The distinction between a hill and a mountain is not always an easy one to make. Strictly speaking, a mountain refers to a landform with a summit above 2,000ft (610m) and, in the Peak District, there are two such ‘mountains’ – Kinder Scout and Bleaklow. Both are around the same height; both have extensive plateaus of boggy peat moorland; and both sit astride Snake Pass, one of the main roads that crosses the Pennines linking Manchester with Sheffield. Yet, in other respects, they could not be more different. Kinder is unquestionably a mountain because of the rock ‘edges’ that flank it on three sides – it rises as a rampart, giving that sense of grandeur one immediately associates with mountains. Bleaklow is just as bulky but, without the rocky approaches, looks like a gently-rounded hill from a distance – and part of it is even named Bleaklow Hill. But looks can be deceptive; for all approaches to Bleaklow, even from the heights of Snake Pass, involve negotiating its notorious ‘groughs’ – dozens of water-eroded channels in the peat moorland that wind tortuously and seemingly without any guiding purpose on almost all areas of the plateau and down into the steep-sided river valleys, or ‘cloughs’ that pierce Bleaklow’s sides.
The groughs are what make Bleaklow a mountain; they prevent any gentle ascent along well-defined paths, as might be expected on a hill; they serve no navigational purpose for the walker, plunging you into a slippery sub-surface landscape that prevents any long view. In any one of these groughs, you simply don’t know where you are; none of them seem to connect with any others, so their winding channels lead you nowhere. Only the wooden stakes that mark (human) territorial boundaries on Bleaklow serve as landmarks, or, at a stretch, the scattered groups of wind- and rain-eroded rocks on the plateau. In mist, navigation by sight is impossible; maps unhelpful – you simply follow the line of the groughs as best you can, hoping they will somehow transport you to the summit. But I have never dared climb Bleaklow in mist; even in bright sunshine, it never fails to frustrate and exhaust the walker in equal measure, the repeating ascents and descents into the groughs as wearying as any much-higher mountain ascents in Britain. And Bleaklow does not just bring walkers down, but also aircraft – the heaviest loss of life from any crash in the Peak District resulting when a USAF Boeing RB-29A Superfortress plane was brought down on Higher Shelf Stones on 3 November 1948. The scattered remains of this machine, together with a more formal plaque, serve as memorials for the 13 crew members who were killed.
Despite living up to its name in many ways, there is something extraordinary about Bleaklow’s lack of distinction, its featureless vastness, and its mysterious cartography. Walking on Bleaklow is a unique experience, a state of mind even, one that demands a surrender to the landscape rather than an attempt to plot a course through it. Paths must be felt in the present moment rather than planned in advance; a sense of progress gained by a different measure than the summit alone. For me, intense and compensatory pleasure on Bleaklow is provided by one of its most mercurial residents, the snow hare – Lepus timidus. With only around 200 pairs scattered all over the high moorland of the Peak District, and the character of the hares living up to their Latin name, encountering one of these animals is a rare occurrence. Yet Bleaklow seems to be their favoured haunt and, on each of the four occasions I’ve been up there, I’ve seen one or two. On my most recent visit, descending from Barrow Stones in bright late-January sunlight, I spotted what I took to be a patch of snow at the edge of a grough. As I moved nearer, nothing served to dispel this illusion until, barely a few feet away, the snow hare sprung onto its haunches and bounded uphill – the black tips of its ears flashing against the sun before it disappeared. The going didn’t get any easier as I descended, but the wearying groughs were now infused with life, perhaps the only life that really knows these wild spaces.