Friday 11 December 2015

The First Ascent of Napes Needle

Just about ten years ago there died far from the hills, in distant Dorset, a lonely old man whose name will be revered in Lakeland and in many places scattered about the world so long as men come to climb the rocks and walk the mountains. His name was Walter Parry Haskett-Smith, and when he died, far from his friends, he was eighty-five years old. He was the 'father' of British rock climbing, the pioneer of the very earliest routes on half a dozen different Lakeland crags, and the man who first discovered and climbed Napes Needle. Haskett-Smith first saw the Needle- a graceful pinnacle among the Napes Ridges on the Wasdale face of Great Gable- on a windy, cloudy day in the early 1880s. He has written: 'The outermost curtain of mist seemed to be drawn aside, and one of the fitful gleams of sunshine fell on a slender pinnacle of rock standing out against the background of cloud, without a sign of any other rock near it and appearing to shoot up for about 200 to 300 feet.'
At that time nobody had ever examined the Napes Ridges — the steep slopes of scree below them had kept explorers away and given the impression that the whole crag was dangerously rotten.

But Haskett-Smith, the young Oxford graduate and barrister,decided to track down the slender spire and climb it if possible. At his first attempt he failed to locate it, but at the second he found it but left its conquest to another day. Some years later he was exploring on the mountain quite alone and decided to work his way down from the summit to the ridge, now known as Needle Ridge, up which he had climbed two years before. He had with him a long fell pole, which gave him some trouble by continually dropping and jamming in cracks and crevices, but eventually he got down to the gap behind the Needle and decided, as climbers say, to 'have a look at it'. There was nobody about on the mountain to help if he was to fall, and there were no mountain rescue teams in those distant days, but without hesitation the young man began to work his way up the tall spire, which seems to hang over Styhead.

At first he used for his fingers and toes, a crack, which in those days was blocked with stones and moss, and eventually he reached what is called the shoulder of the Needle and here he could study the final problem. The summit of the Needle really consists of two tremendous blocks, one perched on top of the other, but the young man had no real means of knowing whether the top block was secure or whether, if pulled on, it would overbalance and crash with its victim to the screen 100 feet below. Today, of course, we all know it is safe, and if three climbers balance on one side it can be gently rocked, but on this day seventy years ago only two or three people had even seen the Needle and nobody had climbed it.

The young man was also anxious to know whether the summit of the top block was reasonably flat so that he could perch on it, in the event of his getting there. But, even more important, he thought that a flat top would mean that the edges of the top block would not be rounded and so would give him a good grip for his fingers. He therefore cast about for two or three flat stones and threw these up in turn, hoping that one would stay on top. At last one did so and he started up, 'feeling as small as a mouse climbing a millstone'.
 He balanced himself up onto the Mantelshelf, with the steep drop on his right, shuffled along a horizontal crack, sidled round a comer, up the face on small holds and then, reaching up for the top, clambered up to the summit and sat down on his tiny, airy perch.

The summit of the Needle is a sloping oblong, only a few feet across, and when you are sitting or standing up there it is easy to imagine yourself very high above the world and almost sitting out in space. This sort of perch is common enough in the Alps but very rare in Lakeland, and there is nothing quite like the Needle anywhere else in the British Isles. People have stood on their heads on top of the Needle, lit fires up there, shaved and done a hundred and one other strange things, but Haskett-Smith just sat down, admired the view —and wondered how on earth he was going to get down. Before he began lowering himself down, he left his handkerchief jammed in a crevice for all to see, and it must have been something of a relief and a moment of pride to get down the top block safely and be able to look up at the bit of linen fluttering in the breeze.

