Joe on Scafell Pike summit

2.35pm, 29/5/18, and Joe can call himself the highest person in England.

Date completed: 29th May 2018 (with Joe).

It is four years to the day since Joe and I did another, rather different, walk together: walk 83 round Windermere town (29/5/14).

Weather conditions: Perfect in every way, as the photos make clear. There was even a pleasant breeze to stop it being too hot. No fault to be found with any aspect of today’s conditions.

Rossett Pike and bracken

Rossett Pike, the day’s intensely blue skies, and the year’s early bracken crop

Summits bagged: Scafell Pike (3210 feet above sea level, number 146 of my second round), Lingmell (2649’, no, 147).

Scafell Pike (which is, of course, the highest mountain in England) was previously bagged on walk 56, 19th May 2012. Lingmell was previously bagged on walk 20b, 3rd July 2010.

Start and end points: Started at Dungeon Ghyll. Finished at Seatoller. Dungeon Ghyll has #516 bus services all year to Ambleside, Seatoller #78 services all year to Keswick.

The walk was today done at Joe’s pace. He (we) fitted the walk between the, roughly, 10am drop-off at Dungeon Ghyll (this bus leaves Ambleside at 9.25) and the 18.50 bus from Seatoller back to Keswick. This allows a connection to the 19.25 #X4 service from Keswick to Penrith rail station. Note, however, that these two buses are each the last such service of the day. Miss the 18.50 and one is stranded in Seatoller. We made it with 13 minutes to spare.

Distance walked: 13 miles approximately.

Seathwaite

Seathwaite farm, towards the end of the walk

Total ascent: 3,800 feet approximately.

Pub at end: After many years of being ‘dry’, or at least, my thinking it was, it appears Seatoller can now provide alcoholic (and other) refreshments at the Glaramara outdoor centre, which is a couple of minutes’ walk from the bus stop. When coming out of the Seathwaite lane, you can see the centre ahead: turn right rather than left.

Alas, we could not risk missing the bus and did not have enough time to patronise the place today. Meaning I do not know if it stays open as late as 6.30pm: the web site does not offer this information.

With no time in Keswick either our thirsts were not slaked until the Agricultural Hotel outside Penrith station; but that is a decent pub, usually with some good beer on.

Bowfell and seagulls

Flock of seagulls in Mickleden, looking up to Bowfell

Route: A summary of what can be expected on this route is readily available on page 12 of the Scafell Pike chapter in Wainwright, which I may as well quote here:

The ascent of Scafell Pike is the toughest proposition the ‘collector’ of summits is called upon to attempt…. The difficulties are due more to roughness of the ground than to altitude, and to the remoteness of the summit from frequented valleys. From all bases except Wasdale Head the climb is long and arduous, and progress is slow: this is a full-day expedition, and appropriate preparations should be made. Paths are good, but only in the sense that they are distinct: they are abominably stony, even bouldery…

Amen to all that. Let me also add that Scafell Pike is always a crowded summit; by far the busiest, on average, of all the 330, except perhaps Catbells. There were spells of greater solitude on the way down via the Corridor Route, but otherwise, your photographs are going to have people in them, so learn to live with it.

Top of Rossett Gill

Joe reaches the top of Rossett Gill, to his great relief. Mickleden below.

There are, of course, positive aspects to it all. The views are certainly dramatic; other mountains take in turn to impress. Bowfell dominates the climb up Rossett Gill, whereas on the way down it is Great Gable that holds the attention. Scafell and Lingmell each show their dramatic crags in full face. There is a real, and justified, sense of achievement once Seatoller is reached. But it is not a walk to be underestimated, and unlike several people witnessed today, you need to wear something more robust than training shoes to undertake it.

From where the bus drops you at Dungeon Ghyll, head up towards the hotel a little way and then go through a prominently-signposted gate to reach the path down Mickleden. At one point the view ahead totally evokes the shape of the glacier that carved the valley back in the last Ice Age. It’s a tranquil spot (as long as there aren’t too many other hikers around) and helps get the limbs warmed up for the first test of the day, Rossett Gill.

Ill Crag summit

Looking to the summit cairn of Ill Crag

This (in)famous path is clearly much improved from Wainwright’s day. His rather despairing descriptions of it in the first edition have been toned down in Jesty’s update. It’s certainly no longer an unpleasant climb, but it does outstay its welcome by, say, 20 minutes. From Dungeon Ghyll to the top of the Gill took us (Joe) exactly two hours. The shelter at Esk Hause, an obvious lunch spot, was another 35 minutes or so further on.

At the shelter, turn left up the path that rises first to the true Esk Hause (see the explanation on pages Esk Pike 3-4), then bear right, along the edge of Calf Cove. Remember that the shapely peak rising ahead is not your destination, but the summit of Ill Crag, and it is not until the shoulder of that is crossed that Scafell Pike itself comes into view for the first time. As AW says on page Scafell Pike 20, “many hearts have sunk into many boots as this scene unfolds…” as the Pike’s summit is seen to be “still a rough half-mile distant, with two considerable descents” to be faced yet.

Boulders on Ill Crag

The first bouldery passage, on Ill Crag. And there’s worse to come yet.

And this is not to mention the bouldery ground. A ‘taster’ of this comes before the Pike has even been seen, with a couple of hundred yards of very awkward ground to cross on Ill Crag (as depicted here). This relents, but only for a little while. Broad Crag and the final climb to the summit are a mix of massive boulders and ashy, eroded scree that are both unpleasant and trying to negotiate. There is no sense of enjoyment about this section and the summit is reached with great relief, but you won’t find anywhere quiet for a rest. Still, you deserve a celebration: you have reached the summit of England.

