Great Gable (Lake District)

Do mountains have a gender?  And do they have a personality?  I like to think they do, although maybe "personality" is the wrong word.  Perhaps "character" would be more appropriate.  Certainly they have their own characteristics and moods, engendered by their shape, size, surroundings and, albeit transitionally, by the changing weather.  I suspect many people who regularly visit mountains attribute them with distinct characters although, naturally, each person's impression of a mountain will be coloured by their individual experiences.

My initial impressions of Blencathra led me to believe that this mountain is very much a female of the species.  To me, she is an Ancient Briton - a Celtic warrior queen cast from the same mould as Boudicca of the Iceni and Cartimandua of the Brigantes.  Standing guard over the northern fells she is beautiful, curvaceous and welcoming.  Cross her, however, and she will show you a sharp edge; put a foot wrong and she could take your life in the blink of an eye.  I really do like Blencathra and I'm glad that she was the first mountain I chose to visit during my recent Lakeland holiday.  She provided us with a very pleasant welcome to the week ahead.  Which is just as well.  Because the very next day we had a totally contrasting experience with an altogether different mountain character. 

Great Gable is a ruggedly handsome movie star of a mountain, with an ego to match his stature.  When viewed from afar his good looks can mesmerize and, if he's in the right mood, any widescreen 3D IMAX movie would pale into insignificance compared with the epic panorama he can show you.  Or so I am led to believe.  As I found out, he can also be an arrogant, bad-tempered brute.  This is the story of my first meeting with this Lakeland superstar.   I certainly hope it won't be the last.

The day after our Blencathran adventure I awoke half expecting to have a few aches and pains, but I was pleasantly surprised  to discover this wasn't the case.  In fact I felt great and keen to tackle another mountain.  Over breakfast we studied our maps and agreed that we'd both like to climb Great Gable.  I had heard so much about the views from the summit from where, on a clear day, you can see over to Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales and across the sea to the Isle of Man, as well as a full panoply of Lakeland peaks.  This would be my first encounter with Gable (as he's simply known to many)but the second visit for Tom who, in his youth,  had undertaken the climb from the Black Sail Youth Hostel in Ennerdale whilst completing his Duke of Edinburgh Award.  Disappointingly, on that occasion low cloud cover had robbed him of a view and so he was eager to finally have the chance to see what he'd missed.

The closest place to Keswick from which to begin an ascent is approximately nine miles away, at the hamlet of Seathwaite.   This small Lakeland settlement holds the dubious distinction of being the wettest inhabited place in Britain, having a recorded rainfall of approximately 140 inches per year.  There was no sign of rain as we drove from Keswick along the beautiful Borrowdale Valley, although we could see that the clouds were hanging quite low over the mountain peaks to the west.  At Seathwaite Farm we parked by the side of the road and stood for a while looking down the valley.  There were some low clouds here and there, but in the direction we were heading the mountain tops looked reasonably clear.  At this stage it was impossible for us to tell which way the clouds would roll and whether we would enjoy a clear ascent.  Having come this far though, we decided to go for it.

Our route was to begin with an ascent up the side of Sour Milk Gill, a cascading waterfall which tumbles down the hillside to join the stream in the valley bottom.  First of all though we had to find a footbridge over the stream to take us to the path up the side of the gill.  We set off through the farmyard, passing a herd of recently sheared Herdwick sheep.  After a couple of hundred yards it became apparent that we had missed our path, so we turned back to retrace our steps.

Recently sheared Herdwicks

Suddenly we heard laughter from the other side of a stone wall.

"Lost already?" a voice called out and I turned to see the farmer opening the gate for his sheep.  I told him we were looking for a route up Sour Milk Gill.

"First silver gate on the left," he replied.  "It's a bit hard to spot because the sign is the same colour as the wall".

We thanked him and set off again, passing our car as we walked briskly along the lane.  When, after about half a mile or so, we still hadn't found a silver coloured gate with a footpath sign, we realised that somehow we must have missed it again.  My map seemed to indicate that the path was right in the middle of the farmyard, which was a bit puzzling.  Rather tentatively we walked back to the farm, hoping that we wouldn't run into the farmer again.  The fact that we couldn't even seem to get out of the car park would have  just been too embarrassing!   I switched on my GPS and studied the direction arrow as it moved closer and closer to the line of the path which appeared to be emerging from the side of a building.  And then I noticed that what appeared to be a building was actually an arch, with a silver coloured gate, and a slate footpath sign on the slate wall.  It was very obvious; when you knew where to look.  Quickly we made our way through the gate, trying our best to look nonchalant, as if we'd known this had been the right way all the time.

The path passed by a campsite where a tepee sat by the stream at the foot of the gill, its entrance facing the cascading water. 

A lovely place to camp

We paused on the bridge over the stream for a while to assess the scene.  The thickest of the clouds seemed to be over in the opposite direction to where we were heading.  Ever hopeful, we set off to climb up the side of the gill. 

Crossing the stream

Even on a dull day such as this, the scenery was stunning and I stopped a few times to take photographs as the landscape revealed more of  itself with every upwards step.  Winding its way through the valley bottom, I could make out the line of our return route.

