“Gillercombe Buttress – nowhere near its Classic Rock Borrowdale companions”
“in terms of utterly dull climbing, with two nice moves in seven pitches, I’d like to nominate Gillercombe Buttress”
“Overhyped tosh. Contender for the worst route I’ve ever done. In fact, it’s worse than that. Scrambling is poo. The climbing pitches were smaller than most boulder problems”
The quotes above from members of the UKC forum are not exactly glowing recommendations and may even be sufficient to put off prospective suitors. But not I. Oh no, the stature of the climb, its position, ‘those’ pictures in Classic Rock and hints of tricky crux moves were reasons enough to keep me intrigued and put it near the top of my wishlist. So how would this much maligned route match up to the negative reviews? The bouncing Czech and I were keen to find out so with a good forecast in hand we headed over to Borrowdale in order to form our own opinions.
We found Seathwaite to be inundated by a seething mass of proles (it takes one to know one) which came as quite a culture shock for we had spent the previous five days on the fells in relative and often absolute solitude. Indeed, October week days are a prime time to get a taste of what Lakeland must have been like before the advent of the motorways and easy access. Happily though, there appeared to be a dearth of climbers with most of the rabble no doubt on their way to the Scafells, Gable and Glaramara for their fix of a reality more real than the usual 9 to 5. Our way lay beside Sourmilk Gill which was curiously unpopulated much to our delight and on stopping for a view break we witnessed the Borrowdale exodus, a long train of humanity making for Styhead, glad in the knowledge that once again we would be sampling the elixir of quiet and lonely hills.
It had been an extremely pleasant tramp by the gill amongst noisy cascades and golden bracken, but on entering Gillercombe the scene was transformed at once from sylvan charm to wild, peat stained isolation. The civilised world of Borrowdale was shielded from view and with only a croaking corvus breaking the silence we were quickly absorbed both in mind and body into a rugged mountain sanctuary replete with small pools and silvery, serpentine becks cutting through the landscape on their inexorable journey to the sea. But it was Raven Crag that held us rapt, sitting as it does in so grand a position and demanding our attention. A buttress of the old school, vegetated, beautifully symmetrical and firmly rooted into the fell side we couldn’t wait to take a closer look and charted a boggy course to its foot. Once there, we sat awhile enjoying some unseasonal warmth before rousing ourselves and starting up the sun-kissed rock.
The first pitch was easy enough though I had a wee head scratch when trying to leave the square recess by way of a steep little wall. Lucie came up and led above to a smooth slabby ramp, clipping an in situ runner on the way and finding a belay at its right hand end. So far so good, but next was the guide book crux, the thin 4a traverse and my lead. With good protection it wasn’t as bad as it looked but I may have made a meal of it by getting my hands into a mess and thus giving Lucie a good opportunity to stick the boot in when she joined me at the stance.
Next up was the first section of scrambling which gave us a chance to gather ourselves for the next challenge, namely a steep chimney crack. Once again, the protection was abundant, the climbing excellent and juggy and in no time I was at a comfortable stance awaiting more stick from the foreigner. On seeing her next lead she went unusually quiet and I couldn’t blame her for I liked the look of it even less than she did! Nevertheless, what appeared to be an exposed, smooth and hold-less corner turned out to be a fine but brief tussle in a fantastic position.
Another passage of easier ground then led me to what I knew to be the real crux of the climb and I was delighted to point Lucie up it when she arrived, Lucie less so. A steep, shiny crack awaited and with a hesitance I have rarely seen in her she wobbled up managing to place three pieces of bomb proof protection before grinding to a halt. “I really don’t like this at all and I’m going to bail out”. As those words fell from Lucie’s mouth my heart sank for though I am vastly more experienced than her she has balls of steel. What would I find up there that had made old steel balls flee in fear? There was only one way to find out!
Up I went, clipping her gear until I could sympathise with her point of view. The crack was awkward, hideously polished and the good jugs seemed to be three feet beyond my reach. Quickly the answer came to me; whereas Lucie had concentrated solely on the crack -following the polish as instructed- a foot hold out left facilitated the collection of a couple of better holds enabling me to get above the problem. I got some more protection in and breathed a sigh of relief. Above was overhanging rock so my only option was to traverse up and left where the exposure really started to tug at my trousers. A few delicate and airy moves saw me safely at the stance where I slung a sizeable block and brought Lucie up trying hard not to revel too much in my heroics.
According to the guide book, only scrambling lay ahead but in all seriousness only a climber would call it scrambling and Lucie led a rope length of sparsely protected diff climbing. When my turn to climb came I took each move slowly, enjoying every second, relishing the immense position and the rough rock which was taking on an orange glow in the light of the westering sun until there was no more up. It had been a fantastic week in the mountains and this final climb set the perfect seal on our trip, leaving me with a feeling of satisfaction I had not experienced either on Gable, in Buttermere, on Jack’s Rake and certainly not on Shepherds Crag. As we sat on Grey Knotts and surveyed the tremendous and life affirming view I knew that Lucie felt the same.
Gillercombe Buttress had given us a special day quite at odds with the what the naysayers would have you believe. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but I would recommend it to anyone who loves old fashioned mountaineering routes in superb surroundings. If that’s not for you, then toddle off to Troutdale Pinnacle…you never know, we might see you there!