After an appallingly cold day on Scafell Shamrock where we found Silver Lining too wet, too mossy and altogether uninviting, I viewed the clouds gathering over Hollow Stones with some distaste. The usual "Morning after" feeling of a night spent in the Wastwater Hotel did nothing to improve my flagging level of enthusiasm, nor did the chilly wind blowing across the campsite. Pete's face appeared at the rear window of my van and the door was pulled open to admit the cold breeze. "What are we doing then?" The Singer was his usual irritatingly cheerful self but as yet unmelodic. "Not going to Scafell, that's what," I answered, then added with little keeness, "But Gable's clear and I've never done anything on Napes." Wigan's answer to Donald Peers doesn't need second bidding and was off to fetch his gear while I dug about among the dirty breakfast pans, ropes, clothing and assorted "useful items" that no climber can afford to be without and eventually came up with the Gable Guide.
After some minutes spent thumbing through the pages on the Napes, doing my rain dance and voicing my various "ploys for not climbing" my boots were on and we tramped off across the campsite with the Singer in fine form as soon as we began to go uphill. A quick discussion at a point on the Styhead path immediately below Napes and we turned to ascend the fellside directly. Jean, who had accompanied us this far, took one look and set a resolute course for Styhead. What a shattering slog up, almost 1500 ft.; but for once it put a stop to Pete's singing except for occasional bursts. Someone once suggested that he should be made to carry a hundredweight sack to slow him down to a more human pace.
"Right, Tophet Wall for starters is it?" I could only collapse and manage a breathless gasp by way of reply and a full twenty minutes expired before we were roped up at the foot of the Wall. My delaying tactics of disputing the point at which the route begins had worked well! I started up the pitch, a wall followed by an over-hanging crack. It looked horrifying but with a Severe grade it had to be O.K. Feeling weak and lacking confidence I fixed two doubtful runners then a good one in the crack and moved up, then down, up and down again almost in time with the rhythm of the vocal from below.
I followed making my own line in order to be more directly below the belay since the holds were rather small and sloping. From this point we could see the so called Great Slab and vaguely discussed doing the Demon Wall traverse of it before I started up the corner. There seemed no point in belaying 25 ft. further on, so dropping a good runner over a spike continued along the semi-hand traverse. It appeared to be considerably longer than the 30 ft. stated in the guide but has excellent holds, and need I say, plenty of runners. The corner at the end is furnished with some fine loose rock and is in a delightfully exposed situation. I took a belay on an uncomfortable ledge, having failed to spot a bigger one a few feet higher, and called for the Singer.
I noted a lack of vocals from below as the rope came in rapidly and quickly had an answer to this puzzle when Pete's face appeared. "Bloody 'ell that wind's cold. Let's get this finished and get down out of it." The next section looked interesting, to say the least. A fist wide crack formed by what seemed to be a pinnacle silhouetted against the sky with no indication of what lay around the corner to the right. Pete mounted a smaller pinnacle and was at once blasted by a cold wind. A few unprintable comments later he reached the top of the crack and reached round, left hand followed right, two steps in a sensational position seen from my viewpoint and he disappeared upwards into an apparent nothing. "Good pitch that." The usual cheery voice. "O.K. taking in." After a crotch splitting stride to the crack I soon reached the impressive skyline position and reached to the right. An enormous jug came to hand, right foot round, left hand, lean out. So that was it! The pinnacle was actually the end of a flake and round the corner good holds led to a large ledge quite hidden from below.
The final scrambling remained before we unroped for the descent to Hell Gate. On the way down we came across three people and a boy of about five trying to ascend the scree in the face of a shower of debris being sent down by sheep. The boy was in some danger and though his mother was trying to help she was having a difficult time herself. We were joined by two other climbers and the mother called for assitance. After some struggling on the loose steep scree we managed to get the boy to a safer grassy rib. Had he slipped he would undoubtedly have gone a long way down resulting in injuries that don't bear thinking about. These people should have had the sense to avoid such a place since relatives of theirs were climbing on the crag and should have explained the dangers.
Anyway, safety point made, so back to the climbing. The weather had greatly improved in the previous half hour so we moved along to the Needle where with all due respect to Mr Haskett-Smith we decided that Uncle Tom Cobleigh and clan had swarmed over this spire through the years and duly left it to the three who were about to stand on its hallowed summit. At the extreme right of Abbey Buttress I was feeling confident enough to set off up the first easy rocks of our next effort. Plenty of runners as usual and somewhat higher than the guidebook's fifty feet a good ledge on the right with a fine view of the Needle. My brief investigation of the ridge above caused Pete to pause in his latest refrain and ask if I was going on.
"No mate, I'll leave it for you. Looks good though." Deliberate casualness to hide returning lack of confidence. Pete came up and the guidebook was consulted. It proved to be misleading in suggesting that parallel cracks should be used to traverse left as the cracks are best used to move directly up to join the ridge about 25 ft. above the ledge. Silhouetted on the edge the Singer would have made an impressive picture from the top of the Needle, but no photographer was at hand nor a sound recordist! Tin Pan Alley doesn't know what it is missing. Vocals were temporarily interrupted. "Ah, this must be the Eagle's Nest." Another couple of musical moves up then, "And this is the Crow's Nest." Further crochets and quavers from the Minstrel Boy and rope movement ceased. "How are you doing Pete?" The refrain stopped for a moment to let me know that he was taking in. It proved to be a pitch worth singing about. Always a hold when it was needed, steep, delightfully exposed and just about deserving the M.V.S. grade.
Nevertheless one is bound to have respect for the efforts of Solly and Slingsby who made the first ascent as long ago as 1892. I wouldn't have liked to try even seconding in the big nailed boots of their day. Clouds were scudding in along Wastwater by the time we finished the route, which continues by way of Eagle's Nest Ordinary, so after returning to the bottom we enjoyed a fast descent of the scree directly to the Styhead path leaving billows of red dust in our wakes. No sound from the Singer; must have gone through his entire repertoire. Maybe he'll master some downhill songs one day.
Tony Sainsbury: First published in Climber and Rambler November 1975
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