Little & Mickle Fells Aborted

Little & Mickle Fells Aborted

An epic story with many lessons learnt. Kindly contributed
Little & Mickle Fells Aborted 

Little Fell & Mickle Fell Aborted

Kindly contributed by Steve Smith from his blog 

Starting Point: Hilton
Accommodation: Bents Camping Barn

Steve's Advice

  • No photographs I am afraid but some valuable lessons that with hind sight might seem obvious.
  • Always set off on a walk early enough to complete the planned distance within the required time. In this case before it gets dark.
  • Set yourself break points where you should be by a specific time. If that time is not satisfied have exit routes to return home on a more direct route than planned.
  • Carry spares of everything including lights and even maps. 
  • Don't rely on smartphones or any GPS equipment
  • When you are in a situation where you may have to "bivvy up" and stay out all night - do it sooner rather than later. Climbing into your sleeping bag will only keep you warm NOT get you warm, so jump about before climbing in to your bivvy **see notes


I have been meaning to write this walk up for some time. It is fairly lengthy, like they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but of all the walks I have been on so far this was by far the most memorable. I wanted to include as best I could the background to each of the situations in which I found myself.

I hope I have not over dramatised it. At the end of the day I had put myself in a serious situation. What I want to get across is that I had gathered some experience on many of my earlier walks so was not setting off totally unprepared. Furthermore, the experience sets me in good stead for many of the subsequent walks I have been on. But do not, under any circumstances, set off alone in the fells without any experience. Gain that experience by doing easier walks alone or harder walks with a friend. Also while there is the security of Mountain Rescue, they are only there for people who are injured or incapacitated, not to lead lost walkers off the fells. **see notes

I had certainly been on an adventure, anticipation of which gives you that buzz and feeling of apprehension whenever you set out in less than perfect conditions. Perversely it is something you relish experiencing, but do not want to get in the position where you actually have that experience. It is also an experience I would not want to repeat but am pleased I had the opportunities to learn some invaluable lessons and acquire the knowledge so I do not repeat the same mistakes, as well as knowing that I am capable of getting myself out of what was a difficult and possibly life threatening situation. Does that make sense?

Walk Description

First of all apologies for lack of photos. This is nothing to do with non being taken. More to do with the fact that I lost the camera, along with my mobile phone, somewhere between setting off at 11:50am and returning to the car just over 11 hours later at 22:55hrs. Other items lost included my hand torch (fortunately I had a spare), reading glasses, sun glasses and most importantly my walkers notebook, which contained notes of not only this walk but all others that I had been on since starting back in October 2008.

The day started well enough albeit icy cold in Bent's Farm Camping barn. The cold woke me up early but the hot cooked breakfast prepared and generously offered by my fellow residents that consisted of one guy and about 6 kids under 10. What with chatting and getting all of my stuff packed up ready to move on to Nenthead Bunkhouse after the days walk seemed to occupy the whole morning meaning I was not ready to set off until well after 11am.

By the time I had found Hilton, parked the car, got all of my layers on and day bag sorted it was nearly midday before I set off for the first top of the day - Roman Fell.

This was my first mistake. Having started so late I should have just concentrated on the main targets for the day of Little Fell and Mickle Fell, but I thought 10 miles, 2 mph , 5 hours walking - should be back at the car before 5pm. No problem as by the time it was dark I would be off the fell and just following a main path home.

The day was cloudy but bright and the first part of the walk was flat enough passing into the restricted area of Warcop Army training ground within a few minutes of setting off. Normally walkers are not allowed in this area, for obvious reasons, but this weekend was one of the 12 times in the year the area is open for public access so I presumed there would be quite a few other people taking advantage of this rare opportunity to bag the two 2,000ft tops within the restricted area.

As I passed the notices and walked along the rifle butts near East Moor I was reminded of my youth and weekend camps in the Combined Cadet Force. Other than Geography lessons, this was the only tuition I had had on map reading and navigation, but even with over 30 years gap surprisingly I was drawing on these lessons and building on them during what was now becoming lone walks in the Yorkshire Moors and Lake District to complete my quest to climb/visit every 2000ft top in England.

