Steeple the Steep Way

Wainwrights: Haycock, Scoat Fell, Steeple
Hewitts: Haycock, Scoat Fell

Date walked: 29/09/2018

Time taken: 10 hours

Distance: 16.5km

Ascent: 1105m

The story behind this trip really begins over forty years ago, when, as a young teenager, I discovered the books of A. H. Griffin. Drawn into their enchanted world of sunny fells and dramatic crags, I fell under the spell not only of Harry Griffin's evocative prose, but also of Geoffrey Berry's black and white photographs, which illustrate the books. One of these photos, which appears in The Roof of England, shows a view across Mirk Cove to the east face of Steeple. I was fascinated by this scene of rock and scree, shadowed recesses and sunlit aretes, and longed to explore the reality of it. A slender rib of rock rising straight up the middle of the lower part of the face suggested the possibility of a route. It was hard to tell whether this would turn out to be an easy scramble, or serious enough to require climbing equipment, or else dangerously loose or impossibly difficult.

Geoffrey Berry's photo of Mirk Cove with Steeple on the right.

In those days my opportunities to get out into the hills were confined to family holidays. My parents did allow me to go off on my own, though, surprising as that seems looking back on it now. At first I was content to follow the standard routes up the fells, but my desire to explore craggier terrain soon had me venturing onto easy scrambles, which led to my joining a local climbing club. This gave me the chance not only to learn the basic skills required for rock climbing, but also to go on trips independently of family holidays. Most of these club trips were to the Derbyshire Peak and North Wales. Only rarely did we visit the Lakes, and even then, the east face of Steeple never featured on anyone's itinerary. Hence, my early dream faded into the background, eclipsed by the more usual aspirations of climbing punters. Indeed, as I became more familiar with guidebooks, I never noticed any mention of climbs or scrambles on Steeple.

And so the situation remained for decades. Until, that is, I bought the new FRCC Wired Guide to Lake District Rock just a couple of years ago. Thumbing through its glossy pages, I found myself staring in amazement at a full-page colour photo of - you guessed it - the east face of Steeple. More significantly, overlaying the picture was a yellow line showing a route up the face, which followed the very rib of rock that I'd noticed in Geoffrey Berry's photo all those years ago. On the same page was a description of the route in six pitches, totalling 160 metres in length, awarded two stars for quality and graded Very Difficult. First climbed in 1957, it is named, aptly enough, Steeple Buttress.

Topo and description of Steeple Buttress copied from FRCC's Lake District Rock.

So it was that, after half a lifetime, I determined to make my youthful dream a reality. All I needed was a suitable opportunity. I considered trying it solo, but binned that idea when I checked out the route in the UKC logbooks. The overview there gives Steeple Buttress a grade of Severe and describes it as 'A serious mountaineering route with an alpine feel. Excellent views - but friable rock and often not ideal protection / belays.' Only seven ascents were recorded and all the comments read like warnings - '...limited protection and harrowing in parts'; 'Only the top pitch has good protection. Several belays are marginal and the rock is very friable. Quite a serious undertaking for a VD leader seeking a mountaineering day.'...etc.

The long, hot summer of 2018 had given Karl and myself a good climbing season, but as it drew to a close our thoughts turned to easier, more mountaineering style climbs that could be combined with walking over the tops. Steeple Buttress fitted the bill, so I suggested it to Karl with the relevant caveats. Unfortunately the weather through September turned wetter and windier, so the idea was shelved for a while. But then the forecast for Saturday 29th was looking pretty good, albeit with chilly temperatures. It was Karl who thoughtfully pointed out that this might be a chance to do the Steeple route - quite possibly our last realistic chance of the year. The decision was made. Our plan was to meet at the Bowness Knott car park in Ennerdale and cycle up the forestry track to the bridge, then walk up over Lingmell and into Mirk Cove. The climb would then take us to the top of Steeple, from which we'd continue over Scoat Fell and Haycock before descending back into Ennerdale for the bikes. It promised to be a grand day out, all being well.

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We'd arranged to meet in the car park at 8am, but both of us arrived early. It was about 8am by the time we set off on the bikes. The sky was cloudy but the breeze was light and the ground dry. In order to reduce the overall weight to be carried, we'd kept the climbing gear to a reasonable minimum. It was a pleasant ride in the cool, morning air and we were surprised, almost disappointed, to reach the bridge so soon. A good track continued to a cattle grid and gate, where we left the bikes. Walking through the plantations towards the Woundel Beck, we were pleased to see a footbridge over it, which wasn't shown on our obviously outdated maps. A few hundred yards along the track from there a thin but definite path led up through a clearing in the plantations that cloaked the steep hillside. After a long, steady plod up here we emerged at last from the trees onto the open fell and began the pleasant traverse over the heathery undulations of Lingmell.

