Sunday, 18 August 2013

a perfect day

I have a confession to make: I’m prone to what might be termed ‘impossible fantasies’. One such involves the idea that if I were afforded the opportunity to relive one day in my life, which day would I choose? The possibility might be nonexistent, but the choice would be easy: I would choose 19th July 1996. This is an account of that day.

The Esk Buttress is one of the most exciting cliffs to climb on in the Lake District. It is also one of the tallest, with an imposing central section almost 400 feet high, or 500 feet if the broken rock plinth that forms the base of the cliff is included. The rock is similar to that found a couple of miles away on Gimmer Crag in Langdale, meaning that it is steep but with a reasonable supply of sharp, incut handholds.

The cliff is marked on Ordnance Survey maps as Dow Crag, but by analogy with the East Buttress, higher up the same mountain (Scafell), it has always been known to climbers as the Esk Buttress. It is located in upper Eskdale, faces south and is two hours from the nearest road, overlooking a flat, boggy area known as the Great Moss.

As can be seen from the photograph, the central section, long called the Central Pillar by climbers, is flanked by steep but shorter walls on each side. The first attempt to climb this pillar was made by Alf Bridge in 1932, but after four pitches he was forced to scuttle off to the left by the steepening rocks above.

The leading pioneers of the 1940s, Arthur Dolphin and Jim Birkett, both made attempts on the pillar, but Birkett’s Great Central Climb (1945) dodges the main difficulty by escaping to the right, while Dolphin’s Medusa Wall (1947) is essentially a flanking attack up the left-hand side of the pillar.

By the end of the 1950s, the pillar had acquired the status of ‘last great problem’, which meant that it was attracting many attempts. The problem did not turn out to be one of extreme difficulty; the obvious line was blocked by a series of loose blocks, which would have been dangerous to climb over.

However, in 1962, Jack Soper, who was probably the first climber to dispel the myth of superhuman ability that surrounded legendary climber Joe Brown in the 1950s, abseiled down from the top of the cliff and trundled the offending blocks, planning to return the following weekend to complete the climb. Unfortunately for Soper’s plans, news of his exploits had reached the ears of his former climbing partner Peter Crew in Snowdonia.

Soper co-opted leading Langdale pioneer Allan Austin for his attempt, but when they arrived at the cliff, Crew was already halfway up the climb. However, Soper and Austin did not leave empty-handed. They found two excellent new ways up the left-hand side of the pillar, which they named Black Sunday and The Red Edge. One can safely assume that these names reflected their disappointment at being beaten to the main prize.

The Central Pillar was immediately given a grade of extremely severe, although by the mid-1970s, with the advent of training for climbing, this grade had become so congested that a new, open-ended system was introduced that initially replaced ‘extremely severe’ with five grades, E1 to E5 (there are now climbs graded E10). In this system, The Central Pillar was E2. The 1988 Scafell guidebook described it as ‘a superb climb with some exciting positions’.

The Central Pillar had always been high on my tick list of climbs to do, but I had never led any route of this standard. However, in August 1995, aged 49 and accompanied by my son Siegfried, I finally broke through this barrier with The Tomb, an E2 on Gable Crag, on the north side of Great Gable. Siegfried had climbed his first E1 only two days earlier.

It seemed like a good time to have a go at The Central Pillar, so on our next climbing trip we set off for the Esk Buttress. I thought that it would be prudent to ascend The Red Edge (E1) first, to see how well I was climbing. The Red Edge is one of those climbs that is not technically difficult for the grade, but such difficulties as are encountered are relentless, and the hardest moves come towards the end of a sustained 130-foot pitch, a long way from any moral support that may be provided by one’s second.

However, I bombed up the climb with no hesitation whatsoever. I sat at the top, taking in the rope and thinking about our next climb. When we had returned to the base of the cliff, the following conversation took place.

“Central Pillar next,” I said.

