12 September 2010

The Great Gable Gamble

» An ascent of Great Gable from Green Gable and Gillercomb, then descending to Sty Head and dropping back to Seathwaite along Ruddy Gill.
Distance: 6.6 Miles | Time: 5h 14m | Difficulty: Medium with Scramble

Never before had one of our expeditions been so much in the lap of the gods. With a band of torrential rain and gale-force winds sweeping northwards across the UK, Lesley and myself were firing messages backwards and forwards as we wore out our F5 keys looking at forecasts and radar pictures. 6AM brought about a decision; a six hour window of decent weather would open at 10, on the road for 8, be at Seathwaite just before 11 and there'd be enough time to put the 3rd highest peak in the Lakes behind us...

Ruddy Gill

Arriving in Seathwaite there were signs that the night's wind rain hadn't avoided Borrowdale with branches strewn across the access road and water pouring off the valley sides. A few determined campers were doing their best to dry out their belongings but you got the impression they'd spent most of the night in their cars...

There's a number of routes up to Great Gable from the farm at Seathwaite; the path up Styhead Gill is an easy going couple of miles to bring you out at the the horrendously steep south-east face, whereas we'd chosen to take the less direct (but more enjoyable) route up along Sourmilk Gill and then over Green Gable.

Falls on Sourmilk

From the campsite the path leads over a footbridge and then works its way up the left side of the gill, over a very strange ladder stile then onto an increasingly rocky path that turns into more and more of a scramble as you work your way up the first 150m of ascent. The previous nights rain had turned the path into a bit of a river, with a torrent gushing over the rocks making going slippery at times.

The first 250 metres of ascent is very pleasant, a nice hands-on scramble, followed by a slog up to the mouth of Gillercomb hanging valley. Once again we were accompanied by our four legged companion, Bonnie, who finds all this hill walking a bit tedious - running up and down like a loon waiting for someone to throw a stone in the water for her... Fortunately Sourmilk gill forms a couple of moderate sized pools at the top of the falls, ideal for dogs to play in whilst the rest of us stop for a quick bite of malt loaf.


Having risen 250m in only 900m distance the walk is already providing nice views back down Borrowdale and over to Capell Crag on the other side of the valley.  From the top of the falls Birkett recommends summiting Base Brown before heading on to Green Gable, but unless you're determined to tick off all the fells then there's nothing to be gained from Base Brown that can't be seen, or experienced, elsewhere.  Besides, with the night's rain the path up through Gillercomb had turned into a lovely little stream, great fun for dogs and people alike to splash through.

The Gillercomb path follows Sourmilk Gill right to it's source at the head of the valley, before a final steep(ish) section up onto the ridge running between Base Brown and Green Gable. This is where our weather planning came into full effect, just as we started to reach the summit on Green Gable the clouds started to scamper off leaving us with fabulous views in every direction. It's also when the wind started picking up considerably, but that could be blamed on a) altitude, and b) approaching Windy Gap.

View from Green Gable

After a quick bite to eat, and a chance to catch up on e-mails (if you've got the technology, and a signal, you might as well - what's the point in having it otherwise?), in one of the shelters on the southwest face, it was time to loose 50m in height and drop down onto Windy Gap before scrambling up into the clouds that by now were starting to pour over the Scafells and envelop the top of Great Gable.

Whilst the cloud followed us down into Windy Gap, strangely the wind didn't, however the temperature started to drop in amongst the cloud so a quick stop to throw on a microfleece before the steep, rocky, yet immensely enjoyable, scramble up to the top.

Westmorland Cairn

As the sun rose earlier that morning it seemed that our entire day would be in the lap of the gods, but every time we reached a summit it was as if we fell into their favour. 15 minutes earlier the peak had disappeared in dense cloud, now as we reached the war memorial at the top (erected to commemorate the members of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club who died in the First World War) the skies cleared enough for us to have a quick look at Westmorland Crag which overlooks Great Napes and Napes Needle.

Unfortunately Fellfaller regular; Terry, hadn't been able to join us on this trip and prior to setting off we'd joked he was going to join us at the top having done the Napes Needle route with his mountain bike over his shoulder (following on from his sudden attack of daring whilst on Harter Fell). Since we had an opportunity to take a look I thought a photo or two might be in order to show him just how 'easy' that route was...

