Friday, 29 October 2010

Bowfell Buttress

Lehmann J Oppenheimer:Abraham Brothers©

Lehmann J Oppenheimer was born in Manchester in 1868 and attended the city's art college where he excelled. After studying art and architecture in Italy, he went on to become an expert in ecclesiastical renovation,undertaking commissions at Lille and Armagh cathedrals and numerous Irish churches where he chiefly engaged in mosaic work.His climbing career began on the northern gritstone outcrops before gravitating towards the Lakeland mountains. Amongst the high fells his tenacious approach saw some quite respectable traditional lines such as Savage Gully (HS), North West Climb (VS-4b), Birkness Chimney (HS) succumb to his advances. However, Bowfell Buttress remains his most popular route. A pleasant long V Diff weaving it's way up the impressive 400' buttress facing out towards the Langdale Valley in South Cumbria.
His charming book, 'Heart of Lakeland' published in 1908- from which the following piece is extracted- is considered a mountaineering classic and details the carefree adventurous spirit of that privileged class of Victorians for whom the mountain environment became a place of creativity,achievement and comradeship. Ideals inspired amongst other by the Lakeland based artist, critic and philosopher, John Ruskin.
Lehman Oppenheimer like so many of his generation was killed on the battlefields of France in 1916. Making the exuberance and humour of his Bowfell adventure all the more poignant.

I ALWAYS look back with particular pleasure on a certain June morning when I first met my two oldest climbing comrades, Tom Shaw, and his friend Craig. They came upon me painting away at a cloud effect on Bow Fell in a downpour of rain, and, I suppose out of pity for my drenched condition, invited me to join them in a scramble which would warm me up. I resisted the temptation and kept at my canvas, but in the evening we met again in the Dungeon Ghyll smoke room and talked about mountains and climbing until we almost felt that we had known one another for ages.
My friends were enthusiastic novices,and were highly elated at having discovered, in the course of day's ramble, a fine new climb, as they thought, Bow Fell. 
I had been a novice a year or two more and could therefore talk down to them from heights of great experience, so I laughed at the  idea of any really good climbing being found there. Particularly on the side facing Langdale, in full view of the track. The district had been thoroughly explored by first-rate men and they had probably been deceived by the mist which had magnified minor crag into the huge pillar-like buttress of their report. However they declared there wasno mistake—the pillar was undoubtedly large, and so steep on the face that they feared it could not be climbed on that side.

Often after that, when we were making holiday plans, a visit to Bow Fell Buttress was put down on the list, but it was always displaced by something which appeared at the moment more attractive, so that many years elapsed before we went near it, and then more by chance than premeditated choice. Five of us, staying at the snug little farm of Fell Foot, in Little Langdale, had arranged for a long expedition, but the morning outlook being bad, and the previous day on Doe Crags having been a hard one, we decided to stroll lazily to the Bow Fell Buttress and see whether there was any climb on it worth doing.
Three hours later we sat lunching on a rocky mound opposite the cliff, and I had to apologize for disparaging insinuations uttered so long before that I had almost forgotten them. All disagreement about the crag's worthiness was at an end, but a new one was begun about its height. While we lingered over dessert one of the party was observed to throw himself into mysterious attitudes reminiscent of the Louvre fighting gladiator. Though the heroic and defiant effect was somewhat marred by the shutting of one eye and by a harmless pencil held in the uplifted hand in place of a "warlike shield." As a result of these contortions he informed us, after
jotting down a little sum, that the height was 180 feet.

For the credit of the rest of us I must add that no one believed him. The general verdict was 250 feet, but it proved to be half as high again.
Before walking across to the foot of the cliff we held a consultation about the route. The Buttress stood out commandingly from a wide hollow of screes on the left and was cut off from broken rocks on the right by a gully which wound round to its back, so that the further from the centre we started the shorter the climb would be, but the finest climb was evidently straight up the middle of it. We decided on some slightly marked cracks and chimneys running up the face of the Buttress,—not continuous, but we could see traverses that might join them, and it gave us pleasure afterwards to think that though our estimates of height proved absurdly wrong, we chose our way well, and followed it to within a few yards throughout.It was quickly settled that the discoverers should have the posts of honour and Shaw started off, with Craig to back him up where necessary. Then came West and Hargreaves and I brought up the rear.We started at the lowest point of the Buttress and scrambled  to the foot of a chimney which made a vertical line up the centre of the cliff. We needed to utilize this but found the lowest part overhanging in a very uncompromising way, so our leader took to a short chimney to the right of it. Up we all wriggled after him and reached a terrace which led off the cliff to the right.

