11 August 2010

Heights and Fears (and pints, of course)

A double ascent of Blencathra from Scales; first by Halls Fell Ridge, then again by Sharp Edge and Foule Crag.
Distance: 6.2 Miles | Time: 5h 22m | Difficulty: Medium with Scramble and Ridges

It all began with "Fancy Pen-y-ghent next Wednesday Terry?", Terry likes to get out and about so a plan was set in action. Then Monday rolled round; "The weather for the Lakes is looking really good, how do you fancy a walk up Blencathra and we keep Pen-y-ghent as plan B in case the weather goes a bit Pete Tong?"

Maybe "walk" was a bad choice of words; it conjures up images of rolling hills, lush green fields, dry-stone walls, winding lanes and lovely country pubs. Maybe I would have been better saying "Fancy slogging your guts out up a flippin' steep hill, then half-climbing half-scrambling over steep slippery rocks to end up on a windy summit in sod all visibility." Then again, that might put people off, and so Terry was initiated into Hill walking (or suicide with expenses as I believe he later called it).

Halls Fell Ridge

Blencathra (or Saddleback as it's also known) isn't the biggest of mountains at 868m but it's one of the most northerly. It's name comes from the old Cumbric blaen (a bare hill top) and cathrach (a chair), literally translating to a bare hill with a chair shaped top. Six different fells give it the flat top appearance and make for a good number of routes up to the summit.  Understandably it was decided that as this was Terry's first ascent of a decent peak we should take the steepest, most strenuous, route up - Hall's Fell Ridge.

Weather for this trip was fair to middling, some sudden outbursts of rain and low cloud made going a little precarious at times, and decent boots are an absolute must for any walking like this.  Obligatory Safety Notice: Crossing Sharp Edge and ascending Foule Crag in the rain is best attempted by people who are a) certifiable, or b) not in touch with their own mortality ;-)

The Route

We started our trek from the lay-by below the White Horse Inn at Scales on the A66.  Don't worry if you can't get parked here, there's plenty of other lay-bys along this stretch of road and an "official" car park hidden away down the lane at the back of the pub at the bottom of Scale Fell.  Alternatively head further down the A66 to Threlkeld for another car park and more spaces.

Being a bit up the road from our chosen ascent, Lesley, Terry and myself pottered along the side of the road in the direction of Threlkeld until we picked up the path around the base of Doddick Fell after about 300m.  You start climbing steeply pretty much immediately here, so take this as prior warning, although it does begin to level off after another about 450m.  To be honest it's a much needed kick in the guts, a reminder that it's nothing compared to the incline that's coming up shortly.  Follow the path as it winds around the base of the mountain, dropping down to cross Doddick Gill, then a bit of a scramble up the steep side opposite.  Another 600m further on is the start of the path proper up Hall's Fell.

Hall's Fell starts off gently, albeit for the first 10m or so, before it rockets sharply upward. As ever Lesley was off like a startled rabbit, leaving Terry and myself to slowly slog up the slope until we reached the beginning of the ridge itself at about 600m elevation.

At the beginning of the ridge the path forks to the left and right, neither one actually goes anywhere, the only route being straight up the rock-face.  Not as bad as it sounds, or looks for that matter - unless you're Terry ;-)  Now wasn't the time to mention vertigo and an unwillingness to go any further...

Onwards and Upwards

As Marty McFly said* in Back to the Future "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything."  I'm not too sure if this worked for getting Terry onto Hall's Fell Ridge, I think it was more a helping hand over the first six feet and re-assurance there was a pub with a choice selection of real ales and a roaring fire at the summit that helped. [ * : I know it wasn't Michael J. Fox who came up with the quote, but you try finding the person who originally said it, besides, it's one of my favourite films so I'll attribute it there. ]

To be honest the first 6 feet really are slightly daunting, you can't see what's to come and you could be led to believe you were embarking on a K2 style ascent.  Having said that it rapidly even outs (as shown in the first photo) and becomes a series of small rocky sections to negotiate with care, especially if there's low cloud and it's a bit wet

Halls Fell Ridge

As ever, reaching the top provides a real sense of euphoria and achievement that come only be bettered by being able to see anything. Low cloud and howling winds made it unpleasant at the top, so we soon beat a path down to Scale Tarn, nestling between Doddick Fell and Foule Crag.

The path down the to tarn is quite a steep 250m descent and whilst they do their best to give the paths in good condition the loose shale combined with rain makes it lethal, so take care with your footing. The path does start to level off for the last 40m or so, depositing you nicely at stepping stones over the mouth of the tarn.

