The High Stile Range
November is another month of 2020 we’d all rather forget. A second national lockdown brings challenges and pressures for everyone, be they economic, health, lifestyle or even just the boredom and uncertainty of sitting around at home.
On the eve of this difficult month away from the fells, a special walk was definitely called for to get me through.
Introducing the High Stile Range. A classic and somewhat underrated route. It has a bit of everything: a fine lakeside bimble to start; a long ridge that gets high and stays high; a huge waterfall; options to spice up the ascent; and those all-important views of nearby Lakeland giants. I personally think it’s one of the best in the Lake District. And while its popularity means it’s not exactly a hidden gem, it’s content to sit in the shadows, both figuratively and literally, of its more popular mountain neighbours.
Buttermere in the Autumn is a special place. The early-morning glow of the sun emphasises the rusty hues of the fells. I step into the chill and breathe the clean air. The sound of the beck washes away concerns as I stretch up tall and still feel small beneath the towering hills huddled together around the valley. The call of a lone buzzard on a nearby tree demands my attention. It takes off effortlessly, treating me to a short aerial display, before finding another perch out of range of my prying camera lens.
The swollen rivers feeding the lake saturate the ground. Boots squelch through the belching sludge, as I approach the shores of Buttermere. Fleetwith Pike looks like it had a rough night, as it attempts to shake off the foggy hangover from its temples. The waters at its feet are calm and reflect the greys and pinks and purples of the sky overhead. The trees do their best to cover their modesty with what remaining leaves they have on their branches. The scene helps to banish my anxieties in facing another month under lockdown and feeds my soul in a way only the mountains can.
The obvious climb is to head for the well-trodden Scarth Gap path before veering right to join the ridge formed by High Crag, High Stile and Red Pike. Alfred Wainwright suggests a more adventurous way for those of a scrambly persuasion: a steep breech in the rock he coins Sheepbone Rake. But there is a third way. A hybrid of the two approaches, which takes in the drama of High Crag without committing you to a steep and slippery rake. With mist swirling around High Crag and the ground underfoot greasier than a body-builder’s biceps, the hybrid option seems the obvious choice.
I leave the security of the lakeside path and climb steeply alongside waterfalls at the base of Comb Beck. With no path to guide me, I set a course for the fell wall, taking care not to drift too far to the left where crags are shown on my map. It’s hard work but I soon reach a ladder stile crossing the wall to Burtness Comb.
Those with scrambling in mind will undoubtedly head into the depths of the Comb to locate the breach in the rock. As if sensing my presence and warning me off steeper ground, the grey clouds wring out their aqueous contents on me, confirming my decision to turn left and follow the wall around the base of High Crag Buttress. It often pays to listen to the mountains.
The going is slow. The camber of the slope providing a stern test for the support of my boots and the ankles they encase. I curse and wish I’d taken the more pedestrian Scarth Gap path. But the trade off is I get to feel like a proper adventurer, forging my own path across the hillside. Away from the crowds, I look across to the North-Western Fells before enjoying views of Fleetwith Pike and Haystacks from an entirely different perspective.
On to the ridge
Sticking close to the wall and with much huffing and puffing, I eventually join the path up to the ridge. It’s a bit of a slog now but I gird up the loins, safe in the knowledge this is the hard bit. The rest of the day promises much striding out along the lofty ridge with gay abandon.
The steep climb culminates at a cairn and the triangular-shaped summit plateau of High Crag. I wander across to the opposite edge to see the impressive drops into White Cove and Comb Crags. High Stile looks imposing straight ahead, the rocks of Grey Crag dusted with a light covering of snow, like icing sugar on a cake.
With plenty of clag limiting the field of vision to my immediate surroundings only, views across the Ennerdale Valley to Pillar, Kirk Fell and Great Gable are notably absent. With my focus firmly fixed on the clearer Buttermere Valley, I am struck by the drama of the cliffs plunging beneath my feet. The rocky ground doesn’t look like much from the valley floor below but there’s a real sense of height here. Not the exposed sort of height you get peering down the Wastwater Screes. Or down to Red Tarn from the summit of Helvellyn. Just a sense of space, as if floating above the mountains in a hot air balloon.
