Scafell scram­ble

We take on the in­trepid Lord’s Rake... un­der snow!


A ll ev­i­dence says I’m stand­ing be­tween Scafell and Scafell Pike: the map, my memory of the day, what the peo­ple I’m with are say­ing with their mouths. But this does not look like the Lake Dis­trict. If you dropped me here, blind­folded from a he­li­copter, I wouldn’t guess I’m at the foot of the high­est moun­tain in Eng­land. Some other coun­try maybe, but not Eng­land. Ev­ery­thing is big­ger, whiter, more men­ac­ing and mag­i­cal than it ever usu­ally ap­pears.

Pho­tog­ra­pher Tom, buddy Jack and I had left the Was­dale Head Inn that morn­ing, which is good ev­i­dence to­wards be­ing in the UK. And I know it was the Was­dale Head Inn and not some­where in Alaska be­cause we have bel­lies full of eggs and toast and tea, and I walked past a climb­ing his­tory of the Lake Dis­trict in faded pho­to­graphs on the wall en route to break­fast. I’ve seen Wast Wa­ter and the dis­tinc­tive skirts of Kirk Fell, which de­scend neatly like an old Vic­to­rian ball­gown, em­bel­lished with boul­ders, scree and lichen. So I was in Bri­tain al­right, in win­ter, at the foot of one of the most fa­mil­iar and well­walked moun­tains in the coun­try.

We set off from Was­dale Head on foot, so again, can’t have gone too far wrong! Climb­ing the path be­side Ling­mell Gill, it was cold and grey and the moss at our feet was patched with crys­tallised snow which had frozen in crisp nubs overnight, or gath­ered into nar­row nooks in the heather. Rock slabs were thinly glazed with ice. Cold ran through the churn­ing stream be­side us, seem­ing to rum­ble around the stones in the riverbed. It was cold as it frothed

in tur­bu­lent flur­ries, cold in its metal­lic depths, cold at the clear, still edges.

We climbed steadily up­wards, three lit­tle fig­ures gen­er­at­ing heat in an other­wise frost-hard­ened land­scape. Where the burn di­vided, we crossed to the right and the path be­came less clear. The heather was now bun­dled in snow, its bushy stalks spear­ing out­wards. Our foot­steps crunched and slipped and we kept high, above the thin slice of stream, fol­low­ing Brown Tongue above the beck and into the spread of a white cor­rie.

We stepped into a bowl of snow. Above, the sky was blue. It seemed a per­fect, con­tained lit­tle world, a pri­vate snows­cape and not very English. But from here you could climb to Mick­le­dore and Scafell Pike and see miles of win­try Cum­bria, or to Ling­mell and see the mas­sif from an out­set pedestal. I imag­ined set­ting up camp and watch­ing as the snow re­flected in starlight. I could have stayed in that rocky, snowy cup, trans­fixed by the peaks, for hours. Af­ter a few stolen mo­ments to pause and gaze, we suc­cumb to the hunger:

We curve to­wards the south­ern rim of the cor­rie, aim­ing at a cor­ri­dor lead­ing off above. Just past its en­trance stood a gi­ant boul­der, the size of a shed, and we hud­dled around it to add lay­ers and chomp down choco­late. I un­wrapped the bar fast, awk­wardly jam­ming my hands back into puffy gloves: it took only sec­onds for the cold to start chew­ing at bare skin, and at times we swung our arms in wind­mills to rush warm blood down to the ex­trem­i­ties. I cupped a Ther­mos lid of cof­fee and savoured the thread of heat down my throat and into my stom­ach. Jack and I were giddy,


laugh­ing, a lit­tle ner­vous about the com­ing ad­ven­ture.

Lord’s Rake dou­bles back from the nar­rower cor­rie we had en­tered, to strike an al­most per­fectly straight line west onto the rim of Scafell Crag. From there, it’s a gen­tly-graded 120m up to the sum­mit. In sum­mer, this is a pleas­ant not-quite-scram­ble up a scree slope. Gen­er­ally play­ful and fun but not chal­leng­ing or dan­ger­ous enough to pro­voke leg-wob­bling fear. For 14 years, a huge boul­der which had cleaved off the western wall lay wedged across the top of the gully, and brief nervy scrab­bles had to be made un­der­neath. Then, in 2016, the boul­der frag­mented and fell in pieces to the floor and now the dan­ger in sum­mer is lim­ited. In the warm months, Lord’s Rake sees al­most daily foot­fall and at­tracts hun­dreds of day walk­ers of vary­ing pre­pared­ness and abil­ity. So many that it has been re­clas­si­fied by the Vis­i­tor Safety in the Coun­try­side Group from ‘wild moun­tain’ to ‘rugged’ ter­rain from Easter to Oc­to­ber, and is lightly man­aged for safety. Now though, it’s the cold side of those months, very ob­vi­ously ‘wild moun­tain ter­rain’ and the only man­age­ment for safety must be un­der­taken by our­selves. This fam­ily-friendly scram­ble


doesn’t look quite so af­fa­ble. It looks kinda mean. And en­tic­ing.

Tom looks se­ri­ous – and also kinda mean. Jack and I are chat­ting, a lit­tle in­tox­i­cated with the thrill of dis­cov­ery, beauty and risk but one stern glance straight­ens us up. I’ve done a win­ter skills course and had a cou­ple of days out, Jack’s pretty skilled up, with many sea­sons out in the moun­tains but has lit­tle pre­vi­ous win­ter moun­taineer­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Though this is a fairly ac­ces­si­ble trip for walk­ers with win­ter skills – such as the abil­ity to kick steps, fa­mil­iar­ity with ice axe and cram­pons, and enough com­pe­tence with nav­i­ga­tion to be able to cor­rectly di­rect your­self in a white-out – it is by no means an easy, safe or even very ac­ces­si­ble route in these con­di­tions. A slip, some mis­guided route-find­ing or a badly placed step could have con­se­quences I don’t want to think about. The only out­come from this walk I’m in­ter­ested in is an in­crease in skills, a suc­cess­ful re­turn and enough ap­petite for a mas­sive din­ner. And a bit of ela­tion and fun-hav­ing, too.

