GUIDE TO THE RIVER ESK
(Upper Section to Brotherikeld)
NAME OF RIVER: River Esk.
WHERE IS IT: Brotherikeld, at the bottom of Hardknott Pass, Cumbria.
PUT INS/ TAKE OUTS: Park at Brotherikeld and take the footpath upstream on the river left bank. After about 4 K the head of the Esk valley is reached. Cross the pack horse bridge over Lincove beck, following the Esk left up to the bottom Seven waterfalls which are easily recognisable. Continue on upstream if you have the energy, (we didn't), apparently there are many other waterfalls, and as many portages above the seven waterfalls. The getout is back where you started walking.
APPROX. LENGTH: 4 km.
TIME NEEDED: 5-6 hours at least.
ACCESS HASSLES: Unknown.
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: Local levels need to be at Medium - high.
GRADING: The river is constant G 3 with frequent sections of G 4 and G 5, the falls are G 5 and above.
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: Most of it.
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: A long walk but worth every step if waterfalls and pool drops are your thing. Similar in nature to the Etive, but most of the drops are less straight forward and harder.
Richard Evans in his book "Cumbrian Becks" describes the seven falls as "all possible", but then adds "one section is hard G 6". Is there such a thing as an easy G 6 ? We tackled most of these falls, all G5, but decided the middle two falls were "NOT possible" if we wanted to do the rest of the trip.
The first three falls run together, the second drop tending to backloop, a common trait of most drops on this river. The second fall, although the smallest is probably the hardest and most critical of the first three. The last drop held myself and Attak deep for some time before letting go.
The next two falls run into each other, most will portage.
The next is a double drop in a deep very narrow gully, the first drop being grabby and attempts to backloop you.
The seventh drop looked as if it may pin half way down, we portaged, although would look closer at it next time.
A short flat section of water leads into the next G6, we portaged and got in immediately below. From here back to Brotherikeld there is never a dull moment with short technical flat sections nicely interrupted with G4 and G5 drops. There are too many to detail all, however some the significant sections are as follows:
A two tier G4 drop with grabby stopper at the base.
A narrow G5 slot with two drops, both tending to backloop. Added complication being the constricted sides hampering a roll, and an inconveniently placed boulder half way down.
A hard G4 section with a three metre fall and stopper at its base. Due to the technical lead in most of the group nearly did the fall upside down, one didn't.
A 100 metre section of G4 and G5, Kail Pot, culminating in a small double drop which backlooped most of the group half way down.
OTHER NOTES: A fantastic river and well worth the long walk to get to it. However if you dont want to do G4 and G5 drops dont bother, one of our group walked both in and out!
Andrew Clough (Dec 2005)...'Heron Pot, the narrow section referred to in the guide washes out in very high levels and creates a large stopper on right across the river from bank to bank. Also Kail Pot the twisting rapid and fall and gorge below changes character at very high levels. The twists wash out and the drop directly below forms a river wide drop with a monster stopper, luckily a big wave 1/2 way down the drop sends you past the main stopper. The narrow gorge below this (above the last rapid Birk Dub) also disappears apart from another deep powerful stopper. Also at these levels Birks Dub, which is usually fairly rocky will be showing no rocks, just big holes.
We paddled this one evening after work. It was raining that hard we had to keep stopping emptying our boats on the walk up. By the time we got to the top it was massive! There are 2 photo's of Kail Pot Heron Pot in Stuart Millers excellent guide to the Lake District, to give an indication of the level on the day we paddled it, and the level it rises to, the people stood on the bank in the photo's would be getting the pounding of their lives as the water was pounding over where they are stood!
Unfortunately I never made it to the bottom of the river! The 1st grade 3 drop out of the pool below Vicars Swar Falls was back looping creek boats, and the river was taking no prisoners! I went swimming not far below this (the first grade 4 drop, normal levels). It ate me my M3 and did a great job of cart wheeling my mates creek boat! Anyway I got my boat back the next day (the river must have dropped about 6 foot so I just walked over to the rock/tree it was on/under and collected what was left of it, which was not much).
If you loose your boat on this river in high water expect a lot of damage (not just to the boat)! As soon as I came out of my boat it was off down the river like an express train. It has a hole in the front, a hole underneath, 3 holes in the cockpit, its insides got ripped out (seat, thigh braces, central pillar, grab loops pulled through, etc, etc.)
Well worth the 2 hour walk for a 40 meter paddle, especially at the cost of 700 for a boat! Ha Ha!
Having said that this is still a corking river, which I have now paddled at least 10 times despite the long walk in. In lower/med levels it may be worth considering a play boat if you are putting on below the grade 6 bit. I normally paddle this in my Liquid Logic Scooter as it weighs nothing is good for the carry, however when its stonking you need a big boat, and even this may not save your ass!
Also of note is the Upper Gorge above the last 7 falls (these last 7 falls are actually the last part of the gorge although it is more open here). The Upper Gorge is accessed by following the path up to below Scar Lathing Crag, and you put on here. This Upper Gorge is definately a contender for the hardest run in the lakes, if not the UK? It is in a good flow (med+ levels upwards) a solid continuous grade 5+/6+ (one lonnng rapid really) with 2/3 definite portages, and no flat in approx 2 km of river, one of the portages you will only be able to recognise as a portage in low flows. The last seven falls including the grade 6, Vicars Swa Falls are definately the easiest part of this ridiculous upper run. Check out one of the drops approx 1/2 way down, which lands in the undercut defile/gorge, there is a boulder wedged 1/2 way down the fall which act as a chockstone and would be horrendous if you slipped down the back of it. There is a big sling on a boulder directly on the lip of this monster which you need to clip into if you want to (or if you can) in order to portage. The other two portages are near the end of the gorge one of which is a drop of about 30 foot onto rock (the last one).'
Andrew Clough (Nov 2005)...'The narrow grade 4/5 slot is Heron Pot. This washes out in higher water but creates a large stopper on river right. Again the short george below Kail Pot more or less washes out in high water but has a powerful hole in it. I went swimming on this river the other week after carrying my boat all the way to the top, and had to walk all the way back down. We got my boat out the following day it was wedged under a tree and smashed to bits. Look at the photos in Stuart Millers Lake District White Water guide of Kail Pot and Heron Pot. In high flows the water pounds over where the people are on the bank with their throwlines!'
Bob adds (Feb '02)...An intrepid group of two recently tackled the Upper Esk at very low water levels. The river looked far too low to paddle on the walk in to the falls, however we did manage to navigate a course through the rocks on the way down without getting out of our boats. We briefly inspected the river above the seven falls,it didn't look like there was anything worth doing, a couple of small drops but most were portages, and not worth the further carry with the boats. At this level all the drops and falls from the seven falls down were paddleable. Some were a little bony and technical but they all ran, including what is described as G6/ portages in the main writeup. Most of the drops were running at a grade easier than they had at proper water levels. The last of the seven falls did pin Paul half way down as previously suspected, however my Attak bounced over the top. Still worth the LONG walk at low water, although the rest of our group still think going shopping was the better idea!