Cast your mind back fifty million years or so. The Himalayas are only just beginning their relentless charge skywards, and yet over in Britain, an area of remnant volcanic activity which would eventually become known as the Lake District has already been standing proudly over the British Isles for 450 million years. Fast forward to the present day, and standing highest among the pack is Scafell Pike.
Despite many hundreds of millions of years of erosion, the summit of Scafell Pike is still an impressive 978 metres (3,209 feet) high, the tallest mountain in England. It’s also an extremely popular tourist attraction, one of the highlights of a national park which receives as many as 15 million tourists annually, by far the highest visitor numbers of all the UK’s national parks.
‘Huge numbers of people walk up it every year, and these numbers take a toll on the mountain environment,’ says Carey Davies, Hill Walking Development officer at the British Mountaineering Council (BMC). ‘Without intervention, paths crumble, erosion scars appear on the mountain and fragile flora can be damaged. There are also problems from litter, noise, and congestion in the surrounding valleys, particularly Wasdale, where many of the Scafell Pike walkers set off from.’
The BMC is the representative body for hill walkers, climbers and mountaineers in England and Wales. They operate across many areas within the mountaineering sector, but, says Davies, their most important work in in access and conservation. ‘We want to protect our rightful freedom to enjoy the countryside, crags, and mountains, but we also want to ensure those places are protected and that their unique qualities are safeguarded,’ he explains.
The unique character of Scafell Pike is being celebrated in a film entitled Life of a Mountain: A Year on Scafell Pike, currently available for viewing on the BBC. Filmed, edited and produced by photographer and film-maker Terry Abraham, the project was also supported by the BMC.
With the rising popularity of tourists visiting both the Lake District, and Scafell Pike specifically, the BMC has undertaken several initiatives to ensure the continued protection of the mountain. This has included helping to fund the reparation of paths damaged by heavy footfall, as well as stimulating conversations among all bodies involved with regards to challenge events, such as the popular Three Peaks Challenge, where participants attempt to climb the tallest mountains in each of England, Scotland and Wales within just twenty four hours. ‘In summer there can be hundreds of people arriving in Wasdale through the night,’ says Davies. ‘While many of these people behave responsibly, disturbance of local residents is common, and litter and waste can be even more of a problem. It’s not unusual for people to defecate in the open, and some groups even leave trails of glowsticks on the mountain paths to mark the way. Last year we held a Challenge Events Conference which drew together lots of different stakeholders in a bid to come up with solutions. There is still a long way to go, but it helps if only to get people talking and thinking in a joined-up way.’
One person who requires no convincing of the splendour of Scafell Pike is Carey Davies. ‘Around the massif you have wonderful, atmospheric bodies of water like Styhead and Sprinkling Tarn, imposing cliff faces like Great End, a hugely intricate array of crags and buttresses, some fascinating flora, some great off-the-beaten-track routes and – if you get there before the crowds – a sense of wildness, seclusion and isolation that can be rare to find in England,’ he enthuses. ‘Upper Eskdale, for example, is completely devoid of human habitation. But I find the top of Scafell Pike to be a rather uninspiring boulder field. Many people rush up Scafell Pike via the least interesting routes, and miss a lot of this. For me it shows that mountain environments can often be rewarding if you’re not just striving to get to the summit as quickly as possible.’