It was suggested that we might have reached the same point by going round the cliff some way and walking up the terrace. This was undeniable, but then of course we might also have walked up the screes to the top of the Buttress if we had wished. It was the struggle to attain, not the attainment of the goal that we had come for. Above the terrace the cliff rose steeply, and though the excellent quality of the rock made very small ledges and knobs sufficient for foot and hand hold, the situation was exposed, and Shaw worked back to the left as soon as possible to get into the long chimney, which we had found unfeasible at the bottom. He passed out of sight now, and the next time I saw him he was with Craig, looking down from another grass terrace ,ninety feet above me. The chimney offered no special difficul­ties; we admired, in passing, the design of a little sentry-box in the middle of it, and were soon all together again on the second terrace.
The chimney ended here, but we had noticed from our lunching place that by traversing to the right a little we might find our way upwards by an ill-defined gully. Our leader looked at the entrance to it, and did not like it. It seemed preferable to come back a yard or two and take to a vertical crack which led into the gully higher up. This seemed a good test of power of grip and firmness of climbing nails and the valley dropped lower and lower until an arch was formed which rose from the gloom of Mickleden and swept across the Band into Oxendale—a vast cathedral portal, flanked by solemn walls of cold grey stone, and beyond, outside it, as one so often sees from a cathedral doorway, a blaze of light—the enamelled fields of Langdale glistening, emerald-like, and the Blea Tarn road, dusty in the sunshine, fluttering like a pale ribbon from the tip of the cloud arch down the hillside.

Most of the party were now out of sight, but I could hear words of warning or advice alternating with scratchings of the rock high up and uneasy enquiries as to progress lower down. At last I caught a glimpse of Shaw traversing round a perilous corner far above; after which the cloud dropped a little and I saw no more of him until we met on the summit.I began to suspect our estimates of the rock's height : measured by our rope:The grass terrace where I was waiting was 140 feet from the base, and now word came down that our160 feet of rope was all out and the leader still not the top.I found the crack easier than I had anticipated,when I reached the traverse I felt doubtful whether I should have liked to lead there, for the holds were poor, and, looking down, the base of cliff seemed almost vertical beneath, though it was not really anything like so steep.
Twenty feet higher the man above was waiting to stand on my shoulders. The next ledge was only 10 feet above him, but 10 feet was beyond even Craig's reach, and there was no lower handhold. When my turn came I took a jump up and the rope was pulled in until I could grip something. From, this ledge a chimney 80 feet high led to the summit of the Low Man, where we built a cairn in the orthodox manner and congratulated Shaw and Craig on having discovered and mastered a first rate new climb. Then we scrambled to the true summit of the buttress 30 feet higher and hurried back for dinner two hours overdue. It was suggested that the next day we should retire to some comfortable knoll and lick our wounds; so we basked lazily in the sun listening the call of the cuckoo down below amongst the blackthorn hedges and up above Blea Tarn. We strolled across to Dungeon Ghyll for tea, and made careful distant survey of the Buttress, from we found the height to be 370 feet. We also noted down the details of our climb in the book, but could in no way agree over one miserable little point, about which West reminded us." Don't forget to mention the 'sentry-box' most comfortable spot on the cliff. I felt really happy there." From your looks no one would guess that you ever felt anything else," one replied, for he is always like a beam of sunshine amongst us, with a face ever radiant with contentment and goodwill.

" Ah, I have to dissemble to give you rash boys confidence ! But what a perfect little haven it was. A flat stone to stand on, your body most kindly embraced by the rocks and comfortable elbow rests at the right height. I just closed my eyes for two seconds and thought of dinner and cider, after a hot bath, and it was heavenly." Well, how will this do—'In the long chimney there is a little sentry-box which makes a good. resting-place.Yes, that's all right."' Midway between the two terraces No," from four people at once.Why it's high above the second terrace," from one of them." Yes, of course ; in the gully above the crack," from another.But that isn't the long chimney : you can't call it a chimney at all." Well, that's what we thought you meant. It's just below the large belaying-pin."Above," from three others.But," I said, " I'm quite positive it's not in the gully at all. I remember looking up from the Sentry-box' and seeing you on the terrace beside a crack.

