Pillar is a mountain located in the western part of the English Lake District in northern England. Situated between the valleys of Ennerdale to the north and Wasdale in the south, it is the tallest point of the Pillar group, some dozen fells clustered round it. At 892 metres (2,927 feet) it is the eighth highest peak in the Lake District. The fell takes its name from Pillar Rock, a prominent feature on the Ennerdale side, and generally regarded as the birthplace of rock climbing in the Lake District.
The Western Fells occupy a triangular section of the Lake District, and are bordered by the River Cocker in the north east and Wasdale to the south east. Westwards the hills recede toward the coastal plain of Cumberland. At the central hub of the high country are Great Gable and its satellites, while two main ridges fan out on either flank of Ennerdale, the western fells in effect being a great horseshoe around this long and wild valley. Pillar is located on the southern arm.
The main watershed runs generally westwards from Great Gable, in the process dividing the headwaters of Ennerdale and Wasdale. The main fells in this section are Kirk Fell, Pillar, Scoat Fell, Haycock and Caw Fell, followed by the lower Lank Rigg group.
Pillar stands on the southern wall of Ennerdale, roughly three miles from the head of the valley. Two levels of impressive crags run the full length of the fell from Wind Gap in the west to Black Sail Pass in the east. The top tier faces the summit ridge, a series of coves being interspersed between the butresses. Below is a narrow ledge bearing the ‘High Level Route’ path and then a further face including Pillar Rock, Raven and Ash Crags and Proud Knott. The lower slopes are planted with a broad belt of conifers, which extend across the River Liza to the flanks of High Crag.
The southern flank of Pillar overlooks Mosedale, the most westerly of Wasdale’s two main feeder valleys. From Wasdale Head village Pillar seems to stand at the head of Mosedale, but the valley curves out of sight, actually starting on the slopes of Scoat Fell. The Mosedale slopes cannot begin to compete with those above Ennerdale, although there is outcropping rock, especially at Wistow Crags, Elliptical Crag and Murl Rigg.
The summit of Pillar is at the west end, immediately above the slope down to Wind Gap (2,475 ft). This continues the watershed to Scoat Fell and further. A subsidiary spur branches off north west of the summit, crossing over White Pike before petering out in the Ennerdale Forest. The eastern ridge of Pillar stretches for roughly a mile, gradually descending before the final upthrust of Looking Stead. This subsidiary top is noted as a Nuttall in its own right. Beyond is Black Sail Pass, a pedestrian path between Wasdale and the head of Ennerdale. Kirk Fell rises on the other side of the pass.
The main rock types in the summit area are the plagioclase-phyric andesite lavas of the Birker Fell Formation. Bands of volcaniclastic sandstone and andesite sills can also be found. Rhyolite and lapilli-tuff can be seen amongst the northern crags, with outcrops of the Craghouse Member on the north west ridge.
The summit is somewhat surprisingly wide and grassy, patches of stones interspersed with short turf. An Ordnance Survey triangulation column stands next to a cairn and windshelter. At the northern edge of the plateau a further wind shelter marks the start of the descent to the mountain rescue stretcher-box and the High Level Route.
The views are marvellous with all of the major fells except the Coniston range in sight. Loweswater and Ennerdale Water can be seen, as well as Burnmoor Tarn. From the northern windshelter is a spectacular view of the summit of Pillar Rock.
Pillar is most often climbed from Wasdale Head, by far the nearest road access. The easiest route involves taking the Black Sail Pass, the main foot pass between Wasdale and Ennerdale, to its highest point, around 545 metres, then climbing the mountain’s relatively gentle east ridge. Greater interest can be generated by branching off the ridge, onto the “High Level Route”, a narrow path which traverses around Pillar’s northern crags before approaching the summit from the north, providing good views of Pillar Rock.
Pillar can also be ascended from Ennerdale. From the YHA youth hostel at Black Sail at the head of the valley, it is a relatively short walk to the summit of Black Sail Pass. As Black Sail hostel is five or six miles away from the nearest public road, this approach is somewhat impractical for day-trippers, though attractive to those staying at the hostel. Alternatively, there are numerous paths up the mountain from lower down the valley which afford the possibility of closer acquaintance with the crags of the north face.
It is not impractical for strong walkers to approach Pillar from the Buttermere valley, which has the advantage of being more accessible than Wasdale from major tourist centres such as Keswick. It is first necessary to climb and descend the Scarth Gap Pass between Gatesgarth and Black Sail, which then allows a climb via Black Sail Pass. The walk from Gatesgarth to the summit of Pillar and back involves around 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) of climb, more if the High Level Route is taken.
Pillar Rock is a large rocky outcrop surrounded by cliffs on the north side of Pillar. When viewed from Ennerdale it appears as a tall, thin column, hence its name. In the early 19th century it became widely known as one of the main wonders of the Lake District, mainly due to it featuring in William Wordsworth’s poem The Brothers.
The first recorded climb of Pillar Rock was made in 1826 by John Atkinson of Crowfoot, Ennerdale. His route, known as the Old West Route, is still classified as a rock climb, albeit one graded Moderate, the lowest grade on the British system. It is the earliest recorded rock ascent in the Lake District, excluding Coleridge’s inadvertent descent of Scafell in 1802; subsequent Lakeland climbers also concentrated on Pillar and, by 1872 four different routes had been pioneered on the rock. By 2007 over 90 climbs had been recorded, including 17 graded E1 or higher.
Pillar Rock has a topographic prominence of over 15 metres, and thus qualifies for the list of “Nuttalls” compiled by John and Anne Nuttall in their book, The Mountains of England and Wales. It is the only summit on the list that can’t be reached without recourse to rock climbing.
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