Great Gable’s most famous ridge climb makes for an epic day out - particularly if you’re brave enough to tackle Napes Needle itself as part of the ascent…
Technically, it’s a climb rather than a scramble - but Needle Ridge never strays above a V Diff, putting it within the capabilities of most rope-savvy mountain folk. That low grade coupled with its length, sustained exposure and classic location high on Great Gable make this an essential addition to our ‘how to scramble’ series.
“Needle Ridge is a great mountaineering route,” says local guide Iain Gallagher of Kendal Mountaineering Services. “It’s in an imposing position in the middle of a big, high mountain crag, and there are stunning views to Scafell Pike across the valley and down to Wastwater. The place is steeped in climbing history”
The right approach
It’s possible to tackle Needle Ridge from a starting point at Seathwaite, but Iain recommends walking up from Wasdale if you want to take the shortest route in. The ascent will take a fit walker between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, initially following the path to Sty Head, but then ascending up left just before Kern Knotts crag by way of the "Climber's Traverse" to arrive at the base of Napes Crag with Napes Needle to the left. From the base of the Needle, you have two choices to get to the start of the climbers route if you want to include an ascent of this famous monolith.
To thread the Needle or not?
“You can either scramble up a steep, polished groove between the Needle and the crag to get to the start of Needle Ridge - a move known as ‘threading the Needle,” explains Iain, "You'll then need to descend a short distance down the other side to reach the ledge from where the classic route starts up Napes Needle. “Alternatively, you can take a line across below the needle and then scramble up Needle Gully a short distance to get to the same ledge. From the ledge, follow the slanting, polished crack up the Needle to a narrow stance just below the summit block.”
This climb, says Iain, should only be attempted by experienced climbers who are comfortable with the Hard Severe grade. ‘Summiting’ the Needle itself is a much more challenging proposition because protection is almost non-existent for the last five metres and descending involves a highly sketchy direct belay with your life entirely dependent on rope-on-rock friction.
“I’ve been up there many times with clients and never had the nerve to get any of them on top of the Needle,” says Iain. “I wouldn’t recommend trying it.”
WATCH: Britain's Mountain Challenges: Threading the Needle on BMC TV
Most climbers will avoid the Needle all together and simply start the ridge from the notch behind Napes Needle.
“From here, you can either do a 12-metre pitch which takes you up a polished slab into a left-leaning groove that finishes at a stance overlooking Needle Gully, or you can tackle a whopping 27-metre pitch which brings you to a nice big stance further up with plenty of anchor points,” explains Iain. “This first pitch is what I’d call the ‘real’ climbing on Needle Ridge. The grade is V Diff and the crux is getting up the steep wall just above the first stance (or the first part of the second pitch if you choose to use that first stance). Many people do find just getting up the first slab and into the chimney very exciting.”
After the first pitch, the grade eases to a level that most scramblers will find comfortable. An airy but reasonably straightforward scramble along the ridge leads to a wall, where you climb a right-facing corner almost to its top before stepping left to gain better holds; and just above, you'll reach another spacious belay ledge. In total, the second pitch is around 35 metres of easy climbing.
“You’re then left with a grade 2 scramble of around 35 metres to the end of the ridge,” adds Iain. “I would recommend staying roped and moving together for this final section, weaving through the blocks and throwing your rope around them as you go so that the person following has a direct belay. You’ll end up on a big grassy ridge that runs up to end close to Westmorland's Crag.
"A great way to finish this mountaineering excursion is to gain the summit of Great Gable by ascending Pinnacle Ridge on Westmorland's Crag - a fine scramble starting at the lower east end of that face and ascending to its top.”
Gable's summit is only a few minutes away.
Watch your step
While Needle Ridge won’t be a grade pusher for most climbers, it’s by no means a walk in the park. The rock is polished in many places and treacherous in the wet - even the approach through slippery scree can be hazardous. It is also hair-raisingly exposed.
“The exposure might give some people pause for thought, particularly on the crux of the first pitch,” adds Iain. “You’re on a steep-sided arête for most of the climb, and it does feel exciting.”
In winter, of course, the difficulty increases ten-fold - Iain says that the climbing pushes grade 5.
Like its equally exhilarating neighbours Eagle’s Nest Ridge and Arrowhead Ridge, though, there’s no denying that Needle Ridge is a classic and an essential addition to any aspiring mountaineer’s logbook.
Read more "how to scramble" guides:
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