Paradise Lost and Regained

Paradise Lost and Regained

By Simon Litchfield

‘If you can’t be good, be safe, and if you can’t be safe, be good’. Why then is everything epic this and epic that these days? I’m not talking about boulderers who get a little scared half way up a Diff: that’s not epic, all that is required is a pep talk from Mr. T to stop with the jibber jabber. And I am not talking about getting a minibus stuck in a tunnel, which may have been an odyssey but was certainly no epic worthy of Homer. No, I am talking about proper epics. Proper epics are a bit like STIs. They should be avoided at all costs, they are not enjoyable to have, there is a lack of protection, you think you might die and it’s a relief when you are rid of them. The only difference is that you are probably having fun when you get an STI.

The NUMC Oldies Christmas meet was not epic. Far from it. This bunch of what were previously some of the finest young whippersnappers and cranksmiths around had now settled for girlfriends, boyfriends, glasses of port and walks in the country. Where once a climbing hut would be brimming with so much psyche filled excitement that you could barely hack through the atmosphere with a sharpened ice axe, there was now about as much psyche being exuded from these club stalwarts as a pair of used carpet slippers. Fortunately while time marches unrelentingly forward some things never change. I refuse to join the bumbling bimberlies on their planned walks and Johnny will always be the club’s honorary dogsbody, willing to be volunteered for anything:

Me: Johnny
Johnny: Wot?
Me: What are you up to tomorrow?
Johnny: Erm... why? You know my winter record (Johnny’s winter record is about 100+m of uncontrolled sliding - mostly on his face).
Me: So? You know my record, it’s plastered out there and I have new route which I fancy having a bash on.
Johnny: I’ve not brought my stuff.
Me: That’s ok, I’ve brought spare crampons and axes, I assume you’ve got gloves?
Johnny: Yeah, but I’ve not got a helmet, so fuck you.
Me: I’ve got a spare one of them too, so fuck you harder. Head out at 6.30am?
Johnny: Damn

Sadly for all of Johnny’s enthusiasm the night before, there was no stirring him in the morning. Grant, on the other hand, proved as reliable as ever and off we skidded down the iced up roads to our chosen destination. For some reason, however, he seemed quite keen to question my sanity: ‘Si, do you remember last year when we went climbing on the oldies meet?’ ‘Yeah’, I replied ‘we got to climb the rare and awesome right branch of C-gully in Wasdale’. ‘No, no’ said Grant ‘I mean on the final pitch when the ropes stopped moving and you told me to climb “as Polly will have found a belay”’. ‘Oh how I could not recall it’ I thought before noting the ‘Polly had spent so long on that last pitch that I was cold, miserable and not wanting to spend any more time on that belay’. ‘Well’ said grant ‘I didn’t exactly believe you, but seeing as you just started climbing and threatened to leave me I figured I didn’t have much choice’. ‘She did have one in the end, didn’t she?’ I retorted, but Grants face implied that I was somehow missing the point.

Arriving in the College Valley, we laughed at the prospect of the others missing out on that that rare thing: Northumberland Ice Climbing… and a potentially bagging a first ascent too. Fucking frigging fucking fuck. As I stared into my emptier than normal boot I realised that a momentary distraction when packing my car had meant that everything was in the car except my rucksack, which inconveniently had almost all of the gear in it and was safely still in the hut. Grant seemed to think that going for walk might be a good idea. Surely, I protested, there must be some kit left in the back of my car that we could use and after a few minutes of rummaging we cast our eyes over what can best be described as a ramshackled collection of detritus:
1 pair of axes and crampons, one harness, 1 helmet, 1“Outdoor Scene” fleece, 1 green 14 year old cagoule with the water resistance of a sponge, 3 slings (one of which I was using to hold my trousers up), 1 60m half rope, 4 karabiners and an empty flapjack wrapper.

Grabbing the gear I announced that it’s clearly more than enough for a days climbing, before turning and marching off up the burn. Somewhere behind me protestations along the lines of actually needing protection were audible. Did Alexander, Clough Pipes and Shaw complain about the lack of shiny technical gear when cutting steps on the first ascent of Point 5 Gully? No. If they could protect a grade V(5) in a distinctly non epic 6 days with a fire poker, then we can go and enjoy some epic-free climbing. Blasting up burn I could feel the rage and hatred of not having my pack slowly turn into burning desire. I had spent the summer high on the Cheviot developing the highest and oldest crags in Northumberland. I knew every nook and corner and when the North Eastern Buttress came into view I knew it was on.

I had made the first ascent of the buttress a few months previously, and realising its potential as a winter line, had only cleaned it sparingly. With wide frenzied eyes I looked up the snow plastered line with excitement. Grant on the other hand looked nervous – he had just been lashed to a large loose looking block and his stare was clearly questioning the merits of the ‘harness’ that I had fashioned for him out of the end of the rope. A pep talk was in order:

‘Right then, as the lead climber I’ll have the helmet, so if I do fall off you should avoid putting your head under my crampons. Afterall I might need you to carry me back to the car... oh and if you were wondering about mobile phone reception... there is none.’

