The Four Passes

After what felt like an endless winter of rides hampered by snow, strong winds and lack of daylight, I’d been feeling hungry for a bit of an epic adventure, so at the first sign of milder, more settled conditions, I got planning. Keen to try a challenging route that I hadn’t ridden before, I decided to venture up to the north Lakes, where everything’s that little bit bigger and more badass. The Four Passes, which takes in Honister, Scarth Gap, Black Sail and Sty Head passes, was a route I’d been keen to do for a while, and it certainly sounded like it would tick the epic box. Although only 25km in distance, the loop clocks up a whopping 1500m elevation over some pretty technical terrain that would require a fair amount of hike-a-bike.

Parking just outside Seatoller, the ride started with a nice leisurely pedal up to Honister Pass. Anyone who’s ever ridden, or driven, up this relentless road climb with a gradient of 22% in places, will be able to detect my sarcasm, as the only leisurely thing about it was the pace. It was, at least rideable up to this point though, which is not something that could be said for the majority of the  climbs that followed. After reaching the slate mine, we left the road and wound our way up the steep track to the top, occasionally having to dismount and push when the going got tough.

I’d heard that the Warnscale Bottom descent to Buttermere was pretty technical, so was looking forward to giving it a go. In fact, that descent was probably the main reason I was attracted to the route in the first place, and it definitely lived up to expectations. Although the very top section was fairly straightforward, it wasn’t long before we dropped onto an extremely rocky trail that clung to the steep hillside. Negotiating my way down the steep jagged slabs, precariously close to the edge, provided some butt-clenching moments, but after a while it became less twisty, and the solid rock gave way to loose boulders, presenting an altogether different challenge. Juddering down the rough terrain, trying to stay relaxed and hold it together, I felt very grateful for my bike’s suspension, without which I would surely have been bucked off, not only the bike, but the edge of the hillside. Half way down I paused to give my burning arms a rest and take in the stunning views of the valley with Buttermere sitting pretty below, before clattering my way to the bottom.

From Peggy’s Bridge, we skirted the south end of Buttermere for a few hundred metres before starting to climb sharply again up to Scarth Gap. This time, it wasn’t long before we had to get off and push, and as the terrain became increasingly steep and rugged, the only option was to hoist our bikes onto our backs and hike to the top. With the striking Haystacks looming above, and beautiful Buttermere valley below, it was hard to stay focused on the trail ahead, and on more than one occasion I found myself losing my footing whilst distracted by the scenery. It did, at least keep your mind off the slog though.

At the top of the pass, instead on continuing up to Haystacks, we veered off right to descend into the Ennerdale valley. Compared to the previous descent, this was pretty tame, although by usual standards, it was still fairly rocky in places. The descent took us out at the remote little Black Sail Hut youth hostel, from where we started to climb again up the other side of the valley to Black Sail Pass. Once again, what started as a gentle climb, quickly became unrideable, resulting in another big hike-a-bike that was pretty tough in places. Hoisting myself up massive steps and through narrow gaps, with a heavy mountain bike balanced on my back, was a test of both strength and balance that was enough to rival any CrossFit workout.

Once at the top, we were rewarded with an awesome long descent to Wasdale Head, which had just the right mix of tech and flow. Had we set off earlier in the day, we could also have been rewarded with a refreshing beverage at the village pub, but with only a couple of hours of daylight left, we had to push on up to Sty Head Pass, with nothing more than a swig from the Camelback and a few Haribos.

As we set off up the valley, we were met with an almighty headwind, which forced us to dismount and push, on what was a pretty gentle slope compared to what lay ahead. Staring up at the trail that wound steeply skywards, with fatigue already starting to set in, I realised I was going to have to dig deep to get up there. Trying to ignore the howling wind that was doing its best to push me back down the hill, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, and before too long, Wasdale Head and Wastwater started to look like miniature features in the distance. Unfortunately the hardest part was still to come, but at least it was progress. The final section consisted of another techy hike-a-bike requiring some more lunging and balance skills, and this time there was some slippy scree thrown into the mix for an added challenge. Across the valley, a very snowy Scafell Pike loomed ominously, making the ascent feel all the more epic, and us a little humble.

When we eventually got to Sty Head, we were greeted with the infamous stretcher box, which served as another stark reminder of the inhospitable environment we were in and sent a little shiver down the spine. After dropping down to Styhead Tarn, we followed a fairly flat, but extremely rocky trail alongside the beck before the gradient increased to offer a great techy descent that took us most of the way back to where we started the route, six hours previously.

Spinning along the final stretch of road back to the van, with the light starting to dim, it occurred to me that this was one of the only flat sections we’d ridden all day, and it felt reassuringly easy. Looking back up at where we’d come from, it was hard to believe we’d been up there only a short while ago, and that it was only one of four mega climbs and descents that we’d clocked up during a ride that had been every bit as epic as I’d hoped.

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