I don’t often feel nervous on the morning of a mountain walk. It’s normally a mixture of excitement, anticipation and longing for being in places where I feel most at ease. But today, parked in a lay-by just off the A66, I’ll admit to noticing the odd butterfly in my stomach.
This walk has been almost 30 years in the making. Today I’m visiting the spikier ends of Blencathra: Sharp Edge and Hall’s Fell Ridge. Arguably two of the finest ridges in the Lake District. Ever since seeing a photo of Sharp Edge as a boy, with its razor sharp rock and impossible drops, I’ve feared this inhospitable landscape and certainly had no desire to walk across it. But part of me hasn’t been able to let it go either.
I’ve gazed at Sharp Edge from afar. I’ve stood across from it. Ogled at it from below and even edged towards it from above. But I’ve always put it off, filing it away in that cabinet marked ‘scary things to tackle another day’.
As the years passed, I almost forgot about Sharp Edge. I’d ticked off Blencathra by other routes and had plenty of distractions across the National Park to divert my attention. But as I became a more experienced hillwalker and my list of remaining major objectives dwindled, the idea of crossing Sharp Edge began to niggle once more.
With mountain leader training coming up, it felt appropriate to see how I fared on this exposed grade 1(+) scramble and gain more self-awareness of what I’m prepared to tackle, and ultimately enjoy, in the mountains. With perfect weather conditions forecast, the right experience and an itch that needed scratching, I decided to face up to Sharp Edge and put it to bed once and for all.
It’s probably no bad thing that the walk up to the base of Sharp Edge only takes an hour. Plenty of time to get warmed up physically, but not enough time to bottle it mentally. I pass a few sweeping drops into Mousthwaite Comb, giving an opportunity to calibrate my balance before the more serious stuff that lies ahead.
A hot air balloon rises serenely above the Eden Valley. The ascent alongside the wonderfully-named River Glenderamackin feels just as gentle. And as I reach Scales Tarn all too soon, I feel remarkably relaxed about the prospect of scooting along a razor-sharp ridge. Fear is good. Blind panic is not.
A number of tents garnish Scales Tarn; their occupants busying themselves with an endless list of camp admin. At least there are people around if I end up plummeting to my doom. The tarn looks like any other, but I’m suspicious of the water, as if something sinister lurks in its depths.
The ridge itself looks spectacular. Jagged rock is everywhere. My eyes trace lines along the route but are quickly drawn downwards into the deep waters of Scales Tarn. There’s only one way you are going in the event of a trip up there. But I also note how short and intense the thing is. If Striding Edge is a large skinny decaf latte with an accompanying caramel slice, Sharp Edge is a double espresso with a whisky chaser.
Getting on with it
I faff for longer than is necessary beneath the ridge. A sheep bleats, its call echoing ominously around the crags. I shudder. It’s now or never. Time to get a move on.
Seeking out the ridge is easy. A clear path leads unerringly to a huge cairn, so no excuses for not finding the thing. This is the place to turn back if you are at all unprepared for what lies ahead. It’s exposed hands-on-rock action from now on.
Early on the ridge, there’s a choice of routes. I pick the one I like the look of best and stick with it. I find it easier to stay close to the top of the ridge. Those who have gone before have carved paths lower down but this simply delays the inevitable. You’ll need to climb up to the ridge eventually to negotiate obstacles later on – infinitely more difficult with jelly legs and lots of exposure below.
Moving along the ridge, there’s enough technicality to keep my gaze focused on the immediate hurdles, and distract me from the sickening drops either side. When I pause, I realise what a precarious position this is. Best to keep on moving to avert feelings of imminent peril.
Each foot placement has to be perfect. There’s no room for error up here. Having said that, the moves themselves aren’t too challenging if you have some scrambling experience. If Sharp Edge were three feet off the ground, you wouldn’t think twice. But raising it a couple of thousand feet heightens the senses somewhat.
There are two or three spots which require a little thought. I find myself gripping the polished rock tighter than usual, testing each hand and foot hold before fully committing. I focus on each tiny movement, keeping at least three points of contact at all times, I make fluid progress along the ridge, aiming for an unavoidable obstacle about halfway along the ridge, reassuringly known as the bad step.
Here’s where you need your game face on. It might not look much but it requires a few committing moves to ensure safe passage. The rock is super-slippery, even in today’s dry conditions. It’s nothing short of lethal in the wet. The meeting of countless hard-wearing Vibram soles and super-smooth Skiddaw slate has buffed the rock to a high gloss. You’d get more purchase rubbing butter into an otter. A fall here guarantees a one-way trip to what local Mountain Rescue teams affectionately know as ‘usual gully’. If you are going to fall and hurt yourself anywhere on Sharp Edge, this is as likely a candidate as any.