Styhead Tarn

So, after a quick look at the Needles and the delights of Wasdale and Ennerdale, it was downhill (rapidly if you're not careful) to Styhead Tarn. The path down the southeast face of Great Gable is, to put it mildly, steep, very steep, so unbelievably steep that once you reach the bottom your legs keep going, on momentum alone you could steam right up Great End on the other side.  The path is remarkably well maintained and zigzags gently down the slope, but even that can't disguise a 400m descent in a little over 800m distance - it's no wonder there's a mountain rescue box at the bottom of the path.  Did I mention it's a steep descent?

Joking aside, Styhead Tarn lies (unsurprisingly) at Sty Head, nestled between Great Gable and Great End, the end of the Scafells chain.  From here paths extend in all directions, the direct trail back down to Seathwaite, over to Wasdale, off up to Rossett Pike, or the 'Corridor Route' up to Scafell Pike. As a result it's a busy crossroads for fell runners, fell walkers, fell fallers, and people who really shouldn't be outside.  I wouldn't normally use a write up for a rant, but this one's only little so here goes...

Reaching the base of Great Gable we met a couple of women in their late 30's, reasonably athletic looking, and dressed for a warm summers day. It's great to see people out enjoying the fabulous surroundings that we're blessed with, however after a few minutes chat you get the impression that some people shouldn't venture much further than a pub lunch in Keswick.

When we arrived they were trying to decide, with the aid of a map, which peak was Great Gable (the big one in front of them). A friend had suggested they take the 'Corridor Route' up to Scafell "or was it Scafell Pike, whats the difference?" (about 14m and climbing Lord's Rake) and whilst they could find their position on the map, they were unsure which path was the right one (possibly the one that says Corridor Route?).  So far they'd spent 3 hours covering the first 1.8 miles from Seathwaite, in which they hadn't started to do any serious ascent, with another 7.2 miles to go.  But worst of all, and perhaps most unbelievably, they had zero wet weather gear with them.  That's fine if you're certain (or dense enough to believe) it's going to stay sunny, but downright dangerous otherwise. They only had to turn round to see the heavy cloud built up on the other side of the Scafells, and sure enough when it broke over the top later it was carrying a fair amount of water. Remember kids, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment!

Great End

Okay, rant over. From Styhead tarn we headed up the southeast trail towards Rossett Pike, slowly gaining height up to Sprinkling Tarn (the top of the two tarns shown here) in the shadow of Great End.

To steal some of Wainright's prose (and possibly agree with him just for a change) "This is the true Lakeland of the fellwalker, the sort of terrain that calls him back time after time, the sort of memory that haunts his long winter exile. It is not the pretty places - the flowery lanes of Grasmere or Derwentwater's wooded bays - that keep him restless in his bed; it is the magnificent ones. Places like Great End"

Great End has a certain imposing magnificence to it, it's brutish but it sums up all that appeals to me in the Lakes. I also have a overwhelming desire to ascend it by the centre gully in the photo above, don't know why exactly, just do.

Ruddy Gill

Leaving Great End, and the bad weather that was starting to roll over the top of it, we made our way down the side of Ruddy Gill - the lesser of the two routes back to Seathwaite, but by far the more spectacular. To reach the path you have to cross the gill itself which, in drier times, is no problem, however the rain of the night before had made it a bit swollen, so take care. In really bad weather the crossing will be near impassable.

For a large section of the trail, Ruddy Gill plunges through a deep gorge with the path running above - offering tantalising views of the thundering waters below.  Eventually the hard rock gives way and the path runs level with the water before it bores into another section of soft rock at the footbridge just after Allen Gill.  Here the path crosses the gill in the lee of Seathwaite Fell, before continuing on to join the Taylorgill Force route to Sty Head at Stockley bridge.

Stockley Bridge

Stockley Bridge was where the rain finally caught up with us, by now it was 4pm and so our 6 hour window of good weather was just starting to close - only 3/4 mile from the car - so it wasn't too bad timing. From the bridge back to Seathwaite it's pretty much plain-old flat walking alongside what becomes the River Derwent. At least we had the good fortune for the rain to be at our backs.

All in the route was 6.6 miles and took a hair over 5 hours to complete with quite a few stops for malt loaf and cheese and pickle butties. Apologies for the lateness in getting the write-up posted, it's been a busy week, and no additional walk this weekend what with it being the Italian Grand Prix. Hopefully another trip (or two) to the Lakes beckons for next week...

The Map

OS Maps: Landranger 89 | Explorer OL4

View the trip at | See all the pictures on Flickr | Or go get the GPX file
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