Elsa and Seth at the trig point

Climbing Pen-y-ghent with Kids

by Jim Coulson

My memories of climbing Pen-y-ghent the first time are hazy. It was pre-Covid for a start, meaning that it seems like it was about five lifetimes ago. It was also siling down with rain so I might have tried to block it out, and it was the first of the Yorkshire Three Peaks that I scaled in a single day, as well as being the smallest, so I probably recall it with some fondness for those reasons alone. This is all to say that, when my wife asked me recently if I thought it was realistic for the kids, eight and five, to climb it with us, there was a reason that I replied with a bright “yes, sure, no problem. It’s a breeze.” The conversation continued. “And there’s no actual rock climbing. No scrambling?” “No. None. None at all.”

Elsa and Seth

The reality, however, is that I just couldn’t remember the scrambling bit. But we’ll come to that later on. I have often bemoaned the fact that we live on the edge of the Dales, but we rarely venture up that way. I love the outdoors, am passionate about the Yorkshire countryside and enjoy standing on top of tall things, looking down at relatively little things. But I never seem to get around to exploring some of Britain’s most stunning landscapes. This was going to change. We decided we would book a date in the diary, invite friends and then we would have to climb a mountain because it was official. Once it is marked on the calendar in permanent pen, it cannot and will not be changed. We were going to climb Pen-y-ghent and we were going to climb that particular mountain because I had vouched for its child friendliness.

We arrived in Horton-in-Ribblesdale at mid-morning one Saturday in May. The car parks were strewn with the vehicles of Yorkshire Three Peak-ers, most of whom would be somewhere between the Ribblehead viaduct and the summit of Whernside by now, with a notable percentage propping up the bar at the Station Inn at Ribblehead of course.

This meant that it was a lot quieter than the last time I scaled Pen-y-ghent, when the summit resembled the old newsreel footage of football games, where 100,000 spectators move as one amorphous mass because there is not a centimetre of space left unpeopled on the terraces. Pen-y-ghent rises 694 m (2,277 ft) above Horton, with clear footpaths from the village up to the summit. Elsa, my eight-year-old, and her five-year-old brother Seth caught their first glimpse of it from the car park and seemed genuinely excited to be about to bag their first mountain.
We met up with our friends, had the obligatory just-incase- wees that precede any activity with children at the public conveniences in the village and set off a-wandering along the mountain track.

“Elsa was determined to get to the top, but I could sense a wavering in Seth’s eyes.”

The first thing we all noticed was that this supposedly gentle climb (which is how I recalled it) was actually becoming quite steep very quickly. There was a decent footpath to follow, but the incline doesn’t ease you in. You’re definitely climbing straight away. This is why it took less than half an hour to succumb to our first break. I cracked open the fizzy pop and we gazed out over the gorgeous countryside that lay below us. Elsa was determined to get to the top, but I could sense a wavering in Seth’s eyes. I knew what was coming, but I chivvied along the troops and we recommenced the climb.

30 seconds elapsed. “Daddy?” “Yes” “Can I go on your shoulders please?”

A tired Seth

It was inevitable. I hoisted the boy up high and resolved to look upon it as excellent cross training, rather than listen to my ageing joints as they screamed “what are you doing to us?” at the tops of their voices. “I can see for miles up here, Daddy!” Seth pronounced chirpily. “Good for you,” I hissed back. Another half an hour and Elsa was flagging, so it was time to unwrap the kids’ picnic of the gods that I had put together the night before, anticipating that there might need to be some bribery afoot to maintain momentum up the slope.

As we tucked into our sausage rolls, pork pies, crisps and butties, we swapped updates on our general fatigue levels. Unsurprisingly, the eight-year-old was feeling the burn, and of course I mentioned that I might be a touch weary. Then Seth claimed that his legs were tired and I  shot him a look of exasperation that he happily ignored before asking if he could go back on my shoulders for the next bit.

“However, with real youngsters, it can be a heart-inmouth experience for parents.”

And the next bit was not the end. Not the beginning of the end. But more like the end of the beginning. You see, there are two very distinct elements to Pen-y-ghent. There is the steep incline on footpaths through fields which, although challenging, is quite straightforward. And then there is the scrambling-up-rock bit. The bit that I had forgotten about. The bit that I had insisted did not exist.

Still, we had another rest and decided that we had come more than two-thirds of the way and we weren’t going to turn back now. If you’re climbing Pen-y-ghent without kids or with older children, this bit isn’t as difficult as it seems when you first set eyes on it. Yes, it’s steep. Yes, it’s uneven. Yes, it’s not great fun if you meet someone coming the other way. But it is achievable, it’s not that large a proportion of the whole climb and you don’t need any specialist equipment.

Elsa begins the climb…

However, with real youngsters, it can be a heart-inmouth experience for parents. The kids, of course, loved pulling themselves up over the rocks. We, on the other hand, were on super high alert, shadowing their every move with limbs ready to pounce into action and catch them before they fell. They didn’t fall. Of course they didn’t. It’s not THAT tough, and kids have great balance. Much more likely this clumsy 43-year-old who can trip himself up just walking down an empty street would find himself in trouble more than they would. But that means nothing when matched
against a parent’s anxious instincts.

And then we did it. We reached the top. We posed at the trig point and, three years on from my last visit, not only was the summit much less populated, but I could also see for miles this time on what was a delightful, warm, sunny Yorkshire Dales day. The views are stunning and well
worth the stress of the scramble. But it’s not just that. It is the sense of achievement too. For the adults and for the kids. Yes, Seth had caught a lift for a large portion of the climb, but he had still managed a good chunk of it under his own steam. Elsa powered herself up and back down the five-and-a-half mile route like a champ and was rightly chuffed with herself.

Reaching the top

For my part, I felt that I deserved a pint. Just to replace the lost fluids, of course. So we nipped into the Crown before heading home. All-in-all an absolutely cracking day and one that I will definitely remember this time. Mainly because I have written it down here and will read this back
in full before answering any future questions on what it is like to climb Pen-y-ghent.

NorthernLife July/August 2022