Friday, 22 September 2017

Like Crag Rats up a Drainpipe!

“I suppose’ Dave remarked rather scathingly, ‘that this must rate as your best ever con?’ ‘Not bad at all’ I allowed  as we-that is the six who had been successfully conned and I-squelched and dripped our way down the steep slopes from the summit of Whin Rigg towards the road,parked cars and the happiness that is a dry bum and socks. This was by far the kindest of many remarks emanating from the large and jolly party regarding the preceding five and a half hours. But then, I had received my training from the grand master of the Con and I’m sure Jim would have endorsed my wholly underhand tactics when the result was such a magnificently traditional days climbing.

Perhaps at this point I should set the scene for readers who have not already turned over to read of greater things muttering, "Oh no, not another of Sainsbury's dismal failures." Picture then- if it doesn't distress too much- the Wasdale campsite at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning with sufficient low cloud and cold wind to suggest an intelligent retreat to a warm pit followed by a protracted breakfast and an even more intelligent stroll to the welcoming cash register in the bar at Wasdale Head. I stuck my head through the tent flap on just such a morning, dragged on some clothing and headed rapidly in the direction of that central haven for those who have slept on an overlarge ale intake. Already stoves were roaring and health and fresh air fanatics marched briskly about in neat regulation shorts, long woolly socks and Aran sweaters, contrasting with my own regulation Spanish fell boots (no laces), no socks, tattered breeches and aged Helly.

Returning to the tent to find that Jean was still asleep and consequently no brew, I searched for some other member of our group from whom I could scrounge a ready made pot of the life giving liquid. Failing, I resigned myself to separating the stove and some clean pans from the previous night's greasy plates and pots. The next hour- passed in an orgy of tea, biscuits and greasy bacon buttys during which time others of our party emerged and the health and beauty fans strode off into the drizzle. It was during my third brew that I was idly flicking through the guidebook when my eyes lit upon the perfect route and the plot was hatched. It had not escaped my notice that as usual when inclement conditions prevail nobody seemed to have a clear idea of where to go. "I've got just the route for today," I enthused as Bill appeared.

 "Traditional stuff, a real mountain day." "Sorry mate, I promised to walk with Heather. today." A pause then, "What is it?" Did I detect a weakening of resolve? "Think about it mate while I see if anyone else is interested. 600 feet and perfect for this weather." Using the same approach elsewhere worked well and in less time than I expected I had gathered five more suckers and when Bill finally cracked the seven of us made a remarkably swift departure in the direction of the lower end of Wasdale and The Screes. Reaching the river bank opposite the water intake building, we rejected the idea of swimming in favour of a rickety traverse across the front of the boathouse. Each hoping that someone would slip into three feet of icy water. Encouraged by shouts of ‘Fall off you Bum!'

We eventually arrived at the foot of Great Gully to find the initial pitch consisted of a waterfall or greasy moss covered rock as alternatives. "Whose bloody daft idea was this?" someone demanded. "Looks damned unpleasant," said another voice. "Hope you're leading since you suggested it," Dave stated flatly, looking in my direction. Now this had not been part of the plot. I had rather hoped that the rush of enthusiasm would result in someone being so eager to get on with it that I could use the "Yes, I would have liked the honour but don't mind stepping aside," ploy. Such a noble gesture should make it possible to remain in the middle throughout the route. Urged on by the hostile atmosphere I hastily got to grips with the pitch and was at once forced to use a foothold in the main flow of water which instantly filled my boot and came through my "waterproof' trousers. Ten feet or so and I thankfully placed a runner before making an upward lunge for easy ground.

