Great Gable Route

Recommended Maps Ordnance Survey Maps:

Outdoor Leisure Map 4 - North Western Area (1:25,000)

Land Ranger Map 90 - Penrith and Keswick (1:50,000)

Total Distance:

9.01 kilometres (5.6 miles)

Duration:

5 Hours

Maximum Height Achieved :

899 metres (2949 feet)

Total Ascent :

830 metres (2723 feet)

Background

Great Gable is a mountain lying at the very centre of the English Lake District, seen as a pyramid from Wasdale, but as a dome from most other directions. It is one of the most popular of the Lakeland fells, and there are a variety of different routes to the summit. Great Gable is connected by the high pass of Windy Gap to its smaller sister hill, Green Gable, and by the lower pass of Beck Head to its westerly neighbour, Kirk Fell.

Great Gable and its lesser known companion Green Gable rise at the head of Ennerdale, with the walkers' pass of Sty Head to their back. This links Borrowdale to Wasdale, giving Gable a foothold in both valleys. The Borrowdale connection is quite tenuous, but Great Gable is domaneering presence of Wasdale in that it is paramount in almost any view up the lake.

The north face is formed by Gable Crag, prominent in vistas from Haystacks and the surrounding fells. This is the longest continuous wall of crag on the fell and reaches up virtually to the summit. Scree slopes drop away below to the headwaters of the River Liza, starting their long journey down Ennerdale.

There are few crags on the eastern slopes, although these drop steeply to Styhead Tarn, a main feeder of the Borrowdale system. Approximately 30 ft deep this tarn occupies a scooped hollow, dammed by boulders which have fallen from the slopes above. It is reputed to contain trout and is a popular location for campers. The southern flank of Great Gable drops 2,300 ft direct to Lingmell Beck, one of the main feeders of Wastwater.

Below the summit are the Westmorland Crags, and then a second level breaks out lower down. These are Kern Knotts, Raven Crag and Great Napes, all with great tongues of scree at their base. Last but not least on the west rough slopes fall below the rocks of White Napes to the narrow valley of Gable Beck, a tributary of Lingmell Beck.

From the north west corner of the pyramid the linking ridge to Kirk Fell runs out across the col of Beck Head (2,050 ft). There is a small tarn in the depression, and sometimes a second after heavy precipitation. Both are blind, seeming to have no apparent inlet or ouflow. Gable Beck runs southwards from Beck Head, while an unnamed tributary of the Liza flows north.

The main backbone of the Western Fells continues along the north east ridge to Green Gable, dropping to Windy Gap (2,460 ft) as it rounds the end of Gable Crag. This ridge is rough and rocky, further worn by the boots of numerous walkers. Stone Cove lies on the Ennerdale side whilst the rough gully of Aaron Slack runs down towards the Styhead Tarn.

The south east ridge provides the link to the Southern Fells, across the pass of Sty Head. This is a main crossroads for hikers and climbers, the summit being at around 1,560 ft. On the opposite side is Great End in the Scafells. Kern Knotts lies on the south eastern ridge, as does the small pool of Dry Tarn. The south western ridge provides high level connection, dropping down Gavel Neese in the angle between Lingmell Beck and Gable Beck.

The summit of Great Gable is strewn with rocks and boulders and the tallest point marked by a rock outcrop set with a cairn. A hundred yards south west of the summit, overlooking the Napes, is the Westmorland Cairn. This cairn was constructed in 1876 by two brothers named Westmorland to mark what they considered to be the prime view in the Lake District. From here ground drops away into the profound abyss of upper Wasdale. More cairns mark the top of Gable Crag. It is testament to the high regard that many walkers and climbers have for Great Gable that the summit has become a popular site for the scattering of ashes following cremation.

Routes to ascend to the summit start from all of the main dales that radiate out from central Lakeland. The 'Gable Girdle', a circuit around the fell at mid height, as described by Wainwright, links a number of existing paths, namely the north and south traverses, Sty Head Pass, Aaron Slack and Moses Trod. The south traverse climbs westward from Sty Head and gives access to the Napes and Kern Knotts for rock climbers. The route is rough but allows the ordinary hillwalker to view Napes Needle, Sphinx Rock and many of the other famous climbs.

Warning - the traverse of the Southern slopes of Great Gable requires a sure foot, a head for heights and a steady nerve. There are parts of this path that provide significant exposure and parts that will need Grade 2 Scrambling Skills. If you choose to “Thread the Needle”, be aware that this is classed as a Grade 3 scramble. Once on the traverse, any attempt to by-pass the “worst” parts will involve descending very steep, pathless scree.

Starting Point - Seathwaite Farm

Access to Seathwaite is from one direction only, a dead-end road branching off the B5289 Keswick to Buttermere road at Seatoller. Parking is available at nuerous places along this road, although the earlier the start, the nearer you can get to the Farm and the start of the walk.

Section 1 - Seathwaite to Styhead Tarn

Distance: 2.25 miles (3.62 km)

Height Gain: 1050 ft (320m)

On arriving at Seathwaite Farm pass straight through the farmyard to follow the main path towards Styhead and the Scafell Massif. The path climbs gently along side Styhead Gill to arrive at Stockley Bridge. Cross the bridge and ignore the path off to the left immediately after a wall and start to climb the stone pitched path ahead, climbing around Greenhow Knott to rejoin Styhead Gill.

