The Route: Red Pike | Distance: 2.8km or 1.75 miles | Time: 3.5 hours
Ascent: 2,476ft (755m) | Start: NY 173163 | Map: OL4 | Date: 01/05/2011
As I sat supping the cold and inviting Cumbrian Ale from my pint glass, I should have been a contented man by all accounts. I had just descended safely from a windy summit on Whiteless Pike and safely negotiated some scrambling over the rocky crags of Rannerdale Knotts, I had earnt my pint by all accounts, a fact backed up by the sweat pouring from my torso coupled with the burning sensation in my kneecaps! But I wasn’t!
Instead I was looking intently up at the Buttermere Buttress permanently in semi shadow which runs along the south western rim of the Buttermere Valley. One cannot just simply sit and peacefully drink ones pint in such surroundings. What was wrong with me? Why could I not enjoy my pint? Had I not already seen and done enough during my week in Cumbria? The answer seemed emphatically to be a resounding NO!
The trouble was that I had seen the name Red Pike on the OS map, it stood out to me, large and proud, in bold type. Red Pike, …Red Pike what a totally cool name, a name that conjured up all manner of thoughts. Red, why not blue or green, maybe it’s because Red stands out for something far more interesting. Red … the colour for danger, for the devil, for take caution maybe, and Pike, the curious sounding local dialect for a peak. So, Red Pike or in other words the Dangerous Peak! Now that sounded like a challenge alright and therefore required some investigation.
Curiously Red Pike cannot actually be seen from below in the valley, it is hidden from view behind a saddle that projects out along a spine to the subsidiary summit of Dodd (not to be confused with the Dodd in Braithwaite). So, not only was the name enticing it also transpired that the summit could now not even be seen clearly from the valley floor…the mystery and interest deepened…and so the desire and my restlessness.
With a little digging about I found out more – It is 2,476 ft (755 m) high, the direct ascent of Red Pike from Buttermere is very popular and the ridge walk from Red Pike to Haystacks is regarded as one of the finest in the area, Red Pike is given its rich red colouring by the presence of syenite in the rock and subsoil of the fell, this is particularly marked in places where surface erosion has occurred and the red colouring of the paths can be seen from some distance. It is listed as a Wainwright, a Nuttall, and a Hewitt.
Between Red Pike and the next dominant peak High Stile is Bleaberry Comb, backed by the impressive Chapel Crags. Nestled deep within is Bleaberry Tarn, a pool continualy in shadow from November to March, thought by many to have formed in a crater left by the once volcanic activity in the area. The tarn is home to a substantial amount of freshwater Trout.
Having gorged on all this info the dye was set and I had a date with destiny that would lead me eventually to the summit of Red Pike. Only trouble was I had two days left in the area and the weather had turned from glorious sunshine and still air to gale force winds upward of 50 mph when gusting. I would have to hope for a gap in the weather and grab my chance when it came. On the last day of my trip with time dwindling and regardless of the increasing wind speed I decided to make my bid for the top.
I was up and kitted out early in the morning and before I knew it I was driving over the Newlands Hause Pass and down towards Buttermere Valley. From the highest point of the pass a quick glimpse of Red Pike’s peak can finally be caught. Resplendent in a red glow above all other summits it called out to me and I responded by depressing the accelerator ever harder to get down and into the valley and to get going.
With the car finally parked and a rucksack on my back I set forth across Buttermere Dubs towards the bottom of Sour Milk Gill – the image that all who have visited Buttermere go away with in their memory banks – Sour Milk Gill, this was the popular ascent route start point and my destination.
The gill leads almost directly up to the tarn in Bleaberry Comb from where The Saddle can be gained, so I set about the business of battling the head on winds and started to scale the stoney pathway upwards. Initially you find yourself in beautiful pine-clad woods as the trail weaves its way gently up the lower slopes until eventually a boundary wall is met and the scene changes to open rocky scree slopes.
With no cover and shelter now from the trees and several hundred feet gained in altitude the winds started to get to grips with me. They battered me first left and then right, head on and then from the sides and so on and so on for what seemed like an eternity. Had I made the right call to attempt this today? I gradually started to question myself.
Having already committed this far though I continued on. I had reached the edges of Sour Milk Gill and as I rounded a rocky corner changing my direction in the process the wind finally eased up on me. The gill itself was in spectacular spout even though it was still early spring. From here it would be a straight forward matter to follow the contours of the ravine created by the gill all the way up to Bleaberry Comb and the tumbling gills source, the tarn.
As I crested the trail I could see for the first time the true magnificence of the rocky amphitheatre of Bleaberry. Rocky crags pierced the sky amid dark shadows which cast darkness over the tarn. The cold waters rippled and lapped the edges as the wind whipped up white crests a mid waters. Chapel Crags towering above really warranted its name and rarely have I seen such an epic mountain environment, an environment made even more unbelievable by the fact that it is right here in the UK on our own doorstep!
