It’s widely regarded as the dividing line between walking and climbing in the Lake District, but exactly how tough is Jack’s Rake? And, for that matter, who was Jack anyway?
A lot of people are terrified of Jack’s Rake, and with good reason. It’s not every day you scramble 100m up a narrow rock trench, cutting diagonally across one of England’s most imposing cliff faces, and tiptoeing past rock-climbs with names like Cruel Sister, Brain Damage and Impact Day.
If you aren’t familiar with this legendary nerve-jangler up Pavey Ark, what you really need to know is that it’s a mountain route with just about everything: spiky rock, the odd dose of exposure, gigantic views and a serious overload of adrenaline. Located deep in the awesome surroundings of the Langdale valley, Jack’s Rake is possibly the most famous (and notorious) scramble of its kind in England, but although it may sound like a harness and karabiner job, it’s actually only classed as Grade 1. The moves aren’t overly technical and most of the route is encased between a solid cliff wall to your right and a thin fence of rock to your left, but there are still patches of exposure that will twist your guts.
Then there’s the problem of tackling it in the wet. Anyone who’s ever visited Cumbria will know it gets more than its fair share of rain; and if there’s one place you don’t want to be in a Cumbrian downpour, it’s clinging to the smooth slabs of a rocky drainpipe on the side of a vertical crag. But if the elements play ball and you crave that unbeatable feeling only hands on rock can provide, Jack’s Rake is the place to go.
On a good day nailing the rake only takes around half an hour, but it also provides a grandstand finish to one of Lakeland’s most popular hillwalks. Starting directly behind the Sticklebarn pub – a fine Langdale watering hole run by the National Trust – the route follows a well-trodden but irresistibly spectacular footpath that climbs past the powerful cascades of Stickle Ghyll before topping out at Stickle Tarn. The view across the tarn is one of the most photographed in the Lake District. To the west Harrison Stickle – the highest peak in the Langdale Pikes at 736m – rises from the water like a dormant volcano, its dark crown erupting aggressively from the gentle green slopes at its base. But despite losing out in the height stakes to its near neighbour by 37m, the view north to Pavey Ark is the one nobody forgets. From lakeside to summit your eye climbs only 200m, but your line of vision travels through a scarred fortress of grey rock, with every inch riven and crisscrossed by the buttresses, gullies and rakes that make it one of the region’s premier rock-climbing destinations.
For those who don’t fancy a direct tussle with the cliff face, there’s a relaxed footpath that circles around to the east before rambling affably to the summit. But if you’re up for a scrap, head for the obvious scar that cuts diagonally across Pavey Ark’s face – rising from east to west before terminating against the skyline to the left of the summit. This, if you hadn’t guessed, is Jack’s Rake – and here’s how you’re going to climb it…
From the south side of Stickle Tarn, first follow the path that traces the eastern shoreline, then cut leftwards across scree towards the obvious start of the rake. Just before you enter the scramble, you’ll notice the prominent channel of Easy Gully cutting upwards to your right. This is also a tempting route, but it features more exposure and more technical moves than what you’re about to attempt, so keep aiming left into the obvious rocky trough of Jack’s Rake.
Lakeland guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright described Jack’s Rake as ‘a rock-climb rather than a walk’, which – despite being a slightly overblown cautionary note – at least gives you a flavour of what lies ahead. There’s a good amount of knee and elbow jamming involved, and you’ll need to be fairly flexible to twist your limbs into the shapes required to skip through the clutter of rocks you’ll encounter, but in good conditions anyone with a decent amount of scrambling experience can conquer Jack’s Rake with relative ease.
Exposure is fairly minimal for the majority of the ascent, thanks to the natural rock trench shielding you from the precipice to your left, and navigation is a no-brainer as the only way to proceed is forwards and upwards. There’s a slightly nerve-racking traverse above an open grass slope around the halfway point, followed by a tight squeeze behind a fallen rock splinter known as The Gun, before the route concludes with some thrilling scrambling on the rock slabs above Great Gully. An obvious projecting rock marks the end of the scramble, and by aiming to the right of it you’ll spill out onto the clearly defined summit path. From here you can plug in to the footpath, or continue scrambling over easy rock to the top.
THE ONWARD JOURNEY
Pavey Ark summit is a great place to relax and pat yourself on the back after a job well done, but the day doesn’t end there. Descending Jack’s Rake isn’t an inviting prospect, so either take the path that swings eastwards back towards Stickle Tarn or complete your day by exploring the rest of the Langdale Pikes that lie to the west. Harrison Stickle and Pike of Stickle (709m) are quite rightly two of the most prized summits in the Lake District, and both are well worth investigating before you descend into the valley for a well-earned pint at the Old Dungeon Ghyll.
WORDS OF WARNING
- Jack’s Rake becomes a natural drainage line in wet weather and is often full of running water, so it’s best avoided in heavy rain.
- Although the exposure isn’t too extreme for most of the scramble, the rake is a very dangerous place to be in high winds.
- Pavey Ark is a popular climbing crag, so awareness of other people is hugely important. Look out for stones falling from above and take care not to dislodge any loose rocks yourself. Consider a helmet.
- The condition of the rake has deteriorated over years of constant use, so be prepared to encounter smooth rocks and test the strength of any foot- and handholds before using them.
- In snow and ice Jack’s Rake becomes a Grade 1 winter climb, which should never be done without the right skills and equipment.
Who Was Jack?
The first recorded ascent of Jack’s Rake was made by Richard Pendlebury in the 1850s, but the history books make no mention of a companion called Jack. We’ve heard rumours that Hollywood star Jack Nicholson and golfing legend Jack Nicklaus made the first winter ascent of the rake, but at the time of writing that story was still unconfirmed. And almost definitely nonsense.