CLASSIC ROUTE: Napes Needle and Needle Ridge, Great Gableby Dan Baily Jul/2009
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This is the companion to Dan Bailey's Scotland's Mountain Ridges - A Guide to Scrambles and Climbs
Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland - Scrambles and Climbs by Dan Bailey
A guide to summer scrambles, technical rock routes and winter climbs on ridges in the Lake District, Snowdonia, Peak District, Exmoor, the Isle of Wight, Kerry and Connemara, covering popular classics and obscure gems, from Sharp Edge to Skeleton Ridge. With inspirational photographs, this book is both a celebration of the landscape and a route guide.
Cover: Paperback - Laminated
Published: 11 Jun 2009
Dimensions: 24.0 x 17.0 x 1.8cm
Originally Published: 11 Jun 200
Readers will need to add the code UKCEWI on the shopping basket page to claim the discount, Cicerone also offer free UK postage.
Grade: Napes Needle 18m HS; Needle Ridge 100m VDiff
Distance: 8km (taking the long route home over Great Gable)
Ascent: 830m (as above)
Time: 7 hours (ditto)
Start/finish: Of several possible bases the obvious two are Wasdale and Borrowdale. The Wasdale approach is more direct, but as Borrowdale is easier to get to for most people it is described below. Verge parking along the minor road to Seathwaite (approx NY235122)
Maps: OS Landranger (1:50000) 90; OS Explorer (1:25000) OL 4; Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40000) Lake District
Accommodation: Campsites at Seathwaite, Seatoller and Stonethwaite; Thorneythwaite Farm B&B near Seatoller 017687 77237; Borrowdale YHA 0845 371 9624; see route 7 for options in Wasdale
Sleeping out: A wild camp at the ideally-situated Styhead Tarn is almost as much a Lake District rite of passage as an ascent of Napes Needle or a traverse of Striding Edge (route 2); overnighting here could give you two long days of climbing on The Napes. Just don't expect to be alone at weekends.
Public transport: Regular buses from Keswick to Seatoller. Wasdale is less well served
Seasonal notes: Though it could certainly been done as a snowy rock climb the aspect, altitude and general nature of Needle Ridge doesn't tend to permit good winter climbing conditions – in common with the other Napes ridges.
The spectacular pinnacle of Napes Needle is Lakeland rock's ultimate must-do. Arguably the most iconic symbol in the history of the sport, this short sharp exercise in rope management needs little introduction. But for the benefit of those who aren't yet bored to stone by the fossilised old adage, the first ascent by Walter Parry Haskett-Smith in 1886 is (rather too) often said to mark the moment that rock climbing gained its independence from mountaineering. The historical significance may have been lost on the man himself, but he must have been pleased with his audacious on sight solo. 'Hanging by the hands and feeling with the toes...provided an anxious moment ...It was an undoubted satisfaction to stand once more on solid ground below' he later confided, and today's visitors tend to share that sentiment. Though not particularly technical it's a polished climb of high excitement. Effecting a safe reverse is arguably the real hard part, a fiddly faff not suited to beginners. The pinnacle guards the foot of Needle Ridge, an exposed and compelling route in its own right; combining the two makes perfect sense.
From Seathwaite farm in Borrowdale take the main path S, reaching the E bank of Grains Gill. Follow this for about 1km, then cross the stone arch of Stockley Bridge and climb W on a good path, passing above the Taylorgill Force gorge to reach Styhead Tarn. Sty Head itself is a short stroll SW; this point is also easily accessible from Wasdale Head.
From the mountain rescue stretcher box on the pass briefly take the heavily used path climbing towards the summit of Great Gable. Almost immediately branch left to pick up the less well-trodden Climber's Traverse. This does what it says on the tin, crossing the huge scree-covered south slopes of Great Gable aiming for the grand old traditional mountaineering ground of The Napes. The path first crosses tumbled boulders below the steep compact buttress of Kern Knotts, then makes a rising traverse over scree to reach craggy ground beneath The Napes. This complex sprawling cliff is hard to navigate on first acquaintance. Starting on the right, the first major feature is the clean sweep of Tophet Wall; continuing below the crag Napes Needle soon hoves into view, and to its right the lower section of Needle Ridge. Leave the main traverse path and climb steep broken ground leading to the base of the gap between Napes Needle and the main crag. Thread the Needle (as per route 10) to reach a ledge on the W side of the pinnacle.
There's a choice of traditional first pitches, all of which meet at the belay below the final block. The HS grade for the harder second pitch takes into account the descent as much as the climb. For the second pitch twin ropes are a good idea; clip one into protection on the way up and leave one free; the reason will soon be clear.
Pitch 1 13m
From the ledge on the W side of Napes Needle climb either of two slanting cracks that meet up to form a vertical offwidth – the Wasdale Crack. It's nicer than it looks (if shiny). Easy ground on the left then leads to a belay on the narrow shoulder just below (right) of the summit block.
