Friday, 12 November 2010

Crag Climbing

The most fascinating of English' outdoor sports is crag-climbing. Nothing compares with it in its calls on nerve and energy, in its splendid triumphs and defeats, and in its glorious fireside re­collections. And, moreover, our own country holds the best district in the world for its indulgence. As the famous climber, Mr. Mummery, said: "Climbing in the Caucasus is safe and easy ; in the Alps it is often difficult, but generally safe ; but rock-climbing, as practiced at Wastdalehead, is at once difficult and dangerous.'  Coming from such high authority, and bearing on what are essential points in any pastime, the words cannot be lightly esteemed.
The climbs about to be mentioned are in the famous South-west Cumberland district, on the mountains of Scafell, Great Gable, and the Pillar, and reference will be made to ascents in Great End and Scafell Pike. It may be necessary here to remark that these are descriptions of actual climbs, and not a general survey of the whole crag-climbing district. It is our intention to call attention only to that portion of crag-climbing possible to men who have neither time nor opportunity to specially study the subject.

Of course, it is not in everyone to become a great cragsman—only men of exceptional physique and practice can rise to the higher branches of the art. A slight defect of nerve - or muscle is apt to come out at dangerous situa­tions under the tremendous strains common to the sport, and a person whose confidence in himself, after repeated trials, is weak should never attempt really difficult climbs.
A little more preparation is desirable for a crag-climbing holiday than for an ordinary tour. As regards boots, these should be the heavily-nailed variety usually offered for mountaineering. It is a good plan to purchase them some months before going climbing, and, after wearing them a few times to ' break them in,' to put them aside till required for earnest work. The more indestructible your touring suit the better; for very often clothes come in for exceptionally rough usage—say, when rounding nasty corners where your whole weight is scrubbing them against the uneven cliff. As regards the rope, this is an indispensable adjunct to crag-climbing, and the worst of all to manage. There are plenty of good ropes passed by the different Alpine and crag-climbing societies, to be had, and on one of these you must pin your faith. They have been tested, both wet and dry, by men who know exactly what is required, and who will not pass any inferior goods.
As regards yourself, your success and the ease with which it is obtained will depend to a large extent on condition. The usual training for hard walking holds good ; but the use of the dumb - bells is required to add strength and endurance to the arm-muscles, on which so much often depends. This exercise also benefits the hips and spine, on which some heavy work may devolve. But if a man is deficient in nerve it is impossible for him to become a cragsman. The intending climber should obtain quarters at Wastdalehead, Seathwaite, or elsewhere in Borrowdale, or in the Langdales. The accommodation is often limited, as more than crag‑ climbers rush into the district at the holiday season, and it is assumed that our friend is unable to get from business at any other time. The followingis typical and true :  On arrival at our quarters, after an all-night climb, we were informed that on the previous evening two young men had called inquiring for accomodation, and had expressed their willingness to share the same room- if it were absolutely neces­sary. On being informed that every bed in the house had three occupants, and each table about four, they strolled on to try elsewhere.

To reach the crags a long, hard walk is inevitable, and carrying the rope is found to be exhausting work.Arrived at the scene of operations—and be sure you are there before you make any preparation (on the Pillar, for instance, there is a short face of steep rock up which many an enthusiast has rushed, thinking to reach the summit quickly, but once on the top of 'Pisgah' he sees the 'Promised Land,' far across the impassable Jordan Gap)—carefully compare the rock-face in view with the tracing you have taken of the illustration in your Climbers' Guide. Pick out the route you have previously decided on, then carry out the climb if you can. It will be found a good plan to copy on a card the instructions the expert has given ; they are then easily referred to, and the effort of writing fixes them more clearly in your memory. In climbing, attention should be closely given to the white scratches on your path—the impressions of the hobs of your predecessors,for these indicate the most popular and easy route. 
Climb slowly, and if in company be sure the men behind you are able to follow. At the head of every pitch a halt should be made, if there is sufficient room for all to come together, and the feasibility of the next step decided upon. Never forget the precariousness of your position. You are clinging, maybe, half-way up a cliff, a hundred yards of rock above, the same below. A slip here means a fatality, and there is no chance of recovery. In such a position there is little fear of anyone being careless but after the worst of the exer­tion is over many men do not exercise sufficient vigilance, and the most terrible of climbing disasters are traceable to a lack of care in such positions.

