(The Gear Loop) - England’s highest point, Scafell Pike, is a rocky, rugged and relatively remote peak, a fitting challenge for those who strive to attain its summit. Its status as a country high point, the tallest mountain in the Lake District and as one of the National Three Peaks makes it an immensely popular objective.
The reason it doesn’t see as many pairs of boots isn’t because of any inferiority but because it simply takes a greater amount of effort to access Scafell Pike than the likes of Snowdon and Helvellyn.
Put simply, the valleys at the base of the mountain are a very lengthy drive for most people. Thanks to this, on all but the busiest summer weekends, Scafell Pike still retains at least some sense of mountain wilderness. And that’s a beautiful thing.
The Scafell (properly pronounced scaw-fell rather than the commonly used but incorrect sca-fell) range is a grand family of rugged mountains, containing five of England’s eight highest summits.
Scafell Pike itself is just one peak among the Pikes of Scafell, which also includes the boulder-strewn summits of Broad Crag and Ill Crag. Glaring back at Scafell Pike’s summit from the dramatic connecting ridge of Mickledore is Scafell, its huge, muscular and formidable sibling. Once thought to be higher but today having to settle for second place in the league table, Scafell is still Champions League stuff.
Taken as a collective, the Scafell’s are an awesome proposition. A range characterised by towering buttresses, wild tarns, broken cliffs, shadowy coves and monumental vistas, beloved by climbers, mountaineers and hikers alike. Peregrines inhabit its bastions; silent summits watch over vast valleys and streams cascade from the heights on their way to becoming mighty rivers. It’s undoubtedly England’s most powerful mountain environment.
When to go
Hikers can usually expect Scafell Pike to be snow-free between April and the end of November. The shoulder seasons are quieter than the height of summer, with May and September probably the finest months for a hike, thanks to the combination of tranquil trails and long daylight hours. You can get the peak to yourself in summer by setting off early or later in the day to avoid the mid-afternoon summit hoards.
For winter mountaineers, it’s simply a case of keeping an eye on the forecast. There’s no guarantee of snow at any point during the winter, as weather patterns are so unpredictable. The Lake District doesn’t see as much snow as the Scottish Highlands and when it does get a coating, it is more prone to thaw.
Generally, there’s a decent chance of good conditions between December and March, with the probability rising in the later months.
Popular routes from Wasdale
By far the most used route to the summit of Scafell Pike is the direct way up from Wasdale Head via Brown Tongue.
As with the most-trodden ways up Snowdon and Ben Nevis, the reason for this popularity is not the route’s quality but simply because it is the most straightforward and quickest way to the top.
That’s not to say the route doesn’t have its merits, which it absolutely does. Wasdale is an astonishingly scenic place to start an adventure and the views towards Scafell’s frowning crags during the ascent certainly stir the soul.
However, there are better ways. Though they are longer, wilder and more challenging.
Easy routes from Borrowdale
Approaches from Seathwaite Farm at the far south end of Borrowdale are excellent. Many venture up to the atmospheric Styhead Pass, the historic link between Wasdale and Borrowdale.
From the junction at the top of the Pass are myriad possibilities. Most gain the main spine of the Scafells by ascending via Sprinkling Tarn, enjoying superb views of Great Gable and the mighty north-facing cliffs of Great End from one of the national park’s most beautiful mountain pools.
Confident scramblers can also tackle a number of ways onto Great End, either up the north face’s gullies or over its rocky shoulders to gain the main spine of the Scafells range, which we’ll come back to in a moment…
The Corridor Route also begins from Styhead and is a much-loved and ingenious approach below the massif’s wild northwestern flanks. It contains the odd moment of scrambling and offers sublime views towards the shapely giant of Great Gable. It eventually arcs around the mass of Broad Crag to the col of the same name, before ascending steeply to claim Scafell Pikes’ summit.
More challenging routes from Great Langdale
Adventures starting in Great Langdale are the most varied and give you an appreciation of three distinct mountain groups. Starting beneath the famously photogenic Langdale Pikes, it’s soon the towering presence of Bowfell that dominates matters, as you make the long zig-zagging climb out of the valley alongside the tumbling Rossett Gill.
