Series 2 – 16: Scafell Pike


Sooner or later – and it takes a true disciplinarian to postpone something like this – every fellwalker wants to climb Scafell Pike. And why not? It’s a serious and demanding ascent from all points of the compass, it’s at the heart of magnificent mountain territory, and it’s the highest of the lot. To adapt George Mallory – it’s There.
By May 1985 I was forging a pleasant routine for my holidays: drive up Sunday, return leisurely on Friday, Ambleside for the southern Lakes, Keswick for the northern, two nights in one place, three in the other. It was a plan still undergoing refinement, but I’d already determined that I would end each week with a Big Walk: a major expedition to a fell of high renown. This time it was going to be the Pike.
Unfortunately, it was unremittingly wet for the first two days, and the clouds threatened even more on Tuesday but, in driving south over Dunmail Raise, I discovered an opening of clear sky above the Vale of Grasmere, enough for a two fell wander along the lower part of the ridge between Grasmere and Great Langdale.
Though I was playing squash every week, and five a side five weeks out of six, I still had the idea that I wasn’t up to walking better than every other day. But with so much walking time lost already, I took advantage of a sunny day to pay a first visit to secluded Longsleddale, and collect two more tops off the ridge bordering Kentmere.
Which meant that Scafell Pike was out of the question for my last day and I was doomed to a flat ending, and the day was so sunny, the air so clear, so inviting a walking day… oh, soddit!
A quick scramble for sandwiches and drink, cursing the time already spent in not recognising the inevitable, the long drive to Eskdale and struggling into my boots at 11.30am, at least an hour later than I should have been doing.
As far as the base of Cam Spout Crag, whichever route I chose would be over ground familiar from the old days. But the choice was obvious: from Taw House Farm to the Cowcove Zigzags, and above and beyond that upland vale of wind and silence and utter loneliness, removed from the mundane world until Scafell Pike and Ill Crag draw themselves above the low horizon, a sight of great awe. The walker who can tire of this is dull indeed.
A hand and foot scramble, comfortable but steep, got me up above the falls, though the prospect of returning was nervy: I would much rather go up things like that twice in a day than down them once! A narrow gateway led into the upper valley, long and narrow, steep and eroding, shimmering under the growing sun. It looked hard going.
A bunch of lads, probably between 5-7 years younger than me, were taking a breather by the Beck.  It was a good place to stop, and when they moved on, I fell in with their party, determined to keep up and not show signs of struggle, and their company got me up to below the wall of Mickledore Ridge far easier than I’d have done alone.
They went on towards Wasdale, I took one of dozens of little, slidy, scree paths, crossing at a diagonal to the highest part of Mickledore, below the Pike. In a strange way, in so busy a place, I felt as if I approached alone. A pilgrim crossing the cap of stones on paths marked only by boot-scratches. It has been this way every time: I approach alone, as if in ritual observance.
The summit is far from empty, however. I suspect that if I were to set off at midnight and arrive in darkness, I would still have no more than a 50/50 chance of being there alone. Though on this first visit I had no problems, it can sometimes be difficult to reach the cairn, built on a bulky rock platform, for the obstruction of non-fellwalkers preening themselves at being above everybody in England.
The view, of course, was superb in all directions, except where Scafell closed out the horizon to the south, and even there the crags are spellbinding. From here, everywhere is down. Bowfell twists away, embarrassed at being overlooked. The air was soft and fine. But that softness was a hint not to linger. The edge was out of the day, it was 3.30pm, and there were long miles back to my car, and longer ones to Ambleside, a shower, grub and pub.
So I came down, via Mickledore and that rapidly falling valley, by Cam Spout Crag with care and down to Sampson’s Bratful, in the astonishingly vast upper valley of the Esk. Amazingly, it was only then that I thought to cross the River and pick about for the winding path on the fringes of Great Moss, to find my way back on the truly old way from Throstlegarth to Brotherilkeld and the main Eskdale road. I’d climbed Scafell Pike, a thing I would never have done but for Dad and Mam forcing my feet into those first boots nearly two decades ago, and I paid honour to them, unconsciously, in following one of their routes home.
It was after 6.30pm by now, and I can think of only one other instance where I’ve left the fells so late. There was a mile plus to go to my car, but in cheek and hopefulness I stuck out a thumb and got a ride over that last distance.
I’d been to the top. There was nowhere higher to go from here. What was there left for me but to go everywhere? Scafell Pike was my 28th summit: Wainwright recorded 214. Very well, then.
The picture, with no apologies, is the same one I used to kick off this series when there was no thought of it being a series. Scafell Pike and Ill Crag towering over Upper Eskdale: what more?

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