Following on from our successful ascent of Helvellyn via Striding Edge late last year, Alex and I decided to make the most of our time in the Lake District and go up another mountain. After some discussion which involved checking the list of Wainwright Fells and buying another Ordnance Survey map, we decided on Sca Fell – England’s second-highest mountain. This would involve a considerably longer morning drive from Ambleside before we could start walking, for our chosen setting-off point for this mountain would be Wasdale which is on the western side of Lakeland (Ambleside is reasonably central, which makes it a good base for exploring the Lake District; the problem is that the OS’s 1:25,000 Explorer series, which is better for walking than the 1:50,000 Landranger series, has four maps that cover the area).
Another early start, but our journey took longer than expected. After the fun of driving along the Kirkstone pass the previous day, Alex (for we went in his car!) now had two other passes, Wrynose and Hardknott, to look forward to. Alas, the former was closed due to ice on the road so we had to divert to the south, actually leaving the Lake District National Park in order to get to Wasdale via the outskirts of Broughton-in-Furness. Our journey ended with a drive along the shores of Wast Water, not a lake either of us had visited before but which, we learned via the Internet, is the deepest lake in England.
Not long after nine, we parked up at the National Trust’s Wasdale car park and enjoyed a breakfast of tea and bacon rolls from the food van. While chatting with one of the volunteers (who didn’t charge us for parking after I’d claimed – truthfully as it happens – to be an NT member who didn’t have his card with him), we learned that a few days previously, a group of students had had to be rescued after one of their number had tried to go up Scafell Pike naked. Now, I’ve heard of people doing some crazy stuff in the mountains – extreme ironing springs to mind – but this one really took the biscuit, especially given the time of year. Suitably clad, we set off.
Before we go any further, though, a couple of points of order…
Firstly, is it Sca Fell or Scafell? Usage varies, with the Ordnance Survey going for the former and some guidebooks, most notably Wainwright, preferring the latter. My use of the former is purely a matter of personal preference.
Second, why is it that of the peaks in the Scafell range, the highest one is called Scafell Pike (implying that it’s not the highest)? Wainwright explains…
“When men first named the mountains, the whole of the high mass south of Sty Head was known as Scaw Fell; later, as the work of the dalesfolk took them more and more onto the heights and closer identification became necessary, they applied the name to the mountain that seemed to them the greatest, the other summits in the range … being referred to collectively as the Pikes of Scaw Fell.”
So it was a case of mistaken identity – the tallest peak did not appear so. It’s actually true that from some vantage-points, Sca Fell does look like it’s a bit taller than it near neighbour Scafell Pike which is England’s tallest mountain. For the record, Sca Fell is 3,162ft/964m and Scafell Pike is 3,210ft/978m (I’m using Wainwright for the imperial measurements and the OS for metric).
(We’d hiked up Scafell Pike, years ago, which was another reason for choosing to do Sca Fell this time as it would be a new one for us; if memory serves, the ascent of Scafell Pike had been done in the summer and involved walking up from Great Langdale and camping overnight somewhere in the hills. Clearly this has not resonated with us as much as the youthful lunacy that was the winter overnight camp for Helvellyn.)
The climb was gentle at first but got gradually steeper. Our well-maintained path (the National Trust at work!) followed the Lingmell Gill, one of the streams that flows down into Wast Water. This splits into two paths, one of which goes up to Sty Head and the other to Mickledore, both high passes from which the summit of Scafell Pike can be reached. For Sca Fell we wanted the Mickledore option, but we would be turning off before we got that high.
Our turn-off, which did not look at all inviting, was a scree-slope from which we would be able to access Lord’s Rake, a steep gully which passes under the summit plateau (which cannot be ascended directly without proper climbing equipment). Now I am no fan of scree at the best of times and I did struggle to get as far as the entrance to Lord’s Rake, and once I got that far I was wondering whether this was really such a good idea.
During a short break to allow for the consumption of some cofftea and a Mars bar, I took stock of what we were about to do. The gully was full of loose rock, and amid a few discarded pieces of kit the animal skeleton close to the entrance did not bode well (dog or fox, probably, although quite what a fox would be doing at that height is anyone’s guess).
But onwards and upwards! In such cases I am more than happy to bring up the rear of any party, the result being that Alex was able to get some pretty good pictures of yours truly scrambling on hands and knees, apprehensive about whether the next bit of rock I got hold of would be too loose to support me.
It ended at a narrow gap between two rocky outcrops – or so we’d thought, for after that the route (I struggle to dignify it with the word ‘path’) descended and then ascended to another, equally narrow, gap. My descent was not pretty but I take heart from Wainwright (who I read afterwards), who states that “where boots cannot gain a purchase on the sliding stones and polished rocks, other methods of locomotion may be adopted, especially when descending. It is no disgrace even for stalwart men to come down here on their bottoms”.
Lord’s Rake – you may not be surprised to learn that we came up with some very rude alternative names for it – is meant to go up, down, up again, down again and then up one more time before you make it out onto the open fell. I’m not exactly sure what we did, for after dropping down from the second peak we ended up doing a steep climb up an icy gully to get out onto the plateau. Wainwright (again) says of Lord’s Rake that “one’s fellwalking education is not complete until its peculiar delights and horrors have been experienced”, so at the very least I can consider myself educated as a result of this experience.
It was with relief that I staggered – on two feet, now – up onto the plateau. The summit cairn was easy enough to locate, and unlike Helvellyn the day before we had the place to ourselves.
Celebrating with cofftea and a swig from the hip-flask, I could see across to the slightly higher and much more crowded summit of Scafell Pike – clearly more walkers prefer the glory that goes with standing at England’s highest point to the relative solitude of the second-highest! Looking east, we could see the sea and the Isle of Man. To the east, Bow Fell and Crinkle Crags (the Lake District’s sixth and seventeenth-highest peaks, going by Wainwright) stood out. Helvellyn, which is to the north-east, can’t be seen from Sca Fell because the summit of Scafell Pike is in the way.
What next? Alas, a ridge walk over to Scafell Pike was out of the question, for the Sca Fell plateau ends with Broad Stand, a very steep rocky wall which means that accessing the Mickledore pass (from which there’s a route up to Scafell Pike) is much easier said than done. Descent – considerable descent – is involved before you can walk up to Mickledore. From the plateau, we took the path down to Foxes Tarn (more of a pond than anything else) and then down another gully to get us to the path that goes up to Mickledore. At some point there, we had our lunch with a very nice view to the south-east.
We continued up a combination of grass and scree (albeit not as bad as the scree that took us up to Lord’s Rake) and eventually reached Mickledore. This pass, some 2,755ft/840m up, stands directly below Broad Strand, that steep cliff and theoretical direct route between the two highest mountains in the country which has been described as ‘extremely dangerous’ by no less an authority than the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team (Wainwright never attempted it, stating that his disappointment at not doing so was “amply compensated by the pleasure of going on living”). From Mickledore, we had a good view across to Lord’s Rake – had we really done that?
Descending back down to Wasdale involved plenty more scree but thankfully it wasn’t long before we were back on more solid ground for a downward walk with views over Wast Water in the fading light. Back at the car park, we decided that a quick visit to the nearby Wasdale Head Inn (a well-known hang-out for climbers and fellwalkers) would be in order before our return to Ambleside.