“Be in the presence of the true spirit of freedom”
Trail pays homage to the lost climbers of Wasdale – and the Great Gift.
The route in question, a special adventure Trail has created and walked, is possibly the most important Lakeland pilgrimage you’ll make. It takes an undulating course around the entire upper reaches of Wasdale. On the map, because it visits only two summits – Scafell Pike and Great Gable – it looks innocuous, but don’t be deceived. The ground covered, apart from an optional but easy scramble to the base of Napes Needle, is all walking. However it’s on tenuous and often rough paths that force a slow and considered pace. So expect a big day. Why do this? Because you can. And that really is the point.
Rewind to 1864, and events an ocean and a continent away. The pristine landscape of California’s Yosemite Valley was under threat from the combined forces of clearcut logging and domesticated livestock. It was clear these commercial activities had to go ahead to sustain the nation’s economic well-being, but there was also a growing realisation that without places for rest and recuperation the nation’s physical and mental well-being would suffer. The balance had to be struck. Step forward one John Muir. Born in Scotland and raised on a Wisconsin Farm, Muir is widely regarded as the Father of National Parks. He managed to convince Congress
into enshrining Yosemite Valley as a place of public use and recreation for all time. Later, Muir spent time guiding President Theodore Roosevelt through the valley – convincing him it should become a National Park.
The realisation that certain landscapes needed to be protected was not just a US phenomenon. Across the globe economic exploitation was spreading into wild places, and various movements sprang up to try to hold back the flood. Among the first of these in Britain was the Lake District Defence Society, which formed to try to resist an explosion of exploitative projects. Massive in scale, these included railway lines along Borrowdale, Ennerdale, through Grasmere and Rydal, iron ore mines, quarrying, and roads over Esk Hause, Sty Head and beyond. Nothing was deemed untouchable. Luckily, most of these projects were resisted, and efforts were soon made to put as much of the Lake District as possible out of reach of developers – mostly done under the auspices of the fledgling National Trust, with parcels of land bought or gifted to the trust for protection in perpetuity.
Whilst this battle for the heart and soul of the Lake District raged, the cataclysmic events of WWI overtook everything with its horrors. High proportions of those involved in the conservation movement lost life, limb and mental health during the conflict. Driven by a desire for a better future, those that survived made even greater strides to protect the mountains of the Lake District – and at the same time create a memorial to the fallen. Key to this movement was the Fell and Rock Climbing Club. In conjunction with others, its members lobbied, cajoled and donated land to create a gift to the nation in memory of their comrades. The great gift of lands that make up the Fell and Rock Climbing Club memorial are centred on Sty Head, with Kirk Fell, Great Gable, Green Gable, Brandreth and Base Brown to the north, and to the south Scafell, Scafell Pike, Broad Crag, Ill Crag, Great End, Allen Crags, Seathwaite Fell and Glaramara.
THE ROUTE: SECTION 1
To kick off the walk, the best way to establish height is up the Brown Tongue Path to Scafell and Scafell Pike. It’s steep, but nevertheless gains height efficiently. Taken by generations of climbers based either at Wasdale Head or at the Fell and Rock Climbing Club hut at Brackenclose it gives direct access to the massive buttresses on Scafell’s East Face and those on Pikes Crag. The modern pitched path follows the centre of a long moraine tongue and carries you to a path junction at its head. The normal route to Scafell Pike via Lingmell Col swerves off left, whilst our route, the narrower climber’s path heads right. This delivers you to the high amphitheatre of Hollow Stones. You’ll know when you’ve arrived as it’s marked by a huge boulder with a shallow bivvy cave underneath. This was a place to grab a bite to eat, refill water bottles at the nearby spring and cache gear prior to climbing on the crags. Just below the base of Scafell’s buttresses you will spy a narrow path. This is called Rake’s Progress. It links the base of all the climbs with Mickledore and the entrance of Lord’s Rake. It is worth exploring but, with time short, you can see all the features just fine from Hollow Stones.
