A diff day out on Dow
Juggs’ return to the hills
It’s been 18 long months since Juggs has been out in the mountains and his exile has been a painful one. Arthritic knees and a double hernia operation have curtailed the boy’s activity and how he has coped with it all I can’t start to imagine. Happily he has been feeling a bit more like his old self lately so thought he’d dip his toe back into the water with some nice gentle hill walking…I had other ideas!
If Juggs was to join the bouncing Czech and I then he’d get the walking he was after, of that there was no doubt, but not before a long mountaineering route as a warm up. For his return I thought a route on Dow Crag in the Coniston Fells would be in order and ‘that’ route would be C Ordinary, a 3 star diff that I had been lusting after for a long time.
The walk in on the Walna Scar road proved a gentle reintroduction to muscles depleted through the intervening hill famine and the Juggs strode around like he’d never been away. The air was cool and across the blue sky above sailed billowing vessels of vapour, perfect conditions for our kind of fun. Good conditions too it would seem for path repair work and the ferrying of loads by helicopter from one side of Goat’s Water to the other, a noisome but necessary pest which would accompany us throughout the duration our climb making communication a difficult task…I’ll say no more.
Of course we’ve all seen pictures of Dow Crag and read about how it is subservient only to Scafell Crag in terms of the grandest object in Lakeland but to those who have never seen it in the flesh-and we were in their number-the reality can leave one feeling a little queasy; it’s a big mother and steep too and what a setting; Goat’s Water, copper blue and cradled in the arms of Dow and the Old Man of Coniston forming a stony, desolate bowl seemingly forsaken by the genteel valley below and cast aside to fend for itself far from sight and mind, the very epitome of my kind of place.
So, C Ordinary Route; Dow is composed of a series of individual buttresses separated by deep gullies and named A through to F. Our climb, not surprisingly lay on C Buttress, a slim pillar of clean rock which curiously peters out at about half height of the crag, so considering that C Ordinary is 110m one can get a good idea of Dow’s scale, it truly is a tremendous precipice and one we would shortly be getting to grips with.
As our route was 8 pitches long and we were a rope of three I decided the run the first two pitches together to save time, and a delight they were too. Juggs followed despite a painful knee and the Czech duly bounced up after him. Due to his knee (or so he’d have me believe), Juggs said he’d rather not lead, a disposition shared by my Lucie who had quickly discovered that Dow can be a cold crag and was suffering with numb fingers (or so she’d have me believe etc, etc). Fine, if you want something doing…
The next two pitches were also strung together and passed without t anything other than sheer pleasure. My 2nd and 3rd respectively followed in due course and we found ourselves on a small stance on the edge of the buttress overlooking a cavernous gully; here, things got a little bit more interesting. I set off and was soon at an exposed slab trying hard not think about the drop and the deafening roar of the helicopter below, as a side point we’d by now resorted to sharp tugs on the rope as a means of communication. Anyway, I grasped a big hold and pulled on it in order to gain the slab. Once committed to the move my mind reeled in horror as the hold started to come out of its socket, for its attachment to the face was by mud alone. I kept my cool and transferred my weight over to my right leg and rocked up until I could release the hold and get back into balance. A hairy moment that, through a lack of protection below me had me fearing that I’d soon be testing Lucie’s anchors. At the first opportunity I slammed in a big nut and scuttled up to the safety of a large ledge to recover from the shock. Of course neither Juggs nor Lucie found the loose hold, the only thing they found was extreme pleasure in the exposure that minutes early had threatened to rip my trousers off; oh how they laughed!
With two pitches remaining I got my head together and led off again, traversing onto the very edge of things and then up a wall to a huge flake offering an off-width crack as the means of ascent, “Great, this is all I need” I belched manfully (I was later told that I actually sounded a bit like Mickey Mouse at this point in the proceedings). The off-width was a bit of a thrutch but it went with a bit of bullying and soon I was at the final stance praying that my two cohorts would be polite enough not to test my belay.
All passed without further drama and all that lay between us and the end of the climb was a scary bulge followed by a short steep wall and with them behind me I felt a surge of elation as I gained easy terrace and the termination of all difficulties…Phew!
Now, did I mention that C Buttress only reaches to about half way up the face? Climbers finishing C more often than not take the grade 3 descent of Easy Terrace but being of a mountaineering bent that, for us would never do. No, we had to go to the top of the mountain before our day was done. To do so we picked our way unroped through steep, exposed and sometimes greasy terrain until the narrow summit ridge was beneath our feet. What a feeling, beings believing, as the song so unsubtly would have it but that’s what it’s like folks especially when on reaching the top a view of supreme beauty meets your eyes, and in that brief moment I had a new favourite mountain.
We spent a while on Dow’s pointed top before moving down to Goat’s Hause where we sunbathed, ate and looked to the Scafells, planning new adventures for the future. Then, rather than descend we took in ‘The Old Man’ where the light ran riot in a pageant of colourful loveliness.
We couldn’t think of a better way to end the day, but we found one, fish, chips and a couple of cans at Tarn Hows in the gloaming, our bodies feeling older by the minute but our hearts still childlike.