Scafell Crag - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Ambleside is well established as the perfect base for an active holiday. There is so much choice it can be difficult to decide what to do. Here we talk about 5 best mountain crags in the Lake District and what they have to offer for a climber and general observer.
Having lived in Ambleside for 17 years and spent thousands of days on the Lakeland mountains, we have got to know the Lake District rather well. Being climbers and climbing instructors, we have also spent a lot of time on the crags here and have climbed on most crags. We have thoroughly enjoyed days on the crags mentioned in this blog and think they are amongst the very best in the Lake District.
Moss Ghyll Grooves, Scafell - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Scafell: To a climber this needs no introduction. The home of traditional climbing in Britain and home to some of the finest, boldest, most technical, and most beautiful climbing in the world.
Climb on the formidable East Buttress in the morning as it glimmers in the sunlight. For the afternoon scramble over to the west side of Mickledore and take your pick from any of the many world class routes on Scafell Crag.
All this greatness doesn’t come without a price. This is a high mountain crag (750-800m ASL) is slow to dry and can feel cold, even on the warmest of days. The approach walk is pretty steep too. But don’t let any of this dissuade a visit, for all will be repaid and repaid with considerable interest. Just go prepared and a truly magical day will be enjoyed.
Mickledore Grooves, Scafell - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
The East Buttress – this is a part of Scafell I don’t know so well. For years I stayed away thinking everything was too difficult. Thankfully I now realise this isn’t the case. During late summer of 2021 I visited the East face with climbing gear and an ace climbing partner, Tony McKenzie. Tony wanted to climb Mickledore Grooves as his dad was the first ascentionist of the variation finish to this route.
I led pitch 1, with the boulder start. For me this was the crux of the route. The whole pitch provided fabulous climbing in exciting positions, I loved it. The belay ledge was spacious and gave me a grandstand view over the Scafell Pike plateau.
Tony whizzed up the pitch and took the lead up the second and final pitch, which proved to be longer than the guidebook description had led us to believe. Route finding was more intricate on this upper pitch and building a belay at the top required some cunning and smart skills from Tony.
I was very happy indeed to be sitting at the top of the mighty East Buttress, having just climbed an all time classic route with a good friend.
The descent from the East Buttress and many other areas of the Scafell crags is via a short abseil next to Broad Stand.
Setting up the abseil above Broad Stand, Scafell - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Now moving on to the Central Buttess area. This is a larger and more complex crag with gullies, ramps and ledges all over it. There is an easy scramble that goes up Lord’s Rake then onto the West Wall Traverse before venturing into the dark recesses of Deep Gill to reach the summit plateau of Scafell. It’s a decent scramble through magnificent terrain and for climbers makes for a reasonable descent route too.
Of the few routes I’ve climbed on Central Buttress, my favourite so far is Botterill’s Slab, a 3 pitch VS. First climbed in 1903 it must have been exceedingly exciting for Fred Botterill and party, with hemp rope tied around their waist, hob-nailed boots and no modern climbing protection. Total respect to these guys. There’s a write up I did about Botterill's Slab here.
And here is a link to the amazing account of the 1925 ascent of Central Buttress – E1 – by Mabel Barker and C.D. Frankland. It is well worth a read.
The two routes I’ve mentioned above are both at VS grade, but there is loads of easier and harder routes. In fact, some of the hardest routes in the country are on the East Buttess of Scafell. The Dave Birkett test-pieces ‘Welcome to the Cruel World’ E9 and ‘Return of the King’ E9 are a couple of examples of just how ferocious and improbable the climbing on here can be.
'D' Route, Gimmer - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Gimmer: For yet more quotes from the FRCC guidebook writers ‘Hugely enjoyable, sunny, quick drying, with immaculate rock, Gimmer Crag is the jewel in Langdale’s climbing crown’.
Unlike most other mountain crags, Gimmer offers year round rock climbing. I’ve climbed on here in February and been almost warm enough!
It is without any doubt, my favourite crag anywhere. Guidebook writers award stars to good routes, with 3 stars meaning the route is of exceptional quality throughout. They should just award a huge 3 star accolade to the whole of this crag, for every route is a stunner. Doesn’t matter the grade, it can be a Diff or E3, the climbing will be utterly brilliant as will the positions.
On first acquaintance the approach can seem long and arduous. It isn’t. But even if it was, it would be worth it. The traditional approach is from The Old Dungeon Ghyll and via Middlefell Buttress – this is a great climb in its own right. Scramble up beyond the top of here to reach the good path that leads up to Harrison Stickle. Follow this to below Thorn crag and a large cairn marks the start of a climbers traverse path veering off left. It’s now an easy traverse to reach the South-East Face of Gimmer.
Ash Tree Slabs, Gimmer - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
A few routes to try:
Bracket and Slab – a classic route graded Hard Severe / MVS 4b and 5 pitches in length, this is a tour of the South-East Face with some magnificent climbing and positions, particularly on the upper pitches.