View down the valley

There were one or two easy scrambles up the side of Sour Milk Gill.   It was quite a warm day, in spite of the clouds, and although it was hot work, overall the climb was very easy.  About half way up I turned to look down over the stream , Seathwaite Farm and to where our car was parked at the side of the lane.

Looking down over Seathwaite

As we climbed steadily upwards, by our side Sour Milk Gill surged downhill , the whiteness of the cascading water leaving no doubt as to the origin of its name.

Sour Milk Gill

Towards the top of the gill the path wasn't quite as steep and it seemed as if the cloud cover was breaking up a little. 

The path up the side of the gill

Just before the top I was able to climb down a short distance to the very edge of the waterfall to capture an image of the point where the stream rushes over the edge to begin its descent. 

The top of the waterfall

From this vantage point I took one final look at the valley below turning to begin the next stage of our walk.

View from above Sour Milk Gill

We were now in a high valley known as Gillercomb, which runs between the fells of Base Brown and Brandreth.   The route through the valley was very pleasant indeed.  There had been a stiff breeze as we had climbed Sour Milk Gill but now the surrounding peaks provided a natural windbreak. 

Entering Gillercomb

We were still ascending as we walked through Gillbercomb but at a steadier gradient along a clearly defined and undemanding path with the stream to our right, heading towards its impending plummet down Sour Milk Gill.

The route through Gillercomb

The path became steeper as it reached the end of Gillercomb and the cloud began to lift allowing the sun to break through and light up the valley.  Over to the east though the clouds looked threatening, casting an ominous shadow over a distant range of peaks (which I believe may include Helvellyn).

Looking east from Gillercomb

We were now at the very end of Gillercomb, at a point known as Mitchell Cove and from here we had just one obstacle to overcome before the final ascent.  That obstacle, however, is a mountain in its own right - the 2,603 feet high Green Gable of which Alfred Wainwright wrote:  "All eyes are fixed on Great Gable; Green Gable is merely something met en route.  So think most folk who pass from one to the other.  But Green Gable is not at all insignificant."  

Before we began the steeper climb to the summit of Great Gable's little brother, we sat on a rock at the top of Mitchell Cove to have a drink and a snack.  It was a little breezy, but not unpleasantly so, and quite warm now that the sun was shining.  Suddenly I heard a strange noise, the likes of which is rather hard to describe.  It was something like a muted roar crossed with a distant rumble of thunder followed by an almighty whoosh.  I got up and walked a little way to peer over the brow of the grassy slope behind us.   Just as I got my first glimpse of Great Gable, the wind roared around the mountain again, hitting me square in the face with an almost icy sneeze.  Gable had spoken.  In fact, he’d growled and spat at me and, looking at the clouds swirling and eddying around his summit, I wasn't so sure that I wanted to meet him after all.

Great Gable announces his presence

I returned to my rocky seat and looked across to the delightfully named Glaramara.  The sun was periodically attempting to break through and at least it wasn't raining.  Although we were dressed in shorts and t-shirts, we had all the right gear with us, so even if the conditions deteriorated, we would be adequately dressed.  We both agreed that we should continue.

View across to Glaramara

As we approached the summit of Green Gable the cloud that had been swirling around Great Gable began to drift our way.  Looking back I was rewarded with one last glorious view before the cloud descended to envelope us.

One last view

By the time we had reached the first of two cairns on the summit of Green Gable the cloud surrounded us and visibility was reduced to a few yards.  It was damp but not actually raining and still reasonably warm, so we both put on our waterproof jackets, leaving our over-trousers in our backpacks. 

The cloud descends

Our visibility was reduced even further at the summit cairn, which was just a few yards further along from the first cairn.  We could hear voices behind us and a small group of people appeared out of the mist.  Perhaps not surprisingly, these were the only other walkers we encountered on this normally popular route and we exchanged greetings and comments on the conditions before allowing them to get ahead of us.  We then followed them off the mountain, descending around 300 feet to traverse the col known as Windy Gap.  The path down was steep and slippery with a reddish coloured shale.  Ahead of me in the mist I could hear the anxious cries of one of the ladies in the party of walkers who'd gone before us.  "I don't like it, I don't like it at all" she was calling out.  "Take my arm.  Help me down!"  This did not fill me with confidence, although to my great relief I discovered a way of zig-zagging my way down without incident.  

The summit of Green Gable

There then followed a steep climb and several scrambles up the remaining 500 or so feet to the summit of Great Gable (which stands at 2,949 feet).  We were about half way up, with hands as well as feet engaged on the rock face, when it began to rain quite heavily.  We were wearing our waterproof jackets and had rain covers over our backpacks, but we were not wearing our over-trousers.  By the time we reached the summit my shorts and legs were saturated and my boots were already filling with water.  The wind was blowing mightily, blasting the rain straight at us like a jet wash.  I made straight for the summit cairn, hastily pulled my camera out of my backpack and took two very quick photographs of the memorial  plaque, which was erected in memory of the members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club who died during the First World War. 

Memorial at the summit of Great Gable

Beneath the memorial were scattered the remains of poppies and wooden crosses, left as part of the Remembrance Day service which is held here every year...conditions permitting.


