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Sea to sea via Scafell Pike Lakeland traverse 4 days / 47 miles (75km)

OS Route Map → Map GPX Route file →

Date: 11 Oct 2010
Start: Silecroft rail station (request stop).
Finish: St. Bees rail station.
Maps: Explorer OL4 & OL6: English Lakes NW & SW + Explorer 303 Whitehaven & Workington.

Travel information:- Traveline North-East & Cumbria

Day 1Black Combe - Whitfell - Wormshell How13.7miles / 3803 feet (22.1km / 1159m)
Day 2Harter Fell - Hard Knott - Esk Pike - Scafell Pike10.6miles / 4492 feet (17.1km / 1369m)
Day 3Great Gable - Kirk Fell - Pillar - Haycock - Iron Crag9.5miles / 4384 feet (15.3km / 1336m)
Day 4Dent & St. Bees12.7miles / 1446 feet (20.4km / 440m)
Harter Fell inversion

A 4-day linear traverse of the western Lake District fells, starting and ending at Silecroft and St. Bees rail stations.

Overshadowing Silecroft, Black Combe is almost always tackled in isolation as a day walk, but from the inner southerly fells we have often seen it as a natural approach that would form an unusual and fine Lake District traverse from the far south west. This approach links to the major central mountains via Whitfell and the Ulpha fells, a seldom trodden and underrated area where solitude is almost guaranteed, and crosses Harter Fell to climb the Scafell massif via Eskdale.

The return line crosses Great Gable and Kirk Fell to follow the chain of summits heading westwards from Pillar to Iron Crag, finally ascending the most westerly outlier of Dent and leaving a pleasant walk along lanes to the footpath into St. Bees. The ascent of Scafell Pike gives the traverse a satisfaction of concept: sea-to-sea via the highest point in England.

The weather conditions on this trip were unusual to say the least. On days two and three there was a constant cloud inversion that persisted all day but varied in height, giving glorious spectacle and superb clarity when walking the high summits but with the penalty of persistent dank mist in between. The sunlit tops brought a late taste of warm summer walking and just a touch of sunburn, a first for October.

Day 1 - Black Combe - Whitfell - Wormshell How

I parked in St. Bees and strolled out to the station, remembering that Silecroft is a request stop and the guard must be informed. Alighting in warm sunshine I walked out to the footpath via Whicham to the foot of Black Combe and knuckled down for the 600m ascent, a very easy track that passes close to the summit. At the start of a backpack it always takes me a while to get into gear and performance is highly variable, but this time I felt quite rotten on the first ascent and I wondered seriously about the timescale for the route ahead: the nights are drawing in now and I couldn't rely on walking longer each day. Fortunately I felt considerably better after a rest at the summit trig point enjoying the clear views that were denied us on our previous misty visit.

I continued NE and diverged from the central grassy path for a while to walk near the edge of Blackcombe Screes for the best views into the combes below. In the distance the distinctive shape of Ingleborough could be clearly seen and ahead lay the Furness and Coniston Fells.

View to the mountains from Black Combe
View to the mountains from Black Combe (11 Oct 2010__12:04:58)
Coastal view from Black Combe
Coastal view from Black Combe (11 Oct 2010__12:05:32)
View from Blackcombe Screes
View from Blackcombe Screes (11 Oct 2010__12:15:51)
Approaching Whitecombe Head
Approaching Whitecombe Head (11 Oct 2010__12:20:08)

Approaching Whitecombe Head I veered across to join the fence and crossed it at a stile further on, descending on the left side to the wet and reedy environs of Black Dub. I found a ladder stile in a stone wall near the ruins at Charity Chair on the left of an unmapped small plantation and ascended the grassy slopes to the pass road. An easy ascent on the right of a wall gains the rocky outcrops of Buck Barrow where Whitfell comes into view.

The area was unsurprisingly deserted and has a quiet charm that escapes the devotees of the higher hills, a highly enjoyable walk with satisfying views. There is a trodden line to follow around to the trig point on Whitfell and on to Holehouse Tarn.

View from Whitfell
View from Whitfell (11 Oct 2010__14:52:58)
The Stainton Fells and Holehouse Tarn from Whitfell
The Stainton Fells and Holehouse Tarn from Whitfell (11 Oct 2010__14:53:44)
Hesk Fell and the Coniston Fells
Hesk Fell and the Coniston Fells (11 Oct 2010__15:16:27)
View towards Scafell
View towards Scafell (11 Oct 2010__15:16:41)

From Holehouse Tarn I found vague fragments of path that assisted progress as far as the fringe of Yoadcastle, then I made a trackless descent of Cockley Moss aiming for the wall corner at SD 174957 and easy access to the road at Woodend Bridge.

