The Coledale Horseshoe (Northern Lakes Trip 2)

The Route: The Coledale Horseshoe Distance: 16km (10 miles) | Time: 6-7 Hours | Height gain: 1,210m/3,970ft Start: NY229235 | Map: OL4 | Date: 25/04/2011 Coledale Horseshoe Route Map

The Coledale Horseshoe is one of the most iconic and challenging routes that can be hiked in The Lakes. There are many various options and different routes to complete it. For real toughies it is possible to do 10 or 11 Wainwright Fells in one go. You can hike clockwise or anti-clockwise and still complete the route. The list of peaks on the route is like a who’s who of fells, among which are: Grisedale PikeHopegill HeadGrasmoor,Crag HillSailOuterside and Barrow. An article in Trail magazine had tempted me to hike the route with promises of spectacular ridges, exposed ascents, some scary descents plus some really wild scenery, all far away from the madding crowds of the more popular and crowded fells, so here I was on muggy Monday morning kitting up ready for a full days hike ahead. From Braithwaite I had followed the Whinlatter road up an initial rise, passing by the Hope Memorial Camp on my right to a small disused quarry on my left where there is just enough room for six small tightly parked cars to squeeze into. Typically this free parking area can reach capacity by 9:30 in good weather, so an early start is recommended, (village parking is not plentiful). A small path up a series of wooden steps leads you out of the car park and up towards the Kinn ridge and the walk proper. The weather down in the village and valley was both calm and warm, but up above me I could already see the storm clouds gathering around the summits of Grasmoor and Sail far across the valley in the distance, and unfortunately in the direction I was heading, I prayed for some change and hoped for the best.

A moody shot from Grisdale Pike.

When I had hiked parts of this route before – up Grisedale Pike and Hopegill Head – the prospect of the ascent via Grisedale’s exposed conical approach ridge had filled me with dread and fear but this time scrambling around the loose scree and sucking up the exposure were a delight to encounter, and made for an exhilarating start to the days challenge. I scrambled quickly up the steep rocky approach to the summit of Grisedale Pike where upon topping out I was met with a dirty quilt of clouds above my head, and some serious increase in the overall wind speed. I hunkered down for a few minutes on the wind lashed barren summit still hoping for a change in the weather but also able to savour the view, despite the deteriorating conditions, before eventually setting off along the linking ridge to Hopegill Head. Video from the summit of Grisedale Pike taken using a compact Fuji camera

A broken wall accompanies the continuing ridge path over an intermediate top before ending where the path forks; the left-hand path leading directly down to Coledale Hause, I however kept to the ridge and to the right above the remarkable craggy headwall of the Hobcarton valley, enjoying the views back along the edge to Grisedale Pike. Next up I climbed up to the beautifully peaked but cairnless summit of Hopegill Head.


The view backs towards Grisedale Pike from Hopegill Head's summit.

From the summit there are wonderful views for a full 360 degrees including; the Grasgale Crags, Brackenthwaite Fell, Ladyside Pike and Grasmoor to name a few. Where I was headed – Grasmoor – was now shrouded in mist and rain clouds, the clag refusing to lift. Anything above 500m now seemed to be wrapped in clouds. A gallop down the enjoyable scree hugging the slopes of Sand Hill which led me to Coledale House and decision time!. This is the first opportunity on the route to bail out if need be, and looking up at Grasmoor’s cloud covered summit the thought did pass through my mind, but curiosity and a yearning for adventure won out, so on I pressed. Grasmoor is a foreboding bulk of a mountain especially in bad weather. The summit always seems to be just out of reach and the trek up seems to take an eternity only to be met time after time with a false dawn. A successive trail of marker cairns tricks the unwary hiker into believing he has summited when in reality he is still far from near the summit proper. As I trudged on and up the first piece of good luck presented itself to me on the day, the clouds cleared and the wind speed dropped, leaving me with a clear and blue sky all the way to the top. Finally at the summit shelter I collapsed down among the shelter stones and gorged on my meagre rations for the day. For all Grasmoors negative points – its bulk, its lack of a spectacular summit, negligible exposure etc, the views are magnificent. I was looking far out across The Irish Sea where the off-shore wind farms rotated silently out across the water, and down into the beautiful Buttermere valley and the glistening Crummock Water. With such great scenery I dwelled for a while before pulling on my rucksack and setting off once more.


Grasmoor's summit cairn.

Grasmoor had marked the furthest point west of the hike and also the turning point back east, so now on a bearing straight due east I hiked on for an appointment with Crag Hill (or Eel Crag) depending on your disposition. A long descent from Grasmoor followed by a steep ascent up an engineered path climbing the plain slope opposite led to the summit of Eel Crag. On the summit an OS column stands on the broad featureless summit, I strode the few paces north-east to peer down on the Force Crag Mine and upper Coledale. From here the east ridge descends with continuing grand views on either side towards Sail.

The steep descent towards Sail.

There are two minor scrambly sections, one near the top and the other near the foot of the ridge both quite exhilarating. A small col leads to a steady climb up onto Sail. With the wind being funnelled through the col and with the sudden onset of some real exposure made this the most exciting part of the route by far injecting a timely dose of adrenaline into the system. The actual summit of Sail, which is commonly bypassed by the flow of fellwalkers, is marked by a tiny cairn in a shallow pool. I lay on the summit for several minutes taking photos of the Coledale Valley below and watching the clouds race overhead in the sky.


Cairn on the summit of Sail.

Next I descended ENE to a lower more substantial hause, then taking the preferred route which takes its leave of the ridge following a clear path which angles NE to descend beneath the outcrops on the western side of the spectacular Scar Crags. The steep narrow path eventually joins a more pronounced track which once led to a failed and now disused cobalt mine. The route however beneath Scar Crags can be deceptively tricky with lots of loose rock and a crumbling outside edge. Careful foot placement saw me faithfully to the bottom though where I then veered smartly left across the marshy hollow of High Moss to climb the grassy ridge of Outerside, and the prospect of another peak to bag. Being a less frequented summit Outerside is an excellent place to linger, the view being totally devoted to the Coledale Valley. The heathery path descending the east ridge contends with minor gullying and feeling quite tired from the days exertions I began to take a series of stumbles as I descended towards Low Moss. With fatigue setting in I missed the subsidiary summit of Stile End and instead pressed on for Barrow Door and eventually Barrow itself. From Barrow’s summit the small village of Braithwaite could once again be seen and the end was at last in sight. The Coledale Inn beckoned, but for once, and in all honesty, I was too shattered to worry about a pint and instead arrived relieved back at my car, more than ready to return to my tent by the waters of Derwent and spend the rest of the late afternoon recovering. After waiting many years to complete this route I can honestly say that it lived up to all its pre-match hype and becomes yet another hike that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who enjoys dramatic landscapes, countless peaks to bag and a bit of scrambling and exposure thrown in for good measure, oh and of course no crowds!


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