We will first describe some of the easier climbs on the Scafell group, taking afterwards the more difficult and exciting pieces of work on Scafell, Great Gable, and the Pillar. Wastdalehead, the crag-climbing metropolis, at the very foot of the Scafell range, provides the nearest resting-place. Seathwaite and Langdale are about three hours' walk from the summit of Scafell Pike. The mountain group is the highest in England, and is covered with crags of all degrees of difficulty. The most popular ascents are Broad Stand and the Mickledore Chimney, on the Scafell side of the Mickledore Chasm, from which their ascent is commenced ; Piers Ghyll, a majestic gully in the north-west shoulder of Scafell Pike and Cust's Gully, a scree shoot on Great End. One of the safest climbs on which a tyro may try himself is the Broad Stand, which opens a few yards over the crest of the Mickledore Ridge, on the Eskdale side.
The route is at first a narrow slit behind a square rock, through which it is necessary to pass sideways to reach a patch of grass. Above this is a slippery eight-foot wall of rock, and this has to be negotiated—not a pleasant task when a considerable volume of water is trickling down—after which a broad band of grass leads to the summit of Scafell. In misty weather this climb is more difficult. In descending the last bit, I let the others down with a rope, and then followed myself. One of the party, seeing me cautiously rounding the last and most awkward corner, promptly seized me by the coat and hauled me to a place of safety. At this, one of the others remarked that had I slipped both of us would have gone to the bottom. " No, no," said my rescuer, 'not both. If he had slipped I should have let him go"

For first practice with the rope, Broad Stand is splendid and more than one good climber here received his first lesson in the craft. A rope is often very difficult to manage. At the first nasty corner you find that either your companion or yourself has got to the wrong side of the rope, or, where walking across steep slopes and scree, you are perpetually tripping over it however, with practice, these difficulties dis­appear.

A more difficult alternative to' the Broad Stand route from Mickledore Chasm to Scafell top is by the Mickledore Chimney. This is not difficult to find, opening with a deep gully about two minutes' walk from the entrance to Broad Stand, and clearly in sight from Scafell Pike.
Of this climb Mr. Walker says : Our party had a meal by the spring near the top of Mickle­dore Ridge, and then a start for the climb was made. We soon reached the foot of the Chimney, where the rope was put on. No difficulty was experienced until we got half-way up, when the rock becomes nearly vertical. The walls of the ghyll are very smooth and covered with wet moss, so that the only way to ascend is by crawling up like a chimney-sweep. Owing to the quantity of water about, our leader had much difficulty ill gaining a narrow, sloping ledge, from which he could render us some assistance. In a crack of the rock here we found a bilberry-bush with some very fine fruit, of which half was left for the next comers. From the ledge on which we were standing a bit of overhanging rock has to be surmounted in order to gain another ledge. This cornice slopes outward towards the deep gully we had ascended, and has to be traversed in an attitude similar to that natural to one of our remote ancestors. This, though uncomfortable, was soon accomplished, and we debouched on to the ridge above Broad Stand. 

