Pillar Rock, from below

Pillar Rock, from below

Date completed: 31st May 2010

Weather conditions: The morning promised a hot day, but it clouded over about 11.00 am: which I was glad of considering the walk’s exertions. It remained dry, however (as it has all year).

Fells climbed: Pillar (2927 feet above sea level, no. 56)

Distance: 10.2 miles approximately

Fleetwith Pike

Fleetwith Pike, viewed from the path to Scarth Gap

Total ascent: 4250 feet approx. – which gives this walk the distinction of being the first of mine to involve over 4000 feet of ascent.

Note that though the total ascent of 3550 feet, given on page 14 of Wainwright’s chapter on Pillar, is the highest total ascent given in any one of the hundreds of different ascents in the Pictorial Guides, bear in mind this only accounts for the climb to Pillar’s summit and therefore discounts the pull up from Black Sail YHA to Scarth Gap. This accounts for the remaining 700 feet of my climb.

Start and end points: Started at Gatesgarth and finished at Buttermere village. Both can be reached on the #77 bus from Keswick (though as it turned out on the day, the return trip from Buttermere was more theoretical than real).

Pub at end: The Fish Hotel, Buttermere. A pub which clearly sets its stall out to get large crowds on a Bank Holiday Monday – like this one – but fortunately no worse for that, with good beer and friendly service. I had to wait over an hour here after the posted time for a bus (see commentary below), but it was not that much of a bind, which is partly to the credit of this place.

Route card: Click on the link to download a route card (2Mb, .doc format), showing summary information, a map, the elevation profile and waypoints with grid references. Route card for Walk 16: Pillar

Route: This is not an easy one, and divergences from the route matter, so if you are going to follow me, please listen carefully…  And please also bear in mind this is a tough walk, that is not to be underestimated. But it is definitely worth it, getting you up close and personal with some of the best scenery that Lakeland (and Britain) has to offer.

View from Pillar Cove

View from the ascent to Pillar Cove, across to the north wall of Ennerdale

The route up to Scarth Gap from Gatesgarth is obvious enough, but there are two important bifurcations to be aware of. The first is towards the summit of Scarth Gap in which you have to skip left through the wall when you reach it despite the more obvious path being to the right, on the side of the wall that you are on. But, that takes you up to High Crag whereas the route to Scarth Gap is the way through the wall (cf. Wainwright’s High Crag 5 page). And having reached the summit of Scarth Gap and begun your descent, importantly for this route, you need to make sure you spot the junction  at NY 188125. This is the point at which the path to the Liza Memorial Footbridge parts company with the one down to Black Sail YHA. It really is not clear when you are descending, so look out for the point at which the descending path reaches a corner of the forest fence, including a wooden gate across the small beck. Here look for the path doubling back to the right. That’s the one you want.

This path is then of deteriorating quality, thanks partly, it seems, to rockfalls from the slope above. Stick close to the fence and then cross at the first stile you come to and slope down through a desert of stones to the forest road and then the footbridge. Once across the bridge, turn right and, when the forest road almost immediately forks, left (up the slope).

At that point it really is just a matter of picking the point at which to leave the forest road to climb  the steep slope on your left by whatever means possible – just head directly for Pillar Rock. There is a path, though it took me a few minutes of scrambling through the remnants of the forest to find it. It’s towards the right-hand bank, when ascending, of Pillarcove Beck [note: nameless on OS maps; Wainwright gave it this name on p. 13 of his chapter]. Keep as close as you can to this bank – ignoring the branch streams which you will have to cross – until the beck basically ceases to exist; by then, Robinson’s Cairn is visible and Wainwright suggests you ascend as far as that, though to be honest, you could probably bear to the right earlier than the cairn in order to hit the sketchy path that is the High Level Route. But basically what you are doing is ascending to the left side of Pillar Rock, as you look at it.

View from Robinson's Cairn

View from Robinson’s Cairn. Shamrock Traverse slants diagonally, above centre, heading to the top of Pillar Rock (right of centre).

From Robinson’s Cairn on you should probably have a copy of page 11 of Wainwright’s chapter on Pillar; the photo here may help too (remember you can see a bigger version of any photo on this site by clicking on these images). The path is clear enough as it descends slightly, and then climbs up to the Shamrock Traverse, hopefully visible on the photo here. This then climbs to the point at which Pillar Rock joins the main body of the fell. The path is then obvious for a while  – which is not to say it is easy – but there also comes a point at which you have to look carefully about how to get up a slope that rises directly above you, and you must slant to the right rather than go straight up. Of course it is very difficult to describe here exactly where that is, but basically, if you feel at any point that you have come to the end of what is realistically possible without a rope and carabiners – then that’s it. You can get up – I did – and without putting yourself in a truly perilous situation. But it’s not an obvious route. The first step is the hardest one.

Eventually you will collapse up onto the broad summit of Pillar and after that it is a matter of following obvious paths down to Black Sail Pass, the YHA and then back up to Scarth Gap and along the shore of Buttermere.

