The birthplace of British climbing
A brutal storm had raged throughout the dark hours, disturbing my slumber at regular intervals. A storm indeed, not in the meteorological sense you understand, but one emanating from the region of Juggs’ soft palate. And how it thundered and blew full hooligan you can only imagine. Needless to say that come the morning I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to remain in my bed, a pleasure that I was denied courtesy of a brand new dawn, bright and dry. We had to take our chances while all was set fair for we knew not when we might get the chance again.
The condemned man did not eat a hearty breakfast; in fact he ate nothing at all. However, a fresh and rested Juggs started the day with a full tank and was raring to go. A circuitous route was charted to Wasdale Head, taking in the delights of Borrowdale, the Honister Pass, Buttermere and Egremont. I was later surprised to learn that that the world gurning championship was not in progress and in truth a limited gene pool was the reason for so many strange looking visages roaming the streets of this grim western outpost. Either that or nearby Sellafield had produced a glut of weird and wonderful mutants.
Regardless of the intervening freak show it was great to be back in Wasdale, a place that holds many special memories for us. Juggs and I reminisced as we parked the car…that first ascent of Scafell Pike when I trembled like a jelly and then ran all the way down the mountain…Juggs’ abseil that went very wrong on Broad Stand…taking Jon up Pillar in his motorcycling boots…the time we came off Gable late only to find that our tents had been destroyed by the storm…getting evicted by the National Park warden when we tried to camp beside Wast Water…that young boy cart wheeling out of control down the Mickledoor screes and me jumping on him to arrest his fall or the time I refused to go to the top of Yewbarrow because I was scared.
Yes, Wasdale is a very special place to us, but furthermore it is a very special place to anybody with an interest in the history of rock climbing as opposed to the greater game of mountaineering, for there it began in the late 1800s. Great names such as Walter Parry Haskett Smith and O.G Jones practically invented the game, often photographed by the redoubtable Abraham Brothers. On a pilgrimage to the very cradle of our sport we had come for an authentic first hand experience of our rich climbing heritage. Our chosen route was to be Needle Ridge which was first climbed –or more accurately descended- by Haskett Smith in 1884.
After the previous evenings ascent of Blencathra we were feeling it from the very start as we trudged up the Sty Head path in tropical humidity. I was suffering a little more than I would like to admit but I could excuse myself for the lack of sleep, a heavy pack and groaning stomach would have tested far greater men than I, of which there are many. By the time we reached the Gable Girdle the sun was beating down mercilessly and we were losing fluid as quickly as we could replace it. We were shattered and it was with great relief that we attained a resting place directly below Napes Needle and the start of our route. A team were already in front of us on the first pitch so we took our time gearing up and enjoyed some much needed recumbence.
As the party above disappeared from view I climbed up to the base of the needle on extremely polished holds. Dark shadows were congregating over the valley and I was starting to feel anxious as a few small spots of rain fell to earth. Juggs, who knows me better than I know myself realised from my demeanour that I was considering bailing out. “Look mate, the first pitch is the hardest and if I just whizz up it we can get this done in no time”. I wasn’t sure at all and thought aloud for a few moments, “I have wanted to do this route for ages. We have walked all this way and I will hate myself as you will if I call it off”. Juggs shook his head and with a wry smile said “So let’s get on with it you fanny”. “Ok baw bag, you’re on belay”.
Up he went but slower than he had envisioned. The rock was shiny and damp with no gear until he reached a chimney up which he went to the first stance. As I had the guide book I fancied a little gamesmanship and urged him on to tackle a steep wall to a better belay. I then came up behind him and was glad of the rope above me and my disingenuous tactics. Tactics I would employ throughout the climb.
My lead was a farce and I emitted a hearty chuckle as all I had to do was climb a broken wall and traverse right for several metres where I found the next belay. “Here you go mate” I said to my jollux cohort, “It’s the rib pitch now, enjoy”. And up he went. “Have you found the corner yet”? “Yes” came the reply. “Then bloody well climb it”.
I found him at the top of the corner sat on a sharp flake, not an ideal stance. “That looks a bit cramped. I’ll tell you what, I’ll set up an intermediate belay here and you can cruise on for the top, it’s just scrambling after that. You know it makes sense”. It was clear to Juggs that he’d been had, done up like a kipper but under the circumstances he could see my logic and once again vanished from sight.
He had taken his time over the pitch and when I came to follow I could see why. A narrow groove which hung out over Needle Gully was the final test and not easy with a rucksack encouraging me to take flight. After a minute of faffing I left the groove and opted to traverse out onto the face. This proved exposed but after one delicate step I was able to haul myself up on giant holds and join a waiting Juggs just as the rain started to fall again. All that remained was some airy scrambling and I led off over pinnacles and up short corners until the deed was done. Another wonderful route in the bag.
By then it was raining heavily and though perverse we decided to give the summit a miss. However, the fun and games were not yet over and the descent of Great Hell Gate was not without incident. Back at Wasdale Head we lay around guzzling water, jiggered and blissfully happy at getting our route done but sad that we would soon have to leave this arcadia. Until I return to collect it, there at the birthplace of British climbing, a piece of me will remain.