MTB Roots - 2 of 6: Classic Lakeland Passes

Article by Benji Haworth
Thursday 31st March 2011

Over the past decade the sport of cycling has seen a huge increase in its number of participants, with more and more people taking to two wheels for commuting, exercise and adventure. The development of trail centres has helped thrust mountain biking to the top of the popularity pile: well maintained trails for all abilities, often with on-site facilities and waymarked routes make getting off-road on a bike easier now than ever. Trail centres have given rise to a new breed of biker who have learnt their sport on the well defined and marked trails of blue and red routes, but also who have never experienced the adventure of a quiet moor or mountain, the solitude and satisfaction that a day in the hills can bring.


Trail centres are fantastic resources but there is a danger that mountain bikers will never really ride ‘mountains' but base their experiences around tamed, manicured trails. Many will remember taking their bike off-road for the first time after scouring maps for bridleways, possible gems in their local landscape and revelling afterwards at their ‘discoveries'. This series aims to inspire all bikers, but especially those who haven't yet been able to fully experience the adventure of a UK mountain or moor.


The second part in the series looks at some of the classic Lake District passes. Riders need to expect a full day in the hills and along with that the right mental attitude is required for the style of riding that will be encountered. Remember to cycle responsibly, don't be an idiot, we share the bridleways with other users and a bit of courtesy goes a long way. [Ed]



The Lake District is a lot of people's favourite place to ride mountain bikes. It's not hard to understand why. The scenery is famously beautiful and inspiring. There are loads of great routes to do that offer a wide variety of riding. From testing lakeside paths and bouldery traverses through to twisty woodland singletrack and swoopy descents that carve their way across the flanks of the fells, the Lake District has it all. For the purpose of this feature however I'm going to concentrate on a type of trail and a type of riding that has fallen out of favour over the past few years. Well, when I say type of "riding", that's not strictly the best description for it.

Sty Head Lakeland Pass - Mtb Roots planetFear

Styhead Tarn below Great Gable.


The type of "experience with a bike" that I'm talking about is negotiating your way over the classic Lakeland Passes.


A "Pass" is simply a track that goes over the saddle point of unavoidable, un-go-around-able hills. A lot of these passes became tarmac roads at various points last century, and these days offer a challenging ride on a road bike. Back in the 1930s and 1940s all these passes were to a greater or lesser extent fairly rough. An early form of mountain biking became en vogue with a certain type of cyclist - often they were danger-addicted ex-soldiers looking to make the most of life.


Nan Bield - MTB Roots - Lake District - planetFear

Longer travel full-sussers aren't always necessary, however on Nan Bield they're a pretty good option. 


These days the now-tarmaced passes such as Hardknott, Wrynose and Honister will fill a road rider's heart with joy or doom, depending on the rider. But there are a handful of Lakeland passes that have avoided the tarmac treatment. Either because they were just too steep and mental to lay down a car-friendly surface upon or because the places that they linked together just weren't important or populated enough to bother with. More often than not these passes take you up and away from the lakes themselves and into a different type of Lake District. One that's not quite as pretty pretty. It's more remote feeling. Bleaker. Harsher. Daunting.

 Black Sail Pass Upper


Due to their age, the passes themselves are usually pretty well defined and easy to follow. Another thing you'll find is that there's no that many other paths branching off or crossing them. For once, the correct way is towards the lowest/easiest point up ahead. While this does make for much more straightforward (literally) navigation, it does also mean there aren't a lot of short cuts or alternative routes. Once you're on a Lakeland pass you're committed to the whole thing. There's no way out other than over the top. Don't underestimate how long it will take to do a Lakeland Pass. In terrain like this 3km can take a long time. Distance doesn't tell anything close to the full story. It's also a brave/foolhardy group who attempt more than two or three passes in a single day.

Nan Bield - MTB Roots - Lake District - planetFear

Nan Bield Looking down to Kentmere Reservoir. 


Due to these various factors it can be an appropriate idea to make your Lakeland pass adventure into a two dayer. Believe it or not, chances are there will be places to stay overnight on your route. These can vary from pubs to Youth Hostels to campsites to bivvy barns. Divide up your kit between your fellow adventurers, making sure you're not doubling up on anything unnecessarily and you'll be surprised and pleased at how manageable it all is.

Styhead - MTB Roots - Lake District - planetFear

This bridleway follows Styhead Gill down in to the Borrowdale valley. 