For something a little more relaxed try ‘Ash Tree Slabs’. This is a 2 pitch V’diff and a classic. The route terminates at the left extremity of Ash Tree Ledge and getting off this requires either an abseil or to climb another route to reach the top of the crag. Option ‘2’ is our recommendation.
If feeling like something slightly more testing but not going crazy, try ‘D’ Route. This is a single pitch Severe that follows a crack system trending generally rightwards. An un-miss able route that gives very well protected, steep climbing all the way.
How about something a little trickier still. ‘F’ Route – short for ‘Fantastic’. The first time I climbed this route I think I remember screaming with delight, it’s that good. No, it’s better than that. At VS it’s good value and can look a bit daunting, but the holds always keep coming as does the good protection where needed. For any confident VS leader this is a must-do route on Gimmer.
Gimmer Crag seen from the approach walk - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
And to make this more challenging again yet staying on the mega classic rock, take a look at the exciting Kipling Groove. An Arthur Dolphin route and so named after Rudyard Kipling due to it being ‘Ruddy hard’!! All of it is good, but the traverse pitch is where the terrain appears most foreboding yet most forgiving, just go with your instinct.
The time I climbed this route was with good friend Sam and he had a tough time leading the top pitch. Sam being the skilled practitioner he is, he was able to build a belay on the blank headwall so I could second up and have a go at finishing the pitch. Turns out that as I’m a bit taller and have more reach, the move he struggled with was pretty easy for me as I could reach a huge jug. I thought that was the pitch in the bag, oh no, there was plenty more fabulous climbing before we topped out. What a day.
Bracket and Slab, Gimmer Crag - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
A few words about the descent from Gimmer – there is an abseil station at the top of the West Face, it’s around 40m down to Ash Tree Ledge. From here scramble to either end of the ledge where further abseil stations can be located. Down the North-West side is about 40m and down the South-East side is about 30m.
Alternatively, carry sacks and scramble all the way to the top of Loft Crag. It’s about grade 1 and there is a lot of rock, leading all the way to the summit. From there follow any of the paths back into the valley.
The Iconic Napes Needle - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Gable: The birthplace of climbing in Britain, with all that implies. Back in 1884 Walter-Parry Haskett Smith visited Napes Needle and thought to climb it, but after some inspection he decided some ‘gardening’ work would be needed prior to a successful ascent. A couple of years later, during 1886 Walter was back in Wasdale and his sights quite firmly set on Napes Needle.
Climbing solo he reached the top after climbing what we now know as ‘The Wasdale Crack’. Without a rope or partner, Walter down-climbed the route, apparently without any fuss. At only 17m those who haven’t visited the Needle may think this to be fairly insignificant. Hmmm, not so. Napes Needle offers incredibly exposed climbing in possibly the finest position the Lake District has to offer. A slip from the Needle would be more than unpleasant. Walter is a total legend.
To reach the Gable crags an approach from either Seathwaite or Wasdale Head is best and there’s nothing to choose between them. Plan on walking around 1 hour 45 minutes to reach the crags. Either approach will take you across Great Hell Gate and rising out of this is the immaculate line of Tophet Wall.
Arrowhead Ridge Direct, Gable Crag - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Tophet Wall – at only about 75m in length, not a long route, but it more than makes up for this in other ways. Graded at Hard Severe and needing a steady and confident leader for a smooth ascent, it weaves an intricate way up this beautiful wall. Probably the best route at this grade I’ve ever done and although the traverse pitch is fairly easy, for me it’s the best part due to the heightened exposure.
A descent from the top is via ‘The back staircase’ and it’s possible to set up an abseil for this, or down-climb at about Mod’.
Moving on to the Napes area, there is of course Napes Needle. Numerous routes lead to the tiny summit. The Arete is a great way to reach the top and is about Hard Severe. The descent from the top is tricky to arrange and great care is needed. If at all unsure, we’d advise hiring professional help for an ascent and we can help with this.
Directly behind Napes Needle is Needle Ridge, a classic V’Diff ridge and about 114m. This offers fine, exposed climbing with exciting positions high above the Wasdale valley. Sitting at the top and looking back over Wast Water can there even be a better view in Britain? From here it is possible to scramble up the rocks to reach the summit of Great Gable. Or for a more challenging scramble, walk rightwards under Westmorland Crags to reach Pinnacle Ridge. This is a fine grade 3 scramble.
Arrowhead Ridge Direct, Gable Crag - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Another ridge I climbed only recently is Arrowhead Ridge Direct. This is about Severe and truly phenomenal. To reach it continue on the Climbers traverse, passing The Dress Circle and just before reaching The Sphinx is a gully, to the right of the gully marks the start of this route. Guidebook descriptions suggest this is only an 80m route, but there is some challenging and exposed scrambling that follows, so allow time for this too. Topping out also brings you close to the base of Westmorland Crags.
