'Agree With Everything - Deny Nothing - Embellish All

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Gillercombe Buttress (Severe)

We were driving down Borrowdale towards Seatoller, the Bearded Lexicographer, the Actor-Manager & I, when we spotted the first of the open-top buses. Yes, an open-top bus plying for tourists in what is officially the wettest place in England. We then found ourselves behind a more-than-usually slow coach all the way up Honister Pass. Our objective: Gillercombe Crag beneath Grey Knotts in the spectacular hanging valley above upper Borrowdale. The Lexicographer had promised an ascent of Gillercombe Buttress, a particularly fine route at a grade I'd not encountered in years. Luckily my companions were far more experienced - both in severity and recency. We walked in from the slate mine atop Honister, making a long, gentle traverse into the combe, watching clouds gather over both Green Gable before us and Glaramara beyond Base Brown. The day was supposed to be fine, but the air was cold with a ghostly damp hanging about the rowan trees that split the crags.
Gillercombe Buttress is a beautifully contrived route, a grand, open series of pitches that reward positive movements without ever relying upon the sheer upper body strength which has always eluded me. The Buttress is split by a deep vegetative gully and the route follows the arete on the gully's right hand side, occasionally swinging out over the gully wall to turn a block, then snaking back across the buttress's face in bold zig-zags. In between there are a couple of quiet pitches of easy-angled slabs, but the line always returns to the edge of the gully, taking you up then forcing you out onto the nose to turn an overhang then returning to a narrow ramp that takes you back across the face. The Lexicographer was positively salivating with anticipation. The Actor-Manager, who concealed considerable experience beneath his protestations of 'only getting out on the crag about once a year' maintained an enigmatic silence about climbing and regaled us with tales of walking across Morecambe Bay. Terribly flat, Morecambe Bay.
The Lexicographer led off up the first slabs and around the corner at the gully side. Then the cry of 'Safe' came down and after a few minutes I followed him, as the weakest member of the party, on the end of two ropes and trailing a third, under strict instructions to unpick selected running belays from blue and green and clip the trailing red into those that would then protect the Actor-Manager. Soon I turned the corner, swung out over the gully side and found myself face to face with a grinning Lexicographer who was sitting on a wide ramp fifteen feet above, securely belayed. Soon the Actor-Manager joined us and we turned our attention to the first of the zig-zags, a thrilling pitch that traversed right and left up the buttress face. This was the point that the Actor-Manager and I ran into a little local difficulty on the rope-management front and spent a merry ten minutes disentangling ourselves before it was safe to proceed. Further up on the fourth pitch we encountered what for me was the highlight of the day, a nice little 20-foot chimney with enormous holds that positively encouraged ambition and speed. Things were going better than I'd dared hope.
But Gillercombe Buttress has a most piquant sting concealed in its tail. The sixth pitch, just after an easy scramble up big and beautifully striated slabs, takes you out onto the lip of the gully again. A step left from a big flake leads onto a difficult groove that disappears upwards into a corner. The Lexicographer gallantly offered this last lead to the Actor-Manager who racked up with gear in an insouciant manner, hauled himself up onto the groove, scuttled upwards and disappeared. Time passed. The clouds began to move off Green Gable. Wind blew across the buttress. The Lexicographer and I made conversation, thought better of it, fell silent and then began to trade opinions about the weather. Cloud enveloped the crag. Moisture appeared in the groove. The rock was darkening. Suddenly, the groove and the corner above it looked far more intimidating than I had judged. Getting up and onto a reliable handhold in the first ten feet was going to require some skill. After twenty minutes or so a shout came down and the rope was taken in. I stepped onto the flake and started to climb.
Apart from an early instant of sheer terror achieving that first hold, I scampered up to the corner and turned it with an ease that surprised even me. I had no intention of hanging around psyching myself up for a move by getting colder and damper than I already was. When I pulled myself over I saw the reason for the delay: the Actor-Manager had very considerately set runners over a hundred feet or so of slabs above me and was sitting on a grassy bank just below the top of the crag looking terribly nonchalant. I soon joined him.
And that was Gillercombe Buttress, a beautiful climb I'd strongly recommend. I'd also recommend the Tag Lag Ale and Haystacks Beer from Hesket Newmarket Brewery with which we celebrated down in Borrowdale an hour or so later.


Blogger Lex said...

Damn it, man, have you no photos??

18/8/05 5:03 pm  
Blogger Nick said...

Lex - a perfectly fair request. Sadly not of this expedition, though I'm sure we can arrange for future exploits to be lavishly illustrated in full colour. (There are a few photos in existence of a yet-to-be-blogged trip the Lexicographer & I made to a limestone edge in the Pennines last week - including one of myself failing to get off the ground & onto a very hard overhanging layback. Great humiliation.)

18/8/05 5:53 pm  
Blogger Irene Adler said...

You are all heroes.

What a beautiful description. I thought I was there with you.

18/8/05 10:24 pm  
Blogger Nick said...

Irene - thanks for the good words about the writing: glad you enjoyed it. Though I'm not sure there's much heroic about an essentially self-indulgent pastime . . .

18/8/05 11:43 pm  
Blogger RenMan said...

I may be forced to come along has the official photographer. I don't do ropes and going up stuff.

20/8/05 9:28 am  
Blogger RenMan said...

my hapologies - I fell hinto the Cumbrihan H problem hin the last comment. Wud you like ha hegg?

29/8/05 9:38 pm  

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