" The conceit of the man !" retorted Craig. " I suppose he thinks that because he has painted the mountain he knows the whole bag of tricks ! The impudence! Next thing I expect he'll be white washing a country church and posing as a theologian on the strength of it." We backed up our assertions with all sorts of circumstantial evidence, but argued in vain, and it became clear that we would have to pay another visit to settle the point, so at six the next morning, after watching the others drive off, homeward-bound, Craig and I set our faces again in the direction of Bow Fell.
Bowfell Buttress:Hard V Diff (US 5.5)

Our early start gave us the sight for the first time of a Lakeland fox-hunt. As we walked up Rossett Gill the whole hollow resounded with the yelping and baying of dogs, and we were surprised at the time we took to locate the noise. A couple of buzzards circling round and round near the Buttress attracted our attention. " Ha," said Craig, " the word has gone forth that there shall be no more solitude on their old nesting-place. I wonder whether they have been boding ill since our climb." But it was something else that made them hover there, for immediately below were the hounds. distinct enough now we had spotted them, but looking no more impressive than a lot of wretched little maggots aimlessly wriggling over the rough ground, in and out of hollows, up and down the rocks, incessantly moving, without making much progress, so that we got almost up to them as they passed the foot of our climb and made away round Flat Crags. 
West wrote to me that he knew from the twinkles in our eyes that we would not go to the rock's base without climbing it again, and we certainly roped and started up without attempting to settle the disputed point from below. It was not long before the one was found to be right and the four wrong, but we had a good excuse for continuing, for we had taken an aneroid with us and thought we would check our survey. For the first few pitches all went well : I made a note of our height in the "sentry-box" " and then climbed up the long chimney while Craig paid out 40 feet more rope. At the top of the chimney the aneroid indicated a rise of only 10 feet. This was discouraging, but I thought I might have made a mistake. We got together again on the upper terrace, and then I climbed the crack and right on until our 80 feet rope ran out. I took the barometer out once more and it again showed a rise of only 10 feet. 

Craig came up and we looked at the aneroid together in silence until, while we watched it, the finger went slowly back to 10 feet below the terrace we started from : then we relieved our pent-up feelings and pocketed the fickle instrument The next part of the climb was the piece that, on the first ascent, seemed to me the most dangerous,but at the start there is a grand belaying-pin and this Craig paid out the rope until I reached the corner. It really felt much easier this time to lead up than before to follow—a thing I have frequently noticed with climbs well within my powers and can only account for by supposing the nervous strain of watching others struggling up in front to more than counterbalance the confidence inspired by having a rope above and a good man to hold it. 
Craig now came up, and, suggesting that the corner might be turned by a detour instead of making a direct attack on it, he led the way, effecting a great improvement in the climb by rendering a shoulder up unnecessary. Throughout both ascents the last man had removed all the loose stones he could find, but this time I distinguished myself by unintentionally sending down from the final chimney a block of two or three hundredweights, which we had all in turn used in climbing. I was backing up with my feet against it when it slowly heaved over, gave one bound against the rock and then flew right out into a gulf of sunlit cloud and rainbows below us and was lost to sight. Some seconds of silence, and then a tremendous crash far down, followed by a fusillade of fragments and the prolonged baying of the startled fox-hounds on the opposite side of Flat Crags. It was lucky that I had just given up the lead and that there was no one in the chimney below. As almost invariably happens, the second ascent robbed Bow Fell Buttress of some of the difficulties which our imaginations had invested it, but still consider it a most interesting climb, furnishing grandly exposed situations, and cannot understand why a cliff so discernible from a frequented path has been so long overlooked. 
It may be that its position on Bow Fell dwarfs its appearance. Most of our Lakeland cliffs are hidden away and only properly seen from some high hollow where the size of the mountains they are on cannot be grasped at the same time, and compared with them. Pavey Ark cliffs, for instance, are 400 feet high, but their impressiveness is only seen from Stickle Tarn, barely 300 feet below them ; Doe Crags occupy over half the height from Goat's Water to the summit, and Great End cliffs almost as much from Sprinkling Tarn, while the Sca Fell precipice owes something of its supremacy in grandeur to the fact that it cannot be well seen without climbing to Hollow Stones. Now Bow Fell's full height is seen along with the Buttress, and the latter, being only a seventh of the whole, is dwarfed into insignificance. Still, this explanation is not a satisfactory one, for the Napes on Great Gable are in just the same position, less in height, and yet look magnificent, and attract climbers as much as any rocks in England. But we are very exclusive in our choice of playgrounds. On Sca Fell. the Pillar and the Gable, we know that we are amongst the aristocracy of climbs, and most of us would rather make a single new ascent there than half a dozen on any other English crags, but their exploration has been so thorough that little has been left for us, and most of us in search of pioneer work have to be content with cliffs of no repute, which nevertheless will often yield as good a day's sport the far-famed ones near Wastdale.                                                                                                                 

Lehmann J Oppenheimer: Heart of Lakeland