Friday, 8 August 2014

Youth at the door

Great Gable above Wasdale: Alfred Heaton Cooper:Heaton Cooper Studios

Whenever I go into Brackenclose, into the men’s dormitory, my eye roves up to the top bunk in the far left-hand corner of the room, and to the rafters above it. I’ll tell you why. The time is long ago, and the place is Langdale on a fine December afternoon. The occasion is an unofficial meet of the L.U.M.C. As students, when we came to the mountains for a weekend, our behaviour was very similar to that of small children let out into the playground at playtime. We burst upon the scene with just the same mixture of elation and surplus undirected vigour. We also took enormous pleasure in each other’s company and experienced all the cheerful solidarity of the gang.

This explains, though it will hardly excuse, the extraordinary decision we made to hike over Esk Hause and Windy Gap to Ennerdale in order to force an entry into Black Sail Hut which we knew to be closed. We somehow persuaded ourselves that we could enter the building without causing damage and naturally we would leave it in as good condition as we found it, if not better.
The idea came to us as we sat expansively over a farmhouse tea at the foot of The Band. It may well have originated from one member of our group who is now a highly respected officer of the Club but who at that time had a propensity for lighting the blue touch-paper.

The farmhouse tea, which we were having as a late lunch, was too enjoyable an occasion to hurry and when we rose from it it was nearly three o’clock. We were already in shadow but the sunlit bracken shone like copper on the slopes of Pike of Stickle and walking in darkness was part of the idea. We filed up the side of Mickleden and by the time we reached the foot of Rossett Ghyll darkness had advanced upon us, assisted by a huge black cloud which had been forming in the west. We climbed up the steep and rocky slope into an altogether different and forbidding region of gloom, darkness and incipient storm. What had started as a delightful lark was changing rapidly into a serious undertaking. By the time we reached the top of Rossett Ghyll we were in a tempest.

The rain came at us downwards, sideways and even upwards. The wind buffeted us in a brutish and unseemly manner. Angle Tarn was seen as a livid blur in the general blackness. Progress was slow. Our party was seven or eight strong. Or seven or eight weak, it would be truer to say, for keeping everybody together was not easy. We had regarded the path over Esk Hause as an unmistakable highway. In the roaring dark, however, and with patches of snow across it, it proved surprisingly easy to lose. We also lost the capacity to estimate time and our walking, and waiting, and struggling seemed interminable. To an observer we would have looked like a demented, squabbling rabble, but we were only trying to make ourselves heard, and keep our feet in the savage wind. We had frequent discussions about the route, yelling our opinions, staggering in the wind, occasionally clustering round a wet map by the light of a failing torch.

Somewhere on the top of Esk Hause my balaclava flew off my head in a violent gust of wind and disappeared for ever, leaving me with a strong feeling of outrage. I wrapped my scarf round my ears and we pushed on. A dangerous looking void ahead turned out to be the nearby waters of Sprinkling Tarn. No doubt a ragged cheer went up from our wretched little band. All should now be plain sailing to Sty Head. But a curious thing about walking the hills at night is an unconscious reluctance to go downhill. Visibility on a very dark night is limited to little more than a yard. One can generally see or sense the ground at one’s feet, but anything lower than that is indistinguishable.

One’s tendency then to step where one can see something to step on and that is usually something slightly higher than foot level. In this way one unconsciously prefers going slightly uphill to going down. We lost the path but the feeling of knowing where we were was strong after leaving Tarn, and we hoped to run across it again. We set a compass course. Sometime later we came to a drop. Those in the rear cried ‘Forward!’ and those at the front cried ‘Back!’ Cautious probing suggested we were on the top of a cliff. Tossing a stone into the blackness confirmed it. We tried more to the left. More cliff. We tried to the right. Cliff again. Those in charge of the compass protested that we had now tried all reasonable directions and that it made no sense.

