Monday, 29 June 2009

Tears on my Pillar

The weekend before last (20th June), was supposed to be my attempt at the Yorkshire 3 peaks, but the project foundered when I had too much sherbert on the Friday night and couldn't drag myself out of bed till after 5pm, leaving the house at about 6.15am, which meant I wasn't up near the Dales/lakes till well after 10am - I live in Kettering Northants. I figured this meant the chance of completing the walk in daylight hours was slim especially as I am anything but slim and a constant 2 mph on what would be my longest walk so far looked ambitious. So, I reset the sat nav for Wasdale Head and figured I could have a crack at Pillar which has been on my shortlist for some time. I arrived at Wasdale Head around 11am and had a quick trip to the Barn Door outdoor shop to get some new socks and a tee shirt. It was a coolish day, but dry up to then with low cloud obscuring the tops of the Scafells - I couldn't see Pillar from the car park as it doesn't really come into view for a good half mile out on the walk towards Black Sail pass. Finally got away at 11.30am and felt a bit overdressed in Paramo Cascada trousers, but expecting rain I thought it better to be ready - zipped 'em open all the way down to keep cool (they have poppers to keep the from flapping behind you - supplying a lovely breeze up the pass).

Its interesting how perception of distance is affected by the size of the mountain ahead. I'd always considered Pillar to be remote indeed looking at maps, yet Wainright's guide had it down as four and a half miles via Black Sail pass, and it didn't look very far from the valley bottom. I always find the first half hour of any walk, even on the flat is a good antidote to enthusiasm for walking. Seems to take the body that long to accept we are walking and get warmed up to the task, and this day was no different. I kept looking back at the screes running up to Dore Head knowing I would be passing by the top of them some hours later.

Funny thing was, I couldn't see how Dore Head was a good place to be climbing up Yewbarrow - it looks fierce from down in the valley, and as I was to find later, it looks fiercer still from the foot of the crag at Dore Head. That's for later.

The ascent to Black Sail pass is fairly gentle most of the way if you stick to the old pony track. Just above the crossing of Gatherstone Beck there are a few nice cascades which must be dramatic in spate, and tricky to cross. Continuing on the path there is a head of land (Gatherstone Head?) where the path zig-zags up more steeply, and about a quarter of a mile further the path splits left to a short cut to meet the ascending ridge near Looking Stead, and right to Black Sail Pass and the foot of the scrambly climb to Kirk Fell which I was planning to ignore. The short cut is really nothing of the kind being much steeper than the old path even if shorter and I found myself making ground up faster than people on the "short cut". I saw some of them later when I'd gone the long way round, begging for oxygen at the side of the main path. By now it had tried to rain a few times, never enough to get a waterproof on, but threatening all the same. I was so hot I welcomed the breeze and drizzle. It was also getting misty at times as low clouds scudded down the corrie from Wind Gap.

Just past Looking Stead, where the view of Haystacks is wonderful, or would be on a clearer day, a couple were looking for the high level path to Pillar Rock. I could see the distant and rather exposed path as it rounded one of the buttresses above Ennerdale, but the beginning is concealed from plain view and takes a little looking for. With so much mist I felt it safer to stay on the main path up the ridge to Pillar, but I met them later on the summit and realised the route they took is not as scary as I'd thought. I need to go back and do it myself on a nice clear day - shame I hadn't realised. I trod on along the ridge heading roughly West which is easy to follow along the remains of an old fence. The remainder of the climb is merely a matter of very simple scrambling and hopping from rick to rock up a shallow boulder field. This is my favourite sort of ascent, where vestigial mountain goat DNA cuts in for me. I was soon cresting the top of Pillar in thick mist and caught up with a Caribbean couple who had rested near me further down for a sarnie. We all agreed as I reached the trig point that Pillar is dreary in mist, and though I'm glad I walked up, I'll have to do it again to really appreciate it.

I could have cried after all the effort.

I sat down for a bite in the ruined shelter and amused myself chucking little bits of sandwich to an unusually bold sheep who likes tuna sarnies. At least I think it was a sheep, but it had been shorn recently and looked a bit Goaty to me.

