The Sour Milk Gill cascades

The Sour Milk Gill cascades, which accompany the final descent to Seathwaite.

Date completed: 29th July 2012.

Weather conditions:  Crap. Really crap. Full-on Crapola, in fact.

Fells climbedKirk Fell (2630’, no. 188), Great Gable (2949’, no. 189), Green Gable (2603’, no. 190), Base Brown (2120’, no. 191).

Cloud envelopes Base Brown

Cloud envelopes Base Brown, the final summit of the day (compare with the photo below, taken a minute or so earlier)

Distance:  6.94 miles. All four summits come in the first four miles, by the way.

Total ascent:  3019 feet.

Start and end points: Started at the Black Sail youth hostel – which you have to walk to, so this was the second day of a two day hike. Finished at the bus stop in Seatoller, where the #78 services (that run all year) turn around and go back to Keswick.

Pub at end:  The OS map still promises one but I have yet to see sign of a pub in Seatoller. I had time to pop into the Bank Tavern, which is the nearest one to Keswick bus station.

Route card: Click here to download a route card which includes an elevation profile (how hilly the walk is), waypoints with grid references, and a summary map. Route Card for walk 60b: Great Gable

Beck Head

Beck Head, start of the pull up to Great Gable

Route: Under decent weather conditions I would hope that this would be a very good walk which gets you up one of the most famous summits in the district. Under wet and misty conditions, particularly after a long walk the day before, it became, to put it mildly, a bit of a bugger. There are two tough, rocky ascents, and, conversely, two steep descents which need a lot of care (remember, most accidents happen on the descent).

The main path to the left of the Black Sail hut’s front door will take you up to the eponymous pass, between Pillar and, on your left, Kirk Fell. Kirkfell Crags, which you must ascend, look rather imposing above you, but a clear path does head toward them to help orient you, and from that point on it’s just a matter of being sensible and keeping an eye on what you are climbing towards. The route I took swung first to the left, but then back round to the crest above the pass below, before the final pull up to the plateau. But that may not be the only way to do it.


The hanging valley of Gillercomb. The crags are Gillercomb Buttress, a part of Grey Knotts.

On the plateau, which is a lot more expansive than you expect. all you need to do is follow the fence. This leads up to the summit cairn, then makes an angle. Keep following it, as it leads past Kirkfell Tarn and over the subsidiary summit. Beck Head, with its tarn, will then be visible below. (Presumably, at this point, Great Gable also rises up dramatically ahead to give you direction, but I didn’t see it through the clouds.)

The climb up Great Gable from Beck Head is – like all ascents to this summit – steep and stony, though in the end probably comparable to what you’ve just done to get up Kirk Fell. A ‘path’ of sorts does go up the whole way, so if you find yourself on any very rocky bits, you’ve lost the path and it’s worth refinding it.

Check the advice about the summit in Wainwright (page Great Gable 22), because in clearer weather it probably will be worth exploring, and whether you do or not, you need to make sure you are leaving the summit in the right direction. Find the war memorial tablet, turn your back on it, and the path to Windy Gap heads off straight ahead. This is not a terribly bad descent – the one bit Wainwright (and, on the day, some ascending walkers) warns about, needed care, yes, but I’ve had worse – but it can’t be rushed.

View of Base Brown and Borrowdale

View of Base Brown and Borrowdale, taken a minute or so before the cloud came in again (compare with the picture above).

The summit of Green Gable is then easily attained from Windy Gap and the path continues on. There is an important junction coming up, however, so take care. The path divides gradually into two, and you need to take the right-hand branch – the left leads down to Honister, and, while it will still get you home, will omit Base Brown from the route. If you need to bag it – take the right path.  Base Brown is directly ahead and easy enough to reach once you leave the main path at the turn it makes down into Gillercomb.

After having visited the summit, the safest way down is back the way you came until rejoining the footpath, then turning right and going down into the hanging valley below. This path leads through Gillercomb before plunging, like the stream, over the lip of the hanging valley and down to Seathwaite.

This descent – again, particularly in wet weather when the rocks are slippery – is the final challenge of the day. The cascades of Sour Milk Gill are some recompense, but with Seathwaite seeming so close below, the temptation to rush must be avoided. There is one difficult bit, a scramble down some rocky outcrops between the trees. (Wainwright suggests there is a path down on the other bank which may be easier, but I could not find a place to safely ford Sour Milk Gill, so could not reach it to try it. If you arrive during a drier period it may be open to you.)

The war memorial on the top of Great Gable

The war memorial on the top of Great Gable

Seathwaite is the end of the walk proper – and will be reached with relief – but there is no public transport there. It’s about another mile to the bus stop at Seatoller. In this case, I was content to walk on the road, as it was easiest on the legs after a tough two days; the only remaining danger is being run over by psychopaths in silver BMWs.

Grinding It Out commentary: Staying at Black Sail was fun but the morning was grey and wet. There was no point ducking out of what was to come, however. Although this was a walk that bags me my highest remaining Wainwright, and one of the best-known fells in the district – Great Gable – that could actually have been done from home. The real outlier, the logistical challenge, was Kirk Fell, which is a long way from any public transport terminus and only really a convenient ascent from this remote spot. And once I’ve got up Kirk Fell, the quickest way home still lies over the top of Great Gable anyway. (There is, I know, a supposed minibus service up to Wasdale Head, but as is often the case it’s so badly timed as to make it of little use to anyone except people already living or staying in West Cumbria. If people thought about this kind of thing the revenue they could make from it would rise considerably. But no one ever does, it seems.)

So despite the weather I might as well do it all as planned. I think to myself, maybe I’ll be lucky, like yesterday, and there’ll be more good (or dry, at least) than bad. Maybe the clouds will clear and I’ll get some more dramatic photos. It’s Great Gable after all; there are bound to be things to see, anyway, right?

Top of the Sour Milk Gill cascades

This is the end of Gillercomb: the point at which Sour Milk Gill throws itself into Borrowdale below.

The nagging memory comes back however – that all of yesterday I never saw Great Gable once emerge from its cap of cloud. And that’s how it turns out. Unlike yesterday, there is no clear air coming in from the Irish Sea, or if there is, it doesn’t reach me. The whole walk as far as Gillercomb is done in a squally, periodic but persistent drizzle. I occasionally catch a glimpse of the valleys below, such as Wasdale, where there is some clear air but everything above 2000 feet remains in cloud all morning. My early start at least means the tops are done quickly – I reach Base Brown at noon – but I’m pretty fed up by that point to tell the truth.  It’s wet and cold, very chilly in fact – I needed gloves, definitely. Was it too much to ask that late July might have come through with better weather than this?

I don’t want to whinge. Most of these walks have been very positive experiences and it’s a shame today wasn’t. I usually find something positive in every walk, but today I only really starting feeling happy at the very end, walking through Seathwaite and knowing that a) I had managed to get up and down all those slippery rocks without breaking my leg b) over the last five days I’d done 12 Wainwrights, a third of the number that remained to be bagged this time last week. It’s been a significant step towards completion. Against expectations, I must admit, my knee held out. But on the walk itself, there is no point dwelling.

Misty scene in Ennerdale

Misty scene in Ennerdale, this morning


3 Responses to “Walk 60b: Great Gable and satellites”

  1. […] of which this was the third, I have broken it into two pages on here: Walk 60a (High Stile) and walk 60b (Great Gable). […]

  2. […] fells spoilt by atrocious weather — the drenching received while going up Great Gable on walk 60b being the […]

  3. […] Gable was definitely one of those, having been first bagged in really foul weather in July 2012 (walk 60b, which I still say was the worst single day’s walking I’ve done on this […]

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