No one who approaches the northern Lake District via the A66 can fail to be moved by the sight of Blencathra (2847ft/868m) towering over them. It’s a truly awesome mountain, its south and east faces punctuated by a series of narrow, often rocky arêtes that are among some of the most popular, and scary, scrambling routes in the National Park. The best-known of these is Sharp Edge, a reptilian spine of Skiddaw Slates, slick and treacherous in wet or icy conditions, that rises above Scales Tarn. The scene of several fatal accidents over the years, this knife-edge ridge requires both a head for heights and competence on rocky ground; in winter, it requires mountaineering skills. Beyond the arête itself are the slabs of Foule Crag, which have to be climbed hand over hand before you reach the grassy summit area.
Other ridges on Blencathra include Hall’s Fell, an easier but still potentially vertiginous scrambling route, heather-clad Doddick Fell and the less well-used Gategill Fell. Those who want to stick to more pedestrian routes should consider Scales Fell or Blease Fell. These two both make for steep ascents, as you’d expect of a mountain of this stature rising rapidly from valley level, but walkers can avoid tricky ground entirely. Another option is to approach from the open, grassy expanses of Mungrisdale Common to the north, a route that is almost completely devoid of excitement until the final, steep push up the Blue Screes path and on to Atkinson Pike at the top of Foule Crag.
The summit ridge, from Atkinson Pike in the north-east to Knowe Crags in the south-west, is about a mile and a quarter long – a great opportunity to stride out and enjoy far-reaching views into the Lake District, across to the North Pennines and some way into Scotland and Northumberland too. While the main ridge drops away abruptly to the south and east, the ground to the north and west consists of much gentler slopes grazed by Herdwicks and other hardy breeds of sheep.
One of Blencathra’s more unusual features is the white cross laid out on the ground close to the pool on Atkinson Pike. The precise origin of this man-made feature is unknown, but it is thought to have started out as a much smaller cross in memory of a walker who lost his life nearby. According to Wainwright in his ‘Northern Fells’ pictorial guide, it was then enlarged by Threlkeld man Harold Robinson who brought quartz rocks to the site during a series of visits starting in 1945.
Blencathra, also known as Saddleback, made the national news in 2014 when the owner, the Earl of Lonsdale, put it on the market for £1.75 million to pay an inheritance tax bill. A group of mainly local people, known as the Friends of Blencathra, subsequently clubbed together in an attempt to purchase it but their bid failed. No other buyer was found and, at the time of writing, the mountain was still owned by the Lonsdale Estates.