Walk 2900 - printer friendly version
Pillar (by the High Level Path) from Wasdale Walk
Author - Stephen Starkey
Length - 8.0 miles / 13 km
Ascent - 2900 feet / 879 metres
Grade - mod/hard
Start - OS grid reference NY186085
Lat 54.465322 + Long -3.2573609
Postcode CA20 1EX (approx. location only)
On a clear day, few places in the Lake District have a view to compete with those from the summit of Pillar. There are 2 straightforward approaches to Pillar and there is one for the adrenaline junkies - the airy and exposed High Level Path. This route ascends by the High Level Path, returning via the more popular path to Looking Stead. The benefit of the High Level Path, apart from the adrenaline rush and satisfaction of completing one of the Lake District's toughest walks, are the superb views throughout the ascent. If possible, choose a clear day to enjoy a classic route.
This is a serious route with plenty of exposure that should be attempted only by experienced mountain walkers who have a good head for heights, are comfortable both descending and ascending steep scree slopes and are confident crossing boulder fields. There are occasional short (but reasonably straightforward) scrambles. The route is best avoided altogether in misty, wet or windy weather. Do not underestimate the High Level Path - it may only be 2km from the cairn at the start of the High Level Path to the summit of Pillar but you should allow at least 1 ½ hours.
From the car park (grid ref. NY186085), start by heading North along Wasdale road to the famous Wasdale Head Inn, summoning the will power to keep going past the only pub for miles around. Pass between the pub, Ritson's Bar and the Barn Door Shop, through the gate and turn right along the footpath next to Mosedale Beck. Ignore the path that crosses the old bridge and continue ahead on the right (East) side of Mosedale Beck, leading up to a gate. Pass through the gate and take the obvious path to the left (West) that climbs gently above Mosedale Beck and leads out in to the pleasant, rolling valley. Already, if you take the time to look to your left, you will be rewarded with wonderful views across Wasdale whilst the Mosedale valley stretches out ahead of you.
As you continue in to the valley, the view to your left is dominated by the imposing bulk and steep slopes of Yewbarrow. The more I looked at Dore Head screes on Yewbarrow, the more I became convinced that Ordnance Survey must be having a laugh by indicating this as a footpath on their maps. The path now gradually diverges from Mosedale Beck and starts to climb more steadily. After passing through a wooden gate, the gradient starts to gradually steepen again as the path heads towards Gatherstone Beck. As you approach the top of the waterfalls at grid reference 184-108, ignore the faint path that continues ahead and ford the stream to continue the ascent of the Black Sail Pass. The path gradually swings round from a Northerly heading to an Easterly direction as it climbs throughout until reaching the saddle at the top of Black Sail Pass. Ahead of you here are views down in to Ennerdale, with the Buttermere ridge beyond whilst to the right are the rocky faces of the Kirkfell Crags.
Take the path to your left at the saddle to head North West, gradually gaining more height though the path does undulate a little along the broad ridge. As the path favours the Southern side of the ridge, you have terrific views back down Mosedale. Very shortly after passing the minor top of Looking Stead you will come to a small group of rocks that make a wonderful place for a short rest and cuppa whilst soaking up the superb views of the Scafell massif and other fells surrounding Wastwater and Wasdale. From these same rocks, looking at the path ahead as it starts a steeper, rockier ascent, you will see a small cairn. This cairn marks a fork in the path and is the start point of the High Level Path that branches off to the right.
The cairn heralds the arrival of decision time. Take the first few steps on to the High Level Path and have a look at the initial descent on very steep and very loose scree. If you don't like the look of what you see, now is the time to turn back as this is typical of the gradient and ground you will encounter at regular intervals along the High Level Path. A slip along the High Level Path could have very serious consequences. Once you have started out on the High Level Path, there are only 2 real options - one is to see it through to the far end, the other is to retrace your route back to Looking Stead - and neither is a good option if you are uncomfortable on this type of terrain. There are no other viable escape routes from the High Level Path.
Once on to the High Level Path, the way ahead remains fairly clear throughout apart from the crossings of a few boulder fields. Here it is strongly recommended that you ensure you can spot the path on the far side and then pick your route as, if you miss the path, it will not always be straightforward to regain it due to the gradient of the hillside. You should also be aware that, during the first section of the High Level Path, the path you see and follow on the ground is not co-incident with that shown on the Ordnance Survey map. The two diverge above Green Cove and rejoin each other at Hind Cove.
All the way along this section of the route there are spectacular views over the Ennerdale valley to numerous fells beyond. You will also be able to spot Black Sail Youth Hostel - the most remote hostel in the YHA group. Shortly after passing the grassy knoll of Hind Cove you arrive at the famous Robinson's Cairn and gain your first view of the imposing Pillar Rock. Robinson's Cairn also makes for a sensible place to have a short break - partially to admire the impressive views but also because there are no other comfortable places to rest between here and the summit of Pillar, and there is some fairly serious walking between the two yet.
Continuing ahead from the cairn you will soon resume your acquaintance with the narrow, rocky, steep path as you head towards the gap between Pillar Rock and Pillar. Looking back at this point will reveal wonderful views back to the cairn with Ennerdale, its forest (or what is left of it after a period of significant tree felling) and Black Sail Youth Hostel.
After passing close to the ridge across to Pillar Rock, there follows a period of extremely steep ascent, predominantly on loose scree but also involving a couple of short but easy scrambles. Although easy, the scrambles are exposed with the long, steep drop behind you. Finally you emerge on to a much easier, grassy slope for the final few metres to the trig point at the summit of Pillar where you can reflect on your achievement. The summit of Pillar offers extensive views in all directions, taking in :
To the North : the Red Pike / High Stile / High Crag / Haystacks ridge on the South side of Buttermere; the Dale Head / Hindscarth / Robinson ridge on the North side of Buttermere; the peaks of the Coledale Horseshoe beyond and even Skiddaw and Blencathra in the far distance.
To the East : Fleetwith Pike, Grey Knotts, Brandreth, Glaramara and even the Helvellyn ridge can be picked out.
To the South East / South : the view is dominated by Great Gable, Scafell Pike and Scafell but also in the scene are Green Gable, Kirk Fell, Lingmell, Bowfell and Yewbarrow.
To the West finally : Red Pike, Scoat Fell, Steeple and Haycock are all prominent, along with Ennerdale Water.
To get the best of the views for any photos you may want though it is best to leave the summit trig point and wander around the summit plateau.Heading to the Northern edge of the plateau gives a great view back down to Pillar Rock.
The descent route, you will be pleased to know, is a lot, lot easier. It starts in a South Easterly direction, following the cairns and with views of some of Pillar's North Face, to pick up the main path from Looking Stead. It is then simply a case of following the main path, which is fairly steep and rocky in places, back to Looking Stead and the cairn that marks the start of High Level Path. Then retrace the outward route to the top of Black Sail Pass and down the side of Gatherstone Beck and Mosedale Beck. The lure of the Wasdale Head Inn might just be too strong to ignore this time round! This might not be the longest walk you ever do in the Lake District and others will involve significantly more ascent along the way, but few others will have the legs and lungs making louder pleas for mercy.