Leg Three

This is a chapter from 'A Tribute to the Round', a short book on the Bob Graham Round, written for charity and available here

Bob Graham made two main innovations in his record round. The first was to go clockwise. The second was to bring in Steel Fell, Calf Crag, High Raise, Sergeant Man, Thunacar Knott, Harrison Stickle, Pike o’ Stickle and Rossett Pike to the leg. Until his round, contenders went direct from Bowfell to Helvellyn, either via Langdale and Grasmere or over High Raise. In today’s terms, it is very difficult to imagine such a lengthy transition.

Steel Fell

When Dr Arthur Wakefield codified the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record, he stated that the object was to “ascend the greatest possible number of peaks above 2,000 feet”. He followed this rule diligently in his record of 1905, as did Eustace Thomas in his round of 1922. History does not record the reasoning for Bob Graham’s inclusion of Steel Fell and Calf Crag – both around 200 feet below the 2,000 mark, the only two such fells in the round – but I am prepared to look the other way. It would be a much poorer route were contenders to trudge up the sodden Wythburn Valley to High Raise.

 

The only thorn in the side is the steep, now-stepped, ascent of Steel Fell. It is a fell with lovely shoulders, but they stay untouched as the round insists on going straight up the neck. Once on the ridge, there is a choice of following the fence line or taking a slightly more direct line to the summit, which is also known as Dead Pike. Some claim there is scope for innovation in a direct attack on Ash Crags by means of a diagonal traverse, or by heading onto Cotra Breast, but this is hard ground and few will want to invest the graft for such limited gain when there are much bigger things to come.

 

Calf Crag

An undulating, marshy transition, starting with a track alongside old fence posts but ending in an ill-defined tramp. For local government history buffs, the old county border between Westmorland and Cumberland is the best line. The big risk is falling into the path which leads to the head of Far Easedale valley rather than to the summit.

 

High Raise and Sergeant Man

Where is the centre of the Lake District? While cartographers may answer with Ullscarf, most people with Lakeland in their hearts opt for High Raise. Either way, it offers commanding views in all directions. High Raise was sometimes traversed in nineteenth century rounds by men travelling from Bowfell to Helvellyn, heading past Stake Pass, over Greenup Edge and down into the wet Wythburn valley. But for whatever reason it was never counted as a peak for records. In Graham’s round, High Raise was recorded as High White Stones, which is technically the name of the boulder top area which includes the summit.

 

In comparison, Sergeant Man is a minor soldier, with a paltry prominence relative to High Raise’s bulk. It is a separate fell, so we are told, but only really from the south. Viewed any other way, it is simply part of the High Raise expanse.

 

In Bob Graham terms, High Raise and Sergeant Man make for a unique dilemma: the only example of a genuine choice on the order of two summits.

 

If High Raise is the prior target, most turn up Birks Gills and trudge up the grass gully, turning towards the summit as the gradient decreases. Alternatively, there is an old pony track up Flour Gill, slightly longer in distance. From High Raise, bear straight to Sergeant Man (using a good bearing given the summit cannot be seen from the trig point).

 

If Sergeant Man is the preference, head up Deep Slack on the path that follows the old county border fence posts. From the top of Mere Beck, pick a line to the summit, plotting a way round Codale Head but not mistaking it for Sergeant Man. You can only see Sergeant once Codale is reached and so the latter is a frequent inadvertent 43rd summit (and sometimes a terminal 42nd if Sergeant Man itself is not bagged). Alternatively, stay to the right (west) of the beck for a straighter course. From there, head straight to High Raise, staying left of small tarns.

 

The beauty of the choice is that the numbers are the same; overall, the distance travelled and gross ascent almost exactly match. While Bob Graham went to High Raise first, most modern-day contenders opt for Sergeant Man (and, for what it is worth, this is also my preference).

 

Thunacar Knott

Heading down to Thunacar, the scene is expansive and empty; it could be coined the Back o’ Langdale. Only the visually-impaired and deeply charitable would ever classify it as one of the Langdale Pikes – even knott is a decoration unearned. Thunacar is not really a peak; the best we can say is that it denotes the least hollow part of the upland plateau. Of course, every fell has some merits, but Thunacar is the Watson’s Dodd of Leg Three. Aside from contenders and Wainwright baggers, who else will one find here?

 

Of most interest to the round is the question of which of the two tops separated by a small tarn is the true summit. Wainwright eschews altitude (in full knowledge), claiming the northern top. But the round is the round, not the Wainwrights, and so the southern top is advised for a technically accurate completion.

