On Thursday, 4th June 2020, my friend Karl (2E0CSS) and I (2E0TIE) headed off to the Howgill Fells in the Northern Pennines. We aimed to start up the sheer but grassy hillside of Yarlside and then progress with a somewhat more casual, albeit still rolling, walk across to The Calf. We both brought amateur radio equipment with us with the intent of setting up our gear on both summits as part of a Summits on the Air activation. The weather for the day was not forecast to be fantastic – overcast all day with a chance of rain in the afternoon however we got quite lucky and not only was it warm for most of the day but the clouds cleared towards noon and we also managed to stay mostly dry – until the very end. We both met for a 0700 start to try and mitigate any chance of getting damp.
For those who are not familiar, Summits on the Air is a scheme in which licensed amateur radio operators take their portable radio equipment (antennas, batteries, etc.) up a variety of hills across the world (in the UK they are defined as any Marilyn) and try to talk to other operators across the UK and potentially the rest of the world. Any operator ‘activating’ the summit gains points relevant to the height of the summit above sea level (contrary to popular belief not actually according to the difficulty of the climb) and those amateur radio operators who speak to the summit from home also gain points. Points do not mean prizes and SOTA is intended to be non-competitive, with the main goal of being a good excuse to get out and about, should you need one.
We both parked roadside next to the Cross Keys Temperance Inn – a rather curious inn that is quite isolated and even more strangely does not serve any alcohol! The nearest town (or indeed any sort of civilisation) to the inn is Sedbergh, 4.5 miles south on the A683. We did not visit the inn as it was closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK although it must be doing something right as the many glowing reviews on Google Maps do not appear put off by the lack of alcohol on tap.
The Ordnance Survey map for the area does not show any paths up Yarlside and I’m not confident enough in my walking abilities to drive 60 miles for the risk of an inaccessible route. Luckily fellow amateur radio operator G4OBK had uploaded a GPS track to SOTLAS that he had used to climb both Yarlside and The Calf a number of years earlier. We followed his route, in the reverse order to which he walked it, for the entire day. The path was flat as we crossed the couple hundred metres from the cars to the other side of the River Rawthey and then that was all of our level elevation for the day used up! The route quickly became very nearly a ladder up the side of Bowderdale Head and then the adjacent summit of Yarlside causing Karl and I to stop regularly to catch our breath with heavy radio gear in our bags.
The route up Yarlside did in fact follow a well trodden and visible path over the ground even though such a path did not exist on any maps. The sharp ascent can be seen in the elevation of the walk below – the first summit being Yarlside and the second being The Calf. A conversation ensued about whether this would’ve been a better walk with just a handheld radio instead of large antennas, poles and batteries however upon reaching the summit all trace of these thoughts were lost as we set up the SOTABeams linked dipole for the 20 metre band.
Despite the cloudy weather the views from the top of Yarlside were better than expected, with a spectacular view across the valley to the gentle side of Wild Boar Fell and a good overview of the complex topography of the rest of the Howgill Fells. Good contacts were made on both HF and VHF bands. I worked 9 stations in rather quick succession on 20 metres with my very first contact being a summit to summit QSO with Tomasz (SQ6PLD) on the 1015m top of Wielka Sowa (SP/SS-001) in Poland and the last being another S2S with Vilijem (S55VN) on Mulejev vrh (S5/PK-003), a 1533m summit in northern Slovenia, just shy of 1000 miles from our location atop Yarlside.
There is something very satisfying about summit to summit contacts – knowing that you have both made the effort to lug some heavy radio gear over challenging terrain and that your efforts have paid off – momentarily linking in real time the lives of two individuals many miles and cultures apart. The second S2S with S55VN was a very difficult one to make – he had to repeat his summit reference and callsign many times in order for me to eventually understand it, partly due to me never having heard of the “S5” region before and my brain not wanting to process it! Thanks for making the effort to complete the contact, Vilijem.
Karl quickly made four contacts on 2 metres FM even though reports on the SOTA reflector had indicated that Yarlside was not a great hill for it. He then took over the FT-818ND from me and made another four contacts on 20 metres SSB before we packed up and started to make our way across to The Calf with the hardest bit of the day over and done with.
The walk from that point onward could only be considered leisurely in comparison to the initial hike however there was a somewhat spirited pathless descent 200 metres or so down into Bowderdale Beck before climbing back up a very welcome track to the public bridleway that we would follow for the remainder of the way to our next summit. The view down the beck was truly fantastic and we both stopped on several occasions to take it in. I have never visited the Howgills before however a common theme read online is that the hills are very underappreciated and hold fantastic views even in relation to their bigger cousins in the Lake District and I can certainly echo that sentiment.
The weather had started to clear slightly by this point and as the summit of The Calf came into view we were greeted with a wonderful panoramic vista ranging from Morecombe Bay in the south to the peaks of the Lake District in the north. It was one of those views where a camera cannot really do it justice – however you can see some of my attempts below.
The Calf was another successful activation for both of us as I managed to make 8 further contacts and Karl just one less than that. I worked four UK stations on 80 metres (my first ever contacts on the band – Andrew G4AFI booming in from Hampshire being the very first) and another four on 2 metres FM. The summit yielded results a little bit more local in nature than Yarlside – 40 metres provided nothing at all and 20 metres seemed to have closed up a little bit – however Karl still managed to contact both Sweden and Poland on 20m despite none of my contacts being international.
As rain showers were spotted on the horizon coming in from the north and now that the radio wasn’t providing particularly exciting results we decided that we had pushed our luck with staying dry just about long enough and packed up for the descent down Force Gill and Red Gill Beck back to the cars. Navigation down Gill Beck to the spout was extremely straightforward with the path being very well maintained stone and gravel.
Neither of us had previously heard of Cautley Spout and it was nothing more than a name on a map to us however once the majestic drop off came into view became clear that it truly was an outstanding natural beauty and would have been worth a trip out simply to see it even if we had not scaled the two summits. It is, after all, the largest waterfall in England, tumbling almost 200 metres downward. Standing atop the spout and looking down into the valley below was by far the highlight of the day for me and I think Karl felt the same.
As we finally arrived back at our cars around 7 hours after we left them it became apparent that we had timed our day to absolute precision – it started absolutely pouring down as soon as we got sight of our vehicles – to the point where we didn’t even manage to say goodbye to each other before taking refuge in our cars. Unfortunately the two walkers we overtook on the path down the Beck and the two we chatted to who were ascending may not have been so lucky!
Thanks to Karl for an excellent day out – thanks to all the stations we worked on HF and VHF and finally thank you for reading!