Few mountains can hold a walker’s focus for a lifetime. Here, Graham Thompson explains why, among Lakeland's many peaks, this one is king.
The moment I fell in love with Great Gable was back in the early Nineties, when I was working for the Youth Hostels Association. I was based in Ambleside and Grasmere, and my regular haunts on days off were the high fells that rise above Langdale, Eskdale, Borrowdale and the majesty of Wasdale.
Scrambling was an emerging fashion at the time so I tackled every route I could; and as I was also rock-climbing at a reasonable standard some famed Lakeland ascents came under my grip too. With Great Gable having plenty of classic rock and scrambling routes it was perhaps no surprise that it soon became my focus of attention. As I was cash-poor but time-rich, ‘dossing out’ on the hills was the best way to make the most of the weekends. I climbed, walked, slept and mountain biked all over the high Lakeland fells, but it gradually became clear that it was Great Gable that was carving a special place in my heart.
With such a vast array of adventures available on Gable it can be hard to know where to head first, but for those new to the mountain there is a ‘tourist route’. As the name suggests these routes were originally used by those pioneers of mountain exploration, the Victorians. During this period the normal routes of ascent onto Great Gable were made from Styhead Pass on its south-eastern corner. Good climbers were said to reach the summit in 40 to 60 minutes with ponies being taken some way up the mountain, but not to the summit.
Today the ascent via Styhead Pass remains the most popular route onto the mountain, with walkers starting out from Borrowdale or Wasdale. The Borrowdale approach from Seathwaite provides good access from Keswick, but to really bond with Great Gable nothing compares with the Wasdale approach.
Wasdale Head nestles beneath the cliffs of Great Gable at the end of its eponymous valley. It’s just far enough off the beaten track to maintain a true mountain atmosphere not overly tainted by progress: there’s no mobile phone reception or broadband coverage to distract you. And if you’re looking for a base camp, the Wasdale Head Inn has provided accommodation for tourists, walkers and climbers for over 200 years, and remains a popular haunt for hillgoers to this day.
So with this in mind, for all first-time Great Gable adventurers: head to Wasdale. The finest view of Great Gable is without doubt gained by travelling the length of the valley from the south-western shore of Wast Water. From here Gable rises above the lake with such elegance, power and perfection that the view was voted the nation’s favourite by ITV viewers in 2007.
But back to that popular route via Sty Head. The towering cliffs of the Great Napes crags dominate from the off, in part as there is an unnerving feeling that a lump of rock will break off, bounce down the scree and come crashing past at any moment. This focuses the attention and adds to the atmosphere of adventure and exploration. But having walked up the path to Styhead Tarn you may want to explore those crags a little more closely – and there is a walkers’ route that allows those with a head for heights to do just that.
In order to do this (and it’s hard to resist for any scrambler with an eye for a challenge), you need to follow the South Traverse of Great Gable. This goes from Sty Head through the Great Napes crags and is one of the finest routes in the Lake District. The not-so-obvious path has been worn into the scree by over a century of boots scraping the rock, so today you’re more likely to see adventurous walkers than rock-climbers on the route. The Lakeland guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright even extended his invitation to “small children, who are natural scramblers, and well-behaved women – but nagging wives should be left to paddle their feet in Styhead Tarn.”
AW’s sexism aside, I would encourage any nagging friends to steer clear too, because concentration is required on the ascent as hands will be needed and many boulders do tip and slide on occasion. But for walkers of any gender or age this is a supreme adventure.
Following the South Traverse of Great Gable you are treading on rocks that tell the story of British and Lakeland climbing history, too. Most rock-scrambling in the 1860s and 70s was concentrated on Pillar Rock and Scafell. Then, in 1884, Walter Parry Haskett Smith and his climbing partner John Wilson Robinson, a farmer from Lorton, went to explore the Great Napes crags from Sty Head. They were looking for Napes Needle, the spire of rock they had spotted from Scafell on previous trips. When they found the rock, they felt it was too forbidding and instead ‘threaded the Needle’ by scrambling up between the pinnacle and the face of the crag and picking their way to Needle Gully. Today this is a classic Grade 2 scramble that anyone with a head for heights can tackle if they are suitably experienced. You follow the worn rock until you see the spire above you, clamber up a path to its base then make the scramble around the back of the needle – everything taking place high above Wasdale Head in a most spectacular position.
You then scamper across a ravine to the Dress Circle, a narrow terrace from where photos of Napes Needle are often captured. Looking up at this spire it is hard to imagine how you would tackle it today. But think back to 1886, when a 22-year-old Haskett Smith returned to climb it alone, with nailed boots and none of the rubber boots and safety gear that modern climbers enjoy.
Returning to a 21st century Great Gable, from Napes Needle modern walkers can continue along a path that winds across the face of the mountain to the Sphinx Rock, a remarkably shaped boulder that stares out over Wasdale. Again the most popular photographs of the rock are taken from the path, so keep your camera handy.
From Sphinx Rock, many walkers then follow a path around the western face of Great Gable to Beck Head, the natural saddle between Kirk Fell and Great Gable. But keen scramblers can ascend Sphinx Ridge, which rises from behind Sphinx Rock to Great Gable’s summit. This route is a masterpiece of mountaineering – without doubt one of the finest Grade 2 scrambles in the Lakes – and there’s no better place to end such a glorious scramble than the summit it finally reaches.
“The view from Great Gable is generally considered one of the finest views to be had from any mountain in the district” according to the oldest guidebook I own: Jenkinson’s Practical Guide to the English Lake District of 1872. Since then the sentiment has been repeated in countless guidebooks to the area.
What makes this view so special is the central location of Great Gable in the heart of Lakeland’s high country, combined with its height of 899m. This ensures that the view from the summit is a 360 degree panorama of staggering proportions. It would take another whole article to describe, so I’ll leave it to you to discover it for yourself and spend many an hour just enjoying it.
Of course, it would be easy to assume that I’m over-egging the place this mountain holds in my heart. But if further proof were needed of Great Gable’s unique appeal, take a few moments to look at the plaque set on the summit rock, which commemorates those members of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club who died in World War One. Their tribute says more than any individual ever could.
And there’s one treat left: there are actually even better views to be enjoyed from Great Gable than those available from the highest point. Take a mere 100 metre walk from the summit towards Wast Water and you’ll find a huge cairn with a jaw-dropping precipice beneath its rocks that sweeps into Wasdale. Known as Westmorland Cairn, it was built in 1876 to mark what was considered to be the best view in the Lake District. The near-vertical cliffs drop away from the mountain to expose a patchwork of fields at Wasdale Head that naturally lead the eye across Wast Water, cradled between Illgill Head and Yewbarrow, to the plains of the Cumbria coast. It’s a vision of Lakeland perfection, seen from arguably its finest peak.
Words Graham Thompson
This feature originally appeared in the August 2014 edition of Trail Magazine