One Minute Mountain: Pillar

Pillar rocks! For our bite-sized intros to Britain's favourite hills Alex Roddie heads to darkest Ennerdale, home of a secretive and complex fell that has to rate high on any list of Lakeland's greatest hits...


Pillar and Steeple  © sheep
Pillar and Steeple
© sheep

Height: 892m

Personality: Secretive. It's relatively unassuming when viewed from the southern flank, but the north side is an impressive mountain wall rising above the forests of Ennerdale. This complex fell has many interesting features and a long and varied history.

What's in a name? Pillar takes its name from Pillar Rock, a striking geological feature on the north flank and one of the most distinctive crags in the Lake District. The mountain itself is as un-pillar-like as any hill you'll find, but the name makes perfect sense the moment you set eyes on Pillar Rock!

Best routes: There are two strong contenders for this title, and both pass close by Pillar Rock on the northern side.

The first begins at the Black Sail hostel in Ennerdale and takes the short ascent to Black Sail Pass. After crossing the subsidiary summit of Looking Stead (627m), the High-Level Route branches off and traverses a ledge system on the north face. This is a fantastic and airy route but without any genuine scrambling. Soon views of Pillar Rock dominate the terrain ahead and the route climbs the impressive Shamrock Traverse passing close by the Rock itself. A final steep haul brings you directly to the summit.

Pillar Rock  © alan moore
Pillar Rock
© alan moore, Jun 2014

An alternative begins further west in Ennerdale and climbs the steep hillside below Pillar Rock. While this route is far more abrupt, it has a remote feel and gives the walker an excellent flavour of the north face.

Who was Robinson and why does he have a cairn on the High-Level Route? John Wilson Robinson (1853-1907) was a pioneering fellwalker and rock climber. Although W.P. Haskett-Smith is often credited with the 'invention' of rock climbing after his ascent of Napes Needle in 1886, others had been scrambling and climbing on crags nearby for decades before that date. Robinson was one of the most experienced among that small group of early pioneers.

Robinson was popular and highly respected. As it says on the cairn's plaque:

One hundred of his comrades and friends raised this. He knew and loved as none other these his native crags and fells whence he drew simplicity strength and charm.

View into Ennerdale from the summit of Pillar Rock  © milus
View into Ennerdale from the summit of Pillar Rock
© milus, Sep 2006

Not a lot of people know that… rock climbing on Pillar Rock was surprisingly popular as early as the 1870s, and in 1875 there were no less than fifty recorded ascents. By the time Haskett-Smith came along and pushed rock climbing to a new level of difficulty on Napes Needle, the sport was already well established in Lakeland.

One of those who climbed Pillar Rock in 1875 was the Reverend James Jackson, at the age of 79 – a feat that earned him the title 'Patriarch of the Pillarites'. Rev. Jackson died on an attempted ascent of the Rock in 1878 at the age of 82.

Wainwright says: 'Pillar Rock is positively out of bounds (for walkers). Don't even try to get a foothold on it. The climbing guides mention easy routes but these are NOT easy for a walker who is not a climber, and lead into dangerous situations.'

Hidden gem: Wistow Crags, a Grade 2 scramble (or Grade 3 in some guides) climbing Pillar's south face from Mosedale (approach from Wasdale Head). Not one of the best known classic scrambles of the Lake District – Jon Sparks describes it as 'preferable to the miserable screes of Wind Gap' in Scrambles & Easy Climbs in the Lake District – it's actually a decent route with some fun low-angle buttresses, although not one for beginners. Less experienced scramblers should consider taking a knowledgeable climbing partner and a rope.

Easiest route: From Wasdale, approach through Mosedale and climb the gentle path to Black Sail Pass, then simply follow Pillar's east ridge to the summit. It's an easy fellwalk with splendid views, and is the best way down too.

Pillar from Haystacks  © Dan Bailey
Pillar from Haystacks
© Dan Bailey

Summit view: The view from the summit cairn is far-reaching, but does suffer a little from the fell's flat top, and the best views are often to be found at various points a little way from the summit itself – especially the dramatic view straight down into Ennerdale. Great Gable and the Scafells look impressive from this angle, and this is also the best viewpoint for viewing the sharp little nearby top of Steeple.

Where to stay? The Black Sail hostel, run by the YHA, is one of the few Alpine-style mountain huts in the Lake District and enjoys a spectacular location at the head of Ennerdale, where a rewilding project is currently helping to restore natural woodland.

Local pub: It's on the wrong side of the hill from Ennerdale, but the only contender can be Ritson's Bar at the Wasdale Head Inn.

Sunset over Ennerdale Water from the Summit of Pillar  © Duncan_Andison
Sunset over Ennerdale Water from the Summit of Pillar
© Duncan_Andison, Jul 2011


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