Mountain-man commentary stuff: Well, I said a few weeks ago that before too long I would do a real mountain. And this is the one. Pillar is the 8th highest Wainwright of all, and it greatly impressed me when I saw it from Haystacks back at the end of April.

Pillar Rock from a distance

Pillar Rock from Ennerdale

There were other reasons to get it done this week, but these also serve as an indication of why I was moderately apprehensive about the climb. Pillar is not only one of the biggest but one of the more remote Wainwrights and that applies regardless of the public transport commitment. It is rooted in Ennerdale, but that valley has never been accessible by road nor had accommodation beyond the Black Sail Hut near the dalehead. Buttermere is as near as one can get on a bus. Wainwright says clearly on page 14 of his chapter that Pillar can be climbed from there but, and I quote, ‘it is a route for strong walkers only’. This is because one needs to ascend to Scarth Gap, at 1460 feet, before dropping back down to Ennerdale and then climbing 2300 feet in 1.08 miles, at a gradient I work out to be 1/2.52.

In other words, this is A Mountain, and my route today was the hardest and most arduous way up it. Wainwright says (p. 13) that the route is:

A steep and rough, but romantic adventurous climb in magnificent surroundings; the finest way up the mountain. Pillar Rock grips the attention throughout. Unfortunately, the route is somewhat remote from tourist centres, but strong walkers can do it from Buttermere via Scarth Gap.

View up Ennerdale, towards Black Sail

View up Ennerdale, towards Black Sail

The ascent of Scarth Gap was a doddle (at least compared to what was to come); the walk down through Ennerdale a bit dispiriting, however. The whole valley looks neglected, even by the Forestry Commission; bleached skeletons of old trees are just industrial litter, really, and as aesthetically displeasing as a decaying scrap yard in an urban landscape. (See picture.) However, there are distractions. The north face of Pillar looms above with increasing force, and Pillar Rock is more extraordinary the nearer I get to it. Remember the rock tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? That’s what it looks like (see above).

Actually I doubt 90% – or more – of anyone who climbs Pillar ever sees it properly. It certainly isn’t visible, or even suspected, from most of the summit plateau. Nor is Ennerdale frequented enough for many people to glimpse it when descending or even simply passing by. Yet I have to say this is probably the most impressive piece of rock I have ever seen in England, and one gets very close to it on this walk. Not as close as the rock climbers I see as I get closest to the summit of High Man (picture below)… but as close as I ever want to get to a crag like that with a) my lack of equipment b) my basic antipathy to heights.

On the other hand, don’t think that once you get to the top of the Rock that your work is over. It’s at least another 400 feet of tough scrambling. There was one point at which I reckoned I had really come to the end of what I could realistically do and was going to have to go all the way back to Robinson’s Cairn and start again. It took about 10 minutes to overcome this impasse by just standing back from it and trying to look at it from a different angle, and gathering the courage to take the first step up knowing that if I get the route wrong I probably won’t be coming back down. The plunge taken, shortly after that I was on the top. And never have I been more glad to see a summit, nor feel that my lunch was better earned.

Rock climbers near the summit of High Man (Pillar Rock)

Rock climbers near the summit of High Man (Pillar Rock)

After that, though I was barely 40% of the way through the walk in terms of distance, the hard work was all over. The descent to Black Sail YHA neither felt particularly long nor particularly hard (Yewbarrow being the most impressive thing seen on the way down, by the way); nor was the climb back up from there to Scarth Gap as tiring as I had feared it would be. My knee started hurting on the way down to Buttermere lake but the descent finished before it really got me, and though the walk back to Buttermere village was further than it could have been it wasn’t too bad at all, despite the numbers of people there whose limits of entertainment and exercise seemed to involve loudly throwing stones into the lake.

Whether this was particular to this BH Monday or just happens every time the Lake District gets very busy, the #77 bus was heroically late today. The 2.25pm bus was over an hour late, the 3.25pm two hours and ten minutes late and the 4.25 nearly 90 minutes late. It didn’t really affect me too much, as I only had to get back to Braithwaite, but there were people waiting for the bus who needed to go a lot further, and what if I’d had to get back to Hebden or Morecambe? OK, it’s not so controllable on such a busy Bank Holiday but when you are stuck in a village with poor to nonexistent mobile signals and there are people waiting to hear from you because they know you have been on a somewhat dangerous walk… it does start to matter.

Anyway, I made it back to Buttermere in 5½ hours, despite this being the stiffest walk yet in terms of ascent. I did not succumb to the disastrous image Wainwright evokes on page 14 of his chapter, of the ‘Buttermere-bound pedestrian crossing Scarth Gap on his hands and knees as the shadows of evening steal o’er the scene’. I guess that means I am a strong walker. I know I will never be a strong climber, though. That’s as near to rocks like Pillar Rock as I want to get.

2 Responses to “Walk 16: Pillar”

  1. Adrian said

    Did this walk back in the mid 1980s. The section from the forest directly up to the Pillar I’ll never forget. The effort almost killed me even though I was only about 20. Very nostalgic to read about it again after all these years. Thanks.

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