A short walk up the road just before Freeze Beck is the onward path to the deserted Ulpha hills, an easy ascent towards Great Worm Crag and Far Hill enlivened by the orange and brown autumnal hues of the bracken. The boggy White Moss needs some circumnavigation on the right to reach Wormshell How, where I pitched the tent in the fading light and lengthening shadows.

Green Crag & Harter Fell from Great Worm Crag
Green Crag & Harter Fell from Great Worm Crag (11 Oct 2010__17:07:18)
Pitch near Wormshell How
Pitch near Wormshell How (11 Oct 2010__17:56:47)

Day 2 - Harter Fell - Hard Knott - Esk Pike - Scafell Pike

Despite a crystal clear starry night with excellent views of the Milky Way, I opened the door at dawn to thick grey mist. The descent NE in the dank gloom towards the forest corner on compass bearings was a head-scratcher, the very limited visible features - mainly the forestry - made no sense (I discovered later back home that the map printout I made a few years ago didn't show a major forested area on my right, but the latest 2008-2009 mapping on the screen did). The forestry path along the foot of Harter Fell was as wet and tortuous as ever, now accompanied by an information board describing efforts to allow a reversion to the natural state of the landscape here.

About halfway up the SW slopes of Harter Fell I noticed faint traces of blue above and soon I emerged suddenly into warm sunny skies and an ocean of white mist below. It was on this very mountain in December 2008 that we caught another grand inversion. I made an effort to hasten my pace to the summit lest the delicate phenomenon evaporate away, but I needn't have worried, it would last all day. Another breathtaking spectacle to be captured!.

History repeated itself as I descended back into the mist and threaded my way through boggy patches to the Hardknott pass.

Inversion from Harter Fell #2
Inversion from Harter Fell #2 (12 Oct 2010__09:13:17)
Inversion from Harter Fell #3
Inversion from Harter Fell #3 (12 Oct 2010__09:16:18)
Inversion from Harter Fell #4
Inversion from Harter Fell #4 (12 Oct 2010__09:16:56)
Inversion from Harter Fell #5
Inversion from Harter Fell #5 (12 Oct 2010__09:17:51)
Inversion from Harter Fell #6
Inversion from Harter Fell #6 (12 Oct 2010__09:23:29)
Descending into the mist towards the Hardknott Pass
Descending into the mist towards the Hardknott Pass (12 Oct 2010__09:38:52)

The summit of Hard Knott was just poking through the mist earlier but it was engulfed as I traversed it and weaved around northwards, keeping a careful eye on navigation in this confusing terrain and constantly watching the bearings. As an aside:- why does thick dank mist make boggy bits seem even boggier?.

I veered left to locate Lingcove Beck and walked into Upper Eskdale to the fords above Green Hole: even this dale head can be confusing in mist without the visible tops as a guide, and I took several bearings to ensure I proceeded on the correct line following Yeastyrigg Gill.

Once again I emerged into warm sunshine approaching Ore Gap and climbed to Esk Pike for more splendid views.

View towards Langdale Pikes from Esk Pike
View towards Langdale Pikes from Esk Pike (12 Oct 2010__13:41:16)
Inversion below Scafell
Inversion below Scafell (12 Oct 2010__13:46:04)
View over Esk Hause from Esk Pike
View over Esk Hause from Esk Pike (12 Oct 2010__14:05:09)
Mist breaking up south of Esk Pike
Mist breaking up south of Esk Pike (12 Oct 2010__14:07:51)

Descending to Esk Hause I met the inevitable other walkers, though very few on an October weekday in the late afternoon compared to the summer legions. The cloud inversion was concentrated on the southern side with very little to the north, but in all directions the clarity was excellent.

A few stragglers still remained at the summit as I arrived at the roof of England, along with a pair of hopeful ravens scouting for crumbs around the trig point.