 

Harrison Stickle and Pike o’ Stickle

Approached from the north, the pair of Stickles are practically cairns on the horizon rather than the impressive, towering prominences we are used to gazing up at from the Langdale valley. Studied from behind, one might be forgiven for thinking of them as mere crags of High Raise. Of course, that would be a most unworthy description.

 

There are no real paths in this area but the route from Thunacar Knott to Harrison Stickle is a simple matter. Heading onward, it is well worth a recce to find the best line for dropping off Harrison to the stepping stones over the combe. These then lead to a brief scramble up Pike o’ Stickle. From the summit, pause a moment to survey the route to Rossett and take in the commanding view of the Coniston fells, never to be crossed in the round (or indeed any 24-hour circuit).

 

If Blencathra has its ridges then the Langdale Pikes have their ravines. Just think of the exploits if the round went from Pike o’ Stickle to Pike o’ Blisco: the descent options would be legion. But these lie unexplored. Perhaps this is for the best, as fellrunners would struggle to ignore the scree slopes and remains of the Neolithic axe factories on the southern slopes.

 

Rossett Pike

Named for the pony tracks that wend up Mickleden, Rossett Pike is a transitional peak, an inflection point between the grass of the High Raise massif and the rocks of the Scafell range.

 

From a Bob Graham perspective, the journey there is more interesting than the peak itself. Contenders head through – or around – the hanging valley of Langdale Combe, where an amazing array of tussocky, hummocky, pillowy mounds lie peppered all around. The moraines are a veritable dumping ground for the rocks and boulder clay deposited by the retreating glacier which carved the Mickleden valley and combe.

 

The classic route to Rossett is through the combe and over Black Crags. After Pike o’ Stickle, descend into the boggy ground just north of Mart Crag, staying left of small tarns. Veterans of the Langdale fell race will know a line. From the hanging valley floor, the path heads between Mansey Pike (on the right) and under Black Crags (on the left). From there, you can choose between hugging the crags under Littlegill Head and Buck Pike or holding back slightly from the edge. The series of false summits and faint paths make the final approach feel more wearisome than it should.

 

The more pedestrian alternative is to stay on the path that skirts Langdale Combe to the head of Stake Pass, which links Langdale and Borrowdale. This is initially good ground, but the slightly tiresome finish cannot be avoided.

 

How to decide? Midway through the round, different contenders will want different things. The choice is between adding half a mile or 150 feet of ascent. Empirically, the majority tend to prefer the shorter way, especially quick rounds (and no serious fellrunners go around the combe on the Langdale race). There are also more features to catch if visibility is poor. But the ground is better and more runnable the long way around.

 

Incidentally, Rossett Pike would be the natural fell to end a two-day attempt, in either direction (just over half-distance on a clockwise round; just under for an anti-clockwise). Make the escape down either Rossett Pass or Stake Pass to Dungeon Ghyll, trying not to think about all the height lost which needs to be regained the next day.

 

Bowfell

Bowfell is the monarch of Langdale, one of Wainwright’s favourite mountains and has been part of 24-Hour Fell Record history since 1871. Bowfell was also part of a much more niche part of fell history when, for a time in the nineteenth century, a ‘Four Fells Record’ existed, consisting of Skiddaw, Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Bowfell – the last being the only one lower than 3,000 feet. The Four Fells is now a long-forgotten endeavour and there is no modern-day record. While an imperfect comparison, Joss Naylor’s Lake District 3,000s record of 8 hours 20 minutes gives a sense of what today’s top fellrunners might make of the course.

 

From Rossett Pike, bid farewell to grassy fells until the lower slopes of Scafell. By and large, the remainder of this leg is on stone of some form. After the descent from Rossett, the established way takes you over what is known as either Bowfell shelves or Billy Bland’s rake. The latter name suggests it is a relatively recent innovation, but this feels unlikely given the transition was in play fifty years before Bland’s round (and the alternative, Ore Gap, would be a major detour). The fact Bob Graham registered Hanging Knotts as one of his 42 fells strongly indicates that he found a way up these diagonal shelves.

 

Regardless, it is best experienced rather than described. In brief, the way takes a south-by-south-east bearing from the top of Rossett pass to the north of Bowfell Buttress, marked by a small number of small cairns. The summit of Rossett is an excellent vantage and you can do far worse than take a direct bearing between the two peaks. It is worth noting there is no interaction between the shelves and the Climber’s Traverse, a separate ‘undercut’ which branches off from The Band to meet the other side of the giant buttress.