Surviving the bad step, I pause for a moment and look back at what I’ve achieved so far. Continuing from this point is easier than retreat. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to relax. The character of the route now shifts to a ‘steeper than it looks’ (and it looks steep) climb up Foule Crag.
Solid route-finding is key here. It’s all too easy to drift too far to the left or right, and I am deeply conscious of becoming another crag fast statistic. As before, I take my time and make sure I’m not climbing up anything I can’t climb down.
I find a clear gully to kick things off, which offers a reassuring shield from the exposure and some easy climbing with plenty of hand and foot holds. This soon fizzles out and there’s a sense I’m nearing the top.
Faced with a smooth rocky slab, I spy what looks like a path veering off to the left and on to the top. This quickly proves to be a red herring, leaving me to gaze down a monumental drop to the menacing waters of Scales Tarn below. With nothing but slippery rock to hold on to and a narrow trod of grass for my boots, backtracking this short distance takes the coolest head I have. I manage to get back on the centre line and hoick myself over the bit I’d tried to avoid. Committing to the move, I am relieved to find the way eases a little and I can finally feel the security of flatter ground beneath my feet.
Heart-pounding, I collapse in a heap at the top. The feeling of elation is palpable. I bathe in the flood of endorphins as I gulp air into my lungs. It’s then that I detect a broad smile across my face and feel a new telling wrinkle of experience chiselled into my features as a lifetime mountain goal is accomplished.
It’s just a hop, skip and a jump now across to the summit of Blencathra. And as I regain my composure, I realise all my attention has been on Sharp Edge. But that’s only half of my agenda ticked off. Take a few paces from the summit and you’ll be starting another of Blencathra’s ridges – the magnificent Hall’s Fell Ridge.
The finest way to any summit
Wainwright describes Hall’s Fell Ridge as the finest way to any summit in the Lake District. But even in reverse, this ridge with its endless twists and turns down to the valley floor below looks pretty captivating.
Hall’s Fell Ridge feels quite different from its razor sharp neighbour. It’s longer for a start, so the interest is sustained. It feels less perilous than Sharp Edge too. Yes there are some scrambly sections with huge dollops of exposure to negotiate but it never quite feels like the end is nigh. While Sharp Edge strikes you as the playground brute, Hall’s Fell Ridge is the more distinguished big brother of the affable Striding Edge.
The beauty of Hall’s Fell Ridge is you can tailor it to how brave you are feeling. With several options in many places, you can tweak the adrenaline-junkie dial as you go. And just when you think you’ve cleared the best (or worst, depending on your disposition) of it, another section presents itself.
I felt pretty invincible after Sharp Edge but there’s no time for complacency here. Hall’s Fell Ridge is still a serious undertaking and accidents can and do happen. The same rules apply: three points of contact; take your time; and check holds before committing.
One final sting
The latter stages feel more like a regular mountain descent and it’s tempting to relax as I round the base of Doddick Fell with a new-found spring in my step. But Blencathra has just one last sting in its tail: an awkward rocky step blocking the path as you approach Scaley Beck. Ironically, it’s probably the hardest move of the day. But it’s amazing how being closer to the ground makes things feel a lot more straightforward.
Back at the car, I am elated to have finally scratched that 30 year itch. I’d built Sharp Edge up in my mind to be a bit of a monster, and it’s definitely one I’m pleased to have avoided as a novice hillwalker. But after serving my apprenticeship in the hills, doing my homework and waiting for the right weather conditions, I had no reason to be scared of it.
There’s certainly no denying the feeling of accomplishment on surviving Sharp Edge. The only problem I have is that it feels more like something to endure than enjoy. It’s not what I’d call a pleasant mountain walk; it’s a challenge designed to inject you with a shot of adrenaline and make you feel alive.
At least I can put it to bed now. And, if anything, I respect it even more in that it’s defined what I enjoy about being in the hills. And that’s not necessarily always looking for the gnarliest ascent to brag to my mates about.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: A66 near Scales
Distance: 7.8 km
Wainwright count: 1
Navigation: The main challenge comes in solid route-finding along the ridges. But, as always, strong map and compass work is always required in the mountains.
Terrain: Exposed, rocky ridge walking with few margins for error. Top end of grade 1 scrambling.
Facilities: Threlkeld is the nearest village but it’s also close to Keswick with options galore.
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.