Soon after passing these butts it was a left turn and uphill over East Moor. As I ascended and crossed the brow of the first ridge I could see the ridge behind which Roman Fell would be found. It looked fairly steep from a distance with the top covered in snow and many of the gullies hanging onto snow to lower levels. From this distance it looked like there was no way up but as I got closer I could see a diagonal line of snow which marked the path on to the upper ridge.

It was a fairly steep climb and by the time I had reached the top it was well past 1pm, more like 1:30. It was also a lot colder as well in the stiff breeze so after finding and photographing the cairn marking the top I took some compass bearings, identified the various tops around including Murton Pike & Fell as well as what I thought was Little Fell, although I could not see it because of low cloud.

Heading off on an easterly bearing to lose height and avoid Swindale Crag I descended with some difficulty until I reached the path that would have taken me to Swindale Brow and then back to Hilton. It never occurred to me at the time but with hind-sight this would probably have been a good time to abandon the walk and head home. However, I pressed on and as I ascended again the snow became thicker and the heather less obvious as the wind whipped the fallen snow across the ground making the terrain seem very flat. The temperature up here had been below zero for some days now and the only clue for navigation was wide expanses of snow which had filled all the sikes draining the fell looking like wide footpaths. By now I was in cloud and other than following a compass bearing and trying to correlate these snow lines with blue lines on the map the only other clue I had that I was heading in the right direction was that I was heading up hill.

Search for the Top

It was one of these blue lines that I was assuming was Christie Bank Sike, as it took too long to get out my smartphone and pick up a GPS signal I continued on this assumption, taking care to stay near the edge until it eventually disappeared at which point I took a further bearing and headed for Little Fell top on a NNE bearing hoping I would come to the plateau ridge straight ahead. Soon the ground levelled off and although there was a slight amount of ascent, after about 10 minutes I had not reached a ridge of any kind and I was beginning to doubt I was where I thought I was. It is a strange feeling and one which seems to leave you open to making grand assumptions about the terrain that are not always correct but perversely confirm in your own mind you are in the right place even if this is not the case.

The action to take in these in these circumstances is to stop, take stock and try and get some sensible indications of where you are. This includes looking at the map and trying to find some obvious points of reference that can be correlated on the ground. This of course is not easy when the weather is closing in along with visibility diminishing. However as is often the case in these situations something happens that turns out to be your salvation. In this case I saw two people descending from visiting Little Fell top about 50m over to the east. I walked towards them and they confirmed they had been to the top and that it was only just over in that direction pointing to the NNE.

There was even a perceptible path as the snow was not lying so thickly. Very soon I reach what appeared to be the upper ridge, the path had disappeared under snow which was now quite thick as I sunk up to my calves. The gradient increased along with the wind and as I reached the top, my laminated map was blown out of my grip into the whiteness. I chase after it like a man possessed, sliding down the ridge and manage to arrest its flight by throwing my walking pole over it. At this time I would print out my maps on an A3 printer and then laminate it. Unfortunately this could not be rolled up into your pocket and turned out to be more of a hindrance and something else to carry.

By now it was about 3:30pm and as I re-ascended the ridge I noticed some sort of aerial installation and just beyond that a trig point/shelter which was collecting drifting snow. After everything that had gone on I incorrectly assumed I had bagged Little Fell. For those that know this top the highest point is a flat area of grass approx. 400m to the NE.

A Hill Too Far

This led to my next and more serious mistake of taking a bearing for Mickle Fell from the wrong point. The worst mistake of course was actually going on to Mickle Fell. My rational was that the place is only open 12 times a year, I am only 2 squares away (2km) and will therefore only take 30 minutes to reach. All of these decisions are based on false optimism, and incorrect information. 2km cannot be walked in 30 minutes in these conditions and the 2 squares were diagonal squares so nearer 3km or 2 miles! A disastrous combination which you should be aware of and avoid in ideal conditions, let alone in darkness miles away from the nearest road and in worsening weather conditions.

Anyway, after setting off from Little Fell trig point and walking for about 30 minutes and descending into many groughs and similar number of ascents up hags I tried to make sense of the shadows which looked like ridges and see if there was any correlation on the map near where I thought I should be. There was not and because you try to walk in a straight line but inevitably wander to avoid any steep ascents/descents I accepted my criterea of being lost to use GPS to identify my location had been met. This takes quite a time to lock onto a signal in poor conditions so after huddling down out of the wind and waiting the red cross appeared on my smartphone and confirmed I was much further south than I expected.