I stayed for a while tarnside soaking up the scenery on display and watched the entertainment on now supplied by a tiny band of ants marching their way up the rocky trail to the finally visible summit of Red Pike. I have not mentioned the first sight of the summit earlier in the post because it must be said that when viewed from the impressive amphitheatre of Bleaberry Comb it pales into almost insignificance in comparison, but now that my eyes were trained on it the drama started indeed to unfold.
A tiny zig zag trail led steeply up the banks of The Saddle towards Red Pike. At The Saddle the path splits into right for Dodd (the subsidiary summit), and left to the more imposing summit of Red Pike. Eventually the path disintegrates into a scree strewn rocky and barely visible narrow path that comes to an abrupt end at the bottom of a rocky gully. From my vantage point below I could see a stream of hikers struggling with rucksacks on theirs backs marching up the steep slopes in succession. The wind howled and buffeted them about amid clouds of dust and rubble. This was where I intended to head! Again I questioned my sanity.
I braced myself and then started up the rocky trail. It did not take long for the wind to spot me and to toy with me like a rag doll once more. Firstly it smarted my vision with grit and dust in the eyes, then it buffeted my eyeballs so hard that they involuntarily started to weep. My steps were unsteady and my vision blurred, this was not beginning to look like a good idea after all as my fears began to come home to roost.
The stepped trail soon turned to scree and rock. I slipped and slid my way up tentatively concentrating on every step I took. A quick glance upward told me I still had a long way to go. I began to traverse the scree but then the wind really got stuck into me. It wobbled me back and forth determined to halt my progress, so now the battle was on. No way was I about to turn around having come so far and a bout of summit fever took over.
I had seen the steep gully from below that all previous hikers had seemed to be make for and I pressed on for it in earnest. Several times I had to crouch down or fear being swept back down the steep slope by the ever nagging wind. Then suddenly I was at the foot of the gully. I looked up and was met with a scene of nothing but jagged and sharp spiky rocks amid a mass of red scree. I hoped and figured that in the gully I at least would find some protection from the prevailing and buffeting wind, the trade-off however would be the increased angle of steepness for ascent.
I started to scramble, I clung on for all my life was worth never having less that 3 points of contact at any one point. At times I could feel my thighs involuntarily tremble as footholds beneath me disintegrated and rocks began to tumble off and down the slope below. Not looking down I pressed on. The hand holds were getting smaller and sharper and many rocks loosened from their perch upon touch and tumbled away but now I was past the point of no return, I was committed well and truly and had to complete.
Traversing across the gully trying to find better holding on the NE edge of it I almost lost my footing and my heartbeat must have jumped to around the 170 bpm mark. As a result now having fully scared myself I moved at double quick speed to get out of the dangerous situation I had put myself in. My head popped above the gully edges as it finally poked out to see the summit for the first time. I pulled myself up and out and was instantly knocked back by the gusting wind which was now even worse than before. I staggered into the wind which was now swirling in all directions and cowered down in the summit shelter.
No real time for photos, I just wanted off and down. Problem was down was the way I had came up and I already knew that was very unpleasant. Nothing for it but to do it, so on all fours I gingerly crept back down the gully. With no one below me I could afford to be clumsy and knocked several rocks out of place which went tumbling down the scree slope below me as I inelegantly made my way down.
I attempted to scree run the slope below the gully but two near ankle breaking hits on rocks caused me to show more caution and some respect instead. Finally I made it to the slabbed trail. I sat and readjusted my skewed rucksack and annoying flapping straps then attempted a few photos for myself as proof that I had actually been there and then started to descend.
As I made off the mountain an array of folk seemed to be making their way on and up, like myself all fooled into a false security by the benign valley weather below. In the village of Buttermere it was a sunny if slightly breezy day, nothing more. But with gained height comes gained wind speed add into that mix exposure, steepness, and scree and then everything can look a whole lot different.
They all asked what it was like further up, I did not lie, but nearly all pressed on in any case. How many made it to the top that day I shall never know for all I was doing was heading down now, back to Buttermere and the car. A quick glance back at Bleaberry Comb and a final tilt at the summit of Red Pike as it disappeared behind a crag and I was gone.
Now many people will have summited Red Pike and many might say well it’s not that hard really what is he going on about. But believe me when I say with a 50mph gusting wind even a pussy cat of a peak in mountain terms can turn into a ferocious lion and Red Pike or the Dangerous Peak lived up to its name for me on this particular day. It left a lasting impression on me also and a masochistic lust to return again in better (or now having done it) maybe even worse conditions, who knows, and that is the beauty of the mountains, they mean different things to different people but they never disappoint and enthrall those prepared to venture into them. If nothing else by reading this post I hope some of the above tale may inspire you (if you have not already made an acquaintance with Red Pike) to get out and up there, climb it, and have a tale of your own to tell there’s a whole load of fun and adventure to be had out there, go get some.
Thanks for reading, James H.