Since those days the Needle has been climbed thousands of times by seven or eight different routes, it is photographed dozens of times eve, week during the summer, and its shape is known in many parts of the world. Small boys and girls have been hauled up it in fine weather, stunt climbs and record attempts have been made on it. It has been filmed and televised, painted and sketched, but the Needle — although nowadays regarded as a comparatively easy route — is still a climb of character and a remarkable memorial to a very great man. On the fiftieth anniversary of his first ascent of the Napes Needle, Hackett-Smith, then a man of seventy-four, went up again, roped between Lord Chorley and the late Mr G.R. Speaker. Many hundreds of people, sitting and standing on the rocks around, watched the slow, careful ascent on Easter Sunday 1936, and when the old man clambered onto the top of the most famous bit of rock in English climbing the crowd below him gave a cheer.

Hackett-Smith had a reputation of never being at a loss for words, and his gift for repartee did not fail him even on this particularly important occasion. 'Tell us a story,' shouted someone from the crowds below, and the old man seated on the spire a hundred feet above their heads replied, in a flash: 'There is no other story. This is the top storey.' This fine mountaineer had climbed in the Alps, Norway, the Pyrenees, North Africa, the Balkans, the Rockies and the Andes, but it was on Lake District climbing that he left his most permanent mark.

He was a man of strong personality a brilliant speaker and a man of wide reading and culture, but often eccentric in his habits and dress.At formal evening functions he would often appear, without the slightest embarrassment in the most careless array, while for outside excursions he would turn out, on the hottest days, in a long, heavy, check tailcoat fitted with huge outside pockets. Nobody can be claimed as the 'inventor' of British rock climbing, but this tattered Old Etonian, with his ragged moustache and a glint in his eye, probably came nearer than anybody else.
Men of his individuality are not so often seen today, and I often regret that I never met him. He was little seen in the Lake District after the first world war and some of the modern generation of young rock climbers have perhaps never heard of him. But his name will be kept green by the little climbed gully named after him, a couple of slim books on climbing, a few articles and Napes Needle. In a way the finest memorial that anyone could have.

AH Griffin: First Published in the Lancashire Evening Post.February 1956.

Friday 4 December 2015

Rough Bounds: Running the Wainwrights.....

Chris Bland points the way from Greatrigg Man-Fairfield.Original photo R Douglas
At 18 minutes to 4 on the morning of Saturday July 4 1981, Chris Bland and a couple of companions trotted through the darkness up to the gates of Lorton church and stopped for a breather.It was the end of one of the most remarkable fell runs ever accomplished, a pounding, punishing, week-long slog all over the Lake District, the equivalent of a double-marathon a day for seven consecutive days, only harder than that because Chris was running on the roughest and steepest ground in England. It was typical of the man — and of the sport — that no fuss was made. Chris went home to bed for a few hours. The local papers gave a few column inches to the run. The national papers and other media made no mention at all. They devoted their sports space to the antics of a young American athlete who had spent the week shouting abuse at the Wimbledon officials. Chris Bland's aim was to 'run Wainwright', to see how quickly he could attain every summit mentioned in Alfred Wainwright's Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. There are more than 200 such summits and the distances between them add up to 337 miles and involve more than 110,000 feet of ascent.

The ground-rules were simple. He would try to knock them off at the rate of one area, one guidebook, a day. Since there are seven guidebooks, it would clearly be neater, and a bit more of a challenge, to do them on consecutive days, so that the whole Wainwright round might be completed in one week. Then he added one further complication. Chris is a churchwarden of Borrowdale church and the church badly needed re-roofing. So Chris was persuaded to make it a sponsored run, all proceeds to go towards a new church roof, and in acknowledgement of this he decided to start each day's run at a valley church and end the day at another. In the best tradition of modern adventure sport, he set himself an outrageously difficult target, then went to a lot of trouble to make it as easy as he could. The routes for each day were worked out carefully. The help of friends and fellow fell-runners was enlisted. They had to make themselves familiar with certain routes or sections of routes. It would be their job to lead the way, to keep Chris going and cheerful, and to carry all the gear.

