At 3209ft, or 978 metres, above sea level, Scafell Pike is the highest mountain in England. The views from its barren, rock-strewn summit – when not covered in cloud – take in much of the Lake District as well as the Isle of Man, the hills of southern Scotland, north Wales and the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland.
The fell, composed largely of the resilient igneous rocks of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group, lies to the south-west of the central ‘spoke’ of the geological dome that makes up the Lake District. It can be approached from several valleys, although the route from Wasdale is the shortest and most frequently used. This steep pull to the summit – 2.5 miles long – is the preferred route of those attempting the National Three Peaks challenge, which involves ascending the highest peaks in England, Wales and Scotland, usually within 24 hours. Like many of the most popular paths in the Lake District, it has suffered considerable erosion in recent years – due to a combination of heavy footfall and high rainfall – and path repair teams, led by the National Trust, work hard to maintain it.
Another well-used route starts in Borrowdale – climbing to Esk Hause and then tackling the mile-long, broad but bouldery spine linking Great End, Ill Crag and Broad Crag with the Pike. Walkers then return via the Corridor Route, a rough, rugged trail that traverses the craggy north-west face of the range. This passes above Piers Gill, a deep, dark and horribly steep-sided ravine that has been the scene of many accidents over the years. The longest route on to the Pike starts at the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Great Landgale, 5.3 miles from the summit. Trickier still, and less well-used, is the approach from Eskdale, involving a lot of rough ground and requiring particularly good navigational skills.
Scafell Pike’s nearest neighbour is England’s second highest mountain, Scafell (3162ft/964m), but the two are separated by the rocky saddle of Mickledore. Dropping into Mickledore is one thing, but getting out of it is another. Broad Stand, the formidable buttress looming over it, is no place for walkers; the only way up on to Scafell is to go down first, on steep, loose scree, and then clamber up on routes suitable only for the sure-footed.
In 1919, soon after the end of the First World War, the summit of Scafell Pike and about 40 acres surrounding it was gifted to the nation by the landowner Lord Leconfield in memory of the local men who had died during the bitter conflict. An inscription on the summit cairn, the highest war memorial in the country, commemorates the men who “fell for God and King, for freedom, peace and right in the Great War 1914-18”. Four years later, members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, after much negotiation, managed to purchase an even larger tract of the surrounding land, encompassing no fewer than 12 summits including Great Gable. This too was handed over to the National Trust in memory of the fallen, some of whom had been members of the club and were among the leading climbers of their age.