Best Rock Climbs in the South Lakes is the last in a series of five articles celebrating some of the amazing climbing the Lake District has to offer. The Coniston Fells are renowned for the extensive coppermines that were exploited in the hills here for the best part of 400 years, most notably in the Coppermines Valley itself.
Chalcopyrite was the principal copper ore that was mined here and looks very similar to Pyrite or ‘fool’s gold’. However, in more recent times, another sought after commodity (and some might argue sought by fools), is an abundance of top quality rock climbing.
Dow Crag in particular dominates as the most significant mountain crag in the area and a good number of the routes on this list are from here. However, to add a bit of interest and diversity, I’ve also included some great routes from the slate quarries, as well as gems from some of the smaller but good quality outcrops in the area.
To try and showcase routes right across the grade spectrum (apart from those at the very top end), I’ve included climbs from Severe to E5 – E6. Once we’re able to get out onto the crags again, hopefully it might inspire you to get out and do one or two.
A ‘Classic Rock’ masterpiece. Murray’s Route starts up an obvious steep groove to the left of the Stretcher Box and takes a lovely winding line up the lower section of ‘B’ buttress. The traverse on pitch three is particularly memorable, being quite exposed and requiring some care to protect the leader and second alike. The route continues up a lovely flake crack to finish on ‘Easy Terrace’ from where descent can be made down the rake.
Dunnerdale or the Duddon Valley as it is also known is one of the major valleys in the southwest Lakes. It’s a special place for many reasons, not least because it tends to be very quiet. It feels like an outlier of sorts, separate from the honey pot areas of the Central Lakes but still retaining classic Lakeland character defined by conical and craggy hills dotted with broadleaf and conifer woodland, traditional hill farms, and a beautiful beck running through it. Wallowbarrow Crag sits in the heart of the valley and facing southwest it receives plenty of sun. Digitation is just one of several good quality routes in the lower to mid grades that make a trip very worthwhile.
Hallowed as one of the best VS’s in the UK and deservedly so. ‘A’ buttress feels like a crag in its own right and this route weaves a spectacular line taking in some of the best positions on the buttress with fantastic views out over Coniston and Morecambe Bay. Although it’s described in the guidebooks as 6 pitches long, many of them are short and with careful ropework, some can be strung together making for a more efficient and satisfying ascent.
Hodge Close is a huge man-made hole in the ground and a point of interest for many people, not just climbers. It’s one of a number of slate mines and quarries in the Tilberthwaite Valley and features a deep lagoon in the bottom which is also popular with divers. It’s an undeniably impressive climbing arena and the routes in here are up there with the best in the Lakes, although being slate, they are very different in style and character and often require a bold and committed approach that tends to suit technicians. There’s a good mix of bolted and traditionally protected routes as well as the odd hybrid. Many of the routes are in the higher grades, however, there are a few good quality and more moderately graded offerings. Behind the Lines is an entirely traditional route and climbs a superb and generally well-protected corner system.
Back over to Dow Crag, but this time a classic E1 on the upper section of ‘B’ Buttress. Despite being slightly disjointed, this is one of my favourite routes at the grade in the Lakes. The positions are superb and it gradually builds in difficulty throughout its three varied pitches. Accessing the start is usually made by scrambling up Easy Terrace, but doing something like Leopard’s Crawl on the lower buttress first also serves well for getting up the base and provides a fitting warm-up.
A well-thumbed copy of the FRCC Dow Duddon and Slate Guidebook (now out of print) featuring Al Phizacklea on The Shining Path.
Cathedral Quarry is well worth a mention and a day exploring here is always good fun. The quarry is riddled with caverns and tunnels which make it a really interesting and spectacular place to climb. It’s a good choice on a windy day, as similar to Hodge Close it is essentially a big hole in the ground. An Alabuse and many of the similarly crudely named routes around the big window are just brilliant. The slightly harder Darklands on the wall to the right is possibly the most sought after route in the quarry. There is a mixture of sport and traditional routes here, although some of the traditional routes do have the odd bolt. Despite being slate and generally quick-drying, some of the routes especially on the Darklands wall suffer a bit from seepage.
On the opposite side of the big prow to the right of the aforementioned Behind the Lines is another compelling climb called Through the Looking Glass. This route gives absorbing and sustained climbing over three difficult sections and is probably the best route of its grade in the quarry. An equally good but bolder sister route called Malice in Wonderland takes the prow itself which culminates in a fine but harrowing arete to finish.
Probably the best mid-higher grade crag in the Duddon Valley which hosts several testing pitches on excellent rock which are all strong and obvious lines. Shifter takes the most obvious and continuous corner on the crag and is a good route for anyone breaking into the grade. The climbing is sustained and technical but well protected throughout. The step left out of the top of the groove will bring welcome respite and hopefully a big smile to all who succeed.
The wall taken by Tumble is arguably the finest on the whole crag and in the right light conditions, it glows a warm golden colour and just cries out to be climbed. The routes here are steep but generally well featured with shallow corners, ramps and crack systems. Tumble blasts right up the middle of the wall and gives sustained and pumpy climbing and although it’s a little run out in its middle section it has good gear when you need it most. Its sister route, Holocaust, is also well worth seeking out. Although it receives the same grade and is very worthy of its three stars, the crux sequence is distilled to one or two very hard moves which are somewhat out of character to the rest of the route.
Tucked away on a small outcrop around the corner from Burnt Crag in the Duddon sits another punchy route that is well worth a look. The starting moves are quite bouldery but above a reasonable landing. Once the sequence has been unlocked, the climbing higher up still gives plenty of interest and on great rock throughout. Being so close to Burnt Crag, it’s easy enough to combine a day’s visit to both venues.
The big main wall of Hodge Close is a spellbinding place to climb where finesse and commitment are required in equal measure. The start of Wicked Willie is shared with Ten Years After and the seriousness of both is palpable as soon as you leave the ground. A pull into the initial groove is followed by a delicate leftwards rising traverse above minimal gear and with the prospect of a long fall into the sharp slate daggers below does much to focus the concentration. Thankfully good gear is soon reached and a chance to recompose and take a few deep breaths. Wicked Willie then takes a direct line up the wall passing a hotchpotch of old pegs and solitary bolts that break up the blankness and give the climber something to aim for. An exhilarating ride!
These routes start out of the infamous freezer which is the notoriously shady and breezy recess behind Woodhouse Pinnacle which sits fairly centrally on the crag. The Shining Path is predominantly protected by pegs which give it a sport climbing-esque feel and although the climbing is hard, it feels much more amenable if there is a trail of chalk to follow. A brilliant extension was established by Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood in 1993 which I’ve only ever followed, but it features brilliant dynamic climbing and provides a spectacular crescendo.