Chris would travel light, carrying nothing but himself. If the weather was hot, he would run in shorts and a sweat shirt. In the event it was a cool dampish week and he was mostly in his track suit. On his feet he wore a battered pair of running shoes. He aimed to average 3-4 miles an hour, moving in spells of three hours or so, then resting for 20-25 minutes. Each night he would be driven home for a few hours sleep in his own bed in the house he built himself at Stonethwaite in Borrowdale. He did not sleep a wink the night before the big run - he was too nervous, he says. Too afraid of disappointing all the expectations he had raised. He was up before 3 and at 4 minutes to 4 on the morning of Saturday, June 27, he set off from Matterdale church with Chris Dodd. Half an hour later they were on the first summit, Great Mell Fell. The game, as Sherlock Holmes would have said, was afoot.

All went well the first day. All 35 summits in Wainwright's Eastern Fells, including Helvellyn, were visited in a round of 55 miles and over 17,000 feet of up and down. Just before 8.30 p.m. the two Chris's —Chris Dodd was with him all the way —reached Threlkeld church. It had been a 16+ -hour day with four stops for rest and food. Day Two was very different. Judging by the statistics, the Far Eastern Fells should have been rather easier — not quite so far, not quite so much ascent as the day before. Chris got another early start, at 4.35 a.m, but 12 hours later he was struggling. 'I got into the wrong state of mind' he says, wasn't enjoying myself. I kept thinking of the five days still to go. I couldn't see how I could keep going that long'. When the week was over and he had kept going, he came to the conclusion that his big mistake on the second day out was not eating enough: `When you're burning up energy at that rate you have to keep shovelling the fuel in. I soon got sick of chocolate and that sort of stuff but found I'd a great appetite for tins of macaroni pudding and fruit salad.

After the second day I ate tremendously. But on the second day I didn't and I ran out of steam. If I'd rested another half hour and had a couple more tins of food, I'm sure I'd have been able to complete the course' . Instead, he called it a day just before 6 p.m, leaving nine summits un-visited.Psychologically, this was the crunch moment of the week. He was feeling low, disappointed with himself. There was no way now he could hope to do all the Wainwrights in the week. But he decided to press on and do as much as he could. Next day, luckily, was the easiest of the week, southwards along the Central Fells between Borrowdale and Thirlmere, on to the Langdale Pikes, then down the declining ridge to Rydal, a matter of 41 miles and a mere 12,000 feet of ascent. It was done in 13+hours and Chris recovered his spirits. Day 4, by contrast, was to be the most challenging.Wainwright included in his Southern Fells the biggest area of all and the highest mountains, from Coniston Old Man in the south, by way of Bowfell and Glaramara and many intermediate high-points, then west to the highest hills in England, Scafell Pike and Scafell — more than 60 miles altogether and well over 20,000 vertical feet, for most of the way on steep and broken ground.

The Coniston Fells. Painting-Delmar Harmood-Banner
And on the appointed day, June 30, a thick blanket of dank mist covered all the ground above 1,800 feet, turning route-finding into a nightmare task, making it dangerous to move at any speed. Pete Parkins was his companion all that day. They ran into mist on Wetherlam and soon realised they would have to abandon the bigger mountains further south, including Coniston Old Man. They turned north hoping the mist would clear, but there was no wind stirring and by the time they gained the summit of Great End in the late afternoon it was plain that any attempt to reach all the remaining tops would take them far into the night. In the interests of safety and sanity, Chris decided to lose the Scafells and the summits further west and drop down instead by way of Glaramara to his home church in Borrowdale.

It meant more summits missed from the Wainwright canon, in terms of distance and height gained only half the day's programme accomplished. Even so they had been on the go for nearly 13 hours. The next two days were plain sailing. The Northern fells, just under 50 miles, were knocked off in 14+ hours. Then the North-Western Fells, nearly 47 miles and 15,000 feet, took just under 16 hours.

