Sunday, 27 November 2011

Inside the giant's skull

Birkness Combe

If you walk away from Malham Cove along the mossy edge of the beck, then stop and lean backwards until you can just see the rim of the cliff at the bottom of your field of vision, the turfy slopes at either side join on to the foliage of the trees to compose a huge circular frame, a border of leaves and grass and rock surrounding the broad blue pond of the sky: the round blue eye of the sky, with the crag as the exposed bone of the orbital ridge and the leaves as lashes.

And once you have focused the rock as bone and the veg­etation as its soft, ephemeral contents, this image combines with the great age of the limestone, its many traces of earlier lives (strata, fossils, veins where waterfalls once coursed), to create a vision of a derelict giant spreadeagled across Yorkshire where he fell 280 million years ago, one arm reaching Gordale, shoulder blades laid bare between here and the Tarn, a fist clenched at Attermire ...Such are the trains of thought, or visions, that can come to us when we have time to settle into the climbing landscape, to grow intimately at home in its dales and corries, especially if you're working on a guidebook and have to spend hundreds of hours, spread over dozens of days, eyeing up the crags, noticing their whole shapes as well as their details, picking out landmarks from all points of the compass, memorising the paths of approach that will lead clim­bers' footsteps most conveniently to the starts and also the slopes and drops that will take them comfortably back down.

Years of this left me feeling at one with Buttermere. It had let me into its fastnesses and I have let it occupy my head. Yet five years before I had climbed there just once (Spider Wall and Rib and Wall on Grey Crag) and even  after dozens of visits with Bill Peascod, it was still just one of eight Lakeland guidebook areas and meant less to me than Langdale or Borrowdale. Then, in the autumn of 1984, the Fell & Rock deputed Rick Graham to write the Buttermere half of the new But­termere and Eastern Fells. He found he no longer had enough knowledge of the routes from Moderate to Hard VS/5a, and Bill Peascod had suggested me as his col­laborator. Since then I have climbed twelve thousand feet of rock in Newlands and Buttermere — 73 routes, 10 of them new or new variants (on top of the 24 and 6000 feet I'd done before) and drove 2460 miles, mostly to Honister, Gatesgarth, and Little Town.

Exciting times gleam in the memory: jamming and laying-away on the fierce blade-edges of the two vertical cracks on Carnival (Eagle Crag), climbing with Rick; exploring with Howard Warner from Win­dermere up the dizzy terrain of Easter But­tress (Eagle) — an inter-War route that deserves to be known among the classics, Gimmer Crack and Grooved Wall (Pillar) and Overhanging Bastion; jamming at my arms' limit, then tip-toeing slab wise with no pro­tection, then swimming up through ver­tical heather, to put up a new VS, The Legacy (for Bill), on Waterfall Buttress, Newlands, climbing with John Baker and Tim Noble from Wiltshire.

But the days that have let me more deeply into that country than I had thought possible anywhere outside Scot­land have been the solo days, climbing all day on Striddle, Fleetwith Pike, and Min­ers', Newlands, and Grey and Eagle, Birk­ness Combe, with no gear except my Fires, no company except the people in my head, no talk except the chatter of the old guidebook in my pocket, climbing and down climbing continuously for five or six hours with my pen and my glasses as my only equipment until cragging felt more like swimming, striking out through the crests and troughs of the rock, following its currents, cast thankfully up on its shores after days when it was possible to become so attuned that 4b or even 4c pitches felt as comfortable as walking round the garden.

William Heaton Cooper Grey Crag illustration for a previous Fell and Rock Buttermere guidebook.

It is in the great corries and partly enclosed dales — Birkness Combe and Bleaberry Combe, and Newlands near Dale Head and the side dale under Haystacks and the hummocky hollows below Round How near Dubs — that the 'Malham experience' is most vivid, when you realise that you're in the midst of a tract of ambient nature that surrounds your thoughts as snugly as your skull. And the greatest of these is Birkness.

To me (with native memories of the great corrie on Lochnagar, the north face of Liathach and Coire Mhic Fhearchair on Beinn Eighe and the colossal glaciated scoops on the Speyside faces of the Cairngorms), entering a corrie is like com­ing home. Part of me originated here before memory began. "Mere dreams, mere dreams! Yet Homer had not sung
'Had he not found it certain beyond dreams That out of life's own self-delight had sprung The abounding, glittering jet . ."

The great hanging basin of it looms up there, cloud steaming from its lips in wet summer months, filling with thick blue in October, dark-numb in winter as though the glaciers had come again, its upper atmosphere crossed by slanting sun rays as the light gets through at the end of the day. You lift yourself and your load at a steady plod up the path from Gatesgarth which didn't exist at all before Bill Peascod and Bert Beck began to forge their ways up Eagle in the summer of 1940.
The green breast of the combe is gentle and the sun still lights it before moving inexorably round to spend the day behind High Crag and High Stile. Surmount the breast and then the squared whale-forehead of Eagle, just another chunk of mountain on first sighting from the dale-bottom, juts up, separating itself from the ragged outcrops of Brant Bield to its left, darkling at you, taking you on. But those rigours are still to come; down here a shadowed peace sur­rounds you as though the land had risen up behind you and sealed you gently in.

