The Route from Borrowdale
02.10.2009 20 °C
Just over 30 years ago on a damp Spring day, a young boy arrived for the first time at Wasdale Head to a scene of high peaks lost in racing grey cloud and precipitous screes plunging from swirling mists into still dark water. Even the journey from Barrow in Furness had left a lasting impression, one of deep rugged valleys and wide lonely moors leading to this spot which could have been the other side of the World, so different it was from Barrow’s terraced streets.
My first attempt on Scafell Pike at the age of 7, accompanied by Dad, Uncle Gordon and Cousin Brian who was the same age, went well for a first time at fell walking. A valiant effort took our intrepid party as far as the shelter below Esk Hause where in deteriorating weather and surrounded by a dense grey windblown fog, a retreat was called by expedition leader Dad.
I have since made several ascents of England’s highest peak in many different types of weather – in this area you’re lucky if you don’t get sun, snow, rain and wind on the same day – though this does add to the variety! Wasdale too, remains one of my favourite areas of the Lakes and it’s little changed since my first visit. The direct road route, mainly single track, via the spectacular Wrynose and terrifying Hard Knott Passes seems sufficient deterrent to the hordes of tourists who invade the Central Lakes in summer.
Last week found me not at Wasdale but at Seathwaite in the Borrowdale valley, the only place I hadn’t done the Pike from. To my dismay, there were well over 100 cars parked along the end of the road and this was still an early hour. Surely some sort of park and ride system in summer would help to keep this beautiful valley looking more like it has for the last 500 years and less like Asda car park.
Jacqui, who was with me on this walk agreed, but did assure me that weekends in good weather were always busy over this side, I guess for the quiet way up the Pike it’s winter, midweek or the route up from Eskdale! The path led through the farm buildings and straight on via a couple of gates to follow the valley up with the river on our right. The crowds leaving Asda car park had begun to spread out somewhat by the time we reached Stockley Bridge and there were views up to the right of the impressive waterfall of Taylorgill Force.
Many of the place names in the Lakes are evidence of a Viking past; for instance force, fell and dale are similar to the words foss, fjell and dal, the present day Norwegian words for waterfall, mountain and valley. The Vikings must have felt at home here – there vare many places in Norway that reminded me of the Lakes. Even the weather has its similarities – Seathwaite is the wettest place in England but not today! The Sun shone from a cloudless sky and it became uncomfortably hot after we crossed the bridge and began the steep ascent. After several rest stops, we crossed a stone wall by a stile up to the left of the waterfall. The view back down the valley had opened out – the valley sides framing distant Blencathra to the North.
Leaving the wall we passed a small area of trees just above the falls and climbed up to leave the sheltered confines of the valley entering a wide grassy area with the rocky crests of Scafell Pike and Lingmell now visible ahead. It was a little cooler here as the easy gradient followed the river along to where it flowed out from Sty Head Tarn.
Passing the tarn, a short uphill walk led us to Sty Head Pass itself, a crossroads high in the fells. Our route lay first left towards Great End for perhaps 10 minutes then down a path branching to the right across the front of this mountain. After the short descent, we reached the stony bed of Skew Gill, one of several deep ravines crossing this fell side. A short scramble followed out of the far side of the Gill, then a steady rough ascent across the steep slopes. Higher up the going became easier and the views down the Wasdale side more impressive. Great Gable across the valley assumed its familiar shape and the rocky ground below us fell away steeply to the valley’s grassy floor. Ahead, the crags of Lingmell grew slowly but steadily closer. The path then curved sharply left around a spur and there followed a short easy scramble down followed by a traverse leading back right, around the head of Piers Gill, the most spectacular of the ravines on these slopes. Here we stopped for an early lunch on its far side. The route we followed known as the Corridor Route, was busy today as a steady stream of people made their way towards the Pike, so we decided on a diversion. A short while after leaving our lunch spot, we headed off to the right and followed a ruined wall over to Lingmell Col where there was some semblance of solitude.
As Jacqui hadn’t been up Lingmell, we extended the diversion further, climbing the grassy slopes to this fine peak and enjoying being the only ones on the path. The lonely summit brought us great views of Scafell Crag and Wastwater below while Gable rose impressively across the gulf of the valley. From the edge, one can look directly down into the bed of Piers Gill over 1000 feet below – it’s not actually a vertical drop, but it looks it! As we were about to leave for Scafell Pike, the silence of the mountains was broken by the noise of a helicopter and a drama was enacted across the valley.
The RAF Sea King circled the peak of Gable opposite before descending to the slopes above the Sty Head path where could be made out several people carrying what appeared to be someone ion a stretcher. Even with the binos it was difficult to see exactly what was happening from this distance, but the surreal thing was that us and 2 others on Lingmell, a small crowd atop Gable and a bigger group on the Pike, all appeared to have stopped to watch the drama. I did later find out that the brave men of the Wasdale Mountain Rescue team had carried an injured hiker part way down Gable where he was taken by helicopter to West Cumbria Hospital. As far as I could find out, the chap couldn’t walk but wasn’t very seriously hurt.. I hope he’s OK anyway. For more information on this and other rescues and on the valuable work done by the team, visit www.wasdale-mountain-rescue.org.uk
Returning to Lingmell Col, we began our ascent of the Pike. The way here is steep and stony but not difficult – just tiring! After walking up a large sloping rock slab the going got easier, the view opening out the higher we climbed. It was with relief that we finally stood on the summit though while I’ve only once had it to myself, this was the busiest I’d seen the highest ground in England.
It was worth it for the view though, a vast seascape lay to the west on which the Isle of Man seemed to float like some ship at anchor, while across the Lakes, Windermere appeared beyond the ridge of Bowfell and Crinkle Crags.. The eye was led by the Borrowdale valley from which we’d walked, to Derwentwater and to where Skiddaw, Blencathra and Helvellyn made the horizon. Closer at hand, the familiar Wasdale Fells rose above the coastal plain while to the other side, lay the wild empty spaces of Upper Eskdale. It was a good spot despite the crowds but now it was time to go.
For our return, we followed the normal Esk Hause route back along the ridge to the North. This route’s excessively rough and bouldery to start with though it gets easier after Broad Crag which we in fact visited on the way and at last had a summit to ourselves. Our return was by the knee jarring path following the edge of Grains Gill which though rough, was a more direct route back to Stockley Bridge and Seathwaite. Here's a recent post where myself and Brian went back to the Pike over thirty years after the first time.