A guide to running Jack's Rake

Fell runner Abbie Pearse shares why Jack’s Rake in the Lake District is the ultimate playground for trail runners looking to really push their limits this season.

Slicing dramatically across the face of climbers’ favourite hunk of classic rock, Pavey Ark, is the next big adventure for a trail runner looking to challenge their head for heights, skills of negotiation with technical ground, and ability to ascend beautifully precarious moments of Lake District landscapes. Jack’s Rake is an enticing gully which reaches from the shores of the still Stickle Tarn, channeling those who dare six hundred metres upwards, with some tricky moves, threats of crumbly rock footing, and mossed up clambering, on an almost mythical-feel journey through the uppers of the Langdale Pikes. 

The fells of the Lake District draw me in each year and, whilst I can’t make the long drive from Sheffield there as much as I would like, every time I do manage to head there I am full of excitement and promise about the adventures which await. Most of my time is spent running on the trails around Sheffield, living near to the gem of Rivelin Valley and, at weekends, the Peak District becomes my playground. Both are amazing places for trail running, though where my stomping ground can offer fast running on trails, rock hopping, grassy climbs, and peat bog slogging, the Lakes always seem, to me, a place with a greater scope for big adventures. Here can be found, amongst other things, much longer climbs and higher altitudes, a grand sense of space, rough descents, and challenges of navigating off path fell-bashing routes. 

Pavey Ark, Lake District

This year, I have decided to focus my running more on fell racing. Fell racing demands skills and confidence over rough ground, high vertical gain, and covering uncertain ground, something I will need to build before the season! So, when I first heard about the scramble up Jack’s Rake, I immediately knew it was something I had to experience. As a runner, I am looking for new and exciting mountain moments, aiming at pushing my own limits whilst exploring landscapes new to me.    

Let the brakes off

The route overview

The nearest big town to Jack’s Rake is Ambleside, from where a short ride, bus or drive will take you to the best starting point, by the National Trust’s Stickle Barn café, Great Langdale, in the Langdale Valley (parking is available here).

The main objective of the route, Jack’s Rake, is assessed as a grade one scramble, which means the climb is rough, with some steep steps where you will need to use your hands. Wet days will ensure the route is at its slippiest, and should be approached with adequate caution. Conversely, on a sunny day, the safer conditions will also be accompanied with those life affirming Lake District views.

The route from Great Langdale begins with a steep pitched path climb to Stickle Tarn; this section can be run/power-hiked in under an hour, or quicker, for the very fit. Pavey Ark dominates the water of the tarn. From here, Jack’s Rake is identifiable as the dark diagonal scar, spanning from the bottom right to top left of the slab. Careful ascent up the main objective of Jack’s Rake may take thirty minutes or so of scrambling.  

Jack's Rake, Running Route

Onwards, one must loop around the tarn to the foot of the cliff face, keeping in mind of where the entrance to the previously visible gully should be. The push then ensues, and soon enough the demands of the route are met with a reaching move up and into the groove of the rake. It is strongly advised not to attempt down climbing and, with no exit chutes, one must first consider their level of commitment to completing the route before embarking.  Progress continues through hugging the rock and moving carefully upwards over the most solid ground, where you will certainly be scrambling, nipping and tucking between and beyond the technical terrain. There are exposed moments where focus is crucial, and with these elevation gains come head-spinning sights of the gradually diminishing Stickle Tarn now far below. 

The climb becomes more gentle in the final pushes towards the exit of the channel. Upon exiting the chute, one has the option of further exploring the Langdale Pikes before returning via Stickle Tarn once more. There are manageable paths back down towards Stickle Tarn, either to its North West shoreline from Pavey Ark and Thunacarr Knott, or South West shoreline from nearby Harrison Stickle, which also offer excellent Wainwright bagging opportunities. Upon reaching Stickle Tarn, you may then retrace your steps, this time down the steep pitched path and back towards the start point at Sticklebarn, Great Langdale, where welcome refreshment can be taken. 

Running in the Lake District

Completion time depends upon how hard you want to go and also route choice from the top. You could expect to take between two and three hours to cover the circuit at a moderate running effort, which will certainly include some walking (!), covering around four miles of rough Lakeland ground. 

This exhilarating route offers a unique chance to explore the limits of your own trail running horizons. Combine lung-busting running, through steep climbing, and technical descending, shaped around the focal point of a forever memorable scramble through a classic rock climbers landscape, and the rewards of overcoming the challenge will be found in a deep sense of satisfaction and, if you’re lucky with the weather, by the panoramic views over to Scafell Pike, across the drama of the high fells, above the beautiful valleys of Langdale and Borrowdale. Some days you might even catch a glimpse of the Isle of Man in the distant sea. This is one you will never forget.