Those of our party who had not made the ascent had waited by the far side of Mickledore to witness our triumph, and afterwards told us that they had distinctly heard every word spoken during our ascent. Cust's Gully is one of the scree shoots seaming the face of Great End, as viewed from Sprinkling Tarn. The experts say that it does not present a very exciting climb except when a few inches of snow mask its shady bed in winter but to the average man it forms an enjoyable summer ascent. The most remarkable thing about the gully is its natural rock bridge. In some remote age a boulder has attempted to rush down this way to the valley, and, the passage being too narrow, it chocked,' and there remains. Mr. Walker, who made the descent of the gully, says : ' Progress was a matter of considerable hazard, as all the stones were loose and the slightest movement set them sliding. After many attempts to poise the camera for a photo of the bridge, I found the only plan was to sit down in the stream descending the gorge, and, while gripping one leg of the tripod between my knees, to hold the other two apart with my ankles. This left my hands free to manipulate the plates, etc.'
Piers Ghyll, a deep cleft in the north shoulder of Scafell Pike, is a very famous gorge, and many an enjoyable afternoon climb will be found in it. From the vale-head beneath, as from the summit of the Pike, it looks a mere wrinkle in the massive gable of the mountain ; but once entered, majestic cliffs are found rising to a great height over the splinter-strewn torrent-bed. For many years no one was able to climb the full length of this defile, owing to the stream which, in a fine cascade, occupies its whole width at the point where the ghyll opens on to the fell. During the remarkably dry summer of 1894., Dr. Collier climbed right through the water ; but a dozen years before an equally determined attempt took place. Two gentlemen essayed, if possible, to overcome all obstacles, and climb right through the ghyll to the top of Lingmell Crags. In order to get through the waterfall, the unmentionables of the climbers were taken off and packed safely away. After many hours' hard work among the traverses and pitches, the climbers had to retire with but partial success. When their temporary wardrobe, under the lee of a big boulder, was reached, one pair of nether garments was missing. When and how this came about could not be imagined ; for ravens and fell sheep are not considered partial to such dainties, and other living things had not been present. Do what the pair might, the clothes could not be found therefore an unfrequented road to Rosthwaite had to be taken, but even here the curious gray jersey costume evoked much merriment. On another occasion, but many years earlier, an attempt was made single-handed. The climber reached the level of the force, when he dislodged a piece of rock behind him in passing. For a moment its significance did not come to him, but when it did he was amazed. The knocked-down piece of rock blocked his only retreat, and since the climb out was impossible he was in a sorry plight. For twenty-four hours he stood on that tiny ledge, not daring to move either backward or forward ; but hunger at last forced him to make a tremendous dive into the pool beneath the force, and so he escaped in safety.

The ascents now to be dealt with are of a higher class, both in difficulty and danger, than those already described. The training recommended previously is now absolutely necessary, as well as a practical acquaintance with the use of the rope, while the practice obtained among the rocks of Mickledore will be valuable.

Any narrative concerning English rock-climbing would be very incomplete without a mention of the Pillar Rock, a famous excrescence on the Ennerdale side of Pillar Mountain. On all sides it presents cliffs hundreds of feet in height, and so difficult of ascent that on the east face alone is there a route climbable by anyone but experts. This is by the  Slab and Notch,' first discovered in 1863. The more difficult west face was ascended in 1826  and the north route, which presents an almost impossible climb, fell before Mr. Haskett Smith in 1891. There are also many portions as yet unsealed. The climb by the Slab and Notch route about to be described was made from Langdale on an April day, when snow still lay in considerable beds on the higher ground.
To reach the Pillar Mountain from the valley named is quite a notable excursion. After passing- over Esk hause we had to climb Great Gable, and this by a very faint and narrow track, tra­versing the mountain front from left to right.

After a very rough scramble we reached the summit at 5-45 (having left Langdale at 2 a.m.). The sun had just risen, the air was bitterly cold, and a gale was blowing across the white expanse towards Honister. It was impossible to stay in this exposed position, so we crossed to Westmorland's cairn for a peep down the screes of Great Hell Gate, and then hurried down to Beckland. As often happens in descents, we missed the correct path, and came down an awkward slope to the col connecting Great Gable and Kirkfell, under the lee, rather than over the windy top, of which we continued our walk to Black Sail Pass. The ground was very rough, but we reached the Pillar Mountain at 8.30 a.m., and hurried down to within two hundred feet of the face on which our attack was to be directed. Lunch was welcome but hurried, as we were anxious to get to the climbing. Skirting the deceptive Pisgah face, we found ourselves on a ledge half-way (apparently) up the rock. Here we put on the rope (25 feet in length), and made for the Slab—a large smooth rock 40 feet in length and sloping at an angle of some thirty-seven degrees. 
The danger of slipping off would have been considerable had not a deep crack near the lower end afforded safe hold for our feet. Had either of us made a slip here, however, we would have slid straight over the edge into the scree doup some hundreds of feet below.The Notch was distinctly in view above ; the crag up to it was steep, but the handhold so secure that it made quite an easy task. The Notch itself presents some difficulty, for the ledge on which you cross is not broad, the crag above bulges out uncomfortably, and the drop into the gulf beside you is considerable. 
The passage was soon over, and we were looking down into the Great Chimney, from which a short walk up a grass slope led us to the foot of the Small Chimney, the ascent of which is not difficult, and the cairn on the summit was reached. Here we had a long rest, and amused ourselves by reading the names on the cards which are stowed in a tin box under a large stone.