Once you gain the higher ground, it’s a short hike to Esk Hause, an important junction at the head of Eskdale where many routes from Borrowdale, Langdale and Eskdale meet. Even after all this time, Scafell Pike remains hidden behind its subsidiary peaks, demanding a great deal of effort before it reveals its charms.
After this, both the Borrowdale and Langdale approaches join up on a wonderful traverse of the rugged, boulder-strewn spine of the Scafells, taking you past Ill Crag and Broad Crag on an undulating journey to the main summit.
Wainwright did not include Ill Crag and Broad Crag as separate fells in his Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, as he considered them part of Scafell Pike. However, some lists include them as the fourth and fifth highest mountain peaks in England and they’re worth a visit.
Up on the ridge, the path completely peters out, turning the hike into an entertaining boulder hop. Large cairns piled on top of huge rocks point the way ahead and, before you know it, you’ll reach Broad Crag col. All that’s left now is the steep pull up onto Scafell Pike’s summit, which is a bit like the Travelator at the end of Gladiators, the last lung-busting challenge before you can claim victory.
Tricky routes from Eskdale and the Duddon
For a truly incredible mountain journey, wild and remote in character, perhaps the finest approach is through Upper Eskdale. Unlike the approaches from Borrowdale and Langdale, Scafell Pike is seen throughout, towering above its dark coves and subsidiary summits. Across the pronounced gap of Mickledore, Scafell’s East Buttress looks monstrous, a clenched fist of brutal proportions.
As you ascend to Great Moss by the burgeoning River Esk, across a sea of swaying cotton grass, you’re likely to feel tiny against what is a massive mountain landscape.
There are a few ways to ascend onto the Scafells from the head of Eskdale, but the route up Little Narrowcove deserves a special mention. This approach gives you the adventurous option of claiming the subsidiary summit of Pen, a quite remarkable high perch that looks over Upper Eskdale intimately.
You won’t find it in Wainwright’s guides and most people have never heard of it, but it is a worthier objective than most in the national park.
Linking Scafell Pike to Scafell
As the crow flies, Scafell Pike’s summit is so close to neighbouring Scafell’s that many consider bagging both peaks in one day. While this is possible, there is a serious word of warning here, one that Wasdale Mountain Rescue will thank you for taking the time to read.
Scafell Pike and Scafell are separated by the narrow, rocky arête of Mickledore, which terminates abruptly against Scafell’s towering buttresses in such a way as to convey impregnability.
There is one chink in its armour, Broad Stand, a short but hard Grade 3 scramble, where a slip could be - and sadly occasionally is - fatal. The crux is a tricky corner above a sloping platform that is notoriously greasy after rainfall. In wet conditions, even experienced rock climbers get the rope out here; it is not a place to underestimate.
It does, however, have an interesting place in climbing history, being the first ever recorded scramble in the Lake District. In 1802, poet, philosopher and co-founder of Romanticism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge down-climbed the route, committing its thrills to paper in a letter to love interest Sara Hutchinson.
The main reason Broad Stand entices unwary hikers is that the other routes to Scafell from here involve considerable effort in terms of descent and re-ascent. The easiest way is to descend from Mickledore is to the south and follow the path via Foxes Rake and past the small Foxes Tarn.
Alternatively, a more atmospheric way is the clamber up the loose scree of Lord’s Rake, an undulating traverse of a gully system to the north of Scafell’s summit.
How to get there and where to stay
Wasdale, Eskdale, Langdale and Borrowdale all have many good accommodation options at a variety of price points, from hotels and holiday lets, to youth hostels and campsites.
The Wasdale Head Inn has seen many of rock climbing’s great characters come and go and is a historic place to stay. Likewise, the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Great Langdale has its fair share of climbing, mountaineering and fell running heritage and comes highly recommended.
Langdale and Borrowdale are both accessible by public transport. The 516 bus service links Langdale to Kendal, Windermere and Ambleside, while the 78 service from Keswick to Buttermere stops in Seatoller, where you can walk to Seathwaite. By car, Langdale is a short drive from Ambleside and Seathwaite is best accessed by the B5289 road from Keswick.
