Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Wasdale scrambles popular and obscure (a guest post from Alex)

Since my departure from Glencoe in May, I haven't missed being amongst the mountains. Being away from them suits me. I am happier when they exist as remembered moments of inspiration: a heroic form glimpsed through a gap in the clouds, a sparkling gulf beneath a gendarmed ridge, the sound of Tricouni nails biting neve, or a peppering of rime on tweed. The everyday reality of mountains, when life is lived amongst them, becomes more ordinary than I can bear. Mountains will always be part of the framework of my mind, but I want them to be special. The writer in me will always look to them for inspiration.

To that end I decided to relive part of a treasured holiday I undertook over six years ago: my first real adventures in the Lakeland mountains.

After a night in Langdale (up Side Pike by the South Ridge that evening, to revisit the climb that nearly broke my back in 2006) I walked over the dalehead to Wasdale Head. The weather gods blessed me with three perfect days, one acceptable day, and two complete washouts. By Lakeland standards those are good odds!

The Y Boulder

Wasdale Head is a tranquil place, if you ignore the bustle of groups on their way up Scafell Pike. It retains the air of a haven, divided from the rest of the world, where mountain folk can gather and do what they love most. Mountaineers have been doing this in Wasdale for a very long time, and it's no surprise that it is home to one of the sites where bouldering as a distinct form is said to have been invented. This place is the Y Boulder in Mosedale.

From at least the 1880s, climbers used this rock as practice. Oscar Eckenstein taught his students balance-climbing here; O.G. Jones perfected his crack-climbing technique on the rock before attempting the Kern Knotts Crack in 1896. The pioneers build a stone wall around part of the area so that spectators could sit in comfort and watch the antics of their friends. A popular challenge was apparently to do the ordinary route upside-down!

Great Gable

I first climbed Great Gable on May the 13th, 2005, and have not visited since. In my memory it remained one of my best ever moments in the mountains, not only for the beauty of the fine peak but for the moment of reflection when paying my respects at the monument on the summit. However, I had never climbed on it, and this time I was determined to find a more adventurous way up.

I decided to follow the classic moderate scramble, Threading the Needle, to bring me up close and personal with Napes Needle itself. An awkward chimney, polished by nearly 130 years of boots, takes the climber up to the platform at the bottom of the Wasdale Crack. Looking up the climb that Haskett-Smith conducted alone in 1886, I marvelled at the skill of the pioneers. Today this route is a polished and highly exposed Hard Severe.

I followed the Climber's Traverse into Needle Gully. After crossing the Dress Circle, I wondered about following Arrowhead Ridge, and to that end scrambled up Eagle's Nest Gully--but the dripping chockstone defeated me. After passing the Sphinx Rock, I decided to climb up onto the exposed arete behind it: Sphinx Ridge, another classic scramble. It features a surprising knife-edge crest not unlike the crux pitch of Shrike Ridge, only shorter and easily avoidable.

After finishing Sphinx Ridge, I made a continuation over Pinnacle Ridge on Westmorland Crag. This brilliant Moderate climb is the sort of route I enjoy best: traditional, surprising, jagged, yet easy.

The summit was just as I remembered it, the views sublime. I took my hat off at the memorial and paused for a moment, thinking about the climbers who died in the Great War.

Great End and Ill Crag

The next day was just as fine, so I decided to go exploring on the rough craggy flank of Great End above the Corridor path. The route I pieced together reminded me of the S Face of A'Chailleach in Glencoe: avoidable outcrops, as much rock as you could wish for with plenty of scope for variation, and an open aspect. I found some challenging pitches, but felt a little less proud when a herd of lambs followed me up some of them!

After reaching the summit, I dropped down into the NW Combe of Ill Crag and climbed a slabby rib directly left of the main couloir. An excellent short scramble, maybe 70m in height and on good rock, showing signs of previous traffic.

White Band Crag and Buckbarrow

Friday was not sunny, but a thick belt of cloud sat over the mountains. I wondered what to climb. It looked like rain; probably not ideal weather to be committing myself to a high rocky scramble! I decided to head down the other end of the glen to look at the lower hills there to see if anything was worth climbing.

White Band Crag on Middlefell provided the first climb of the day. A rather good (if somewhat vegetated) area of slabs fell to careful investigation, and I found a good exposed route through the difficulties, no more than Moderate. It topped out at the footpath going up into the cloud, so I walked back down again to continue on to Buckbarrow.

Buckbarrow is a fantastic little hill. Only a bit over a thousand feet in height, it throws down a steep wall rather like a miniature version of Buachaille Etive Mor. The approach is exhausting--up steep bracken and endless scree, then an exposed sheep track traversing beneath damp cliffs--but when I found myself at the foot of Pike Crag, the principle buttress, I knew it would be worthwhile.

Collie, King, and Brunskill discovered this route in 1892. Collie's Route takes a devious route between impossible obstacles: heathery muck, roofs, slimy slabs surrounded by vertical walls. At no more than Moderate standard this climb finds good rock and excellent situations, making its way easily up a very heathery and very steep buttress.

The upper ridge is set back at an easier angle, but is not without obstacles. A final tower challenges you to find a direct way up. Some stiff moves here on the very best of rock! And even better, the climb finishes at an excellent summit, seemingly suspended directly over the pastures and woods of lower Wasdale.

It began to rain as I walked back down. The weather became steadily worse, and I spent the whole of Saturday (and Sunday morning) marooned in my tent waiting for the rain to stop. When I emerged, I found all the rivers in spate and a gloomy cloud base sitting over the mountains. Still, I had to walk back to Langdale--and by the time I got to the Old Dungeon Ghyll I was soaked!

An excellent visit to my favourite part of Lakeland, and a great way to recharge my batteries while doing some new climbs and conducting research for my fictional projects.

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