Essential kit for the trail

My usual kick starter of three petrol station coffees didn't do much to help calm my nerves on the early morning drive up the M6 this morning. Cautiously, I meander my beat-up Ford Fiesta down the dry-stone walled roads of the Langdale Valley, as my gaffa-taped windscreen wipers toy with annoying drizzle. I know the valley from my first ever big solo running mission last year, where I ran the Cumbria Way over three days, and so am hoping to feel the reassuring familiarity of the landscape I fell in love with as they come into view. 

At first, patiently, I wait. I know that somewhere ahead of me, through the clag, is a welcoming hug found in the sighting of the hills of Blisco, Harrison Stickle, and other fell friends. 

I hold a strand of hope. 

The clag isn’t budging.

I narrowly avoid a collision with a verge-chomping Herdwick, and notice my heart is going like the clappers. Doubt is creeping in. Too much caffeine? The low cloud hanging at four hundred meters looks stubborn. Fear? It is then I realise that, today, Langdale is here to challenge me.

Running Kit

The group meets by Sticklebarn, where the smell of frying breakfast goods sends me into cravings for warmth and security. Everyone is dressed for the weather.  Wanting to be sure I am protected against the inclement but able to move freely and with relative speed, I took time in choosing my kit for the day. My base layer is the Montane Dart Nano Zip Neck T-Shirt, then I go for the Montane Protium Lite Pull On Fleece. I am a runner who ALWAYS chooses shorts, so the Montane Slipstream 4” Trail Running Shorts are my most comfortable. For my windbreaker, I choose the Montane Featherlite Windproof Jacket. And, in case of emergency I carry the Mininus Lite Waterproof Jacket, a welcome reassurance on a day like today. My Gecko Running Pack is stuffed and I’m ready for action.

The start of the trail

We head through a small gate towards the climb to Stickle Tarn, where the sludge of the sodden field goes straight between my toes. Grim. The others are chatting away and act as if the day hadn’t only broken a half hour earlier. Hood up, I struggle to match their conversation, as the white water noise of an in spate Stickle Ghyl masks more than every other word uttered. Head down, all I gather is this certainly isn’t their first rodeo. There are flashes of excited talk of the challenge that lies ahead in Jack’s Rake. ‘It could be like a waterfall down there today.’ My thoughts are a whirlpool of uncertainty and, although with a group of friendly and experienced people, I feel quite alone and aware of my own relative lack of experience running in these unforgiving Lake District conditions. 

The path steepens alongside the ghyll. Despite my negative thoughts, I feel physically strong. Maybe it was all that coffee, and so take some confidence in being able to work the steep gradient of the path. We dig in more. The uneven path occasionally soothes my thoughts, as I focus on finding the most efficient route from each laid rock to the next. After ten minutes or more, the runners have moments moving almost in one joined rhythm. As I notice this, my right foot slips on a particularly polished slab and I take a stumble. Falling onto the sodden arm of one other runner, I struggle to keep up right and feel my wind battered cheeks glow in embarrassment.

‘You’re all good, love!’ He tries to reassure me, in vain. I let out an attempt at gratitude, but a grunt is all I can make. I try to focus only on the task at hand. One foot after the next. The spray from the ghyll intensifies as the steepest section of the path is tackled, and I notice the cold droplets hitting my face. I don’t like it. I don’t dislike it. Stoically, I continue focusing on making good upwards progress and, as I do, my gait opens up and my speed increases.

‘Wait up!’ A shout echoes against the cliffs somewhere far in front of us. ‘Abbie, yo! Wait up!’ again. With my head down, and rhythms stabilising, I realise I have dropped the group. Pausing. In front of me suddenly is a huge watery body. This must be Stickle Tarn. ‘Oops. Sorry. I was in the zone a bit then!‘ I laugh tentatively to the group. ‘Ha! No worries lass, you were shifting up there!’. I let the edges of my mouth soften into a slight smile, and notice the warmth from working hard that has generated inside my body.

Taking stock, we reach our first natural checkpoint. The mammoth gray slab looms. I wonder if on a sunny day it is a polkadot of climbers, hanging on their lines. Today, though, all we see is an impenetrable theatre of geological mass. Or so I think.

‘Yes... Follow my finger..’ The wet armed gentleman traces a diagonal line in the direction of the rock, gesturing to one other runner. ‘No... I can’t see it....’. ‘Try again’, his finger points to the bottom right hand side, before cutting across the sky upwards and left…. ‘Ah, maybe! The darkened crack straight through?‘ As I hear them dissect the rock, it hits me that this is our rock. This is Pavey Ark. And that... that crack which they are picking out amongst the dramatic beast and bulges of wet cliffside must be it. This must be Jack’s Rake.

