By the time the valley floor is reached, 30 fells are in the bag and only 30% of the ascent remains. But Leg Four is where rounds are made – or waylaid. Stay on course and you can start to think, but never utter, that the back of the round is broken.
It is easy to forget that Yewbarrow is the third biggest ascent of the round, that is until you are on its largely featureless slopes with burning calves. The old adage rings true: there is no easy way out of Wasdale.
Popular guidebooks claim there is no route up the eastern side, but the round begs to differ. Indeed, for the purposes of the round there is only one sensible way up. From the road, make sure to know where to cross the wall to the stream bed and half-path. Two thirds of the way up, look to the right of the scree trod to find a grassy ramp, but do not let it take you off course; once it ends, head direct to the top.
The summit spine provides an excellent view of the descent options from Scafell. This also the place where Billy Bland was taken by a “momentary flutter” on his 1982 then-record round. In response, pacer Joss Naylor administered his eponymous shake, supposedly to flush out the lactic acid from Billy’s lower limbs. According to Bland: “There was nowt wrong with my legs, but he wanted to do it anyway!”
Yewbarrow is also the point at which some canny double-rounders turn back to Moot Hall. Roger Baumeister alighted upon the idea in 1979, namely, to go clockwise from Keswick until Scafell, reverse back to the Moot Hall, travel anti-clockwise to Yewbarrow, then revert clockwise to the finish. In doing so, the most difficult fell transition is avoided – twice. Baumeister was the second person to complete a double BGR and the first to do it in under 48 hours.
In contrast to its Buttermere namesake, Wasdale’s Red Pike is hardly red, but it provides the round with its sheerest precipice.
The Bob Graham line down from Yewbarrow into Over Beck valley is sufficiently navigable that it is now adopted by walkers. Heading diagonally down, cross the various scree runs as tactically as possible until Dore Head col is reached. From there, the path goes steadily – if not always directly – to Red Pike.
To the best of my knowledge, every member of the Bob Graham Club has followed this route. And yet many will have looked longingly at the grass of Gosforth Crag Moss and wondered if there is a better way across.
A direct line is technically possible. It first involves finding a direct, grassy, ‘parachute’-esque way to the valley floor from close to Yewbarrow summit. In good weather, it is almost a case of simply striking out for Red Pike. Both Steve Birkinshaw and Paul Tierney took this direct line on their Wainwrights round (going on to Seatallan), although the former noted it as a way that “no one takes direct”. As you head onto Gosforth Crag Moss there is a judgement to be made on how much to cut the corner back onto the Red Pike path. The most interesting approach is head to the west of Gosforth Crag, pass east of the ill-frequented Low Tarn and then track north to the summit – grassy all the way. All told, it is marginally shorter than the traditional route, with less than 100 feet of additional ascent.
However reached, the summit is a dramatic place. The true, northern-most top offers a first-class vista at the brink of Mosedale. On the final few steps, look out for the ‘chair’ fashioned into the stone shelter, which was a popular objective in its own right for Victorian tourists.
Steeple is the westernmost fell of the round, some 13 miles from the easternmost, Fairfield. Just like Fairfield, it is a ‘there and back’ affair, although it is hardly worth depositing packs. The shape of the ridge from Scoat Fell is a product of the closely-packed variety of rock types – it makes for an exhilarating arête.
Steeple is hardly lower than Scoat and essentially one of its crags, but its defining shape sets it apart in peoples’ minds. The proximity led some to originally question whether Bob Graham had reached Steeple, as opposed to Scoat Fell (which would have required marginally less effort). In Stud Marks on the Summits, Bill Smith notes that Fred Rogerson was able to confirm Steeple’s veracity through close study of old records and maps. I for one am glad, as the round has more character for it.
From a steeple to a pillar is the least metaphorical transition of the round. From the former (or in effect Scoat Fell, once Steeple steps are retraced), continue as if on the Mosedale horseshoe. Most start on the Ennerdale side of the ridge but move to the Wasdale side when passing under Black Crag; the way is initially rocky but relents into a path for the final push.
