I've hiked or climbed in every valley in the Lake District, in most I've done both and done it more than once. Of all the valleys Buttermere is one of my favourites.
Tucked into the north-western fells the valley doesn't attract the same crowds that Wasdale and Langdale seem to, yet more than matches them aesthetically. The reason it's one of my favourites? Well, besides being quieter (sometimes you need solitude to complete your mountain experience, though sometimes not) this valley also possesses it's share of quality rock climbing, but the origin of my fascination with this valley lay in the fact that all the rock routes are to the south. There is little, if anything, to climb on the northern slopes.
For me learning about geology in the classroom was a dull process, it was noticing evidence of geological processes as I spent more and more time in the mountains that kindled interest in our landscape's story and Buttermere is where the underlying geology pushes itself to the surface and makes itself part of the view. On each side of the valley neatly divided by the lake of the Buttermere (in a way that appeals to the obsessively organised part of myself) lies evidence of different geological processes; that is to say... different chapters in the story of these mountains.
Billions of years ago two ancient continents, each sitting upon its own tectonic plate and surrounded by ocean, began to grind their way inexorably towards each other. Driven by the fiery currents beneath the earth's surface it was the plate holding Laurentiia that ceded, pushed down into the earth beneath Avalonia and from this moment comes the divergent plot-lines.
South Buttermere... as the plate was forced downward into the earth's core the heat turned it to molten rock, as if in vengeance the plate's molten remains broke upwards, through the surface of the very continent it had given way to. The volcanic rock that composes much of the Lakeland mountains is the result of this activity; a mixture of intrusive and extrusive igneous (molten rock that has cooled either below or above ground respectively) and pyroclastic rocks (materials thrown into the air by volcanic eruptions which have then come to form rock, such as tuff). Upon the southern side of Buttermere these harder, more trustworthy volcanic rocks form the rugged-faced climbing venues of High Crag and Eagle Crag. Haystacks too, apparently a favourite of Wainwright's, is composed of these rocks and on it's flank near Scarth Gap evidence of flow-banding (related to the movement of lava while cooling) can be seen.
As the continents, now in collision, continued to grind into each other the ground buckled, the volcanic and sedimentary rocks were pushed and wrinkled upwards into a mountain range encompassing the Scottish Highlands, the Lakeland Fells and Snowdonia - the Caledonides. At least four times as high as the mountains we see today and possibly as much as ten times as high. the thought of the Caledonides at their tallest provides a suitably dramatic ending for a chapter in the story, as well as an ideal opening scene for A Story of Mountains pt. II - Scafell Pike which will be published in September.
This article has featured brief explanations summoned from my limited enthusiast's knowledge, they don't do what were ancient and complex processes justice, but hopefully at least it has peaked your interest and made clear that for anyone interested in the story of how mountains are made Buttermere is a must see.
Fancy seeing the Lakeland Fells for yourself? Go out with one of our qualified, experienced and enthusiastic Mountain Leaders. Take a look at our Experiences and Challenges page. Or alternately get in contact on the Bookings page. You can also like our Facebook page for regular updates on new articles.
All articles are written from a humble and deeply personal perspective. Where facts or recommendations are given these are taken from research and experience. We hope these articles help you in your quest to enjoy the mountains and that they portray our passion for what EA Mountain Skills does.