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Lake District Scrambles: 10 of the best

© John Fleetwood

Which are the Lake District's greatest hands-on adventures? Impossible question maybe, but John Fleetwood, author of Cicerone's two updated Lake District scrambling guides, lifts the lid on some of his favourites.


Scrambling offers a perfect combination of continuous movement and unfettered climbing in a mountain environment. The Lake District sports many varied scrambles, from valley crags to the high fells. In the course of writing two guidebooks of selected scrambles in the Lake District, I've recorded over 390 individual routes, from the old classic ridge lines to esoteric gills and obscure crags. Given the variety of scrambles on offer, it's impossible to answer the question, "which are the best", since the definition of '"best" is highly subjective. However, here's my selection of ten special routes, each one chosen for very different reasons.

Jack's Rake - grade 1

A time honoured classic that belies its modest grade, Jack's Rake is one of the most popular scrambles in Britain – and with good reason. Taking a compelling line across a huge cliff, it looks highly improbable, but is revealed to be amenable. The route takes a diagonal course across the face, forming a natural trough which makes for fine situations, with exposure increasing as height is gained. The route makes a good viewing point for the many rock climbs that start or finish at the rake. Like all of the best scrambles, it takes the easiest line in a difficult place, providing a window into the rock climber's world. In wet weather it forms a natural channel that funnels all the water and this may extend to your armpits! Despite its modest grade this isn't a route to take lightly, and arguably best saved for dry conditions.

The photogenic pointing block on Jack's Rake  © John Fleetwood
The photogenic pointing block on Jack's Rake
© John Fleetwood

A large path runs up to the tarn at its foot, but a much better approach is to scramble up the boisterous stream that falls from the tarn. Depending on the volume of water flowing, this also gives good scrambling on clean rock with several scenic falls.

Jack's Rake takes the obvious line right-left - spot the figures on the summit for scale   © John Fleetwood
Jack's Rake takes the obvious line right-left - spot the figures on the summit for scale
© John Fleetwood

The line of Jack's Rake is only too evident from the tarn at its foot – a diagonal line that rises right to left across the cliff of Pavey Ark. On a busy day you will see a line of people stretching the length of the rake. The trough can be taken for maximum security or more elegantly, its stepped left edge can be taken to exit at a prominent tree. At one point you pass a 'gun' like block which makes a good photo opportunity, before a more open section leads to the knobbly summit of Pavey Ark. On a sunny day this is a popular place to eat lunch and stare at the glinting tarn below, buoyant from the exhilaration of your ascent.

Pillar Rock - grade 3

Pillar is one of Lakeland's famous crags and a summit that defies the non-climbing hillwalker. The full frontal height of the crag is almost 200m and rears up from Pillar Cove like a colossal cathedral of the natural world. This day constitutes a pilgrimage to one of Lakeland's most impressive sights. Situated at the head of wild Ennerdale, Pillar Rock requires effort to reach it, with a three hour approach. A day spent here is to savour the atmosphere of Lakeland's climbing history and marvel at the boldness of the original explorers who scrambled without the advantage of modern footwear and safety equipment. The line of the first ascent up the final rocks of High Man is uncertain, but there is no doubting the courage and boldness of John Atkinson, an Ennerdale cooper, who made the first ascent alone in 1826.

Serious scrambling on Pillar Rock  © John Fleetwood
Serious scrambling on Pillar Rock
© John Fleetwood

An approach from below gives an appreciation of the full majesty of the Rock, whilst a traverse of Old West and Slab & Notch, allows the full extent of this magnificent crag to be seen. This is not a place for the novice scrambler and should be treated as a mountaineering excursion.

