Until last month I had only climbed England’s highest mountain once, and I can date it precisely. It was 22 years ago, on 8 June 1996. On the rocky summit of Scafell Pike we learned that Alan Shearer had put England 1-0 against Switzerland in Euro ‘96. But we had a wild camp beside Styhead Tarn that night, and didn’t find out till the following day that it finished 1-1. I didn’t really give a toss – we’d had a great walk, and that mattered more.
This time the World Cup was on, France and Argentina in the last 16, a big game. But the weather was fantastic. Why would you sit indoors watching 22 people in blue shirts kick a pig’s bladder around a park when you can walk up some hills?
Edita climbed the highest mountain in Wales three years ago; now it was time for her to climb the highest mountain in England after we viewed it from Ennerdale a few weeks earlier. But it would be a first for me too. I’d not climbed Scafell Pike (pronounced Scaw-fell, to rhyme with score a goal) from Wasdale before; nor had I climbed England’s 2nd, 4th, 5th and 7th highest peaks that surround it, all accessible in a single day walk.
Nor had I drunk a pint in the legendary Wasdale Head Inn, a pub with a rich history, formerly known as the Wastwater Hotel. Its 19th century owner, Will Ritson, was famous for having a mine of tall stories, which included growing a turnip so large that he was able to hollow it out and use it as a shed. Former guests have included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens. It has also been a focal point for British rock climbing, ever since Walter Parry Haskett-Smith climbed nearby Napes Needle in 1886, an event some people regard as the birth of British rock climbing (even though it wasn’t).
We got to Wasdale Head before 9am to secure a pitch in the pub’s tiny campsite. The pub was already open for breakfast, and the chap on reception suggested we find a spot and put our tent up, as it was likely to fill up later. We took his advice, and with our accommodation secured, we set off up the hill at 9.45. This was useful, as it meant we could take our time over the walk.
It was one of those rare days in Britain when two litres of water wasn’t going to be enough for a day hike, but there were some tarns (lakes) on the route, so I packed chlorine tablets that would enable us to refill our bottles at a number of points.
There are two possible routes up Scafell Pike from Wasdale Head, either side of its north-west foresummit Lingmell. These go up Lingmell Beck to the north and Lingmell Gill to the south (both beck and gill are old northern words for a stream, but a gill is more likely to follow a deep ravine, as is the case with Lingmell Gill).
Being the highest point in England, Scafell Pike attracts a great many novice hikers unaccustomed to walking up hills. Many of these people don’t bother to google a route description or look at a map – they simply rock up at the car park at the bottom intending to follow the crowds. This system doesn’t work at Wasdale Head, because you can’t actually see Scafell Pike and there are hikers setting off both ways. One group stopped me to ask the way up.
‘Which route are you doing?’ I asked them.
‘The easy one, whichever that is.’
It was my first time this side of Scafell Pike, so I had no idea which route was the easiest. I did know that we weren’t going to be doing the easiest ourselves. Our intention was to set off up the southern route because we were intending to tackle Scafell Pike’s sister peak Sca Fell first. I showed them the map, described both routes and let them make up their own minds. The southern route certainly looked steeper, so they chose the northern one. It didn’t take us long to discover that the southern one is actually the most popular route, but I guess that’s what we call hard cheese. If you don’t do your prep, then sometimes you’ll have to rely on guesswork.
The trail slanted steeply up the side of Lingmell, and before long we were ascending high above Lingmell Gill with fine views across peaceful Wast Water below us. This three-mile long lake is the deepest in England. Its 79m depth takes it below the level that police divers and many diving clubs are legally permitted to dive. I guess this must make it a tempting location for the disposal of corpses, but there is also a more light-hearted story attached to this. There are rumours of a garden full of gnomes, complete with picket fence, somewhere in its depths for more daredevil divers to explore. The police were asked to clear it away for safety reasons, but they’re not allowed.
We soon caught up with hordes of people making their way up Lingmell Gill, and shot past them one after another. But after 400m of ascent our ways diverged. The main tourist route up Scafell Pike turned left to cross the southern side of Lingmell. We turned right to head up the deep cleft between Scafell Pike and Sca Fell, aiming for Mickledore, the col between the two peaks that sounds like a location in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
The trail was now much quieter as we headed up scree slopes between the two rock faces of each mountain. We heard voices high above us, and looked up to see a great many rock climbers up to our right on Scafell Crag, the sheer north face of Sca Fell. We continued beneath them up the scree slope which narrowed to a gully, and soon we were standing on the wide col of Mickledore.
To our left, the ridge rose gently up Scafell Pike, but to the right up Sca Fell was a series of rocky shelves known as Broad Stand. Edita was tempted to scramble up it, but to me it looked like a rock climb, and sure enough, we could see a figure in red stranded a little way above with no technical gear. There was little we could do to help him, but there were some climbers nearby who appeared to be aware of his predicament, so we left them to it.
Scafell Pike and its relationship with Sca Fell reminded me a lot of Corno Grande, the highest mountain in the Italian Apennines, and its sister peak Corno Piccolo. Corno Grande is the popular peak that is accessible to novices. Corno Piccolo, on the other hand, is a trickier proposition involving some scrambling, and sees far fewer ascents. Like with Sca Fell, it’s not possible to ascend from the col between the two peaks without technical climbing gear (in fact, both Corno Grande and Corno Piccolo are bigger and harder than Scafell Pike and Sca Fell).
