Pillar by the 'High Level Route'

ONE Wainwright circular walk: Pillar by the High Level Route

Walk Rating:⭐⭐⭐

Time: 4 - 5 hours (depending how long you pause to take in the views!)

Parking: at Wasdale Head Green 

Pillar Rock from Robinson's Cairn, looking down into Ennerdale

Pillar, as the eighth highest Wainwright, is definitely a mountain top that should be climbed by a Lake District walker. However, it's usually reached as part of a walk around the 'Mosedale Horseshoe' - an excellent hike but one that presents Pillar as only not much more than a grassy height. To take in its real splendour - and the Rock that gives the mountain its name - you need to climb Pillar by the 'High Level Route' that traverses its northern face. 

This ascent could be done as an adventurous addition to the 'horseshoe walk' but I have described it here as a circular route out-and-back from Wasdale Head. The route is not difficult for a confident walker and less vertiginous than, say, the 'Climber's Traverse' under Bowfell. The final ascent is steep but, as Wainwright points out, "there are no difficulties on this route provided the path is kept underfoot". However he also adds that "there ARE difficulties and dangers if exploratory deviations are attempted". So you have been warned! 

The 2 km section of the walk by the High Level Route and Shamrock Traverse

1) Start the walk behind the Wasdale Head Inn, walking along the riverbank behind the farmhouse (not over the stone bridge into Mosedale). The track ascends through a gate towards the the start of the path up the side of Kirk Fell. You should stay on the path that bears left, offering excellent views into Mosedale.

Starting out above Wasdale at the foot of Kirk Fell

2) Continue on the path up towards the col of Black Sail Pass, first heading through the ferns and then onto the grassier higher slopes where the path is still well paved in places. You should reach the pass after about an hour or so's walk.

Yewbarrow in the morning light on the way to Black Sail Pass

3)  From the col, and the twisted remains of its solitary gate, head left along the ridge on the route that takes you towards Pillar around the Mosedale Horseshoe. 

Overnight campers on Black Sail Pass

4) It's worth bearing slightly upwards, to the right of the main horseshoe walkers' path, and head along the line of old fence posts towards the grassy mound of 'Looking Stead' which, as its name suggests, is an excellent viewpoint in all directions.

Get your bearings from the small tarn above Black Sail Pass

5) From Looking Stead, you will get a good look of the side of Pillar that you will be walking along. It's hard to pick it out clearly from this distance but, don't worry, it's easy enough to follow once you are on it!

Pillar from Looking Stead

6) Return from Looking Stead across the grassy col back onto the main well-worn 'horseshoe path'. Look for a cairn situated above the last of the rusty fence posts. This marks the start of the High Level Route. From here it's about an hour via Robinson's Cairn and the Shamrock Traverse to the top of Pillar.

Look out for the cairn marking the start of the High Level Route (August 2023)

7) At the cairn, head right off the main 'Horseshoe Path' onto the' High Level Route path'. You quickly reach an awkward slippery descent for a few metres that might make you worry about the rest of the route. Again, don't worry, after this the route is generally clear and straightforward.

Above the descent at the start of the High Level Route

8) The route onwards towards Robinson's Cairn is delightful, and the path can always be seen ahead of you, traversing along the grassy shelf on the side of Pillar.  

Follow the path across the grassy shelf ahead of you

9) To your right, there will hopefully be fine views down across Ennerdale towards the peaks above Buttermere. Over your shoulder, you should be able to spot Black Sail Youth Hostel in the valley below and Haystacks and Fleetwith Pike behind it.

Looking back towards Haystacks and the Youth Hostel

10 ) To your left, the rocky crags of Pillar will be on the skyline above you. But, remembering Wainwright's advice, don't deviate from the contouring onward route ahead of you.

The crags of Pillar rise above you, to your left

11) After about half an hour's walking, you will see the outline of 'Robinson's Cairn' start to appear on the skyline in front of you, a useful landmark along this route.  

The outline of Robinson's Cairn will appear ahead

12) Robinson's Cairn stands in a fine position on top of a crag, bearing a plaque in honour of John Wilson Robinson, a pioneer fellwalker and climber.

The plaque in remembrance of John Wilson Robinson

13) The site of Robinson's Cairn also provides you with your first clear view of the impressive walls of Pillar Rock and Shamrock that stand ahead of you.

'Yours truly' and the onward route towards the top of Pillar

14) The path continues clearly towards the bottom of the wall of Shamrock, descending slightly to cross a 'bouldery hollow' (as Wainwright rightly describes it).

Continue across the 'bouldery hollow'

15) The path reaches a low rock ridge set in front of the hollow at the foot of Shamrock. 

By the rock ridge beneath Shamrock

16) The path now heads left, ascending up towards the Shamrock Traverse.

Shamrock as you head upwards towards its Traverse

17) Wainwright describes the next section as a 'scree slope' but, compared to some of the highly worn scree paths on the fells, the path winds upwards to the start of the Shamrock Traverse without much difficulty underfoot.

Wind up the 'scree slope' and then onto the Shamrock Traverse

18) The 'Shamrock Traverse' starts as a path along a clear shelf that, again, should not present any real difficulty. However, as it continues up towards the top of Shamrock, there is one section where the path crosses some smooth wet slabs that would be tricky in icy conditions.

This section would be tricky in icy conditions

19) The path ascends to come out above the cove between Shamrock and Pillar Rock itself. The left hand lower peak is named 'Pisgah' (the Biblical mountain from where Moses saw the Promised Land!) and the higher peak to the right is the 'High Man'. But this is for climbers to ascend, not walkers!

Pisgah and the High Man of Pillar Rock from the path

20) Follow the path around (NOT down into a dangerous gully beneath Pisgah!) to where it passes above Pillar Rock. 

Pillar Rock with High Stile and High Crag in cloud behind

21) The last, and steepest, part of the route - ascending up to the summit of Pillar - lies ahead of you. The path is easy enough to follow but can be hard work in places as you ascend. But that's a good excuse to catch your breath and admire the views behind you over Pillar Rock.

Looking back over Pillar Rock into Ennerdale

22) Eventually - and quite suddenly - you emerge onto the flat grassy meadow at the top of Pillar, close to the northern wind shelter. You've made it! You could now continue on around the horseshoe towards Scoat Fell or head back along the grassier slopes of Pillar back towards Black Sail Pass and Wasdale.

The northern wind shelter on the summit of Pillar

Worth knowing: Pillar Rock was one of the birthplaces of English rock climbing. Although first conquered by local shepherds as early as 1826, it became a place where the pioneers of the sport of rock climbing - including Robinson with his cairn below - developed their techniques.

There are some glimpses of this history back in Wasdale. Although now fading and perhaps not as looked after as they should be, some framed old photos from the climbing photographers, the Abraham brothers, still hang from the walls of the Wasdale Head Inn. 

From the walls of the Wasdale Head Inn

Sadly, not everyone came back intact from these climbing expeditions. Nearby, in St.OIaf's churchyard, lies a collection of gravestones marking those who died on nearby crags, including one climber who died on Pillar Rock itself.

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