Friday, 22 March 2013

One minute to midnight: The first ascent of Central Buttress

Original photo taken by Sansom of Herford at the top of the great flake on the first ascent of Central Buttress in 1914

Some two years ago, Herford and I, in an inquisitive spirit, climbed up a grassy scoop leading out of Moss Ghyll on to the Central Buttress. We did not seriously believe that we should find a new climb on this rock face, for it appears to be singularly unbroken and almost vertical for over two hundred feet. It was, however, an unknown region, and as such appealed to us.

The scoop was not very difficult and we were soon looking around a corner at the top along a narrow grassy ledge which apparently extended right across the face to Botterill's Slab. The rocks fell away very steeply below and a sheer smooth wall rose up to a great height above: its regularity was interrupted at one point, it is true, by an enormous rock flake which tapered out to nothing 70 feet higher. For some obscure reason this ledge suggested vague possibilities, which we did not fully appreciate at the time. The Great Flake looked quite hopeless as a means of ascent and we dismissed the idea at once and concentrated our attention on the Moss Ghyll side of the buttress, which was broken up by right-angled corners running upwards from west to east at a uniform angle of 65°. 

The nearest of these corners stopped us in less than 30 feet, but we determined to try the next. It appeared difficult of access from this ledge: accordingly a descent to the Ghyll, and an awkward traverse from the top of the next pitch was effected. I climbed up this groove with some difficulty until the slab on the left almost gave out and upward progress seemed scarcely feasible; the groove immediately on my right continued upwards for a considerable distance, but the traverse into it appeared too difficult and I returned to Herford. We thereupon decided to give up the attempt and climb Pisgah Buttress instead. We did so, with searching eyes on the rock face which had so successfully repulsed us, and I for one returned to Wastdale with the opinion that Central Buttress would not go.

That day's work was not, however, wasted, for it led indirectly to the discovery of the Girdle Traverse, inasmuch as it apparently demonstrated the possibility of reaching Botterill's Slab from Moss Ghyll and thus over-coming the most serious obstacle to the expedition. Some three months later Herford made the second ascent of Botterill's Slab, and a few days afterwards the Girdle Traverse was completed. My belief, that the ledge on the Central Buttress actually joined the Slab, was founded on insufficient data, and the credit for the discovery of a feasible connection between the two is due to H.B.Gibson.

Consideration of other climbs, which led up apparently impossible but actually feasible rocks, impressed on us the necessity of not judging by appearances, but of trying all places, however impossible or impracticable they looked. The proverb "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire" is inimical to those desirous of finding new routes on a much-explored rock-face. We accordingly assured one another that, as we had not actually attempted the ascent of the "Great Flake," there was still a chance of finding a feasible route up the Central Buttress.

It was not until June, 1913, that we had an opportunity of putting this theory into practice on the Central Buttress. It is however one thing to talk lightheartedly of trying to climb a narrow 40 foot crack, of which the top overhangs the bottom some 12 feet, and quite another thing to stand at its foot prepared to do so. The crack proper started some 30 feet above our grass ledge (the Oval) and obviously could be reached without great difficulty. I ascended about 25 feet and found myself below a large bulge in the side of the flake; I could have got over this bulge, but the sight of the crack above was too much for me, and Herford took my place and climbed to the foot of the crack. He also decided that to attempt to force it, without knowledge as to what lay above, would be unjustifiable.

GS Sansom

I was abroad all that summer, but Herford and Jeffcoat spent a profitable afternoon in exploration from above. From the top of Keswick Brothers Climb—below the variation finish—they traversed out on to the face of the Central Buttress, first downwards some 30 feet, and then horizontally to the right for about the same distance to a large flat rock, "The Cannon," which is a conspicuous feature in the profile view of the face. From this point they descended a narrow shattered ridge for 40 feet to a good belay on an exposed platform known as Jeffcoat's Ledge, and a further descent of 12 feet gave access to a shelf of rock some 3 feet wide approximally, narrowing gradually down to 18 inches and supporting various large rock flakes in a state of doubtful equilibrium. Distally the ledge was concealed by a rather larger detached flake some 10 feet high and barely 3 inches wide at the top.

Herford traversed out on the ledge, climbed on to this detached mass, walked along it and climbed down the opposite side. He now realized that he was on the top of the Great Flake, which formed the left retaining wall of the crack we had tried to climb from below. The flake narrowed down to a knife-edge, so thin and fretted that it was actually perforated in some places. Crawling carefully along it to the end, Herford descended the overhanging crack, whilst Jeffcoat paid out rope from the belay. Unfortunately the rope jammed during the descent and Herford had very great difficulty in getting down. He considered, however, that the crack was just climbable, and wrote me to that effect. Thus ended what is probably one of the most remarkable and bold explorations ever carried out in the district, and it is to' be greatly regretted that Jeffcoat, who had lent such valuable assistance, was unable to join us in the actual ascent of the climb.

On April 19th of this year Herford, Gibson, Holland and myself repaired to Scafell for the attempt. Herford and Gibson ascended Keswick Brothers Climb and traversed out on to the Central Buttress, whilst Holland and I climbed direct from Rake's Progress to "The Oval." Gibson lowered me a rope down the crack and after removing my boots I attempted the ascent. As far as the bulge, above-mentioned, the climbing was comparatively simple, but from this point to a large jammed stone 20 feet higher it was extremely difficult, as the crack is practically holdless and just too wide to permit a secure arm wedge. Two fairly good footholds permit of a position of comparative comfort just below the jammed stone and I noted, as Herford had suggested, that it was possible to thread a rope there. The stone itself afforded quite a good hand-hold, but the crack above overhung to such a shocking extent that the ascent of the remaining 12 feet proved excessively difficult. My arms gave out long before the top was reached and a very considerable amount of pulling from Gibson was required before I joined him. Herford then tried the ascent on a rope and just succeeded in getting up without assistance. We thereupon decided to attempt the ascent in the orthodox manner, and preparatory thereto descended by Broad Stand and rejoined Holland on the Oval.

Our plan of attack was to climb up the crack and thread a loop behind the jammed stone, and I undertook to do this if Herford would lead the upper part, which he was quite prepared to do. My first procedure was to soak two feet of the end of a rope in wet moss, to render it stiff and facilitate the threading. I then attempted the ascent, but six feet below the jammed stone found my position too precarious to be pleasant and called to Herford for a shoulder. He came up without the least hesitation and standing on the bulge at the foot of the crack, steadied my feet on small holds until I attained a safer position and was able to climb up to the chockstone. The stiff rope threaded very easily, and making a double loop I ran my own rope through it for the descent, which was, under those conditions, quite safe.

After a brief rest Herford tied on to the threaded rope and speedily reached the level of the chockstone. He made a splendid effort to climb the upper part, but his strength gave out and he returned for a rest. A second equally fine effort was also unsuccessful, and he climbed down to the Oval. I then made one attempt, but soon abandoned it, and we unanimously agreed to postpone the ascent till the morrow, leaving the threaded rope in situ . As Holland had already spent seven hours on the Oval we decided to waste no more time, and accordingly descended via the traverse into Moss Ghyll.

The next day we climbed to The Oval direct from the Progress and one member ascended to the chockstone to renew the loop, which showed signs of wear from the previous day's use. We decided that combined tactics would be necessary, and accordingly ran a second rope through the loop. Herford tied on one rope and I on the other, whilst Gibson and Holland manipulated the respective ropes. I followed Herford closely up the crack and hung on to the loop whilst he used my shoulders as foot-holds. Directly he vacated them I climbed three feet higher and hung by my hands from the top of the chockstone, whilst he again employed me as foot-holds, which are most sorely needed at this point, for the crack is practically holdless and overhangs about 20°. 

Bill Peascod nearing the V Ledge on Central Buttress:Original photo-Bill Birkett

A minute or two of severe struggling and he reached the top—to the great joy of all members of the party. Herford thoughtfully hung a short loop over the tip of the flake to assist us in the ascent, but even then we required much help from above, and it was with a sense of great relief that we found ourselves on the crest of the flake. Murray, who had been observing us from the recess with some interest, was delighted with an invitation to join the party, so we lowered him a rope down the crack and induced him to remove the threaded loop on the way up.

We were well satisfied with the day's work, but not with the climb, inasmuch as it left 150 feet of the Central Buttress still unclimbed. Two days later, therefore, we set out, greatly regretting Gibson's absence from the party, to explore the upper part of the face.Fifty feet above the top of the Great Flake on the Central Buttress is an irregular V shaped grass ledge, from the western end of which springs a wide chimney, which is the lower section of a conspicuous Bayonet-Shaped Crack, running up to the very top of the crags. The upper section of this crack was, we knew, easy; the lower portion looked very unpleasant, but we hoped to avoid it by climbing the steep face on the left.

With Holland and Slater belaying us, we climbed down steep rocks to the V shaped ledge 100 feet below, and from there were able to look down a remarkably smooth and almost vertical wall to the top of the Great Flake, 50 feet lower. The wall was broken at one point by a right-angled arete which, in spite of the fact that it overhung slightly, possessed sufficiently good holds to permit of a comfortable descent of 25 feet. From its foot a wonderfully exposed traverse across the almost vertical face on the left enabled us to pass behind a large detached pinnacle and climb slightly downwards to the shattered ridge against the foot of which the Great Flake abuts.
Much elated at this discovery we climbed back to Holland and Slater, and the three of us at once descended the easy rocks to the "Cannon." Belayed from this point I led across the traverse and up to the V ledge. Herford then took the lead, Holland going second. Now the way by which we had descended necessitated an extremely difficult hand traverse, on bad holds, in an exposed situation, and we therefore cast about for a better route. Herford first tried the Bayonet-Shaped Crack, but it looked repulsively difficult and he abandoned it in favour of a most exhilarating traverse across its foot, on to the vertical wall beyond, and upwards across the latter for 30 feet to a steep slab, which he followed, for another 25 feet, to a good belay at the top of the lower section of the crack. We soon joined him here and climbed easily up the left wall of the upper portion of the Bayonet-Shaped Crack to the top of the Crags. 
The Central Buttress climb as a whole is extremely interesting and the situations absolutely unique. As regards difficulty: The direct ascent to the Oval from Rake's Progress is decidedly difficult and entails an 80 foot run out. The Flake Crack is unfortunately excessively severe and requires very careful management to render its ascent safe. The traverses and ascents on the upper wall are extraordinarily exposed, but not unduly severe, and the climbing is exceedingly enjoyable. The climb is certainly the longest in the district.

Scafell:Original painting/image Julian Cooper

GS Sansom: First published in the Fell& Rock Journal 1914