Speed. It’s a way of life these days. Getting things done quickly is the name of the game. Racing around to achieve as much as we can in as short a time as possible. Life in the fast lane.
The corporate world is partly to blame. Management’s answer to the more-for-less conundrum often being to push their staff to breaking point with ever increasing targets and tighter deadlines. Sustainable only for a short time and hardly enjoyable.
This mentality filters into our home lives too. We expect instant results. Getting impatient if others drive too slowly. If we have to queue at the supermarket. Or if our flight is delayed.
I’m guilty of racing around mountain walks lately. Since lockdown restrictions have eased and there’s more scope for exploring the hills, I’ve felt unable to slow down. Desperate to get ahead of schedule. Finding extra time to bag as many peaks as possible.
I’ve been darting up and down, hardly stopping for breath. And for what? A bunch of photos, a sweaty base layer, and a few more summits under my belt?
On reflection, I’ve packed too much into my last two walks – squeezing in extra peaks on both The Coledale Round and High Street Horseshoe. And while I don’t regret it, if I’d wanted to bag as many Wainwrights as possible this year, I’d have planned a different approach.
The whole point of choosing 18 iconic fellwalks was to experience the very best mountain days the Lake District has to offer. To revisit old haunts and to discover new places. Not simply to tick summits off a list.
With that in mind, and with a hot day forecast, my next walk offered the perfect excuse to move back into the slow lane.
A top five fell
Great Gable features in many Lakeland walkers’ top five. The name alone makes you want to climb it. It sounds like a proper mountain. And it looks like one too, from whichever angle you gaze upon its inviting slopes. The mountain has character and interest, with something exciting to discover on every route. I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing photos of Napes Needle, Sphinx Rock and Gable Crag for the first time. Great Gable is responsible for making me want to climb mountains.
But despite its popularity, Great Gable has always been the one that got away for me. I’ve been close to the summit on a few occasions but had to turn back for a number of reasons – usually misjudged timings, or being too optimistic about the weather in my less experienced days. Being too hasty doesn’t always get results.
Wainwright recommends an ascent from Honister Pass, a surprise for someone who associates Great Gable more with Seathwaite and Wasdale. But when you consider the incredible scenery you’ll pass at the heads of the Buttermere and Ennerdale valleys, you are reminded that Wainwright knew what he was talking about.
The pass was busier than usual for a six-in-the-morning start, with a number of photographers out and about, no doubt eager to capture an atmospheric shot of the dawn cloud inversion, on a day otherwise forecast to be a scorcher.
Despite the high starting point, the ascent begins in earnest along the old tram way, leading to the foundations of Drum House, once used to house the winding gear. This obvious feature marks the junction with a path that rises more gently along the flanks of the three summits we’ll tackle on our return leg: Grey Knotts, Brandreth and Green Gable.
The views begin almost immediately, the industrial ruggedness of the Honister Slate Mine contrasting perfectly with the gentle beauty of Haystacks and Buttermere below. There’s the lovely prospect of the High Stile range rising beyond. And, not long after you gain height, there’s the anticipation of seeing the giants of Pillar, Kirk Fell and Great Gable on the other side of the Ennerdale valley.
Reaching the Brandreth fence, the path naturally wants to curve to the left to take you to the nondescript summit of Brandreth and the more popular approach to Great Gable. But by heading across the fence, you’ll join the Moses’ Trod path and our way up the mountain.
The path soon approaches Gable Crag, a magnificent wall of rock which casts a huge shadow at the top of the valley. The shade offering the perfect place to linger on this hot day. The views of the Ennerdale valley are exceptional. Look carefully and you’ll spot the remote Black Sail Youth Hostel among the greenery and you can make out the detail of Pillar Rock high above. It’s an atmospheric spot. The sound of pebbles click-clacking as they tumble down the steep walls of the crag and the cascading headwaters of the River Liza providing the soundtrack.