Esk Pike from Calf Cove
Esk Pike from Calf Cove (12 Oct 2010__14:36:34)
Great Gable & Kirk Fell from Calf Cove
Great Gable & Kirk Fell from Calf Cove (12 Oct 2010__14:51:41)
Ill Crag & Bow Fell from Scafell Pike
Ill Crag & Bow Fell from Scafell Pike (12 Oct 2010__15:32:57)
Great Gable & Styhead Tarn from Scafell Pike
Great Gable & Styhead Tarn from Scafell Pike (12 Oct 2010__15:42:28)
Thinning inverted mist from Scafell Pike
Thinning inverted mist from Scafell Pike (12 Oct 2010__15:43:50)

Descending towards Lingmell col I saw a trio of walkers ahead near the bottom of the slope, two standing and one sitting, and they were still there when I passed them en route for Piers Gill. I thought little of it, but later from my pitch below I heard a helicopter approaching and it came to a hovering position above that very spot. The guy sitting down must have had a serious mishap.

I had made good time today and felt pretty good, despite the shaky start at Silecroft yesterday. After pitching the tent I had time to stroll around and take in the splendid mountain amphitheatre around the head of Piers Gill, including a quick ascent of the seldom mentioned Middleboot Knotts, a very minor Nuttall top.

Pitch near Piers Gill
Pitch near Piers Gill (12 Oct 2010__17:09:45)

Day 3 - Great Gable - Kirk Fell - Pillar - Haycock - Iron Crag

At dawn the inversion was still below the 600m contour and the early rays of the sun cast their reddish glow on the upper flanks of Great Gable. I set off down the Corridor Route, and approaching the well known rock step I saw that some vandal has scratched large arrow marks on the rock, as if the plethora of stupid redundant cairns in the Lake District isn't enough interference with the landscape. A little lower and I was back in the mist for the walk down to Sty Head, where I expected to see at least one tent pitched by the tarn but I couldn't detect any.

The ascent up the SE slopes of Great Gable is largely paved now and I reached the mist level about halfway up. It was already obvious that the cloud was rising but I reached the summit in plenty of time for more photos. Solitude on this mountain is to be savoured as much as the spectacle - both are quite rare!.

Early light & inversion from the Corridor Route
Early light & inversion from the Corridor Route (13 Oct 2010__07:48:22)
Inversion from Great Gable #1
Inversion from Great Gable #1 (13 Oct 2010__09:21:25)
Inversion from Great Gable #2
Inversion from Great Gable #2 (13 Oct 2010__09:46:07)
Inversion from Great Gable #3
Inversion from Great Gable #3 (13 Oct 2010__09:55:34)

From Great Gable both Kirk Fell and Pillar were above the cloud layer but the level soon rose to cover them both. The NW route off the summit is fine until the lower reaches where it becomes the most horrible descent I have ever encountered: long steep rivers of highly unstable scree that I find impossible to walk on in any sense of the word, I basically skimmed down like a surfer with the loud clatter of falling rocks resounding around the slopes.

Taking a break for a snack at the col, I could just make out a crocodile of walkers setting off up Kirk Fell into the mist. I tailed them over the East Top and on to the main summit, where a celebratory salute was in progress to mark a completion by one of the party.

At Kirkfell Crags is an awkward rock step, easily bypassed a few yards round to the right, that marks the very steep descent off the north ridge. Here, a couple were labouring down the rocks and told me they had ascended via one of the nearby rock gullies, a dreadful route they said. I can believe it, I've never heard of a direct walker's route from the north side other than this one, it must have been quite an adventure.

The sun did shine very briefly on the summit of Pillar, otherwise the rest of the day was in clag. I continued westwards over the summits of Black Crag, Scoat Fell, Caw Fell and Haycock to Iron Crag where I pitched for the night.

The sun appears briefly on Pillar
The sun appears briefly on Pillar (13 Oct 2010__13:28:53)

Day 4 - Dent & St. Bees

The thick wet mist prevailed in the morning and the inner tent was glistening with globules of condensation. I continued NW to the stile in the forest boundary where I anticipated problems just beyond with the very boggy central spot on the link path, but someone has laid a lattice of wooden poles across the morass to enable an easy crossing. The forest track on the far side makes an easy walk around the flanks of Grike and continues to the road at Scaly Moss.

A short walk north is the start of the path into the valley of Nannycatch Beck, a pleasant walk in the brightening skies.

Nannycatch Beck
Nannycatch Beck (14 Oct 2010__09:30:52)

At the far end of the valley I climbed the forest road into Uldale Plantation and joined the C2C route to traverse the final summit of Dent. The thick mist and mizzle still held sway up here and precluded any decent photos, I marched on down to Black How and took the footpath into Cleator. A short walk down the main road I turned off to follow minor roads and lanes westwards to pick up the footpath into St. Bees. The footpath is well stiled and waymarked exactly as mapped but appears to be unused - there is no trace on the ground.