Nobody ever lived in Birkness, no farm­ing families even summered up here with their flocks, according to the old shieling system; but the turf that makes little lawns beside the beck has been so well dunged and cropped by the Herdwicks that they are tailor-made for a tent-site and the boulder nearby has had a dry-stone shelter built up against it — a nice conundrum for the archaeologists of the 30th century.

So you enter the skull-casque of the mountain and become the one thought the giant is entertaining at the present time. The occasional echoing yell of "Safe!" or "Climbing!" disturbs the broad, contained silence of the combe as little as the ravens laughing gutturally to each other in the air above Grey Crag. All Birk­ness lacks is a tarn. Nearly all Lakeland corries face north-east, in the lee of the snow-bearing winds. The helm wind streaming over the ridge eddies when it swoops down into the corrie, as you can see when the wavelets on Bleaberry Tarn move towards the mountain, against the wind, in gusty weather.

The Buttermere Fells by Bill Peascod.

In the Indian summer of one  year I rose into Bleaberry Combe by the newly ­masoned path up from the north end of Buttermere to find the cushioned slopes of Red Pike quietly on fire with blaeberry leaves that 'the devil had swiped with his tail' — early frosts searing them the colour of water-melon flesh. The mild temp­erature was hatching out so many flies that the fish rising on the tarn were making rings as numerous as the start of a thunder-shower.

My goal was Chapel Crags. The guidebook writer must check everything, even an area described by his predecessors as 'looking quite impressive' from below but 'very slow to dry', 'very grassy', gullies 'usually wet and best avoided in summer'. Might there just be something sound and clean amongst all that suppurating lichen? Invar, possibly (210 ft., Hard Severe), on a small "continuous" buttress? or Costate Wall (170 ft., Severe), described by Mike Lynch in his encyclopedic annotations to the Soper/Allinson guide as "50 yds. R of Invar"? These delights are on the "extreme upper left-hand buttress," according to the Good Book. Extremely upper or extremely left? In this dripping maze unmistakable instructions are crucial. I never found that buttress. I did climb twenty feet up a very steep, sodden chimney-crack on the wall of the "prominent scree shoot" before decid­ing that it was insane to risk my promising career by falling out of a kind of vertical sewer.

In thinning cloud I beelined over to the south side where the moss and heather was crisp in the sunshine and I could justify my day by visiting a neglected range of out­crops, the Ennerdale Face of High Stile: "scarcely worth a special visit" but "worth including in a walk along the ridge". Well — if they formed part of an edge in the Stanage area the book would be less snooty. The crags are a line of cracked towers, high and dry on sun ward slopes in full view of Gable, Scafell, Pillar across the gulf of Ennerdale. What a gorgeous place to boulder! And more than boulder: Outside Edge (80 ft., Diff. (hard)) has a start that would fit a Severe, forcing you to haul over a blankish bulge by stretching at full arms' length for a side-pull — never an easy manoeuvre — while smearing with the feet.

His left lobe thinks Grey: follow your fancy, have a go — try out that long ram­part of slabby wall, Criss-crossed by heather cracks, between The Mole and the crown of Oxford and Cambridge Buttress — it's big, it has clean passages, why has nothing been done there? His right lobe thinks Eagle: do your duty — the seeping tangle of Border Buttress is not yet sorted out — and how many more days up here will the weather allow? Duty, in these last few weeks before the deadline, has to win, though I'd always regret it if the rampart turned out good and we'd failed to cover it. (I got up to it again the following week and found that it could be climbed anywhere at a most pleasurable V. Diff.: 60-metre sections of clean slab, wrinkled with quartz, divided by rakes of yellowing blaeberry.)

So I walk off south­eastwards along the brink of Eagle, spying familiar landmarks — the belvedere at the top of the Front's final crack, the notch where the last few metres of Central Chim­ney's hundred-and-fifty split the crag —and then spend half an hour confusing myself amongst the savage clefts that seam the Birkness Gully/Far East Buttress wing of the Eagle. Each slithering way down the collapsing turf-and-gravel banks looks no more reassuring than any other, I commit myself to the last steep, then spend a fascinating quarter of an hour surmounting heathered ribs to find myself peering down  hundred-foot crevasses with unclimbable dank and sheer walls, places that hold the night's murkiness at midday. Toil back up a rib, clamber precariously into the next cre­vasse, make headway gradually while the drop on my right deepens but I am at home in the giant's brainpan now, one of the more accustomed thoughts in his ancient circuits, my head and limbs are merging into his and I thank goodness more fer­vently than ever

These hours of solitary freedom transfer you out of human culture and into a sort of provisional kinship with the animals and the plants. I may never again so nearly share air-space with peregrines as during an explosive moment this summer. I'm down climbing round the heathery verge of a crag, searching for some safe way back onto its face — a brown ignition near my feet — hot streak in mid-air — a peregrine is bolting off into space above the dale, a frantic fire-flaucht, zigging headlong side­ways and back on course, shrinking in moments to a bullet at the far end of my vision. (It was probably a male in his first breeding season.

The birds evolved long after the giant's prime. In his moribund state they must seem to him like delirious thoughts of his own — coloured, wayward images — as they peck and fiddle at his bones to find sites and nesting-materials. On the front of Malham Cove the martin's nest, raising three broods by September. They stick their cups of mud to the wall — wall in the climbers'- not the builders' sense — as they will have done for thousands of generations before houses were invented.

David Craig