Wasdale and Eskdale are much harder to reach, both by car and by public transport. By car, they either involve a long drive around the mountains or through the fells via the steep, winding Wrynose and Hardknott Passes, which can be impassible in winter. It’s possible to reach Boot in Eskdale from Ravenglass via the narrow gauge Ravenglass & Eskdale heritage railway, which is affectionately known as ‘La’al Ratty’ (Little Railway) by the locals. You could conceivably hike to Wasdale Head from Boot station, too.
Wild camping is technically illegal in Lake District, though it is generally tolerated if you camp responsibly and follow the Wild Camping Code. Upper Eskdale is a magnificent location for a camp, surrounded by some of Lakeland’s greatest mountains. It’s usually sheltered, there’s an ideal water source in the form of the River Esk and it’s easy to find a spot away from the trails.
What to pack
To get to the summit of Scafell Pike and back, regardless of start point, you are looking at a full day in the fells. Self-sufficiency is key and there are no amenities once you leave the valley behind. Take at least 750ml of water - even more on hot days - and plenty of food, including high energy snacks, such as trail mix, chocolate bars, sweets or energy gels.
The summit is likely to be several degrees colder than the valley and there’s very little shelter once you’re up high, so wind chill can also become a significant factor. Layer up with a high-quality base layer, a mid-layer - such as a fleece jacket or down jacket - and a spare, as well as a waterproof outer shell. Hats and gloves don’t go amiss either. For those balmy summer days, don’t forget your sun cream.
It’s easy to become disorientated in the Scafells, particularly in poor visibility. The Wasdale Mountain Rescue team are often called out to assist hikers who become lost. Navigation technology, such as smartphone apps and GPS units, is useful for pinpointing your location, but should not be used in isolation. Always take a topographical map and a compass with you into the mountains. Other essential items include head torches, a spare power bank to keep your devices juiced up and at least one first aid kit in your group.
Now get the gear
Berghaus Ridgemaster 3L Jacket
When challenging conditions sweep in, Berghaus’ Ridgemaster 3L Jacket has you covered. Its 3-layer Gore-Tex Performance Shell is superbly wind and waterproof, while an adjustable hood, underarm ventilation and front zippered pockets make this a fully featured jacket for a range of outdoor adventures.
Silva Expedition Type 4 Compass
This is a stalwart of the navigation world, a high-class baseplate compass with all the features you’ll need to find your way in the mountains. It's also great value and an invaluable tool when on the mountain.
Harvey Lake District British Mountain Map
Unlike general purpose OS maps, Harvey maps are designed specifically with hiking, climbing and mountaineering in mind. Among other benefits, they’re fully waterproof, lightweight and contain loads of useful information on their back sheet, including what to do in an emergency.
The Lake District British Mountain Map covers all of the national park’s main mountain groups on a 1:40,000 scale, as well as including a detailed 1:15,000 close up of the Scafell range on the back.
AKU Trekker Lite III GTX
Perfect for day hikes on rough, mountainous ground, Italian brand AKU’s Trekker Lite III GTX boots are a great choice for taking on the UK’s biggest mountains. Their Gore-Tex membrane keeps the rain at bay, while their protective rand and Vibram sole offers the sort of durability you’ll need for taking on rocky summits.
Berghaus Deluge 2.0 Waterproof Trousers
Don’t let a torrential downpour stop you. The Deluge trousers feature three-quarter length zippers so that you can easily slot them over your normal hiking trousers, while Berghaus’ own Hydroshell fabric keeps the rain out.
Tips from the pros
Graham Uney, a professional mountain guide and instructor based in the Lake District, gives his top tips on ascending Scafell Pike:
"If you’re going to climb the highest mountain in England, you may as well prolong your time on the higher fells as much as is possible. Linking Scafell Pike in with a high-level ridge walk is one of the most satisfying ways to achieve this. The long ridge running north-east from Scafell Pike includes lots of worthy detours, such as Broad Crag, Ill Crag and Great End, then after a dip into the col of Esk Hause, the ridge continues over Allen Crags and myriad minor tops before Glaramara is reached. This extended ridge traverse is one of the finest ways up Scafell Pike from Borrowdale, and a return via the Corridor Route gives one of the best big mountain days it is possible to have in the Lake District, or anywhere else for that matter".
Graham owns his own mountaineering skills business, which is based in the Lake District.