AS I WRITE THIS, I am mired in preparation for a trip to the Dolomites. Three crumpled maps are strewn across the floor, a half-opened box of via ferrata equipment is in the corner, and my internet browser is groaning with tabs on things like Alpine weather, how to shelter from thunderstorms and – worryingly – useful arm gestures for communicating with helicopters (you can never know too many, I say.)
I am usually a chaotic planner, if at all. This uncharacteristic level of research is due in part to the fact that I’ll be attempting some activities of a harder, more exposed nature than I’m used to, and in part because the Dolomites, and the Alps in general, are new territory for me.
One thing I’ve learned in the process of this research extravaganza is that there is a lot of stuff in the Dolomites. Th e 1:25,000 maps scattered over my floor like tea-stained Jackson Pollocks are covered in the lines and symbols for ski tows, via ferrata, bivouac huts, hotels and rifugios.
With a few rare exceptions, if you want to spend the night up high in Britain, your options are a tent, a bivvi bag or a bothy, all of which involve sacrificing one or two home comforts. But in the Alps, it seems, you can sleep at 2,000m or more and still have a hot shower and a three-course meal.
A recent wild camping trip to the Lake District got me thinking about the differences between the way we way we treat our mountains compared to our continental cousins. The shores of Ullswater were choked with crowds. But as I set off into Martindale, a lovely backwater valley, the bustle ceased, to be replaced with echoes of people past.
I paused for a while to contemplate the 1,300-year-old yew in the grounds of St Martin’s Church, and the strange thought that the still-fruiting tree would have been a sapling about the time Bede was writing his history of England.
The sense of relic and ruin continued as I climbed up overgrown packhorse paths, past old mines, and on to the open fellside, joining the route of High Street – a mountaintop motorway built by the Romans to avoid the ambush-prone forests below. Walking along the course of the great Roman road served as a reminder of how heavily trodden are British hills. A slightly crumbling but relentlessly straight dry stone wall on The Knott above Hayeswater was another.
There are, of course, practical reasons for the quantities of recreational infrastructure in a place like the Alps compared to here, the most obvious being the size and seriousness of the mountains.
If the likes of Tryfan were a kilometre or two taller we might have more of that sort of thing, and when I go to the Dolomites I intend to make full use of the trappings of Alpine hospitality.
But as I admired the all-encompassing views over Lakeland that these eastern ridges provide, I realised that I would be adamantly opposed if someone proposed covering Britain’s mountains in a similar way. Why the double standard?
By and large, we don’t tend to go in for things that make life easier in the British hills. The waymarks, paint blobs and other clutter commonplace in continental Europe are usually frowned upon here, and the sort of staff ed refuge you find in the Alps is a rare novelty.
Our hills may be full of ghosts, but when it comes to finding your way or staying the night, you’re generally on your own. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. We finally unshouldered our packs at dusk for a wild camp at Angle Tarn, the only company the occasional fish snapping at insects on the water’s surface. Th e pubs and pints of Patterdale were only a few hundred metres below, but the sense of peace was tangible.
High and wild places in Britain are relatively rare, but even in close proximity to civilisation they can feel impressively remote. I thought ahead a few weeks hence, to evenings spent in cosy, convenient, crowded Alpine huts with a beer in hand. But at that particular moment, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
Words and photo: Carey Davies