The Lake District is considered by many to be the birthplace of rock climbing in Britain, if not the world. The earliest climbers were local shepherds who somehow negotiated the unbearably exposed crags wearing hobnailed boots. Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, who made an unplanned descent of Scafell Pike in 1803, helped to popularise both the Lakes and the sport of climbing. The coming of the railways at the end of the 19th century helped to open up these hitherto inaccessible crags to the masses, and leaps of technology within the sport itself have systematically revealed more and more possibilities for the climber, ensuring that the Lake District remains at the very forefront of British climbing today.
One of the earliest mountain peaks to be climbed was Pillar, a mountain in the western part of the Lake District between the valleys of Ennerdale and Wasdale. Pillar, which at 892 meters is the 8th highest peak in the park, was named after Pillar Rock, a tall, thin column on the Ennerdale side of the mountain that became known as one of the wonders of the Lake District in the early 19th century. The crag's notoriety probably owed much to Wordsworth's poem The Brothers, in which he compares Pillar Rock to 'Some vast building made of many crags.' The first recorded ascent of Pillar Rock was made in 1826. By 1872 four separate routes had been pioneered here and by 2007 over 90 climbs of Pillar Rock had been recorded.
Another historically important Lake District crag is Napes Needle, part of Napes Crag on the peak known as Great Gable. The crag was first climbed in June 1886 by W.P.Haskett-Smith, who arrived in the Lake District by rail and was one of the first known sport climbers. Napes Needle has since become one of the most photographed climbs in the area, offering 65 feet of dramatic exposure, and remaining popular with climbers for well over a century.
1907 saw the formation of the Lake District's first dedicated rock climbing group, The Fell & Rock Climbing Club. The FRCC, which has had a central role in the continued evolution and popularity of climbing in the Lake District, had their very first informal meeting at the Sun Inn, Coniston in November, 1906. One of the club's earliest moves was to buy up a large area of Lake District land above 1500 feet and give it to the National Trust, in order to ensure that it would remain freely available to all. The FRCC now has 1200 members, owns 7 huts and 3 cottages in the Lake District and Scotland and has been responsible for definitive Lake District climbing guides such as the award-winning 'Lake District Rock', published in 2003.
The Lake District's rich climbing legacy has meant that it is now a ubiquitous stop on any climber's itinerary. An infrastructure of equipment shops and outdoor adventure centres make it an easy place for climbers to practise their sport and a variety of routes are accessible from wherever you decide to set up camp.
Ambleside offers a range of eating and accommodation options as well as access to Langdale, which is home to some of Britain's finest and most famous crags. Coniston, home of Coniston Brewery's Bluebird Bitter, gives easy access both to single-pitch slate routes such as those that can be found in Tiberthwaite Quarry, and atmospheric high-mountain crags such as the famous Dow Crag. Patterdale, on the eastern side of the Lakes, is set in the upper reaches of the picturesque Ullswater valley and hides secret gems like Raven Crag, famous for its collection of exposed and technically challenging routes for the more experienced, while Wasdale, home to Napes Needle and Pillar Rock, is steeped in climbing history and offers easy access to a wealth of classic and groundbreaking routes as well as England's highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and her biggest climbing crag, Scafell Crag.
It goes without saying that climbing is a dangerous sport and these routes should not be tackled without some form of prior training. The Lake District is home to numerous adventure and climbing centres, many of which offer guided packages for all abilities and experience. If you do feel confident that you are ready to go it alone always make sure that you have adequate safety equipment, food, drink and maps and that someone is aware of the route you intend to take. Always check the weather forecast before you attempt a route and never climb alone.
If you are unlucky with the weather and, let's face it, rain is no stranger to the Lake District, there are a number of climbing walls to choose from at Ambleside, Barrow-in-Furness, Carlisle, Cockermouth, Kendal, Keswick and Penrith.