Saturday, 19 April 2014

Great Gable & The Great Napes

GPS Track
Date: 19/04/2014
From: Seathwaite

Parking: Roadside parking en route to Seathwaite Farm
Start Point: Seathwaite Farm
Region: Western Fells

Route length: 7.3 miles (11.74 km)
Time taken: 04:35
Average speed: 1.6 mph
Ascent: 1,084m
Descent: 1,055m

Wainwrights on this walk:
Base Brown (646m), Green Gable (801m), Great Gable (899m)

Additional summits: None

Other points of interest: Seathwaite Slabs, Hanging Stone, Gillercomb, The Great Napes, Napes Needle, Sty Head, Taylorgill Force, Seathwaite

Route: Seathwaite Farm, Seathwaite Slabs, Hanging Stone, Base Brown, Blackmoor Pols, Green Gable, Windy Gap, Great Gable, Beck Head, White Napes, Great Napes, Kern Knotts, Sty Head, Taylorgill Force,

In the summer of 1886, an enthusiastic young law graduate stood below the immense detached pinnacle on the flanks of Great Gable. What he was to achieve next would pave the way for future generations to enjoy a pastime that was originally regarded as a nuisance and a mere obstacle to summiting a mountain. That man was Walter Parry Haskett Smith aka. The Father of Rock Climbing.
Walter Parry Haskett Smith atop Napes Needle
I've wanted to see Napes Needle for a while, as Lake District icons go, it's amongst the most famous. It's an enormous spire of rock, entirely detached from the flanks of its parent mountain Great Gable. As a popular spot for rock climbers the world over, there are a number of traverses that cross the upper slopes of Great Gable allowing us to devise an exciting route from Seathwaite while crossing some new ground in the process.

We arrived at Seathwaite reasonably early, though not early enough to beat the crowds. Being a bank holiday, the cars were parked along the road for miles, much busier than I've seen in a while. I guess that tends to happen when the sun is out; it's an all too rare event in the Lake District heartland. Fortunately, a bit of perseverance and a gung-ho attitude to car parking managed to snaffle us a space that little bit closer, saving us a long walk back at the end of the day.

