On the mountaintop, everyone is insisting the weather is fine. It’s at least fabulously clear up here, as it has been all morning on 11 November 2021. At dawn, I had wiped the frost from the inside of my windscreen to see Windermere silvered with a filigree of mist. Around the valleys a few lights were on, and not just farmhouses. No doubt hardy souls were pulling on their walking boots, stuffing a bag with a flask and packs of nuts, readying themselves for the pilgrimage.
It’s a 45-minute drive from where I’m staying in Troutbeck to the graphite mine at Honister Pass – which holds the UK record for the greatest amount of rainfall in 24 hours . It’s then a steep climb to Great Gable, roughly two and a half hours of well-kept steps, then sheep paths, then rivers of rocks. Along the way is a view from Honister Crag to Buttermere and Crummock Water, twinkling side by side in a valley of rusty bracken and green slopes.
At the end, the trail narrows into a switchback of loose stone and slate. It’s necessary to watch the heels of the person in front, and keep a distance from debris as it scatters. More than one person stumbles and curses, before strangers help them up. Those who like fell walking for the isolation wouldn’t come to Great Gable. This is one of Lakeland guidebook author Alfred Wainwright’s anointed favourites, so there isn’t a day when you could see the splendour alone. Today, the whole point is communality: there are hundreds picking their way up – some easily, some not, some quietly, some not.
Finally, at the top, the eyes can lift and widen. The sky is a wonder, refracted into bold, clean bars, and shining like a painting by Eric Ravilious. On the gentle hills towards Westmorland Crags in the south, there is a roping of white cloud, then a bold rod of blue sky, then another lid of cloud on top, gently pressing it all into shape. I’ve never seen patterns like these. The rules are different on the mountain. As the essayist Rebecca Solnit wrote: “Up high, biology vanishes to reveal a world shaped by the starker forces of geology and meteorology, the bare bones of the Earth wrapped in sky.” There are tarns sprinkled here and there, but they’re hard to spot.
The accents around me are all northern. I’ve been colder in August, one says. Meanwhile, my southern hands are going numb. The effort of the climb slicked my back with sweat but after a few minutes in this wind, I have assembled all the layers I have, and pulled my ear-flaps tight. I recently saw a scene from Danish TV drama Borgen set in the Arctic Circle, where marines were wearing the same sort of hat – those guys appeared warmer than me. A crowd begins to form around the cairn and to my right a man with a large aerial sticking out of his backpack is talking into a radio: “Cloud level about 2,000 above us. About five degrees.” I have no means to contradict him, but I sense he is being optimistic.
In red jackets are the mountain rescue crew, hands thrust deep into pockets, chatting and smiling. Beyond them are the Green Berets, with stern, practical faces, and pointing with four fingers to the horizon. Then we remember why we are here.
A woman whistles for calm and begins reading from a sheet wrapped in plastic. Her voice is clear enough to be heard over the wind. “Welcome everyone, and thank you for joining the Fell and Rock Climbing Club act of remembrance. At 11 o’clock I shall ask you all to remain silent for two minutes.” Wendy Stirrup is the president of the club, a strong presence, with long hair that whips behind her hat. This afternoon she will walk west past Beckhead Tarn to bag another Wainwright, Kirk Fell.
The crowd stills, even the youngest, who are not more than seven years old, though the dogs are barking. The two Green Berets hold their hats against their chests. I can’t help but look to them.
Wendy points to the bronze plate behind her. “This plaque names those of our members who lost their lives in the 1914-18 war. In 1923, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club bought a vast tract of land above 1,500 feet, including 12 summits from Kirk Fell to Lingmell. All this area was gifted to the National Trust to hold on behalf of the nation.”
Below us, inside Saint Olaf’s church in Wasdale, there’s a further clue as to why we are all here. A stained glass window bears an inscription from psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my strength.”
Many religions see mountains as spiritual thresholds. Japan’s ancient Shugendō sect centres almost every act of devotion on reverence for mountains. But the feeling is common among the irreligious, too. In Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums, Japhy Ryder, a version of the poet Gary Snyder, says: “The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.” Maybe that’s why we’re here. To remember by moving towards those liminal spaces where the atoms fuzz, where humans yield to great natural forces, such as light and depth, life and death.
Maybe. But then that doesn’t explain why everyone is up here together. I meet the Salmon brothers from Whitehaven, here with their young sons. They’ve been coming up on Remembrance Sunday for 10 years. One of them – the middle brother – tells me he used to be a binge drinker, but then got addicted to fell walking. Maybe this is just a place to get away from everything at ground level, to be with others who feel the same. Maybe this is just a place where people like to walk. And where some men liked to walk 100 years ago, went away to fight and never came back. And maybe walking the same paths years later with others, gazing down at the same valleys with others, is a way to feel a connection.
“To these names we add the memory of all, known and unknown, who have been killed in conflict. This act of remembrance is private and personal, as well as collective. I ask you to join me now in two minutes’ silence to honour those who have died.”
It begins and then it ends, the plain act of remembrance.
One of the geordies takes his top off to show a shrapnel scar on his back. He talks about having the metal taken out without anaesthetic. I walk around the cairn to see the man with the radio talking again. “QRZ this is golf bravo two golf golf romeo.” He tells me that golf golf romeo, GGR in the Nato alphabet, stands for Great Gable remembrance. I ask who he is speaking to. “Anyone who wants to tune into the frequency,” he says and proudly tells me the range his 40-watt backpack can reach. “Two people have picked up in Northern Ireland, one in Wales.” I ask him why he does it. “No reason really. Just connecting, or something”.
This year’s walk will take place on Sunday 13 November, frcc.co.uk
• This article was amended on 4 December 2022. The cairn shown in the main image is at the summit of Ill Bell, not Great Gable as an earlier version said.