The Wild West
Away from the main Lakeland climbing centres of Borrowdale and Langdale there are many routes worthy of the attention of the modern mid-grade climber. Yet many of these crags remain unfrequented even on the busiest weekend. Leaving aside Scafell (surely the best mountain crag south of the border) the wild west of Cumbria holds many surprises for those willing to try something different.
Here can be found the largest crag in the district: Pillar Rock; the dirtiest: Boat Howe Crag; the remotest: Haskett Buttress and the sunniest: Buckbarrow. On top of this you’ll rarely have to queue for a route(even on the Napes). Indeed, on most crags you won’t see anybody else other than walkers escaping their own crowds.
For the visiting climber the natural starting point is Wasdale. The first crag seen as you enter the valley is Buckbarrow Crag - a mere ten minutes from the car (yes, I know it looks further but trust me). It has more routes than Shepherds Crag, ranging from VD to E6, and is a popular wet weather venue for those retreating from the hills. The main buttresses are Witch Buttress and Pikes Crag, which lie above one another near the top of the fell and receive whatever sun there is from dawn ’till dusk.
Starting with Witch Buttress (the first you arrive at), the most prominent feature is a pinnacle with a crack on either side. This is the best place to leave your sack since it’s the only flat area hearabouts.
Our first climb is the left crack of the pillar, Harmony (HVS 5a), an excellent warm up, as hands are almost redundant in the upward struggle. Moving left a group of routes is centred on an obvious overhanging corner. The corner is taken by Imagine (E1/2 5b). A bold and, on first acquaintance, awkward start leads to the corner which is well protected and followed ever more steeply to the crux at the top. As arms tire you may like to fiddle a tape around the obvious thread, though it’s probably better to continue.
Starting at the same point but heading leftwards is Mysteron (HVS 5b). The crux is a short corner to gain a ledge, above which easier climbing leads to the belay. Also using the Mysteron corner but taking a different start and finish is A Cut Above (E1 5b) - altogether a more sustained line. An awkward initial groove leads to the Mysteron crux. From the top of the corner a committing sequence of moves along a slanting crack hopefully gains the final airy arête.
Moving back to the right of the pillar is a slabby wall taken by several routes spread across the grades, though the best is Too Many Hands (E2 5b). This takes a series of shallow hanging corners that become progressively harder. Protection is quite good, if you trust micro-wires, and the final slab has a sting in the tail.
Moving up to Pikes Crag, another pinnacle, known as Buckbarrow Needle has a fine E1 5b up its front face - the obviously named Needle Front. To the right of the needle is Needless Eliminate (HVS 5b), taking the excellent and steep crackline.
Just left of the needle is a steep wall with two lines for those who like bold climbing. Of the two, Last of the Summer Wine (E1 5b) is the finer and better protected; continually interesting with the crux just where it should be - at the top.
Further left the crag becomes higher and split into tiers. Two routes to play on here are The Jewel(HVS 5a) and The Crystal (E1 5c). The first has a very awkward (though avoidable) crack to start before climbing up easier grooves, while the second is balancy wall climbing on quartz holds some of which slope disconcertingly.
The most popular crags in the area are those on Great Gable. Following the Sty Head path the first buttress that you come to is Kern Knotts. This is best known for the crack climbs on its east face. Inominate Crack and Kern Knotts Crack are both 4c though the first is the harder overall and more suited to the modern climber, being less of a squirm than the other. On the west face are several newer routes of which Sylvester(E2 5c) is typical: steep sloping holds and quite bold - go for it!
Further on we come to Tophet Wall: impressively steep, even more so when you are on it! The only route I'll describe here is The Viking (E3 5c), the first route of its grade in the Lakes. It takes the obvious wide crack(!?) on the left of the wall. It isn't quite what it appears to be and success requires brain as well as brawn. You'll just have to go and do it to find out!
Next along are the Napes: the breeding ground of many young tyros (easily recognised by the rising pitch of their calls), Among the easier classics, several more testing quality climbs can be found, the best of which is The Cayman(E2 5b). This takes the slim (and I mean slim) pillar between Crocodile Crack and Alligator Crawl. Just off-vertical with 40 metres of 5b moves and a runner every other move. It ranks with the best single pitch routes in the district.
On the other side of the mountain lies Gable Crag which, though it can be approached from Wasdale, is easier to get to from the top of Honister pass. This is one of the few Lakeland crags to face due north and receives virtually no sun whatsoever. It can take several days of fine weather to dry out.
The pride of the crag is the Engineers Slabs, situated high in the centre. These walls are now covered in and amazing number of climbs ranging from the well protected to the very bold. The most obvious line is that of Engineers Slabs(VS 4c, 4c). Unfortunately, being a major drainage line, it takes the longest to dry out.
Luckily there are qually good routes on the walls to the sides.
Just left of Engineers Slabs (indeed it shares the first 15 metres) is Snicker Snack(E2 5c, 5b). Quite hard for the grade, it follows one of the straightest cracklines in Lakeland for a full 50 rope length, with excellent protection ranging from RPs to medium sized Friends! The last pitch is easier but quite intimidating as it pulls through a roof at the top of the crag. If you enjoy this then try Dream Twister(E3 6a) at the left end of the crag. It’s only slightly harder, being a little steeper, and just as well protected.