The original way of Old West makes a great scrambling route, particularly so since the descent is made by the Slab and Notch. Both are similar in difficulty, although the Old West has its awkward step high in an exposed position. The route is best appreciated when no one else is on the Rock, when the aura of a big mountain crag oozes from every mossy rock and overhang. Don't expect pristine rock scrambling – it's more a weaving combination of grass and stone that makes a diagonal ascent between steep rock faces to the top of Low Man, followed by a steeper ascent of walls and terraces to High Man. The top is surprisingly flat and grassy, making a good place to stop and stare. But like all Alpine climbs, you will be aware that the day is but half done with no easy way off the Rock. Time honoured abseil tat indicates the easiest way down if you have a rope, or more sportingly, a descent can be made of Slab and Notch route.

The summit of Pillar Rock cannot be reached by the non-scrambling walker  © John Fleetwood
The summit of Pillar Rock cannot be reached by the non-scrambling walker
© John Fleetwood

This is the popular classic way of reaching the summit of the imposing rock, first climbed in 1861. The varied route, which provides a lot of interest, is well trodden and very popular. However, take care, for the route is above steep crags with considerable exposure and the consequences of a slip would be grave. The holds are everywhere good, but great care is required, especially in the gully which can be quite greasy.

Whatever way you descend, walk up to the summit of Pillar Mountain for the retrospective views of the bulbous head of Pillar Rock, before wending your way homeward from the cathedral.

Link Cove Gill - Grade 3S or 3

Lakeland gills are one of the hidden pleasures of the District. Often just metres from broad highways, they offer sport and beauty in equal measure. Gill scrambling is something of an acquired taste that some find hideous and others consider to be the very best scrambling. It is the very antithesis of modern rock climbing – vegetated, slippy and often poorly protected. Yet gills are deeply beautiful with an energy created by the rushing water and I love them. The good rock and interesting pitches of great variety and beauty make Link Cove Gill a splendid expedition in one of Lakeland's most entertaining gills. Combined with the scramble on Greenhow End it makes a fine route onto the Fairfield tops.

Ghyll scrambling is an acquired taste, and Link Cove Gill is one of the best adventures of its type  © John Fleetwood
Ghyll scrambling is an acquired taste, and Link Cove Gill is one of the best adventures of its type
© John Fleetwood

The gill itself is open with slabby cascades, rough knobbly rock and characteristic pool traverses. In all but dry conditions you will get wet! Take a change of clothes, full waterproofs and an old pair of thick socks to put over your shoes to aid friction. The gill opens out into a wide amphitheatre which steepens at the top. This provides the crux passage of the direct route with an exhilarating pitch of Very Difficult rock climbing in the flow of the water. Setting up a top rope above the fall may be advisable here as the slabs are horribly slippery, even in socks. Alternatively, from the halfway point an escape can be made left to an exposed finish below a tree or else an easier alternative climbs the slabs on the right of the ravine. If you've taken the direct route – well done, take a breather and dry off before embarking on more entertainment above.

Giant's Crawl - Difficult grade rock climb

Dow Crag is the magnet which draws climbers to the Coniston area. It forms an impressive array of buttresses which are named alphabetically from left to right. Giant's Crawl takes a ramp line up 'B' Buttress and forms one of the very best Difficult climbs in the Lake District. Like all scrambling on Dow, it is serious and can only be recommended to those with rock-climbing experience and route-finding ability. After a few days of dry weather in the summer, the rock is a delight. In the all-too-often damp conditions (it faces East), the rock can become an ice rink. Go when it's dry, treat it as a rock climb rather than a hillwalkers' scramble, and you'll have a first-rate day out.

It's more an easy climber's route than a hillwalker's scramble!  © John Fleetwood
It's more an easy climber's route than a hillwalker's scramble!
© John Fleetwood

The route itself starts at the foot of the big gully and climbs easy slabs to a sloping ledge. A crack above leads to a sensational (and polished) gangway which forms a sort of 'Traverse of the Gods' above the abyss. At the far end of gangway an escape can be made onto Easy Terrace, but the fun continues by taking ledges left to an awkward block. This can be overcome by a variety of means, some of the decidedly thuggish variety. A grassy ledge then leads to a superb vantage point overlooking Great Gully. A final steep crack leads to easier ground above and a delightful ridge that takes you right to the top of the crag itself.

