The perfect hill: 5 reasons to climb Blencathra

Posted by Carey Davies on 14/02/2017
Heading for Gategill Fell in winter. Photo: Terry Abraham

From famous mountaineers to mere mortals, everyone seems to have a soft spot for the ‘people’s mountain’. Here are five reasons why you should climb Blencathra yourself.

Terry Abraham's BMC-supported film Life of a Mountain: A Year on Blencathra is screening on the BBC tonight. To mark the occasion Carey Davies, the BMC's hill walking officer, has penned five reasons why we all should go out and climb it, immediately!

1. It has something for everyone

Seen from the Vale of Keswick, Blencathra’s southern ridges descend from its summit like a giant tiger’s claw, and in the right conditions it’s no exaggeration to say it can evoke the atmosphere of the Alps. But despite its occasionally formidable appearance, the challenge you will have on reaching that 868 metre (2,847 feet) summit is completely up to you. 

Blencathra is really several mountains in one. You can tailor the type of walking experience you have – from ‘easy’ (up the wide Scales Fell and down the easy Doddick Fell) to ‘medium’ (throw in the scrambly Hall’s Fell) or ‘hard’ (add the gloriously exposed Sharp Edge into the mix.) No wonder it has been described as ‘the perfect hillwalker’s hill’; from roomy ridges any walker can tackle to steely scrambles that require a bit of experience, Blencathra has difficulty settings to suit anyone.

2. It’s a mountaineer’s mountain

“I’m always asked what my favourite mountain is and am expected to say Everest, but I always say Blencathra.” So said Doug Scott, joint first Briton to climb Everest, survivor of a solo bivouac at 28,740 feet, descender of Baintha Brakk with two broken legs, and part of the first team to climb Kangchenjunga without oxygen. Yet his most beloved mountain, compared to the giants of the Karakoram or the Khumbu, is a mediocre molehill; a worn-down stub made from an ancient oceanic sludge; a glorified grazing ground; a summit so lowly you can stand on it at breakfast and be back in time for brunch.

WATCH: Great walks: Blencathra on BMC TV

But Doug is not alone in his opinion; it’s also a favourite fell of Sir Chris Bonington, who among many other things was the leader of the first team to climb the south face of Annapurna, and Alan Hinkes, the first Brit to climb all 14 mountains bigger than 8,000 metres. Clearly, Blencathra has a beauty and an appeal which goes beyond mere metrical measurement.  There is something glorious about a mountain where occasional bimblers, 8,000 metre mountaineers, and everyone in between can stand together on its summit and draw something meaningful from the experience.

3. It’s legendary

According to local legend, Blencathra is the fabled resting place of King Arthur and his band of knights, who slumber inside the mountain in a state of magical limbo waiting to rise when Britain is once again under threat from invading forces (nobody is quite sure why they decided to sleep through the Viking conquest, the Norman invasion, World War Two, etc). But Arthurian legend has slightly more solid roots in Cumbria than a fun myth. According to historian Michael Wood, Arthur is unlikely to have been a real person, but if he was, his most likely base was not Camelot but Carlisle, just 30 miles way.

As is often the case in Britain, myths are often stacked on top of each other like sedimentary layers, sometimes becoming jumbled together; Blencathra was also supposed to be the home of Afallach, a Celtic God of the Underworld, and in old Cumbrian, Blencathra means 'Devils Peak'.

4. It’s a geological hipster

The heart of the Lake District is made of rocks from something called the Borrowdale Volcanic Group, which is the gnarled wreckage left behind by 450 million-year-old volcanoes. When you teeter along Striding Edge on Helvellyn, snap a summit selfie on Scafell Pike or gaze out from the Langdale Pikes, this is the stuff under your feet. Most of the mountains between Coniston and Keswick are made of this, creating the characteristic rough-textured, jumbled forms of these fells.

WATCH: Life of a mountain: Blencathra – Sharp Edge on BMC TV

But Blencathra, which lies to the north of the main body of mountains like an aloof hipster at a party, is different. It belongs to a cluster of fells made of Skiddaw Slate, the oldest rocks in the Lake District. Created by black muds and sands settling on the seabed about 500 million years ago, this rock is a sleeker beast, and contributes to Blencathra’s elegant appearance, with its combination of rounded fellsides and shapely ridges. But the rock doesn’t just affect the aesthetics – Skiddaw Slate becomes notoriously slippery when wet, and can make more adventurous routes like Sharp Edge genuinely sketchy in the rain. Watch your step!

5. It’s accessible

Blencathra doesn’t score big points in the remoteness column. Its tranquillity is shattered by the A66, which shears right across its base. Head into the central Lakes, to Upper Eskdale in autumn, or catch Styhead or Sprinkling Tarn before the crowds arrive, and you could almost imagine you’re a long way from society; not so on Blencathra, where you can hear the susurration of traffic right on its crowning point.

But Blencathra’s weakness is also its secret weapon; its accessibility allows you to rise rapidly from a world of everyday tedium into one of knife-edge ridges, primeval geology, snow, sunshine, and views stretching from Snowdonia to Scotland. Perhaps it is the visibility and accessibility of Blencathra which makes it among the most ardently adored mountains in Britain. As writer Ronald Turnbull says: “Gable and Scafell are excellent bits of hill. But the one walkers keep coming back to, again and again, is Blencathra.”


JOIN THE BMC: 5 reasons hill walkers should join the BMC

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WATCH: What does the BMC do for hill walkers? on BMC TV

GET THE KNOWLEDGE: BMC resources for hill walkers

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