The route today would take us up the steep, craggy sides of Base Brown before climbing further up to Green Gable and on to its illustrious neighbour, Great Gable. From there, a descent to Beck Head before the airy Climbers Traverse to visit Lake District climbing mecca, the Great Napes. One of the reasons we'd chosen Great Gable was mainly down to the fine weather, a stark contrast to the last time we were up at the summit.
Base Brown over Nichol Dun
The morning sun over the fells of Glaramara and Allen Crags
Seathwaite Slabs presents the first obstacle of the day, a semi scramble up alongside Sour Milk Gill, one of a number of tumbling falls that share this name. The reason behind it is that the agitated waters take on the appearance of soured milk as they are thrown over the rocks into the valley below. It was already getting considerably warm and stuffy, especially in the sheltered valley of Sourmilk Gill.
Steep ground approaching....
Sour Milk Gill falls down the Slabs
Sara tackles the interesting route up the Slabs
After pausing to admire the main falls, we continued on, reaching the grassy flanks of Base Brown. From here, there are no real marked routes towards the summit though a prominent feature is observed on the OS maps - The Hanging Stone. It seems that this stone has sat, precariously perched above the slopes below, for many years; perhaps the reason behind its inclusion on the 25k maps. The route up to the Hanging Stone is a difficult combination of a steep slope and tussocky grass interspersed with a number of wet, boggy bits. Not ideal walking territory. After some huffing and puffing, we reached the stone, admired its uncertain situation and carried on. From here, a semi-visible path rounds the side of the mountain before disappearing again. We had a short break to admire the view of Borrowdale before continuing the steep climb to the summit.
Borrowdale looking superb
The path prior to the final push up Base Brown
No path here but an obvious objective
The Hanging Stone from 'the fallen stone'
The Hanging Stone from another angle
Sara high above Borrowdale
The remarkable patterns of Gillercomb
Base Brown forms the terminus of Great Gable's northern ridge and is often climb en-route to its parent mountain, as we were doing today. Despite the craggy nature of the flanks, the summit is a more docile affair consisting mainly of a carpet of grass and boulders. It provides a great view down into the hanging valley of Gillercomb, as well as along the main Seathwaite valley towards Borrowdale. A straight forward stroll across the col of Blackmoor Pols links Base Brown to Green Gable, the next stop on our route.
Summit cairn on Base Brown looking towards the Scafell range
Green Gable over Blackmoor Pols
Looking back to Base Brown
Despite being wholly overlooked by its partner Great Gable, Green Gable does hold an ace up its sleeve, one that we discovered just prior to reaching the summit cairn. A little off to the north, above Greengable Crag, is a quite spectacular view across the whole of the north of the Lake District. Gable Crag is prominent to the left quickly followed by views down Ennerdale, Buttermere and off to a distant Skiddaw and Blencathra, an inclusion of the Helvellyn range before begin obscured again by the towering Great Gable. It's a phenomenal scene, one that I don't think a set of photos can do justice to but it's worth a go so here they are.
The Langdale Pikes make a fleeting appearance
The mighty Pillar over Ennerdale
Kirk Fell
Ennerdale and Buttermere from Green Gable
High Crag and the interesting little Hay Stacks
How many fells can you spot?
The fells of Coledale
Green Gable summit in front of Great Gable
Great Gable across Windy Gap
A sharp descent across the aptly named Windy Gap (again with superb views of Ennerdale) precedes another steep scramble up towards the top of Great Gable. It's a section of the walk we've done before, having arrived from Aaron Slack, but not one that I remember too well. It seemed a lot more 'hands on' than I recall but it is what it is, an interesting route up a great mountain. Having had much of Base Brown and Green Gable to ourselves, it was now obvious that a large number of other people were heading in our direction, converging on the summit. What was also noticeable was just how many people were visible on the top of Scafell Pike across the valley, an explanation to all those cars that had been parked at Seathwaite.
Windy Gap, the weather a bit nicer than last time
The path as it leads up Great Gable
A view down Aaron Slack to Sty Head
Great End, Broad Crag, Scafell Pike, Scafell and Lingmell
Before long, having been passed by a number of sprightly chaps, we reached the top and joined to small crowd is bustling around the summit outcrop. The newly resorted plaque was glowing magnificently in the sunshine. Not wanting to overcrowd the summit too much, we set off towards the Westmorland Cairn (allegedly overlooking the finest view in the District) for a bite of much needed lunch.
Great Gable summit
The newly-cast summit memorial
The view of Wasdale from out lunch time perch
The famous Wasdale Head Inn
As I eluded to at the start, Great Gable has a special place among the hearts of rock climbers as the spiritual home of their sport. The Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District owned much of the land around Great Gable including the mountain itself before donating it to the National Trust in memory of those members who had fallen during World War I. As I mentioned previously, there is a permanent memorial plaque embedded in the summit outcrop that was dedicated in 1924 in front of 500 people. Annually a Remembrance Day service is held on the summit which is extremely well attended and seems to be gaining in popularity.

