How to scramble: Sharp Edge

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 30/06/2015
Sharp Edge (seen here in semi-winter conditions - a more serious prospect than the summer conditions described in this article)

Take on one of the Lake District’s most famous Grade 1 scrambles with our guide to tackling Sharp Edge.

It’s been called the Crib Goch of the Lake District - but does Sharp Edge have sufficient wow factor to stand up to its Snowdonian rival? Absolutely, says Mountain Training-qualified instructor Kate Ayres of Lakes-based guiding company Climb Scafell.

“What makes Sharp Edge special is its iconic look and position above Scales Tarn,” she adds. “And of course, like all the best scrambles, it finishes on a summit.”

Sharp Edge’s pulling power is boosted by its sheer visibility. The curve of the ridge confronts drivers as they speed down the A66 from Penrith, tapering temptingly towards the top of Blencathra. No keen scrambler can see that come-hither scramble from afar without feeling a heartbeat in their throat.

Then, too, the route is so alluringly accessible. You can park in a layby off the main road and be at its base in an hour. So what’s stopping you from taking on this Lakeland classic?

It’s harder than you think...

Yes, Sharp Edge has a Grade 1 rating in the scrambling guidebooks - but don’t let that lure you into taking it lightly.

“In all but perfect conditions, the ridge will feel harder than a mere Grade 1,” says Kate. “Slippery rock, exposure and commitment all combine to put it at the top end of its grade.” 

If you’re a relative newcomer to the scrambling game then leave this one for a good day. Rain and wind transform Sharp Edge from an adrenaline-pumping route that most hill walkers with a head for heights can tackle to a slippery, scaly beast of a scramble (it is composed of Skiddaw Slate, which quickly loses friction in the wet). The real problem area in bad weather is the ‘Bad Step’, a smooth slab before the small col that has claimed several lives. Kate advises using a rope to protect this section in the rain.

“The rock becomes very slippery when wet, so although only a Grade 1 scramble, if the rock is damp it will feel much harder,” she explains. “Being an exposed ridge it can also be affected by crosswinds. Calm and dry conditions are best for this one, so check the forecast before you go.”

WATCH: Britain's Mountain Challenges: Sharp Edge on BMC TV

…But don’t be put off

It has its risks, like every scramble, but Sharp Edge rewards those who dare to tackle it. “Go prepared for the challenges,” says Kate, “and you won’t be disappointed.”

Navigationally this is a straightforward prospect. The action begins at Scales Tarn, where a clear and well-trodden path leads directly up to the ridge. “Take to the rocky crest as soon as possible and stick to it as best you can,” Kate advises. “There is a choice of routes, all going to the same place, so take whatever you like the look of, but always staying close to or on the crest.”

The first major difficulty, she adds, is the Bad Step. “A very exposed section will present itself. This offers a handrail of rock but only a smooth, sloping slab for the feet, so can feel daunting. Rest assured it is only very short and leads to the comfort of a small col.”

After the col, the character of the scramble changes completely. “Until now the ridge has been fairly horizontal - more like a traverse than a climb. This now changes as the ground becomes steeper for the final ascent. Follow the well worn groove on the right for the most straightforward route to the summit.”

Watch out for loose rock on this final section, which is otherwise a reasonably straightforward scramble. 

Making a day of it

There are several spectacular routes down from Sharp Edge, but if you fancy some more scrambly action then head for Hall’s Fell Ridge. This exciting descent is officially a grade 1, but it shouldn’t tax the abilities of even the most cautious scrambler. The main challenges are the exposure and the slipperiness of the rock when wet.

Fancy a longer day out? Kate advises topping out on Atkinson Pike and following the broad ridge to Blencathra summit before joining the path that heads southwest to Blease Fell.

“Paths lead back to the valley and from here there are tracks leading along the bottom of the fell to Scales Farm,” she says. “For those looking for some wild landscapes, though, rather than head straight for Blencathra summit, from Atkinson Pike go exploring on Mungrisdale Common - it’s well worth the effort.”

Sharp Edge in the snow

It’s one of the best snowy days out in the Lake District, but Sharp Edge in full winter conditions is no easy prospect.

“My very first experience of the Lake District mountains was indeed Sharp Edge in winter,” Kate recalls. “With teachers from college a group of us students were led across this precipitous snow-plastered edge without crampons but thankfully with a rope! It felt scary but amazing at the same time.”

If you’ve penciled the ridge in for next winter then be aware that it’s a grade I/II winter climb and that you’ll need crampons, an ice axe and plenty of winter hill walking experience.

Read more "how to scramble" guides:

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