A week or so before I was going to make my first attempt on an overly ambitious list of routes I set off on a route called Exponential Exhaustion at Kilnsey. I got passed a technical wall to better flat holds but these were dusty and a minute of flapping found me in mid air. The thread which appeared good exploded when I came onto it and the rock hit me in my ear with some speed. I arrived near the base and Rob Fielding lowered me the rest of the way. He turned away in disgust which made me worry at first that my ear was hanging off but it was only a small hole in my ear. A trip to A&E left me with stitches, a compression strap on my head to prevent Cauliflower ear and slightly dodgy balance for a week or so. It’s still the worst fall I’ve taken and could have been much worse as just before I was going to go for the thread I uncovered a key wire hidden by some vegetation which is what stopped me. I was a little superstitious at the time and took it as a sign not to attempt the solos. This was a good thing as I doubt I would have got close back then, confidence can only get you so far. It never came together again but was always in the back of my mind as; a would have, could have, should have......
When I set my full first list out in March or so I felt a pang of despair. It was considerably watered down than a decade before but still looked ridiculous on paper. I started to work out realistic timings and these made it worse, maybe people were correct about it being a mad idea. It took me back to the book ‘The Life of Pi’ when Pi s dad tells him the story of a karate expert thinking he can fight a Tiger to put him off going near the dangerous animals in the zoo. I was concerned I was being as deluded as the karate expert who obviously gets killed rapidly in the story.
On the Tuesday of that week I arrived in the Lakes feeling a little rough but with fantastic weather and an ace forecast. I headed straight to Goats crag, a tiny crag beyond Reecastle which I’d not been to before. The views back towards Scafell and Greatend were incredible and I did everything on the cliff before heading to the big Goat crag to go up Preying Mantis and stash an ab rope on top. Heading down I did a couple of E2s I’d not done and arriving at a tiny esoteric cliff in the woods named Macs wall was blown away to meet other climbers. Pat and Craig from Carlisle who had known dad. We headed over to check out Millican Daltons buttress which was unfortunately filthy although I did Cold Lazarus for old times sake, this small buttress was removed from my list.
The Wednesday was the key reccy day I’d decided upon, the make or break day, leaving Stonethwaite campsite I was going to run up Langstrath to Flat Crags and work my way back to my car. If I choked or was crawling off the hill the idea was a dud and I felt a little bit anxious about finding out just how pie in the sky the idea was.
I did a load of routes I’d not done before loving Neckband, after 2 cans of coke in the ODG I payed for it with a headache as I topped out on Gimme. On the run between Pavey and Sergeant Crag Slabs I saw 2 red deer enjoying the solitude of the fell top apart from myself. I got down to my car feeling like I’d had one of my best days out climbing. I knew I could do a lot more, having done a lot more running to access Flat crags than I’d be doing when starting from Scafell. The game was on.
Friday morning arrived and I did 6 routes on Grange crags finding more of them in a climbable state than I expected although with agricultural finishes. Later that morning I head up to Reecastle with Ben Pritchard and Rich Heap to get some footage for the BMC. Rich asks if I’ll get lonely. I thought it very strange as I’m happy walking alone in the lakes and am doubly happy climbing alone there. Many of the climbs are like meeting old friends or flicking through an old diary.
The weekend was spent relaxing. Sophie comes up from Wales and we visit my sister, Heather, brother in law, Richard and Godson Thomas. They rent a beautiful National Trust house on the quiet side of Windermere, near where the Swallows and Amazons was thought up. The Saturday night we spend in the CC hut in Grange, appropriately there was a poster of Dan Osman doing a half lever whilst soloing a big flake saying don’t let your fear stand in the way of your dreams. Sunday I drop my car off at Stonethwaite campsite and Sophie drops me at Sheps cafe. Hock picks me up and we went round to Wasdale and had a meal in the Head with Craig Naylor, farmer, climber and grandson of the legendary fellrunner Joss Naylor. We all chose the Cumberland sausage with mash.