The path rises on the other side of the valley to reach a small shoulder, looking down to the saddle between Great Gable and Kirk Fell. Beckhead Tarn sparkled like diamonds in the early morning light, as the perennial favourite of Wast Water came into view for the first time.
Here’s where the first temptation crept in. Kirk Fell looks enticingly close, with just a rough up and down in the way of ticking off the flat summit. But today wasn’t about peak bagging for the sake of it. Kirk Fell would wait for me to enjoy it at a more leisurely pace.
The climbing gets more serious now as the path ascends steeply up the north west ridge. It’s distinct and easy to follow at first but the scree soon gives way to larger boulders, leaving you to pick out your own route to the top. Take your time here. It’s steep and never feels exposed but the rocks can move so be sure of your footing and don’t drift too far off course.
My reward for taking it slowly was spotting the delicate parsley fern growing beneath the rocks. Something I wouldn’t have seen if I were sprinting to the summit. You’ll also enjoy cracking views down to Beckhead Tarn and looking down on the flat summit of Kirk Fell. The path soon reappears leading to the obvious rocky summit cairn.
Starting early on a hot day has its benefits. I had the summit to myself and was able to linger for a good half hour before I had company. I spent some time enjoying the panorama – excellent in all directions – and identifying surrounding fells from a plan I’d brought with me.
Despite the high temperatures forecast, the breeze kept me cool – chilly even – and so it was time to get up to take in the quintessential view of Wasdale Head and Wast Water from the south-western corner of the summit plateau. From this lofty vantage point, even the grander summits looked small beneath me. I could get use to this going slow business.
The various descents from Great Gable are well-cairned but you still need to make sure you are heading in the right direction, and not relying on a red herring. The good news is our route is relatively straightforward as you head north east from the summit cairn before a more distinct path winds steeply down to Windy Gap.
I enjoyed a lovely view down to Styhead Tarn before the short, steep climb to the summit of Green Gable. I felt a little sorry for Great Gable’s little brother. Surely very few people actually set out to climb it in its own right. Destined forever to be a stepping stone to its more popular sibling, Green Gable has to settle on offering up an excellent vantage point from which to gaze upon Gable Crag. The views of Base Brown and towards Seathwaite and the Borrowdale valley are also new and worth mentioning.
From here on, you’d think it’d be an easy descent on grassy slopes. And it is for a time but the way is interspersed with rocky outcrops, meaning it’s not a time to rest your legs.
The summit of Brandreth is the least inspiring of the day. And so, despite my intentions to dawdle, I pressed on to the more exciting prospect of Grey Knotts.
There’s a miniature scramble taking you to the high point of Grey Knotts and the final destination of Honister seems within touching distance. But the way off the mountain again forces you to slow down. After some initial confusion in making sure you pick the right fence to follow, navigation shouldn’t be a problem as you handrail through the rocky outcrops. But there are some steep bits requiring care as you shuffle around the slippery rock.
The sun was starting to intensify as I approached the slate mine. Glad for the early start, I cooled off by splashing cold water from a nearby stream on my face and reflected on having finally filled this big gap in my mountain CV.
Great Gable certainly lives up to its reputation. A fine mountain, it has all the ingredients for an enjoyable walk on higher ground. It’s one to take your time with. I idled on the summit, taking photos, appreciating the flora and fauna and studying the views in detail. I returned to the car with bundles of energy, feeling I could do it all again the next day.
Life in the slow lane. Enjoying the moment. Surely that’s what hillwalking, and being human, is all about.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Honister Pass
Distance: 6 miles (9.6 km)
Wainwright count: 4
Navigation: Moderate – paths are generally distinctive on this well-trodden route but the summit of Great Gable is a rocky place where the route can be difficult to follow. Strong map and compass skills essential in mist.
Terrain: Generally good mountain paths with little difficulty, save for the north-west ridge on Great Gable from Beck Head, which involves some scrambling.
Facilities: Honister slate mine; Honister Youth Hostel; hotels and campsites in Borrowdale
*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.