Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Eagle Crag: A Tough Old Bird

“How the chuffnell do I get up there?” (Marc: September 2015)
Those were my first words when I looked at Eagle Crag, not for the first time, but certainly for the first time with intent to ascend it. Having decided to start and look at new challenges, not quite so traditional, I had read about Eagle Crag in ‘Scrambles in the Lake District - North: Volume 2: Northern Lakes’. I then saw a Tweet by Alan Hinkes about his ascent of Eagle Crag, Nethermost Ridge onto Nethermost Pike. I decided that this might make a good step up onto tougher walks.
Eagle Crag is located in the idyllic Grisedale valley, the home of Helvellyn and St Sunday Crag. I’ve covered this access before, but my start was the car park in Glenridding. On this particular morning there had been a cloud inversion resulting in low cloud from around a thousand feet and lower. The forecast was for it to clear around mid-morning, so my 8:30 start was hopefully well timed.
After the walk down the main road towards Patterdale and a turn off up the Grisedale Lane. As I passed the plantation at Thornhow it became clear that the inversion was clearing, with quite dramatic results. It’s amazing how sometimes a condition that might spoil a walk can actually contribute to the experience.
As I passed the Elmhow and Crossing Plantations I got a half decent view of Eagle Crag with Nethermost Ridge and Pike clearly visible. I started to have doubts about my ascent, wondering if it was beyond my current abilities. But rather than just give up I continued on with the intention of giving it a really good look first.
Once at the footbridge below Eagle Crag I was up close and a little more personal. At this point my thoughts were my quote right at the beginning of this post. Okay, so there has to be a way up…….right? Looking closely at the whole crag I could see an escape route off to the right that would take me down to and alongside Nethermost Beck. So that was potentially a shorter route if things didn’t go quite to plan.

The spoil heaps looked ropey at best, but there were different ways up, and down, if necessary.
Half way up the spoil heaps and it was quite tough going on the loose rocks. You have to watch your foot placement and make sure you are maintaining maximum sole surface area. If you try to toe up the slope you will cause little mini landslides. So trying to maintain a flat footed walk helps maximise the surface area of the sole on rock, spreads your weight and reduces the mini landslides. From a distance this slope looks fairly easy, but once on it, it is steeper than you imagine, so great care is needed.

Once at the foot of Eagle Crag proper I could see that the crag is a little too much of a challenge, especially on my own. There is an obvious line of weakness, but it is full of vegetation. From experience, vegetation can be hazardous, so I decided that it was better to find an easier way up and circumvent the crag.

I decided to head around to the left of the crag and see if there was a route up onto the top of the crag that way. The route started off initially as a steepening scree covered slope.
Around the corner and I was faced with an incredibly steep slope that was a mixture of grass and rock. It looked accessible, so I headed on up. This slope turned into a hands and feet situation. It wasn’t overly difficult to get up, but a retreat would be hazardous.
The photograph below may give you a better idea of how steep the slope is. I’d estimate around 70 degrees. Luckily, it only goes on for about 30 feet or so, but you have to pick your route carefully. In my case I headed for the tree (in the previous photo) and across to the right behind the crag.
Once on the top of the crag you find a marshy area where water must be being dammed up by the rock. A good place to sit and rest for a few minutes. And grab something to eat and drink.
Behind me I could see my next steps up a steep rock covered slope. This looked in better condition than the other slopes I had ascended as the rocks are much bigger. And, as it turned out, much more stable.
Before I set off I noticed a lamb and it’s mother sat very close to the edge of a quite high cliff. With a good 20-30 foot drop off the lamb chose to try and turn on the spot, very, very slowly.
The route up the steeper sections of Eagle Crag are easier at this point offering a little more enjoyment without the hair-raising experience of the lower slopes. There are a few lines of weakness that are quite visible as you work your way up.
At this point, looking up to the right, you see Striding Edge towering above you. I could just make out the masses just beginning to make there way across the ridge. I’d been across the ridge a couple of months before. What I was doing on Eagle Crag I found was tougher than my walk across Striding Edge with more to come.
Once at the top of the steepest section of Eagle Crag you find yourself on a rolling tufted grass slope. The easier slopes are just an illusion; the tufted grass is harder to walk across than any steep rocky slope. Behind the grassy slopes you can clearly see the steep climb up onto Nethermost Ridge. I decided to check the map and worked out I had around 1000 feet to ascend to get to the top. I’d already ascended around 1100 feet, which was quite a surprise.
Once at the foot of Nethermost Ridge I decided to have another break before heading up the final steep slope of the ascent. I looked down along the spine of Eagle Crag and the view was amazing. I’d love to come up here in the middle of the summer when the tops are greener. But the bronzed slopes before me looked amazing with the sunlight casting across them. In the photograph below, just past the shadows of the grassy slopes is a little stream that flows down to Nethermostcove Beck. This was the first way off the Crag if you chose not to continue up onto Nethermost Pike.
After a 10 minute break it was onward and upward. This was probably my favourite part of the ascent. There is a path broken through up the slope. It’s steep and a little slippery in places, but it’s all good fun. I seem to find these very steep sections easier than the more shallow slopes.
At the foot of the ridge proper and it’s like you’ve landed on a different planet. There is a very steep and long drop off on the right with a few gullies to watch out for.
Up onto the actual ridge and you are looking at an extremely alien landscape. It’s short but sweet and worth making the most of it.
Remembering to look back, I had the most incredible view down Grisedale. This has been one of my favourite challenges, and I felt so good at this point. I made a phone call to the person that had my itinerary to confirm I was on the top and my estimated return time. So yes, you can get a phone signal up there. I never promise a phone call, but I do like to check in if possible. Otherwise I leave a map of my route and times estimated.
At the cairn on Nethermost Pike Striding Edge was clearly in view in the great weather we were having. Catstye Cam can be seen just beyond Striding Edge off to the left.
As I headed towards the summit of Helvellyn, just above Swallow Scarth I was able to catch a fantastic shot of the back of Eagle Crag. The sun was casting amazing highlights and shadows across it’s spine. What a great view of the top half of my route.
Unlike the last time on Helvellyn, this time I passed the plaque that commemorates the landing of a plane on the summit of Helvellyn back in December 1926.
My chosen route off was Swirral Edge, a good place to start practising down-climbing over rocky slopes. There are some loose rocks and slippery sections here to watch for.
The route back to Glenridding has been covered by me previously when I went over Striding Edge. It’s a fairly easy walk down past Red Tarn and through Glenridding Common, but there are alternatives.
Below are two photographs, one without and one with my route up Eagle Crag and Nethermost Ridge.

This has been, for sure, one of my favourite ascents. It had all the challenges, both physically and technically, that I needed to push me a little further up the difficulty slope. I had a really good time, got tired at times, but kept pushing, the psychological battle. Never give up.

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