Putting peak-bagging to one side, James Forrest takes on the Gable Girdle – an adventurous hike around, not up, Great Gable.
A humongous, rugged mass of crags and cliffs, Great Gable is captivating to look at: a devilish pyramid from the south; the dome of a sleeping, curled-up giant from the north. It is a spiritual place too, its summit adorned with a poignant war memorial. But, oddly, perhaps the best way to experience Great Gable it is to walk around it, not up it. The Gable Girdle is a high-level circumnavigation of Great Gable combining the classic north and south traverses. It offers a more intimate interaction with the mountain than the usual slog for the top – and it’s a great option for intermediate scramblers.
Main image: The Sphinx Rock | Credit: Stuart Holmes
This route isn’t a graded scramble, it’s more of an adventurous walk over rough, rugged, rocky terrain, including scree slopes and boulders fields. There is some exposure, but as Alfred Wainwright put it: “here one never has the feeling that the end is nigh”. The highlight is, undoubtedly, the traverse below the Great Napes, which serves up views of the 20m-high teetering spike of Napes Needle, the birthplace of British climbing, and the iconic, much-photographed Sphinx Rock. It is the intrepid way to experience Great Gable – and “the finest mountain walk in the district that does not aim to reach a summit”, according to Wainwright.
Gable Girdle: route description
START/FINISH: The hamlet of Seathwaite at CA12 5XJ (GR: NY235121) – there is limited parking on the road just to the north of the hamlet | MAPS: OS Explorer OL04 (1:25k), OS Landranger 89 (1:50k), Harvey British Mountain Map Lake District (1:40k) | DISTANCE: 10.8km / 6.7 miles | ASCENT: 1,161m / 3,809ft | DURATION: 6 hours
1. NY235121: Opposite the farmhouse in Seathwaite, go under an archway through the farm buildings that leads to a walled lane. Cross the River Derwent at a footbridge and turn left briefly before climbing sharply, in a westerly direction, alongside Sourmilk Gill. The path emerges at a green plateau, close to the Hanging Stone. Continue south-west and then south, climbing to the spur between Base Brown and Green Gable. Enjoy the 360-degree panoramas of Ennerdale Forest, Buttermere and the Langdale Pikes, as you take the main ridge towards the 801m top of Green Gable. Skirt slightly south of the summit cairn (today is not about peak bagging) and descend on steep, red scree to Windy Gap.
2. NY214105: This is where the action starts. Ignore the main path up Great Gable and instead veer off west to pick up a faint track running along the base of the dominating, shattered cliffs of Gable Crag. Continue due west for 600m, taking care to stick to the faded path. Descend the north-west ridge on loose scree before turning west and arriving at the tarn-dotted col at Beck Head.
3. NY205107: Head due south along the western slopes of Great Gable on a thin trod that contours the scree before arriving below the rocky tower of the White Napes. Head east to reach the scree channel of Little Hell Gate, which marks the start of the Great Napes – a castle-like crag famed for its epic climbing routes. This is a good time to reach for the detailed descriptions and pictures of Wainwright’s guidebook, if you have one. The section between Little Hell Gate and Great Hell Gate can be confusing. The easiest option is to continue east and south-east on the main trod, maintaining a steady height about 50m below the base of the crags and negotiating the scree and little buttresses without too much difficulty.
Look up to view the rock formations, including the Sphinx Rock and Napes Needle, from a safe distance and then exit the Great Napes at the scree chute of Great Hell Gate. For those inclined for more adventurous exploration, scramble up the shifting stones of Needle Gully to the base of the pinnacle, before scrambling yet again to Dress Circle, the perfect spot to watch climbers on Napes Needle. This section is exposed and tricky – extreme caution should be taken. From the rocky ledge of Dress Circle, a higher traverse can be made west to visit (and take a compulsory photography) of Sphinx Rock, the bizarre outcrop that bears a remarkable resemblance to a human face.
4. NY210098: From Great Hell Gate the going seems easier. Continue south-east towards Raven Crag and Kern Knotts, negotiating scree slopes and skirting around boulders, before finally battling through a large boulder field and arriving, gratefully, at the undulating, grassy slopes of Sty Head. Veer north-east and aim for Styhead Tarn.
5. NY221099: Walk for 130m beyond the north-west tip of the tarn. Turn left on an obvious track, known as Aaron Slack, and plod uphill back towards Windy Gap alongside a stream. It is a tedious treadmill, but the thought of nearly completing a full circumnavigation of Great Gable is motivation enough.
At Windy Gap, re-trace your steps towards Green Gable, the Base Brown spur, Sourmilk Gill and, ultimately, back to the starting point at Seathwaite.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Take Stagecoach’s Keswick-Seatoller 78 bus, alight at Seatoller and walk to Seathwaite.
TOURIST INFORMATION: visitlakedistrict.com
NEAREST YHA: Black Sail
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