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Bowfell is my favourite Lakeland hill, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that, Wainwright had it in his top half dozen, for instance. He calls it Bowfell rather than the OS Bow Fell, as does Bill Birkett, who as a Langdale local is surely right. It has a nice perky shape, is one of the rockiest hills in Cumbria and is a tremendous viewpoint, with dales leading off from it at all angles. This can be confusing for some - I once met a group of lads who had got them mixed up and gone down Langstrath instead of Mickleden. They were expecting the Old Dungeon Ghyll to appear round the corner at any moment.

Bowfell from Langdale
Bowfell from Mickleden
Bowfell from Mickleden

Bowfell does seem to be a hill that people find disorientating. I was sitting on the summit one misty day and watched a guy walk past me avoiding the top, which is unusual so attracted my attention. A few minutes later he walked past in the opposite direction, still avoiding the top, then did the same a third time. The fourth time he appeared he came up to the cairn and it became apparent that he thought he was on Crinkle Crags – "it can't be Bowfell, I've just left Bowfell". I couldn't persuade him otherwise.

Scafell and Scafell Pike from Bowfell
Scafells from Bowfell summit in better visibility

There is some science to this - a haematite vein in the rocks on the north end means that compasses can get deflected. You have to put your compass on a rock for this to happen though, so it's usually just an excuse for poor navigation. The reddish tinge of the iron almost certainly accounts for the pass to the north-west being called Ore Gap, although it's never been mined. There is an alternative explanation that the name comes from the pass being used by packhorses to carry ore from Borrowdale to Eskdale and the port of Ravenglass, but the old jaggers surely knew that Sty Head and Wasdale was a much easier route, so this seems unlikely.

Bowfell from Great End
Evening on Esk Pike and Bowfell from Great End

Almost every walker (other than the lost ones 😁) who climbs Bowfell finishes either up the track from Three Tarns or the one from Ore Gap, but the hill is much more complex than you realise from this. Climbers visit the south end of the east face, usually to climb the classic Bowfell Buttress, but that still leaves a huge amount of the hill untouched. It's feasible to do a circuit of the upper part of the hill between the 700m and 800m contours which gets you into some really wild corners. Apart from the Climbers Traverse below Flat Crags and a short section near Ore Gap there are no tracks, and much of it is rough going. It's only 3 miles but takes a couple of hours.

Hanging Knotts and Angle Tarn, Bowfell
Hanging Knotts and Angle Tarn, the circuit follows the half height shelf

On one memorable trip involving the more obscure corners of Bow Fell I was leading a group. Eight of us had climbed Scafell Pike from Langdale via Rossett Gill and as they were a fit bunch and we'd made good time I suggested going back through Upper Eskdale. They were enthusiastic about the idea - none of them particularly fancied Rossett Gill again, no built track in those days. We duly descended Little Narrowcove, a wonderful wild spot, still little-visited today, squeezed between the splendid little turret of Pen and the huge craggy face of Ill Crag. The latter has some of the best scrambling in Lakeland, quite tricky in places. Wainwright rather morbidly described it as "a safe refuge for escaped convicts or an ideal depository for murdered corpses".

Ill Crag, Scafell Pike
Ill Crag and Little Narrowcove, Bowfell behind

Once across the upper Esk we slanted up to gain the south ridge of Esk Pike just below Yeastyrigg Crags. I knew there was a diagonal rake that slanted down across these but had only been there once before, so when we got to where I thought the rake started I had the group wait a minute while I went to check I'd got the right one (there are others that are dead ends). Rounding the first bluff I met a fox coming the other way, just a few feet away. It made a mad scrabble upwards to escape the oncoming "two legs" and momentum got it up the first thirty feet, but it then fell, almost landing on me then bouncing down the less steep lower rocks. By twisting in the air it managed to land on its feet at each bounce and at the foot of the cliff ran off, apparently unhurt. Bet it was sore in the morning though! It's still the closest I've been to a wild fox (I did used to meet a tame one at jazz nights in an Isle of Wight pub – it's 'owner' claimed that he only came because the fox liked jazz 😁).

Yeastyriggs Crag, Eskdale
Yeastyriggs Crag, the rake is catching the sun bottom left

The rake was the right one so I fetched my clients and we continued our remote traverse past Slate Crag and Hart How to reach Three Tarns. One of the clients, a tough Dutch lady, had been ill the night before and was by now finding it pretty hard. She had been unable to eat all day, but was determined to come along, having failed to get up Scafell Pike on a previous trip. Once we reached the good track down the Band I sent the others ahead to give them time for a pint before our bus arrived, while I walked down with Louise, who was a real trouper. We got to the pub just as the bus drove up, but as it was a hot day and I was dying for a pint I raced in and asked for a carry out. The barman's response (word for word) was "We don't do carry outs because f***ers like you take them back to the campsite and leave smashed glass all over the place". I wasn't impressed by the unprovoked attack and haven't been back to the Old Dungeon Ghyll since. Other than that coda it had been a great day.

