Steeple Buttress

Steeple Buttress

I want to go climbing for the purest motive of all: in order to get a free hat. So its off to the Lakes, dragging Rob Prowse up there for a climbing weekend when he should be packing for his actual move to the Lakes.  We've selected a handful of routes on the Arcteryx Lakeland Revival, and there is a bit of a cluster around Ennerdale, including Steeple Buttress, 'a remote and long climb that finishes right on the summit ... v.diff.' 

The weather forecasts provide detailed knowledge of what we are to expect, but they are also bad, predicting lightning, rain and high winds.  This doesn't suit us, so we ignore them.  We find the following justifications for our behaviour: 1. MWIS is a little bit wussy and conservative to poke people into making sensible mountaineering decisions, 2.  the Met Office is a bit too general and not aimed at climbers, 3.  it simply does not suit the time we have available for going to the hills.  WE have travelled from Norfolk, were the only rock is sold at Great Yarmouth, and if we burn the fuel we are getting out of the van.

Good call.  The weather is nothing like as bad as forecast and we march over the hills to the remote valley.   We make good time to attempt Steeple Buttress on the same day, until we have to walk into Mirk Cove.  Cue a classic mistake.  We decide to contour around the sides of the valley across scree rather than lose height walking on nice spongy grass then meandering our way up to the start of the climb.  
What do you see?  if the answer isn't 'ankle-snapping death' then you're wrong

We lose a load of time and arrive at the base of the climb at half two.  The hillside is shattered and sheer and looks like the elaborate stonework of a gothic cathedral, all buttresses, gargoyles and gutters.  The rock is black and wet.  Cloud swirls around the top. Having used up our stupidity we make a good decision to not start on the climb: at a pitch an hour we would be up there at half eight also known as nightfall.  Nope.  

Rob's ultra lightweight tarp holds up better than you would think to the wind and rain of the night, but if the climb looked a bit wet yesterday, it canNOT be better today.  Still, we think, we'll go and have a look, and take our harnesses ropes and gear anyway.

Yes.  The rock is wet.  But the flesh is willing!  so off we set.  
The route is to the left of the picture.  None the wiser?
Now, I have been guilty of thinking that the grade of V. Diff is frankly a bit beneath me.  After all, I can onsight 7a (I did it once, and not again)!  I have been known to climb E1 and E2 and find them easy!  As it turns out, the difficulty is not in the technicality of the movement but rather in the 'Mountainy-ness' of the route.  

It is a fight up shattered rock with no gear, interspersed with slidy grass.  I run out of rope on a 20 metre pitch because I simply cannot believe that the belay is where it is.   I avoid gear placements which seem pointless i.e. all of them, and the rope drag is so intense I feel like an arrow about to be fired across the valley.

The last two pitches are the obvious crux.  Rob sets out up what looks like friendly enough rock.  The rock is indeed friendly, but the quarter inch of slug slime on top isn't.  Rob climbs while laughing ironically, then sets up a belay swearing manically.  When I get to the belay, I find he has got halfway up the chimney and burrowed into the sodden wet mattress of moss that has been happily growing on nothing stable.  He has unearthed a decent stance, but doesn't look happy about it.  He should, as tying into the gear has clearly prevented him from sinking into the mountainside to a bitterly ironic death by drowning on a sheer mountainside.

There is only one problem.  The chimney he is in is so slimed up that we have no chance of getting up it.  If the way up here was slippy, the way out is positively soap-like.  The chimney to the left looks better, the rock is clean with visible holds, and a clear way up to the summit cairn, where, for once, there might be some appreciative and attractive female hikers to appreciate our clearly heroic efforts.  The only problem with this chimney is that we are not in it.

I can get there, but it means a nightmare traverse - over more slime- and running our ropes over a razor-sharp fin of rock which is serrated like a saw.  If I fall, the chance of the rope cutting and dropping me down the mountain seems unacceptably high.  I step out of Wet Chimney, and across towards Dry Chimney in the best possible place, but it is still not good.  I am milking an undercut jam formal I am worth, while my boots rest on footholds angled like lifeboat launching ramps.  I try and improve my feet - keep moving, look for improvements however small, but trying to accurately place my feet wearing mountain boots is as difficult and pointless as balancing the tip of a canoe on a marble.

I reach across for what should be a good jug, but isn't.  As I move, the cleats skitter, and I cling on with iron fingers to the hand holds.  I skitter my feet and pedal them against the wet glass, this is desperate, desperate.  My feet go, and for a moment I am holding myself locked off, my fingers and my core desperately locked solid.  I get half a foot back on, and it is enough to move one hand up, snatching onto hold as grippable as a dinner plate.  I look down, don’t even notice the drop and find a vague change in angel which is enough to paste the side of my foot on.  Its not enough.  But my fingers don’t care and go for another hold and I am moving up, the rope drags at my waste, trying to pull me back and off. 

I look at what I am standing on.  It is a huge shelf, where an obelisk of rock has fissured and separated from the mountain, filled with rubble.  Normally, I would get out of there without hesitation, but I need some time to get my head back and my breathing rate down.  I have been gibbering nonsense as well, which is bit embarrassing.  Or would be if anyone were to hear it.  There's only Rob and he's about to find out why. 

‘Where are you Pete?  Wave an arm’.  I am back in human contact, which is what I need.  I calm down and head up, and WITHIN A MINUTE the experience has changed from harrowing to deeply satisfying and pleasant.  Rob follows up with an audible sucking sound -sshhhloooop - as the bog releases him, then straight up to the summit.

We head out home across the tops, glowing with a happy sense of still being alive and being able to do this kind of stuff for fun.  Yes, I will be doing another Lakeland Revival Route next year, I have already started looking forward to it.

Oblivious to the views, we pack up.