Mama asked me to write up the second half of the week for the visitor’s book. Unfortunately, I got a bit carried away. Too much ‘blather’, she said; and she was right.
On Tuesday morning, after watching yet another rubbishy 20/20 cricket match on a flat pitch in Antigua, we were dropped off by Granny at Ravensgate Hotel, from where we began the steep climb up to Skiddaw. What started as a promising morning, chilly but bright, turned into a ravagingly cold ascent. Even the considerable effort of climbing failed to melt the numbing effect of the Polar blast hitting us full in the face as we struggled up and down the long ridge which led in a half horseshoe to the scree slope in the distance. I was wearing shorts but my legs were relatively warm; it was the cheeks, despite hats and hoods, that seemed most vulnerable.
There was a shepherd at the top of the ridge, leaning on his stick and occasionally bellowing into the wind, while his dog scampered around trying to drive small pockets of sheep down the same path. Looking round, it was hard to grasp how a relatively small number of animals on these fells had ensured not a single tree or shrub should grow.
Scrambling up the scree was hard work, even though we remembered how coming down it on a previous occasion had been even harder. There was already a light scattering of snow, with more falling as we walked. Puddles of ice greeted us at the top, along with the full force of the wind, which was savage. We sheltered behind a small mound of rocks, to eat our sandwiches and drink from our flasks. The lettuce in the sandwiches tasted like thin sheets of glutinous frost; snapping a bar of chocolate was almost more than my hands were capable of.
Our descent began easily enough, heading down the main path to Keswick, even though it was still bitingly cold. The further we went, the sorrier I became for all those passing us on their way up, because they seemed to be coming from a much pleasanter place, judging by their smiles and scanty clothing. In fact, shortly afterwards, as we â€™stepped intoâ€™ that place, it felt like using Philip Pullmanâ€™s Subtle Knife to go from one world to another. Suddenly, the wind had dropped, the air was warm, the sky was blue and the sun shone.
We ambled back the rest of the way, through a glorious autumn afternoon,. Arriving at the Lodge, we spent a long time in the Solarium, thawing out the deeper parts of our bones.
We had difficulty deciding on a climb today as we wanted to conserve ourselves for Blencathra later in the week and yet not to have to drive far, if we could help it. Causey Pike seemed an ideal 4-5 hour scramble; and so it proved. It was another freezing cold morning, with hardly any sun, but the wind was relatively gentle, and we soon got warm as we climbed up onto the first summit, from which we could see our eventual destination in the distance. The views as a whole were pretty good from here, especially of the â€™Newlands Roundâ€™, a picturesque ridge we had walked several years previously.
We reached a plateau of soft grass which would have been ideal to sit and eat on had it not been so cold and wet; as it was, we walked on to the windblown summit, where we gazed around for a few moments, before beginning our descent, eventually finding a small space in the craggy landscape, alongside the path, where we crouched for lunch. As we ate, snow began to fall, lightly at first, then more heavily. A group of three passed us, one by one, each flinging a wisecrack in our direction as he went. One asked if the coffee shop on the summit was still open, another wondered why he had chosen the Lakes rather than the Canaries for his holiday, and the third was concerned to know if it was â€™cold enoughâ€™ for us. Then a lone straggler appeared above, wending his way down on matchstick legs and a pair of fluorescent poles. He reminded me of one of those four legged creatures from the War of the Worlds. His legs seemed to be assisting the poles rather than the other way around.
As usual, as soon as we got back we made a beeline for the solarium. Later, we watched another uninspiring 20/20 match.
Michelle, Chris and I had intended doing a full days orienteering while Olivier, Henry and Edward did rock climbing; but in the event, the day before we were all due to meet up, John White announced that his equipment – his ropes, his maps, everything – had mistakenly been taken to London by his colleague, who wouldnâ€™t be back until the next day; so we headed to Bencathra instead, for another stab at Hallâ€™s Fell, on what looked like it would be a clear day.
We parked at the top of the lane above Underscar, and tramped the few miles to Threkveld. We could see the summit of Blencathra in the distance and it looked distinctly unthreatening. There were no clouds in the vicinity. The sunlight was patchy, the wind strong. But it wasnâ€™t as cold as it had been and prospects seemed good.
We got to the foothills of Hallâ€™s Fell and started climbing. Within minutes, Edward and Henry were far ahead, Olivier, Michelle and I bunched up in the middle, and Chris labouring behind, pausing every few yards to â€™take in the viewâ€™. I tried vainly to remember at what point the going would get seriously tough, but guessed this time it wouldnâ€™t, since conditions were relatively easy.
