The Mosedale Horseshoe
What’s the best view in the Lake District? Take a straw poll from one hundred different people and you’ll get as many answers. There’s such variety out there that you can spend a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect one. So while I’m not ready to settle on my favourite just yet, it did get me thinking about the ingredients I’d throw into the pot when cooking up the perfect view.
Close your eyes and picture the scene. I want it to feel remote and wild. Like I’m the only person for hundreds of miles. I want drama and variety. Big hills, steep crags, lush grassy meadows, gaping gills and slippery scree slopes. Then we need to give these huge features a sense of scale. So let’s add some trees and a tarn or two. How about an old stone bridge for good measure.
Now something to draw the eye into the scene. A meandering river or a dry-stone wall snaking across the hillside will do nicely. What about colouring it in? I like the colours of Autumn. Reds, oranges, yellows and greens. Let’s have some dramatic skies too.
Finally, our view needs to stimulate other senses, so let’s choose a soundtrack. I want a heady mix of silence, the call of a buzzard and the white noise of a waterfall.
Give it a quick stir and open your eyes. Chances are you’ll be high on the Mosedale Horseshoe in the Western Lake District. This is no coincidence, as the view from Pillar is often touted as the finest in the District. But experiencing this visual feast with your own eyes means committing to a seriously big hill day.
My walk begins in Wasdale on the shores of Wastwater, England’s deepest lake. For most people, getting to the Wasdale valley is an adventure in itself. All options on foot involve a lengthy walk in. And there’s no easy access by car either. But your reward is one of the most spectacular valleys in the country.
An ugly dot matrix sign advising people to behave marks the entrance to this idyllic landscape. Look past this sad intrusion and you’ll see Lakeland icons standing in solidarity – linking arms like the players on the mural around the Arsenal football stadium. The Wastwater screes, the Scafells, Great Gable, Kirk Fell, Yewbarrow.
The peace of the valley is soon interrupted by two cars racing along the narrow road towards the head of the lake. Horns blasting and music playing. They obviously hadn’t seen the sign. This is, unfortunately, the darker side of the Wasdale valley.
Skirting around the back of the iconic Wasdale Head Inn, I cross the old packhorse bridge before heading to the base of Kirk Fell. My route continues around the flanks of this noble peak, as the direct route up the relentlessly steep slope to the summit rises off to the right.
The Mosedale Valley
The prospect of the Mosedale Horseshoe reveals itself for the first time. Looking resplendent in its Autumn livery, the valley serves up a huge dollop of wilderness. The hidden crags at the rear of Yewbarrow show a different side to this shapely fell. The worn out scree slope plunging from the saddle at Dore Head looks like a Bond villain’s scar. Red Pike stands tall, with Scoat Fell and Pillar divided by another unpleasant scree slope from Wind Gap. The sense of scale is vast but this approach gives stiff legs a chance to loosen up before a good path climbs towards Black Sail Pass.
Rising steadily alongside Gatherstone Beck, I soon reach a point where I need to cross the stream. A careless foot placement plunges my boot deeper into the icy waters than I expect. But at least I stay on my feet. Just as my socks are drying off, I reach the saddle at the top of the Pass. Great Gable peers at me questioningly from behind the steep crags on Kirk Fell. I feel small, and tip-toe silently onwards for fear of disturbing these sleeping giants.
Shortly after a couple of tarns, the terrain rises to a knoll at Looking Stead, a short diversion from the main path. From here the grandstand of Green Cove opens up, allowing my eyes to feast on the impressive north-eastern face of Pillar, home to steep crags and plunging drops into the wild Ennerdale valley below.
High Level Route
On this clear day, I could trace out the High Level Route heading towards Robinson’s Cairn and one of the finest ways to the summit of any mountain in the Lake District. It gets you up close and personal with Pillar Rock, a frightening and awe-inspiring protrusion from the mountain which shares its name. Wainwright describes the scene as ‘sublime, yet brutal, without a shred of beauty, and indeed to timid observers will seem a place of sorrow, awful and ugly’. Decide for yourselves if that description puts you off or spurs you on.
Despite the promise of incredible scenery, care is required before rushing along the High Level Route with gay abandon. Steep drops and a good slab of exposure mean this way to the top is best reserved for calmer days and for those with plenty of experience. Straying even a short way from the path could spell disaster. And as tempting as it is on such a clear day, strong icy winds are being whipped up from the Ennerdale valley and blasting the craggy face of Pillar. Self-preservation takes over and I leave thoughts of the High Level Route for a less blustery day.
