I’m not saying I have friends that are obsessed with climbing the highest peaks in Britain, but when it came to arranging a group holiday, the idea of heading to the Lakes and climbing Scafell Pike was quickly mentioned and agreed on. Well it was a logical sequel to the previous year’s ascent of Snowdon. A holiday house in Keswick was swiftly booked for a week, and all that remained was to find a day with good weather in order to climb to the highest point in England.
Scafell Pike is the smallest of Britain’s “three peaks”; the highest points in Scotland, Wales, and England. The designation can give the impression that it’s the third highest point in Britain, but in reality it’s nowhere near. There are actually (if my counting is correct) 45 peaks in the UK that are higher, with almost all of them being in Scotland. Still, at 978m in height, Scafell Pike’s no mere strippling, and is a worthy climb in itself.
Walkers have a choice of places to set off from, with access points from the four valleys that surround it: Wasdale, Eskdale, Langdale or Borrowdale. Given our location, our choice of Borrowdale was a bit of a “fait accompli” given the rest were over an hour’s drive away. In contrast, the drive from Keswick to the tiny hamlet of Seathwaite can be done in a mere 20 minutes, especially if you don’t get lost and don’t drive down a very narrow road that lead to a dead end near a campsite. Not that I did that or anything. Oh no.
To be honest, Seathwaite is little more than a farm and a couple of houses and some grass verges. Were it not for the scores of walkers who park up here every day, the place would be pretty insignificant for most people, even though it does have a completely non-walking related claim to fame. For it turns out that Seathwaite is the wettest inhabited place in the whole of the UK. And it does it in style. A whopping average of 3.5m of rainfall falls here every year, and in 2009 it did that in a mere 24 hours, contributing to a major series of floods that hit the region that year. Which was something to think about as we stood in the farm yard slapping on sun cream anyway.
Our route was simple. We’d walk from Seathwaite to Stockley Bridge, then follow Styhead Gill up to Sty Head where we’d pick up the Corridor Route to the top. Sorted.
Stockley Bridge is an ancient bridge on an old packhorse horse route between Borrowdale and Wasdale; a direct route which remains to this day, best done on foot. Quite when this attractive but tiny stone bridge was built, is lost in the mists of time, although the best guesses place it in the early 18th century. It was widened in 1887 and substantially repaired in 1966 when storms resulted in significant damage when 13cm of rain fell on the nearby fells in a mere hour. In such a wet place, you obviously need a hardy bridge.
The bridge marked the beginning of the ascent, and the combination of effort and sun began to have an impact. The sun cream soon being slapped on, hats (or, in my case, a bandana) were swiftly placed on the heads, and jumpers were taken off and neatly folded up and stowed in rucksacks. By the time we were walking alongside Styhead Gill, I’d even discarded the bottom bits of my zip-off walking trousers.
You may not be surprised to learn that Styhead Gill – one of the tributaries to the River Derwent which, not surprisingly, feeds into Derwent Water – starts from the mighty Styhead Tarn; a tarn which looked simply idyllic nestling underneath Seathwaite Fell and Great Gable. A glorious point to wild camp, I thought to myself, not discovering that the tarn is known as the wettest place in the UK. Lovely in the sunshine, but perhaps not the best place to head to when the weather is looking a little iffy then.
Near the tarn sat a large, ominous looking wooden crate sat at a crossroads, emblazoned boldly with the words ‘STRETCHER BOX’. Maintained by the Keswick Mountain Rescue team, the box contains first aid supplies and rescue equipment, and it provides a reminder that whilst the fells are a wonderful place to be, sometimes they can be dangerous. We paused for a moment, staring at the box, taking note of its presence and hoping we’d never need it.
As well as containing a large, scary box, the crossroads at Sty Head are also where the Corridor Route begins. This fabled path heads along the side of the Scafell Massif, providing a majestic view as it slowly heads upwards. It’s been a favoured ascent route for people climbing Scafell Pike from Borrowdale for many years. During the Victorian era it was commonly the route taken by those paid to take wealthy Victorians to the highest point in England; so much so that it went under the name of the ‘Guides Route’. Quite how it got branded with a term usually associated with long hallways lined with doors, is another question entirely.