Descend to the north-east, toward Lingmell, which will have attracted attention on the way up due to its striking configuration, its crags looking rather like the tentacles of some mythical sea creature, at least to my eyes (see the picture). This can be added to the walk for the cost of, as I proved, an extra 20 minutes up from and back down to Lingmell col. (Joe demurred from accompanying me on this one.)

Lingmell from Broad Crag col

Lingmell, as seen from Broad Crag col

Whether Lingmell is climbed or not, the way down then lies along the ‘Corridor Route’ (a.k.a. the ‘Guides’ Route’), which heads for Sty Head to the right of Great Gable, the tarn there being clearly visible to give direction (should you happen to not know where Sty Head is). This is a good path, not as crowded as other routes today and with some dramatic views of the ravines that split this mountainside: first Piers Gill (it seems unbelievable that the little stream trickling down from Broad Crag col could have carved such an immense canyon), then Greta Gill, beside which some scrambling is required. Finally, Skew Gill is crossed, after which there is a short climb — the last of the day — up to the Sty Head – Esk Hause path. This can be crossed and a short cut taken to the path that runs down to Seathwaite — this is marked as ‘route H’ on Wainwright’s map on page Great End 3.

From Styhead Tarn it’s all straightforward, but keep an eye on the time if you’ve a bus to catch. From the tarn, down to Stockley Bridge, Seathwaite and along the road to Seatoller took us (Joe) 1 hour and 25 minutes.

Seathwaite and Seathwaite Fell

Seathwaite and its eponymous Fell, in the pleasant evening light

The Boy Done Good commentary: I have been mooting, to Joe, the idea of climbing Scafell Pike for some time now. To be fair to him he has not played that hard to get, initial reactions securing a kind of ‘yeah, OK then’ level of approval that over the last few weeks has solidified into a concrete plan.

This week is the half-term school break and the weather has been good for most of May, so today was the day to put the plan into action. The random factor was the teetering state of Northern Rail’s services, a tale of woe and imminent collapse that, if you’re not already familiar with it, I could describe in intimate and despairing detail; but let me spare you that. In actuality all three needed train services, and both buses, ran perfectly punctually and we were striding out from Dungeon Ghyll by 10am, out under perfect blue skies, sunscreen on, plenty of water in the packs, all was right with the world.

Joe and Ill Crag

Joe and Ill Crag

I did joke with Joe that he didn’t quite know what he was letting himself in for by agreeing to this one. A few hours later and I was having to acknowledge to myself that the passing of six years (since walk 56) had also fogged my own memories of just how unpleasant are some aspects of this walk. Rossett Gill is nothing to get anxious about since the path was re-engineered but the final sections, from Ill Crag to the summit, are never going to be subjected to any similar works and thus will always require intensely awkward clambering over fields of boulders and piles of loose scree that sap the enjoyment out of those sections of the walk.

Nor is Joe particularly confident on loose ground, especially in descent. The hike therefore took considerably longer than it would have done had I done it alone. Which is not to criticise — the party moves at the speed of its slowest member and that’s what being a good walking companion is all about — but it was as well that I had packed a bus timetable and checked the schedules as we reached Sty Head, because only then did I realise we were at some risk of stranding ourselves in Seatoller. There are worse places to be stuck, of course, but a better plan was to up the pace a little. In the end, despite four aching feet (I just stay quieter about mine), we made that last bus with about a quarter of an hour to spare. Despite the travails of the day Joe professed himself satisfied with it all and so was I.

Burnthwaite

View from the Corridor Route, down to Burnthwaite near Wasdale Head

Congratulations to him; if you think Scafell Pike is easy — you clearly haven’t done it. However, my two visits have so far not succeeded in convincing me that Wainwright should have ranked this as the best fell of all at the end of Book Seven, where he assigns his ‘Top Six’ on the basis of their possessing “height, a commanding appearance, a good view, steepness and ruggedness…” and though acknowledging that popular opinion would probably rank Great Gable at the very top, he’s plumping for Scafell Pike.

Yet my feeling is — why? Personally I find it less interesting and/or attractive, and certainly a less fun climb, than at least three of the other ‘Top Six’, namely Bowfell, Blencathra and Pillar. The Pike doesn’t have a single natural feature to which one can get up close and personal, and provide dramatic memories (like Striding Edge on Helvellyn, say). There are summit views that are obviously less extensive but better in terms of composition (again, I offer those of Bowfell and Blencathra).

Great End

Back view of Great End, from the ascent

And then there are all the people…. Obviously, like with a car driver who complains about the traffic, I was an active contributor to the day’s crowds, and it’s foolish to suggest that a landmark like this should not attract them. But all other things being equal it’s just nicer to walk in greater solitude than the Pike is ever going to offer. Usually out on the fells there is a sense of camaraderie with other walkers, or at least, acknowledgment of shared goals. Here it all feels more competitive, less friendly.

But that’s enough Scafell Pike-bashing. Let me just admit that I am not as enamoured of it as I might be and simultaneously feel proud for having reached its summit a second time: and proud of Joe for his first visit. AW is probably right to say (page SP 23) that “this rough and desolate summit is, after all, just as it should be… A smooth green promenade here would be wrong”. All the same, I won’t be rushing back.

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