Scale Tarn

Now the fun begins, most people would b happy to climb Halls Fell and then head back down for a pint. However Lesley and myself were hankering to cross Sharp Edge and work our way up Foule Crag before dropping back down to the tarn again. Now in good weather this'd be be fine, but in the wet with strong gusts and falling visibility - well, in hindsight it might not have been one of our cleverest ideas. But following on from our last jaunt up Helvellyn and Catstye Cam we decided to follow our new mantra of "it's there, it'd be silly not to"...

Having conquered his fear of heights (or, understandably, a fear of getting well and truly stuck) Terry thought we were mad to attempt Sharp Edge, let alone Foule Crag, and so chose the sensible option and elected to wait at the Tarn for our return.

Sharp Edge

Photos don't really do Sharp Edge the justice it deserves, it's pretty easy going, shorter than Striding Edge, just slightly more hard going (let's face it tho' you can practically skip across Striding Edge!). In the wet it's slippery, very slippery, and with the drops slightly more severe it's crucial you get a good hand hold before committing yourself to most steps. If you must take a tumble on the ridge make sure you do it at the beginning like Lesley did, landing face first in a puddle is entirely up to you - tho' points will be awarded for style.

Wainwright noted that "The crest itself is sharp enough for shaving and can be traversed only à cheval at some risk of damage to tender parts." I don't necessarily agree with his observation about the relative sharpness - maybe Wainwright's razor is as blunt as my Phillishave, I don't know - I was more concerned with what initially appeared to be firm holds coming away in my hands.

I've got to take issue with his assessment of potential damage to "tender parts" too. If you go over the edge the state they'll be in will be the last thing on your mind. In such a situation it's very much like having both arms amputated and then asking if you'll be able to play the violin again...

Three quarters of the way across the ridge is a flat section polished smooth by time and boots, here makes for some real heart-in-the-mouth moments when the wind picks up and you're struggling to keep your feet in place, but persevere and you'll be rewarded - with a steep scramble up Foule Crag ;-)

Locals on Sharp Edge

Sheep are fickle things, one minute they're happily chewing what little vegetation they can find, the next they're glaring at you menacingly as you begin to ascend Atkinson Pike (the other name for Foule Crag). Maybe it wasn't menace, maybe it was just pure bewilderment (or borderline amusement?) at the sight of two suicidally insane Yorkshire-folk attempting to scale the crag in rain and howling winds, either way it's off-putting.

Approached from Sharp Edge, Foule Crag is a, passable-with-care, narrow, rock chimney leading to the 845m summit, equally it doesn't look particularly steep either.  However in my infinite wisdom, and possibly something to do with a father and son making their way down the chimney I elected for the route up the left hand wall.  A dry day would make this a nice challenge, a rainy day makes it a bit dangerous but passable - as long as you've got long arms and legs, which unfortunately is where Lesley came a cropper (not in the old Norse sense of a lump or swelling, just getting herself well and truly stuck).

Having been talked down with the assistance of Liam Neeson's double (who'd now made it down with his son), Lesley decided to try an assault on the now vacated chimney and proved it to be the far quicker route to the top whilst I was still picking my way up the rock-face. In the dry I suspect you can make pretty quick work of Foule Crag, however in the wet it’s a different kettle of fish, one wrong step and you’re tobogganing down to the tarn - or off the other side depending on your aim ;-)

Reaching the summit for a second time, even though you were there only 90 minutes earlier, still brings that heady sense of achievement - more so when you stop to take in the absolutely dire conditions around you. So with a strong sense of déjà vu (albeit with the cloud closing in to the point of visibility being almost zero) we headed back down the tarn path to meet up with Terry.


There's only one path that leaves the tarn, following the gently babbling Scales Beck as it works it's way down to the River Glenderamackin flowing between Scales Fell and White Horse Bent.   The footpath is flat and easy to follow around the back of Scales Fell towards Mousthwaite Comb where it suddenly starts to drop quite steeply back down to the valley. The path drops out to a kissing gate at a small car park with a paved road leading off to the right.  Follow the road for 600m and you're outside the White Horse Inn.

The White Horse is a lovely little pub, stone fireplaces, thick carpets, a small selection of real ales from the North of England and, most importantly on a cool and rainy day, an enormous roaring fire to put some warmth into your bones.  The food looks good and is reasonably priced with most main fare being in the £10 - £15 bracket. For people wanting to make a proper day of it rooms are available both at the pub and farm next-door.

The Map

OS Maps: Landranger 90 | Explorer OL4, OL5

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