 

After emerging from the rake, it is a few hundred yards to the stone-strewn summit, a testament to the sheer power of frost and ice, which have managed to break even these hardest of rocks, now collapsed like the end of a giant game of geological jenga. The Ordnance Survey could have with all professional integrity simply marked it as ‘pile of stones’; visitors have managed to build no meaningful cairn and the only man-made mark is the unofficial OS benchmark arrow engraved on a rock.

 

This summit was the site at which Bob Graham met a 24-Hour Fell Record contender in May 1932, one month before his eponymous round. The assailant in question was Freddie Spencer Chapman, a remarkable man whose career incorporated the professions of explorer, mountaineer, schoolmaster, author and soldier. Graham met Chapman with a cup of hot cocoa, much needed as he had just been forced to drop into Eskdale to gain his bearings, having broken his compass on Great Gable. The pair went on to finish the leg at Dunmail Raise, but, alas, Chapman ultimately clocked in at 25 hours, the final straw coming when he became enmeshed in bracken on the descent of Skiddaw. Newspaper accounts from the time tell us “Mr Chapman hope[s] to make another attempt on the record in June.” In the end, he did not. Graham, on the other hand…

 

Esk Pike

Esk Pike lies in the middle of five great mountains which encircle Eskdale, one of the few great Lakeland valleys without a lake (although this was not always the case through the ice ages). This is no flaw, for it boasts a sublime landscape, all the more enjoyable for its emptiness.

 

This mountain did not obtain its name until the diligent cartographers of the Ordnance Survey arrived at its slopes. Even once acquired, it took some time for it to be included on the map (in the interim, it was sometimes erroneously referred to as Hanging Knotts). Consonantly, Esk Pike is more defined by its two mountain passes than the summit itself: Ore Gap and Esk Hause.

The iron-stained Ore Gap is a medieval way, one of the oldest trade routes in Lakeland and scattered with magnetic rocks that can befuddle any compass which gets too close. Esk Hause is reportedly England’s highest crossroads but it is rarely used as a pass between Borrowdale and Eskdale. Instead, the saddle has become notorious in mist – the Lake District’s equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle – because the prominent shelter is not, in fact, located at the true hause.

 

Both passes act as vital waymarks and the mountain does not present a significant barrier between them, as demonstrated by the fact that many Langdale fell race competitors prefer to go up and over the Esk Pike rather than take the contouring traverse below the ridge.

 

Great End

Great End – hardly! Or, with its full title, Great End of the Scafell massif – or just the beginning for clockwise rounds. The mountain begins with an impressive face of gullies and ravines to the north, morphing into a boulder shoulder which leads all the way to Scafell Pike.

 

Assuming the true Esk Hause can be safely navigated, reaching Great End is a simple matter. The only choice is whether to head straight to the summit from the path or wait until Calf Cove for a there-and-back affair. While slower, the advantage of the latter is the chance to collect water at a beck crossing just off the Borrowdale path, potentially the last reliable source of water on the leg. Great End is another fell with two summits and the highest cairn is the south-eastern one.

 

Ill Crag and Broad Crag

Both Ill Crag and Broad Crag are geologically, geographically and geopolitically part of Scafell Pike. Alongside Helvellyn Lower Man, these crags are the only Bob Graham peaks that are not Wainwrights. Peaking-bagging purists would struggle to climb these fells without crossing over any other mountain.

 

Unclaimed by Bob Graham, the peaks were added in the 1960s to help balance out three discrepancies in Bob Graham’s recorded round: the inclusion of Hanging Knotts, Looking Stead and High Snab (none of which have sufficient separation from nearby fells to merit inclusion). But this is no slight on Graham as he would have passed very close to this pair of Scafell Pike satellites.

 

From Great End, head south down rocky ground which soon leads to a col on the Borrowdale path. From here, Scafell Pike summit comes into view for the first time. The detour to Ill Crag is only marginally more boulder-infused than the route to the Pike and in return it offers the best view down into Eskdale.

 

From Ill, you can head north back to the path (hard) or as the crow flies to Broad Crag (very hard). Either way, the detour is a proper clamber – Wainwright deemed Broad Crag the “roughest summit” in Lakeland. The rocks are so ill-suited to craftsmanship that there is simply no cairn. Looking west over the Corridor Route and toward Styhead Tarn, take a moment to note Great Gable summit, where you will be in six hours’ time.

