The 8 Passes Challenge

A Circuit in the Central Lake District UK - Description and photos by Tom Phillips


There exists many possibilities for mountain biking circuits in England's best known National Park, this route is perhaps one of the most challenging, crossing 8 passes with a total ascent of 2,300 metres. With a distance of approximately 40 miles it can be completed in one day. A good level of fitness is required as it is necessary to carry or push your bike up three of the passes.

In the following description the start and finish point is Great Langdale, and if the ride is taken in an anti clockwise direction the ascents are short and steep and the descents long. Each pass is described in turn. My partner on this ride was Dick Gerrish, veteran of many a hard days mountain biking. The date was 15th February 1995.

> Stake Pass

At just before 10-00 am we set off up the valley called Mickleden, in unseasonably mild weather. I had attempted the ride before on a hot spring day the previous year, but I had got so dehydrated that I had to stop at two thirds distance. Today conditions were ideal, but we had to be careful not to start of too quickly as there was much climbing ahead of us. Passing a few walkers on the bridleway we soon arrived at the start of the first pass. The ascent of the Sticks pass involves over 300 metres of carrying and pushing in oder to gain access to the descent into Langstrathdale. Bemused looking fell walkers ask us where we are heading and when we real off the long list of passes we intend to cross they look at us as if we are crazy, perhaps we are?

The top of the pass is reached after just over an hour and the next challenge is to stay on our bikes on the steep descent towards Borrowdale. Most of this is ridable but it's hard work maintaining control of the bikes. Eventually the valley floor is reached and it's a pleasant but occasionally rough ride down to the road at Stonethwaite. 3kms later and we are at the foot of our second climb, Honister Pass.

> Honister Pass

The road is the most direct way to the top of Honister. Its steep slopes were used for the British Hill Climbing Championship a few years ago, but today we were taking it as easy as we could. Passengers in passing cars seemed to be impressed by our efforts anyway. This climb involves 255 Metres of ascent in just 2 kms. That's an average of 1 in 8 (12.5%) with some parts as steep as 1 in 4 (25%). Our reward was an exhilarating descent down into Buttermere. The 3 kms to Gatesgarth taking just a few minutes.

> Scarth Gap

At Gatesgarth many cars were parked, the time was now just after midday and the farmer was out collecting his £2 parking fees. Time to leave the tarmac again and head across the flat valley floor to the foot of the Scarth Gap track. The next 1.6 kms involved 350 metres of climbing. Most of the time you have to carry the bike and you are certain to be the topic of conversation amongst the fell walkers sharing the track. The scenery really opens out as you gain altitude and there are excellent views over Buttermere and Crummock Water to the North West.

Scarth Gap is well named as it crosses into Ennerdale via an obvious gully or "gap". We were heading south now back towards the Central Lakes. From the top of the "gap" superb views towards Great Gable and Kirk Fell, two of the areas highest peaks, made the hard work worthwhile. Below us lay the forested upper reaches of Ennerdale. Normally only accessible by a long trip round to the western Lakes. The Descent is relatively short, dropping just 150 metres and leading us to the remote Black Sail Youth Hostel. Out to the west the top of Pillar Rock, a huge domed outcrop of volcanic rock, could be seen rising above the ridges on the south side of the valley. It was at this point that I took a plunge into a particularly muddy bog. My front wheel sinking deep caused me to fly forward and land on top of the upside down bike. Unfortunately the chainwheel gashed my right knee and and the pedal made a good job of skinning my left shin. My arms sank up to my elbows in the bog. Fortunately I was able to have a wash in the nearby river. After a brief rest we had the prospect of our last carry up Black Sail Pass.

> Black Sail Pass

Bearing my scars from the last section I followed Dick up the steep slopes of Black Sail. This fortunately is the shortest of the three carries, a mere 230 metres. However it's all packed into a short 750 metre long section. Short sections of steep rock have to be tackled as well. The track is one of the old Lake District"Coffin Roads", and I tried to imagine a funeral procession tackling these slopes, in order to gain the Wasdale Valley. The track squeezes between Kirkfell and Pillar Mountain before dropping steeply into Mosedale, an upper side valley in Wasdale. Once at the Wasdale Inn we took the opportunity to refuel ourselves. Frustrated fellwalkers and climbers could be seen gazing at their ice axes and crampons with distant memories, above them towering crags of Sca Fell. Normally at this time of year they would be plastered in snow and ice, however the mildest winter for years meant that only the tiniest speck of snow lay deep in one of the gullies. A pot of tea and and a bowl of soup later we cruised down the gentle slopes to the edge of the lake (Wasdale). Time was slipping by and we only had a few hours of daylight left to complete our circuit.

> Eskdale Fell & Burnmoor Tarn

The last off road section would lead us to Eskdale. A gradual climb above Wasdale Head Hall Farm then veers south and after another kilometre the vague col is reached, 210 metres higher than the lake. An undulating descent then leads past Burnmoor Tarn. Eskdale Fell is a bleak open expanse of moorland, but fortunately the track, although rough, is ridable in most parts. We were now well over half way round our circuit and started to feel confident that we would complete the challenge. Boulder strewn sections of track had to be negotiated on the last section into Boot, a small village half way up the valley of Eskdale. Without pausing we turned onto the narrow road to Hardnott and the last three passes.

> Hardnott Wrynose and Bleatarn

All that remained between us and the finish at Great Langdale were two of the areas steepest passes. The first of these was one of our most sustained climbs of the day, 300 m of ascent in just 1.5 kms. This is a real cyclists challenge and even cars struggle to maintain forward progress on the steep switch back bends. It's a good place to practice your hill-starts! Passengers in passing cars leant out and their windows and encouraged us on. I wonder what they would have thought if they new what we had ridden up so far that day!

In the late afternoon we plummeted down the hairpin bends to Cockley Beck, and immediately onto the gentle initial slopes of Wrynose Pass, and it wasn't long before we reached the short section of steep road leading up to the summit. The descent into Little Langdale is exhilarating to say the least. Reaching speeds of 50 to 60 mile an hour it doesn't take very long however! All we had to do now was the connecting road through into Great Langdale, 110 Metres of climbing and our shortest col. In gathering twilight we sped down the bends into Great Langdale, well satisfied with our journey. We had visited 9 distinct valleys and seen some of the England's best scenery. My altimeter had recorded 2,300 metres of total ascent in approximately 35 miles. The best mountain bike challenge rides in England? I reckon so. Why not give it a go yourself!

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