But the regular route along the eastern ridge is hardly a poor consolation prize. The excitement begins almost immediately with a short scrambly section before the way continues over peaks and troughs with commanding views across to the Scafell range. The Mickledore Gap sitting between the country’s two highest mountains appears as a curvaceous silhouette in the early morning sun.
After gazing down stomach-churning drops, I eventually reach the large summit plateau. Its exposed position in the Western Fells means it often bears the brunt of the weather from the Atlantic. I hunker down into my hood but the increasingly strong wind stabs at my exposed skin like thousands of tiny knives.
I distract myself from the cold by marching across to the northern edge of the plateau to peer into the abyss. The steepness of the surroundings and the vastness of the rocks instantly turns my knees to jelly. Pillar Rock is close enough to touch, yet the void between me and it seems vast. My mind jumps back to the story of an experienced climber in Winter conditions, who slipped into one of the gullies not too far from here, coming to rest just a few feet from oblivion. It seems implausible that walkers would approach the summit from the depths below and I step back a few feet to settle my nerves.
I leave the summit heading south-west towards Wind Gap. As you’d expect from such a formidable mountain, it doesn’t make your escape easy. Described by many guidebooks as ‘unpleasant’, the descent to Wind Gap makes for slow progress. But safely reaching the saddle, I drink in the unrivalled views across the entire Mosedale Valley, before picking up the climb again.
Next up is Scoat Fell. A fine mountain in its own right but seen by most as a stepping stone on the way to or from Pillar. It’s tempting to treat the cairn at the top of Black Crag as the summit, but I need to put a little more work in first, crossing a long saddle before rising to a wall built across the summit.
Out and back
Now there’s a choice to make. With some big hill miles in my legs already, it dawns on me that the Mosedale Horseshoe is far from done. The thought of adding on a quick out-and-back to bag another summit seems foolish. But then I remember that the summit is Steeple and there’s no way I’m leaving that one out.
Wainwright ranks Steeple as one of his six best summits. Like standing on top of a pyramid with just enough room for one, it offers 360 degree airy views of this beautiful part of the world. A short ridge leads me to the pointy top, which, in some respects, feels more exposed than the likes of Striding Edge. Sitting by the summit cairn, just feet away from terrifying drops, I understand why Wainwright rated this place so highly. Sticking my arms out, I feel like Rose standing on the prow of the Titanic, Leonardo Di Caprio gently embracing my midriff. I’m about to utter ‘I’m flying Jack’ when I spot a couple of walkers heading along the ridge. My Oscar-winning reenactment would have to wait.
Best seat in the house
Reversing the route, I hop over the wall towards my next objective, Red Pike. But first another long descent and ascent – the common theme of this walk and what makes it feel like such a big day. The summit cairn rests precariously on the edge of a punishing drop into Mosedale. Be sure to keep to the correct side of it.
Leaving the summit, it’s worth drifting over to the right to locate ‘The Chair’. You can keep your La-Z-Boys and leather Chesterfields, this rocky armchair constructed on top of an outcrop is where I’d choose to park my posterior every time. The views are sublime, with the full extent of the Scafells clearly visible.
The long walk home
With four big peaks under my belt, there’s still some work to do. The descent from Red Pike is long but not at all tedious. I keep walking into the wind until I reach the foot of Stirrup Crag blocking any further downward progress. In Wainwright’s day, my choice would have been easy. The famous Dore Gap scree run once made for a swift return to the valley floor. But overuse has made the alternative ankle-busting zigzag alongside less appealing. The more pleasant route back to the car involves turning the opposite way into the Overbeck valley along the flanks of Yewbarrow.
Huge boulders pepper the landscape. It feels remote and wild and wonderful. It’s a long walk back but the sight of Wastwater glinting like highly-polished chrome in the afternoon sunshine spurs me on.
The path soon reaches a wall tracking the spine of Yewbarrow: one of the best-looking fells in the Lake District. A steep descent brings me back to Wastwater: one of the best-looking lakes in the Lake District. So does that make the views from the Mosedale Horseshoe some of the best in the Lake District?
It certainly has all the right ingredients. But ultimately there’s more subtlety involved when choosing the perfect view. It gets under your skin and makes you giddy with excitement and teary with emotion. And because mountains offer up moments like this time after time, there’s no need to settle on just the one perfect view.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Wasdale Head
Distance: 10 miles (16 km)
Wainwright count: 4
Navigation: Strong map and compass skills are necessary. Its remote location and pathless sections mean you’ll need to be on the ball.
Terrain: Steep, rocky mountain ground. This is a big mountain day.
Facilities: National Trust Wasdale Campsite; Wasdale Head Inn (pub, hotel and campsite).
*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.