We arrived at the beginning of the rocky portion and paused, considering whether to have lunch early. Suddenly, there was an almighty gust of wind, which heralded a mini tempest, during which any one of us could easily have been blown off the mountain. The air howled, hurling us from side to side. Holding my Tashkent hat firmly on my head, while gripping the edge of a crag, I looked around and was disconcerted to notice thick, lowering clouds appearing from the East. I craned my neck and peered up at the Summit. It looked distinctly threatening, and was clearly covered with snow and ice. Why hadnâ€™t I noticed this before? And why hadnâ€™t I taken to heart the warning in Wainwright that during such conditions this route was for experienced climbers only.
We decided to head immediately to the top and eat later. We began hauling ourselves up the increasingly slippery rock. I was becoming markedly tense. I had no worries for myself, but I felt a definite responsibility for everyone else, since I had chosen this particular route. I muttered something about â€˜sticking togetherâ€™, whereupon all the members of our party started heading off in different directions. Just then, like a curtain falling, thick mist came down, accompanied by another blast of icy wind.
The next half hour was like a passage into Hell. The rock was slippery, it was fiendishly cold, I couldnâ€™t recognise the path, nobody seemed to know where Edward was, Michelle kept saying she remembered an easier way, the snow was getting thicker, the mist swirled, and I became more and more concerned that we had chosen the wrong day for this climb. At one point, we met a couple of climbers on their way down. Asking about conditions further up, they said it was windier, colder, much more slippery, and visibility was non existent. Huzzah, I thought.
Michelleâ€™s palsied musculature was beginning to worry me. She could lift her leg and shove her foot onto a makeshift step; she could reach up and grasp a couple of handholds; but she seemed unable to translate that into moving forwards and upwards. I hovered beneath her, lending assistance where I could, worried we were getting left behind. At one point, she spied what looked to her like an easier path, and scurried down it before I could stop her. I hurried behind. Needless to say, the path arrived at a dead end. We looked up and behind. Way above us, we saw the outline of Chris in the mist. He beckoned us on, saying the best way was straight up the rock face in front of us.
How we scaled that cliff, I have no idea. Every so often, pushing at Michelle from beneath to winch her upwards, I glanced over my shoulder and saw nothing but sharp, rocky outcrops below us, glistening with wet lichen and pockets of slippery frost. Once or twice, I succumbed to morbidly imagining us missing a step, faltering and then falling â€¦
Arriving at the top – which was still a long was from the real top – we ran into a bottleneck. Chris was on the other side of a gully, with Edward, but Henry was having difficulty. There was a chunk of rock shaped like an elongated horseâ€™s back that had to be clambered over, with a sheer drop on either side. Henry had got half way, then decided against it and came back. As he did so, a Lucozade bottle fell from his pocket and slithered down the mountainside. I said I would get it, before seeing where it had gone, and changing my mind. Olivier slithered across the horseâ€™s back. Michelle followed, but got stuck halfway. Instead of sitting, she ended up lying full length on the rock, unable to move forwards.
Without thinking about it, I climbed round to her side and helped her on, inch by inch, with Olivier pulling from his end. It was like trying to manoeuvre a sack of rubble upstairs. Eventually, she was brought onto sure footing on the other side, and clamoured away. I hopped up and followed her, glancing back to see how Henry was doing. By this time, Olivier was trying to talk him across. I looked at where I had bypassed the horseâ€˜s back, and realised I had basically been standing on thin air, above the route Henryâ€˜s bottle had taken on its way down.. I shuddered, before hurrying on. Olivier and Henry soon followed.
The rest of the ascent was a daze. My neck was so tense – more with worry than effort – I thought a muscle might snap. The only thing that held me together was the certain knowledge that the top of Blencathra came without warning, was almost certainly nearer than I thought, and that once we got there, this time – unlike on the previous occasion – I knew the way down!
We arrived at the top and I gave a loud cheer, which was drowned out by a violent gust of wind. Chris appeared to be on his mobile, making a Stanland call; but in fact he was taking a photo. We all took photos. There was general jubilation. We had made it!
We sped down the relatively simple track homeward. I didnâ€™t entirely relax until we were clear of the mist. Never again, I kept saying to myself; never again.
Needless to say, by the time we arrived back at the car park, all sign of mist and cloud had vanished from Blencathra, which looked as serene as it had at the outset.