From this point onwards I was unable to take any more photographs.    I wrapped my camera in a dry sack, stuffed it into the centre of my rucksack which I then fitted with its rain cover.  Even doing this simple task, however, was difficult due to the sheer strength of the wind. 

It was very difficult to walk over the summit's rocky surface and the first time the wind blew me off my feet took me completely by surprise.  One moment I was attempting to take a step forwards and then suddenly I found myself sitting on a sharp rock.  I shouted out for Tom who helped me up.

"We've got to get off here quickly," he said.  I couldn't have agreed more.  But how to find the path down?  I was completely disorientated and my GPS and map were safely tucked away in my rucksack.  I hadn't noticed which way the other party of walkers had gone and I could no longer hear their voices above the roaring of the wind. 

Fighting against the wind I struggled my way back to the memorial cairn and, by using it as a windbreak, I was able to pull the GPS out of my backpack.  My hands were so cold by this time that I could barely operate the controls and I cursed myself for not packing gloves.  I hadn't even considered the possibility of needing them in July.  That morning the car's thermometer had registered 21 degrees!

As I waited for the GPS to get a signal I started to feel a slight sense of panic.  I have the utmost admiration for the mountain rescue service and support them as often as I can by depositing coins in their collection boxes, and sponsoring the occasional fundraising effort publicised on Facebook.  And I follow several different mountain rescue teams via their Facebook pages.  On these pages I regularly read reports of their heroic rescue missions which are usually accompanied by several photographs, often featuring an anonymous casualty, wrapped in red coverings, being stretchered down a mountainside.   I did not want to be one of those faceless red cocoons and I said as much to Tom as he helped me to my feet, after the second time I was blown over.

"We've got to get off here," I whimpered, squinting at the GPS which seemed to be indicating we should exit the mountain via what appeared to be a sheer drop.  "I don't want to be a red cocoon!"

Tom suggested we ought to try and get down the way we'd ascended, as this would mean we'd be sheltered by the mountain from the main force of the wind (as we had been on the way up) but I just knew that I'd struggle with a downwards scramble over rocks which would now be wet and slippery.  Eschewing the route recommended by the GPS, I headed off in the opposite direction.  The wind whipped away the bad language I shouted out as I was blown off my feet for the third time.  I was very angry now.  I got up and headed back in the direction suggested by the GPS.

Tom went ahead of me down what appeared to be a very steep slope of shale.  He hadn't gone too far when he called out "There are cairns down here.  This is the path".  It looked almost too steep to walk down, but I extended my walking poles and followed him.  After just a short distance I could see that this was indeed the correct path.  And then the wind blew me over again.  Fortunately, I instinctively sat down and slid for a little way in the shale before I was able to find a foothold and, with the aid of my poles, hoist myself onto my feet again.

I looked back up towards the summit and cursed.  At that moment I could have sworn I heard a voice from the depths of the mountain.  With a hint of laughter it seemed to say "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn".

We continued to be buffeted and power-washed all the way down the steep, rocky path, although thankfully I was only blown off my feet one further time.  Our route was to take us to Styhead Tarn and I was mightily relieved when I finally caught sight of its outline, coming into focus through the swirling mist.  From the tarn we followed the stream known as Styhead Gill, squelching along, our boots almost overflowing with water.  The rain was so torrential that in places it was hard to determine which was the path and which was the stream.  Along this route there were various notable landmarks that I'd been keen to photograph, such as the Taylorgill Force waterfall and the very pretty (or so I understand) Stockley Bridge, but we passed these by almost without a second glance. 

As we eventually passed through the farmyard at Seathwaite I tried once again to look indifferent.  Just in case the farmer was watching from the warmth of his farmhouse.  It was hard to swagger in boots filled with water, but I was aiming for the "Bad weather? This? Pah! I've seen worse" look.  I'm not sure I pulled it off.  One thing I did pull off though was my shorts.  All I had to put on in their place was my waterproof trousers, which seemed rather ironic. 

Having poured the water out of our boots and wrapped ourselves in car rugs, we sat for a few minutes in the car with the engine running and the heater blasting out, until we'd stopped shivering.  The car's thermometer still read 21 degrees and yet, somehow, we were both freezing.

Just three things occupied my mind on the short drive back to Keswick - a hot shower, a hot meal and a cold beer.  The anticipation was made all the sweeter by the ordeal we'd just been through.  In a way I was pleased that we'd had this experience though, because it had taught me never to underestimate how quickly conditions can change and in future to be prepared for all eventualities.  How often do you read that in articles on walking in the hills?  I know I've read it many times. 

Later that day, as I sat warm and dry in a Keswick pub, nursing my many bruises and sipping on a glass of Snecklifter whilst waiting for my order of steak pie to arrive, I reflected on the day and smiled.  It's true what they say.  The worst day in the hills is always better than your best day in the office.  And as for Great Gable?  I won't let him beat me.  I may have "Gone with the wind" but, to quote another line from that well-known movie: "After all... tomorrow is another day".

Coming soon...The sun shines as we visit the final resting place of the late great Alfred Wainwright on the wonderland summit that is Haystacks.


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