Day 3, Part 1 – Blencathra ascent
We had a few options for our short day, one was to go out-and-back to Great Gable from Honister but to avoid looking at the same scenery twice, and we instead drove up to Threlkeld (Kenny Stuart’s homestead) and parked at the Blencathra Centre to do a loop of the fell which shape distinguishes it as one of the most spectacular of the Lakes. At 868m elevation at the highest of its six peaks (Hallsfell Top), Blencathra compares well to other Lakeland fells.
Our route would be much different from one taken during the Bob Graham. Last time we visited the Lakes, Aoife and I went up nearby Skiddaw. From here, the Bob Graham Round requires you to venture north-east to Great Calva before trekking back south over Wainwright’s least favourite summit “Mungrisdale Commons” (633m). Perhaps this fact, or the fact that the fell has a prominence of only 2m and is an outlier of Blencathra, it is not counted as one of the 42 peaks you must complete. Likewise, we had no interest in going there today but instead used the Harvey’s Lakeland North map to plot a more interesting traverse.
We selected a direct path from the Blencathra Centre to the summit of Blease Fell at 804m, the westernmost of the tops. Climbing gradients gnawed savagely in weary bones and would make for marvellously challenging training. Grass and fern-sprayed slopes receded in favour of rocky zig-zags and before we knew it and then we strode the “Saddleback”: a lovely broad ridge unfortunately covered in thick mist (seeing a trend here?).
Ordnance Survey maps used to refer to the mountain simply as “Saddleback” until Wainwright managed to re-popularise its older Cumbric name. Good that he did for “Blencathra” vies with Glaramara for the title of most elegant name in the district.
Rocky crags were ever-apparent on our right but the misty surroundings never too desolate with plenty of hikers abounding. As on our earlier hikes, we outpaced anyone we met, showing that running is great cross-training for walking up hills! The burn in muscles and good heart rate experienced when walking fast up steep slopes can only transfer well to hill-running and I was surprised how, despite battered quads and calves from Snowdon, every day made me feel a bit stronger on the climbs. As Matt Fitzgerald writes in his new book “Run by Feel”: “Research has shown that the human brain uses the same motor neurons to run or to walk briskly on steep gradients. In other words, when you crank the treadmill incline up to 12-15 percent, running becomes walking and walking becomes running.” (Fitzgerald 2010, p. 203). Surely this means a walk in the fells will do, and all that without the impact of running, so my planned “rest week” stayed intact…
Day 3, Part 2 - Blease Fell, cone of Blencathra
Once on the summit, we felt ourselves engulfed by steep crags. In fact, the path down to Threlkeld, used during the Bob Graham, passes straight between the southern crags over rocky terrain. In the mist and without local knowledge (and Wainwright’s books at this stage!), we plotted a different course down on the south-side of Scale Tarn.
Our intention was to avoid Sharp Edge, the most impressive of Blencathra’s ridges, but with my limited mobility and the mist and wind, we preferred the “easier option”. Harvey’s map depicted our path as fading eventually and a trek over rocky grassland to a lower path being necessary. We did this without incident despite the lack of visibility but were disappointed when we realised that the upper path continued downwards perfectly fine as conditions grew clearer further down.
Coming down the gradients were quite steep and plentiful wet slabs and loose gravel had us concentrating plenty. Looking around, as always in the lakes, rock buttresses were the order of the day. Then Scales Tarn revealed itself below with the ominous Sharp Edge ridge rising behind hit, and our route choice felt suddenly vindicated. You assume you’re down and dusted by the time you reach the tarn, but plenty of descending still awaited and as with all Lakeland paths, plenty of streams to cross.
Unlike in Wicklow, they don’t erect tame bridges but rather you have to jump strategically placed rocks. Great fun! (At least until Aoife took a tumble doing this on our last day out!). Indeed we enjoyed coming down the initial grassy trail from Scales tarn so much we almost overshot our right turn and were heading towards Souther Fell (522m), the final summit of the Blencathra fell race.
The rest of the hike consisted of contouring the lower ramparts of the fell where ferns grow plenty. A good four hours had passed in total we found ourselves back at the Blencathra centre. Aoife had been particularly impressed with this straightforward journey and the Blencathra Fell Race must be word a try. I’m not familiar with the finer details, but this race allegedly starts in Mungrisdale in the east, going up the ridge of Bowscale Fell (702m) before hitting Blencathra from the north and returning to Mungrisdale over Souther Fell (meaning our descent route most likely took in large parts of the race descent).