ORIENTEERING AND ROCK CLIMBING
I hadnâ€™t liked the idea of rock climbing one bit, but in actuality it was great fun. We carried our kit – helmets, harnesses and ropes – up a fairly steep incline, until we got to the foot of a forty foot rock wall. John clambered round the back of this and attached his ropes to what he assured us were very safe anchorages, while we put harnesses and helmets on. The ropes were then lowered down to our level.
He showed us the double figure of eight knot with which we attached one end of the rope to our harnesses, and the simple but vital â€˜belayâ€™ pulley system that the other end was attached to, which in turn attached itself to the harness of the person destined to remain below. The idea was, someone would climb, essentially under their own steam, while the rope that led from them, up the rock face, through the anchorages, and down to the â€˜belayâ€™ person below, would be kept just short of taut, all the time, so if the climber lost their footing they would have a minimal distance to fall.
Michelle climbed first, with Olivier as â€˜belayâ€™. I was the â€˜Buddyâ€™, which meant I held the rope behind Olivier, just in case. Being the Buddy was fairly simple. Belaying looked a lot harder. Hardest of all, presumably, was climbing, and I couldnâ€™t believe how swiftly Michelle ascended a rock face that was far, far more difficult than the crags she had had such difficulty with the day before.
On reaching the top, the belay person was instructed to ensure the rope was fully taut, and then give the climber the instruction to let go of the rock with their hands,, grasp the rope, lean backwards into space, and â€˜walkâ€™ down the rock face at more or less a fifty degree angle.
This took some courage, and I didnâ€™t fancy it one bit; but when it was my turn, I did it, somehow; and once I had done it, I was keen to do it again. The climbing itself was made much, much easier by the knowledge that if I did slip, I would be safe. In fact, none of us slipped, which was amazing. The worst part was when I was Olivierâ€™s belay man. The pulley arrangement meant that the process of taking up slack and keeping the rope just short of taut was relatively easy. The hard part was lowering the climber down again. It wasnâ€™t physically hard. The strain on the rope was so slight it could easily be held with two fingers. The trouble was, it was too easily held, so I was fooled into thinking that if I didnâ€™t hold it at all it would hardly pass any faster through my fingers than if I only slightly held it â€¦ so, for a brief moment, Olivierâ€™s descent was probably faster than he might have wished.
It was on the tip of my tongue to suggest we abandon the idea of orienteering for the afternoon and do some extended rock climbing instead; but mindful of the potential dangers, and the fact that it was very cold, and climbing in gloves wasnâ€™t possible, and also that we probably needed the map skills more, I kept quiet.
The orienteering turned out to be very revealing. Clearly, there are two ways of looking at a map. One is to see where you think you are on paper, and then to look around the landscape for distant, distinct features to prove this; the other way is to look on the map at more immediate features, adjacent to where you think you are, and then to verify whether they are present on the ground. It turned out, there was a lot of information on a map, including the twists and turns in contour lines, signs for boulders, ruins, minor paths, that I had simply never noticed before.
The key to determining matters with certainty was knowing how far you had gone when walking from where you thought you were to a particular feature.. If the distance travelled equated to the distance shown, then it was easy to be sure where you were. If it didnâ€™t, you would know very quickly. Pacing a hundred metres was a cinch, once we had been shown how. All this, of course, could be done in mist!
We also took bearings. I remembered asking a bloke at the top of Blencathra, on our previous foray there, again in thick mist, for the route down, only to be told, witheringly, to â€˜take a bearingâ€™. This was a bit more complicated than simply looking at a compass, with magnetic North needing to be taken into account; but by the end we managed to find our way to an obscure cairn, across boggy terrain, using only our compasses, pacing out the distance in metres as measured in millimetres on our maps. For the first time I thanked Napoleon for the absence of imperial measurements. Working things out in feet and inches would have been a nightmare.
As dusk fell, we made our way back. It was bitterly cold and I felt a physical wreck. I hadnâ€™t properly recovered from the tension of the day before, on Blencathra; the rock climbing – particularly letting go of the rock and â€˜walkingâ€™ backwards down it – is enough to drain the resources of anyone not accustomed to it. I did feel more confident on the ground, though. As I said to John, it was a rare experience for me to go on a walk and not get lost, but I had never had enough patience with maps to do more than glance at them, before.
As we walked back to the cars, he asked what we had climbed so far that week. I mentioned the various places, ending with Blencathra. His eyes lit up, as he wondered which way we had climbed. Hallâ€™s Fell, I answered. Aha, he said. A climberâ€™s climb. Then he added something about three fatalities on Blencathra so far this year.
Thankfully, we missed the last 20/20 match, in which England were pulverised.