We kit up: gloves on, ice axes in hand, cram­pons as yet stashed away, and tromp to­wards the open­ing of the Rake. My cheeks burn with the cold. It rears up in front of us, an en­closed white streak, speck­led with pro­trud­ing scree. The sheer black wall to the left is brindled with ice, the boul­der bar­rier to the right lay­ered with snow. I kick a foot in, press down un­til the snow com­pacts, then be­gin to climb.

We zigzag up­wards, cloud sur­round­ing

us in soft white­ness and the world re­duces to me and two guys steadily work­ing our way through the frozen scree. Tom veers to the left and along a small plat­form, stops and scrapes snow from the wall. A cross has been carved into it and, neatly, a col­umn of four ini­tials to its left, com­mem­o­rat­ing the death of four rock climbers nearby in 1903. His point is clear – as rel­a­tive new­bies, Jack and I must take this se­ri­ously – and we edge back into the Rake. We climb higher, the gully steep­ens and the snow deep­ens – to our knees in places. At one point I plunge my axe into the snow, up to its hilt. I am rel­ish­ing this. The harder and more win­try it be­comes, the more en­chant­ing it all is. Ev­ery­thing war­rants in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Es­pe­cially this heap of boul­ders. At first the climb was easy and we used our axes only for bal­ance but this bit is trick­ier. I reach and hook the pick in an ice-filled crack. I want to do this smoothly and el­e­gantly. I take a breath, look up, jam a boot into a short ledge and step up, then top­ple over the rock with all the el­e­gance of a fish leav­ing wa­ter in a bid for evo­lu­tion. It’s an awk­ward clam­ber but suc­cess­ful any­way and I grin a lit­tle self-con­sciously at the top. Jack, be­hind me, is much more grace­ful about the whole thing, and makes it look easy. Never mind, I’m ready for the next ob­sta­cle! Un­for­tu­nately, that’s it. There’s only a short climb from here to the end of the gully.

The cleft is marked with a rock spire, af­ter which the right bar­rier van­ishes and the snow slopes treach­er­ously down­wards. We’ll be travers­ing the Rake across the open north face. Tom and Jack go ahead and I step ten­ta­tively down.

shrieks my scaredy-cat mind. On a clear day, we’d be able to look over Hol­low Stones to Ling­mell, but in the cloud rolls. It’s just us and Scafell. We care­fully step down then stamp a tra­verse to the foot of a deep drift. I’m more con­cerned here than I have been at any point today. There’s a long way to fall. But I know how to ice axe ar­rest, I know how to kick steps and I am def­i­nitely con­cen­trat­ing. A lit­tle con­cern is wise but I refuse to let fear get in the way of my fun. Kick-schtick-step-kick-shctick-step, a few re­peats is all it takes. The snow is deep and for­giv­ing and we emerge at the top. Al­most.

In the bar­ren open­ness of the west face be­low the sum­mit, it is cold. The kind of cold that, in a minute of still­ness, chills you like you’ve been en­folded in ice cream. So we hud­dle in the shel­ter of an over­hang­ing boul­der and eat sand­wiches, smush­ing them clum­sily in our gloves. Hot drinks sipped and stashed, in­su­lated jack­ets bun­dled away, we emerge. The cloud has flakes of snow in it, which catch on our eye­lashes and sting our faces. We hunch, Tom ori­en­tates the map and com­pass and the snow makes ev­ery­thing white. Then we set off, stick­ing closely to­gether. Soon the slope eases, we cut right and the sum­mit is ours.

We’re stand­ing atop the sec­ond­high­est fell in Eng­land and even though the high­est is a di­rect 1.2km away, it is com­pletely in­vis­i­ble. We’re in a world of snow, a world of cold and a world of wet and we are beam­ing. This is not the Lake Dis­trict I’m fa­mil­iar with, this is not the Scafell I crested in May in bright, warm sun­shine and blow­ing wind. It’s not a place where peo­ple or­di­nar­ily walk and we haven’t just com­pleted one of the most pop­u­lar routes in the coun­try. We’ve done some­thing else. The win­ter has made this dif­fer­ent. More threat­en­ing, chal­leng­ing and de­mand­ing; more ex­hil­a­rat­ing, sat­is­fy­ing and beau­ti­ful.

We’ll have to go down, the cold, snow and fad­ing light de­mand it. But I look out into the snow, feel the won­drous iso­la­tion of the high peak and tighten the zips on my jacket. We will go down. To the warm pub, pints of ale and plates of pie. But not yet, not quite yet...

Above: Paus­ing at Hol­low Stones – the land­scape hav­ing changed dra­mat­i­cally from the greener vista way be­low. Left: Still smil­ing knee-deep in the cold, white stuff.

Fol­low­ing Ling­mell Gill, Wast Wa­ter be­com­ing smaller and smaller be­yond...

Ice axes prove their worth to help pre­vent slip­ping and slid­ing in these arc­tic con­di­tions.

Left: Icy beauty is ev­i­dent all around. Right: “Crisp?” Be­low: A cheeky slide couldn’t be re­sisted. Bot­tom: Scafell sum­mit bagged. Huz­zah!

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