Perfect. That should do the trick, I thought as I set off up the starting crack. One positive torque and a reach later and I was comfortably in a niche on a great hook. Having ascended the route in summer, it felt a bit like cheating as I knew what was coming next. There was going to be a tricky reach left followed by a naughty mantleshelf. Time for some gear. Unclipping a sling I tied a knot in each and placed them in the crack next to my pick. Two knotted slings placements and only sling and one karabiner used. Grinning at this top result I climb back down to Grant and explain that cord stuffed into an icy crack is loads better than metal protection. For some reason he gave me the same look as when I told him that Polly had us on belay.

The reach left went without too much difficulty but the placement in a shallow half centimetre dip behind a rounded boss didn’t look or feel great. Telling myself that I am on something good, I dare not look again. Instead I tried focussing on how I was going to get my feet on the same pick placement above my head. An inevitable stalemate ensued. ‘Commitment that’s what I need’. Admittedly that was quite hard to do when trying to neither look at the pick placement to the left nor the ‘protection’ to the right. Torquing my right axe horizontally in the crack I tried a semi-Egyptian. It was just enough to get my foot next to my right axe. Removing the torqued right axe I desperately scraped away at the snow covered blank rock above in the knowledge that I was now fully dependent on my right foot and poor left axe holding. Eventually the very tip of my pick caught on something. I had no idea what, as the rock looked completely blank, but it had bitten on something. Not daring to re-adjust and look at the placement I pulled, trying to keep my axe as steady as I could as the smallest of movement would have unseated the pick. I managed to scrabble to my left foot next to my left pick and I was then fully committed as I rocked over to stand on the boss and remove the pick.

Breathing a sigh of relief I realised that my elation was short lived. I had forgotten that the mantle was then followed by one of those semi-mantles were you have to put your faith in your feet. Hoping to be able to reach further with an axe I scratched round for a placement but couldn’t see even the minute rugosity that I had used to get to this position.  Nothing. My left axe was on an enen more sloping ledge at chest height and sweeping the snow off the ledge I was horrified to see that my pick was not on a rock structure but on a couple of millimetres of hoar ice crystals. Looking down I could see the side of the valley fall away steeply down to the floor. A fall from here would have been unthinkable: about double the route length onto knotted slings. ‘Are you ok Si?’ I dread to think what Grant must have been thinking: it must have been hard to stay calm knowing that the consequences of one slip by me would be castration from cheese cutter harness he has wearing. ‘It’s probably best I say something’ I thought: ‘Yeah its fine, just a bit committing’. I scraped nervously again, in the hope of finding an obvious hold. I couldn’t reverse the previous move, untying and getting Grant to lower a rope wasn’t an option as he had no gear and I knew that the nearest convenient block was about 45 meters away from the top of the crag. My mind wandered and I imagined the headlines: Darwinism Proven as Ice Climber with No Gear Fails (what was he thinking!?).

Snapping out of it, I needed to formulate a plan. To the left I could see tufts of turf at foot and shoulder height. They appeared miles away, ‘but there must be a way’ I thought. Abandoning attempts to use my right axe, I cupped my gloved hand around the sloping end of the ledge and taking my left pick off the poor sloping ledge I swallowed hard. Taking it off felt nice as I could shake out. In doing so I watch the last few crystals of ice that had given the placement any stability crumble away. The prospect of having to return to that position was grim, but focussed the mind when reaching to my full extent left, managing just to get my pick into some turf. It was airy and heathery and ideally it would have been better, but it was the first real placement that I had had in a while. I was in extremis, crucified between a gloved sloper and a pick in airy heather. Pulling on the shaft of my axe, it felt like it should hold and really I had little choice. Simultaneously I swung my left boot towards the low turf and let go of the sloper, in a barndoor come dynamic move. With my right boot coming off the boss I grabbed my axe with my right hand and aimed at some more turf above. I am reminded that climbing is amazing and that even during times of great dynamism and wildness, you can feel a sense of real control. Sanctuary had been reached but for those few moments I had felt truly alive. The rest of route passed, as expected without incident up snow covered ledges and elated I top out.

Route in the bag, I suggested heading to the summit of the Cheviot. Soon we found ourselves in whirling winds with snow surrounding us, covering our tracks. For once we were in agreement that it was about time to call it a day. Back in the warmth of the hut our stories of bravery were retold and a bottle of port was handed to me. ‘Why not?’ I thought, ‘and let’s face it we all enjoy taking our winter boots off as everything then feels like a comfy pair of slippers’. For a fleeting moment I thought ‘perhaps it’s not such a bad thing afterall’. Until next year at least that is, when once again I’ll be doing my best to keep avoiding epics. So remember kids if you can’t be safe... at least be good.


Remarks for the non native speaker:

STI ...sexuell übertragbare Erkrankung (Sexually Transmitted Infection).

 NUMC (Oldies) = Newcastle University Mountaineering Club (Absolventen)
Pep talk = Motivationstraining mit aufmunternden Worten.