Foxes Tarn is a place to savour. Not so much for the waters, but for their context. No walker will set out with it as a destination, or even as a highlight of his or her day, but it is nevertheless a wonderful place to be, because when you are on the shore of Foxes Tarn, you are either on the threshold of the highest heights, or you have begun the return to the ground but are still touched by the majesty of the summits.
The tarn is the highest named body of water in the Lake District, as well as being one of the smallest. It hides in a hollow in the north-western flank of Scafell, invisible from outside to anyone lacking the vision of a Clark Kent. I’d estimate its surface area to be not much more than that of a good-sized family lounge, and one that is occupied by a boulder the size of a three-piece suite.
Foxes Tarn’s importance is as a route of ascent to, or (in my case) descent from Scafell, for those whose limitations preclude the direct approach from Mickledore via Broad Stand. A steep, stony gully that almost chokes the streamlet running from the tarn’s outflow gives a way to bypass the crags on the Eskdale flank of the fell, and it occupies the narrow bed of a fold in the fellside, out of which a steep, loose path (remade once already by the National Trust and now as abominably loose as before), climbs almost vertically onto the back of the summit.
As I said, one comes here en route to the top of the second highest fell in England, or in the very first stage of descent.
I’ve never ascended Scafell via Foxes Tarn: both my visits have been in retreat from the summit, and I’ve never paused by the water. This, I think, is the likely fate of Foxes Tarn when anyone visits it from above: after leaving the saddle on the back of Scafell, the land rapidly steepens, the way is enclosed on both sides and the tarn is visible for a long, slow time, from above. The hollow looks to be completely enclosed from above: escape by water or foot looks impossible. It has the feel of a secret chamber, accessible only by some means revealed only to a very few.
By the time you reach the bed of the hollow, and the brief shores of the tarn, it has been in sight for long enough to take in all its glories, such as they are. There is no temptation to wait beside it, no need for rest. The outflow opens around a corner, the hollow is not as sealed as it looks. There are miles to go and, in the case of walkers who have conquered Lord’s Rake earlier in the day, I can attest to a heightened adrenalin that incites you to devour as much as you can whilst you’re up here.
I rather imagine that it would be a very different matter in ascent. Given that the stone-chocked gully requires careful negotiation in descent, I rather think that by the time the Tarn is reached, unseen and unsuspected until that moment you stumble ‘around the corner’ and find it beside you, the temptation to sit and take a breather would be very high. Especially when you look at the next stage to get out of there!
I think it would be nice to rest there, out of sight of everyone except those few birds that circulate. It’s always nice to sit by a tarn and contemplate its waters. Even through a boulder on which you could seat a family of five.
Aerial shot of Scafell (right) and the Pike (left). Brown Tongue is in the bottom left corner with Hollow Stones above
Scafell is the second highest summit in England, and was clearly regarded as the dominant peak in Wasdale, as its higher neighbour derives its name from being The Pikes near Scafell. Despite that, it’s seen as a lesser fell, and on the occasions I have climbed it, I have never found more than one other party on the top with me: Scafell – a 3,000 footer on which you can easily find yourself alone.
The principal reason for Scafell’s relative unpopularity is that, with the exception of the cirque of crags overlooking Mickledore, and the approaches to either side, it is a relatively ungainly and, frankly, somewhat dull mountain. There is a fine, high, ridge approach from Eskdale and Slight Side that is well worth a day of anyone’s life, but in the main the excitement of conquering Scafell lies in surmounting its massive, often terrifying crags.
For those who are not climbers, this rules out a direct approach from Mickledore, and necessitates a massive diversion downwards from the ridge, to gain the summit indirectly by one of Foxes Tarn, Lord’s Rake or the West Wall Traverse. Walkers with red blood in their veins will find themselves needing, at one time or another, to test themselves against one or other of the latter.
Walkers bound for Lord’s Rake must first find themselves a space in the small car park just off the road to Wasdale Head. After passing the head of the Lake, turn right on a road crossing the valley floor, and slip off this left into a parking area well-concealed by trees and hedges. Ensure you are well-supplied with food and liquids, return to the road and march on towards the looming fells, until a Public Footpath sign, marked Scafell Massif, points an eroded way over a stile to the right.
The approach from Wasdale is the shortest route of ascent, and thus the most unrelievedly steep. Nevertheless, there are no difficulties in the first hour of the walk, which follows the beck uphill through woodlands, before emerging in the bare valley a couple of hundred yards short of the foot of Brown Tongue. The beck gushes lustily, and this is a good spot for a five minute break. Long ago, the curve of the underlying rock formed a superb waterchute, down which stones could be propelled with great vigour, but time appears to have eroded this little feature, which I was unable to identify when I last passed this way
Another change to the landscape is the path from the foot of the Tongue, where two gills meet. Originally, this headed directly up the Tongue, following its watershed, at least to the extent that was possible on eroded and crumbling ground that had created a loose scar. This was, in my memory, one of the earliest paths to be given attention by the National Trust, with the old route fenced off in the Seventies and a new route constructed along the flank of the Tongue, just above the right-hand gill, gently climbing onto the flat back of Brown Tongue to reach the upland valley known as Hollow Stones, lying beneath the massive buttresses of the crags of Scafell and the Pike.