The next vertical section, down which coursed the inevitable water, proved even trickier and since the best finishing hold was in the centre of the stream, naturally it took the shortest route via the inside of my sleeve and breeches to join that already in my boot. Reaching easy ground I walked up the Gully and found a belay, satisfied in the knowledge that removal of my runners would cause similar discomfort to whoever was to follow. The guidebook describes this first 100 feet of Great Gully as a scramble so one could be excused for wondering what to expect on the next 60 feet where climbing was actually mentioned. A considerable amount of time and unprintable remarks, some reflecting upon my ancestry, passed before we were all assembled and ready to continue. Bill gave in with surprising speed to my suggestion that he should take over and made short work of a nasty wet corner before disappearing from my view when the Singer, from his position kept me informed of his progress up a short steep section and along a traverse to rejoin the Gully above a waterfall.

Meantime, Dave went past with another rope and a fair degree of knitting began to develop. By the time I had completed this pitch, helped by a useful sideways pull on the rope as I jumped the last few feet of the traverse, the party was strung out over some 200 feet, what with Bill having continued and Niel and Gerry lagging a pitch behind. The following waterslide proved to be just that and although rated as a single 135 foot pitch, we split it into convenient sections as dictated by fear, exhaustion or degree of discomfort that its ascent brought about. All sense of order had vanished by now and I found myself sometimes leading, sometimes following and occasionally not apparently tied to anyone as we swapped rope ends around.  In this way we all assembled in the grassy  amphitheatre about halfway up the Gully, all except Bill, not a little wet.

In view of his condition he was unanimously elected to lead on. Up to the left for twenty feet, traverse back right twenty feet and he hit difficulties. Vertical grass, no runners and earthy holds - where they existed at all. We began chuckling. "Its not bloody funny," he yelled angrily.  "In fact its bloody serious." This was followed by a stream of Yankee invective from our American cousin. Nevertheless he a struggled on and disappeared from view, soon to be followed by the rest. I did see his point though — it was bloody serious if you happened to be leading, since the key move  involved swinging down into the gully bed  from two holes in the grass on to a foothold  near the lip of a twenty foot drop to a very nasty landing.

After this things eased off and a lot of scrambling, a widening of the sky suggested that the end may be in sight. Oh, and how we were mistaken! Once again a narrowing of the sky as the walls closed in to 3  foot wide verticality blocked by a huge d chock stone twenty watery feet up, with a great volume of fluid coursing over it. By the time I arrived Bill and the Bat had already vanished over this, a fact made evident by their rope passing through a heavy tape just level with the lip of the fall. "The Bat led it," Niel remarked as I viewed the greasy verticality with mounting alarm, "and Bill still appears to be dry."

We swapped ropes round yet again and I struggled up a series of nasty bridging moves with all the grace of a dancing Dervish, until I could grab the tape and pull myself through the main flow and stand above the chock. How Gerry, who stands four foot nothing in platform heels would manage I couldn't imagine. In fact she put us all to shame with a swift and polished performance that did not involve the use of the tape. There must be a lesson to learn there somewhere! Just as I began to think it was all finished we arrived by yet more scrambling, at the foot of what turned out to be the final pitch. A series of loose wet steps led up for 30 feet or so to a vertical ten feet sporting the now familiar waterfall. A nearly new peg adorned the right wall about halfway up the steepest section. Bill and the Bat had already ascended and the Singer was on his way. 

I watched, wet, cold and wondering why I was there when I could have been warm dry and drinking. My turn. Up the steps, the rock pushing me to the left when I wanted to go right, an awkward side hold, foot out to the right wall and lunge for the peg. Useless, it was in the wrong position. A couple of dicey bridging moves and a grab for a hold on the right wall, left hand scrambling over the top, a desperate pull, knees on the edge and I crawled to safety to the clicking of Gerry' s camera. Why do these photographic enthusiasts always record the worst performances? Ten minutes later we stripped off our wet gear in the sunshine that had broken through unnoticed in the dank depths of the Gully. Was it worth it? Undoubtedly I would say, though from the dark mutterings around me dissent upon this point could be sensed. As Pete, the Singer, remarked over a pint much later....... "interesting!" 

Tony Sainsbury : First Published in Climber and Rambler-June 1981 as 'In the Finest Tradition'.

Images..Gerry Goldsmith