The terrain looked the same all around, fairly level but lots of undulations in and out of groughs, so very difficult, nigh on impossible to walk in a straight line to a point. Really not the place to be in February after dark. Constantly checking the compass kept me on track and in the right general direction and after some time I did think I could see a ridge line ahead and to my right. So I pressed on walking in as straight a line as possible not really ascending much but clambering up and down hags and groughs. The ridge appeared and disappeared and eventually the ridge was straight in front of me. The ground was completely covered in snow and as I scrambled up the ridge to the west of King's Pot; there was no evidence of any rocks. Ascent was fairly straightforward.

Lost Map

Unfortunately I reached the top and got onto flat ground again I was greeted by strong gusty wind which again blew the laminated map from my grasp. But this time it disappeared into the darkness. Oh dear, no map apart from what was loaded onto my smartphone. Looking to the east I could see a cairn which I hoped was the top of Mickle Fell. So once again I took shelter and used the GPS on the smartphone. I also checked my watch and noticed it was 6pm.
I cannot remember the exact location shown on my smartphone other than I was not at Mickle Fell top. I reckon I was about 500m short somewhere to the west. I certainly could not see a wall and referring to the map could not see a cairn. I therefore decided to abandon my attempt on the top and head for home.

I could remember from my planning stage that the way home was west to a gully, follow this down left and south along a gill to lower ground and then safety in Hilton. Trying to use the smartphone to check this was useless due to me not being able to zoom out and still be able to see the map detail. So from this point I was effectively without a map but with possible backup to find my position with the GPS facility. My plan was therefore to head west in a straight line, find a way down to the gill and follow it down to Hilton.

Taking a Tumble

After confirming direction of travel, I set off in the strong wind and blowing snow to the edge of the ridge I had easily ascended. It turned out I descended it easily as well as I lost my footing and slid down out of control but trying to gain control by ramming my walking pole into the snow. Not sure how well this worked but I did eventually come to a stop, but not before I had horrendous cramp in my left hamstring which at the time thought was a ruptured muscle.

After finally stopping and collecting my thoughts, I found both walking poles and set off again over flat ground on a westerly bearing. Again flat means no real descent but plenty of scrambling up and down groughs over frozen snow. I could hear my phone ringing but chose to ignore it and press on. As I reached the edge of the plateau the snow was less solid and I started to break through the crust and into heather up to my thighs. This went on for some time so was really hard going until eventually I lost my footing and fell over. At this point I realised I was feeling quite cold so decided to break out my flask and have a drink of hot water flavoured with a Nairn root ginger oat cake. I also thought it best to return the call I had ignored earlier and assure my wife everything was OK. Clearly it was not, but I did not want to worry her unduly as there was no question in my mind I would not be sleeping in a warm bed later. She suggested I had a hot bath when I got in and a rest day tomorrow. This sounded so good and found myself wishing I was already in the hot bath and resting in an arm chair in a warm room. Exactly the opposite to the situation when I was sat in a warm room planning this trip wishing I was out on a snowy fell.

Time now was after 6:45pm and it crossed my mind that I may well have to spend the night out on the moors in my survival & sleeping bag, but rejuvenated by the hot water and biscuit broth I could now see the ground falling away in front of me and a ridge ahead in the distance. The gill I follow down must be pretty close, but rather than walk over an edge I tended to drift to my right and keep sight of heather in front of me in the shadows.

Eventually I reach the stream but surprisingly it is dry. Any water that would have been flowing had been frozen on the fell before it reached the stream. This was better than I thought because apart from pools of water, some frozen ground underfoot, it was rocky but dry and I descending down a gully. Descent was fairly steady and with the help of moon light could just about see the next steps ahead. Referring to my smartphone I could just about make out a green footpath but could not find anything like a path on the ground. At one point I came to a dead end and had to turn round and edge back then cross to the other side of the dry stream. Soon after I found a post with a yellow arrow on it and something on the ground resembling a path. Cracked it I thought - but in no time the path had disappeared and I was straining ahead to check if a path existed. It did reappear and disappear several times. Confirming again my position on the smartphone GPS I tried to call home to confirm I was OK, but no phone signal.

