Completing the circle on the Langdale Pikes
Eight years ago to the very month I took my first tentative steps into the world of mountaineering. That day changed my life for better and forever. With my good friends Jamie Juggs and Barry Boobs I ‘conquered’ the mighty Harrison Stickle, a peak I had long admired from the comfort of my armchair through the work of W.A.Poucher and Alfred Wainwright. Stepping out of my urban comfort zone I marvelled at the tumbling waters of Mill Gill, scared myself daft on the short rock step near the top and stood agog on reaching Stickle Tarn at the sight of Pavey Ark towering above, so improbably big and more impressive than anything I had ever before witnessed. With a brisk easterly wind tossing white horses onto the dam and my eyes struggling to adjust to the scale of my surroundings it made a stirring impression and one that haunted my every waking moment until I was lucky enough to return a few months later.
Of that day my memories shall remain evergreen but one above all others dominates my recollections of those formative few hours. Shortly before putting our first mountain summit beneath our boots we had stopped awhile to take in the view. Gazing across at Pavey Ark we spied small specks of colour moving slowly up and across the fearful precipice. From my book ‘Wainwright’s favourite Lakeland mountains’ I knew that these folk were engaged in a do or die scramble known as Jack’s Rake and at their folly we were truly horrified. From our safe but unnerving vantage point they appeared to be taking ridiculous risks and we condemned them as suicidal fools, turning away in disgust to face our own demons on the utmost inches of the Langdale Pikes. Since that day I have walked these mountains many times in all seasons, often alone and have come to think of them as old friends as they have become more familiar with every passing year. However, though I have since become an ardent scrambler and climber I had until recently never tackled the scramble that had inspired in me such horror and incredulity. So, not before time I set my compass for Great Langdale in order to bring my hill-going exploits full circle.
This would be a day of new experiences but also a walk down memory lane and I looked forward to sharing with Lucie my old stomping ground, hoping it might show her the reason why I became hooked on the mountains to such a large and sometimes exasperating degree. In that I think I was successful.
Now, I won’t dwell on the £6 parking fee but suffice to say it was a reminder that I really should join the National Trust sooner rather than later. That said, there has long been a big problem with footpath erosion on the ‘The Pikes’ so it is good to know that much of the revenue from parking is diverted into repairing the paths that we who love Langdale are all guilty of damaging, and long may that be the case.
So off we went, up past Stickle Barn and over the footbridge to take our place on the pitched path beside the gill. I know this place very well so instead of gorping at the view I made it my mission to keep a close eye on Lucie and derive much of my pleasure from her reaction to the sights and sounds of our walk. As I had done she chattered excitedly when upon the falls we came, at the rock step she chose the hardest route she could find (unlike my first encounter with it) and when at last we reached Stickle Tarn she stopped in her tracks, frozen to the spot, silently surveying the scene. I know her as well as I know these hills and when the chatter stopped I was left in no doubt as to her feelings for the place. The sudden revelation of Pavey Ark across the steely tarn had exactly the effect on her as it had on me and my friends all those years ago. For the unsuspecting it is beyond superlatives, spellbinding, awesome and forbidding are mere words and as such are insufficient to express the magic that is weaved in these parts, much better to go and see for yourself.
On coming to terms with our immediate surroundings she (as I had) spotted the small specks of colour high on Pavey Ark. At the start of the day my Lucie had been sceptical about the fun to gained from a grade 1 scramble but one look at those folk in such an improbable position found her eager to crack on and grab some of that fun for ourselves. I too was keen to correct my sin of omission so we skipped off around the eastern side of the tarn and were soon grinding up the scree to the foot of the rake.
I’ll tell you now that Jack’s Rake is exceedingly polished and there is curiously little exposure through most of its length but apart from that there is no need for me to share a blow by blow account of our ascent. There are innumerable books which can do a more admirable job than I, the best being Wainwright’s ‘Central Fells’ which contains a feast of lurid detail. More interestingly maybe is the fact that the moment we laid hands on rock something beautiful happened. It had been a dull day but as we started our scramble the sun came out and illuminated everything in sight from Windermere and the Coniston Fells to the twinkling tarn and closer still the ready smiles on our faces, smiles that even the sight of a boy in tears couldn’t remove. At the top of the rake one leaves the comforting parapet for the final time and rock steps must be climbed below a prominent pinnacle. Here the exposure is felt and care is needed which in my experience is Lucie’s cue to scare me senseless which she did with great aplomb by completely ignoring the scratched holds of the usual route and climbing the pinnacle itself! Heart in mouth stuff I can tell you but trying to contain her adventurous spirit is an exercise in futility, indeed it would be easier to stem the tide than to tether the bouncing Czech in full flight.
In short I would say that the rake is every bit as good as others would have you believe and safe enough for those with steady heads, hands and feet. For me its only real short coming is that competent climbers can get up it in about 20 minutes which rather leaves one craving for more. However, once the top of Pavey Ark is gained all is forgiven for the view is quite spectacular and the prospect of a tour of the family of Pikes awaits folk unwilling to leave the heights after one peak, those needing to expend some energy or both! We fall into the latter category so off we toddled to Harrison Stickle, Loft Crag and best of the bunch the compelling rock thimble of Pike O’Stickle where we sat enthralled watching a pair climbing Kipling Groove on Gimmer Crag. One day we will surely return to do the very same. Until then the circle was complete, how long before I close the next chapter is anyone’s guess but watch this space.