Scafell Pike is the tallest mountain in England. It could be a terrible mountain in every single way and it would still attract the crowds by virtue of being the biggest. Thankfully it’s not a terrible mountain. It’s a bloomin’ good one which has all the attributes you’d expect of England’s highest ground.
It’s rocky for a start. A rugged mass in England’s otherwise green and pleasant land. There are many routes to the top, each with a different character. On a clear day from Wasdale, it’s friendly and accessible to anyone of moderate fitness. Start from Langdale in the clag and it feels remote and wild and distant.
My route gives yet another option, beginning in Borrowdale. The rural hamlet of Seathwaite holds the dubious accolade of being the wettest place in England. But discover it on a dry day and its charms are obvious. As the gateway to some of the best fells in the District, it’s a popular hub for many a memorable day. I have a soft spot for Seathwaite and you will too.
Starting from Seathwaite allows you to take advantage of two different routes to the top. Each of them is excellent. But combine them and something wonderful happens. Now you have the makings of an unbeatable day walk. And while both routes are popular, the sheer distances involved mean you’ll see fewer people than you will on the shorter approach from Wasdale.
Alfred Wainwright lists two express instructions for tackling this route, so pay attention! The first is to wait for good weather – tricky when starting from the wettest place in the country. The second is to start early – in my view the best way to experience any mountain.
Early starts, good weather
With the days getting shorter, I started in the dark. The skies were clear. A full moon was high in the sky, bathing the beautiful Borrowdale valley in a ghostly sheen of silver. Parking wasn’t a problem at this hour. I booted up quietly and set out along the River Derwent towards Stockley Bridge.
After crossing the bridge, most people continue through the gate and start the pleasant climb towards Styhead Tarn. Fewer people turn left alongside Grains Gill, climbing steadily towards the the cliffs of Great End. The path has been heavily reinforced, and it’s a joy to climb alongside the cascading waters. The upper sections of Ruddy Gill are superb.
The soft pastel colours of the early morning skies provided a particularly pleasant backdrop to Derwent Water, with Skiddaw and Blencathra waking up beyond. Ahead, my gaze was naturally drawn upwards to the cliffs and gullies of Great End. This sketchy ground is a dead end for mere mortals, so I turned left on the popular path from Styhead to Great Langdale.
Esk Hause is notoriously confusing in poor conditions, with a number of major walking highways meeting on the tilted plateau. There were no such worries today, with the exquisite mountain panorama laid bare for all to see. I admired Esk Pike at close quarters. Despite the amazing show put on by the clouds just a few weeks before, I didn’t get to appreciate the shape of this underrated mountain. The crags on the western side were more impressive than they’d appeared through the mist and I felt short-changed at missing out on one of the best views of the Scafell range from the summit.
Leaving Esk Hause behind, the terrain becomes all the more rocky. Wainwright talks about tired walkers optimistically longing for the subsidiary summits of Ill Crag and Broad Crag to be the true objective. But there was no doubt of which was the highest peak today – the prominent summit cairn on Scafell Pike was clearly visible in the distance. A long way in the distance.
But first, a diversion. Although it’s perhaps unfair to think of Great End as a side mission. As the fifth tallest Wainwright, it deserves merit in its own right. But unless you are a climber, drawn by its impressive crags, it tends to get left on the sidelines by supporters heading for the big one. The route to the summit leaves the main Scafell Pike path to encounter a grassy slope littered with boulders. There’s a feeling of space up here. A huge mound in the middle of giants. I soon reached the summit.
Or should I say summits? There are two tops of nearly the same height and it felt rude not to visit both of them. Each offers commanding, and very different, views of the Lake District. The cairns led me to the north-western summit first. Great Gable is particularly impressive from this angle, as well as Skiddaw and Blencathra in the distance. The south-eastern summit is the best place from which to admire the Langdale valley and its impressive gathering of fells.
The chilly morning combined with nerves about getting to the summit of Scafell Pike before the crowds arrived meant I rushed my stay on Great End. It’s definitely on my list to return so I can explore the gullies on its north-eastern cliffs from above.
Descending from the south-eastern summit can mean a spot of boulder hopping. It’s easier on the ankles to pick up the less rocky ground emanating from the true summit. Although it’s a taster of what’s to come on your journey to Scafell Pike.