Continue along the path, pitched in parts, as it tracks next to the picturesque stream. As a footbridge across the stream comes in to view, the going becomes more difficult for a while as you have to negotiate a boggy section where there are numerous rocks to help. There is no “right” path here – just take the route you find easiest but without deviating too far from the stream. Cross the footbridge then continue in a SSW direction arriving at Styhead Tarn.

Section 2 - Styhead Tarn to Great Gable Summit

Distance: 1.25 miles (2km)

Height Gain: 1506ft (459m)

Pass Styhead Tarn and climb very gradually until arriving at a Mountain Rescue Stretcher Post. This is known as Sty Head and numerous paths meet here. The required path heads off NW for 25m or so before it splits in two. The right hand, stone stepped, path climbs direct to the summit of Great Gable. However, it is the left hand, less obvious path that we take. The Westbound soft grassy path soon veers back to the NW and starts to become more rugged underfoot.

The first difficulty arrives just below the popular climbing location of Kern Knotts where there are two or three sections of awkward moves over large slabs of rock. If you find these not to your liking, this is the time to retreat. The path now steepens as it makes its way across the slopes of Great Gable. The path is relatively obvious but the steep slopes demand care, particularly in the areas where the rocks and scree are loose. As the route progresses, the huge mass of rock of Great Napes comes ever closer. Above on the right the aptly named Sphinx Rock stands sentinel like over Wasdale. Eventually, on the right, the impressive Napes Needle reveals itself. From the main path, the Needle is, in many ways, just another rock pinnacle. However, venture away from the path around the back of the Needle and suddenly the magical attraction of one of Lakeland’s iconic rocks becomes evident. Before setting out to “Thread the Needle”, bear in mind that this is a full on Grade 3 Scramble with no escape options.

"Threading the Eye of The Needle" is an easier route than the main climb on the Needle itself and gives ambitious fell-walkers the chance to "play" in an area that you might think is traditionally only for climbers. The scenery is magnificent and once this route has been accomplished you can continue with comparative ease to enjoy Sphinx Ridge, Eagles Nest Gully and Westmorland Crags before arriving at the summit. The route is a traverse of the gap between the Needle and Needle Ridge. Begin from the side away from "the balcony" (the lake side) and scramble up the rocks to the gap. Now enter the chimney and wriggle for all you're worth suppressing all thoughts of maintaining your dignity if someone is behind you! On reaching the op of the gap you will now have a magnificent view across to the balcony and off the needle itself. The descent is quite steep and a little awkward. Some may prefer to have a partner with a rope and be lowered, but it is quite do-able without a rope.

On the far side of Napes Needle, Needle Gully can be easily crossed to bring you to the Dress Circle, a splendid viewpoint from which to watch the climbers scaling the vertical Needle on the other side of the gully. Next is the most awkward part of the route, crossing an exposed sloping slab where the rock is good under foot but very exposed. At the bottom of that section a stony gully carries on downwards but the path goes upwards again over steep grass and boulders heading for the distinctive shape of Sphinx Rock. It defies credibility that this rock is a natural formation, the resemblance to a human face is uncanny. The way ahead is a steep rocky section but interesting and enjoyable. You are now at a narrow ridge, this initial section is bouldery and exposed but not technically difficult. Suddenly the climbing is over as you step onto a splendid green ridge, steep scree slopes fall away on either side and Westmoreland Crags rise imposingly ahead.

Once above the Napes and you have walked up to the foot of Westmorland Crags follow the path around to the left, but head upwards as soon as you feel comfortable with the gradient. Soon you get to the Westmoreland Cairn just below the summit of Great Gable

Regardless of the time of day, day of the week, time of year, it is highly improbable that you will be alone atop one of the UK’s most iconic mountains. The classic view from Great Gable is looking down Wasdale from the Westmorland Cairn to the South of the summit.

Section 3 - Great Gable Summit to Green Gable Summit

Distance: 0.35 miles (0.56km)

Height Gain: 167ft (51m)

From Great Gable the route continues by descending the Northeast slopes, passing to the right of Gable Crag, on the way to the col at Windy Gap – a more apt name is difficult to imagine. The subsequent climb to Green Gable is on an obvious, though somewhat eroded, path. The gradient is not as severe as you have been through on Great Gable but it is steeper than the map leads you to believe. The views back to Great Gable provide justification for a breather on the way up to Green Gable. Once at the summit of Green Gable, the views SSE across Styhead Tarn to Great End are quite spectacular. Having arrived at the summit of Green Gable, the worst of the day’s climbing is done.

Section 4 - Green Gable Summit to Seathwaite Farm

Distance: 1.75 miles (2.82km)

Height Gain: -2234ft (-681m)

From the summit of Green Gable, there are two clear paths heading off in a generally Northeasterly direction. The right hand one of these provides an escape route via Mitchell Cove and the Northern flanks of Base Brown back to Seathwaite involving a quite steep final descent alongside Sour Milk Gill to return to Seathwaite Farm.