Ennerdale water from the top of the plantations.

Disappointingly, the clag had descended onto Pillar, Steeple and Haycock. But by the time we reached Low Beck the tops were clearing and the cloud beginning to break up a bit, to our relief. It was quite windy up here, but we figured that it might be more sheltered in Mirk Cove.

Pillar, Steeple and Scoat Fell, from Lingmell. Cloud base beginning to lift a bit.

From Low Beck the trail led across the hillside to where the path up Steeple's north ridge went off to the right. A slighter path continued horizontally towards High Beck and Wind Gap Cove, which we followed. After a while, though, it petered out in the rough grass and heather, leaving us to find our own way up into the cove. With hindsight we probably would've been better off going up the north ridge for a bit then striking off left to enter the cove at a higher level.

Wind Gap Cove, with Mirk Cove up to the right.

Never mind. As we reached the edge of Wind Gap Cove we kept to the grassy slopes on its right side, which allowed a rising traverse to be made to the mouth of Mirk Cove. We crossed some bouldery ground and found it easiest to keep to the floor of the cove, which rose gradually.

Mirk Cove, with steeple on the right. The climb follows the left profile leading to Steeple's summit.

Mirk Cove is described in the climbing guide as 'one of the most beautiful and remote coves in the Lake District'. At the back of it the start of the climb was quickly and easily reached. We checked the topo to make sure we were in the right place then parked ourselves on the grass at the foot of the rocks, put on some extra layers, geared up and consumed some nosh and liquid. There were some wet streaks on the crags above, but the line of the climb, which is defined in its lower half by a long, narrow rib, looked dry enough. Though it was chilly, we were indeed sheltered from the worst of the wind, as we'd hoped. We soaked in the wild atmosphere of this remote place, sombre and forbidding as it was today under grey clouds, with the croaks of the ravens echoing from the dark crags. But we had a long climb ahead of us, so we didn't overdo our dallying.

Looking up the east face of Steeple, approaching the start of the climb.

The first rocks were wonderfully rough and very easy-angled. There was a lot of grass around, but this could be avoided for the most part. The easy scrambling went on and on without any need to place protection. As I approached the foot of the rib I could see it was exactly as the guidebook describes it - slightly undercut at the start. Reassuring as this was, Karl called up to say I was nearly out of rope. That wasn't supposed to happen. It was a 50 metre rope and the first pitch, which was meant to be 35 metres, was supposed to continue a long way up the rib. Well, I couldn't argue with the fact that I was nearly out of rope, so I arranged a marginal belay and let Karl come up. The guidebook writer had evidently made a mistake.

No matter, we were clearly on the route and knew exactly where we were on it. With Karl belaying I continued up the rib - nice, easy climbing on solid, rough rock. After about 30 metres or so I came to a very distinct square ledge at the foot of a flat wall with a crack in it. All this unequivocally fitted the guidebook description of the stance at the top of pitch 1. Great, we were definitely on route and the belay - a hex in the crack - was excellent. It was just slightly irritating, and potentially confusing, that the length of 35 metres given for pitch 1 refers only to the undercut rib, while the description and topo includes the scrambling approach as if were part of the pitch, which would make it about 75 - 80 metres long. :?

So far, the climbing had been little more than scrambling. The next pitch (pitch 2), looked a bit more difficult, at least to begin with. The first 10 metres were perhaps a little more technical than one would expect on a VDiff, and there was no protection to speak of. But the rock was perfect and the climbing very enjoyable. Better holds soon arrived and the angle eased, giving easy climbing up lovely, rough rock. However, the block belay at the top of the pitch, just below a horizontal intrusion of banded rock, would have been safer had it been attached to the mountain! Obviously this was one of the less than ideal belays that UKC warns of. As Karl came into view I called down - "Nice climbing isn't it?", to which he replied, "It would be if I could feel my bl**dy fingers!". It was pretty chilly, I had to admit.

Pitch 2 of Steeple Buttress.

Above the banded intrusion the rock was smoother and more shattered. It was also steeper, at least for the first part of pitch 3, which went up a cracked, vertical wall. Fortunately it was reasonably well protected, and after a tricky move or two at the top led onto easier ground. The rocks became more broken and gave way to a grassy rake, which was quite damp.