Fortunately the GPS put me somewhere near Brock Scar and near a footpath. Unfortunately steamed up glasses, poor eyesight along with low light stopped me identifying which side of stream the path should be. I stuffed my phone back in to my inside pocket and left it unzipped as it was difficult to close with gloves. The path returned and once more I felt secure and homeward bound. Again the path disappeared and worse still I seemed to have come to a dead end. The water had now turned to a trickle and after shining a torch around came to the conclusion that I was at the top of a low waterfall at the bottom of which was level ground and a path heading further down stream. I could also see the lights of the A66 in the far distance for the first time which was my first sign of civilisation since I had set off from Roman Fell.

Another Fall

Checking for hand holds and foot rests I turned round and made my way down the side of the water. Looking for the next foothold I felt the rock I was holding came loose and the next thing I know I am in mid air shouting Sh!!!!!!!!!!!!!#. The next sensation was hitting the ground thinking my back had been saved by the padding of my back pack then my head going cold as I somersaulted backwards. I then find my self on my knees with various items out of my pockets including torch, flask and water bottle floating in the water I was kneeling in. It was an indescribable feeling. The back pack had obviously broken my fall and protected my back and other than a sharp pain on my shin the only thought that crossed my mind was to collect everything up and press on home. So I did and off I went.

I seemed dry above my knees and therefore did not mind walking through water and wading across the stream trying to pick up a footpath. No path was found but I found my self on the V of a fork where two rivers joined. Whilst assessing the situation the ground gave way under foot and found my self once again on my knees in the river and the torch recovered earlier floating out of reach down stream. As it floated and spun round it lit up each bank either side of the stream. I did have a spare light so was not too worried especially when I saw the light from the lost torch had stopped rotating and was shining on the same point. It had got lodged somewhere down stream so would recover it later. Again I got up not bothered about being wet, waded along the river and got out on the only side I could as the other was a steep incline up a rock face.

Even on this side I could not follow the river much further as the stream passed through a steep sided gully. My only option was to clamber up the 40ft bank. Half way up what was at least a 45° incline I rested whilst recovering my breath the thought of how nice it would be to stop and have a sleep. Immediately I came to my senses and recognised this as the first signs of hypothermia. If you do stop and sleep you are unlikely to wake up again. Forgetting how tired I was, I pressed on and reached the top where there was also a fence to clamber over. I do not remember referring to my smartphone but recollect I was expecting a wall at the top of the ridge. I was also expecting to come across a wall at right angles to the wall. Looking up I could also, slightly closer this time a few more random scattered lights and a straight line of lights which I assumed was the A66. On reaching the wall I stopped and had another couple of biscuits for energy and sustenance. It is here I think I lost my phone as shortly afterwards I found my belt pouch open but never gave a second thought about any items falling out. I am not sure if this is where my camera, glasses and other items were lost, the two occasions when I found myself on my knees in the stream or indeed any other time.

Almost Down

After climbing over the wall the ground was grassy but boggy. This seemed to go on for ages until eventually I reached some gorze which was very thick in places, but did manage to find a way through and find a broken fence and stream on the other side. The most encouraging find however was a sign which marked the boundary of the danger area and live firing area. A closer light also appeared which I hoped was Hilton. crossing this field, more lights came in to view and finally I came to another wall on the other side of which was a farm. Rather than climbing over the wall I found a gate and then ended up in a field corner with street lights on the other side. I had made it home, but could not find my way out of this field. Tracking along the fence and round the farm I found a gate into the farm yard from where I could see into the farm and people. I could not find my phone so wandered over a bridge and followed an alleyway which was clearly a footpath. It was tree lined and at the other end was a gate and a track leading to a road.

As I reached the road I looked right and saw my car.

Relief - I had made it. I took off my back pack, found the car keys and could not believe it when I saw the clock and it said 10:55pm. I thought it was only a couple of hours since leaving Mickle Fell. It was 5 hours.

