is on stony ground, which might damage the bivvy bag.

Leave your head outside the bivvy bag for the first part of the night to enjoy the view and the fresh air. Don’t breathe into the bag: even if zipped up in the rain, allow a small hole for breathing to avoid condensation.

Care for the bivvy bag: dry it carefully, don’t store it squashed up, use the same cleaning and reproofing as you would for a breathable waterproof jacket.

A slightly different version of this article appeared in Lakeland Walker July–August 2020, reproduced by kind permission.

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