With 36 pages dedicated to it, Blencathra certainly gets the star treatment in Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Northern Fells. When it comes to ascents, there’s twelve options given: one from Mungrisdale, four from Scales and a whopping seven from Threckeld. And then there’s the ridge routes section: two in total, including the route I was following now from Souter Fell.
The ridge route actually meets up with both of the routes up from village of Scales, giving the ridge walker two options as well: ascend via Scales Fell, or go up Sharp Edge. What a choice. Not surprisingly, I still hadn’t chosen by the time I arrived at the crossroads where the two routes diverge from.
Looking around, Scales Fell was clearly the busiest. I could see a veritable queue of people heading up its path. It also looked quite straightforward. Just go up in a roughly straight line, gaining height at a steady rate, and the job’s a good ‘en. The route to Sharp Edge on the other hand, would clearly require a steeper climb. This was obvious by the fact that the path initially stayed relatively flat. Clearly it had to it went up somewhere and that could only mean one thing: a stiff, steep climb was being hidden somewhere.
Still there was something about the Sharp Edge route that was calling me; a thing ridge of rock that provides one of the most famous scrambles in the area. Wainwright described it as being ‘sharp enough for shaving”, and also that it was without doubt a highlight. Coupled with the fact that it overlooks the delightful tarn – and I do love a good tarn – and my mind was made up. Sometimes the more difficult route is the one you just have to take.
For a mile I walked along the path that ran on the side of Scales Fell, and when it met Scales Beck, began the steep climb up to Scales Tarn. And when I arrived at the waters edge, I knew I’d made the right call. The tarn was lovely; a pool of bright and clear, with the back of the tarn dominated by the top of Blencathra, and the fell sloping down on each side. And there on the right was the crowning glory of it all; the rocky razor of Sharp Edge.
I perched my rear-end on a convenient rock, and watched as the previously quiet tarn area slowly began to fill up with walkers taking advantage of this local beauty spot in order to have an early lunch before hitting the summit. But I don’t hold with such nonsense. It’s dinner on a fell top of nothing for me! And so rested, I set forth for the top of Blencathra.
No, not by Sharp Edge. What do you take me for? I mean I’m a fourteen and half stone man with size eleven boots and no sense of nimbleness, or balance. I can fall over on even the flattest of surfaces. Go up on Sharp Edge? No chance.
No, I wasn’t risking life and limb by slipping and falling over a hundred metres down from some rocks and into a tarn. I wasn’t risking it, no chance. And don’t go telling me that school children do it happily, or anything like that. Besides, they have smaller feet than me. And less fear.
Yes, perhaps I was being a bit overcautious, and maybe just a bit over the top. But on the other hand, the good people of Keswick Mountain Rescue do a couple of rescues a year on Sharp Edge, and since 1947 there have been 11 fatalities. Mny of them could be attributed to people doing the edge in wet, snowy or icy conditions (which you really shouldn’t), but many others were simply unfortunate accidents that could happen to anyone.
Well it wouldn’t happen to me as I wasn’t going to go up there. No chance. Not when there is an alternative path to Blencathra’s summit. Instead of turning right for Sharp Edge, the walker merely has to turn left instead and go up along a steep but far safer path that runs up the other side of the tarn. And as you do so, you can stare across at the tiny looking people up on Sharp Edge, and be thankful it’s not you.
It was a steep slog up, but eventually I made it to the summit plateau of Blencathra, and instantly set off to visit the summit fell. A few minutes later I realised I’d headed off to completely the wrong summit, and turned back. See, the thing is that Blencathra looks like a saddle. That’s why people used to call it Saddleback. And that means it has two summits, one higher than the other. Having not paid enough attention to my map, I’d naturally set off for the wrong one.
Still, it would have been a lot quieter at the false summit. At the real one, the crowds were out in force, and the hopes of one lone hiker getting a decent photograph at Blencathra’s trig point were quickly dashed by it being in near constant occupation by large groups taking every combination of photographs possible.
“Now we’ve done Jess and George together, and Joe and Beth. Oh and Jess, George and Beth, and then Joe, Beth and Jess together. What next? Oh yes, George, Beth and Joe all in one shot. Oh hang on, we forgot to include the dog! C’mon everyone, we need to start again!”
Whilst I was waiting, one group shoved their way into the prime spot, with one of the pair staring off into the distance before proclaiming loudly that “Sharp Edge looks a lot easier than I remember it!” and I had to resist the temptation to point out that you couldn’t actually see Sharp Edge from where she was stood, and that she was obviously looking at something completely different. Oh, and you’ve just queue jumped. Shame on you.
Finally I got my few minutes at the top, and quickly snapped Blencathra’s curious trig station. No square based pillar for this fell. Instead, Blencathra is blessed with a small stone ring flat on the ground marked with worn lettering spelling out ‘Ordnance Survey Trigonometrical Station’.
My visit recorded in photographic form, I headed off the side to enjoy the views and to eat my well deserved lunch, finding a spot just off the summit which happened to be near a family with an indignant 18 month year old child who didn’t appear to be enjoying their visit to this point 868m above sea level. As I passed them by, I gave a sympathetic smile, having been in similar circumstances myself on more than one occasion. And the views were fine, with my eye mostly drawn towards Keswick and the mighty Derwent Water and Thirlmere Reservoir. And, naturally, the fells that surround them. Oh and the two paragliders who were gliding gracefully on the thermals, putting on a splendid show for those watching. One of them set themselves off from near Blencathra’s summit whilst I sat eating my lunch. They certainly had a fine descent for their efforts and no mistake.
It was a fine view at the top of an excellent fell. In his final Pictorial Guide Wainwright listed his six favourite fells and Blencathra was one of them. It was not hard to see why, and I had a feeling that this wouldn’t be the last time in my life I visited it. For starters, I’d have to come back to do the appealing looking descent over Knowe Crags and Blease Fell, down towards Threkeld; a walk that looked like it would be highly enjoyable.
Following it was hard to resist, especially given what I was actually planning to do next. I was about to go somewhere that Wainwright believed no one in their right mind should ever want to go.
I was about to go to Mungrisdale Common.