Gable Girdle: is this the Lake District’s most adventurous day walk?

I originally wrote this feature for Lakeland Walker – check out the magazine here

The clue is in the name. Great Gable is unquestionably one of the great Lakeland fells. It is a towering, rugged mass of rock and crags and cliffs. It is captivating to look at – an unbroken, devilish pyramid from the south, the dome of a sleeping, curled-up giant from the north. It is a mountain that captures the imagination and fuels passions; a place that demands respect and admiration, and gets it in spades. Alfred Wainwright called Great Gable the “undisputed overlord” of its group of fells – a strong, graceful mountain with the “finest view in the district”. But I’m not heading for the 899m summit. My goal is different – to walk around, not up, this ancient pile of lava and volcanic ash.

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What a mountain! Great Gable and Windy Gap

Why? Because I want a more intimate and dramatic interaction with the mountain. I’m taking on the Gable Girdle – a high-level circumnavigation of the fell that combines the classic north and south traverses. I won’t need a helmet or ropes or carabiners – but this is still my chance to enter a world usually the preserve of expert rock climbers. My hands will touch bare, cold rock. I’ll get up close and personal with vertiginous cliffs and bizarre rock formations. My feet will slide on rivers of scree and my heart will race during adrenaline-inducing scrambles. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping for. Will I class it as Lakeland’s best hike that doesn’t aim to reach a summit? Wainwright certainly waxed lyrical about the Gable Girdle – and I’m raring to find out for myself.

Gable Girdle – The Walk In

I start in Seathwaite, the wettest place in England. Miraculously the sun is bright in an unblemished sky. I climb alongside the cascading Sour Milk Gill and perch on a rocky outcrop like a mountain goat. Borrowdale glistens magically below me – a Lakeland scene of timeless beauty. But I don’t wait for long. Great Gable is my focus and I must press on.

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Admiring the views from Sour Milk Gill

My calves burn as I finally reach the spur between Base Brown and Green Gable. I don’t know where to look. Everywhere I turn is a panorama to cleanse the soul. I slowly swivel a full 360 degrees, noticing familiar landmarks – the Langdale fells, Ennerdale Forest, Buttermere. Like old friends they bring a smile to my face, triggering happy memories of Lakeland expeditions of years gone by. Snapping out of my daydreams, I skirt past the 801m top of Green Gable – today is not about summits – and descend red scree to Windy Gap. Ahead several hikers snake up a steep, boulder-strewn path leading to the Great Gable cairn – but I won’t be joining them. I veer off west and pick up a faint track running along the base of the dominating, shattered crags. Let my Gable Girdle adventure commence.

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Hiker near Green Gable

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Start of the North Traverse of Gable Crag

Gable Girdle – North Traverse

Suddenly I feel alone and exposed. No-one else is on the north traverse. The dark, shadowed precipice of Gable Crag looms over me. The wind is howling and the air has a cold bite. Grass and vegetation are sparse – this is a world of rock and not much else. Doubts creep in – have I bitten off more than I can chew? Am I on the right path? Or is this simply a sheep trod or the trail of another lost walker? Glorious views towards Black Sail youth hostel and Ennerdale help to steady my nerves – and I soon rediscover both my bearings and my confidence.

I struggle over shifting stones and emerge at Beck Head, where I find a rock to stand on and ogle the scenery. You couldn’t Photoshop this any better. Wastwater spreads out majestically in the valley below, its surface dancing in the sunlight. Cloud shadows roll over the heathery slopes of Illgill Head and Yewbarrow, which frame the lake perfectly. A gap opens in the sky and God beams, like spotlights from heaven, illuminate the intricate puzzle of dry stone wall-separated fields in Wasdale Head. They glow a magical bright green and I laugh aloud at the sheer awesomeness of where I am and what I am doing. This is one of those moments that captures why I love Lakeland – and makes up for all the hikes in dense fog or heavy rain or driving hail.

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Looking out over Wastwater from Beck Head

Gable Girdle – Great Napes

I re-join the Gable Girdle heading south past the White Napes before turning east to Little Hell Gate. This is where the action really starts. I’m at the Great Napes, a castle-like crag famed for its epic climbing routes and distinctive natural features such as the teetering spike of Napes Needle. I feel like a fish out of water, a hiker lacking the head-for-heights or intrepid spirit needed for these parts. But Wainwright reassures me, describing the Girdle as a “doddle” where “one never has the feeling the end is nigh”. He even suggests children and dogs can safely take on the route, but that “nagging wives should be left to paddle their feet in Styhead Tarn”. (5 times I have been VERY scared in the Lake District here)

The Cat Rock – a boulder that (yes, you guessed it) resembles a cat – is my first goal. I scramble up gullies and over ledges, cross slopes of unstable scree and hop from boulder to boulder. Where am I? I find it a confusing, disorientating landscape, but this is genuinely exciting. I’m like a big kid on an epic adventure. In my imagination I’m a legendary climber exploring an untouched wilderness and pioneering a new ascent. The reality couldn’t be more different. I can’t locate Cat Rock. Instead I find myself staring at The Sphinx Rock – the same pinnacle but from a different angle. How did I manage that? Obviously navigating these crags is not my strong point but getting lost isn’t ruining the fun.

A chilly breeze ruffles my hair. The only sounds are the rush of a distant beck and the crunch of my boots on the grey, blue and purple-red rocks. My fingers brush against bright-yellow lichens and bouncy moss as I attempt to grip onto a boulder. I can almost feel a physical connection to the mountain. I heave myself out of a mini gully and find a great spot from which to watch climbers on the 20m-high Napes Needle, which is widely reported as the birthplace of British rock climbing. My legs turn to jelly just looking at them edge up the terrifying pillar. They are the real pros of this environment. I know I’m not one of them – but it’s been nice to pretend.

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Napes Needle and climbers

Gable Girdle – South Traverse

I scramble out of the Great Napes and re-join the faint south traverse track. The drama however isn’t quite finished. Clambering over giant boulders, I gaze over some of the nation’s highest and best-loved mountains. I watch tiny hikers – mere dots on the rocky horizon – heading for the tops of Lingmell, Scafell Pike, Broad Crag and Great End. Surprisingly, I’m not jealous. Of course it feels odd, almost sacrilegious, for a peak-bagger like me to be avoiding all summits. But I’m happy here – it’s a refreshing, invigorating change to my usual Lake District hiking routine.

The final leg of my circular walk is a tad underwhelming. I reach Styhead Tarn, which is noticeable for a distinct absence of “nagging wives” paddling their toes, before turning north-west up the tedious treadmill of Aaron Slack. It is a real slog but eventually – tired, sweaty and achy – I arrive back at Windy Gap to complete my loop around, not up, Great Gable. I glance at the path leading to the summit. For a second I’m tempted. A quick jaunt to the cairn wouldn’t hurt, would it? As I’m here why waste the chance to bag another top? I pause, temporarily unsure – but then, suddenly, I know what I have to do. I turn away, my back to Great Gable, and re-trace my steps to Seathwaite. Who needs the formality of a summit visit when you’ve already experienced one of the most adventurous, high-adrenaline walks in all of Lakeland?