This allows for some easy progress on gentle gradients which allow plenty of time to be given to the massive structures around and above. Somewhere in every fellwalker, no matter how much he or she is afraid of the prospect, or is convinced lies utterly beyond their skill, there is a flame that lights up at the sight, that taps at the door of imagination and asks for the courage to enter into that forbidden world. If only…
But Lord’s Rake is one of the few places where a walker, albeit an experienced, and preferably agile one, can stand on the edge of that world, can see the crags at the kind of range climbers do, can pass among them and all in perfect safety. Or rather, not perfect safety, there being nothing of the sort when out on the fells, but enough of a degree of safety as to make the experience not just worthwhile but essential.
At this point, a cautionary note should be injected. My ascent of Lord’s Rake took place in 1996 but, about a decade ago, a piece of rock fell from the crags above and has come to rest on the first col. It has remained wedged in place, across the route, ever since. For some years after, the route was closed, and whilst it is now in use again, the dangers of the ascent have substantially increased. Furthermore, it is noted that where the base of the stone rests is gradually crumbling. At some point, the stone will become unstable, and will fall down the first pitch. Anyone climbing the same when this happens will, almost certainly, be killed. This is not an ascent that anyone can ever think of taking lightly.
From Hollow Stones, paths diverge. To the left, a well-marked track climbs to Lingmell Col, and provides the easiest route to Scafell Pike on this side of the mountain. Ahead, an increasingly stony, loose and steep route scrambles up to Mickledore, though this is effectively only a route once more to the Pike, as the direct ascent would be by Broad Stand, which is climber’s territory. Instead, turn right, towards the great cliffs, shadowed by the sun glimpsed over the dark tops.
The path leads to the base of a massive scree fan, up which an indistinct route scales. The scree-fan rises at a steep angle, and is loose underfoot from bottom to top. Walk slowly, walk carefully, test each step for durability and don’t look around at the views, or if you must, stand still, and make it quick. The crags above grow ever darker as you move under their shadow, but it is possible to use these to gauge your progress. Finally, the width of the scree shrinks, until you reach firm ground at the top, directly under the base of Scafell Crag.
A narrow trod rises to the left and provides a traverse along the base of the Crag as far as Mickledore, but for Lord’s Rake, bear to the right, on surprisingly level ground, rounding the buttress directly ahead and entering the base of a direct and steep gulley rising into the rock above. This is Lord’s Rake.
The Rake cuts across the crag in a dead straight line. It is three hundred yards in length, from beginning to end, with three rises and two descents, and two narrow cols to pass. The first pitch is confined by high rock on both sides: beyond, the Rake is exposed to the right, with steep slopes immediately below.
The first pitch is surprisingly wide, but increasingly steep, so much so that its upper third, and especially the final ten feet or so of the ascent to the col, could not be achieved without using both hands. At that time, the loose scree had been scraped pretty much bare: there were rocks underfoot and care needed to be taken in placing ones boots, but provided this was done, there was little risk of starting a slip that might imperil climbers below, and ample room to move from side to side to gain the best purchase.
One should not take this walk lightly, but at one point, about half way up, I wanted to take a picture of the view behind, only to discover that I needed to change the film in my camera. To do so, I clambered off the Rake, into a crevice on the right, found something flat enough and secure enough to sit on and calmly changed the film, marvelling all the time at my coolness in such elevated places.
The fall of the standing rock has complicated this section. There is again a profusion of loose stone underfoot, to an extent that not only should this ascent not be attempted in anything but good weather conditions, but that if someone is above you, you should wait for them to reach the col before setting off yourself: this is not a slur on their abilities but rather a practical reflection of the danger of their dislodging stones of quite some size that would then start to bound downhill: wear a helmet.
The West Wall Traverse, from Deep Gill
I can give no advice to those who wish to climb the West Wall Traverse. Its entrance is a terrace, reached by a short scramble up the left hand wall of the Rake. The narrow terrace crosses a shelf on the rockface before debouching into the upper section of Deep Gill, which requires then a frantic scramble upwards to Scafell’s broad summit. I have sadly not taken this route and, indeed, was concentrating so hard on the Rake that I completely failed to see the entrance en route. Apparently, the base of the entrance is crumbling, and the risk of it too collapsing, making the Traverse inaccessible, must be faced.