 

Scafell Pike

Over 400 million years ago, a succession of pyroclastic (fast-moving) volcanic eruptions brought forth the mass that now forms the Scafell range. The convulsions were so powerful that the volcano collapsed in on itself, producing the Scafell caldera, stretching as far as Grasmere and Thirlmere. During the last ice age, the volcanic rock occupied the highest point beneath the frozen sheets; once melted, Scafell Pike was established as the highest point in the land.

 

Despite their skills, the Ordnance Survey took just short of 400 million years to register the peak as the pinnacle of England – not until 1860 was this confirmed. But from the early nineteenth century it was known that Scafell Pike looked over its brother, Scafell. It was only after this realisation that the Pike properly achieved nomenclatural separation: initially known as Scafell Higher Top, then becoming Scafell Pikes, then Scafell Pike once the subsidiary summits of Lingmell, Broad Crag and Ill Crag took their distinct titles. If this were Scotland, the whole collection would be a single Munro, but England must take steps to maximise its number of 3,000-foot peaks.

 

As far as the round is concerned, this is all by the by. From Broad Crag, the transition is the shortest of the round by distance, but it is far from the easiest. Boulders lead to the Broad Crag col, which acts as an intersection between the Borrowdale path, the Corridor Route and the hardly-explored Little Narrowcove. It is then a short, steep and technical ascent to the plateau. You would have to be on a strange schedule to have the summit shelter to yourself.

 

Scafell

Scafell Pike and Scafell. To personify, they are brothers, neither estranged nor overly familiar. They have taken different paths, and while each would not choose the way of the other, there is no animosity to it, just stoic mutual respect.

 

A layperson might naively assume that getting from England’s highest peak to its namesake and closest relation is a minor matter. Fittingly, nothing could be further from the truth. In the words of Wainwright, “medals have been won for lesser deeds”. The colossal crags on Scafell’s northern and eastern faces are perfectly poised to frustrate the round.

 

Scafell is classified as a Marilyn (a mountain with a relative height of at least 150 metres on all sides), despite the fact it does not meet the required prominence. Pragmatism merits its inclusion as most people will have to ascend far more than 150 metres in order to reach it from Scafell Pike.

According to the Relative Hills of Britain, Scafell is the only summit to receive this preferential and deferential treatment.

 

Starting from the summit shelter, all routes first require navigating to the col of Mickledore, picking a route over the boulders on a sort-of path. While there are some short grassy chutes, the way is mainly different arrangements of the same type of boulder.

In his history of climbing on Scafell, Al Phizacklea describes Mickledore as “the best place in the country for observing the vertical from the comfort of the horizontal.” It is technically a mountain pass – the highest in Lakeland – although it is not clear who would use it for that purpose. The col is also the site of a mountain rescue box, which would have originally contained a Thomas Stretcher, named after Eustace Thomas, holder of the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record from 1920 to 1932.

 

At this point, choice abounds. From Mickledore, contenders may take on Scafell by Broad Stand, Lord’s Rake (with or without the West Wall Traverse), Foxes Tarn or Climber’s Traverse.

 

Broad Stand stands immediately before you and demands consideration before any other route. While successive glacial movements deepened Mickledore col, they could not diminish its bulk. There is nothing quite like it in the whole of Lakeland. It is fundamentally a wall and it is therefore unsurprising that the sport of rock climbing is said to have been born on its face. Coleridge’s first inadvertent descent in 1802 is commonly cited, but the first ascent was completed in 1815 by Jonathan Otley, an early Lakeland pioneer. This took place even before Pillar Rock was first conquered in the 1820s.

 

Following in Otley’s handholds is surely the quickest way to Scafell top. A practised climber may feel able to solo, but the rock is slippery and greasy in bad weather, and one section is desperately exposed; most will want the precaution of a rope. Even with aids, the climb requires all parties involved to be competent with rock and advance planning – there may even be a queue on midsummer nights with a full moon.

 

Lord’s Rake is the second and probably most popular option. Bestowed by God, it provides for a diagonal insurgence through Scafell’s crags and buttresses. The first step is to arrive at the entrance to the rake. To do so, aim toward Broad Stand but turn west along the bottom edge of Scafell buttress. The grassy shelf over Rake’s Progress below Progress Wall is navigable for the sure-footed, hugging the rock as it is less than four feet wide in places.