For its literal title, Pillar summit is surprisingly rounded. A few steps north of the trig point, you can look down upon the subsidiary pinnacle which gives the fell its name: Pillar Rock. Ignoring Helm Crag’s Lion (or Howitzer) and disproportionately large cairns, it is the only Lakeland summit that needs more than a scramble to gain. Harry Griffin described it as “the tallest mass of vertical crag in England”.
While boasting only 50 feet of prominence, the rock can credibly claim to be the most important site in the early history of Lakeland climbing. Initially conquered by intrepid shepherds, it evolved into the proving ground for Lakeland’s proto-climbers and was the epochal ascent until Haskett-Smith conquered Napes Needle in 1886. Many of the big names in the early history of the Lake District 24-Hour Record forged ascent routes, notably Reverend Julius Elliott, Lawrence Pilkington, John W. Robinson and Ned Westmorland.
The long, rolling descent from Pillar to Black Sail Pass may bring some respite, even at this stage of the round. Connoisseurs can detour slightly to take in Looking Stead, which was included as one of Bob Graham’s original summits (just higher than the 2,000-foot criterion but with only a paltry prominence). Thrillseekers with time on their hands could take an even more circuitous route, dropping from Pillar summit to the Shamrock Traverse, Robinson’s Cairn and following the High Level Route. It is an interesting, technical path which introduces a small amount of additional ascent – not for fast rounds.
Once the pass is reached, a moment’s pause is in order: this is approximately the 50-mile mark. Then look on to survey the mass of crags on Kirk Fell. It is a rather incongruous fact that this hulk of a fell is named after one of England’s smallest churches, St Olaf’s in Wasdale.
There are three ways to the top. The first and clockwise tradition is to go up Kirkfell Crags. The old Ennerdale fence is now simply a series of rusting protrusions, but the men who piled the posts did their parish proud. It is an interesting scramble that may distract the mind from inevitable pains in the legs, not least because it requires the arms for much of it.
The second is ‘Red Gully’, which presents itself to the left of the crags. It is an unlikely candidate for ascent given its scree, but it is an attractive option for anti-clockwise descents. (A small ‘Grey Gully’ also exists between Red Gully and Kirkfell Crags. It is passable and when scrambling begins you can traverse onto the fence post line.)
The third and final is Baysoar Slack. This is a path-free gully with a tiny footfall, but it offers a crag-free means to gain the summit. Stick to the right-hand side of Sail Beck ravine to sneak through between the ramparts of Kirkfell Crags and Boat How Crags.
It is nearly half a mile from the head of the crags and gullies to the top: this final shallow ascent onto the plateau is always longer than you would like. Kirk Fell’s two summits are so far apart that some treat them as separate fells. But modern-day rules for the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record prevent the eastern top from being claimed as an additional peak as it is has insufficient topographical prominence.
Pass south of Kirkfell Tarn and down Rib End to the oft-dry Beckhead Tarn. From there, look up at the last of the great classics, almost the final big ascent effort and the conclusion of boulders. Beautiful but not pretty, Great Gable is more crag and scree than anything else. There are no hidden gullies, rakes or grassy shelves to ease an ascent; the only option is to take one of the rocky shoulders, in this case the north-western ridge.
Small cairns guide through boulders to the magnificent top. Once there, steep drops on all sides give a particular sense of elevation. Lakeland diarist Harry Griffin tells us there is very often a pool of rainwater in a cleft between the summit rocks, worth noting given the rarity of water sources on this leg. Not far south of the summit stands the famous Westmorland Cairn. This was built by two brothers from the named family, one of which (Ned) was a brief holder of the 24-Hour Fell Record in the late nineteenth century.
A further and infinitely more poignant summit feature is the engraved memorial to the fallen of the Great War. Following the war, the land of Great Gable was donated to the National Trust in 1923 by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club (FRCC), along with 11 other fells, including Scafell Pike. The plaque at Gable’s summit commemorates the FRCC members who died, including Lehmann Oppenheimer, a climber and long-distance walker who supported pre-war 24-Hour Fell Record attempts and enlisted partly through “the desire to wipe out the ignominy of inheriting a German name”.
