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One Minute Mountain: Scafell Pike

For our series of bite-sized intros to Britain's favourite hills, Alex Roddie joins the throng on the high point of England, the justifiably popular Scafell Pike.

The Scafells  © katherinec85
The Scafells
© katherinec85

Height: 978m (3209ft)

Personality: Scafell Pike is a rugged knuckle of rock on a longer ridge of summits. The Scafell Massif is at once the busiest and wildest corner of Lakeland – not a contradiction when you consider its size.

What's in a name? The name's meaning is disputed. In recent history, variants have included Pikes of Scawfell, Scawfell Pikes and Sca-Fell Higher Top. Some believe the name derives from Old Norse Skalli Fjall, meaning 'fell with the bald summit'; in 1578, the first time the fell was recorded, it was listed as Skallfield.

Why climb it? 'Because it's the highest mountain in England' is a good enough reason for many, and why not? There's satisfaction in reaching the highest peak, but happily in the case of Scafell Pike that's not its only merit. The view's pretty good, and although the routes of ascent tend to get busy for much of the year they are all fine walks. But I think to enjoy the Pike at its best you have to get to know its neighbours too: Scafell, Broad Crag and Ill Crag. The latter two are commonly climbed on the main route from Langdale and are fine tops in their own right, while Scafell sits aloof, connected to the massif only by the slender gangway of Mickledore and guarded by fearsome cliffs (the direct route between the two Scafells, Broad Stand, is a Moderate grade rock climb with a reputation for accidents). Scafell's northern and eastern crags are among Lakeland's most impressive – some might say forbidding, especially for first-time climbers roping up at the foot of a classic rock climb.

About that summit… Out of the national Three Peaks (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon), this is the only one without a building – ruined or otherwise – on the top. You'll find a cairn, trig point, plenty of rocks, a superb view if you're lucky, and not much else. On a clear day you can see tops in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man. Oh, and there's a World War I memorial on the top, too. In 1919, Lord Leconfield donated the summit to the National Trust in memory of Lake District men and women who died in the Great War.

Most random item found on the summit: In 2013, a team of volunteers conducting a litter pick on Scafell Pike found the fresh corpse of an octopus next to the trig pillar. Yes, you read that correctly.

The Scafell range from Harter Fell  © Lankyman
The Scafell range from Harter Fell
© Lankyman, Oct 2012

From the lowest lake to the highest tarn: It's widely known that Wastwater, at the foot of the massif, is the deepest lake in England at around 80m, but you might not know that these mountains are also home to the highest standing water in England. Broad Crag Tarn on Scafell Pike (not Broad Crag, confusingly!) lies at an elevation of about 820m, but nearby Foxes Tarn on Scafell is at a similar height – often quoted at 820-830m. Although Foxes Tarn lies on a route to the top of Scafell, these are both wilder locations than anything you'll find on the main routes up Scafell Pike itself.

I'd like to do the Three Peaks Challenge! The Three Peaks Challenge involves climbing the three highest peaks of England, Wales and Scotland within 24 hours. If you'd like to do it, think about the impact of this popular event on the local environment and community – take care not to leave litter or cause disturbance or antisocial parking in the tiny village of Wasdale Head, make sure you are adequately prepared and equipped, and consider completing the route at a quieter time of year to ease the burden on the local area and facilities. Summer is popular due to the long daylight hours, but spring or autumn can be feasible with a bit of planning and experience too. Why not avoid contributing to the overcrowding problems at busy times of year? In 2014 the National Trust estimated roughly 1500-2000 Three Peaks participants a night on a June weekend. That's a lot of pressure on narrow roads, fragile environments and limited facilities.

Greatest route: For walkers, there are two strong contenders. The Eskdale approach is beautifully untamed and passes beneath the rocky wilderness of the Scafells' SE flank. It's getting busier as it becomes better known, but it's still nowhere near as busy as other routes.

Starting either from Wasdale or from the head of Borrowdale, it's hard to beat the Corridor Route. This gentle rising traverse cuts across the massif's rugged NW flank from Sty Head to the Lingmell Col, offering superb views of the crags and down Piers Gill. For more details see the UKH route card.

Longer routes from Borrowdale aim for the cols of Esk Hause or Sty Head before joining other routes. The two most commonly tackled paths are probably Brown Tongue (the most direct climb from Wasdale, and the favoured Three Peaks route) and the long ridge from Esk Hause over Ill Crag and Broad Crag (the main route from Langdale or Borrowdale).

Walking the Corridor  © Ken Lewis
Walking the Corridor
© Ken Lewis, Jun 2011

Sounds like it gets busy. How many people climb Scafell Pike a year? While each route is good in its own way, you'll rarely find solitude on this mountain. In 2014, the National Trust estimated that more than 100,000 people climb Scafell Pike a year. That's an average of about 274 a day, but the vast majority climb it in the summer months.

What about rock climbing? Climbing has a long heritage in the Scafell massif. Perhaps most famously, the poet Coleridge took a drug-fuelled walk through the Scafells in 1802, accidentally accomplishing what is now regarded as the first ever recreational rock climb in the process – although 'recreational' should perhaps be interpreted as Type-2 Fun if you read Coleridge's account. In trying to descend from Scafell to the Mickledore screes he made the first descent of Broad Stand, an obstacle now regarded as a short but fearsome rock climb / scramble – and a common cause of Mountain Rescue callouts in the present day. He was the first of many to be awed by the sight of Scafell's cliffs (although most since have not been moved to write poetry about it). Classic easier routes include Woodhead's Climb (Mild Severe 3c***), Hopkinson's Gully (MVS 4b***) and Botterill's Slab (VS 4c***), but there are quality climbs at almost every grade.

Scafell Pike itself can lay sole claim to Pikes Crag, home to the classic Grooved Arete (VDiff) and others.

What about neighbouring summits? While Scafell gets all the attention, the satellite peak of Great End is famous in its own right as one of the most reliable winter crags in the Lake District. This high, north-facing cliff is seamed by gullies that collect snow and ice in winter, and classics such as Central Gully (II* or III*** depending on route) attract climbers from far afield when in condition. The 1880 ascent of Cust's Gully (I) was one of the earliest recorded in the Lake District.

High above Eskdale on the mega SE face of Ill Crag  © Dan Bailey
High above Eskdale on the mega SE face of Ill Crag
© Dan Bailey

Do scramblers get a look-in too? Absolutely! With its abundant exposed rock the Scafell massif boasts plenty of scrambling. Must-do routes include the huge SE Face of Ill Crag (grade 3), Pen by Thor's Buttress (3), Cockly Pike Ridge (1) and Round How (2).

England's highest volcano: Scafell Pike was formed more than 450 million years ago when an ancient volcano exploded and then got itself ground down to a fraction of its former height by multiple ice ages. Fortunately the caldera is now dormant – flying lava bombs could really put the challenge back into the Three Peaks!

Where to stay? The Wasdale Head Inn is the birthplace of British climbing and has the ambiance of an Alpine hotel of old, complete with vintage ice axes and nailed boots. There's a basic campsite across the road too.

Local pub: Ritson's Bar at the Wasdale Head Inn, which hosts the annual World's Biggest Liar contest.

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