Mind-boggling views, thrilling exposure and an alpine feel make this Lake District classic the perfect introduction to grade 3 scrambling.
It might not have the big-name status of Crib Goch or the Cuillin, but Pinnacle Ridge is a route that every hill walker making their way up the scrambling scale should have a crack at. This spiky fin protruding from the north west side of St Sunday Crag has all the exposure, technicality and wow factor of its more famous cousins, with one added bonus: most of the difficulties are easily escapable. Stick to the crest of the ridge and you’ll find yourself firmly in Grade 3 territory. Those who struggle with the technicalities, though, can scoot round the side of the pinnacles without setting foot above Grade 2. This cop-out clause makes Pinnacle Ridge the ideal stepping-stone for anybody keen to push their scrambling grade, not to mention one of the best Alpine-style days out that the Lakes has to offer.
Spot the scramble
The biggest challenge facing anybody hoping to tackle this classic route is how to find the damn thing. It’s marked clearly on the 1:25,000 OS map, but a good guidebook will be invaluable for first-timers.
“A lot of people struggle with getting to the start,” says local mountaineering instructor Paddy Cave of mountaincircles.com. “The best way is to walk along Grisedale until you reach a little plantation called Elmhow Plantation. Immediately after that there’s a gate - go through that, turn left and leave the main path that runs along the bottom of Grisedale to walk up the side of the plantation for a short way. You’ll see a pony track that zig zags faintly up the hill side, roughly following the left-hand edge of a stream. Continue up that until you reach Blind Cove and the ground begins to level out a little.”
The mistake most people make here is to head straight for the scrambly ground that you can see on your right as you reach Blind Cove. Instead, says Paddy, turn right and contour around the hillside at the 440m index contour for roughly a kilometre.
“There will be broken gullies and ridges up to your left, and you’ll have to find your way across three tongues of scree,” he adds. “The third scree tongue is much more significant, and at this point you need to pick up a faint path that leads up the scree slope. Pinnacle Ridge is quite hard to make out, but it begins just to the left of one of the deepest gullies on the face. Gear up at the bottom of that gully and follow it on up, keeping to the left-hand side. The route will get more and more obvious from here.”
Conquering the crest
The ridge begins as a blunt spine of rock that offers quality scrambling and heady views over to Helvellyn and Dollywagon Pike without any real technical difficulties. It’s only around a third of the way up the ridge that you begin to breach grade 3 territory.
“The first difficulty comes in the shape of a large slab of rock,” explains Paddy. “You can go low here to stay on Grade 2 ground, but if you tackle the crest directly then it’s definitely Grade 3. The character of the ridge changes here, and there’s probably just 50m more of easy ground before you hit the three large pinnacles that give the ridge its name. The crux of the route is a corner line just behind the pinnacles, which offers nice Grade 3 scrambling with a couple of technical moves and takes you right onto the crest.
“After that there’s an exposed but easy scramble that quickly tightens into a six-metre crest with smaller pinnacles all the way along it. The ridge culminates in another tricky section - a final pinnacle that can be downclimbed or abseiled, depending on your preference. There is one final buttress after this, although many people choose to skip it and continue on to join the main track that comes off the summit of St Sunday Crag back down to Patterdale.”
The lowdown on gear
Plenty of experienced scramblers take on Pinnacle Ridge in good conditions without artificial aid, but if you’re stepping up to Grade 3 then it’s a good idea to take a 20m rope as well as slings, screwgates and potentially cams and nuts if you plan to abseil from the final pinnacle.
“That last section in particular is quite committing, so some knowledge of belays, how to abseil safely and how to protect the people with you is necessary, says Paddy. “You could make every belay other than the final abseil with slings and screwgates. I’d recommend putting slings on the spikes as you go up over the crest of the ridge as well, just to give yourself a couple of runners.”
Other than the abseil, the only section of the ridge where you might need a climbing rack is the final, optional buttress.
“Lots of people go around this buttress, but it’s a fantastic scramble and brings you out onto a flat spot that seems like a logical finish,” explains Paddy. “This is one long pitch that follows a large crack, and you could use rock gear here to protect yourself.”
The major hazard facing scramblers looking to tackle the ridge outside of winter is loose rock. The route is more solid than it appears from a distance, but there is still plenty of less reliable material to either side of the crest. Paddy advises testing each hold with care and ensuring that you use only the more solid pinnacles as anchors. He also has a warning for anybody attempting Pinnacle Ridge in winter conditions.
“This is a Grade 3 winter route - and although it’s very doable in winter for somebody with reasonable winter scrambling experience, there is a trouble spot right at the end. The slope that leads up to the summit from the top buttress is quite convex and holds a lot of snow, which means it does pose a real avalanche risk.
“Having said that, this is a good introduction to winter Grade 3 because it’s a sharp ridge and tends to shed most of its snow. Winter doesn’t transform it massively, and you don’t need ice screws or a second ice axe to take it on.”
Whatever the season, if you’re looking to step up to harder Grade 3 routes then Pinnacle Ridge is the perfect place to start.
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