We hike into Hollow Stones and set up camp. It’s quiet but Mary Jenner, Mark Greenbank and Keith Phizaklea are on the way down and come for a chat. Dave Birkett is checking out possible new climbs on a hill around the corner. Later Rob and Craig Matheson come along as well. By 20.00 it was only me and Hock, my enigmatic friend I’d known since primary school, who indirectly helped start me soloing. Hock said he’d meet me at Falcon Crag sometime in early 1996, he didn’t. I set off up Spin Up and Funeral Way. From then on it opened up a different world of climbing. Dick Patey was in his mid 50s and lived near the Borrowdale hotel in the 90s. He was fit as sin and I watched him solo MGC regularly and routes like the Bludgeon. We were convinced he was ex-special forces. I used to chat to him about good routes to go for.
I’d brought the tent up for both of us but Hock decided not to, being fond of the stars and sheep he went and slept under them!
CB was the biggest route on the list and in its own way the most intimidating. The 1st ascent of this in 1914 was visionary with the kit they had. Leaving Sansoms shoulders to grovel up the crack before bringing Holland up was some feat which dad would speak of in his lectures in the Moot Hall in Keswick. Mabel Barkers and Menloves efforts were incredible also.
It was the centenary of the 1st ascent this year and I’d read a great deal about the 1st World War and what was ‘involved’. Herford died in it in 1916 at the age of 25. His essay ‘The Doctrine of Descent’ is a brilliant piece of writing concerning mountain climbing.
Starting on CB felt like paying respects and the story and tragedy related to the climb was like fuel.
I track round to Esk Hause and Ore Gap looking back towards Scafell, the East Buttress is in full glory and the Main Face shown as a silhouette. Dropping off Bowfell I arrive at Flat crags, Simon Gee is there and after a quick handshake I head up Fastburn. I run down to Neckband and set about 6 routes. I was only going to do 5 here but looking at a crack at the base called Cut-Throat I thought it looked easy after America. I was wrong, it was dusty, smeary and quite strenny.
I dropped down into the valley noticing some Bog Asphodel and Sundew between the Bedstraw and bracken on the way up to Gimme where I set off up Intern. I 1st climbed this with Alison Iredale in 2001 the same day as the twin towers. I drop down left and set off up Gimmer String. On the top Steve (superfit) Ashworth is there having bivvied on the top. I used to work with Steve and it was great to see him. 15 mins later I arrived at Pavey Ark.
I go up Capella and Poker Face before heading via Cove crag and Bright Beck Cove towards Sergeant Crag slabs. The 2 red deer are there again on the quiet felltops.
Dad found Sergeant Crag slabs in the mid 90s and it gives some of the best single pitch slabs between VS and E2 in the Lakes. He brought me up here to climb my first HVS, Lakeland cragsman. Hock was there having driven round from Wasdale and I quickly do 5 routes before pulling back up the hillside to jog to Heron. The climbs here are small but on perfect rock and it is a great place to visit after Bleak How. After Heron I drop off to Bleak How and Fat Charlies Buttress before arriving thankfully at my car. I’d told myself at this point to pretend I’d stepped into a fresh body and was just starting. I stuck on Leftism, the music of mine and Dans Yosemite trip and if you’re into that kind of thing a contender for the best album to have left the 90s.
I arrive at Goat a short while later and head up Preying Mantis. I first did this with dad who said a friend of his once got his fingers trapped in a fingerjam on the 1st pitch whilst seconding. He couldn’t free them so dad started to go down to him saying he’d have to cut the finger off. His friend freed the finger. Tumbleweed Connection, Bitter Oasis, Mirage and Footless Crow are some of the finest climbs in the lakes.
I head up a few shorter ones before heading to Grange crags. Dad once told me Colin Downer came round the house threatening to beat him up if he did any of Downers lines on this crag. I was curious as to how I’d be on these ones. Sudden Impact and Rough Justice have 5c moves about half way through. I was a bit tired but mainly in my feet. I headed towards Shepherds and the sacrilege of missing out dad’s favourite cliff, Black Crag was not lost on me. I took it off the list a few days before starting but intended to do his climb the Niche later on.