Even in the mist, there are no concerns over route finding. Keeping the steep crags of Comb Crag to my right and the long slope down to Ennerdale to my left, I am guided by rusty fence posts which run all the way to Red Pike. A handy reassurance in any conditions.
The best of the views arrives as I summit High Stile, the tallest of the three peaks on the ridge. I feast on the commanding prospect of Bleaberry Tarn. The tourist path to Red Pike draped like a ribbon across the rusty fell side. Crummock Water stretches out all the way to the sea between the hulks of Mellbreak and Grasmoor. The Isle of Man is just about visible in the distance. It’s hard at this moment to imagine a finer view in all of Lakeland.
I head over to the Ennerdale side of the ridge. Cloaked in a thick coat of cloud, it’s hard to believe a mountain resides behind this shroud. But then I catch a glimpse of its features: Pillar Rock; and the steep slopes above Wind Gap. Pillar looks dark and moody; its hangover clearly much worse than Fleetwith Pike’s. Pulling the sheet of cloud over its aching head, Pillar is once again concealed from view.
The Red Planet
Leaving the beast to its slumber, I continue my gentle ascent towards the Martian landscape of Red Pike. The scarlet hues complement this time of year perfectly, and I pause above the steep drops into Ling Comb. Most people call it a day here and descend the steep and slippery tourist path to Bleaberry Tarn, which looks so inviting in the bowl below. But my route has another treat in store, which might just be the highlight of the entire route.
But first, a little effort. Descending to the West, the initial scree slope peters out and a track guides me along the spur of Lingcomb Edge. About halfway down, I take a bearing and head across country, my plan being to intercept the upper reaches of Scale Beck.
The Fun Part
Now it starts to get fun. The beck at this point is a gently meandering stream. Alongside is a delightful path which tracks the twists and turns of the water as it trickles over rocks in a shallow ghyll. It feels beautifully remote, the slopes of heather muffling the sounds of the unhurried water, blissfully ignorant to its fate on the slopes below.
The path becomes steeper. I have to scramble over the red rock in parts. l am transported to some desert canyon as the stream accelerates. The sound builds in accompaniment. What I can’t yet see, but the map assures me is there, is Scale Force. The highest single drop waterfall in the Lake District.
As if nature knows how to perfectly orchestrate the waterfall’s big reveal, the going underfoot becomes more treacherous as the rocks are splashed from the increasingly turbulent waters. Here is not the place to slip.
The sound crescendos until I feel it can build no more. Surely I must be about to gaze over the precipice of the 170ft drop? Suddenly, the path bends sharply to the right to avoid the steep ground ahead and I am plunged into silence. Like the score in a film, the silence beckons me on but I know I’m about to be scared witless by some unseen monster waiting to jump out at me.
The silence lingers for just a moment too long, making me ponder whether I’ve missed the spectacle after all. But then I round a final corner and the cacophony floods my ears once more. Bang! The visual spectacle hits me with the full force of a 10 tonne truck.
After the suspense of following the beck, the sight of Scale Force fills me with awe. All that surging water jostling for position in the beck funnels into a single column before gravity takes over. Moments later, it crashes on to the rocks below before calmly continuing its journey to Crummock Water.
My soul suitably soothed, I ease back into the final part of the walk across wide pastures. Crummock Water offers the perfect place to reflect on this day of mountains, waterfalls, lakes, with not a single thought of US elections or global pandemics or looming work deadlines back home.
Mountains are so often the answer, I think, as I strap myself in for another month of lockdown. A reminder that there are bigger things going in the world than politics and pressures and petty differences. And that now, more than ever, we need our wild places to escape the madness of it all.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Buttermere
Distance: 7.5 miles (12 km)
Wainwright count: 3
Navigation: Strong map and compass skills are necessary, particularly if you tackle one of the alternative ascents or take in Scale Force on the return journey.
Terrain: Gentle lakeside walking gives way to classic Lakeland mountain terrain both on and off the paths.
Facilities: Croft House Cafe, The Bridge and The Fish (now called the Buttermere Court Hotel)
*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.