Great Gable by Engineer's Slabs

Wainwrights: Great Gable
Hewitts: Great Gable

Date walked: 30/06/2018

Distance: 9.5km

Ascent: 825m

It's been a while since I posted any reports, mainly because I've been doing less walking, as such, than climbing. With the weather as it's been, the lure of the crags with their warm, dry rock has been too strong to resist. But climbing quite often involves walking as well, especially if the intended crag is situated just under the summit of a high fell, as in the case of Gable Crag. Engineer's Slabs tops out so close to the summit of Great Gable that it seems silly not to pay a visit. As Paul Nunn writes in Hard Rock, "...the finest way to complete the climb is to continue over the summit of Gable and descend by one of the ordinary paths...", which Karl and myself did, each of us carrying a pair of lightweight approach shoes up in a little rucksack for the purpose. At any rate, that's my excuse for sharing this particular outing on the WH forum.

Paul Nunn goes on to say: "Somehow this climb goes beyond normal rock climbing and is almost a mountaineering route, feeling much greater than its small size justifies." At 60 metres, Engineer's Slabs is certainly not a long climb by Lake District standards. But its situation high on the shadowy north face of Gable, reached by a long, grassy scramble, and the sustained nature of the climbing - its two long pitches divided only by the tiniest of stances - does give it a big feel. "It is this special quality and particular atmosphere, together with an inescapable character, which creates the unique appeal of a remote, isolated and infrequently ascended climb."

One of the main reasons Engineer's Slabs is infrequently ascended, despite its status as a "mega-classic", is that Gable Crag's north-facing aspect and 800 metre altitude make it one of the coldest and slowest-drying crags in the Lake District. The deep groove at the top of the climb, in particular, takes at least four warm, rainless summer days to dry out (you wouldn't want to be grovelling up that when it's wet and greasy, believe me!). But the last day of June followed no less than seven hot, dry days, providing a rare and perfect opportunity to attempt this magnificent climb. Indeed, in such conditions, the very circumstances which so often make Gable Crag repulsive and unfeasible, become a positive attraction.

However, I was under no illusions that this would be a challenge for both of us. A particular old photograph, looking down on a climber precariously wedged in the bottomless v-groove near the top, has haunted me ever since I first saw it in a guide book nearly forty years ago. In addition to the obvious exposure, it looks just the sort of strenuous thrutch that I would normally go out of my way to avoid. So the thought of actually climbing Engineer's Slabs has always filled me with a sense of trepidation. Which goes some way to explaining why I'd never climbed it before.

Climber in the exposed v-groove near the top of Engineer's Slabs

But finally the time had come, and there were no excuses. I'd been psyching up for days, and Karl had been reading the guidebook to find out what he was letting himself in for. The day was warm, dry and cloudless, with a gentle breeze to cool us on the walk-in. We arrived in the car park at Honister Hause at about 9.30am and went in the café for a coffee and quick application of sun cream. By the time we hit the path up to the Drum Hause it was well past 10.00am. But we had all day and evening if necessary, so we didn't rush.

The car park at the Honister slate mines

At the Drum Hause we turned left to follow the cairned path across the flanks of Grey Knotts and Brandreth.

High Stile and Buttermere valley


As we walked along I was surprised to see occasional patches of water on the ground, some quite extensive. I'd expected everywhere to be bone dry. I began to worry that the top v-groove of Engineer's Slabs might still be wet, even after all that dry weather. Surely not? If it turned out to be so, there was an option mentioned in the guidebook of avoiding the groove by a crack-line on the left wall leading to the left arete, at the same grade. That would at least allow us to get to the top of the climb, but it wouldn't really give us the full, notorious experience. We'd just have to see when (if) we got that far.

Great Gable from Moses Trod

Gable Crag loomed ever closer, until we could begin to make out the line of the climb.

Zoom in on Gable Crag

P1020946-crop and line.jpg
Line of Engineer's Slabs (red) and scramble from the path to reach the start (yellow).

The path made a nifty rising traverse up to Beck Head and from there we followed the path up the north-west ridge of Gable, until a small cairn marked the start of the traverse path along the northern slopes under Gable Crag.

Wastwater from Beck Head

The coolness of the shadow cast by the crag gave us welcome relief from the hot sun. Some distance along the traverse path, the unmistakable wall of Engineer's Slabs came into view high above us. A party before us had left a T-shirt hanging out to dry on an A-frame of trekking poles, at the start of the long, grassy scrambling approach to the foot of the wall. We could see people already climbing on the face above, with someone in the infamous groove at the top. We dumped our sacks, changed into our approach shoes, put our harnesses on and geared up; slings, quickdraws, wires, hexes and cams. Helmets on. Our climbing shoes went into our little, lightweight rucksacks, along with a flapjack each. Before setting off we munched on a sandwich or two and made sure we drank plenty of water.