I had certainly been on an adventure, anticipation of which gives you that buzz and feeling of apprehension whenever you set out in less than perfect conditions. Perversely it is something you relish experiencing, but do not want to get in the position where you actually have that experience. It is also an experience I would not want to repeat but am pleased I had the opportunities to learn some invaluable lessons and acquire the knowledge to not repeat the same mistakes as well as knowing that I am capable of getting myself out of what was a difficult survival situation. Does that make sense?

Post Incident Info

Steve has now (April 2013) completed his 4½ year mission to climb all of England’s 253 English Nuttalls which he started back in 2008, and this was only one of 97 walks in total. There is a 254th [Pillar Rock] but he's saving that to complete with someone who can rock climb, probably an MIA guide. He has documented all of these routes (though fortunately not as eventful) on his blog with Route statistics, route map and photographs for all of these walks including photos of most summit areas, along with route summaries and descriptions.

Access to all routes can be found on his blog sorted by:

Mountain name includes album of most summits  
Mountain areas 


First of all, thank you so much Steve for sharing the story. And what a story! Like Steve says at the end, lots of lessons learnt, so here's some comment on the main things arising from that epic! Before publishing I've gone through the following comments with Steve, and he's in agreement with everything written.

Mountain Rescue

Steve makes a good point about not relying upon Mountain Rescue. However, in the situation that you are hopelessly lost, it may be appropriate to call for help if failing to do so would lead to you spending the night on the hills.

Appropriate Route

The route may not have been achievable in the first place, but it should have been cut short as Steve suggests. There were another 11 days that the hill would be open; 12 days the year after, etc. The timings for the route to Mickle Fell were too optimistic, and the difficulty of terrain had not been taken into consideration. Steve did plan the route but not timings for each leg of the route. Had he done so, it may have been more obvious that he was biting off too much, especially if the terrain was taken into account.

Winter Conditions

It was February and snow on the ground, with walk ascending to 2,000ft and at times a depth of snow. That sounds like winter conditions, and given Steve's first fall, crampons would probably have prevented that fall.


It's impossible for one person alone to walk accurately on a bearing, unless you sight at objects and walk to them, and repeat. Only then will you have a chance. Having lost the map, Steve's memory of the gill was great 'map memory'. Unfortunately, gullies (in which gills run) are most susceptible to lower temperatures and thus retention and accumulations of snow, and Steve was not equipped for the winter conditions.


Steve was well prepared with flask and oat cakes, which for their weight pack in a massive amount of calories. Great choice of food. That extra energy gained from the oat cakes probably kept Steve going. One of the causes of hypothermia is exhaustion, which Steve avoided. Note that he had biscuits too, which he turned to for more energy. Link to food.

Headtorch & Map

Two essential pieces of kit, and they both were lost. Even if a map is laminated to keep it dry, it needs to be tied to you or your rucksack so that it won't blow away. A hand torch is better than no torch, but a head-torch would have been better, as it keeps the hands free and less chance of dropping it.

Smartphones & GPS

Some smartphone GPS apps require a mobile signal to work properly, and it sounds like the one Steve had was one of those. Any smartphone app with maps must have 'offline' maps, i.e. you don't need a data connection for the map to work. Steve is quite right in his advice about never relying solely on a GPS or smartphone. Checking ones position on a GPS at key stages is not an admission of being a bad navigator. Time to First Fix (TTFF) of a GPS receiver depends on how long, and how far away since last used, and if a smartphone, whether it has an active data connection. The way to ensure a quick TTFF is to get a fix at the start of the day, not leaving it until you actually need the grid reference or cross on a screen.

Bivvy Up

Not quite sure I agree with Steve's advice about getting into a sleeping bag early. Travelling light means travelling quicker, and instead of carrying a sleeping bag (I've checked, and he was), a blizzard bag could be the better alternative, weighing in at only 300g and a fraction of the size of a sleeping bag, but performing like a 3 season sleeping bag. In terms of stopping early: muscle movement generates heat, so for as long as one is physically able to walk one step closer to safety, that is what should take place, unless injured. There is a saying that if you go prepared to spent the night out, you will. A storm shelter & blizzard bag should be sufficient, or survival bag as a minimum. Steve did the right thing; ate some food and kept going.