The Route: Bowfell and Esk Pike | Distance: 17km | Time: 7.5 Hours
Height gain: 1,129m | Max Altitude: 897m | Start: Langdale Campsite
Finish: The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel | Map: OS Explorer OL6 | Date: 07/02/2013
You don’t need to go to New Zealand to walk in a landscape full of myth and wilderness, oh no! Now this might shock and surprise some people and even sound a tad absurd, but you can get your Tolkien fix right here in the UK. Oh shut-up I hear you say, but wait, it’s really true, please let me explain.
On Tuesday of last week I hiked through a shattered, rocky wilderness in the late winter and early spring sunshine, among mountains with names like Bowfell and Esk Pike. I crossed a distant col known as Ore Gap and later would find respite at a stone shelter at the meeting of great paths high in the mountains at a crossroads called Esk Hause. I travelled along Rosset Gill beneath Hanging Knotts, traversed a climbers path below Bowfell Buttress and descended past an old Packwoman’s grave a remote sad and little known grave from over 200 years ago high and forgotten on a hill side, isolated among the most dramatic of crags all around. I had ascended via The Band and walked out along the Mickleden Valley ending up supping ale at a famous old Inn known throughout the mountains simply as the ODG (or the Old Dungeon Gyhll).
What great and dramatic names these all are, they could have been lifted straight out of a fantasy novel, what a great landscape too, so grand and so wild, but yet here I was less than ten miles from the bubbling honeypot destination of Ambleside, famous the world over and loved by so many a day-tripper to the Lakes. Is it possible in this day and age to still find such a place full of such myth and fantasy on this overcrowded little island?
In a word yes, if you know where to look that is, luckily we knew. Knowing this found us camped at the far reaches of the Langdale Valley, miles and miles away from the modern world. With only two Inns to choose from in the evening for a pint of ale or an old converted barn to get any decent warm grub at this was about as remote as England can get. Yet it was heaven, a real life little arcadia nestled in the mountains, a place of fantasy and sublime scenery that was both compact and yet still felt far-reaching, both real and yet unreal, both fact and fantasy all rolled into one tidy bundle.
For years we had longed for the chance to camp out in this valley and enjoy the craggy fells that surround it, fells that would not look out-of-place in any one of Tolkiens famous fantasy novels and finally now at last we had made it to here. The mountains were just as I’d imagined rocky and magnificent, the solitude and peace of the valley was palpable, and it truly seemed as if a little bit of heaven had been inadvertently dropped down onto the earth and I was lucky enough to find myself roaming around within it for a week.
We had started this particular epic mountain day of ours by climbing rapidly up the famous Band, a well trod path known to almost all walkers of the Lakes. The quickest and best way up to the summit of Bowfell from the Langdale Valley.
Splitting from the obvious path shortly before Three Tarns we scrambled up the rocky ridge path towards the famous ‘Climbers Traverse’ a narrow, undulating and precipitous old sheep path with excruciating exposure. From here the direct route to the summit is via an oft missed discreet and steep scree gully. Scrambling quickly up this gully rapidly became the adrenaline fueled highlight of the day.
Once we were out of the confines of the gully the search for a route across the craggy lower summit started in earnest. Bowfell as I quickly learnt can be a nightmare to navigate on. There are myriad rocky crags and outcrops, drops and mini gorges all making navigation a bit of a nightmare.
Finally picking up the cairned Three Tarns paths to the summit we thankfully pressed onward and upward.
Bowfell’s summit looks a bit like the aftermath of a volcano that has ripped violently out of its cone and in the process shattered all the surrounding rocks literally splitting them in half and consequently splitting the peak apart in the process. It is one of the most dramatic summits in Lakeland and well worth the knee busting hike all the way to the top.
The views from the outcrop of summit rocks give a complete 360 degree panoramic vista of the best the Lakes has to offer. From Scafell Pike over to Great Gable then onto Skiddaw in the distance and onward furthermore to Blencathra, then back round still more, back to The Langdale Pikes, all the views are sublime.
In the far distance the interesting and also wonderfully rocky looking summit of Esk Pike was calling out to me, like a siren in the night, so the exhilarating and ankle busting hike along the ridge began. This is truly a wonderful landscape to hike trough. Rocky, wild, dramatic and a bit scary to the uninitiated all rolled into one. Once again the landscape looked straight out of Peter Jacksons film interpretation of the Lord of the Rings, all knarly, epic and mythical. The fact that we were headed next for the aptly named Ore Gap helped to add to the sense of being in one’s own epic little fantasy book.
Ore Gap bridges the ridge between Bowfell and Esk Pike and is a windswept godforsaken place to tramp through. Once negotiated however it was another straight ascent up towards the interesting summit of Esk Pike and the second Wainwright bagged of the day.
Again the views were sublime and we lingered for some photo’s and caught some solace on this lonely often neglected summit.
Next up (or down in this case) was Esk House and the desolate stone shelter marking the meeting of the ways in the centre of Lakeland. From here we wanted the main stone stepped track back down the valley beneath the buttresses of both Esk Pike and Bowfell and headed in the general direction of Angle Tarn.
Angle Tarn is a beautiful place to stop and linger, dipping one’s feet into it’s cold waters we rested for a while gazing up at the impressive Hanging Knotts above, gathering our energy for the push down Rosset Gill and the knee jarring and twisting mountain path that needs to be negotiated back down to the valley.
Here below Bowfell’s intimidating buttresses and against the stern flanks of Rosset Pike lies the final resting place of an elderly hawker who travelled the hills towards the latter part of the 18th century. Peddling general wares at the Lakeland farms, theoretically she would have been a well known visitor and no doubt her local knowledge would have enabled her to plan her itinerary to ensure that she reached shelter before nightfall. Unfortunately, one morning she was discovered still surrounded by her wares, having apparently frozen to death in the remote hills. As it would be known that no claims would be made upon the corpse an immediate rudimentary burial was expedited. A reminder if it were needed of how treacherous these mountains can be and that they should never be underestimated.
With knees now burning intensely we could for the first time see the end of the valley and for us the end of our epic mountain day out, but before that we would have to wind our way down yet more switchbacks and tramp out along the Mickleden Valley past the many isolated sheepfolds before finally reaching the famous Old Dungeon Gyhll Hotel.
The name and the pub are once again straight out of a book. The barman with few teeth and emitting a strange form of English eventually served our drinks and several pints of ale were drunk happily and joyously in the tranquil beer garden beneath the steep slopes of Pike O’ Stickle and Gimmer and Raven Crags famous haunts of many esteemed climbers of yesteryear.
The names, the sights, and the mountains had all contributed to one of the best mountain days out I have known in a long time. I would sing the praises of this route and it’s surrounding mountains from the highest bell tower with great gusto if it were not for the selfish thought that I don’t want everyone else to know about them and then go there! It’s too good for that, I selfishly want to keep it all to myself. I want to live out my little fantasy in my fantasy book landscape all on my own with no outside interference. Unfortunately the cats already out of the bag and these mountains are fairly well known at least in the UK, but I will still remember and cherish the first time that I ever walked in a landscape at least in my mind that was straight out of Lord of the Rings!
The Highs and the Lows. Altitude Data supplied via socialhiking.org.uk