Series 2 – 17: Great Gable

I have always walked within my limits. For a fellwalker alone, going into isolated places, that’s the only sensible policy, but if you don’t, from time to time, test your limits, you will never really know where they lie.
Scafell Pike at the end of three days walking should have gotten rid of my delusions about not being able to walk consecutive days, but there was no sign of improvement in September when I only managed three expeditions out of five days available. This was not entirely down to me: Monday was lost to lowering clouds, putting the fells out of bounds, and I’d decided in advance to take a day out to travel east and north, crossing the Pennines to visit Hadrian’s wall for a first time.
The capstone of my week was to be the ascent of Great Gable: after the highest fell in Lakeland, the most famous, the symbolic fell. And I planned to ascend it from the summit of Honister Pass, giving me an immediate 1190’ start on climbing, as well as enabling me to collect a number of lesser tops, lying between Gable and Honister. To take advantage of this advantage, I would park my car in the valley at Seathwaite, walk back to the main road and catch the Mountain Goat Bus Service to the top of Honister.
Plan A foundered on application to Keswick Bus Station for timetables: there was no Mountain Goat over Honister. My alternative was simple: I parked at Seathwaite, walked back down a summer morning lane to the main road, and stuck out my thumb.
A half hour passed. Several drivers treated me to a smile and half-nod, indicating their willingness to give me a lift if it wasn’t for that darned old family filling the car. Those who had space kept their eyes virtuously fixed to the road in approved Ministry of Transport manner. Plan B was not working and good walking time was being wasted. It was either Plan C – walk the Pass or Plan D – give up and go home.
So I trudged up the Pass, steep tarmac under hot sun, a hazy day already. It wasn’t the expenditure of energy I minded so much as the expenditure of time which, given the walking ahead when I actually got off the road, was likely to keep me from reaching Gable. After all, it was 12.30pm when (refreshed by a Coke from the Honister Mine Shop), I started up the steep track of the old tramway, leaning to the old Drumhouse that dragged wagons of ore up and down the slope. A high fell, obviously far out of reach, looked over the skyline but, when I got onto the moorland above, it turned out to be Pillar. Great Gable loomed, black against the sun, a rounded dome looking formidable.
But if I was here, I could at least climb a subsidiary fell or two. The path peeled away across the open land, hugging the flank of the ridge, and it was no real trouble to ascend into an area of outcrops and identify which was the summit of Grey Knotts. From here to Brandreth, next on the ridge was half a mile along the fence and 100’ of climbing: I could at least do that. From Brandreth to Green Gable, my first object of desire, was another mile and 450’: I could do at least that. And whilst on the neat, clean summit, looking up at the towering cliffs of Great Gable’s northern slopes, it was no more than half a mile, and 500’ of climbing. If I were that close…
So by committing myself only to a single other stage each time, I tricked myself into an assault on Gable from Windy Gap. It’s a steep, stony route, as are they all, a fine ascent but still feeling like some kind of back door approach to the most prestigious of summits.
I stayed a while, relishing my success, gazing onto the western wall of the Scafell massif. The air was getting thicker and heavier and the haze showing signs of becoming something more substantial. So I retraced my steps to Windy Gap. My route of retreat was to Seathwaite, not Honister, via Base Brown, but there seemed no need to force myself back up Green Gable when I could contour on trackless, steep-sided but level grass around the fell on the Sty Head flank, and resume the ridge with a minimum of climbing and a minimum of ascent to my fifth and final fell of the day. Then it was back to the col, and turning down into the upper valley of Gillercomb, the path tracking Base Brown’s flank before petering out on the last approach to the rim of the valley.
The rain I had suspected on Gable was now inevitable, and indeed was only minutes away. I pulled on kagoul and waterproof trousers but, for some inexplicable reason, left my hood down, exposing myself to rain that, within a few moments, became substantial. The walk was over, the holiday was over, I was on the way back: in some manner it seemed proper to remain accessible to the elements. I let the rain pour on me, head soaked, hair soaked, glasses soaked, streaming down in darkness as I descended by Sour Milk Gill above Seathwaite and my car. The path had been relaid by the National Trust, the first such example I had seen. It provided good footing, though I instinctively loathed it as an imposition on the wildness. It shone in the rain as it twisted back and forth beneath me and I dubbed it Spiral Crazy Paving.
Eventually, with a feeling of glorious satisfaction, I reached the valley floor and strode back down the lane to my car, stripping off kagoul and waterproofs before slipping inside and procuring a towel to get the worst of the soak out of my hair. Somehow the rain, or rather my openness to it, was cathartic, and I returned to Keswick aching but content.
The picture is of Gable Crag, the northern crags guarding the summit, the aspect of the fell that is visible on ascents from Honister.

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