Descent: we have never descended directly from the Napes crags, always preferring to include a visit to the summit of Great Gable to make a proper Mountain Journey.
Bridge's Route, Esk Buttress - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District (photo courtesy of Sam Marsland)
Esk Buttress: This huge crag rises from the lower slopes of Scafell Pike and stands proud at the head of The Great Moss. At only around 500m ASL and south facing this is warmer than most mountain crags.
It’s worth mentioning the approach route to this one. Looking at a map it would be easy to start the approach walk from Cockley Beck. Don’t, unless there has been a long drought! The terrain is some of the wettest and boggiest I have ever seen and makes for an unpleasant start to the day. Instead, park up in Eskdale, at the foot of the Hardknott Pass and approach via Brotherikeld farm. The simple thing to do is follow the River Esk onto The Great Moss. The Esk Buttress will present itself in due course.
So far I’ve done a couple of long routes and a scramble on this crag. All have been wonderful days and evenings out. But it was our first visit that proved to be the most memorable.
We planned an overnight bivi near to Cam Spout – a nearby waterfall – so walked in later in the afternoon. Found a safe place to stash kit and leave Don – our Border Collie – before making our way up to the crag. The plan was to climb Bridge’s Route, a classic Hard Severe. However, time had run away with us and we decided on a shorter route so as not to get benighted. We chose Gargoyle Groove, a 3 pitch VS. This had some amazing climbing mixed in with a few worrying moves on insecure rock. The route took us longer than anticipated and we topped out at the Gargoyle not long before dark!
Scrambling led up to the descent route, this was a steep grassy slope and led us back to base pretty quickly, where Don was sleeping and looked content.
We headed off towards Cam Spout to find a good bivi spot and set up camp. After plenty of food we fell asleep.
We both woke in the early hours. The temperature had dropped suddenly which was probably why we both woke. We were surrounded by a thick mist. It was most eerie. We stayed awake to see if there would be any change and to our surprise and delight the mist lowered to fill the valley below us, leaving a beautifully clear and star filled sky above.
The approach to Esk Buttress - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
I did eventually get back to the Esk Buttress and climbed Bridge’s Route. This is a wonderful climb that offers diverse and interesting climbing throughout. Well deserving of its popularity and with none of the polish that can sometimes taint such routes. The descent route is same as for Gargoyle Groove.
If planning a day on the high mountain crags and the weather isn’t as warm as expected, Esk is the place to go. It is warmer and sunnier than most other high crags. The outlook is pretty special too.
A post climb swim in Goat's Water below Dow Crag - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Dow: to quote the FRCC climbing guide about Dow ‘First class climbing throughout the year and right across the grading spectrum. Dow is the equal of any high mountain crag in the Lakes’. A bold statement. I agree with most of it, but not sure of a winter visit for rock climbing, it can be pretty chilly on this east facing crag. The FRCC lot are clearly tough as nails.
Dow crag is close to home for us, we’ve often climbed here during the evening after a busy day at work. Topping out into the sunshine and looking across the Duddon valley to the Scafell Massif is quite an experience and one I want to have many more times.
Controversially, the parking area at Walna Scar is no longer free. There was strong local opposition to this, but it all fell on deaf ears. So climbing at Dow is more expensive that previously. We think it’s worth it.
An easy walk up to Goat’s Water and the crag comes into view, buttress after buttress of formidable rock towering high above the steep scree below. The approach walk can be done in about an hour. If unfamiliar with the crag it is well worth stopping at Goat’s Water and taking time to check where your route is and where the descent lines are, these can all be seen easily from here.
Dow Crag - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
For a classic easy route I’d recommend ‘C’ Ordinary Route. This is a 100m Diff and finishes at Easy Terrace. The climbing is sustained, always interesting, has intricate route finding at times and is on impeccable rock.
For something a little more testing try ‘Murray’s Route’. This is only about 75m and a Severe with some thought-provoking moves over its 4 pitches. This also terminates at Easy Terrace.
Giant's Crawl, Dow Crag - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Another step up in difficulty and venturing onto another buttress is Eliminate ‘A’ at VS. To quote the FRCC guide again ‘One of England’s great routes; cunningly conceived, of absorbing interest and with a superb atmosphere’. So it has rather a lot to live up to. I can testify that it most certainly does. An utterly fantastic route in every way. Whether you’re a VS climber or cruising up E5’s, get on this, you won’t be disappointed.
As the routes on 'A' Buttress naturally finish at the very top of the crag, it’s worth carrying sacks up the route and walking out via the grassy ridge leading to the top of Walna Scar. Of course, if you’re planning to climb more routes don’t do this. Instead use the descent down Easy Rake.
Post climb refreshments at ODG - 5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District
Well, that's a round up of our '5 Best Mountain Crags in the Lake District' we hope you've enjoyed it. To find out more about these crags and more, check out the FRCC online shop for guidebooks:
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