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The Riddle of Sphinx Rock

The Life and Times of Great Gable
Millrace Books, 2005
Hardback 180x130mm, 13.95 (direct mail 12)
182 pages 10 B&W line drawings by Colin Brash, old engravings and photos, sketch maps
ISBN 1 902173 19 8

Cover: Sphinx Rock, Great Gable by Colin Brash

The Greatness of Gable 'Grand to look at, grand to look from, and grand to climb' – so Gable was described over a hundred years ago. It's the hill that's been the birthplace of two separate sorts of hill sport, and that today receives some 20,000 ascents each year.
       This book is an exploration of Great Gable: its eleven main ways for walkers, its scrambles and its climbs. But it's also a study of what it means to be a mountain in today's world. Cultural biographies are already on my shelves for Snowdon, Everest and Ben Nevis. Each of these is its country's high point. But in England, rather than Scafell Pike, I've preferred to walk up into the life and times of Great Gable. Here is England's finest viewpoint, and its iconic pinnacle. Its two faces, the Great Napes and Gable Crag, express the light and the dark of rock-climbing. Many fine hills have fine ales named for them: but Great Gable isn't just a beer, it's a brewery. For many, including myself, Gable was the first hill; for many, too, Gable is the last resting place of our ashes.
       I find I recognise mountains more easily than human beings; and maybe Great Gable is occupying a slot in my brain designed for an acquaintance of my own species. But Gable is a place, not a person. Accordingly, out of the many ways I could have described it (historically, or geologically, or even alphabetically) I have chosen clockwise. Walks up are described out of Wasdale, then round via Buttermere and Honister to Borrowdale, before homing in on the Great Napes.
       Arbitrarily, I've included Green Gable, Brandreth, Grey Knotts and even Fleetwith Pike as foothills of Great Gable. Each of these can reasonably be crossed on a walk whose real aim is Gable. And it would be a shame to miss out Fanny Mercer's interesting alpenstock accident.
       Life, death, and fellwalking: the great questions all ask themselves on Great Gable. And first among those questions is the Riddle of the Sphinx Rock: what did we come up here for anyhow?

reviews

Strong on history and geology, Turnbull describes the more intriguing features of this much loved mountain with a gleeful blend of wit and erudition Tom Waghorn Manchester Evening News

Each chapter is one of the main or minor ways up, described for fellwalkers/scramblers, but then expanding into a discourse on some aspect of Gable and the game of hillwalking
Introduction:   The Riddle of the Sphinx Rock
1 Gavel Neese The first time up and the pain of the game
2 Beckhead Birth of a mountain: the shape of Gable
3 The summit The enigma of why the top's not at Westmorland's Cairn
4 Westmorland's Cairn Romanticism: the art of landscape appreciation
5 Climbers' Traverse The Nape's Needle and the game of climbing up rocks
6 Aaron Slack The Trevellyn Hunt and the thrill of the kill
7 Through the Northern crags Explorations, elk, and the wife out of Ennerdale
8 Moses Trod old time industries
9 Breast Path the uncomfortable fun of fellrunning (Borrowdale Race)
10 Sourmilk Gill, Gillercomb scrambling Gable's wet way
11 Grey Knotts to Green Gable Getting high on endorphin and adrenaline: the pharmacology of fellwalking
12 Great and Little Hell Gate Gable and the entrance to the afterlife
13 The screes path The greatness of Gable


INTRODUCTION

The Riddle of the Sphinx Rock

"What goes on four legs in the morning, on two at noon, and in the evening on two legs and two walking poles?" Given 2000 years to think about it, the original Riddle of the Sphinx is not really all that tricky. The Riddle of the Sphinx Rock is tougher, though. And it's posed to anyone on any of the surrounding slopes. "Just how great is Gable? To put it another way, what are you coming up here for anyhow?"
       Are we going up Gable to tick it off our list? No, because we've been up Gable several times already. Are we going up it for the view? If that were the case, then Westmoreland's Cairn would have the trample marks and the occasional abandoned boot, rather than the summit knoll.
Great Gable from Pillar: drawing by Colin Brash

       Wainwright had a thing about Haystacks, but overall Gable must be Lakeland's most-loved mountain. Whatever it is we go up hills for, it's something that Great Gable's got and Great End, by comparison, lacks.
       For starters, there's something about the shape. From Wasdale it's the original and architectural gable end – from everywhere else, it's a sort of bowler hat – but always recognisable, and always important and big. We like the look of certain of our fellow humans: I might mention Johnny Depp, I might mention Meg Ryan. Depending on your gender preference, Johnny and Meg appeal to certain obvious and explainable instincts. Great Gable appeals to an instinct that, for now, remains nameless. It's like the Matterhorn, and Snowdon, and the Cobbler, in having a shape that makes you want to get your leg up over it.
       Skiddaw too is shapely; but Skiddaw is spoilt by having an easy way up. Gable plays a better game. Every path (except the rebuilt Breast Path from Sty Head) has boulders, scree, and bare rock. Every path (and now including the Breast Path) involves some steep ground. As the bowler-hat outline indicates, that steepness is at the top; and accordingly, every path involves an eagle's eye view back across the valley and the lake.
       Ignore Great Gable's rocky little top knoll, the clear pool it once harboured now trampled by a hundred thousand pairs of Brashers. That so-sought summit stands, a just-not-made-it 899m up, in its desert of stones, with its view of the inside of a cloud. Even if the cloud temporarily rises, all it reveals is an awful lot of stones, the edges of the plateau, and some similar stones on top of of Scafell Pike.
       "What you up to?" enquires the Sphinx. We thought we wanted to get to the top. Gable shows us that the answer's more complicated. Indeed, for the very greatest of Gable, the trick is to avoid ever having to arrive. Skirt Gable on the screes path, high above Wasdale with that wonderful Wasdale view, rock overhead, rock underfoot, and you don't even have to go uphill. On the Ennerdale side there's another path, right up under the crags and getting dripped on by the overhangs.
       And then consider all the other great places on Gable that aren't its top. Seek out the cave with the spring, half way up the southern screes. Seek out Moses' Finger. Tread the Moses' Trod under the Gable Crag and above all of Ennerdale. Go into little Gillercomb suspended half way up the side of Borrowdale. Crouch behind a boulder in the narrow pass of Windy Gap, with its steep paths dropping east and west, its other steep paths climbing north and south.
       We go to the tops of the hills for the sake of the going, not for the tops. The greatness of Gable is something to do with Westmoreland's Cairn, Sour Milk Gill and the Nape's Needle. To solve the riddle, simply consider the Sphinx.