For walkers, probably the most important part of this memorial will be the summits – and with some of the finest peaks in the Lake District here it’s not hard to see why. However, most of those involved in the Fell and Rock Climbing Club at the time would have been climbers, so for them it was the crags that were the draw, not the tops. The head of Wasdale was a cauldron of adventure, and it was to these places they would return again and again. So if you want to experience the place in the context of its time, it is in the footsteps of climbers you should follow. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you have to actually do any rock climbing. To get to the base of climbs, climbers would have followed sheep trods or worked out new paths. These routes tended to traverse hillsides by the line of least resistance and lead away from standard walking routes. They take you into locations you wouldn’t normally think of entering, exposing you to a new set of mountain perspectives. Although climbers’ paths tend to head straight to crags, by happy coincidence those that service Wasdale’s mix it up a bit and feed into walkers routes. So much so that it’s relatively easy to concoct a route that links all the key sites and makes the memorial lands so special.
THE ROUTE: SECTION 2
A further path leads directly to Mickledore, trending left as the col is
approached. Its upper section has a few rock steps to negotiate but there’s nothing too hard and you soon arrive at the col. From here the upper reaches of Eskdale fall away below you, while at the head of the gill and to the left of Broad Stand is a dark looking cliff. This is Scafell’s East Buttress. It’s not obvious at first, but the top actually overhangs the base. From Mickledore, a short hop over boulder fields leads to Scafell Pike’s summit.
If you get the top to yourself you’ll be very lucky. On the summit cairn’s northern face is the stone of Honister Slate that recognises the gift of Scafell Pike by Lord Leconfield as a memorial to the fallen of the war. Also worth a visit are the remains of the Ordnance Survey hut 90m to the south-east of the summit cairn. This played a key role during the Peace Day Celebration of 19 July 1919. So this was the Great Gift – the combined donation of the 12 summits gathered by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club and the donation of Scafell Pike by Lord Leconfield, presented to the National Trust and thus to the nation for prosperity. Leconfield himself lit a beacon of remembrance on Scafell Pike that day in 1919, to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and the official end of the Great War.
THE ROUTE: SECTION 3
Onwards from Scafell Pike the route plunges south to Lingmell Col and then gains the start of the Corridor Route. It undulates a bit but takes you as quickly as possible to the important crossroads of Sty Head. Bridleways and paths head in all directions and the strategic positioning of the Stretcher Box underlines its importance. One of the less well-travelled paths is the one to the climbing grounds on the South Face of Great Gable. This path is vague to start with but essentially bisects the bridleway down to Wasdale and the path up the south-east ridge of Great Gable. It first traverses below the vertical wall of Kern Knotts and then traverses around to the mouth of a massive scree chute, aptly named Great Hell Gate. A further traverse around the fell then leads to the Napes.
The ridges and pinnacles of this Alpinelike crag first attracted mountaineers to pursue rock climbing as an individual sport. Any doubts as to the correct location will be quickly dispelled as the iconic profile of Napes Needle comes into view. The path traverses well below the Needle but if you fancy a closer look there is a relatively easy out-and-back scramble that leads to its base. The classic view of the Needle is obtained from a ledge on the left-hand side of the approach gully.
The path is then followed again as it traverses west to the mouth of Little Hell Gate. This scree chute is the onward route to the summit of Great Gable. And it is worth the effort. It has some loose sections, but if you follow the path carefully up its left bank you will eventually gain a superb ridge line that separates it from the top of Great Hell Gill. Your effort will be rewarded by rock architecture mostly missed by walking routes. Once on the ridge you pass onto the boulder-strewn summit dome of Great Gable. On the final leg to the summit make sure you swing past the top of Westmorland Crags, where you’ll notice a shapely cairn. It was built by two local brothers in 1876 to mark what they felt was the best view in the Lake District. It also happens to be the best place to view the war memorial lands.
The memorial’s completion was marked on 8 June 1924 by a commemoration service attended by over 500 members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club. Amongst Great Gable’s summit rocks a bronze plaque containing a dedication and relief map outlining the extent of the gifted lands was unveiled. This year marks 100 years since the end of the WWI and on Remembrance Sunday, as on every Remembrance Sunday since the dedication, there will be a service at the summit of Great Gable. It is a moving experience to attend but it need not be the only time to think of the sacrifices made, as with every footstep on these now protected fells you will be in the presence of the true spirit of freedom and peace.
Important to climbing pioneers, Tophet Wall on the Climber’s Traverse of Great Gable.
The ruined OS hut on the summit of Scafell Pike.