Hock picks me up from beneath and we drive round to Reecastle, a crag in a truly stunning setting near Watendlath the views from its top are back towards Bassenthwaite Lake. There is a small crowd back from the crag. Maxine Willet from the Mountain Heritage Trust has brought the Abraham Brothers camera up. It’s great to see Duncan and Evon Booth with their kids and with them feeling confident enough in my ability that their children won’t see anything traumatic I feel buoyed. Nicole Macgregor, Clare and Henry Iddon are also around the cliff, part of Hocks enigmatic social networking. Two climbers allow me to use their abseil rope speeding up events. It feels warm and I do 8 climbs as fast as I can. Towards the end a climber asks why I don’t do Thumbscrew as he found it easier than some of the others. I’d intended to but was too tired to do it safely. Since leaving Shepherds I didn’t think I’d complete the challenge. Fatigue had properly arrived. I did a pleasant techy E2 on the south crag, Widowmaker and myself and Hock headed up to Goats. Enjoying the smaller climbs I feel like at the end of a long few days sport climbing. Rogue Herries I’d left till last on this cliff as it was the hardest and I didn’t think I’d do it but wanted to pull up to look at the first hard bit, after a minute I commit upwards in what became the only bad bit of the entire day.
Feeling pretty battered I decide to leave Lower Falcon, although it would have been great to do the Niche. At the garage in Latrigg Close we grab a sandwich, lucosade and Hock some tabs before we set off into Thirlmere. This used to be my commute road and as Castle Rock appeared in the evening sun the journey with my primary school friend felt a little surreal and brought ‘The Heart of Darkness’ to mind for some reason. The travel from goats to Castle Rock was the biggest rest I’d had and arriving at the crag I got a 2nd wind. A few routes on the south crag meant a move to the north with 5 routes left to do. I really wanted to do a 3 pitch one, Thirlmere Eliminate and Harlots Face. These routes involved Jim Birkett, Paul Ross, Don Whillance, Joe Brown, Pete Greenwood on their first ascent and were cutting edge for the area at the time. Thirlmere Eliminate went well being a corner at the top you can bridge and get all the weight off tired arms. I think I’d done most of these climb with my friend Wesley Hunter sometime in the 90s, we had a load of adventures and some truly ridiculous teenage arguments on the cliffs.
At 10.15 or so I finished on Angel Highway and was glad I’d had a frenzied hour negating the need for headtorch climbing when tired at the end. I sent Sophie a message. Hock had brought up some bottles of Cumberland Ale and myself, Hock, Simon Gee and Henry Iddon got stuck into them before heading to the Oddfellow Arms in Keswick for another pint. Lucy Wood had made some great food which me and Hock got stuck into sometime after midnight before bed. The next morning I met Hock and Lucys lovely baby, Olive Tinker Hocking. Dave Birkett got in touch to see how it had gone.
I was deeply touched by the level of support given by people both on the day and in congratulations afterwards on what I’d seen as a personal pilgrimage through some great memories of the Lake District. Some climbs were big, some were tiny, some were clean, some were filthy but all were in the most fantastic landscape.
Thanks a lot to everyone involved before, during and after for having some faith in a somewhat out there idea. If you get the chance go and climb in the Lakes. Nice one Hock.
CB Heatwave 95 Shaun & Haley Sleeping with the stars Piers de piece
Wheel of Misfortune Fastburn Gillete direct Razor crack Gandalfs groove direct Sweeney Todd Cut Throat Aragorn Intern Gimmer String
Capella Poker Face The confidence man The futures bright Slab, ridge and arête Nibble nibble Bright Beck Corner Confusion Wall The Tinkerer Little Jack
Asphasia Quicksilver Holly Tree Crack Deathstroke Between the Lines
Heaven knows Im miserable now Flamingo Fandango Big Foot The Question Little Corner Barefoot Joie Pur Traverse of the Frogs
Amistad con el Diablo Bleak How Buttress
Cellulite Cholesterol Corner Supermodel Reassuringly Stocky
Preying Mantis The Sting Paint it Black Zombie in the Dark One Across
Fuel Crisis Driving Ambition Desmond Decker Rough Justice Sudden Impact Red Neck
Mule Train Black Icicle Porcupine Hippos might fly Straight and Narrow Grasp Poop & Clutch MGC Shanna Aaros PS North Buttress Imago Jaws Conclusion Brown Crag Grooves
White Noise Rack Direct Rack Finger Flake Water Torture Bold Warrior Gibbet Guillotine Gauntlet Widowmaker
Mort Balancing Act Light Fantastic Pussy Galore Munich Agreement Optional Omission Nightmare Zone Berlin Wall Stranger to the Ground Rogue Herries
Green Eggs and Ham Reward Romantically Challenged Pinnacle Wall Final Giggle
Harlots Face Thirlmere Eliminate Wingnut Angels Highway