Looking up to Engineer's Slabs from the traverse path. The person on the left is abseiling down the face to the right of the crack-line of Engineer's Slabs, while the pair to the right are on The Jabberwock (HVS).

Head of Ennerdale from the traverse path

Green Gable from the traverse path

We tied on to one of our two ropes for the scramble, just to be on the safe side. It took three full 50m rope lengths to reach the ledge at the start of the climb. A good nut-slot served as a belay. We uncoiled the second rope, tied on to it, then put on our climbing shoes, stowing our approach shoes in our rucksacks. At last we were ready to go.

Pitch 1, 26 metres, 4c
The climb started just to the left of a steep, black looking crack, up a wall of nice, clean rock. The holds looked rather small and I couldn't see any cracks for wires to go in. I crept my way up, until a small crack appeared - just enough to get a small wire in. As I unclipped the wires from my harness one of them slipped off the karabiner and landed on the grass just below Karl's feet. Damn! At least Karl would be able to retrieve it easily once I was belayed on the first stance. Back to the task in hand. Small wire fiddled in, quickdraw clipped to wire, rope into quickdraw. Nice. Always good getting the first one in. A few more moves up and a wider crack appeared; more protection. Then the pinnacle mentioned in the guidebook description, flat-topped. Sling over that. A few more moves up the crack, one or two loose blocks in there, a tricky bit, more protection, a short rising traverse to the right then twin cracks to an open chimney. Plenty of gear going in. A few steep pulls on big holds and hey presto, end of the first pitch. The stance is a tiny ledge at the bottom of a slot in the wall that you can just fit into - well named as the 'sentry box'. At the back of this are a couple of cracks for small cams and a good wire - not great but good enough. Clip onto these, tie off. "Safe Karl!" …"Off belay"..."Taking in"..."That's me!"..."Climb when ready"..."Climbing!" "Ok".

Belaying from the Sentry Box at the top of pitch 1, Karl standing on the pinnacle below, on his way up. The climber below and left is on The Tomb (E3), I think.

Karl made his way up steadily, nicely in control. He was climbing well. It felt good to be on this wall of rock - a rare privilege in fact. I dared to feel that we might succeed. As Karl reached the sentry box there was the awkward matter of changing places on the tiny stance. Confident as he was seconding, Karl had never led anything of this standard and wasn't about to try now, so he would have to clip into the same anchor points as I was presently tied to - no easy matter! Fortunately there was a good foot-ledge just outside the sentry box which I was able to step onto by unclipping from the cams and lengthening the portion of rope attaching me to the good nut placement. Karl then clipped straight into a sling attached to one of the cams and clove-hitched a portion of rope to the other cam. He then fed the ropes through from his end to mine, so they'd run smoothly from the top as I climbed, and at the same time I retrieved all the gear I'd placed on the first pitch from Karl's harness. Karl then put me on belay and I was ready to go.

Pitch 2, 34 metres, 4c
A short, easy traverse right led to a wide crack. This led all the way up to the final v-groove, which loomed ominously above. A few easy moves up holds left of the wide crack, a good cam placement, and I was on my way. The climbing was a joy. Good holds, good protection, nicely sustained. The photo below, copied from a 1990 guidebook, shows this part of the climb well. For some reason the woman belaying has adopted a hanging stance outside the sentry box - certainly makes for a dramatic shot!

Photo of climbers on Engineer's Slabs, from the 1990 FRCC climbing guidebook to Gable and Pillar. The second is belaying from a hanging stance outside the sentry box.

I reached a small ledge at the foot of a layback crack, placed a good hex and took a couple of photos. It's not often I think to take photos mid-lead, but on this occasion I wanted to savour the position.

Looking back down to Karl belaying in the sentry box.

Looking up the layback crack which leads to the foot of the final v-groove.