Whether you do your route in a day or as an overnighter, it's a good idea to do it during British Summer Time when there's a lot more hours of daylight available. You don't want the added pressure of a lack of time. Thankfully there's no need to be overly preoccupied with the weather. Obviously you want to make sure you have enough (adaptable) clothing with you for dealing with bad weather, but due to these ancient passes being principally rocky and "armoured" they do hold up well when it's wet. The rock can get a bit slippier when wet but it's nothing that a decent, modern, fat mountain bike tyre can't deal with.

Rossett Ghyll - MTB Roots - Lake District - planetFear

Rossett Ghyll provides a very technical descent


The places you reach are also usually a lot quieter and free of other people. Which is something of a rarity in the tourist honeypot Lake District. Anyone you do encounter is also usually a bit more experienced in the outdoors so they don't mind encountering mountain bikes and don't get startled or riled as you approach and pass.



Taking your bike over the Lakeland Passes that remain "rough stuff" can involve very little time spent in the saddle. On the way up the pass you'll spend a significant amount of time pushing or carrying your bike. On the way down the pass you'll be riding your bike - but not sat down. They're too steep, twisty or fast for being sat down. Some cyclists leave the chamois shorts and clipless shoes at home because of the amount of time spent hiking on foot and technical, stood up descending. You'll also encounter sections on the descents that you may not be able to ride.


A key element and attraction of doing the Lakeland Passes is that you can't ride it all. This is not a negative. It's a liberating experience of not limiting yourself just to those routes where you can ride a bike on it all. Some mountain bikers hate getting off their bikes even briefly. This is a short sighted attitude and goes against the pioneering spirit of dragging bicycles into the mountains. Very few things that are worthwhile are easy. If you avoid the harder challenges you'll never reach the higher rewards.

Styhead - MTB Roots Lake District Passes - planetFear

Above Styhead, a hike-a-bike is expected.


Carrying - or "shouldering" - your bike is becoming something of a lost art in mountain biking. "Back in the day" it wasn't an unusual sight to see mountain bikes with foam pipe lagging taped around their top- and seat-tubes.

Rossett Ghyll - MTB Roots Lake District Passes - planetFear

Shouldering the bike is a method that needs to be utlilised on Lakeland Passes. 


If you've got a hardtail, shouldering your bike is pretty straightforward. Stick your arm through the front triangle and hoist the bike up on to yourself so the top-tube/seat-tube junction sits just behind your shoulder (just above your shoulder blade). Use your hand to hold the bars or stem in place to stop the bars hitting you in the face and to keep the bike in place generally. Your free hand can be used for balance and for stability when on the really steep scramble sections.

Styhead - MTB Roots Lake District Passes - planetFear

On the approach to Styhead Tarn. 


Full suspension bikes can be trickier to deal with. If your full-susser has a fairly normal "roomy" front triangle then use the same method of shouldering as with a hardtail. Chances are though there's not enough space in your frame to get your arm and shoulder through comfortably. The method here is to carry the bike more horizontally across your shoulders, with the bike's top tube lying across the yoke of your shoulders (a rucksack can act as "padding" here). Hold on the saddle or seat post with your left hand, your right hand holds on to the handlebars. It can be awkward to hoist the bike up and to put it back down on the ground again but you'll find it gets better with practice.



It's for this awkward-to-carry reason that some riders prefer to leave their full suspension bike at home when tackling Lakeland passes and opt for the comfier-to-carry hardtail instead. It should still be a hardtail with a fairly big suspension fork up front and shod with chunky, aggressive tyres though. No-one wants to be riding a steep angled XC race hardtail down the other side.

Rossett Ghyll - MTB Roots Lake District Passes - planetFear

The lower reaches of Rossett Ghyll can be found at the end of Great Langdale in Mickleden.


If I've made riding the Lakeland Passes sound like hard work then that's because it is. It requires altered intentions and expectations. As I've already said, it's not like a typical mountain bike "ride", it's more like a hike-with-a-bike. The descents are where the majority of the actual on-the-bike riding is but I wouldn't really say that doing Lakeland passes is "all about the descents". It's not a case of carefree freewheeling or even adrenalin inducing ragged plummeting. There are consequences. The descents have to be ridden in a slightly cagey or guarded manner. You are really aware that a puncture or - God forbid - a bad crash could really ruin your day. There is no safety net. You're testing your mettle, not pushing your luck.

Nan Bield - MTB Roots Lake District Passes - planetFear

Nan Bield provides a technical descent with steep-cornered switchbacks and tight singletrack that can ruin your rear mech.