Bowfell Links
Bowfell Links

On that day we had walked below the line of eye-catching buttresses known as Bowfell Links. There are nine of them, christened 1st to 9th Tees by John Fleetwood in the current Cicerone scrambling guide. All are too broken to make good rock climbs but provide entertaining scrambles and winter climbs. It's surprising that the crag doesn't get more visits in winter as its height means that it's in condition fairly often by Lake District standards. As it is only one route has more than ten logged ascents on UK Climbing and half of them have no logs at all. That said, I've only done one proper winter route there myself, the thoroughly enjoyable Hidden Gully. It had a lovely tongue of hard snow and several short sections of snowed up rock and I had the crag to myself (but then it was midweek in January).

Hidden Gully. Bowfell Links
Bowfell Links eastern part, Hidden Gully is the shallow gully right of centre

I did do another route there in snow though – in July! I had soloed up or down all the other eight buttresses and was just starting up the last one (9th Tee) when the snow started. I really wasn't expecting it, and by the time I climbed the steep crack near the top the snow was settling on the bigger holds. Thankfully the nice positive ones inside the crack were still clear, but it felt quite hard in the conditions.

Bowfell Links
Bowfell Links, 9th Tee on the far left skyline

The crux of 9th Tee is worth Moderate, and several of the other buttresses are quite top end for scrambling, pushing into easy climbing. The rock is lovely and rough but being high and unfrequented it often needs care. I had a near miss a few years ago, doing the Grade 3 rib that forms the bottom half of 7th Tee. I was suspicious of a big flake jug, so tapped it lightly before using it. As I had half expected it broke away, but what caught me by surprise is that the block below it came out too, sliding down between me and the rock face. Luckily I had a good left handhold so it didn't knock me off, but it was quite a large block so I had an awkward minute or so trying to wriggle it out between my legs without it knocking my feet off the footholds, which were smaller than I would have liked (and seemed smaller still at that moment). Things were made worse when a sharp edge on the block caught on the bottom of the zip on my trousers and threatened to pull me off (or pull my trousers off at least). After what seemed like ages, but was presumably just a few seconds, I managed to disengage it and let it bounce off down the cliff. I was quite shaken but managed to finish the route after a rest on the nearest ledge. I then did 8th Tee next door on the "Get straight back on the bike" principle, which seemed to work. Phew!

7th Tee, Bowfell Links
7th Tee, Bowfell Links

There's also some scrambling on the east face, notably a rib low down below and north of Bowfell Buttress that doesn't seem to have made it into any of the guidebooks. It's easily reached from the old pony track variation to the Rosset Gill path and provides a nice way to reach the impressive expanse of the Great Slab. This huge walking angle slab is usually reached via the "Climbers Traverse" path from the top of the Band and adds a frisson of excitement to a walk up the hill.

Hanging Knotts, Bowfell
Sunset on Hanging Knotts

If coming directly up Hanging Knotts from Rossett Pass a few outcrops can be strung together, and there's a scrappy gully/stream above the shore of Angle Tarn (quite tricky at the top). Slate Crag on the west flank has some lovely but rather short scrambles on excellent rock and could have climbs too but it's a long way to go for short routes.

Slate Crag, Bowfell
Slate Crag, scrambling slabs left of centre

When it comes to proper rock climbing Bowfell Buttress is by far the most climbed route (currently 1143 logs on UKC, nothing else makes three figures and only a dozen make two). It gets graded Hard Severe these days, which is misleading. It used to be a Diff, which admittedly was a sandbag, but V Diff seemed fair. The steep crack halfway up is quite hard for the grade, but only a few moves and above a big ledge. When I did it the rock was very wet, so the unprotected slabs above the crack were much more testing than the crack itself.

Bowfell Buttress
Cambridge Crag in shadow, Bowfell Buttress sunlit

Another upgraded Diff is Cambridge Climb on the crag next door, now Severe 4a on UKC, but this revision seems fair enough to me. I gather it's now quite mossy and desperate in the wet, but when I soloed it on a warm dry day in May 1989 it was fine, though even then I avoided a couple of bits. The same day I did the first pitch of Mary Ann on Flat Crags (V Diff). I didn't like the look of the rest of it so escaped right, and looking at the comments people have made about it I'm glad I did. Flat Crags has some superb quality rock, but most of it is very steep, with routes up to E7. That day I had been climbing in Eskdale in the morning, had lunch in the Woolpack, then walked up Lingcove Beck to the Bowfell crags. After the routes I went back down to Throstle Garth, over to Moasdale and down the Duddon to my tent at Turner Hall by Seathwaite. 20 hill miles in an afternoon, wish I was that fit now!

Bowfell from Lingcove Beck
Looking back to Bowfell from Lingcove Beck on the way back to the Duddon

Whatever your aim in climbing Bowfell, whether to rock climb, winter climb, scramble or just bag the summit you're guaranteed a good day out. Equally certainly if you take the time to explore the wilder reaches of the fell you'll find that rewarding too.

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