A Tale of Two Crags and a flash of red


Eagle Crag – the challenging way

It’s a sunny day today, so I don’t know what’s triggered this particular memory, but on the way to the bus I found myself reminiscing about the day I climbed Eagle Crag, in low cloud and rain.

Eagle Crag is not a very high fell. Geographically, it’s nothing but the abrupt terminus of a long spur extending north east from High Raise. It’s an umbilical twin of the similar Sergeant’s Crag, and the two form the southern wall of Langstrath for much of its lower length.

But Eagle Crag is one more of those lower Lakeland fells that present a fierce aspect far outweighing its mere height. It’s a terminal cliff with an exciting escarpment that is really the only method of approach. The only other routes of access are dull and unworthy and, in the case of the one that goes really round the back, look tedious beyond belief and dangerously lonely.

I left Eagle Crag a long way into the Wainwrights, because I wanted to tackle it the direct route, but I was nervous about it. It was a direct assault on the in places near vertical face of the fell as seen from the Stonethwaite valley, and it had a few awkward, or potentially awkward spots from which it might prove a bit difficult to retreat. Even Wainwright had said that this was not a route to descend by unless it had been ascended very recently, which I took to mean the same day, and within no more than a couple of hours.

That’s the thing. I am, or rather was, even then, a very experienced fellwalker, but when it came to the more difficult routes, I had very little confidence in my ability to tackle anything other than the straightforward.

You’ve got to test your boundaries sometimes, so with great trepidation, on a dark and overcast afternoon, I drove to Stonethwaite for only the second time, changed into my anorak and boots, and set off on the Greenup Edge path.

Langstrath enters the Stonethwaite valley from the west, but there is a difference in levels making it impossible to see into the valley from the path. I dropped down to cross the valley at a footbridge, and follow a path on thhe other side of Greenup Gill through enclosures of bracken so as to ascend towards the tricky stage of the ascent. There was a steep but tedious walk up a sloping field of bracken, most of it waist height and wet from previous rain. My walking trousers slowly soaked through, making the ascent unpleasantly damp as well as draining. I stuck to the wall as much as possible, as an easy guide to the mini-ridge before the climb started to get serious.

From here, the way to the top is relatively short in comparison but the relatively nervous walker will find their nerves aquiver at every step onwards. Once I’d circled round to reach the mini-ridge where the wall abutted the cliff-front, there was a rickety and unconvincing stile over the wall at this point, that held up under my scrambling my bulk over it, conscious of its fragility.

From there, the route clings to the cliff face as you work across the Langstrath side to the foot of a steep, semi-grassy gully. This is relatively narrow, protecting the vertiginously-inclined from too much empty space. I worked up in by hand and foot, exiting to the left at its head and having to circle that head to proceed right along a grass ledge.

This was the worst part of the ascent. The ledge was pretty level and reasonably wide, but I would have felt much happier with a banister rail of some sorts along the right hand side because this was pure space. Wander too close to that edge – and anything within twice the width of the ledge constituted too close for me – and the next step was a doozy. I went carefully along the ledge, wondering how far it would go, where it ended, would it get any narrower, all the time aware that any retreat would mean putting the drop on my left side, which would have overloaded my senses more than a bit, and then having to go down that gulley, which I would not relish at all.

Just as soon as it was physically possible, when the wall to my left had declined to where it was only a short scramble up onto another, shorter grassy ledge, and then to a series of ledges each of which took me higher and further from that precipitate drop, I got off hat big ledge with gratitude and an increasing sense of safety. Above me, a small heap of rocks came into view, and I headed for it to discover that this was, by luck and not judgement, the summit.

Sergeant’s Crag in the sun

Getting through something like that successfully, i.e., intact, was always an adrenaline kick, but my arrival on the summit was closely followed by the arrival of rain and lowering cloud. Not so much as to trouble me at my modest elevation, but enough to require me to don waterproofs, though I’d got a hundred yards or two down the ridge before I had to make urgent adjustments.

There was never any intention to descend from Eagle Crag: the direct route was too fearsome, and the roundabout route too grim to consider, and besides, I was still collecting my Wainwrights and there was no way I would miss out on the chance to visit Sergeant’s Crag. I’d just come to the awkward step on the ridge when it was necessary to shelter myself, and then the clouds followed. I trudged along a path below the crest, on the dull side, in silence but for the hissing of the rain, the cloud close above, with no sense of how I was progressing along the ridge. Once again, luck came to my assistance, because when I decided I’d better check the ridge itself because the wrinkle I turned up to was Sergeant’s Crag’s summit!

I now had the issue of the return journey. Though the cloud was now lowering on High Raise itself, and looked likely to descend even further, I could see the greater part of the long, curling, grassy ridge towards the parent fell. It didn’t look in the least appetising. It looked much too easy to be lost in cloud before I could get too far in that direction, and far too easy to get off line.

More importantly, it was raining and it looked likely to get harder and I really did not want to get any further away from the car at Stonethwaite than was absolutely necessary. Technically, the descent from Sergeant’s Crag was in this direction and traversing over pathless territory towards the top of Stake Pass, and only then into Langstrath which, as you shouldn’t need reminding, means Long Valley.