 

As you turn to head up the rake you will see a memorial cross etched into the stone, dedicated to four roped climbers who fell fatally from Scafell Pinnacle in 1903. It was the worst mountaineering accident in Britain until after World War Two and cast a shadow over Lakeland climbing for decades. It is particularly pertinent to the round as among the fallen was Richard W. Broadrick, a previous holder of the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record.

 

The climb itself is well-documented – three ups, two downs, all in a straight line – and is less dangerous than it was now the infamous chockstone, which loomed over the top jaws of the rake, has broken and fallen. Even so, it is tricky ground which will tax arms just as much as legs. At the first col of Lord’s Rake, the West Wall Traverse at the entrance to Deep Gill offers an alternative way up. Travel carefully along grassy ledges on the west of the gill; what can be seen below is heart-stopping and accessible only to climbers. The remainder of the traverse leads on to nearby Symonds Knott and then the summit.

 

Foxes Tarn is the insurance route, the Doddick of Scafell. In return for surety it requires the greatest expenditure of distance and ascent (nearly 1,000 feet of ascent, 350 more than Lord’s Rake and West Wall Traverse). There are two ways to reach the small pool. The first, from Mickledore, is to drop south to join the path to Cam Spout. At the appropriate point, head right up a gully formed of particularly dispiriting scree. Alternatively, there is a more direct, relatively grassy line, which breaks off the path to Mickledore and heads straight to the gully intersection (most commonly used in the Great Lakes fell race). Broadcrag Tarn may be a useful navigational handle. Incidentally, Foxes Tarn battles Broadcrag Tarn for the title of highest tarn in England; the outcome is moot because the accolade goes to the unnamed body of water at Long Top on Crinkle Crags.

 

Once beyond the tarn, there is more scree and some stone track, depending on the line. The truly adventurous strike out south west from the tarn and then track north to Scafell summit once on the ridge.

 

The Climber’s Traverse offers a scrambling alternative to Foxes Tarn. At the base of Broad Stand, head left as if to the tarn. But instead, and as soon as practicable, clamber onto the now partly grassy mass of rock once a bank emerges. This is where climbers prepare for their routes up the East Buttress (it is in relation to this buttress that Will Ritson, the original Wastwater Hotel landlord, remarked that “nowt but a fleein’ thing” could get up it – this proved a lie). From that point, pick a line diagonally upwards. The greater the scramble, the greater the height gained above Foxes Tarn when you eventually emerge. This is one for a recce as some seemingly navigable traverses lead to sheer rock faces. In the wet, it is unlikely to be swifter than the full Foxes Tarn route.

How to decide? All routes involve an obstacle of some form – it is just a question of which. Empirically, there is no significant time difference between the routes, but the fastest rounds tend to take Broad Stand or Lord’s Rake. It is also likely that the West Wall Traverse is faster than using the entirety of the rake. For the record, Bob Graham went by Broad Stand.

 

Brackenclose, Wasdale

The awaiting camping chair in the Brackenclose car park is a staple of Bob Graham support. All that stands between you and its short-lived comfort is the single biggest descent of the round.

 

The descent from the summit begins with around 1,000 feet of Fairfield-esque downhill. The way takes you naturally towards the edge of the ridge. Keep close to it for a fantastic view into Hollow Stones.

 

Approaching Rakehead Crag, there are three gullies ahead (but not all in view). The first two (western) are closely placed around the top of a scree run and marked by a kink in the cliff. The best descenders will navigate down at great speed, leading to steep grassy slopes (bottom-sliding has been known) to Lingmell Gill and then Brackenclose. Of the two, the one hugging the cliff edge is better than the one branching off slightly earlier. The third (eastern) – a quarter mile onward – is a rocky gully and unsuited to a swift way down.

 

If the gullies do not tempt you, the alternative is to continue down the steady, grassy Green How. To minimise distance, stay north of Hollow Gill and Groove Gill, continue until the bridleway and then head north to Brackenclose. This final path is the Burnmoor Corpse Road from Wasdale, which dates from when the nearest consecrated ground was St Catherine’s Church in Eskdale.

 

Lord’s Rake is not a credible option in descent except in perfect winter conditions when filled with snow (but not ice!). So the choice is between steep scree or rolling grass. A competent descender will choose speed and scree any day of the week. To give a sense of scale, Billy Bland made it to the National Trust car park in a frankly ridiculous time of 19 minutes, 4 minutes quicker than Kilian Jornet. For mortals, the scree portion of the descent is only around 250 feet – it is then steep grass which may not be to everyone’s taste. In contrast, the slopes of Green How may be more pleasant and kinder to tired legs of a certain breed.