Thursday, 21 July 2011

Crack of Doom...A short history of Deer Bield Buttress

It was during the summer of 1997 a huge rockfall sliced away the central Buttress of Bield Crag..The collapse wiped out 3 climbs which over the generations perhaps reflected the pioneering ambitions to advance the standards of Lakeland climbing - all that remains of those routes-  (The Chimney, The Crack and The Buttress,) now lie scattered down the hillside. A visit here, can be a nostalgic event, especially for those whose climbing heyday was in the seventies and who struggled to impose their limited talents, on this cliff

There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about this Crag, it is not high, less than 200', has a north-facing rather sombre atmosphere and was alien to the old pioneer maxim that real climbing only starts at above 2000 feet. Reflecting on that mood of the time and the first ascent of The Chimney, in 1908, it would be a lapse of 22 years before A.T. Hargreaves and Graham MacPhee forced a route up an obvious crack-line on the left of the Buttress - giving the protection of the day and the unique technicalities of the crux chimney pitch it was a remarkable lead. Understandably, despite Hargreaves's undoubted ability, it was not led on sight.

A.T.H. and MacPhee first came here in 1929 to climb The Chimney. During the visit  they looked at the Buttress but were repulsed by wet rock part way up the first section. This was probably the first attempt on a long standing problem that was to defeat many climbers before it finally fell to Arthur Dolphin in 1951.

They returned later that year to attempt the Buttress but found it running with water. The obvious crack on the left was drier and offered  safer possibilities.  MacPhee, not a talented climber but a great motivator probably encouraged Hargreaves to abseiled down and clean up the place. From the ledge on the top pitch he trundled down tons of hazardous rubble, but by then the weather had not improved and it was decided to call it a day.

On the 9th February, 1930 they returned to find the Crack bone dry. A.T.H. set-off and found the first four pitches well within his capabilities, clearing away a huge raven's nest en route.  MacPhee soon joined him where he spent twenty minutes digging out a thread belay at the back of the crack and  a further two hours watching Hargreaves's gymnastics as he tried to make sense of the chimney. Anyone who has reached this section will recognise the difficulties in protecting this pitch.

Deer Bield veterans:
Pete Greenwood on belay-keeps an eye on Harold Drasdo.

Hargreaves hinted at the unusual structure of the buttress when he said that it was possible to see the original Chimney route, through a wide crack on the right. After several further attempts and with weakening resolve he tried and failed to climb line on the left, probably the 1952, Dunmails Crack. Back to their stance and utilising MacPhees's thread belay, as a top rope., Hargreaves reached the roof where he wedge himself and contemplated the traverse under the overhang. After descending to his second he regained his composure and complete the pitch. The final corner crack, at the top  is no pushover and takes many by surprise although is probable that Hargreaves, a grit stone trained climber may have made light of it.  The pair spent four hours on the climb and a second ascent led by A.B. Reynolds, who sometimes climbed in his bare feet, took 2 hours.

The climb eventually evolved to become one of the hardest courses, of its type, in the Lakes  and is a matter of conjecture why, at first, was giving only a severe grading. A more modern grading assessed the crux-chimney at 5b. A.B. Hargreaves,(no relation to A.T.H.) a climber of vast experienced who plied his trade both in North Wales and the Lake District thought  it more difficult than Scafell Central Buttress and on a par Piggott's Climb on Cloggy.
He was there, a few years later with A.T.H. and Bill Clegg,  helping with the 1938  Langdale Guide. He led the chimney pitch but  was so knackered had to hauled up the final corner by A.T.H.  It would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall to hear the verbal fencing  conducted between him and his second – his reputation as argumentative, bristling little guy was legendary.

Throughout the pre-war years The Crack, kept a low profile, becoming one of those outings which seemingly did not fit into the H.M. Kelly mode thinking -  his influence in the FRCC was  profound! In compiling  'A Short History of Lake District,'  published in the Fell & Rock Journal, Deer Bield Crack was not mentioned nor listed in the list of important routes which covered the first century of Lakeland climbing - it was one of many fine climbs,which included Gimmer Crack and  Deer Buttress, that were incredibly ignored.

Jerry Wright, a professional Lakeland guide, who was sometimes controversial for the sake of being controversial wrote in his Rock Climbing in Britain :  '...The Crack, The Chimney and The Monkey Puzzle Buttress;  '… in the 1930s when the first ascent were made they were mistakenly regarded as a step forward in rock climbing progress  but have now found their proper place, as amusing freaks, like Soap Gut on Milestone Buttress'. Monkey Puzzle is a 1946 Dolphin route.

In later years it must have gained some status when Joe Brown, in 1952 came with a detachment of Rock & Ice members after he heard about its fearsome reputation. Apart from Joe, the team was a talented lot, including Don Cowan, Nat Allen and Slim Sorrell.  Much to their disgust  the inside of the crux-chimney was coated with slimy green lichen.   Being small and supple, Brown led the troupe adopting a foetal position he moved up a few inches at a time, took his stance and brought up his mates. Though unable to see them he was able to hear a chorus of grunts and groans as they arrived at the most difficult section. Cowan  was the first to fall off and used the rope to reach Joe, losing several nails from his boots in the process. Nat Allen also fell and was hauled up. Eventually all the party arrived looking like sacks of potatoes and covered in grease – it must have left an impression on Brown as he describes, with vivid detail the outing in his book,  The Hard Years.

With the sixties came a vast improvement in protection technique and footwear  – for the journeyman climber it was a step up, at least, a grade and routes like Deer Bield Crack were within reach. I recall the MOAC nut coming on to the market and Peck's Cracker on a wire, hellish to get back once in place.   And it became fashionable to be seen wearing a specialist rock shoe  known as the PA - developed by  the French rock athlete, Pierre Allain. Obviously, now looked upon as antiquated  when compared to day's rock slipper, they were at that time a tremendous boost to confidence.
About the same period Monkhouse and Williams produced their Climber and Fellwalker in Lakeland, a worthy forerunner to the plethora of climbing literature that was to follow -  this time, however,  Deer Bield Crack  was included as one of the Lakes one hundreds best climbs – it even give indications how to climb the Crux pitch and at only £2.85,  they intended to  give value for money!
Many who knew the crag well looked with some uncertainty at the jigsaw of  ill fitting slabs which made up the detached buttress –  regular stone falls, especially in the Chimney Route, suggested it may be living on borrowed time. Maybe it was fatalistic that  it did collapse at night and no one was injured and yet despite the damage of blitzkrieg  proportions no one appeared to have heard its final demise.

Ken Smith: 2011