Picking up the path from Esk Hause, it soon fizzles out in favour of huge boulders. Although the route is vague, I felt an innate sense of which way to go, perhaps guided by subtle changes in shading on the rocks from many thousands of boots over the years. The summit of Ill Crag lies off to the south and is well worth a visit. Not that I took my own advice today; I was focused on reaching the Pike.
The boulders soon give way to easier terrain as you descend to a saddle, the scenery becoming more impressive with every step. Don’t get too complacent though; the boulder-hopping soon starts up again in earnest as you head towards the summit of Broad Crag.
Guided by the cairns, only purists will tackle the bouldery scramble to the summit. For everyone else, there’s just one final descent to the pebbly saddle beneath Broad Crag and a final impressive ridge climb to the summit of Scafell Pike. The climb is more extensive than it appears from afar, with boulder-hopping the order of the day. And then the welcome sight of the formidable summit shelter atop the highest ground in England.
I listened for the chatter of excited walkers taking summit-selfies as I approached but was surprised to see I had the place to myself. I’ve been lucky with my timings this year, enjoying Helvellyn, Great Gable and Bowfell without having to share. But this felt like a real coup, given the news reports for much of the year showing mountains buckling under the strain of visitors.
Taking advantage of being alone, I took in the incredible views you’d expect from the highest point in the country on a clear day. I love admiring the cliffs of Scafell across Mickledore. Picking out the notorious Broad Stand, Lord’s Rake and Foxes Tarn from close quarters. Great Gable to the north and the challenge of spotting Napes Needle. Then my gaze was drawn to perhaps the most impressive sweeping view over Styhead Tarn towards Borrowdale. Surely there can be no finer sight.
Twenty minutes passed and still no company. I decided to say farewell to this incredible place and start the long descent. I took off north-west heading to the Lingmell Col and part two of the day’s adventure – the Corridor Route.
The Corridor Route
It’s easy to miss the start of the Corridor Route, particularly in mist. The track runs right as the more distinct path turns sharply left. It’s something I did on my first ascent of the Pike. Elated at having ticked this summit off the list in poor weather, we all of a sudden started to question why we could see a large body of water emerging from the mist. We’d inadvertently stayed on the Wasdale path and Wastwater was fast approaching. Luckily we realised our mistake before wasting too much effort, and returned to take the right hand turn instead.
The Corridor Route remains one of my favourite ways through the mountains. It’s long and high with sustained interest throughout. The twists and turns feel like you are navigating your way through the digestive system of some giant monster. There are calm pools and mighty waterfalls. Plunging gills and sweeping panoramas. It’s also a tough proposition, with scrambly sections and hints of exposure.
Once touted as the quieter route to the summit, it does get busy nowadays but less so than the more direct approach from Wasdale, popular with national three-peakers. For those approaching from Seathwaite, the temptation to linger at Styhead Tarn can be a lot to overcome, particularly when you see how far you have to go to get to the summit (and then, of course, face the return journey). Make no mistake, this walk is a big day out in the hills.
With tired legs, Styhead Tarn is the perfect spot to rest before completing the final section back to Stockley Bridge and Seathwaite. Styhead Tarn sends me all bleary-eyed and wistful. It’s where I fell in love with the bigger fells, after cutting my teeth on the likes of Cat Bells and Skiddaw. It’s picturesque and exciting and a key milestone for many an exciting route. There are worse ways to laze away a sunny afternoon, sitting by the water’s edge gazing up at Great Gable and tracing a line along the Corridor Route to see the tiny figures approaching the summit of the highest ground in the country.
I saw lots of excited people heading up to Styhead on my return. They’d clearly not taken Wainwright’s advice and started early. But England’s highest mountain has a strong pull at all times of the day and in all conditions. And that’s what made me feel particularly privileged to have enjoyed the revered summit all to myself.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Seathwaite
Distance: 10 miles (16 km)
Wainwright count: 2
Navigation: As with any mountain walk, strong map and compass skills are necessary. Although popular, Scafell Pike is a lonely place when the mist descends. Do not underestimate the skills you’ll need to get off the mountain safely.
Terrain: Steep, rocky mountain ground.
Facilities: Toilets and campsite at Seathwaite. Plenty of options in the Borrowdale valley and Keswick is nearby.
*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.