In a few minutes we had reached our starting-point, and commenced our return to Langdale. The path now leads past the cairn and iron cross (now almost buried in the scree which slides in plenty from the crags above), erected to the memory of the Rev. James Jackson, the Patriarch of the Pillar, so well loved of our older cragsmen. The old man's playful character may be gauged from the fact that when starting for his third ascent of the Pillar Rock in May, 1878, when he was eighty-two years of age, he took with him a bottle containing the following memorandum, which he evidently intended to deposit on the top.
"Two elephantine properties are mine, For I can bend to pick up pin or plack, And when this year the Pillar Rock I climb, Four score and two's the howdah on my back.'
His design, however, was not accomplished, for on the way he slipped over a crag on the west face, and fell three hundred yards to the place where Auld Will Ritson's search-party found his body.
There is no fitter place among his beloved mountains for a memento of the man who in the last years of a long life, fell so completely in love with crag-climbing, than the quiet scree-strewn cove almost within the shadow of the majestic Rock. Deep Ghyll is the name of a huge recess in the breast of Scafell, with its mouth in the scree‑channel of Lord's Rake and stupendous rock walls on both banks. The first pitch or section of the climb is closed by a huge boulder, which, having become fixed in a narrow part of the gully, makes a sort of small cavern. This piece seems difficulty first, but if the climber enters the darkened space and emerges by way of a smaller stone which has caught between the main cliff and the blocked rock, he will find a scanty hold above, whereby, after a few seconds' struggle, the first pitch of the ascent is accomplished.
Mr. A. S. Walker, on whose diary part of this chapter is based, thus describes his ascent : ' The first pitch of this ghyll appears very difficult at first sight ; indeed, for a time I had not the slightest idea how to ascend it. However I negotiated it at length, and then hauled up my companion. As soon as he was safe, I descended the pitch and set up the camera on a small terrace, commanding a splendid view of,the ghyll and its surroundings.' This ledge has a melancholy interest to all crag-climbers, for it was by a slip from it that Professor Milnes Marshall met his death in December, 1893. The Professor and his companions had just unroped after a successful descent of the crags, and were making towards Wastdalehead, when he slipped and fell some three hundred feet. 

The camera, after two plates had been exposed, was packed in the rucksac and hauled up by my friend. This time I found the ascent quite easy, and wondered at the difficulty I had experienced half an hour before.' In the second pitch the eye is struck by a huge overhanging slab in the very centre of the ghyll, which seems effectually to bar all further progress. The obvious way of climbing the ghyll is by avoiding the deeper portion,and wriggling up a small chimney to the left. This Hastwell proceeded to do while I fixed the camera on a very insecure grass ledge in a position whence I could photograph him on the way up. When I thought everything was ready,I found that my plates were on the other side of the camera (about a yard away), and do what I would I could not reach them until I had taken the camera down again. This will give an idea of the narrowness of the ledge, and of the difficulties  attaching to a studio of this variety. However, I got a view, and climbed to the top of the pitch. 

Hastwell was glad of the rope I lowered, for he had been kept in the chimney, wedged in one position, for nearly an hour, and I had almost to haul him up. Another hour was spent in getting the camera up, and when the top of the ghyll was finally reached we were quite ready for a rest. Another grand climb on Scafell is the Pillar, which divides the Deep Ghyll (just mentioned) from Steep Ghyll, a much more formidable climb. The Pillar is overlooked by a rock dubbed Pisgah, from which an easy descent is made to the Jordan Gap, which separates the pinnacle from the main cliff ; this circumstance it possesses in common with the Ennerdale Pillar. The connecting link is a sharp rock-ledge, about a yard in width, and with magnificent vertical views down both sides. As the climbers reach the ledge the rope is usually put on, for there is a nasty corner where the body has to be hauled by hand power alone to the top of an overhanging slab. This task is rendered a trifle safer by a convenient crack, into which the fingers of the left hand can be inserted. The crack slopes to the left for about five feet, when the hold has to be transferred to a crevice about two feet lower. After sliding along another short space (all the while without any assistance from the feet)) the edge of the main cliff is reached.
Here, by merely letting go, you can get into the Wastdale Valley (about two thousand feet beneath) in something under four seconds. The rope may be secured to a conveniently placed rock on " the mainland ' so as to lessen the danger, but there is no possible relief for the arms. The whole climb is done by hands alone, and is therefore very fatiguing. It will be readily observed from this that a serious course of dumb-bells to develop the arm and shoulder muscles is as much a sine qua  non to the climber as a clear head and abundant energy .