At the grassy rake above pitch 3, Karl coming up.

An easy scramble up rocks on the edge of the grass, overlooking a big drop, constituted the official 4th pitch. The two remaining pitches above here went up a sort of shattered tower on the left. Pitch 5 gave good climbing up a wall and arete, with good protection but some loose rock requiring care. It finished up a steep little corner with an awkward exit onto a grassy ledge. There were two bits of rock embedded in the wet grass and moss, but both were loose, so the squelchy vegetation itself had to serve as the handholds. :shock:

Immediately above, the final pitch went up a slim groove to the left of a wider, evil-looking corner. We were very glad the route didn't go up the corner, but the slim groove, with a wide crack in the back of it, was vertical, slightly damp and quite tricky; it certainly seemed more difficult than the average VDiff. Luckily it was well protected with large hexes.

Looking up the final pitch.

On these final two pitches I felt vindicated in deciding against soloing the climb, as I think it would have been a hairy (and scary) experience. A rope and a few nuts and slings made all the difference.

Karl at the top of the slim groove on pitch 6

After the groove, easier rocks led to the summit. Apparently you can belay from the summit itself, but in view of the wind it seemed wiser to belay a bit lower down, to make communication easier. From there it was a short, easy scramble to the top.

Looking down the east face from the summit of Steeple

Having been on the climb for about 3 hours, it was nice to stand on the open, flat ground of the summit. The sun was shining but it was very windy, so it wasn't a place to linger. A few photos, climbing gear put away, change back into our walking boots, and we were off down the south ridge looking for a sheltered spot for lunch.

Big smile from Karl on summit of Steeple.

Black Crag and Pillar, from summit of Steeple.

The ridge to Scoat Fell

At the col between Steeple and Scoat Fell we found a nice little grassy ledge that was sheltered from the wind, just down on the east slope, giving us grandstand views down into Mirk Cove and across to Pillar. The top of Great Gable peeped above the ridge of Black Crag. Karl had thought to bring a hip flask of brandy, which enhanced the flavour of our coffee considerably! :lol:

We reflected on the climb, which we'd thoroughly enjoyed. It certainly wasn't perfect as a rock climb, being somewhat discontinuous and broken, but as an adventurous mountaineering route up a craggy fellside, it's well worth seeking out. Probably not recommended if VDiff is at the upper limit of your climbing experience, though.

Black Crag and Pillar from our sheltered lunch spot.

The walk up the ridge to Scoat Fell was very pleasant, giving great views looking back to Steeple.

Steeple from the edge of the Scoat Fell plateau. The entire line of Steeple Buttress can be seen.

But as we walked along the edge of the plateau the clag descended on and off restricting views from the summit. :(

Summit of Scoat Fell

It was a nice walk along to Haycock, though the ceiling of grey cloud continued to restrict the views as it lowered onto the summits. A new fence had been erected along the ridge to protect the Ennerdale rewilding project from straying sheep. They really need to get rid of the suffocating spruce plantations first though, much of which remains.

Shelter on the summit of Haycock

Little Gowder Crag was next, the descent over the other side of which has the added interest of a couple of little vertical outcrops neatly interrupting the line of the drystone wall (easily avoided on the right). We followed the wall a bit further, then veered off to the right to catch the blunt ridge between Deep Gill and Silvercove Beck descending into Ennerdale. A neat path led us through the heather down to the woodlands.

Descending the heathery ridge back into Ennerdale.

Iron Crag

These woods were surprisingly natural looking and touched in places with the browns and golds of Autumn. A smart wooden footbridge in a picturesque spot got us across Woundell Beck and back to the bikes.

The Woundell Beck at the footbridge

An excellent end to the climbing season, we agreed, and a very statisfying day out. As we cycled back to the car park, I felt rather chuffed to have fulfilled such a sketchy ambition from the very beginnings of my life as a hillgoer, which could so easily have been buried by time. And I felt very grateful to A.H. Griffin for the big part his books played in inspiring that life, which has been wonderful. My love for the hill country has never waned in all those years. If anything it has deepened as I've come to understand how it cultivates the sort of values and strengths which protect against the toxic quagmire of our consumerist economy, and the lies of the politicians who espouse it.

We finished our day with a pint of dark ale in Ennerdale Bridge, which went down a treat as we bounced around a few ideas for the coming winter. Every season has its challenges and joys. :D

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User avatar
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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Corbetts: 12
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Distance: 147.2 km
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Trips: 27
Distance: 432.8 km
Ascent: 27445m
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Distance: 302.6 km
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