Arrowhead Ridge Ordinary - Hard Difficult rock climb

One of the great rock ridges of The Napes, this is a tremendously exposed route in its upper part, with an easily identified block at the top of the first steep section that really does look like an arrowhead. The crux feels more like a rock climb and only very confident climbers will want to dispense with a rope. The climb is reached by way of the Climber's Traverse, a rough traversing path that wends its way to the cold, slippery chimney beneath the gap between Napes Needle and Needle Ridge. This is the birthplace of rock climbing in the Lake District and a splendid place of soaring aretes.

Looking down to the Arrowhead from the airy crest of Arrowhead Ridge  © Dan Bailey
Looking down to the Arrowhead from the airy crest of Arrowhead Ridge
© Dan Bailey

The lower section of the route is somewhat scrappy and avoids the more difficult direct start by a circuitous diversion into Eagle's Nest Gully followed by vegetated ledges and slabs to get up to the gap between the Arrowhead and the rest of the ridge. A spectacular bridge can be made up the gap to gain the arête on the far side and from there the climbing is supremely exposed on a knife-edge ridge. The route would make good training for a traverse of the Cuillin ridge, especially if combined with Needle Ridge (VD) and Sphinx Ridge (2). From the top of the route you can continue to Westmorland Crags where the shattered crest of Pinnacle Ridge (2) can be followed to the roof of Great Gable.

Pike O Stickle Main Face - Grade 3-

The pointy summit of Pike of Stickle is one of Langdale's most distinctive features and a true scrambler's mountain, sticking up like a protruding thumb. The approach down Mickleden allows the mountain to be fully appreciated as it rears up above the grassy floor of the valley, thrusting into the sky. It also allows the incorporation of the surprisingly sporting Stake Gill (2), which can be quite wet.

On the superb rock of Main Face  © John Fleetwood
On the superb rock of Main Face
© John Fleetwood

The scramble on Main Face takes a traversing line to begin with, combining little steps with grassy terraces, but the real feature of the route is the slabby finish up pristine pink rock. This makes a joyous romp on a sunny afternoon, or a hideous slither in the rain (not recommended).

A descent on the Stake Pass side of the Pike allows multiple scrambles to be ascended, straight up the proud nose. Whatever you choose to do, you will have a first-rate day and if you choose a fine summer's evening, you may find yourself kissed by the setting sun as it rekindles the fire of a once active volcano.

Sourmilk Gill, Seathwaite - Grade 3

Sourmilk Gill makes a fine prelude to a day on the higher fells, but is more than worthy in its own right. It is an accessible open gill, with escape possible anywhere by simply moving away from the rocky bed. The rock is excellent and the situations picturesque and interesting. The broad slabs of the main cascades offer a variety of ways that are all good. And for the scrambler who hates walking, the start lies five minutes from the end of the road.

photo
In the superb Sourmilk Gill
© John Fleetwood

Just before you enter the gill, a group of slabs can be seen. These are the Lower Seathwaite Slabs and offer a choice of little routes at about Difficult to Very Difficult standard. A path then leads into the gill which starts unassumingly enough as a bouldery walk before steepening and taking on the character of water-washed slabs. The longest sweep of slabs is a swathe of foaming water in wet conditions and a thin water ribbon in drier weather. The most difficult scrambling, if the water allows, is on the left; the easiest and more usual is on the right, where pleasing slabs offer a variety of choice. A striking pinnacle at the back of an amphitheatre can be climbed but remember that you have to descend the same way!

Above lies more scrambling possibilities with the long low wall of Seathwaite Upper Slabs (M), leading to the combe above, at the back of which lies Gillercombe Crag. This is a fine wall of rock sporting the unique Grey Knotts Face (D+) and Rabbits Trod (2).

