Friday, 13 June 2014

the new west

You see yon precipice—it almost looks
Like some vast building made of many crags,
And in the midst is one particular rock
That rises like a column from the vale,
Whence by our shepherds it is call’d, the Pillar.

William Wordsworth, The Brothers.
Pillar Rock, in Ennerdale, is one of the most spectacular pieces of rock architecture in the Lake District, second only to the summit crags of Scafell, a monstrous carbuncle on the northern flank of what is otherwise an unremarkable mountain. After our exertions on Corvus the previous year, it seemed like a fitting venue for another climb.

Following a number of failures, the Rock was first climbed by local shepherd John Atkinson on 9th July 1826, believed to be by a line now known as the Old West Route, which is no longer regarded as a rock climb. It is no coincidence that both this ascent and the earlier failures were by shepherds, because the topography of the Rock makes it fatally easy for sheep to wander across and jump down to ledges from which they subsequently cannot escape and must be rescued.

The route that I chose on this occasion was the New West Climb, pioneered by George and Ashley Abraham and two companions three-quarters of a century after the Rock’s first ascent. It was graded ‘difficult’ by the Abraham brothers, and it retains that grade now, although there are at least fifteen harder grades (depending on who you ask). It follows a line of grooves and chimneys on the right of the face shown on the photograph above, which is known to climbers as the West Face of High Man and which represents no more than a quarter of the full, precipitous extent of the Rock. According to the latest guidebook, it ‘finds its way through areas of rock usually reserved for harder climbs’.

Should a translation of this quote from the guidebook be needed, then I would point to the complete absence of big ledges on the climb, which have the effect of lessening the sense of exposure. In other words, for such an apparently easy climb, it is quite scary. There is another problem: Pillar Rock is one of the most inaccessible cliffs in the district, with a mandatory walk of several miles up the valley followed by a 2,000-foot slog up the hillside to reach the foot of the West Face. A tough assignment for a nine-year-old boy.

The following sequence of photos provides only a flavour of the climb.

The first part of the climb is neither steep nor difficult.

Getting steeper.

The start of ‘a fairly difficult groove’ (this is a quote from the 1968 guidebook).

Further up the ‘difficult groove’.

Approaching the top of the ‘difficult groove’.

An easy but exposed traverse connects one chimney with the next.

This one’s a tight squeeze.

Very exposed slabs near the top of the climb.

Just one more chimney and we’re at the top.

I suggested above that this was a tough assignment for a nine-year-old, but Siegfried completed the climb in good style. However, by the time we’d descended to the Forestry Commission road immediately below the Rock, it was obvious that he was flagging, so I told him to take a rest while I ran down the valley to the car. Although private cars are banned on such roads, I then drove back up the valley to pick him up. The New West Climb is one of only a handful of routes of this standard in the Lake District that are worth doing, and its remoteness is part of the attraction, but do make sure that you’ve enough left in the tank to complete the walk out. Had a key gate on the road up the valley been locked, which it should have been, then Siegfried would have had to walk all the way back to where I’d originally parked the car.


  1. I got vertigo just looking at the pictures

    1. If you think that these photos look vertiginous Peter, then you should check out Rigor Mortis.

  2. I used to walk up Winnat's Pass in Castleton, Derbyshire and see climbers stuck to the side of a hill and think 'Nah'

    1. Stuck? It happens, or should happen, very rarely. I climbed purely for fun.


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