It starts badly. This thing – this awful little thing – spots you on the A66 from miles away and starts winking. “Want me, do you? Want to have a go?” You do, too. Oh, yes. The way the sun catches it, makes it twinkle, highlights those rocky tufts, picks out every crease of its nasty little frill. Hung on the arm of stately old Blencathra like a vulgar consort, Sharp Edge is the first real piece of mountain texture you see as you barrel westwards into the Lake District. It’s also your first indication that not everything in Wordswright country is an innocent, pipe-smoking duffer: there’s trouble here, too.
To those who have been following our Lake District Challenges series for the last couple of issues (and even those who haven’t), allow me to welcome you to the literal sharp end of the challenges a walker can expect to face in the cuddly climes of Cumbria.
That’s not to say Sharp Edge is the hardest scramble in the Lakes. It’s not even close. But it is probably the hardest scramble that what you might call ‘normal’ hillwalkers might expect to find themselves on. You don’t end up on, for instance, Pinnacle Ridge by accident, or take a wrong turn and end up stuck on Napes Needle. Sharp Edge, however, you can underestimate. Being as it is arguably the most adventurous approach to arguably the Lakes’ most coveted mountain, it’s understandable that this precipitous ridge feels the almost constant tickle of boots on its back.
This would all be fine if Sharp Edge didn’t so obviously hate walkers. Though a Grade 1 route at the definitive easy end of scrambling, it feels like one of those things in the natural world that seems consciously designed to be a doable-yet-awkward proposition for humans. It’s made of slate, which is a dream in the dry, but when wet feels like it’s sweating WD40. In contradiction to geological principles the rock beds all seem to slope perversely towards the void, like a weird optical illusion. And the drops either side are just too nasty to ignore and just too extensive to survive. And then there’s that one bit. If you’ve done it, you know the bit. We’ll come to it.
So basically, Sharp Edge is scrambling defined. Something difficult, but doable. Scary enough to make your heart kick your tonsils and squeeze your stomach into your knees, make you question your sanity and, when all is safely at your back, inject you with a whopping dose of natural narcotic. It’s weird. It’s illogical. It can be dangerous. And it’s awesome.
Me, this was my second crossing of the ridge. You know that thing where you do something and it scares you a little, then you grow older and wiser and think you can do that same thing again but not be scared this time round? That was me and Sharp Edge. My first time was in clag; today was dry and sunny, so I was all swagger and scoff. This was puffed further by the fact I’d recently found a 1920s Fell and Rock Climbing Club Journal that described Sharp Edge as posing ‘scarcely any difficulty to the average pedestrian’. This made me feel that my memory of the ridge as being one of the more frightening things I’d done in the British hills might need re-evaluation. So, second time around, here’s what I learned.
The limb of Blencathra that includes Sharp Edge makes landfall next to Scales Tarn. This waterhole, the colour of gunmetal, sits in perpetual shadow high on the mountain’s north-eastern side. Curling steeply above it is a broken ramp of grass and sharp rock, which climbs and soon begins to taper to arête width. The grass loses out to stone as the blunt prow
of Blencathra defines itself ahead. And all of a sudden, there at your feet, lies Sharp Edge.
The ridge itself isn’t that long. What you might consider the most dramatic bit lasts about 150 metres and arcs skywards in a curve like a bite. Underfoot it’s warty and pathed, until all of a sudden it tapers up and left, and seems to suggest that if you were itching to part ways with the slinking path and wake yourself up with a bit of a thrill, this is your chance.
The nervous might want to keep their head down and stay within the comforting, context-robbing rock; but if that’s not you, stick your head above the ridge here and get some perspective. What you see is a jumble of rock towers forming a shattered backbone, disjointed and punctuated with splinter-like jags of slate. It’s like a roof after an earthquake.
It may also make you reconsider your guts. To tackle this ragged crest requires you to negotiate a knobbled, foot-smoothed walkway the width of a shopping-centre escalator but without the comfort of a banister. That’s Option 1. Option 2 is to walk alongside it, left hand resting nonchalantly but firmly on the topmost rock, a halfway-house of commitment that – by the line of polish to the right a few feet below the crest – has wide appeal among the Indecisively brave. Option 3 is to avoid it via a lower path. For this, you don’t need help.
But stick with the crest, and after a prominent knobble it flattens and broadens to a layered pavement of thick-lain slate, with a smeared texture like a sat-on, half-melted Cadbury’s Flake. Barring a coating of ice, at this point anyone can climb up and enjoy the view of being mid-route on one of England’s great mountains, or perhaps strike a heroic pose.
How you are at this particular bit of Sharp Edge says a lot about you. Were it transplanted to a car park at sea-level, you wouldn’t think twice about a one-legged tap dance along it. But hoist this stretch of rock onto Blencathra and add in the frisson of a very steep hundred metre fall either side, and you’ll likely diverge into one of two distinct groups: either you’ll be shaking, or you won’t be.
It’s after this that things get really interesting. Gone are the easy couple of steps to and fro the bypass path if things get tricky: from here you’re on the ridge, or you’re bailing out and backtracking. A couple of skirts beside lichen-tattooed rocks – one of them a real knee-shaker – and a slither over a crest comprised of stacked, broken edges starts to heft you up the next bit of ascent. Like most Grade 1 scrambles, the rock is strong and the holds are good: the only limiting factor is your confidence.
Then comes the bit everyone remembers. The Bad Step: that generic name for the bit on so many ridges that represents the lowest point on the curve of comfort for a walker. On Sharp Edge this is a square-cut little notch at a particularly narrow spot, which scalds your nerves with a nasty little downclimb then follows it with an awkward shuffle over a little table of rock sloping – naturally – towards the drop. This tilt continues below a tall cannon of slate, then dips again to another awkward shuffle even narrower than the last. Freeze for a long moment either side of this and your situation has the potential to be frightening: you’re pincered by two sharp buttresses, perched on the narrow choke of mountain between two big drops. Don’t think too hard about your next move here.
Happily, you can now look back on Sharp Edge and say you’ve done it. And it does look impressive from here, dropping to Cumbria’s northern fieldy flatlands like a piece of Alp.
So you turn, you clamber up the last bit of ridge, and then you’re greeted with what appears to be a near-vertical wall of rock. You didn’t expect this. But Foule Crag is actually a hoot. Neither as steep nor hard as it looks, it’s a scramble of a different kind to Sharp Edge, but as engaging, and a great reboot of any confidence that might have recently crashed.
I mentioned I first crossed Sharp Edge in clag and rain and wind. My second time was in still air and sunshine. The second time was worse than the first. Don’t ask me why. It just was.
So, Sharp Edge: a perfect example of the annoyingly subjective, totally unpredictable nature of all scrambles. Reactions to it not only vary depending on the weather, or the person: they vary within the same person and don’t really follow logic. But – and I really do mean this – don’t let that put you off. By way of words of half-wisdom, there are these: Sharp Edge will probably be worse than you remember or not as bad as you’d think. Happily, this particular scramble leads somewhere rather special. After depositing you victorious on the summit of Atkinson Pike, a short saunter along a pink-tinged path leads to the summit of Blencathra. So whichever expectation Sharp Edge ends up delivering, rest assured: it ends well.
WORDS SIMON INGRAM
This feature originally appeared in Trail Magazine