“I’m very tired,” Siegfried replied.

I hadn’t thought The Red Edge to be that strenuous, but Siegfried was only 16 at the time, so I decided not to push the point. Instead, we climbed one of Arthur Dolphin’s routes, Trespasser Groove, which follows a huge corner on the right of the Central Pillar and is a grade easier than The Red Edge. It is an excellent climb, but it turned out to be more difficult than I’d anticipated. I should have consulted the 1967 guidebook, which uses the word ‘awkward’ three times in its description of this route. ‘Awkward’ is, or should be, a red flag.

A few weeks later, Siegfried confessed that he hadn’t really been tired; he had merely been psyched out by the view of our intended route from below, and I do have to admit that the line of the climb does look intimidating. However, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and the positive outcome in this case was that a friend recommended I climb the direct start, which is the same grade as Trespasser Groove. The original route had followed the first four pitches of Bridge’s Route, which is a mere hard severe.

When we finally returned to the Esk Buttress the following year, we had already climbed nine E1s and one E2, so we were going well. We set off early because of the long walk to the crag. It turned out to be the hottest day of what was otherwise quite a poor summer. On our way to the crag, I remember that we passed a stream with a small waterfall, below which lay a deep pool. It was the perfect place to cool off.

The Central Pillar would be our first climb this time. Once we had organized our gear, there was one final ritual to carry out: the ‘performance-enhancing drug’, I used to refer to it as (I always carried a flask of strong black coffee whenever we went climbing, and psychological preparation is as important as physical preparation). We scrambled up 100 feet of broken rocks to a big ledge below the real start of the climb. As we uncoiled the ropes ready for action, I made a feeble joke about this being a ‘fry on the wall’ experience.

The first pitch of the direct start is steep but straightforward, and after almost 100 feet I reached the safety of a small ledge. Siegfried followed without encountering any serious difficulty. The second pitch soon reached the first ‘real’ pitch of the original route, which led to a ledge so small that it was obvious changing over would be awkward, to say the least. At this point, the face that we were climbing is severely undercut by Trespasser Groove, so the ledge feels extremely exposed and precarious.

And then it was time for the first of two hard but contrasting pitches. This one is what climbers call ‘delicate’, meaning that holds are small, and balance is more important than brute strength. Towards the end of the pitch, it is necessary to traverse off to the right, and I spent quite some time, ultimately without success, trying to fix a temporary anchor point so that Siegfried would have the benefit of a rope from above as he tackled the hard moves. He therefore faced a massive pendulum out over Trespasser Groove if he failed to make these moves.

The next stance is too small to be deemed a ledge; it is cramped and uncomfortable, and the rock above is much steeper than what had gone before. The second hard pitch starts with an apparently easy but precarious traverse to the right until a not very obvious line of weakness in the bulging rocks above is reached.

It was obvious that once I started upwards, it would be difficult to rest my arms, but the first few feet, though steep, are not particularly difficult. I reached a small ledge in the overhanging wall, at the back of which was an in situ piton. Despite my scruples about using such things, I clipped my rope into this one because I had no other protection, and I couldn’t see anywhere above where I could arrange more.

There was a large, hollow-sounding block—this is probably where the loose blocks that were removed by Soper were located—but draping a sling over it would have offered only psychological protection. I studied the rock ahead and spotted a large handhold only a few feet above the hollow block. That would be my target.

I grunted and heaved my way up the rock until I could curl my fingers over the large handhold. The problem was that I couldn’t curl my fingers over it. It was rounded rather than incut, and my immediate reaction was to retreat back to the piton to consider what to do next. I didn’t have much time, because I couldn’t rest my arms, so I eventually decided that rounded or not, the large handhold was the key to upward progress. I was right, and after a few more feet of steep ascent, the angle of the rock began to fall back, and I soon reached a big ledge and the end of the major difficulties. Later, Siegfried told me how impressed he’d been by my ascent of this pitch, not because of the technical difficulty but because protection had been so poor, and I’d faced a long fall if I’d come off.

