Take on one of the Lake District’s most famous Grade 1 scrambles with my guide to tackling Sharp Edge.
It’s been called the Crib Goch of the Lake District – but does Sharp Edge have sufficient wow factor to stand up to its Snowdonian rival? Absolutely, says Mountain Training-qualified instructor Kate Ayres of Lakes-based guiding company Climb Scafell.
“What makes Sharp Edge special is its iconic look and position above Scales Tarn,” she adds. “And of course, like all the best scrambles, it finishes on a summit.”
Sharp Edge’s pulling power is boosted by its sheer visibility. The curve of the ridge confronts drivers as they speed down the A66 from Penrith, tapering temptingly towards the top of Blencathra. No keen scrambler can see that come-hither scramble from afar without feeling a heartbeat in their throat.
Then, too, the route is so alluringly accessible. You can park in a layby off the main road and be at its base in an hour. So, what’s stopping you from taking on this Lakeland classic?
It’s harder than you think…
Yes, Sharp Edge has a Grade 1 rating in the scrambling guidebooks – but don’t let that lure you into taking it lightly.
“In all but perfect conditions, the ridge will feel harder than a mere Grade 1,” says Kate. “Slippery rock, exposure and commitment all combine to put it at the top end of its grade.”
If you’re a relative newcomer to the scrambling game then leave this one for a good day. Rain and wind transform Sharp Edge from an adrenaline-pumping route that most hill walkers with a head for heights can tackle to a slippery, scaly beast of a scramble (it is composed of Skiddaw Slate, which quickly loses friction in the wet). The real problem area in bad weather is the ‘Bad Step’, a smooth slab before the small col that has claimed several lives. Kate advises using a rope to protect this section in the rain.
“The rock becomes very slippery when wet, so although only a Grade 1 scramble, if the rock is damp it will feel much harder,” she explains. “Being an exposed ridge, it can also be affected by crosswinds. Calm and dry conditions are best for this one, so check the forecast before you go.”
Excerpt shared from the BMC website.
So, with the excerpt from above are you ready to take on this Grade 1 Scramble? My time had come in November 2018 when I met a friend called Russell and we off on our mission to cross Sharp Edge. It was a cold but sunny day and the conditions were just right given there was hardly any wind on the fells.
We met on the lane outside the White Horse Inn in Scales and took the path that is visible to the left-hand side of the pub. Climb over the stile and head up Scales Fell in a north easterly direction along the path. There are two paths to choose from which both lead to the same intersection; we took the higher path. The climb up the fell is demanding from the get go and eventually it will lead you to where different paths meet. Follow the path north which skirts Mousthwaite Comb and over the brow until you can see the river Glendermackin. Follow the path to the left of the river which is very well marked and traverses the valley until you come to Scales Beck.
From Scales Beck head east up the steps until you finally reach the impressive view of Scales Tarn and the focus of attention, Sharp Edge rising majestically from the right and curving its way round to above the tarn. This is where you will find out if you have the nerve to cross the ridge given its might is in full view. If you feel it maybe too much then you can take the path to the left for an easier summit of Blencathra at Hallsfell Top. But if you are ready for this Grade 1 scramble then follow the path to the right as it gradually rises until you reach the start of the arete. The first section is tricky knowing which line of travel to take but we stuck to the top until we reached “Bad Step” Now this may cause some people to freeze with fright given there is a gully to navigate and I personally had a few wobbles but I took my time and eventually got across with injury. What I noticed was the taller you are the less chance you will have of finding this place difficult.
You need to downclimb either side of the gully with the left-hand side being a lot more exposed with the tarn below. I chose the right-hand side and struggled to get a footing and three points of contact as I was just short of being able to put my foot on a rock just below me. Russell being much taller did not have this problem. There will be some people who just glide through this section and that will have more to do with confidence at height.
If you get stuck at “Bad Step” just stop and think about things and asses how to make a safe crossing. If you feel you cannot do it then turn around and go back the way you came which might be more difficult downclimbing but it is better than making a rash decision and causing injury or even death.
Once across “Bad Step” there are some tricky slabs to scramble before you make your final ascent of Sharp Edge. The slabs are wide but due to the angle it can be tricky to get a good grip to uplift yourself across them. Once over the slabs there is a short scramble to the summit of Sharp Edge and this is where you can look back safely at the Grade 1 scramble you have just completed with a sense of satisfaction.
Although I am not scared of heights completely, they do make me nervous and I will be honest crossing the ridge was exciting but at the same time taking me out of my comfort zone. Both myself and Russel gave each other support and confidence and that made all the difference. I think it was fair to say we were both rather pleased with ourselves and another crossed off the list.
The summit of Sharp Edge will then head south before you make your way up to the summit of Blencathra at Hallsfell Top. This section is easy to navigate compared to Sharp Edge with one short ascent to the summit. The wind had picked up whilst at the summit and we did consider coming down Hallsfell Ridge for a moment but eventually decided on a nice steady descent east across the top of Doddick Fell before descending Scales fell and back to the White Horse Inn.
There are obviously different routes to get to Sharp Edge and onwards but I chose this route given it takes around an hour to get to the ridge and it is a nice peaceful walk on a good weather day with impressive views along the route. As for Sharp Edge if I said it was easy then I would be being untruthful, it was exciting and rewarding but it is also a ridge to be treated with the upmost respect.