Pitch 2 5m
'Feeling as small as a mouse on a milestone' in the words of the plucky first ascensionist, step out onto the exposed flank facing Needle Ridge. Make a big mantel (crux) to gain a standing position on the obvious horizontal break. Sidle left along this. Arrange protection in a higher break; grope for insufficient holds and curse the polish; then step around the corner onto the undercut Wasdale face, where small holds lead to the smooth top out. How many climbers can dance on the head of a needle? Three is possible, though given reports of the detached nature of the summit block it seems excessive. Belay anchors are conspicuously lacking. The one vaguely unsafe option is to drop a loop of rope under the overhanging beak of the pinnacle, and another for your second to secure on the shoulder. The wise won't bother trying.
Given the anchor situation, an abseil can't be recommended (and has led to accidents in the past). Squash the butterflies in your belly and carefully reverse the route of ascent. By running the spare line over the needle's top it's possible to contrive a canny top rope, so that your belayer simultaneously pays out one rope and takes in the other. Unclip from the gear as you go, leaving it in situ for your second's summit bid. It's all a far cry from the solo heroics of Haskett-Smith; probably just as well. Your second now replaces you at the sharp end. Once they've also basked in their moment of glory and made it back in one piece, downclimb from the shoulder to reach an obvious spike at the top of the offwidth of pitch 1; abseil from here.
A satisfying – if rather easier – continuation.
Pitch 1 30m
From the notch behind Napes Needle step onto a short polished wall, soon leading into a niche/chimney. Climb this, then move leftwards over a possible stance to take a steep cracked wall direct (crux). Easier ground leads up the crest to a good belay ledge.
Pitch 2 35m
Now less steep, the ridge rises in an airy rock staircase. The best line is obvious, and the ground is quite easy until you reach a big right-facing corner formed between a rib on the left and a slabby cracked wall. Climb the corner until near the top, when a step left gains better holds on the rib. Above is a spacious belay ledge.
Pitch 3 35m
From here the crest levels into a pinnacled aręte, a grade 2 scramble in a magnificent position. You might opt to move together, or even dispense with the rope. After a short distance the ridge kinks left to join the jumble of rock and grass where the various Napes ridges meet.
Don't attempt the gullies between the ridges at any cost; broader, relatively safer scree fans bound either side of The Napes, Little Hell Gate on the W and Great Hell Gate to the E. The names are a subtle clue. From the grassy neck the way to go is painfully obvious - both gullies have plenty of steep loose ground demanding care in descent. Sphinx Ridge (route 10) provides a nicer alternative descent on the W side of the crag, though this too involves some precarious scree. The savvy will have carried suitable footwear on the climb, and will keep their helmets on.
Alternatively, above the grassy crest at the top of The Napes is the sprawling confusion of Westmorland's Crag. A non-scrambling path cuts left below the crag before plodding up Great Gable's rubbly SW shoulder to the summit plateau; this is an inferior choice. To maintain the scrambling interest walk a short way up the grass crest to pick up a sketchy little path on its right side, traversing across scree to the base of Westmorland's Crag. Finding the correct ridge among the various tottering options is notoriously difficult. Pass the first rib, and then a second set slightly higher, to reach a third rib with a block at its base, a big gully to its right and a sharp pronged tower high on the skyline. Look carefully and you'll spot signs of wear leading up a short corner. This gives access to the broad crest, where follow-your-nose ground leads up a series of entertaining little walls, blocks and ledges. The little rock pinnacles can all be scrambled direct or bypassed on the right. It's great stuff, and the top comes too soon. Turn right to stroll onto Gable's summit.
The quickest way off is the paved path down Gable's SE shoulder back to Sty Head, but it is fairly brutal. On a nice day it's worth staying high; continue NE over the plateau, where a rough path makes a careful descent behind Gable Crag (route 14) into the well-named notch of Windy Gap. A quick hop over Green Gable and a long easy descent (at first ENE, then N) into the hanging valley of Gillercombe brings you to a point overlooking Seathwaite. The flagstone-paved path now drops steeply down the rugged slope beside foaming Sourmilk Gill to reach the valley floor.
Dan Bailey is the author of Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland - Scrambles and Climbs and Scotland's Mountain Ridges - A Guide to Scrambles and Climbs described as 'a work of considerable authority, I can recommend (it) unreservedly.' Chris Craggs (reviewer) published at www.UKClimbing.com (May 2006)
Ridges are epic. Graceful carved walkways slung between summits, twisted spines of stone – these can be the most beautiful of mountain landforms. With elegant lines and giddy exposure, ridge climbs emit a powerful siren call, drawing us out onto the rocks.
The author, Dan Bailey lives in Fife and has always had a passion for climbing and the outdoors. His work has featured in Adventure Travel, The Sunday Times, Trail, High, The List, The Sunday Herald and Scotland on Sunday, among others.