In the mist I had to take a compass heading to set off for Scoat Fell. A local guy who know the fell pointed in the direction of the path, sadly 45 degrees away from where it really is, so I'm glad I ignored him and followed the compass, soon picking up a line of cairns and headed steeply down to the Wind Gap saddle before steeply climbing up to Scoat Fell which has a lovely flat plateau on top ideal for a wild camp, if a bit bouldery. Following the felltop wall west brings the summit cairn into view and also the characteristic crag of Steeple jutting out towards High Stile ridge the other side of Ennerdale. I found a trip to Steeple and back again can be done in ten minutes or less if you are in a hurry.

The fell top wall makes an unbrokenline to Hayock, but by now I was feeling a bit worn out and decided I'd go straight on South to Redpike (Wasdale), and onto Yewbarrow, so off I marched into the mist.

I realised I'd wandered from the path after a couple of hundred metres and had to navigate by compass back to the path, passing two or three groups of lost souls wondering where they were - amazing how many people just take a map and no compass. By the time I got to the path again, it had cleared considerably and never really got misty again for the rest of the day, although I had lost several hundred feet coming down to Red Pike so little wonder. Red Pike is nothing much to write about, even the path avoids the top cairn, but I felt obliged. Tick.

What the top of Red Pike lacks, its descent towards Wasdale makes up for in a magnificent view of YewBarrow and the Scafells beyond.
On a really clear day, it would be worth lingering to count and name all the fells in view - fantastic. But as I wearily plodded down I got nearer and nearer to Dore Head and the seemingly unconquerable Stirrup Crag, but I was to have a stroke of luck. At the saddle of Dore Head I sat to eat a Marathon (I still can't call them Snickers) and three chaps passed me on the same route and headed up to Stirrup Crag, so I had the opportunity to watch their choice of path, ledge and chimney. They almost ran up, so I realised it was not the Matterhorn it looks, and fifteen minutes later I was standing on the top of the crag, admittedly with legs that had now given up the ghost. Only a light skip down Yewbarrow to go and I'd be back to the car. Yeah, right.
Anyone who's climbed Yewbarrow knows its fairly innocuous on the face of it, resembling a large upturned boat, but with my knackered legs and out of water too, I was ready to sit down and collapse. There's a steep descent on the South Western ridge of the fell which follows a scree run and this put the old pins to the sword a bit, however, while resting for a few moments I could hear the tinkle of water and found a healthy trickle running off a rock in the middle of the scree. I was able to fill my bottles and have a nice cold drink before I set off again for the last couple of miles down to Wast Water and back to Wasdale Head. When I arrived at the carpark I met a chap waiting for his sons to return from Scafell Pike. They'd done Ben Nevis in the early morning, driven down to Scafell and planned to do Snowdon in the dark. This made my legs feel worse if anything. The plan had been to camp at Wasdale Head campsite and do some more the next day, but I was so cream crackered the long drive home seemed a small price to pay for a couple of cold ones and a lie on the sofa. Problem was I never got home till 2am with stops and short snoozes and wotnot, so by the time I did get home catatonia was the only option. Ho hum! Another lovely Lakeland day - how I wish I lived somewhere a bit nearer.


  1. The high level route to Pillar - which is lower than the more usual route, natch! - isn't really exposed at all. You get a splendid view of Pillar Rock from close quarters amid grand rock scenery. It's a very steep climb to Pillar after that though.
    The descent of Yewbarrow is pretty awful really, isn't it?. I find it easier to keep off the 'path'.

  2. Descending Yewbarrow is fairly miserable but I always curse the downs, and am usually too out of breath to curse anything on the ups. I noticed how much running out of water affected me during the last 2 hrs of that walk. Its more than simple thirst - you get all achy and sluggish. When I found the little water spout and topped up I felt fine after 15 mins. I never experienced that before, probably because its the first time I've been on a walk where there are few or no becks, it being more or less a continuous ridge from Black Sail pass all the way back down to Wast Water. You can see plenty of water, but lots of it is in the valleys below.