Friday, 18 July 2014

Fugitive from the Führer...Lake District wanderings

Pillar Rock from Black Sail: A Heaton Cooper.Photo Heaton-Cooper Studios

IT began early. Ever since leaving Germany as a small boy, a fugitive from the Führer, I have been surrounded by all sorts of mountains; that is probably the only thing I have to thank the Führer for. The first were the cliff’s and hills of Majorca, an island where the most varied beauties of hill, plain and shore are compressed into the space of a few square miles. When we had been set free from the schoolroom some hot summer afternoon, a pack of us, wearing only shorts and a pair of alpargatas – light canvas shoes with rope soles which every- one in these parts wears – would rush out over the parched heath towards the fresh air of the seashore and the cliffs.

And what adventures we had among them, those fantastic limestone shapes, their features wrinkled by wind and sea into countless corrugations which the alpargatas gripped with delightful firmness; with their great mysterious caves, in which the breakers boomed resonantly over stolid ranks of sea-hedgehogs and other queer-shaped creatures. This was the training ground where I first learnt to climb with all four extremities, There was one particularly large cave, with a chimney at the far end; you climbed up this, and suddenly you’ emerged from the cold clammy recess on to a sun-baked plateau high above the sea. It was a new surprise every time we did it, and rather what I imagine the "secret" chimney on the Bhasteir tooth to be like. But the Spanish sun in summer has little in common with its feeble counterpart of more northerly latitudes, and soon we would be scampering off again to the shelter of our caves.

Once I was taken for a holiday to Valldemosa, a little village tucked away among the central hills - the place where Chopin spent leisured years composing his most entrancing melodies. They were parched, sparsely vegetated hills, crouching low as if ducking from the stinging rays of the sun. The name Georges Sand gave to the island, "La verde Helvecia", the green Switzerland, must be taken as artistic license; those hills were more the sort of thing, I fancy, that the Author of "Don Quixote" had in mind when he described that wretched knight’s wanderings through the wastes of the Sierra Morena. The cool vineyards and gardens of the village were definitely more inviting.

Another place that deserves mention is the great mountain under whose shadow I lived for a while, Mont Serrat, in Catalonia, a great jagged rock peak rising abruptly from the foothills of the Pyrenees. It gives pretty good climbing, and its rock towers are popular with Spanish mountaineers. Perched somewhere near the summit is a monastery, famous all over Spain.

The Civil War turned everybody’s thoughts to anything but mountains, but as fate would have it I found myself not long after its outbreak among the Dolomites of Southern Tyrol. It is hardly necessary to say that they were a revelation. Their gigantic size and appalling steepness, and especially the absolute bareness of their gleaming white rock, overpowered the mind, but yet at the same time held out a promise of joys to come. They became to me what the engine-driver’s cabin and the pirate’s quarterdeck are to other boys of the same age, and I can remember with what mixed jealousy and admiration I saw bronzed and tough-looking Italian youths setting out for the mountains with axe and rope. That was one of the few good things the Duce introduced, the training of young people among great peaks, and we might with advantage imitate it, as Geoffrey Winthrop Young has suggested.

The most impressive of all those magnificent mountains was the Langkofel, a lengthy ridge buttressed by huge towers, and a true climbers’ paradise, as readers of Smythe’s "Adventures of a. Mountaineer" will know. 

 Bowfell Buttress above the Langdale Valley

But it was left to that perfect miniature of mountain landscape, the English Lake District, to turn admiration into action. In 1940, hustled out of London by anxious parents, I woke up one morning after a night journey by road from Windermere to find Buttermere Moss looking down at me through the window. A modest sort of mountain, you may say, but to one who had barely seen a molehill for years it was lofty enough. Well, there I was, an hour later, puffing and blowing up my first real hill. Standing at last upon the summit, out of breath and up to my ankles in one of those ubiquitous Lakeland bogs, I felt at last the true joy of the mountaineer, and made a firm resolve that before the year had passed I would set foot on all the dozens of peaks that were visible even from that low eminence.

It wasn’t allowing a great deal of time, but two years later the ambition had been fulfilled and surpassed. There was the mighty Grasmoor, (the Lake District has of course a scale of adjectives all its own), with its halo of lesser heights, Hobcarton, Sail, Causey Pike; the ridge of High Stile, above Buttermere, with its grand view and succulent bilberries; massive Pillar Mountain and the slender Steeple, rising from the deserted valley of Ennerdale. Then again, a kindly walker took me up the Guide’s route to Scafell Pikes, the highest of them all; this is a fine mountaineering route, winding its way up the mountain’s flank to land one on the boulder-strewn summit plateau. One would have thought that a debris-covered, windswept summit like the Pikes would be even less inviting than the hills of Majorca; yet it is a remarkable fact that the bare stark nature of many of the Lake District hilltops lends them a peculiar attractiveness.

Perhaps it is due to the part they play in furnishing the contrast in a land already rich in contrasts: steep rock face against gentle grass slope; dry bracken, russet heather and grass against blue lakes and grey rocks; and the most obvious contrast of all, the ceaseless changing of the weather. Then there was the true sovereign of the Lakes, Great Gable, a mountain of many aspects, but majestic in them all, and possessing one of the best views in all the district; Skiddaw, the shapeless mass that looks so imposing and is so impossibly tame, with its complete lack of contrast and its path fit for a four-in-hand right up to the summit; Catbells and Maiden Moor, odd-shaped sentinels of Derwentwater.... there seemed to be no end to the summits we could tread. 

