Birks & St Sunday Crag

Date: 30 Oct 2019 Weather: 6’C, cloudy, cold wind
Height gain: 2,657 ft Distance: 7.0 miles
Time taken: 5 hours 35 mins Wainwrights: 109,110 of 214

Route:  From Patterdale taking footpath behind the Patterdale Hotel which heads up under Black Crag to Birks then to St Sunday Crag and back the same way.


We had planned to do a more challenging walk in the short spell of sunny weather.  We’d hoped to revisit Great Gable but the half-term crowds on Hallin Fell on Monday put us off.  The ideal alternative was St Sunday Crag – big and challenging but not well known and everyone likely to be heading up Helvellyn next door.

We’d needed a rest day on Tuesday and looked out at wall to wall sunshine as we washed our walking gear and did household chores.  Weatherline forecast another sunny day today but with similar 30mph winds and close to zero degrees at 3,000ft.

We opened the curtains this morning to slate grey sky – but we’re all geared up for our big walk so we decide we’ll go anyway.

There are a lot of cars on the road from Windemere to Patterdale and Ambleside is busy as we pick up our pasties for lunch.  The popular walkers’ cars parks and laybys are also full as we pass them on our journey – the half-term visitors are clearly keen walkers.

We arrive at the large Patterdale car park at 10.15am and happily there is still plenty of space.  We get our boots on and head through the hotel car park to the gate to the footpath.  We had planned to do these two along with Arnison Crag back in May, recreating a great walk from May 2009, but the weather had been so sunny and warm we got as far as Arnison Crag and then got diverted by sun-bathing and generally relaxing.

Today we retrace our initial steps from May as we climb the first 200ft through the bouldery ferns to reach a wall and a gate.  Straight up the wall (practically vertically) takes you to Arnison Crag.  Going through the gate takes you to the very pleasant wooded track which starts the ascent to Birks:

1

The path is mostly flat for nearly a mile before the climbing starts – and from then on it’s a full on gradient all the way.  The kind path builders have been here and the first 800ft or so of steep ascent has good slabs of granite to create a path of steps that makes for straightforward walking both up and down.

The views down to Ullswater behind us are lovely as we gain height:

2

A young couple and their whippet, who’s all wrapped up in a cosy looking coat, come past us and say a friendly hello.  The whippet has more fat on him than either of them and they only stay in sight for about 10 minutes as they tear uphill at a cracking pace (we think we spot them on top of St Sunday Crag when we reach Birks).

They are the only people we see on our ascent all day.  We can see a beeline of people heading up the Birkhouse Moor path across the valley – presumably all heading for Helvellyn – we definitely made a good choice today.

The path carries on up and up until we reach a flat bit as we come round Black Crag.  The path up to Birks, which is a big green line on the OS map, should be here to our left but we can’t see anything obvious.  We have 450ft to go – quite a lot of struggling up a steep pathless hillside so we carry on along the path to see if the route comes into view a bit further on.  It doesn’t so we consult the map – this path will take us gradually upwards to the col between Birks and St Sunday Crag where we can turn back on ourselves to find the top of Birks.  We decide this is the best plan and carry on forwards.

When we get to the col we turn sharp left and pick up the path for Birk’s summit and soon get there:

3

It’s a bit underwhelming up here with it’s tiny pile of stones marking the top.  As AW says, Birks is rarely the sole target of an expedition but a top to be visited on the way to St Sunday Crag.  The views are good, although the cloud has been getting lower as we climbed and is now obscuring may of the higher fells.

The High Street ridge is shrouded in cloud to the south east with Gray Crag standing below it and the ridge of Hartsop Dodd running down from the right:

6

There’s a great view of our next objective, St Sunday Crag, which seems to be staying clear of the cloud swirling around everything else:

4

It’s windy and it’s cold up here so we don’t hang around too long before dropping down into the col to find a sheltered spot for our lunch.  We’ve been surprisingly sheltered from the wind on most of the way up and we’re soon out of it again as we drop the 100ft into our sheltered lunch spot.  Even so we both start to get cold quickly – the forecast said it would be around 2’C at 2,000ft today and it certainly feels like it.

My hands in particular are absolutely freezing despite my gloves.  I’ve been feeling in good shape on the ascent so far but S has been finding it hard going (the risotto effect strikes again – we had it for dinner last night).  We debate whether to carry on to what looks like a very steep and exposed ascent up St Sunday Crag – I’m worried about how windy it will be and how much colder we’ll get.  S is worried that the cloud currently on Helvellyn will come across as we climb and we’ll have put in all this effort for no views.

I’ve spotted some people in the distance who take a path left across the front of St Sunday Crag which reassures me that there is an alternative to the path we can see straight up the crags on the north east ridge.  After some debate we decide to start the climb and see how we feel.

It starts with 150ft or so over the first knobby crags which isn’t too challenging going up.  We meet a man on his way down and I ask how bad the wind gets – all he says is “it’s safe, not so windy it isn’t safe” – not sure that answers my question!

Just before we meet the next crags we see the path off to the left and head up it – the gradient is fine, the terrain mostly grassy and we’re still staying sheltered so we plod on.

As we gain height I look back towards Birks with Place Fell and Ullswater behind it:

7

Our path reaches the edge of the mountain and we can see the cairn on Gavel Pike to our left as we turn right up an indistinct path and the last 150ft to the summit:

9

There seems to be a pheasant made out of slate sitting on top of the cairn.  I google later and can’t find any mention of it.

We have been sheltered from the wind for most of our ascent but now it’s blowing hard and it’s very cold.  The views up here are stunning on all sides and the cloud lifts from the mountains around us as we stagger around the top trying to take photos that aren’t blurred and keep our feet.

Immediately behind us to the north west is Helvellyn which already has snow on it from the wet weather last week:

11

The views west towards Pillar and Scafell Pike are shrouded in cloud and a strange light from the shifting skies:

12

Looking south west we can see three ridges one behind the other – Dove Crag, then Red Screes and finally Caudale Moor with High Street a dark shape behind them to their left:

13

The view down to Gavel Pike and Angletarn Pikes is starting to light up as the only patch of blue sky of the day moves over it – we can see a glimpse of the tarn in the brief sunlight:

10

Sadly we can’t stay long as the wind is disorientating and we’re getting very cold.  We start to retrace our steps and start our descent.  The route down the 800ft back to the col is straightforward with just a little scrambling needed over the crags at the end.

My hands are freezing and while there are some shots I’d like to take on the way down they won’t function enough to get the camera out and use it.  Once we reach the col we’re out of the worst of the wind and we have the three quarters of a mile of relatively flat walking before the very steep second half of the descent starts.

Just as we reach the steep part we find some sheltered crags and have afternoon tea.  I also take off my gloves and try and warm up my hands against my legs which seems to do the trick.

We set off again and lovely views of Ullswater are in front of us all the way down:

14a

We make our way down the steep path and are relieved when we meet the newly laid granite steps for the last steep 800ft.  Our progress is steady although S’s knees are beginning to complain loudly.  The last 1,200ft over one and a half miles takes us just under an hour.  It’s only 4pm but already the light feels like it’s fading:

16

We finally reach the car and have a slow journey back in nose to tail traffic.  Our route today was a good choice to stay away from the half-term crowds.  It’s a steep but straightforward walk, although the final ascent up St Sunday Crag looks quite intimidating from Birks.  It’s just a shame that the cold and the wind restricted the time we could spend at the summit of St Sunday Crag as it really is a stunning top.