Friday, 2 November 2012

An ascent of Haskett Gully

IT was getting towards the end of our Easter holiday at Buttermere, and I had still not wormed out of Haskett-Smith the whereabouts of a good new climb which he and Tucker had discovered two years before, and which we were to go, see and conquer, if fortune favoured. Tucker was under orders, and always referred discreetly to going " yonder," and when I asked point blank where this mysterious place was, Haskett-Smith replied : " In an Edinburgh street—no, the climb is not there—a Scottish nobleman and a beggar were once surprised to see a halfpenny lying in the gutter. It was so unusual a sight that they were both held bound, in amazement, for one second, but the next they both simultaneously darted forward. The nobleman, by virtue of his superior agility, secured the prize, and the beggar, arriving a fraction of a second too late, bared his head and held out his hand, hoping to receive the treasure as a gift.

The nobleman, after putting the coin into his pocket, said compassionately, 'Puir maun ! may the Lord help ye to fin a bawbee for yersel !' Now, sir, you are a good hand at finding bawbees—deny it, if you dare—and they are getting too scarce to be scattered about freely—but come, I'll give you an inkling. It's Black Combe way."I hazarded the Steeple, but could not get my guess confirmed or denied.

We set off on a brilliant morning, in the direction of Scale Force, skirted the hillside above it and then across Gale Fell and down to Gillerthwaite. Then we crossed the Liza and struck up the little ravine of Low Beck. After following the stream up for a mile or more on to the open moorland, a fine crag came into sight at the head of the valley, with a striking gully in the centre, and to the right of it a huge cleft of the kind which usually looks very fierce and turns out to be a walk up. I took a photograph, but as the light was behind the crag I hoped to secure a better one on our way back, when the sun would have got round on to the rock.

" You have great faith in your powers if you hope to be back here from Black Combe before sunset," remarked Haskett-Smith, but I said that I would be content with this bawbee and leave the Black Combe one for him." Well, as Oppenheimer is so struck with this. what do you say, Tucker, just to humour him, shall we take this little thing on the way ? A trifle more or less is nothing to a stout Cornishman like you."

The first hundred feet was just a steep vegetated climb ; then came an awkward ten feet up a greasy slab which led us into a deep cave, and there we gathered together to consider the next pitch, which looked a serious one. There was only one possible way out of the cave, and that was to work upwards and outwards on the left wall, which was singularly destitute of holds. The floor of the cave was very sloping and bad to stand on, so Tucker anchored himself firmly high up in it and held both of us in, while I gave Haskett-Smith a shoulder. He did not find anything much to pull up by, and called for the ice-axe to try what sort of ledges there might be above.

" Give me the 'escarbadientes,' or I suppose I ought to say 'palito,' " for at breakfast-time Craig had been speaking about the coarseness of the English word 'toothpick' and its Spanish equivalent, and enlarging on the superior politeness of the Portuguese language. " ' Palito '—` piolet '—or piolito' would perhaps be a more suggestive portmanteau' word," said Haskett-Smith, but his philological ingenuity did not help him to find the holds, and we had to resort to ingenuity of another kind.

Haskett-Smith 1936

We passed a loop of rope over a chockstone near the mouth of the cave, and by dint of a pretty free use of one another's shoulders, and of the loop, first as a handhold and later on as a stirrup, Haskett­Smith and I got over the pitch. It was a couple of hours before we managed it, and in the middle of the final effort we were suddenly sensible of a change. While we were lunching beside Low Beck, in brilliant sunshine, a curious leaden haze lay over the coast. I thought it must be smoke drifting over from Barrow, but Haskett-Smith feared it meant bad weather, and now it had come. Snowflakes called our attention back to the world outside, from which the semblance of early summer had fled before the whitening breath of the North. Faster and faster the snow came, and meanwhile Tucker was struggling to get out of his sheltered cave.

" I'm afraid I can't manage this without a shoulder."
" Would you like to test the strength of the rope ?"
" Well, I'm in doubt : I would rather not if it can be avoided."
" Do you mean that you would rather not be in doubt, or that you would rather not be in suspense ?" asked Haskett-Smith.
" I wish he would be quick : my hands are getting purple with cold."
" Oh, indeed ! I thought you wore them purple to set off your fine linen."
" Ay, you may well be satirical about my clothes. I apologize for the disgraceful state of my jacket—it has been discarded once, but my other was too wet to put on to-day."
" You must have forgotten what trumps were when you discarded that. Ha ! whom have we here ? Mr. Tucker, I believe. What changes have come over the world since we three last met ! Alas, that we must so soon part," for before Tucker had fully recovered his wind after the exertions of the pitch, Haskett-Smith was backing up a short chimney above our heads, and his chaff ceased for a while. From the top of the chimney he shouted down, " The bawbee is ours, if you lose no time. This is where we got down to a couple of years ago, Tucker."

Above the chimney there was a corner which required careful balance, and both in this pitch and the remainder of the climb the snow, which had to be cleared from handholds, added greatly to the difficulties. There was no cairn building at the top. We plunged down an easy gully, and hurriedly despatched our remaining provisions, including a thermal bottle full of hot soup, which proved more acceptable than we had anticipated when packing the rucksack. Our tramp back to Buttermere was a continuous struggle against the wind and driving snow, which fell all night and produced an elfin world of whiteness for the sun to shine upon next day.

Some discussion arose later on as to the position of the climb. Haskett-Smith said that it was on the north side of Scoat Fell at the end nearest Haycock, but I think this was because Tucker and I had christened the climb Haskett Gully, and he was anxious to make people believe that the name was really nothing more than a euphonised form of " Hay-Scoat." I held that it was at the end of Scoat Fell nearest Steeple, and that the crag was indicated by the striking projection in the 2,500 ft. contour line above the source of Low Beck.

We settled the question the following Whit-Sunday, when Messrs. Haskett-Smith, Eric Greenwood, W. A. Brigg and I made the second ascent, but I was not allowed to take any credit for my guess. After a cairn had been built and the bearings of the crag top inspected, Haskett-Smith struck an attitude, and, addressing me, said : " My dear sir, little as you may imagine it, you have stumbled upon the truth : what you propounded in jest, as the most unlikely place you could think of, turns out to be no other than the actual spot."

The best base for the climb is Wasdale Head, whence it can be reached in a couple of hours by going up Mosedale past the Y boulder and following up the stream which comes down between Red Pike and Scoat Fell until some striking slabs are reached, high up in a wild lonely hollow. Then cross Scoat Fell and make for the narrow neck between it and Steeple, from the lowest point of which a sharp descent leads to the foot of the crag.

Lehmann J Oppenheimer: First Published in Heart of Lakeland-1908