The Route: Blencathra Distance: 12.5km (7.7 miles) aprox | Time: 1 Day | Ascent: 2,848 ft Start: NY343269 | Map: OL5 | Date: 20/06/2010
To glimpse Blenacthra from the confines of your car seat as you pass along the A66 you would think it were near impossible to climb. Upon closer inspection of Sharp Edge you can confirm to yourself that it is indeed impossible to climb. But Sharp Edge, although by far the most famous route up this mammoth mountain, is not the only way to ascend this mighty northern peak.
An alternative route via Scales Tarn offers excellent views and a steep climb thrown in, but without the exposure and knee shaking of the more famous and precipitous route across the razor toothed ridge that is Sharp Edge.
As this was our first outing up Blencathra, and indeed the first time we had ever actually seen the summit clearly in all our visits to the northern lakes over the years, discretion played the better part of valour and the easier aforementioned route was opted for on this occasion.
Having come unstuck (in sometimes comical, but also sometimes terrifyingly real incidents in years gone by) I was in no mood to chance my luck with this particular beast. An unhealthy diversion on Great Gable and an ill concieved ‘on sight’ attempt at Parkhouse Hill in the Peak District had taught me the hard way that homework is vital when out in the hills and wild areas of Britain. So with rucksacks on our backs, OS maps in hand and GPS (just in case), we set off from Scales Farm following the Scales Fell path.
Soon the hum of the cars speeding along the A66 disappeared and was replaced with the sounds of Skylarks and running water as we rounded the steep ridge and got our first real glimpse of the day’s main aim, Blencathra herself. At 868-metre (2,848 ft) Blencathra cuts a commanding aspect. She has six separate fell tops, of which the highest is Hallsfell Top. Sometimes referred to rather unkindly on maps as Saddleback, although I like many others prefer the much more poetic ‘Blencathra’ derived from the Cumbric elements blaen (a bare hill top) and cathrach (a chair), this mountain comes as near to alpine climbing as can be experienced in England.
Our route-in soon picked up the Glenderaterra Beck and began to follow the single-track that runs westward beside her until we reached the foot of the first real steep section where a small scramble up the side of Scales Beck sees you top-out with a view towards the magnificent Scales Tarn.
Scales Tarn is a wonderful natural amphitheatre and the ubiquitous yodel or simple yell just has to be let out. Even the bleat of the grazing sheep echoes eerily around and around this rocky bowl. Add into the mix that here for the very first time you really get to see the sheer size and height of Sharp Edge with those blood curdling steep drops of legend, the razor toothed ridge pitched way above you and the small line of ants traversing along its back you get one of the truly memorable scenes that can only be found in the high northern Lakes.
After a short stop for refuelling and a similarly short photo-session to capture the impressive surroundings it was off to start the ascent of the first really steep section of the hike. A series of steep switchbacks which can be followed up the western slopes of the cirque to eventually reach the plateaux of Tarn Crags.
From here I could not resist the short jaunt along the plateaux path to see the top of the Sharp Edge route and assess for myself if next time I would have the fortitude and head for heights required to climb this most iconic of climbs. The consensus in my head is, yes I can do it, but the weather will have to be spot on and a heavy rucksack traded in for a more stealthy lightweight option to increase my chances of success. To suffer from mild vertigo, as I do, is a hinderance among these highland areas but for me it also adds some spice into the already heady mountain mix.
Backtracking my own steps brought me to the summit real at HallsFell Top which is actually a quite uninspiring summit, with a ridiculously small cairn for such a mighty mountain top. A quick traverse along the spine taking in the spectacular views over to Keswick and Skiddaw eventually brought us to Knowe Crags and the knee busting descent down the obvious track which brought us back down to Blease Farm.
From here the long slog back along the base of the mountain began in earnest with several becks to negotiate and a particularly hands on scramble down a rock face near Doddick which helped clock some extra mileage onto the hike and an added sting in the tail as far as the adrenaline rush went. Eventually after countless ups and downs the dry stone wall we had followed brought us out of a small wood and joined the pathway leading back to the car which had been parked neatly in the lay-by at Scales Farm since the early morning.
In summary, Blencathra offers something for everybody, whether a seasoned climber or a novice in the hills for the first time. The views are spectacular, the routes to the summit (of which there are many) are all varied and all interesting, offering ridge line approaches, hands on scrambling, or hill walking depending upon your calling. I will definitely return to climb this mountain again and again, not only that I also feel destiny pointing me towards that summit via, you guessed it, – ‘Sharp Edge’!