With 500m still to rise in height, it was inevitable that the Corridor Route would require some hard graft; work which was at least rewarded by the views of the neighbouring fells, and occasionally downwards towards the idyllic looking Wasdale. Streams were forded, feet were put in front of other feet, and slowly we began to gain height. Deep breaths were taken, and with the clock ticking round to half twelve, stomachs began to rumble. Thoughts began to turn to lunch.
Yes, it would have been desirable to devour our food at the summit, as is the traditional way and certainly the preference for some members of the group, but the top of Scafell Pike was easily an hour away. And oh look guys, here’s a nice plateau where we can rest and munch on sandwiches and sausage rolls, and admire the beauty of the area, perhaps? In the end, the “Eat on the side of the fell” brigade won on numbers. Well, what can I say? Sometimes you’ve just got to favour your belly over your stomach. And those sausage rolls were very good by the way.
Revived and re-fuelled, we continued on our way, joining the steady stream of other walkers all making their way to the top. Teenagers, seasoned walkers, even one woman wearing a mini-skirt and trainers, which isn’t your average fell walking attire. But no sooner had we set off again and we hit a problem. Well, okay, I hit a problem.
For the most part, the path had been strong and solid. Rocky at times, requiring the odd scramble, but now it ended abruptly at the top of a tall piece of rock. But it was okay, for on close investigation, it reappeared below. Several metres below. It was scrambling time.
Now I am not a particular fan of scrambling, however as long as as the rocks are dry and I’m going upwards, I can survive. Force me to go down though I get into a fluster. I start getting nervous, I lose the ability to coherently plot a sensible route down, and I start to put my feet in places that make no sense. To cut a long story short, within minutes I was stuck on the edge of the rock, with no obvious way to get to the bottom other than to drop myself down. Oh and guess what I don’t like doing either.
I desperately sought a way to get down in such a way that wouldn’t require a call out to Keswick Mountain Rescue, or the use of the usefully located “Stretcher Box.” As the person at the front of the group, I had no one below who could make handy suggestions like “get on with it”, or “come on, it’s easy!” Like a confounded contestant on the classic puzzle based game show, The Crystal Maze, there was little I could do for several minutes but shout “I can’t see what to do!”
Part of the problem was that I was coming down forwards, with my rock to the back, rather than facing it. Had I done the latter, things would no doubt have been easier. For starters I’d be able to hold on to something. But I hadn’t, it wasn’t and I couldn’t. And to compound matters, there was not enough room for me to turn around. For several long moments I stared at it all, wondering if the only way out of the mess was to go back up again, before suddenly spotting the world’s tiniest ledge. If I could just rest one of my size ten feet on it, a small drop would be all that would be required for me to make it down. Within seconds I was safely stood on level ground, breathing a huge sigh of relief.
The rock – and someone blocking it – was a bit of a pinch point for the path, and a small queue had formed behind me, which now began to move again and I noted with interest how most people seemed to find better routes relatively faster than I had. Still, I consoled myself, they did have the benefit of learning from my mistakes.
Not long after we the Wasdale Path – the quickest and apparently easiest route up Scafell Pike – came alongside us, and soon the two became one as an army of walkers now converged onto one path to the top. And Scafell Pike began to change too. The grass that had previously lined the fell began to slowly disappear, replaced by the rocks and boulders that cover Scafell Pike’s crown.
Up, up, up we went and soon then, the summit proper came into a view. A large mound of stones, filled with people standing on it. Soon we were joining them, making our way over the stones in order to claim our (temporary) crown of the Highest People in England.
All around the base of the mound, people sat resting in the sun, and enjoying the view and maybe a sandwich too. And what views. Scafell stood ominously in front of us, looking like a dark, brooding morass. There was Wast Water, and a glimpse of the delightful Eskdale. Behind me was certainly the Yorkshire Dales, ahead the North Sea twinkled in the sun, and blimey, was that Scotland in the distance?
Sitting and munching on celebratory homemade flapjacks, we nodded to each other and reveled in it all. We’d made it.
“Ben Nevis next year then,” said someone, followed by a laugh. And slowly, and reluctantly, we prepared to head back down to the ground.