It’s a question that I get asked a lot – “What’s your favourite mountain, then?” Blimey! My stock answer to get me off the hook is, ”The one I’m on at the moment”. Well, to start with, how do you chose between areas? The wilderness feel of the Highlands, the stark drama of Snowdonia, the quiet of Mid-Wales, the beauty of the Lakes or the cosy, welcoming feel of the Dales, just how do you choose between them? But, OK, if I’m pressed I’ve got to pick Blencathra.
The name sounds strange and ‘other-worldly’, which isn’t all that surprising – the origins are in the ancient language that the British used to speak, a form of Old-Welsh that prevailed until the Anglo-Saxons arrived. So, Blencathra probably comes from Blean meaning a bare hill and cathrach meaning a chair, hence “The bare, chair shaped hill”. The mountain is so big and complex, with subsidiary ridges and tops, that it’s almost a mountain range in its own right.
I’ve had innumerable good days on Blencathra, and no bad days. Well, none that come to mind. I’ve walked over the mountain from just about every direction, in all weathers and both day and night, been up and down all the ridges and a couple of the gills, cycled round it, ice-climbed on the crags on the east side, and shared it with a host of friends or just gone alone. For me the best route on the best hill is Sharp Edge.
Sharp Edge is one of the best scrambles in the Lake District, and at Grade 1 is a route that many can aspire to, as its technical difficulty is not great. Combine an ascent of Sharp Edge with a descent of Hall’s Fell, otherwise known as narrow Edge, and you have the perfect mountain day.
There are objective dangers, though. Being slate, Sharp Edge can be very greasy when wet, especially from October through to Spring, and both ridges are dangerous in high winds. On some sections of Sharp Edge a fall would almost certainly be fatal, whilst on Narrow Edge a fall if not fatal, would be very serious. Ice axe and crampons, possibly a rope, plus full winter clothing, are all essential in snow conditions.
Towards the end of the ridge there is a classic ‘bad step, where a large block bars the way. This can be by-passed on the left using small holds above an impressive drop. Most go for the second option of slithering off the end of a slab to the right – over the years the number of scramblers using this option have polished the slab enough to make it ‘interesting’ in anything but dry conditions. Soon after that an imposing rock wall rears up; a shallow groove proves to be much easier than first glance would suggest
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve done this route, but two come to mind as I have the photographic evidence. Chris and I did Sharp Edge in 1999. I didn’t realise at the time that she sometimes has difficulty with big drops, though she managed to keep that quiet. She did confess the next day that she had aches and pains in places she didn’t even know she had places! This was put down to gripping onto the holds with determination if not desperation
More recently I was here with Ian Rogers in less than perfect conditions – the rock was greasy and the wind was blowing a ‘hooley’, just the conditions I would advise people to give the route a miss. We did resort to unorthodox tactics that I won’t elaborate on, but we finished the route safely.
Two very different days, both of them absolute gems. As I said, I’ve never had a bad day here. Neither, I’m sure, will you.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock