Friday, 17 May 2013

'Lord Baker' in Langstrath: Cam Crag Ridge

Siobhan Appleby above Langstrath.

There was a lord who lived in this land Being a lord of high degree.
He left his fort for a ship's board
And swore strange countries he would go see.

Langstrath sounds like what it is - a flat valley floor as wild and 'lang' as a border ballad - and I'd never set foot in it. I don't know how that had come to be the case. It's a bit of an embarrassment really in a mountaineer with a hairline well in recession. (Until last year I'd never walked up Ennerdale either.) If you're always going to crags you can miss out on some fine valleys even in Borrowdale. So wanting to be a lord of this land in some degree I 'swore strange countries I would go see'.

Resting my fully extended rucksack against a wall to check the map at the first bridge across the beck I found that the midges tend to take a bite at midday here in July. I was sweating already and knew that with camping and climbing gear, not to mention wine aboard I'd soon be slightly extended myself. Norman, Kevin and Barbie were already well ahead, but I find that sailing up the motorway from Sheffield can actually weaken your legs.

He travelled east and he travelled west
He travelled south and the north also
Until he arrived into Turkey's land
Where he was taken and bound in prison
Until his life it grew weary.

It was a bit early to grow weary since I'd only walked from Stonethwaite's cottages and through the campsite, a magical grove that used to be romantically known as 'Fairy Glen' in books with titles like Odd Corners in English Lakeland. It certainly is an odd corner nowadays, though perhaps with fewer fairies. Who knows? Crossing the bridge there was a last glimpse of Eagle Crag round the corner to the left stuck out of the fellside like the end of an upright piano. Music seemed to be in my head as I followed the others into the unfolding long journey that is Langstrath. Whole herds of rustled cattle could be hidden in the pastures of this strath, knives could be drawn here, Turkey's daughter ('as fair a lady as the eye did see') could rise from bathing in Blackmoss Pot to cut Lord Baker's prison bonds and lead him to a ship harboured in the narrow black zawn of Sergeant's Gully. It's that sort of a valley.

The track, keeping close below the little broken walls of Heron Crag, brings you up to a flat-topped tower called Gash Rock which all but blocks the path. Below it is the green pool known as Blackmoss Pot where Harry Griffin, in a memorable entry for The Guardian's 'Country Diary', recommended bathing where 'neither costume nor towel was needed', although he did admit that 'this becomes too popular in heatwaves for my sort of dips, being too close to a well used track'. Above the track at Gash Rock the black cleft of Sergeant's Gully rises up straight as a sword.

Bentley Beetham on the first ascent of Little Chamonix in 1946: Photo FRCC

In O. G. Jones' first pitch by pitch guide to the Lakes of 1897 the Abraham brothers contributed a grainy granite-textured photograph of the difficulties on the fourth pitch of this climb. A wild beard of woodrush, the eagle's favourite nest lining, overhung the chockstone. The steep left wall offered the solution. Jones wrote, 'From a short distance this appears to be a smooth vertical slab; even on close inspection the holds it offers appear to be of the most minute dimensions'. Bentley Beetham's guide of 1953 commented: 'A very difficult pitch but no longer incommoded by vegetation'. It looked to me a great winter classic that holds the snow well and long. It's only given one star in Winter Climbs in The Lake District but this valley promises more than can be described in stars, words or grades. It needs music; it needs pipes for carrying on the long rush of air it contains.

At last, after passing above several notable alternatives to Harry Griffin's Blackmoss Pot, which almost tempted us to rashness, we saw the tent of friends we'd come to camp with high up the fabled Strath. They'd left their tent on the big bend above all the deep pots and plunging forces at a point where the river braids into little rolling plaits of water. By the time we'd pitched our own tents they'd appeared from up the valley and we all saw, looking back down the dale a soaring hump of rock, unnoticed on the walk in. Cam Crag Ridge stands clear of the green fellside as a slightly stepped, rounded spine on the skyline. Barbie was into the discoveries of the new scrambling guide after a long experience of fell walking and trekking. She vowed she'd climb the white back of Cam Crag Ridge, and this is the valley where vows are strong:

They made a vow for seven years
And seven more for to keep it strong
Saying `If you don't wed with no other woman I'm sure I'll wed with no other man.

Roused by the force of this we grabbed slings, rope and torches just in case, before stalking off through the grass, boulders and bracken to keep an appointment with the horizon.
Now it's in the nature of scrambling that a description in a guide cannot be as well defined as for a rock climb: you're finding your own way through uncharted wild country. If you accept that, you can pass below the jumble of boulders that probably provide a very interesting start to the ridge, and see instead the raven's nest round the corner, perched on a block, trailing a long bit of binder twine down into space. At the first platform on the ridge we began to savour the rock we were vowed to climb. Andy found a way, Barbie followed searching for holds with a clarity of purpose the ballads are made of. I threw more words and tunes to the wind behind, whilst Dave, forgotten at the back, enjoyed a new experience. Kev drifted about between us, focusing and refocusing his black Cyclops' eye from Japan as if the oral tradition had never existed.

Liam Appleby under The Glaciated Slab

Years seemed to pass as the ridge steepened and reclined, steepened and reclined in front of us. A little wall always gave to an open scoop, a top edge would reveal solid jugs to an easing slab up to a grassy break which we'd cross to a wall to start again. One steep section was littered with loose flakes which required care but mostly the rock was clean and sharp or leaning and rough, without tricks or traps. The final wall weakens with a groove and crack beside a tree. This last problem sharpens the enjoyment of hold-searching before a final rush to the flattening top of the ridge.

Barbie was pleased with her achievement, quite rightly. While I was babbling words she nodded silently, her eyes screwed up in that deep, inner, staring smile of hers. It was a great spot above the length of Langstrath with route-finding problems solved behind us. I was pleased to be part of it, but I was really married to the rock routes I realised that day, much as I'd enjoyed this scramble too. That night in the tent, well after dark, when all the bottles lay empty on the turf outside (temporarily) I sang what I could remember of the ballad of 'Lord Baker', how Turkey's daughter had searched for him when those seven years and seven more were over and done, finding him at last on the very day he'd taken a new bride in. When she sent a message that she was at the door asking for a piece of his wedding cake 'and a glass of your wine it being ere so strong',

He took his sword all by the handle,
Cut the wedding cake in pieces three
Saying 'there's a piece for Turkey's daughter, Here's a piece for the new bride and one for me'. And Lord Baker ran to his darling,
Of twenty one steps he made but three.
He caught his arms round Turkey's daughter

And kissed his true love most tenderly.

The next day Norman and I walked down the valley, Bowfell being in mist, hitched to the Bowder Stone car park and rediscovered the delights of pure rock moves which had been our true marriage all along; in this case the surprisingly neglected moves provided by Quayfoot Buttress, directly above the car park. Aberration (MVS), appropriately named for us, deserves to be better known since it rivals Ardus (Severe) on Shepherd's Crag for its delicate leftwards traverse on the top pitch. All that remained was a lunchtime pint in the Scafell Hotel with a warm lad who gave us a lift, a celebratory exchange of good routes yet to be done, and we'd both seen strange countries and found our true passion in the way of the narrative of things lived and sung.

Painting: Bill Peascod  

Terry Gifford: The Joy of Climbing: Whittles Publishing