The most sensational and most popular climb in the whole district is the Napes Needle.  A striking view of this enormous fiddle-shaped aiguille, precariously disposed on the west face of Great Napes—a pile of precipices clearly visible from Wastdalehead. The Needle was first  climbed in 1886, but, of course, when once a route was discovered, it became soon tolerably easy for anyone with sufficient strength to follow. The route to the base of the crag from Wastdalehead presents an interesting but exhaust­ing scramble to the man -who has to carry some quantity of impedimenta, and usually occupies one and a half hours. A walk along a fairly broad ledge -here be very careful that the correct terrace is selected, as there are so many identical in appearance -brings the climber to the base of the 'Needle.

While the remainder of the party discussed the best methods of attack, I fixed the camera on a small grass ledge known as " the dress circle," on account of its convenient situation for viewing the coming performance. After this I took my place on the rope, and led the ascent.
The route is at first easy. Where it rounds the corner the rock bulges out considerably, and this portion is so difficult that few short men are able to manage it, being unable to reach as high as the handhold. The advice of one who has been ' through the mill ' is valuable, and the presence of a vigilant friend next to you on the rope is very reassuring. However this corner is the most dangerous in the ascent, although, of course, a fall from the crag at any point would be fatal.
Once out of the crack a ledge is reached on which there is room for three or four persons standing, and from these the leader should get abundant help to overcome the final difficulty. This consists in hauling one's self, by hands alone, on to a ledge hardly as wide as an ordinary mantelpiece, then straightening up and shuffling —there is not room to walk—along this traverse with no handhold at all. The step from the end of this ledge to the front face of the top boulder (the crag is in three pieces) requires great care, but the projection on which you depend is large enough to hold both toes during the brief space occupied in reaching for the top. Of course, the final pull is by the arms alone, and, considering previous exertions,is hard work until, with a mighty heave, you sprawl across the summit breathless. Once the  leader has established himself he can make the climb much easier and quite safe for the rest of the party. He can also assist their descent,and when his own turn comes, by throwing the rope over the boulder to the opposite side of the rock, where the others are standing, can lower himself in safety.The view from the summit merits a few words of description, though we cannot do more than mention the bolder beauties of the scene.
Across the narrow valley are the tremendous buttresses and scree-beds of the Scafell range down to the left is the dull gleam of Wastwater, with the greener shoulder of the screes, behind you, pile upon pile, rises the huge composite cliff known as Great Napes; while right and left are inaccessible-looking faces of bare rock. Glancing straight beneath, the climber is astounded : he is clinging to a mere pin-point-like summit over a tremendous gulf, at the bottom of which, seeming blue and distant, is Wastdale. A stumble when he straight­ened himself on that narrow ledge by which he came up would have precipitated him into that abyss; a merely careless step would do it now. It speaks strongly for the caution and dexterity, as well as for the pluck and nerve of our cragsmen that there are not more accidents among the crags of the Cumberland mountains.

From the descriptions given, we hope to have shown it possible to have a good time in climbing among the different crags without being in any way an expert. All the ascents named are reach. able from Wastdalehead, Borrowdale, or Lang­dale, and can be climbed within a day's tour. Many pleasurable excursions will be found in the immediate vicinity of those described, but we must add a warning that ere you ascend a crag. for which your climbers' guide does not contain directions, be sure that you can find the way down.  Little of the enjoyment of crag-climbing is lost,and a number of valuable mementos gained, by linking with it the art of photography. The camera may be troublesome to haul about, but it is also a splendid preventive of the insane desire to rush through without noticing the rough beauties of the ghylls and crags. 

 WT Palmer:
First published in Lake Country Rambles: Chatto and Windus 1902.