Cam Crag Ridge - Grade 2 or 3

This Bentley Beetham 'climb' has achieved great popularity as a scramble. Beetham was a schoolteacher from Barnard Castle who pioneered classic routes in Borrowdale in the mid 20th century including Corvus, Intake Ridge and Face Route, all crag climbs of distinction.

Cam Crag Ridge is hands-down one of the best hands-on routes in the Lake District  © John Fleetwood
Cam Crag Ridge is hands-down one of the best hands-on routes in the Lake District
© John Fleetwood

On Cam Crag Ridge the excellent clean solid rock is a delight to climb, with options at various levels of difficulty. After the initial section the route is a buttress edge rather than a ridge, and difficulties close to the right edge can be easily minimised or avoided by keeping left, making it a suitable route for parties of different abilities. Nowhere is it terribly serious and the rock is always good. The first crack steepens into a short vertical corner which is more difficult (grade 3) than anything else on the route, but has good holds. Whatever route you choose, you will have an enjoyable ascent that takes you to the knobbly ground of Glaramara's summit ridge. This is quintessential Lakeland scenery – an intricate interweaving of fells, barren slopes, crags, wooded valleys and twinkling tarns. Take the time to absorb it all and if it's warm, have a dip in the river on your return.

Black Wars, Pike O Blisco - Grade 3

Pike of Blisco is replete with little crags. Black Wars is an extensive mass of rock that makes for excellent scrambling over a considerable distance. The scramble complements Browney Gill (3S) and is best experienced on a fine day when the open nature of the scrambling and the good views can be fully appreciated.

On one of the immaculate slabs of Black Wars  © John Fleetwood
On one of the immaculate slabs of Black Wars
© John Fleetwood

The scramble has two sections – the first, a steep buttress, and the second, a lovely slab on a separate crag to the left, followed by a succession of small crags interspersed with walking. The initial buttress is breached by a series of steep walls linking flat-topped rock platforms, with a leftward traverse taking you to even slabs and a tricky exit. Further crags emerge to extend the route including a little arête on sharp rock which gives superb climbing. A veritable geologists' heaven of spectacular folded rocks is encountered just before the summit, with an arête formed of copper-coloured rocks landing you almost on the summit itself.

Bowfell Links - Grades 1-3+

The Bowfell Links are a distinctive feature on the mountain's Southern flank – a series of nine buttresses and intervening gullies with a sunny disposition that many must have observed, but relatively few have investigated at close quarters. The Links offer a myriad of possibilities at every level of difficulty, in the form of a series of broken ribs and gullies that drop away from near the summit of Bowfell. I have labelled the nine buttresses from right (1st tee) to left (9th tee) in the style of a golf course (thinking of a Links course), with the 3rd and 9th giving particularly fine climbing. Between the 6th and 7th buttresses there is a large gully containing an obvious green chockstone. The slabs to its right give superb committing scrambling with an exposed step back left over the chockstone.

Bowfell Links, home to loads of fantastic scrambling  © John Fleetwood
Bowfell Links, home to loads of fantastic scrambling
© John Fleetwood

Although care is required to avoid loose rock, multiple ascents can be made, some of high quality. The harder lines verge on rock climbing so a rope and small rack are recommended if tackling these. The buttresses catch the sun and make a wonderful way of spending an afternoon that can feel like cragging with the ambience of the high hills. Whether you complete the full 'round' or sample one line to reach the summit of Bowfell, you will have had a memorable mountain day.

John Fleetwood is the author of Cicerone's new and fully revised guides Scrambles in the Lake District South and Scrambles in the Lake District North.

Each is a comprehensive collection of scrambles on crags and gills, which are linked together to form first-class mountain days. The carefully graded routes range from scrambling grade 1 to climbing grade V Diff, so there is something for beginners as well as veteran mountaineers.

Each scramble is described with notes about grade, quality, aspect and approach, with colour maps and topos to aid navigation. There is information on safety and equipment, and listings of scrambles by location and grade to allow the reader to assemble their own tailor-made combination of routes.

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