It was now necessary for us to do like we did on Corno Piccolo, and descend the other side of the col for 200 to 300m and find a way around the obstacle. It was an awkward descent on loose rock, but eventually we reached a dry gully that we could scramble up. In the absence of signposting on British mountains, we weren’t sure if it was the official route up, because it was incredibly dry today, and this gully looked like it would be a stream at another time of the year. But it looked easy and safe to scramble up, so we took it. At the top the path resumed, confirming that it was indeed the right way.
We took the path to Foxes Tarn in a small hollow, a lake that today was just a muddy puddle. Here the path turned right up another loose scree slope, and fifteen minutes later we reached a saddle from where it was a short walk to the summit of Sca Fell (964m), the 2nd highest peak in England.
We reached the top at 12.30. It was a nice grassy summit on the edge of the Cumbrian hills, and we stopped for our first lunch. The southern side of Sca Fell is a complete contrast to the sheer cliffs of its northern side. We were high above the lakes of Burnmoor Tarn and Wast Water, and gentle grassy hillsides sloped down to the Irish Sea. It was a bright day, and we could clearly see the hills of the Isle of Man 75km away across the water.
We nipped up the rocky protuberance of Symonds Knott (959m), Sca Fell’s north summit, then headed back down the scree slope, then back up to Mickledore. From there it was a much more straightforward walk up to the broad rubble field of Scafell Pike’s summit (978m).
It’s not a pretty summit by any stretch of the imagination, and the crowds of people made it feel like Clapham Junction during signal failure. Unlike Sca Fell, there was no grass, only acres of loose, awkward rock. Since my last visit they have built a large summit platform with steps, like the summit monument on Snowdon. We went up to take our turn at summit photos.
To the south, Sca Fell looked imposing and entirely separate from the peak we were standing on, but it was the view to the north which held our attention. Firstly, we could several of the peaks surrounding Ennerdale that we had climbed a few weeks earlier: Pillar, High Stile, Kirk Fell and Great Gable.
More to the point, we could see an avenue of peaks to the north, all of which were in our range that afternoon. Across two minor saddles were Broad Crag and Ill Crag, and a ridge from Ill Crag led to Great End. These were the 4th, 5th and 7th highest peaks in England, and I hadn’t climbed any of them before, because the route up Scafell Pike from that side skirts beneath all of them.
We dropped about 50m to a col, then back up the other side to the pile of stones that is the summit of Broad Crag (934m). Then we zigzagged west across another small col to the flat grassy plateau of Ill Crag (935m). Its summit is the highest point on another pile of rocks at the southern end of the plateau. We diverted up it and looked south into Eskdale, a bare valley bereft of lakes or forest.
We had a gentle walk along a broad ridge to Great End (910m), a more distinctive summit, though a little lower. We found a pleasant grassy apron just below the summit for our second lunch, looking west into the top end of Wasdale. Great Gable rose across the valley, and we studied the crags on its southern side trying to identify the rocky pinnacle of Napes Needle, but if it existed then it clearly wasn’t very distinctive from a distance. To the south we could look along the ridge that we’d traversed to the cliffs of Broad Crag, with Scafell Pike rising behind. Its summit platform crowned the top like a little nipple of rock.
It may have been possible to take a shortcut down into Wasdale by scrambling down the sides of Great End and joining up with Scafell Pike’s Corridor Route. But we chose to extend our walk and get some alternative views down into Langdale by descending Great End by means of a giant spiral, first heading east, then north, then west. This took us down to the huge grassy junction of trails at Esk Hause. Esk Pike rose above, and we could see the distinctive rocky promontories of the Langdale Pikes beyond. I did a backpacking route of Langdale many years ago and I described what we could see of it to Edita.
From Esk Hause we descended a well-maintained easy trail across the northern side of Great End. We passed the peaceful lakes of Sprinkling Tarn and Styhead Tarn, idyllic locations for a wild camp, high up in the heart of the Lakeland fells. Great Gable rose up in front of us like a bell. It had been extremely windy on its summit a few weeks earlier. Edita suggested we climb it for a second time, but that would have added an hour or two to our walk and I fancied a pint.
We dropped down into Wasdale, on a path high above Lingmell Beck and arrived back at the Wasdale Head Inn shortly before six.
We had immediate showers and headed straight down Ritson’s Bar. It was heaving, but people were queueing politely for drinks, which meant there was no rugby scrum at the bar. In addition to the campsite, the inn has rooms and a number of self-catering flats. It’s the only pub or restaurant for miles around, and there were doubtless many day hikers who were staying elsewhere in the Lake District.
The Wasdale Head Inn certainly does a roaring trade on a day like today. Kirk Fell rises directly above the pub at the end of the valley and there is a path going straight up its side. We had the most peaceful wild camp on Kirk Fell’s summit a few weeks earlier and watched the sun going down from the porch of our tent.
It was a bustling contrast down below, but we had enjoyed a classic day out up England’s highest peak; the weather doesn’t get any better here in the UK, and it was nice to end the day at this iconic pub. We had worked up a thirst and the beer went down easily.
You can see the rest of my photos from the hike on Flickr.
To receive my weekly blog post about mountains and occasional info about new releases, join my mailing list and get a free ebook.