These conjectures, of course, were made at the pitch of our voices on account of the storm. In the end we took the only course open to us, which, as the compass-men bitterly pointed out, was back the way we’d come. We scrambled and slithered downhill and eventually found the path. After that whenever we lost it we would send our scouts in various directions until we found it again. In this way we got down to Sty Head Tarn. The plan of continuing up Aaron’s Slack into Ennerdale was now unanimously rejected while a proposal to get the hell out of our present difficulties was carried unanimously. Finding the start to the path to Wasdale was not easy however. We came to the col where nowadays the mountain rescue box stands and here I expressed the View, at the pitch of my lungs ,“that we needed to go up a little to make sure of hitting the track.
My friend Wildblood disagreed, on the ground that we would then be in danger of taking the Gable Traverse path. We became surprisingly heated for two people on the brink of hypothermia. It was like a scene out of King Lear. I do not know how it ended but after we’d torn a passion to tatters for some time we did eventually find the way down and wentlurching down in the teeth of the storm until we reached at last the levels of Wasdale Head. Endless columns of rain still swept up the valley from the Irish Sea. We trudged on until we came to the lake. There was a light showing in Brackenclose. We looked at the time and found to our astonishment it was only nine o’clock. We thought it must be at least one in the morning.

Fell & Rock Club hut Brackenclose in Wasdale

We knew Brackenclose, having stayed there with our president Graham Macphee. We now stood at the door, a forlorn, hapless crew, wet through. We knocked. It opened, revealing a vision of dryness, warmth and light. We explained that we were a university mountaineering club, that our President was a member of the Fell & Rock and though he was not at present with us would no doubt be willing to vouch for us. We were becoming seriously affected by the cold and wet.

‘This is a private hut’, said the spokesman of the dry people within, speaking in what we instantly registered as an Oxford accent. ‘The Rules of the Club say that guests must be accompanied by a Member.’ One of our difficulties was that we had no very plausible explanation for our presence in Wasdale. We could hardly admit that we had been frustrated in our nefarious plan to occupy Black Sail Hut. In the end we were turned away from the door, back into the rain and darkness. Or rather we took ourselves off, gathering the rags of our dignity around us, resolved to seek shelter in the barn of Wasdale Head Hall, half a mile away.

Our interview at the door of the farm was a good deal shorter. At first we thought we discerned some glimmer of sympathy in the eye of the farmer’s wife, but when she saw that were girls in the party her face assumed a rather stony expression and it was thumbs down from then on. Whether she imagined she might be giving licence to romps in the hay, or whether she simply felt that girls needed better accommodation than a barn was not disclosed, but it made no difference. We had the choice, she said, between Brackenclose (half a mile), the hotel (two miles) and the Youth Hostel (four miles). She found it easier no doubt than the climbers to refuse us. There is a certain kinship among climbers, even between respectable club members and those beyond the pale. For them, turning us away must have felt a little like turning away poor relations. But to her we were visitants from another planet, part of that strange alien tide of townspeople that lapped intermittently round the boundaries of the farm.

We went back to Brackenclose to report our failure. This time we pushed the girls well to the fore. They hardly looked like sex symbols with their blue faces and bedraggled hair, but perhaps in those days chivalry was less dead than it is now. The climbers, moreover, had had half an hour and more to listen to the rain beating on the windows and to compare their lot with ours as they sat toasting their toes before a roaring fire, mugs of tea in hand. They relented, and our troubles were over. Some brave and kindly soul must have entered his name in the book as the member responsible for us.

(I wish I knew who he was, to be able to thank him again after all these years). We paid up, we crept obsequiously around keeping out of people’s way and cooking our soggy food. The girls, stripping off wet clothes and combing out their dripping hair, revealed themselves to be more girl- shaped than might at first have been thought and made themselves exceedingly pleasant to the company at the fireside. On the whole our intrusion did no-one much harm and some perhaps a bit of good. It was only years later, however, that I realised fully the nature of the dilemma we put those people in.

But the point of this story, it is has a point, and the culmination of the whole incident and the thing that has made it stay in my memory when so much else has faded, was climbing into that top corner of the three-tier bunkhouse, close under the sloping dry timbers of the roof, to be cradled in the total luxury of dry blankets, and to hear the rain furiously pattering and hissing on the slates a few inches above me. I was at one with all animals, in all dens, all over the world.
Tom Price atop the Lakeland peak of Glaramara on his 90th birthday

Tom Price: F&R Journal 1992