And then, just when I was beginning to feel myself the "Compleat Mountaineer ", vast new fields were suddenly opened up by the possibility of climbing. I had always thought of rock-climbers as very superior persons who were on the plane altogether from us humble walkers, until one day I found myself gaily scaling the vertical side of Pillar Rock with a sangfroid I should have shuddered at a year before. This New West climb really does merit the attention of all climbers, from the trembling novice to the most hardened veteran bred in the tradition of de Selincourtian gravity-defiance. It has plenty of exposure and sensational positions, it is steep in the most modern meaning of the word, and in its three hundred feet or so of continuous climbing it calls for all types of technique.

It starts with a "staircase ", traverses off the "landing" to a steep groove, soon after which the climber can spread-eagle himself on a step even wider than the notorious Strid on the North climb. Then follows a beautiful chimney, complete with chock-stone, and topped by a wicked vice which most people attempt the first time they do the climb, in the mistaken belief that the route continues up it. As a matter of fact, it emerges from the chimney to follow a traverse which is almost completely hidden from the climber inside the chimney. This traverse is not lavish with its handholds, and gives exhilarating balance climbing. Finally there is a dose of good smooth slabs, which take one right out on to the summit of the Rock. The sort of perfect climb that a valley-bound cragsman might compose for the solace of his imagination, as a gourmet on a desert island might conjure up visions of the perfect meal. And yet withal it is easy enough, unless of course it happens to be raining.

There are plenty of other climbs of moderate difficulty on the Rock; the North climb is of course one of the classic climbs of Great Britain. There’ is one place on it where the leader unropes and makes a long detour to avoid the only tough place on the climb, which incidentally makes up for all the other tough places that aren’t. When I did this I spent a considerable time trying to locate my second when I had reached the top; while his mind was no doubt filled with the most gloomy forebodings.

The Pillar Rock is impressive enough, especially if you approach Low Man in mist, (the normal state), when the great steep ribs soar up into what seems to be infinity. But, even on a fine day, I know of nothing to compete with the face of Scafell for sheer splendor and power of rock scenery. One gets a good view of the whole thing from Pikes Crag, but I found it most awe-inspiring to scramble up the bed of Deep Ghyll, an enormously deep ravine cutting back between the sheer walls of Deep Ghyll Buttress and the Pinnacle. On either side you have the walls of the ravine, and between them a narrow field of view filled by Great Gable and Pillar. We tried one of the climbs on the Pinnacle Wall of the ghyll, known as Jones and Collier’s climb, which was first climbed by the great pioneer Owen Glynne Jones. It consists mainly of a continuous traverse above an overhang, with the bed of the ghyll dropping away below. We did it in boots, and as a result I would recommend rubbers for this climb; the holds are strictly of utility quality.

 The Abraham 'Keswick' Brothers

One finishes to the top along the famous Knife-edge Ar0te, which is ascended horseback-fashion on account of the considerable drop below on either side. The Pinnacle has a number of things in common with the Pillar Rock, including a gap which prevents direct access to the summit. Below Low Man, falling sheer, is the Pinnacle Face. The routes up this face are climbs of the highest delicacy, with few belays worthy of the name the sort of place where the rule that the leader must not fall is expanded to include every member of the party. The face has a number of casualties to its discredit, and we left it well alone, until such time as we might become very much more competent climbers. We sampled the buttress climbing on Scafell by going up the Keswick Brothers’ climb, an old favourite, which works its way pleasantly up one of the steeply tilted strata which compose the left-hand part of Scafell Precipice. It is a true face climb, though it does sometimes delve into a chimney where a flake has split away from the main stratum. 

While it is true that a large proportion of the best climbing is in the central massif around Great Gable, that versatile mountain which attracts the climber as much as the walker, there is a great deal scattered more diffusely over the rest of the district. Gimmer Crag, for instance, proved to be an ideal place to spend a hot unenergetic summer’s day. Most of the climbs are hard, some of them very, but they are short, and the crag has the advantage of being easily reached; the climbs perhaps tend to be what is called rock gymnastics, but they provide at least excellent training. Langdale is dotted about with other climbs, for instance the classic Bowfell Buttress, surely one of the most enjoyable of its kind, continuous and not artificial. Dow Crag would almost constitute a life-study in itself, with its small area with an incredible concentration of routes of all types and standards. In the latter respect it differs from Lliwedd, which is more uniformly hard, I should just like to mention Gordon and Craig’s route, which we found remarkable for a long dead level traverse with so little lebensraum that it is necessary almost to bend double and lean out over space – a good test of balance.

Finally, there are any number of "outlying crags ", as the guide-books call them, the Mecca of those with a bent for blazing new trails. Thus the Buttermere region, and especially Birkness Coombe, above Buttermere Lake, has been extensively developed in recent years, as a glance at recent numbers of the Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club will show. We couldn’t resist the temptation to try and make a variation to the "Oxford and Cambridge" Climb, in this coombe, just to shift the balance in favour of Cambridge; our success was highly questionable, as the said variation was partly done on a rope. However, it consists of swarming up a sort of pinnacle and then traversing horizontally across Dexter Wall to join the parent climb at the top of the second pitch, and is quite entertaining. This sort of thing is very small meat, but A. T. Hargreaves, who ought to know, assures us in an article in the above-mentioned journal that there are still various crags awaiting such intensive exploration as Buttermere has had.

During the war we have been restricted to the hills of Britain, though I imagine that most of us are not conscious of this as a restriction at all. We have learnt to cherish these hills for their own sake, and not to value them merely as a training ground for attempts on bigger game. The Lake District is far more than this; and have not Alpine and Himalayan climbers who spent early years on its crags always returned to its friendly intimacy after months spent on inhospitable snow and ice? Certainly, should it ever be my fortune to climb on bigger mountains, I shall nevertheless come back to the cradle of my mountaineering aspirations, the English Lakes. 

 Skiddaw from Derwentwater:Oil on board- J Appleby

RW Cahn 1944