The experience is very much about the whole story. The beginning, the middle and the end. It's like watching a film, or reading a book. It's not a YouTube clip or a status update. A big day out on the Lakeland Passes is a full body work-out. Your legs and shoulders will remind you of your adventure for a couple of days afterwards. Let's not forget that your brain is part of your body too. The experience should be a mental as well as a physical challenge.


The Classic Lakeland Passes



Black Sail Pass

1,800 feet

From Black Sail Hut (the UK's remotest Youth Hostel no less) you head up, immediately on foot, the steep tufty grass banking that's interspersed with a rocky outcrop scramble section. The descent down to Wasdale Head is "crazy paved" and steppy for the first half, the later half is "natural" sunken singletrack with occasional bouldery bits.

Black Sail Pass Lake District - Powered by view of Black Sail  



Garburn Pass

1,450 feet

Debate forever rages about which is the best direction to ride Garburn Pass. Even since its recent "calming" resurfacing work I still prefer doing it Troutbeck-to-Kentmere. This is one of the more normal and all-rideable-on-a-good-day Passes that can be made into a nice route involving Dubbs Reservoir and Jenkin Crag. A great introduction into Lakeland Pass riding.

Garburn Pass Lake District - Powered by view of Garburn  



Nan Bield Pass

2,100 feet

Again, there is some debate about which direction to do Nan Bield. If you're a highly skilled technical rider then I'd strongly recommend doing it South-to-North (Kentmere to Haweswater). If you're more of regular rider then you'll enjoy it more doing it North-to-South. Can be done as a tough loop involving Sadgill, or a massive epic involving Garburn Pass. A technical treat.

Nan Bield Pass Lake District - Powered by view of Nan Bield



Rossett Ghyll

2,000 feet

Very difficult to work into a loop route so arguably best done as a straight out-and-back (or up-and-back-down). Similar to the upper section of Black Sail Pass in its rockiness but steeper and "on steroids". Contains some very steep roll-ins and tight rocky hairpins. Situated in a quiet cleft of the Lake District don't be put off by it's "same trail done both ways" nature. It's one of my favourites.

Rossett Ghyll Lake District - Powered by view of Rossett Ghyll



Scarth Gap Pass

1,400 feet

Scarth Gap Pass doesn't have much of an appeal in itself but it is a useful and "involving" way of linking Black Sail Pass, Sty Head and Honister Pass (road) into a huge day out. Up from Buttermere its not quite steep enough to shoulder your bike a lot of the time, but its too steep to ride. This annoyance is quickly replaced by awe, excitement and nervousness as you crest the summit and the Big Day ahead is laid out right in front of you.

Scarth Gap Pass Lake District - Powered by view of Scarth Gap



Styhead Pass

1,600 feet

The Wastwater side of Styhead is a loose scramble; you can't ride your bike down it, never mind up! The Seatoller side has a great slabby section alongside Styhead Tarn, then a frustrating boulder field next to Styhead Gill, then as you head away from the Gill there's some demanding, technical riding to be savoured. Styhead Pass is one that it is only really workable as part of a long, arduous day out. Usually it's the last Pass you do on the day and as such acts as a "nice" distillation of the highs and lows of Lakeland Pass riding.

Styhead Gill - Powered by view of Styhead



Walna Scar Road

1,900 feet

Much like Garburn Pass, Walna Scar Road is one of the more "normal" tracks you can do. It's almost all rideable by an experienced rider and it never gets too mental. Since its recent resurfacing it's not the challenge it once was but that same resurfacing has made it much more viable to do in either direction and so it can now be worked into a few different routes. A particular favourite is to head up Walna Scar from Torver and then over to Dunnerdale.

Walna Scar Road Lake District - Powered by view of Walna Scar



Styhead - MTB Roots Lake District Passes - planetFear

Styhead descent.



Recommended Kit


- A bike that is tolerable to carry up the hills as well as being capable on the descents. Not too heavy. Don't "over-bike" yourself.

- Fat tyres with strong sidewalls to help avoid punctures.

- Strong brakes.

- Shoes that are comfortable to walk/hike in.

- Some pipe lagging. It doesn't weigh much and those who mock will wish they have some once you're off and carrying.

- A packed lunch.

- A good attitude.

- Riding companions who don't moan.


Rossett Ghyll - MTB Roots Lake District Passes - planetFear

Rossett Ghyll demands full concentration and technical competence on the bike.



Click for Part 1 in the MTB Roots Series - Snowdon Ranger Path



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