Category: Hill Walking

Barefoot on Striding Edge and Helvellyn

An old friend once told me story of how she was crossing Striding Edge with Doug Scott. He was wearing trainers at the time and a passing woman berated him for wearing such inappropriate footwear in the mountains. She had no idea who she was talking to as the man who once descended the Ogre with two broken legs removed his trainers and continued in his bare feet without so much as a word in reply. This story has always brought a smile to my face and I was happy to find my own bare feet carefully feeling their way across the ridge on a cold and misty day.

I was walking with Lewis on his first mountain day since two knee operations after badly tearing his cruciate ligament. He was walking much faster than me on the sharp stones of the farm track that leads onto the fell side from Glenridding, so I put my trainers back on for a short section and removed them when we reached the smooth stones of the well-made footpath. It was good to feel the cold, wet rock under my feet, which stayed reasonably warm with all the hard work they were putting in.

Barefoot and still warm enough on a cold and windy day.

Reaching Striding Edge itself, barefoot progress became a game of concentration, precision and balance. Finding comfortable foot placements was tricky and once a foot settled into a workable place, I needed to keep the weight distribution just right so that the spiky protrusions underneath wouldn’t become too painful. It felt a little like slacklining and was completely absorbing when balancing across the most narrow parts of the ridge.

Balancing along the ridge with some help from the hands.

Negotiating a small, rounded snow cornice left over from earlier in the season was easy in the deep steps that had been cut by the passage of many boots and we were soon sitting in the lee of the wind on the chilly summit. With dusk approaching we felt the need to move a little faster so the trainers came back on for the journey home along Swirral Edge and back down to Glenridding.

Hurrying along the road for a pint in the Traveler’s Rest, I slipped on a wet and smooth section of tarmac in my trainers and landed with a bump. Come to think of it, the trainers had a down side as soon as they were back on my feet when we descended Swirral Edge: I noticed that the friction was much better in bare feet and my feet had been giving me an enormous amount of feedback as to how well they were sticking to the wet rock on Striding Edge. Once in trainers that feedback was removed completely.

There’s a lot to be said for connecting with the ground in your bare feet. Get out there an try it!

Thanks to Lewis for the photos!

Light and flexible winter walking footwear.

Years of shifting further into barefoot walking, running and climbing have made my body stronger and my movement lighter. As every step has been filled with more meaning and significance, I have become more connected to the environment and more present in the moment. Through spring, summer and autumn, time in nature has been just as rewarding as my first walk in mountains and my first climb on rock. Then comes winter, with it’s beautiful blanket of snow, exciting ribbons of ice and heavy boots that encase my feet in a rigid box, preventing natural movement, reducing warm circulation and disconnecting me from the terrain.

Kahtoola Micro Spikes on slightly heavier shoes than those I wore.

I have been experimenting with an alternative footwear solution for winter mountain walking where the terrain is not so steep to demand the need for edging in hard snow or front-pointing on steep ice. I recently tried soft and flexible approach shoes with warm wool socks and Kahtoola Micro Spikes on a solo night-hike around Kentmere. Snow had settled on the valley floor, ice covered the paths and low cloud surrounded the white hills in a thick mist. Wanting to be light on my feet, I walked with just a map, a compass and a head torch, emphasising the need for good foot placements as I was not equipped to stay put or go slow in the event of an injury.

A section of the Kentmere Horseshoe with daylight and a high cloud base.

Walking felt a good deal easier and more comfortable in approach shoes than in mountaineering boots. It was faster, more enjoyable and my feet were pleasantly warm with the increased circulation. This warmth remained in deep snow where my feet were wet but never cold and the addition of waterproof socks would have kept me even warmer. The spikes gave good grip on ice and every step felt secure. The only mishap came when I was tempted to run and forgot to maintain an extra-wide gait: a spike from one foot catching the chain of the other and propelling me into a dive that ended in an amusing, face-first snow plough.

Scarpa Manta boots with Grivel crampons.

My mountaineering boots and associated crampons are excellent tools on hard snow and ice where the gradient is steep enough to need a stiff edge to cut into the snow or a sharp front point to puncture the ice. They have just a little bend in the mid-sole and I now wear them on winter climbing outings where I would once have worn completely rigid boots but, for winter walking days when the terrain is less steep, I shall continue searching for a footwear solution that offers warmth, dryness and flexibility for a more natural movement of the feet. Just remember to walk AND run like John Wayne when wearing micro spikes on the feet.

A Winter Day in Arnside.

Laid low by a bug doing the rounds in Lancaster earlier this winter, I was aching for some time in nature after several days in bed. Feeling a little shaky on my feet as I stepped out of the house and looked down the street, I was greeted by a wonderful view across Morecambe Bay to the snow covered mountains of the Lakes:

I wasn’t ready for a big walk but I got into the van and drove through Silverdale to Arnside Knott, where you can park up, take a short stroll to the top of the hill and enjoy views like this: