Great Gable Hike

A walk along the Ennerdale Valley to Great Gable.
I set off at 7am from a footpath just beyond Croasdale, a gentle climb leads up through a maze of stone walls alongside Gill Beck, Borne looms in front. It’s a dull overcast morning with a cold easterly wind rushing down the side valley between Bana Fell and Great Borne. The hope is to reach the top before 8am and catch the sun rising behind the Gable Group in the East, the weather looks poor for this though. From here I will hike along the High Stile range to Great Gable then return along the bottom of the Ennerdale valley.

I reach the top of Great Borne, breathing heavily from the steep climb. I turn round to see a buzzard (Buteo buteo) hovering just behind me. The bird catches my eye, and startled, it plummets swiftly down into the valley. As I trudge towards the cairn the cloud starts breaking and the sun glimmers through; quickly setting my tripod and camera up I manage to grab a shot of the rising sun. 

From Great Borne, my walk continues along the High Stile range, the grassy tops are barren and desolate and, with the cold wind whipping across them, feel unwelcoming. As I walk over Starling Dodd the cloud breaks further and the wind begins to die, and by the time I reach Red Pike I’m wearing a T-Shirt and sunglasses. I stop on Red Pike to photograph the rising sun again as well as a shot of the fells behind Buttermere.

Red Pike sits about two thirds of the way down the High Stile range, well into the fells. Now, up at 750m, the terrain has begun to change; the stiff grass is littered with large granite boulders, as though an asteroid storm just rained down. The ground becomes drier, firmer underfoot and the ratio of moss to grass in the ground-covering vegetation decreases. Though the environment has became ecologically harsher, it feels more inviting than the barren grass tops of the morning. The granite cliffs can be seen rising in the distance, illuminated by the sun; a sign of whats ahead warranting further exploration.

From Red Pike, a short climb leads to High Stile, the fell from which the range takes its name and, of course, the tallest, at 807m. A raven (Corvus corax) soars around the cliff edge; I look for its mate but can only see the one. Ravens are often seen in pairs because they tend to mate for life and patrol a chosen territory. I see them often when I hike in the fells and enjoy watching them floating around the cliff tops — it’s seems to require them impossibly little effort to stay airborne. I continue down to High Crag to take my next photograph, a shot with Great Gable framed in the distance.

Descending onto Seat sees the end of the High Stile range and the first person of the day. Hiking up into Scarth Gap from Buttermere is a popular way to access Haystacks, you will always meet someone on this hike. Scarth Gap also sees the divide between the High Stile range and the Gable Group, a break in the mountains to a low of 445m. The gap is steep sided and rocky requiring a short technical scramble to cross onto Haystacks. Halfway up onto Haystacks I stop on a rocky outcrop, a perfect view point for a picture up the Buttermere valley.

At the top of Haystacks, I encounter more groups of people – this is likely to be the busiest place on the walk. It’s described by Alfred Wainwright as his favourite summit, “for beauty, variety and interesting detail, for sheer fascination and unique individuality, the summit area of Haystacks is supreme. This is in fact the best fell-top of all.” The legendary guidebook author’s testament has made Haystacks forever a popular summit. Standing at the summit I take a picture of the most beautiful fell top of all, so you can see if you agree.

Walking down from Haystacks main peak along the ridge, towards the lower South East Top, is a lovely scene. Rocky outcrops pierce the marshy ground, coated in lush blankets of moss. The lower elevation brings wetter ground littered with small ponds and tarns. They reflect the sun and from a distance shimmer like pearls on the landscape. Sadly, I must depart the tranquil landscape and walk onto Brandreth.

Brandreth is a smooth grassy lump with a shallow incline rising from Haystacks toward Green Gable. For me, the mountain lacks character — I find myself calling it Blandreth instead. The endless expanse of grass is a disappointment after the craggs, knolls and pools of Haystacks. I traverse the area as swiftly as possible, then have a late dinner at the foot of Green Gable. 

The path up Green Gable is a straight up slog, best performed quickly with a stop half way for a drink. Green Gable is 801m, a significant peak in the Lakes, but always looks tiny on the flank of its big brother Great Gable. The sun beats down intensely now but the air is still fresh and cool; it’s hard to believe it’s the 1st of November. I don’t stay long on the top. I descend the scree path at the south east end of the peak into Windy Gap. The steep sided gap is a clear divide between the two fells and is often hiked up to from Styhead tarn in the East as a route onto Great Gable. The gap also provides a tremendous view back down the Ennerdale valley towards Haystacks and the High Stile range.

I’m tired now but only one last climb remains: the assent from windy gap onto Great Gable. A steep climb up rocks cut by years of footfall sees me quickly to my final destination. The summit always makes me catch my breath, or is that the climb? The summit area is massive to behold, a vast plateau, around half a mile across, covered with boulders, craggs and cliffs. Small patches of vegetation cling desperately to life among the rocks, only to be grazed by a sheep looking for an exotic meal at 899m. Great Gable is a popular fell, one of the largest in the Lake District, and a relatively difficult assent (unlike Scafell Pike or Skiddaw). It has a prestige associated with its name; Wainwright muses “the name appeals magically. It is a good name for a mountain, strong, challenging, compelling, starkly descriptive, suggesting the pyramid associated with the mountain from early childhood.” My photographs fail to show this pyramid shape because is only occurs when the mountain is viewed from Wasdale valley to the South West. 

Great Gable is held in such high regard among fell walkers and climbers that at the top stands a memorial plaque commemorating members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club who died in WW1. In 2013, the 70kg plaque was carried down the mountain on a stretcher by thirteen soldiers to be replaced because it contained spelling mistakes. The replacement was installed later in the year by royal engineers. Every year on Remembrance Sunday over a hundred people gather on the summit for a remembrance service.

I depart from Great Gable down towards Beck Head having enjoyed the terrific views the lone summit offers. The decent is steep and hard on my tired legs — it’s been some time since I’ve hiked and the distance has take its toll. Evening is rolling in quickly now, the sun has begun dropping towards Pillar Group on the south western side of the Ennerdale valley. The air is cool and fresh and the light has become soft and forgiving. I stop in Stone Cove, a recess at the valley head formed between Green and Great Gable. Here I rest, drink, and take a few photos down the Ennerdale valley making the most of the good light.

Leaving the rocky terrain, I walk a grass and dirt path along Tounge, a spit of land jutting from the base of Windy Gap into the valley. My breath becomes visible as the air cools further, and the bronze hue of the fading bracken is amplified in the red tones of evening light. The landscape has begun to soften, ready for night to engulf it. At the base of Tounge, I stop, and take one last exposure out of the valley towards the coast. I then briskly walk the last 5km to the car before the light dies.


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