God rested from his labours on the seventh day but there was no such relief for Chris Bland. The last day was also the hardest, more than 50 miles and more than 21,000 feet of ascent. At 7.55 a.m. on Friday, July 3, he left Ennerdale to climb a little-known mountain called Grike. By mid-day he was looking down on Wastwater from the summit of Buckbarrow, the southernmost of the Western Fells. From there the route swung east-wards to take in the big hills of the Mosedale Horseshoe via Scoat Fell, Steeple and Pillar. By mid-afternoon he and his guides were on the stony summit of Great Gable. By early evening they were high above the lake of Buttermere, with the long humpy ridge stretching before them to the north-west and the setting sun. It was dusk when they left Red Pike.

His companions for the final miles were Pete Parkins and John Bulman and they escorted him carefully through the darkness along the smaller summits at the end of the ridge, across the road at Loweswater, up Low Fell and Fellbarrow, then down to the last valley to reach Lorton church with just 14 minutes to spare before the week was up. In those seven days Chris Bland had a climbed 192 mountains, run 310 miles, ascended and descended the equivalent of 99,000 vertical feet — well over three times the height of Mount Everest. And even though the last day was the longest, he found himself going as well on the final slopes as he had on the first. In fact, he found he got stronger as the strenuous days passed. He got heavier too, consuming so much macaroni pudding and other tins of sustaining stodge that he put on three pounds during the week.

On the last couple of days he felt a little soreness behind one knee and a touch of strain inside one thigh but they were not serious and nothing else went wrong. Throughout the whole of his massive marathon, moving at speed over broken ground that was often steep and often slimy, he never slipped and does not remember ever even stumbling. When he a got home each night he had a long soak in a hot bath, ate a big hot meal, then slept for four hours or so. He is not normally good at getting up in the mornings but he had no difficulty that week. Two thing about it give him special pleasure. The first is that it earned him a word though not much more — of praise from his sternest critic, his father.

The other is that all the complicated arrangements for meeting guides and cars, picking up food and flasks, worked perfectly. Everyone and everything was there on time and a lot of people turned up to give extra unscheduled support. When you talk to him about the run, Chris spends most of the time saying how marvellous all his helpers were, how he could not have done it without them, how that should be emphasised rather than anything he did himself. He was driven home on the Saturday morning and slept for a couple of hours. Then he got up to go to Keswick to watch his daughter taking part in a dancing display.

He raised something between £4,000 and £5,000 by his run but not a penny for himself. He did not seek publicity. And when it was all over his only words of criticism were levelled at himself, that he failed on the second day because he ran out of determination. He is not a natural athlete, 40 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, a compact 11-1/2 stone. He took to fell-running some 7 years ago when he found himself sadly out of condition, nearly 14 stone and soon breathless. The sport was just beginning to be popular in the valley so he and his younger brother Anthony and their cousins, Stuart, Billy and David, all had a go. The other four quickly showed great talent — Billy became the British champion — but Chris found that he always came in, as he still does, well down the field. He was fast enough uphill but could not hurl himself down steep slopes with the kind of controlled abandon you need if you are to finish among the leaders.

He carried on fell-running because he enjoyed it, he liked the easy camaraderie of the sport, and it felt good to be fit again. And he gradually realised that what he lacked in speed and agility, he made up for in physical stamina and — more important — in mental powers of concentration and determination which enabled him to go on and on and on again when most men, even the hardest of them, would rather lie down quietly somewhere and die.

He does not give the impression of a man with any compelling hang-ups. There does not seem to be anything particular he feels he has to prove. But he has these qualities, especially, as he cheerfully agrees, this kind of extreme 'bloody-mindedness' and he likes to exercise them. Is he going to have another go at the Wainwright round? `No', he says firmly, 'I'll find something else to try. I've set up a target for better men to beat and my great hope is that the idea catches on and that others come along and do better than me. They can try to beat my times for the five days when I completed the round, or they can try to do the whole lot in the week and see if they can include the tops I missed. I'll be glad to help anyone who wants to have a go' . You get the feeling that Chris Bland is not altogether sorry that he did not succeed completely, that he left room for others to overtake him.

Alan Hankinson: First published in Climber and Rambler: December 1981