As to the col, I was bloody glad to each it, though it marked a point of no return: there was no way I was going back down that last, terribly steep section below the col. Now, progress is complicated by the need to squeeze beneath the standing stone, a process troubling in itself but holding extra concerns for the more generously built walker.
Beyond, the comfort of the right hand parapet vanishes within a couple of steps. The second col is visible, at the same level, with a steep descent and reascent in between. However, the worst of the Rake, at least as far as I was concerned, now lies behind, and the ground is firmer underfoot than imagination makes it from a distance. Cling to the cliffs at hand, take short steps and the second col can be comfortably attained.
Lord’s Rake, looking towards the second col
A similar scene presents itself another steep descent and reascent, on a narrow path clinging to the cliffs, stretched over a longer distance, with a longer climb to the far side. This, however, is not a third col but the end of the Rake: safety beckons. Again, take short steps, be careful, cling to the cliffs rather than hug the unsupported edge, and before very long Lord’s Rake falls away behind, and you are on the Green How flank of Scafell. The summit is a mere 300′ above, and most walkers will be so adrenalised at their safe passage through the fearsome Lord’s Rake that there will be no stops on the final run up the fellside.
Lord’s Rake, looking over the third pitch to the exit
The path emerges into a saddle, where four paths meet. The upper ramparts of Deep Gill buttress lie to the left, with the prominent notch beyond that is the top of Deep Gill and the exit from the West Wall Traverse. The summit itself lies up a gentle slope to the right, a litter of stones surmounted by a prominent cairn.
How best to descend? Exhilarating as it may be, the thought of reversing the approach along Lord’s Rake does not appeal. I am not talking here about that ten feet down from the first col, nor the fact that the the scree-fan would be many degrees more unpleasant to descend than ascend, but merely the thought of going over ground already trodden so very soon, let alone in the same day. The Green How ridge is an obvious line of descent to Wasdale Head, and is easy, but it is equally obviously tedious, and should be avoided.
Whilst this is not a course I would normally encourage, having the experienced fellwalker’s horror of the unnecessary loss of height and requirement to regain it, the best descent from Scafell in these circumstances is via Foxes Tarn. This involves a descent to a point some 400′ below Mickledore, on the Eskdale side of the ridge, and a 400′ climb that is not the easiest part of the day. However, the adrenaline of Lord’s Rake should still be evident, and the route is fascinating enough to be worth the additional effort.
Return to the saddle and, after a diversion to the top of Deep Gill to encourage the development of your vertigo at the depths revealed, turn down on the right. The path crosses easy grass towards a narrow cleft in the fellside. Within no more than fifty feet of descent, a National Trust constructed route appears underfoot (though I am told that now the path is difficult to trace under loose scree) and the cleft open into a fold in the fellside, at the bottom of which, appearing to be almost vertically down, is a tiny tarn, approximately the size of a standard living room, occupied by a boulder the size of a three-piece suite. There appears to be no exit from the fold.
Foxes Tarn, from the descent
Only as the path nears the Tarn itself can it first be seen that the outflow drains around a steep grassy bank into a heretofore unseen exit. There are a dozen or so steps that can be taken on level ground before the outflow disappears down a stony gully, littered with fallen stone. Like Lord’s Rake, this gully is also straight, with its exit always visible. Descend with care: I prefer the four point method if descending face first – that there be four points of contact with the rock at all times, and only one limb is moved at any time. For those whose anatomy is uncertain, the fifth point is your backside, an invaluable anchor on the way down.
Once the narrow valley of Mickeldore Beck is reached, brush any accumulated debris from your useful backside and turn uphill to the ridge, relying on the adrenaline to make this passage more comfortable than its steepness, the late stage of the day and the loose ground underfoot would otherwise make it.
That ongoing adrenaline surge must be taken into account on achieving the ridge. Head for home, by all means, descending on similarly loose stone from Mickledore, the ground easing slowly until you reach Hollow Stones and can make a leisurely return over trodden ground. But having got here, having undergone all that toil, having done Lord’s Rake fur hilven! (one for you fans of The Killing, Borgen, etc.) it would be a terrible shame not to turn right, scale the cap of stones, and add Scafell Pike’s summit to the day. You are so close already, and as Wainwright says, the only ridge route in the Lakes that is harder than this is the same route in reverse. Do it, for the greatness of it.
From the summit of the Pike, descend north, onto the stony descent to Lingmell col. There is no requirement to include Lingmell itself at this point, but stronger walkers who have not yet counted this top may divert themselves across the col for the additional 300′ of climbing. Everyone else will curve around to the left, over gentle slopes with a superb, grandstand view of Scafell’s Crags throughout its length, until dropping to the head of Brown Tongue.
Descend peacefully and, if you feel like it, smugly. Lord’s Rake is an Achievement in anybody’s book.