Friday, 5 July 2013

remember a day

In the summer of 1987, I took my eight-year-old son Siegfried rock climbing for the first time. The climb I chose to take him up is named Corvus and (unsurprisingly given the name) is located on Raven Crag in Borrowdale. It is graded difficult, which isn’t as daunting as it sounds, given that the original grade ‘difficult’ was #3 on a four-point scale devised in the 1890s (‘easy’ and ‘moderate’ are no longer considered proper rock climbs). It is 460 feet in length and was first climbed in 1950. Afterwards, I wrote a fictionalized account of our ascent, which I reproduce below.

Waiting for the bus: nervous talk of hard day ahead. Bus comes. Long journey down the valley. Leave bus at stone bridge over river. Path across rough pasture. After ten minutes of gentle uphill work, path meandering through open wood of gnarled and stunted oaks, the slope falls back beneath their feet. After a few more minutes, gradient imperceptible, they reach small gate in rough stone wall guarding entrance to the combe. The woodland gives way to bracken, coarse grass and heather as path continues through narrow valley, river bubbling on rocky bed below.

The open fellside, friendly as a giant in the summer sunshine, beckons. They pick a way along the rough track, skirting large boulders, sun warm on eager faces. The cliff, their destination, is concealed by shoulder of hill on their right. Rounding this, they stop. The imposing buttress stands, relaxed and easy, against the sunlit slopes of the surrounding hillside.

Feeling hot now. The boy is tired. Path is hard to see as it crosses jumbled scree slope. But they continue. Take wrong path: start to climb too soon. Return, energy wasted. Talk stops during final steep ascent to foot of buttress. Something has changed. The cliff now towers overhead, blotting out the sun. The boy is silent for a moment, then in cheerful voice talks of magnificent view, lake in distance, trees surrounding, more mountains.

The man examines the cliff, looking for way ahead. Narrow gully filled with moss and rushes. Easy, yes, but also wet, slippery and loose. Steep slab on left. Harder, but better option. Eat lunch now, no time later. The man uncoils the rope at base of slab. The boy ties one end around his waist, sits down to watch, and wait.

The man starts to climb V-shaped groove in slab, incut holds for fingers, rock rough for feet to grip. Thirty feet quite easily, then rock steeper. Traverse into gully on right. Good belay on chockstone. He takes stance at start of traverse to watch the boy.

Easy at first, but the boy is soon stuck. The man worries. Is the boy too young? Only eight years, and no experience. Rope tight. The boy stretches out his arm. Fingers curl over sharp edge of rock. Pull quickly. He soon reaches the chockstone. Congratulations. And encouragement—only eight more pitches to go.

“Up there next?”

“Up there next?”

Happier now, the boy points to steep, square corner in left wall of gully. Easier than it looks. Strenuous, but big holds. The man climbs quickly and safely to big ledge. The boy, now confident, follows. Hard work, talk unceasing.

Hard work, talk unceasing.

At the ledge, they pause to study the way ahead. Traverse across face on left, following narrow ledge. Easy, but requires care. They soon reach large rock bollard at foot of long, steep chimney. The boy is no longer nervous. Happy instead, he looks forward to tackling the chimney.

Starting the long chimney.

The man leads on, fingers cold. The chimney has many holds and is much easier than expected. Almost ninety feet to reach another ledge. The boy is slow, tiring already. At last he reaches the ledge. Five pitches remain.

Approaching the top of the long chimney.

The way is easier now, first across wide, muddy ledges, then easy slab. But now the crucial step lies directly ahead.

“The next bit looks hard!”

The boy studies the blank wall above them. Narrow crack leading across. No footholds.

“I’m not sure if I can do this, but I’ll try.”

Committed already. Retreat not an option from this position.

The man crosses the wall, swinging by his arms from crack. The boy follows, surprised to find excitement stronger than fear. The main difficulty now below them, the pair continue. Big ledges between pitches, going much easier.

Easier going: the penultimate pitch.

Now only one pitch remains. Quite steep, but many sharp handholds and footholds. Finally, after four hours, they reach the summit.

Quite steep, but many sharp handholds and footholds.

Sunlight provides its own reward. Relax in warmth. Return slowly to bottom of cliff. His first climb over, the boy is proud of his success. The man is proud of his son. Together, they hurry back down to the road to catch the bus.

The summit. The lake in the middle distance is Derwentwater, and the peak beyond is Skiddaw, one of only four mountains in the Lake District that are more than 3000 feet high.

If anyone is wondering whether Siegfried maintained an interest in rock climbing after this adventure, I offer the following photo, taken nine years later. He is about to make the hardest move on a climb called Gillette Direct on Neckband Crag in Langdale, which is graded extremely severe (E2). It involves relying on an extremely insecure, rounded dimple as a foothold as you reach for a good hold above. I fully expected my foot to slip off at this point, and Siegfried’s did, so that he swung out into space to the left, from where he couldn’t get back onto the rock, so I had to lower him back to the ground. He succeeded at the second attempt.


  1. Absolutely amazing post and with pictures of your son taking part in what must have been a great adventure for him. What a breathtaking view and he must have felt great to be sitting at the top of that rock with you. Some dads would just take their son to the park or down the shops for some sweets whilst Siegfried was climbing mountains. And I'm sure when he went back to school people thought he was exaggerating about what he actually did.

    I was about to ask if he continued to rock climb then as I read further you explained. Wow Dennis, he wasn't joking was he? E2? You must have left one heck of an impression on him. I think I would have needed at least a minimum of 5 ropes but I can only see a blue and red one!

    1. Great for his dad too Rum! I photographed Siegfried on all his early climbs, and I might post some more of his adventures, although they will be accompanied by a more conventional commentary next time.

      One post I do plan to make very soon, provisionally titled A Perfect Day, will be an account of our ascent of what we both agree is the best climb we did together (Siegfried was 17 at the time). Meanwhile, if you haven’t checked it out, there are two photos of me leading Gillette Direct in It’s Ruddy ’Ard. It was the last climb of our most prolific year together, and I’m pleased that Paula was there to take the photos. We have no record other than memories of all the other hard climbs we did together.

      Nowadays, you’re more likely to see us together enjoying yam char at our local restaurant in Fanling.

  2. What an exciting day! I wonder what he was thinking about as he sat on the rock at the top.

    1. I wonder too, but I doubt that he remembers.

  3. The photos certainly reminded you one of the fantastic days between you and Siefried, although it was some years ago...

    1. ...and this is a climb that you haven’t done Paula!

  4. Love the photo of Siegfried sitting on the peak. Does he still rock climb?

    1. Not now Marty. He stopped when he moved down to London to work.

  5. A brave boy he was. You must be proud of him. I always think rock climbing is a wonderful way to appreciate the nature. Glad your son inherits your adventurous spirit.

    1. You are absolutely correct Yunyi: rock climbing brings you closer to the elemental forces of nature. It also strengthens the emotional bonds between those who climb together. I was immensely proud of him.


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