Direct descent into the valley wasn’t feasible so I descended onto the ridge again, keeping to the Langstrath side, with my eyes open for any feasible line in a downwards direction, feasible here being a word meaning direct and safe. It wasn’t possible to see all the way down into the valley, so I had to take the lower portion of the descent on trust, but there seemed to be a possible route not too far from the summit, and I set off that way, between Bull Crag and the shattered rocks below the summit.

The rain, and the slipperiness of the grassy fellside were major obstacles, and I proceeded with deliberate speed, slow, steady, careful, constantly measuring the line and the angle in front of me. Like my long prior descent from Brim Fell, it was a very long time before the valley floor seemed to get any nearer. I just worked my way down, a few steps at a time, making sure my leading foot was firmly planted before I put any weight upon it. Though this was not yet even mid-afternoon, it was dark under the water-heavy clouds, and dismal of appearance.

It was a matter of concern that after I’d got over halfway down, the way ahead seemed to be interrupted by bluffs over which I couldn’t see but which suggested even steeper ground below them. But I’d committed myself to this course and after so long  steep descent, I was starting to feel the build-up of lactic acid in my calves, so the thought of abandoning this route and having to go back uphill – for what? – was doubly unwelcome.

So I stuck to my guns and to my concentration, and the lower slopes weren’t impassable, and I didn’t slip and I got to the bottom and the path – which was wide and commendably level – and headed for the valley end.

Langstrath from Stake Pass

Langstrath is not just a long valley, but also a very broad and empty one, and unless you’re walking towards Bowfell, it doesn’t have any scenic highlights. And Bowfell was invisible in the rainclouds so I couldn’t even turn round at intervals and admire that scene. It was trudge, trudge, trudge, under the rocks of the Sergeant’s Crag/Eagle Crag ridge, with very little inspiration.

The beck was wide and swift and didn’t look amenable to crossing it to the Rosthwaite Fell bank, but at Blackmoss Pot there was a footbridge I could use to get to the other side. Instead of having to match to and descend from the valley end to the Greenup path, I could cut a corner, through the woods, and make a more direct return to Stonethwaite.

My steps picked up in the woods, getting nearer to being able to get out of my soaked waterproofs. The rain was incessant and for a long time I’d been carrying my glasses in my hand, able to see better without them than with. Suddenly, in my myopic state, I glimpsed a red flash along a branch ahead of and above me, to my right. I crammed my glasses back on as quickly as I could, so that I could see more than mere shapes, but the flash had gone, and I saw neither it nor any of its colony. Sadly, that is the closest I ever came to seeing a red squirrel in its own fur.

Back in Keswick, I hung my waterproofs over the shower curtain rail in my bathroom to drain into the bath. because they were never going to recover if rolled up and stuffed in the bottom of my rucksack. It gave my guest room a funny smell all evening, but I survived.

And I survived the walk. More importantly, it gave me a new confidence. I’d gotten up without any difficulties except the self-imposed ones of my nerves. I took a long, hard look at myself and started to ask whether I’d been underestimating my abilities before now. I had always chosen to walk within my limitation, but Eagle Crag showed me that my perception of those limitations might very well not be the same as my real limitations.

I feel stupid that it took me that long to believe in myself, so that when I started tackling things like Sharp Edge, and Lord’s Rake, and Narrow Edge, I was so far along in my walking career. If I had believed in myself when I should have, I could haave done these much earlier, and left myself much more times for things I never got to, such as the High Level Route to Robinson’s Cairn, or the West Wall Traverse, or even the daddy of them all, Jack’s Rake.

Eagle Crag may well be a minor fell, but it had a major impact on me, and I remember it vividly, even on sunny days.

A flash of red

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Crags and a flash of red

  1. Vivid account, Martin. I was there with you every step. It’s funny, I was just looking back at photos of a similar walk from last year. Luckily I was blessed with much more favourable conditions. It’s funny what a difference the weather makes. On a bright sunny day, I didn’t find Eagle Crag too intimidating, though I’m certain I’d have felt very differently in the wet when confidence in the surety of each step dwindles.

    I carried on to the summit of High Raise then back on to Ullscarf before descending Greenup Edge under Lining Crag. I’ve just looked at your descent on the map. It looks pretty steep in places (although nothing on your Brim Fell route). I wonder whether heading under Long Crag and up on to Ullscarf then down Greenup Edge might have been the easier option?

    That said, it might have robbed you of the step up in confidence that conquering the adversity gave you.

  2. Oh, it was an interesting half day alright!

    The problem was that by the time I’d reached Sergeant’s Crag, it had come on to rain good and proper and the cloud was swirling about with every prospect of getting lower. I was more concerned about wandering off into the indeterminate and trackless country behind the two Crags than I was in taking a dodgy direct route into Langstrath, and from my memories of the scene from Sergeant’s Crag, I’d have been inclined to tackle my direct descent even under clear blue skies.

    In gradient, it was certainly less steep that coming down off Brim Fell, but it was a longer slope, and of course on Brim Fell I was dealing with dry ground that wasn’t slippery.

    By the time I’d got that far, the good had been done, in getting up Eagle Crag the direct way, so the descent was just a way of getting out of there as quickly as possible whilst it was coming down like someone had just pulled the bathplug out.

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