So, that was the mountains completed for this walk, but the excitement wasn't finished there. We made the treacherous descent down the north western flank to Beck Head, passing some people on their way up in the process; not a route that looked at all pleasant. From Beck Head, the col between Great Gable and Kirk Fell, a small cairn marks the beginning of the climbers traverse from with a very faint flattening of the scree marking the route. It took us a moment to two to actually find it but, once we did, it was easy enough to follow (for now). What followed was a bit of a nerve jangling traverse high above Wasdale Head below, not helped by a bit of a gusty wind coming up from the valley floor. We had entered climbers country.
Kirk Fell
The traverse to the left of the Black Sail Pass
The traverse follows a route directly south remaining fairly level for much of its length. There are a couple of tricky sections where the path has started to fall away, requiring some light footwork to ensure it was disturbed no more. The route is slow going requiring a great deal of concentration but the view of Wasdale are stunning and well worth the effort. As we rounded the corner of the White Napes, we were presented with the scene that must have inspired Walter Parry Haskett Smith all those years ago. The towering, castle-like crags of the Great Napes.
Scafell Pike, Scafell and Lingmell
The traverse high above Wasdale Head
The crags are detailed in the Great Gable chapter of Wainwright's book, in short they are an area of crags and cliffs on the southern flanks of Great Gable with a real heritage for rock climbing. As I mentioned at the start, the endeavours of Walter Parry Haskett Smith in climbing Napes Needle are thought to mark the origins of climbing as a sport. What makes this achievement all the more remarkable, as I stood in awe beneath Napes Needle, is he completed the feat without the use of any protective equipment. No ropes. No spikes. No ladders. Even today the Needle is regarded as a challenging climb and that's with the use of modern climbing kit and the experience of a generations worth of climbing it. What is interesting is all this stemmed from Haskett Smith's simple curiosity in exploring cliffs.
The Great Napes. Want some scale? There's a climber near the top of the highest bit of skyline. From left to right includes: Eagles Nest Gully (first depression), Eagle's Nest Ridge (highest point), Needle Gully (second depression), Needle Ridge (second highest point) and Napes Needs (seen directly below Needle Ridge)
A view up the scree to Eagle's Nest Ridge and Napes Needle
The main are of the Great Napes is bounded by two huge scree gullies, the two aptly named Hell Gates (Little to the west and Great to the east). The former of these can be used as a punishing way on or off the summit. In between are the castle-like formation are a variety of famous features including: Eagle's Nest Ridge, Aphinx Ridge, Arrowhead Gully, Tophet Bastion, The Sphinx Rock and, of course, Napes Needle.

We made as far as the base of the Needle, scrambling up a loose scree slope akin to Lord's Rake on Scafell. Having never been around this area before we were unsure exactly where was safe and where was not so instead of foolhardily trying to climb anything we decided that we'd return another day a bit better prepared with the armed with some more knowledge, some lighter weight kit and the task of 'threading the needle', that is, passing between the spire and the rock face its detached from. It was always in the back of my mind that this is an awfully long way for the Mountain Rescue to reach should anything go wrong.
Napes Needle after we had realised we'd passed it
The scree gully leading to the base of Napes Needle
Napes Needle
After returning to the main climbers traverse, we continued on, still making careful, slow going. From the Great Napes the path becomes a bit more pronounced before disappearing again around Kern Knotts, another favourite area for the climbers. This section, despite still being steep, is not as nerve-wracking as crossing the screes previously and there are many more routes across the slopes to choose from. What I have forgotten to mentioned are the fabulous views of the highest land in the country, the Scafells and associated hangers-on; Lingmell and the like. Rounding Kern Knotts, a small number of cairns finally mark the return to routes more trodden and eventually to the great cross roads of Sty Head.
The traverse becomes more identifiable after the Great Napes
Heading towards Sty Head
Kern Knotts
Emerging from the traverse unscathed
The famous MRT stretcher box at Sty Hed
We were finally able to get back up to 'normal' walking speeds after the tip-toeing across the traverse. Leaving Sty Head behind and heading north-east, we followed Sty Head Gill through the valley towards Taylorgill Force. In order to actually see the falls you have to stay to the left of the stream, picking up a path that drops more urgently than the main route but allows for a tremendous view of the waterfall, something that the other paths misses completely. There's also an exciting descent of the crags of Base Brown, something you cannot see from the ascent from Seathwaite.
Sty Head Tarn in front of Great End
The sun illuminates Borrowdale
Taylorgill Force
An unexpectedly steep descent
Taylorgill Force
A marshy path across the lower eastern flanks of Base Brown completes the circuit, arriving at the footbridge at the foot of the Seathwaite Slabs.
Borrowdale in the early evening this time
Footbridge over Nichol Dub
This is a superb walk, we chose it on account of the weather which I think you'll agree was very favourable. The whole route is almost overshadowed by the daunting traverse and the Great Napes, something which I'll remember for a long time and no doubt return to to see the other sights; Sphinx Rock and the like. All of this added to the stunning views from Green Gable and summiting one of the Lake District's iconic mountains; Great Gable. It's on the National Park logo after all. If you're in the area, the weather's nice and you have a head for heights, I suggest you check it out.