I suppose a solid week of rain and gales can make even the most hardened of the rain dancing pub dwellers wish for a bit of sunshine. If only in order to remain dry between car and bar. After all, it is possible to spend an entire day in the Old Dungeon Ghyll starting in the snacks and soft drinks end at 9 a.m. (does anyone really crawl out of their tent that early) moving to the bar at the stroke of eleven and back to the snacks for the brief respite from 3.10 till 5 p.m. After a week of these conditions, Friday morning produced some change in that it managed to rain even harder and we were on the verge of becoming totally insane, irretrievably alcoholic, or both. Something had to be done rain or not. Leaving the bar shortly after midday (after all we do have to pay our respects to the brewery) amid the usual flurry of ribald and colourful remarks, we headed for Stool End just as the downpour turned on an extra violent display.
One or two well waterproofed early risers looked a little surprised to see anyone starting up the hill at that late hour (for them anyway) especially after a morning during which conditions had degenerated from worse to much worse. Nevertheless we were greeted cheerily, no doubt because they were on their way to dry warm surroundings such as we had recently vacated. Rick set a cracking pace up the Band and it was not long before I cracked and allowed the gap between us to widen, settling down to a steady, head down plod, which allowed the rain to drip from my cagoule hood to the ground instead of coursing down my nose and eventually trickling down my neck. By the time we turned off the main path to head for the Climbers' Traverse he was almost out of sight and soon disappeared over the ridge. I stopped briefly to see what it felt like not to be heaving for breath, then struggled on to reach the high point. Sensing relief at the thought that the next section was more or less level. No sign of Rick. Another brief respite, then making a much better pace I managed to catch him as he stopped to examine the dripping walls of Flat Crags.
Bowfell Buttress itself was by turns hidden or visible as banks of cloud swirled up and down the gullies and cascaded over the top like a silent, ghostly waterfall. And still it rained. Once ,at the foot, we exposed the ropes and assorted gear to the elements and made haste to get started before we had time to cool off. My one previous acquaintance with Bowfell Buttress had been in glorious weather four years previously and I had climbed, unethically I feel, in PA’s. This time Rick was in a pair of very bendy army type boots- of dubious origin- matched by my worn out, loose soled ‘leakies’. Both in full waterproofs (at least, that's what equipment dealers sell them as) and carrying sacs with us. All we needed were Alpenstocks and Edward Whymper would have been proud of us.
As I was tied to the rope ends which came from the top of the now soggy heaps, I took first lead up what should have been easy rock to the foot of the chimney. Every reach upwards produced an uncomfortable trickle down the sleeve of my Kag and every flat or slightly hollowed hold contained a puddle which froze the fingers and improved the flow of water down my arms. The footholds could be likened to miniature skating rinks so it was some relief to find the chimney relatively dry. "I'll carry on Rick," I said, dropping a tape runner over a large block. His face was a study of wet, cold misery, huddled at the foot, paying out soggy rope through frozen fingers. I moved up, jammed myself in and struggled, gaining height by inches rather than feet. The exit right at the top proved extremely awkward since I was unable to reach a large hold, and every time I moved up, my sac jammed under the overhang at the top of the left wall.
Five minutes later more squirming and heaving had generated considerable warmth and enough progress to allow a step right, then up to the large terrace. And once more into the driving rain. "Alright whose silly idea was this anyway?" A "Thank Gawd" look spread across Rick's face as I called for him to climb. He made short work of the first bit and used his height and reach advantage to make the chimney look easy before accepting some ironmongery for use on the next pitch. I watched with growing apprehension as Rick normally leads several standards above mine and was spending some time making moves up the first steep wall. Eventually he disappeared around a corner on the left and seemed, to be climbing steadily. Occasionally the chink and click of karabiners drifted down through the rain and mist till I soon called that there was only ten feet of rope left. No reply. A lung splitting shout prompted an answer, rather muffled, but to the effect that he was about to belay.
I had to assume that the next call from above as the rope tightened meant that I could start and quickly discovered why the little wall had proved awkward. Two steps up on sloping wet foot holds with nothing much for the hands, followed by a tricky move right to a small ledge then better holds to traverse up to the left and round the corner into an open chimney-groove cum watercourse. A doddle in P.A.s but in these conditions it took me some time to reach the comparative security of the watercourse. Thirty feet of this led to a large runner and the rope vanishing round to the right over easy ground. ,Rick was belayed at the bottom of a vertical, ten foot crack that formed the start of the next pitch. I studied it, unconvinced of my ability to lead in the prevailing conditions. Two attempts were enough and I more or less slid back down. Hanging on to the sling from a chock jammed high in the crack as part of the belay.
"We'll be here all day if I keep at this," I said, "you have a go." Gear was exchanged and in a matter of minutes Rick once again vanished from view. With only a few feet of rope left movement ceased. A moment or two of delay then a voice from the clouds, "Right, when you're ready." Confidence in the top rope improved the appearance of the crack no end and in spite of one boot sliding from a greasy foothold, I was soon up and following the rope away to the left. This proved to be the wrong line, forcing me into a difficult and slippery step round on to a sloping ledge to regain the route. Easy climbing from here led to a short wall with a Chimney in the corner to its left. I ascended the wall on good holds to a narrow ledge which ended some feet from the Chimney from where the step across looked decidedly nasty.
A very long, blind, off balance stride to a slimy unseen foothold. Easy in the dry but with rain still bucketing down-and in bendy boots- quite intimidating. I was glad to have avoided leading that. Sixty easy feet to go, I accepted the sharp end and made quick work of yet another chimney and easy groove that trended to the left and easy ground. As Rick arrived the heavens decided on a final fling and pelted us with fair sized hailstones for some minutes before easing away to nothing. Just another bit of amusement for us as we coiled the ropes. "Oh for a pint !" Scrambling to the top of the ridge we were rewarded for our efforts by a remarkable sight. The clouds had lifted and were scudding just above the top of Bowfell on our left and looking underneath them towards the coast, we could see the line where they ended abruptly. Brilliant sunshine produced an intense silvery reflection from a sea darkened by scattered cloud showers near the shore but quite clear and tending to become almost golden further out. In the distance, the shadowy hump of The Isle of Man stood out beneath the final ridge of Scafell.
Image: The Old Dungeon Ghyll
What a superb way to finish a climb we thought. As we walked over Bowfell summit and down towards the Band, the rain ceased completely and a patch of blue widened above us. "Well," Said Rick, "I think that's done it, we've frightened the weather off." And indeed we had. Saturday and Sunday provided us with two excellent days climbing. But that's another story before which we had an appointment with a pint glass and some dry clothing. A worthwhile day? Yes definitely. Under these conditions Bowfell Buttress gets my five star rating for a fine mountaineering route.
Tony Sainsbury: First published as 'A Worthwhile Day'in Climber and Rambler-September 1977