Want to gaze over Lakeland’s most handsome crag? This adventurous hike’n’scramble via the High Level Route and Shamrock Traverse is the finest way to experience Pillar Rock, says James Forrest.

Alfred Wainwright described this adrenaline-inducing scramble up Pillar from Buttermere as a “glorious walk…for strong walkers only”. A trio of passes – twice up Scarth Gap and once up Black Sail Pass – are to blame for the exertion, but the reward is worth the graft. You’ll get up close and personal with Pillar Rock – a seemingly impenetrable tower of rock that juts out of Pillar’s north face like a dark, craggy cathedral. The summit of Pillar Rock is the preserve of rock climbers, but this route enables hillwalkers to get close to the action. From its start, west of Looking Stead, the High Level Route is a rough trod over rugged terrain via Robinson’s Cairn, while the Shamrock Traverse is a tilted rake featuring a heart-in-mouth shuffle across a slab of rock with precipitous drops on one side.

It’s a tricky walk with some exposure and sections of rocky scrambling. Losing the trod could be fatal. But nowhere is it technically difficult and the views of Pillar Rock are something to behold.

Pillar Rock via the Shamrock Traverse: route guide

START/FINISH: Gatesgarth Farm pay and display car park (NY194149) | MAPS: OS Explorer OL04 (1:25k), OS Landranger 89 (1:50k), Harvey British Mountain Map Lake District (1:40k) | DISTANCE: 13.9km / 8.6 miles | ASCENT: 1,395m / 4,577ft | DURATION: 6 hours

1. NY194149: Cross the road, aiming to the right of a barn, and go through a gate to the left of a stream. Veer left through another gate and follow the lane heading south-west to cross Peggy’s Bridge. Go through a gate and take the path straight ahead. Ascend diagonally to the right of trees before turning sharp left and ascending south. Climb steadily, sticking to the right of a fence and wall, and arrive at a gate. Beyond the gate, veer slightly right away from the fence, and continue to climb south. Cross a stream, go through a gap in a wall, follow a series of large cairns and emerge at the top of Scarth Gap.

Hiking past Black Sail YHA (1)

Hiking past Black Sail YHA.
Credit: James Forrest

2. NY189133: Go straight ahead and descend south towards Ennerdale Valley. Cross Scarth Beck and trend left. Descend alongside a fence and arrive at a stony track next to a gate. Turn left and head east to Black Sail Hut. Continue south-east and turn right over a footbridge. Ascend south on a path following Sail Beck. Scramble over a brief rocky section and continue south. Veer right and then left to emerge at the col below Kirkfell Crags. Turn right and follow a line of metal fence posts north-west. Pass a small tarn and veer right off the path, sticking to higher ground. Pass another tarn and climb to Looking Stead’s summit. Turn left and descend briefly to rejoin the main path. Ascend steeply west and arrive at the cairn marking the start of the high level route to Pillar Rock.

Gazing up to Pillar Rock from near Pisgah

Gazing up to Pillar Rock from near Pisgah.
Credit: James Forrest

3. NY184116: Turn right and follow a narrow trod, descending a scree gully briefly before trending left and traversing north-west. Be careful to stay on the trod because the surrounding terrain is perilous. Descend a few rocky steps, cross a scree slope of large rocks and continue north-west over undulating terrain. Traverse a long section below crags and cliffs, before arriving at flatter terrain. Climb ahead to Robinson’s Cairn. Veer left into Pillar Cove, crossing a boulder field. Ascend briefly and turn left. Climb up a rocky groove and a winding trod over scree. Above a wall of rock, turn right and start the Shamrock Traverse.

Carefully negotiating the Shamrock Traverse

Carefully negotiating the Shamrock Traverse.
Credit: James Forrest

Follow the wide, tilted shelf north-west over the initially easy ground before negotiating a slanting rock. Next veer left up a rocky gully before skirting right around a rocky outcrop. Arrive at a cairn with superb views of Pillar Rock. Turn left and traverse west to below Pisgah. Turn left again and climb south on a good trod that winds upwards over rocky terrain. Skirt right around a gully and veer left to emerge at the summit plateau between a wind shelter and small cairn. Head south briefly to Pillar’s summit.

Feasting on the views from Pillar

Feasting on the views from Pillar.
Credit: James Forrest

4. NY171121: Re-trace your steps down to Pillar Rock and along the Shamrock Traverse. Exit the traverse and descend north-east to where the path swings sharply east. Instead turn left down a grassy rake, cross a stream and turn right. Descend north over mostly pathless slopes, following a stream. Where the stream plunges over steeper terrain, veer left slightly and negotiate a rocky scramble. Pick up a stony path and descend to a fence. Turn right, cross a stream and pick up a trod heading east along a fence. Skirt around crags, turn left over a stile and descend north through overgrown forest. Cross a forestry road and a footbridge and climb ahead to another forestry road. Turn right briefly before veering left on a trod. Climb steadily east, crossing a series of stiles, and arrive back at the Scarth Gap path. Turn left and retrace your steps to Buttermere.

Further information

PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Take Stagecoach’s 77/77A Honister Rambler bus from Keswick to Buttermere (summer season only).

TOURIST INFORMATION: Visit Cumbria, 016973 22474

NEAREST YHA: YHA Honister Hause

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