In 1924, the plaque was unveiled to 500 people in a ‘service in the clouds’ on Great Gable summit, led by Dr Arthur Wakefield, a previous holder of the 24-Hour Fell Record and sitting President of the Club. Wakefield asked Geoffrey Winthrop Young, author, poet and renowned British mountaineer, to speak. Nearly 100 years on, the words still resonate:
“Upon this mountain summit we are met today to dedicate this space of hills to freedom. Upon this rock are set the names of men – our brothers, and our comrades upon these cliffs – who held, with us, that there is no freedom of the soil where the spirit of man is in bondage, and who surrendered their part in the fellowship of hill and wind, and sunshine, that the freedom of this land, the freedom of our spirit, should endure.”
Green Gable is separated from Great Gable by Aaron Slack, which lies on one of the major faults in the Lake District, cutting from Ennerdale through to Langdale. In Bob Graham terms, the col between the fells – Windy Gap – is the point at which the rocks of the past two legs formally hand over the baton to the grass of the remainder.
The descent from Great Gable is cumbersome, gritty and important to get right. There is not much to be said about the ascent to Green Gable. In the nicest possible way, the primary purpose of the fell is to provide a vantage for surveying Great Gable: there is no better spot for observing Gable Crags.
Of particular note is the view to a grassy shelf containing Moses Rigg’s now derelict hideaway hut – the ‘Smugglers’ Retreat’, discovered by John W. Robinson at the turn of century. This has been claimed as the highest altitude building in England. Moses was said to be a quarryman by day and a smuggler of whisky – and perhaps even graphite – by night. Despite giving his forename to the famous trod from Honister to Wasdale, it was in fact a bone fide means for extracting slate to Ravenglass port.
Head down Gillercomb Head, taking the Borrowdale fell race line to the unnamed tarns and erring towards the Ennerdale side to avoid the crags. Rusting fence posts track the way to the top of Brandreth, the final one acting as a summit mark. Like its slopes, the peak is largely free of character, evidenced by the fact this is far from a classic ridgeline route to Great Gable.
Bob Graham must have been laughing all the way to the bank when he realised he could claim Grey Knotts as an additional fell on his round. For whatever reason, it was excluded from both Dr Arthur Wakefield’s and Eustace Thomas’s record rounds, despite the fact they covered every other Bob Graham fell in Legs Four and Five.
This fell claims the rare praise, perhaps more a backhanded compliment, that it is more interesting for its lower slopes than its summit. The slate quarry is well-known, but on the less-trodden eastern face lies visible remains from one of England’s richest medieval industries: plumbago, or pure graphite, mines. Established in Elizabethan times, its prized treasures were originally applied to gunpowder armaments, then to hand-fashioned pencils. Such was its value, guards were posted on the perimeter to frustrate thievery. But they clearly did not stop Moses Rigg.
From Brandreth, follow the fence line on boggy ground for perhaps the final soddening of the round (staying to the left if you want a chance of dryer feet). Apart from seeking out firm ground, the main interest comes from looking onto Raven Crag and into the hanging valley of Gillercomb. Grey Knotts sports two tor-like summits, the south-eastern top supposedly the higher point.
On paper, the descent to Honister should present no challenges, even at this late stage of the round. However, history tells us this is dangerous ground, even for legends. In 1982, Billy Bland stopped and sat down mid-descent and Kilian Jornet struggled just the same in 2018. Knowing what had happened to Bland, he only avoided a similar fate by ordering himself: “I cannot sit here!”
There are two ways down. The first is the unnamed ‘grassy line’. Eschewing the fence and heading towards Moses Trod, a trod on grassy ground soon appears, veering left (and further left than may feel right). This eventually leads to the quarry road and then shortly to Honister. A swift way down for those still with legs.
The second is the ‘fence line’ and steps to the Honister car park, a real smasher of thighs and knees. It is rarely used on clockwise rounds; most opt for the grassy trod as it is the faster way down. Pay heed to Billy Bland on his record round: “Why I chose to come down the fence line, I don’t know.”