The last pitch was enjoyable but easy in the context of an E2. The first thing I did was to take off my boots. I don’t subscribe to the conventional wisdom that rock boots should be two sizes smaller than one’s shoe size, but they still feel uncomfortable when worn continuously for three hours, the time it had taken to reach the top.

If The Central Pillar had been a cake, then we were about to enjoy the icing. Siegfried wanted to lead The Red Edge, which he did effortlessly. As we made our way down from this second climb, we saw that a large fog bank was rolling slowly up from the south, and we would have to be careful with navigation on our way back to the car. I don’t actually recommend this, but in this kind of situation my rule of thumb is that if you always go downhill wherever possible, you will eventually reach a place of safety, even if it isn’t where you intended to go in the first place.

There was only one other ritual to observe: a pint at the first pub we passed on the way home. It’s always fun to discuss the day’s climbing over a pint, but I have to drive home, so ‘pint’ must remain in the singular. The exorbitant price of drink in the tourist-thronged pubs of the Lake District is also a factor. And so ended what Siegfried and I have since agreed was our best ever day’s climbing together (and we had a lot of exciting days out in the mid-1990s, before Siegfried went on to university).

The Red Edge takes a direct line up the left-hand side of the sunlit section, while The Central Pillar tackles the white-streaked face directly below the highest point in the picture.


  1. Dennis, I must admit I was never so glued to a mountain-climbing narration -I devoured it inch by inch as you inched up the invincible central pillar. Surely a great day in your life! And hey, that was some education for me -both literal and spiritual.

    1. It’s hard to explain the attraction of rock climbing to a non-climber Uma, but it sounds as if I have managed to convey something of the excitement. I don’t think I will ever forget this day.

  2. Heights terrify me so I'm almost certainly never visiting this place...still, that was a good read and it does sound like one of those classic moments to treasure.

    1. The steeper the better for me Big D, as long as the holds are big!

  3. Dennis, it's always fascinating to find out where someone gets their thrills. It's such a personal and intimate thing. What a glorious day that must've been for someone who loves rock-climbing the way you do.

    1. You’re right Marty. Having the opportunity to do so many exciting climbs with my son, many of which, like The Central Pillar, I hadn’t done before, makes it more special for me than if I’d been climbing with friends I used to climb with in the old days.

  4. It's just so hard for me to understand how someone could be climbing a cliff for 3 hours Dennis. I mean, when I have to walk up a load of stairs when the lifts not working, it not only gets me out of breath but my thighs kill me with acidic pain (cramping burning feeling). All that constant concentration you have to do in knowing where to place your hands, where to put your feet combined with all the other things you have to remember. That's what I call sheer hard work mate. It's not like you could stop for something to eat whilst going up. You must have to be super fit to do this but I can see why you had such a perfect day with your son. I would have 'downed' more than a pint too, that's before and after the climb - dutch courage.:)

    I loved reading this although I'd never be seen up there myself. I prefer to stand on the bottom and look up.

    1. As I noted above, it’s well nigh impossible to explain the attraction of rock climbing to a non-climber Rum, but three hours on a climb of this length and difficulty is normal. I’ve taken far longer on some climbs! For me (and Siegfried), a lot of the enjoyment and satisfaction comes from doing climbs that are close to the limits of our abilities, and doing them comfortably. It doesn’t always work out that way, because you never know the exact nature of the difficulties until you’re actually on the rock, but that too is part of the fun.

      I may not have considered having a pint before the climb, but we always had a cup of strong coffee beforehand. That was our performance-enhancing drug; at least, that’s what I used to jokingly describe it as, although I doubt whether it had any real effect.

      The Central Pillar isn’t the hardest climb we ever did together, but it is definitely the best.

  5. This (and to a non-climber) does sound utterly delicious. beautifully written!


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