Running the Lake District

Ascending Jack’s Rake

The rain suddenly seems wetter, my core temperature cooler, and my legs quiver weak again. The group moves. I let them shuffle ahead as my thoughts clash dissonantly. I find every step hard, unnatural. Where only minutes ago I found my stride, now I crawl, trip, stumble, and doubt each footfall.

Where the others leap the beck, I hesitate. On the fourth attempt I just manage the not-so-big leap of faith. Having left the main path behind the tarn, we pick our way through the ice age detritus. The louder my internal chatter, the quieter I become. The quieter I become, the chattier everyone else seems to be. The chattier they become, the quieter I become. Cyclical thoughts are the only regular motion in my world right now.  My footwork; an out off-time and ugly waltz of the macabre.

"We are in luck! With this weather, we don’t have to worry about anyone knocking stones onto our heads..... Except maybe a sheep!” I question his interpretation of good fortune. The frigid rock face towers directly to our right hand side. We have been channeled into a climbing trough, which, though wet, isn’t the waterfall it could have been. As the scramble presents itself, my focus is gradually absorbed by the task at hand.

I hear my feet bend, cracking tight spots as my ankle releases tension. The rock twists it into positions that allow me to purchase upwards. If I try to digest the whole climb in one, I feel sick. Looking ahead, I half expect to be a dot in the others’ rear view mirrors. But, I am slightly relieved to see them just a move or two ahead. From then on, I vow to study each move of those ahead, learning from their nimble movements. ‘Keep three points of contact at all times, Abbie! That’ll do you good.’ Move by move, we make progress.

The Lake District, Cumbria, UK

The rock looks incredible. At each crunch point, I admire the hypnotic patterns of the millennia, forged in each delicious Viennetta-like layer and swirl. My mind flashes between awe, terror, and absolutely nothing. My fingers and feet rub against the frozen, smoothened history of thousands of years. “Heyup! It looks like we might get a bit of blue sky!” As the path levels slightly, we take respite on a welcome ledge. He isn’t wrong. A speck of blue has emerged, and an ethereal beam pokes through for just one biblical second or two.

“Well done all. We are moving well. And sensibly of course! Next little bit, we have a steep step up. Remember just to move one move at a time, no rush, and you will barely notice anything awkward about it.” He is almost convincing. I look back and see the sun bounce briefly on the tarn we were at not even so long ago. It looks smaller from here. Noticing this, I feel stronger.

We reach the steepest section, and the others slow to move over it. They move purposefully and very deliberately. I think about my unsteady footwork further down the climb. I remember the wetness between my toes. I recall the swirling thoughts that destabilised my ability to enjoy the moment. I chuckle to myself. “Go on lass!” He laughs back, meeting one another across the precarious. Step by step. Up and up. Moment to Moment.

 We break the back of Jack’s Rake. We have made it. The valley becomes visible way below, as an off-grey palette lifts gently into a glowing pasty orange. Our gloves come off and we throw our hands together in congratulations. “Well done everyone. Well done.” Smiles shared. Pats on backs. Fast chatter and a debrief. Between us passes a thermo flask of barely warm tea. It’s very milky. But I don’t mind at all. We don’t spend too long at the top of Pavey Ark. But it is a moment long enough. A moment for us all to remember for a long time.

How to run in the Lake District

The Descent 

The descent back down is the perfect practice for my upcoming fell racing season, and we all really let the brakes off, as the rocks dry in the mid morning sun. Though the steps are technical and the gradient steep, I feel nimble in body and light in mind. We share whoops and trade pole position, as we practically race as a pack back to the bottom.

Grinningly exhausted and with sausage and egg cobs for all rounding off the morning at the Sticklebarn, it’s not just my stomach which is full. I am buzzing more than after three petrol station coffees with the refreshed knowledge that I can focus my energy in a positive way to overcome self-doubts that I have, even if it is very gradual. One step at a time. Moment to moment. I am inspired that, with hard work, we can be rewarded with some of the most stunning views, not only in the Lake District which we love, but anywhere and everywhere.  Moment to moment. Finally, with new friends, we concur that we all do our best together, when we support, encourage, and share our experiences of a beautiful world. Moment to moment. We had a great adventure on Jack’s Rake!

More trail running inspiration this way…

Eager to give Jack’s Rake a go? Take a look at our technical trail running kit to get started. For more inspiring trail runs to try in the UK, take a look at the epic Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.