An experience of a totally different kind waits those who try The Tomb(E2 5b). Bold rather than technical, it strikes a diagonal line across the wall to the right of Engineers Slabs. Choose a still, windless day to climb it, otherwise the name is likely to prove very apt! Again a harder alternative exists. Sarcophagus (E3 5c) takes a direct line through The Tomb and is just as poorly protected.
If these adventures seem a bit too much then try The Jabberwock (HVS 4c, 5a, 4c) up the obvious crack next to the right hand arête. It gives fine views of the worried faces to your left and is itself in a splendid position.
The path from Honister Pass continues westward past Gable Crag to Black Sail Pass and then continues via the High Level Route to Pillar Rock. Before it reaches Black Sail however it passes beneath what must be the dirtiest crag in the district: Boat Howe Crags. It’s worth climbing here if only to appreciate the cleanliness of other crags!
And so to Pillar Rock - the largest crag in Lakeland. the rock quality here is superb, particularly on the west face. It’s true that at times the many ledges give some discontinuity to the routes, but they also provide good stances. For the middle grader, Pillar Rock offers some of the finest climbing in Lakeland, with only four routes above E2 in difficulty.
Pillar has an undeserved reputation for shade. However with a little bit of planning it is possible to climb in the sun all day (assumming it’s shining of course). The North face is in the sun until around 10- 11 am; then go round to the wall overlooking Walker’s Gully until about 1pm. Finally, move around to the west face for the rest of the day.
So to the routes. Moving from east to west (left to right), we start with The Shamrock, which has several excellent routes to interest us. Eros(E2 5a, 5b, 5b) is well worth the effort in finding the protection on the second pitch. The third pitch is probably harder but being well protected doesn’t leave such an impression.
Starting from the stretcher box beneath the buttress is Thanatos(HVS 5b), best done in one pitch to the heather terrace. The crux is a strenuously delicate traverse from one groove to another near the top. The best continuation is Electron(HVS 5a), which takes the prominent wide layback crack high on the face.
The slim pillar left of Walker’s Gully is taken by Necromancer(HVS 5a). Quite stiff for the grade, with several moves that leave you wondering if you are climbing as well as you thought!
To the right of Walker's Gully is a steep wall with a series of exposed ramp/grooves running diagonally across it. This is the line of Grooved Wall(VS 5a). Most of the route is around Severe i n standard but the crux pitch, though short and well protected, is very awkward and difficult to do with style.
Further right where the crag is at its highest, a clean wall at around half height dominates the cliff. This is split in two by the prominent crack of Scylla(VS 4c) - a fine ever steepening line until a traverse left avoids the direct finish(E2 5c): one of only four lines on the cliff to have used aid on the first ascent. In fact this was a fully artificial pitch.
Using the first few feet of Scylla is Puppet(E1 5b, 5b) before it takes a delicate traverse out right to climb an obvious groove. The second pitch takes the unlikely looking arête above the stance; with one committing move before good holds are reached; it certainly feels a bit wild.
Next in line is Charybdis(HVS 5a) an excellent sustained line up the righthand edge of the north face. With continually varied climbing it proves interesting and improbable to the last.
The remaining routes are on the west faces of Lower and Upper Man. On the lower crag lies Goth (E1 5b), a finely positioned climb up a steep, curving groove. This can prove a little strenuous to those who climb slowly(hint!). The most obvious line on the upper crag is Vandal (VS 4c) taking the hanging grooveline to the right of a huge triangular roof to the summit of the rock. Despite appearances, its bark is definitely worse than its bite.
The best has been left until last however. The hanging arête that dominates the upper part of the face to the left of Vandal, Gondor (E2 5c) gives superb climbing on perfect rock in an incredible position. Described in two pitches it can be done in one long runout.
The first pitch used to employ a point of aid to cross the overhang but and alternative way round this was found and give good jug pulling to the belay. Above, the arête dominates and there are two ways to climb it. Either traverse right until just right of the arête, then boldly straight up on small holds to an easing in the angle and protection, or take a lower traverse across the wall until it is possible to work back up and leftwards to join the direct way at the protection. Either way is brilliant. If you don’t feel capable of leading it get your mate to take you up it, it’s worth it.
Finally to the remotest crag in the Lakes, Haskett Buttress. Situated in Hind Cove, it takes over two hours to reach from Wasdale. For some reason it’s not very popular. But at least you will be on your own. Apart from a strong pair of legs you’ll also need a good dictionary to decipher the route names. The first wave of exploration was undertaken by an English teacher and the more recent developments have followed his example.
For starters try The Dolorous Stroke(HVS 5a). This offers a fine variety of climbing on the edge of Haskett Gully. Then there is The Delectation Sinistrorse - a girdle of VS standard (see what I mean about the dictionary!) Of the newer routes, The Dispso Somnambulist(E2 5b) is worth doing. It climbs the centre of the clean wall to the right of The Dolorous Stroke by a faint crack.
Thus finishes our tour of the western crags of Lakeland. It does unfortunately leave you rather a long way from your car; but never mind, at least you are used to walking by now!
If the solitude and beauty of the area grabs you then these routes are just a taster of what the west has to offer, and no doubt you’ll return.
For more gregarious souls there's always Borrowdale and the queues...