The layback crack turned out to be easier than it looked. The left-hand of two parallel cracks, seen in the pic above, had a positive edge to grasp and there were a few small scoops for the feet on the wall. I placed a couple of good nuts then launched off and didn't stop until I reached a good foothold at the foot of the v-groove. So here I was at last. The moment of truth. A zig-zagging crack appeared up the left wall. This was the escape route if the groove turned out to be wet, or if one didn't feel up to the obvious fight it would present. First question, then: was the groove wet? No, it was bone dry! Second question: was I up for the fight? I figured I was unlikely to be in this position again any time soon, so it was now or never. I knew I'd be disappointed with myself if I wimped out, so into the groove I went. :shock:

At first it was relatively easy. There were footholds on the right wall and handholds on the left. Bridging seemed the best technique - right foot on right wall, left foot on left, facing into the groove. Cracks in the left wall offered gear placements, then the back of the groove itself did. Then the holds ran out. The crack in the back of the groove was smooth, but offered a brilliant hex placement and an equally good nut just above it. Having placed these, I tried to work out the next sequence of moves. I wedged myself in, facing left, and tried to back-and-foot. It was too constricted. So then I stepped back down a bit and out on a small foothold on the left wall, so that I had more room to manoevre. I spotted a small protuberance at knee-height on the right wall, which served as a foot smear, allowing me to get my left foot high on a faint ripple. With the feet pushing in opposite directions against the opposing walls, it was a secure enough position from which to reach up left for a horizontal crack. It was a good hold! A small cam in the horizontal crack. A couple of moves up and another constriction. Small foothold on left then up and the right wall gave into a scoop. Foot smear on this then step onto little ledge in back of groove and rest, sweat dripping from brow and nose. The top just above. Holds everywhere. It's over. Place last bit of gear, grasp the big holds and top out between big blocks. Yeehaaa! :D Thread two slings, position myself at edge of groove, looking down it. Clip on to slings. "Safe Karl". "Good...Off belay"..."Taking in"..."That's me"..."Climb when ready"..."Climbing". "Ok".

Karl made good progress up the pitch, climbing in a steady, controlled way. He managed the layback no problem. He got a little way into the groove, removed a runner, moved up a bit more and it was then the expletives began. I tried to explain about the bridging moves but, though I could just about see him, I couldn't make out exactly where he was. He'd got himself wedged firmly in the groove and wasn't making much progress. He tried bridging but was reluctant to move far enough out to make it work. His feet slipped on the walls because they were too close together to give enough opposing pressure. Somehow he manged to avoid falling off and by a supreme effort of squirming and thrutching got up to a semi-resting place. "You've cracked it now!", I said. "Just let me get my breath back", he said, panting heavily. Again I advised him to bridge out, but he seemed intent on squirming as far into the groove as he could get. This time it didn't work though - perhaps he was too exhausted from the previous effort. "Once you've got your foot against that big scoop you're home and dry", I said. He got into a bridging position and with a couple of concerted moves was onto the scoopy bit and then in a resting position below the final pull up to the top, which was easy. "There're holds everywhere now; it's all over bar the shouting", I said. I don't think Karl quite believed me, but as he stood and got his breath back he could see for himself. He grinned and climbed up into the sunshine. We shook hands, and were both relieved and elated. There's no feeling like it.

Hats off to F G Balcombe, J A Shepherd and C J A Cooper, who first ascended the climb in 1934. It must have been a bold undertaking without modern equipment.

Karl coming up the last bit of the v-groove

A final squirm.

We coiled the ropes and changed into our approach shoes, chatting excitedly. Then we wandered up to the summit of Great Gable in a state of euphoria, where we sat down to eat our flapjacks. Not sure what the other folks there made of us with our helmets and harnesses! Karl said that, while he was belaying me on the second pitch, he was secretly hoping I would take the softer option up the crack in the left wall, but admitted that we wouldn't have been quite as satisfied if we'd done that. We also reflected on the fact that, while both pitches are graded 4c, the groove of the second pitch seemed significantly harder than anything below. Grades can be misleading.

Wastwater from Great Gable summit.

The Scafells

Crummock Water

Kirk Fell and Pillar

To save weight, we hadn't brought any water up with us and were quite thirsty after our exertions, so we made our way down to Windy Gap and along the traverse path back to the sacks. It was 5.10pm. We had a good slurp then put all our climbing gear away ready for the off. A last look back up at the crag, and it was time to go.

Gable Crag with Engineer's Slabs centre. The v-groove is easy to see at the top of the wall.

It seemed a long walk back in the hot afternoon sunshine.

Buttermere valley

Back at Honister we piled the sacks into the boot of the car, changed into our shoes and drove down the pass, through Borrowdale and Keswick, stopping at the Sportsman's Inn on the A66. Still buzzing, we quietly celebrated with a pint of Snecklifter and a bowl of chips.

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Engineer's Slabs (Gable Crag)
60 metres, VS 4c, 4c
First ascent: F G Balcombe, J A Shepherd, C J A Cooper - June 1934.

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Location: Cumbria
Activity: Mountain Walker
Pub: Clachaig Inn
Mountain: An Teallach
Place: Loch Coruisk
Gear: Marmot Windshirt
Ideal day out: A round of summits with some scrambling thrown in.
Ambition: Complete the Munros

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