The fifteen Lake District climbs from Ken Wilson's book 'Classic Rock' in one unbroken independent journey on foot. Done by Mandy Glanvill and Julie Carter, June 2021, in celebration of Mandy's 50th year of climbing and the centenary of the Pinnacle Club for women climbers. For more on the Pinnacle Club Centenary see www.pc100.org.
"What should we do now?"
No reply from Mandy. Words weren't really needed from my partner of thirty years. Neither of us wanted to accept the disappointment of going home before even setting rock boot on the first climb. A little over an hour earlier we had left Coniston with a good forecast. We were now sitting under Murray's Route on Dow Crag in a thick mist and somewhat nonplussed, with water running from the route. We had the first of several discussions about the difference between a wetting mist and actual rain. Like most things in life, it's a grey area. Staring at the route didn't seem to make it any dryer; positive thinking has limits. It's slabby (I hate slabs) and very polished (everyone hates polish) and the most unsuitable climb do in the wet, but we couldn't just go home, so I made a start. We slowly slithered and slipped our way up doing very short pitches as bravery was quickly expended. Our friend who had given us a lift and walked to the crag hollered up encouragement then wandered back, taking our dog and muttering to it about our madness. The climb took ages, but we got up and even kept the rope on for the easy scramble descent. Not the start we were hoping for.
It was already lunchtime when we strode off through the muggy mist on the long walk to Gimmer. A handful of men have completed this challenge but they are all good fell runners and climb high Es. They ran between routes and mostly soloed the climbing. When I said I wanted to do it Mandy was quizzical:
"How's that gonna work?"
Mandy does not run at all. We are getting on and only climb about VS these days. It would be impossible for us in 24 hours. But that didn't mean it was impossible. We'd have to do it our way. A map was stuck to the back of the wardrobe door for a couple of years. The plan brewed. Then the Pinnacle Club centenary inspired us with some of the pioneering spirit and it seemed like we had to try.
It was late afternoon when we heaved up the final steep slog to Gimmer. Our legs still tired from a single-day traverse of the Cullin Ridge the previous week. Gearing up under Ash Tree Slabs, praying for the team in front to hurry, I didn't want to look at the sky. The air had suddenly changed from clammy and still to cold and windy, and it was obvious a storm was on its way. I led up Ash Tree fast in one pitch and Mandy was up in a jiffy and traversed over to Bracket and Slab. We lowered down to get the first pitch in and led on in turn, trying just to climb and not think of what was going to happen next. I was glad I knew the bracket is not as fearful as it feels when you commit to an initial launch across it. Glad also we knew about the right-hand chimney near the top, the left-hand one being correctly described in the guidebook as "for thin masochists". C Route would be a challenge in this wind, which had me off my feet on the top belay ledge. It wasn't raining yet but the world had gone black.
"Don't give up until we have to" had become our philosophy. Mandy lowered me down and with 50m of rope out, a large proportion of it pulled taut out sideways by the gale, I was freezing and scared. I should have put some gear in on the way down. I'd just have to climb it, slow down, be careful, stay on at all costs, while Mandy and the wind competed for taking in the rope. I topped out a little shaken but it still hadn't rained.
A tired bog-walk to the oh-so-welcome tent which I had put up at Angle Tarn the day before. Then a rainy, wind-lashed night, a leisurely breakfast and a sunny ascent of a damp and very crampon-scratched Bowfell Buttress. This was one of my first ever multi-pitch leads getting on for four decades ago. I loved it then and I love it still.
Scafell was next on the list, but it was too baltic and the rock would be wet. We opted instead for the long walk to Pillar via Styhead, under the Napes, around Kirk Fell and along the Robinson cairn path to High Man. New West Climb was the only route which neither of us had done before and it was the epitome of a three-star mountain V. Diff. Lovely. Rib and Slab was a different story. The crux groove feels desperate to me for Hard Severe and the upper pitches are wild. I had everything on and belayed in mittens, but the evening light on the Ennerdale drumlins would melt anyone's heart. We reversed the walk to Styhead. Our tent had moved 2 miles and been repitched there by a fell pixie (the only assistance we had). Dinner was late, breakfast was early.
A wonderful day on Scafell, which began to feel like a normal day climbing, and we relished the feeling of those routes, Jones' Direct and Moss Ghyll Grooves. Talk about quality. And those pioneers a century ago putting them up. That was commitment to adventure – that was love of climbing. Full of respect and happiness we made for the tent, looking forward to tea, along the corridor route, easy street – not so fast! With a bar of reception on the phone came an unequivocally bad forecast and soon the wind was up again and the sky was clamping down.
"Quick! Run to the tent and get the torches, I'll take your sack, catch me up on the Nape's path, we'll have to do those tonight."
Mandy was indefatigable. Tired-legged and lamenting the loss of rest and tea I complied and soon was gasping trying to catch her up near the bottom of the Needle. Westmorland's Crack soon slowed me down – oh god grief the polish. I clipped the in-situ gear on the belay wondering how we would top-out in this gale. Mandy wobbled up to the summit and wobbled back down leaving a nut on the lip. It felt scary and I was delighted when we got off it and we scuttled up 100m long Needle Ridge in 2 pitches.
The weather was on repeat from the previous night. Black, windy and cold, but slow to rain. Scrambling down Hell's Gate was like entering a fierce kind of underworld; I was blown over, got up, and was blown over again. I couldn't/wouldn't set off up Tophet Wall at 10.30 p.m. in this.
"It's a no from me, Mandy."
In reality, we both knew we were at the point of having to stop, but the thought of having to do it all again another time was as flattening as the wind. Mandy said nothing. She sat down and consoled herself with a chocolate biscuit, but I have never seen anyone look that disappointed, ever. Then it rained and back at the tent we were too tired to eat. But sleep was lacking too. We spent the night willing the next gust not to destroy the tent. The rain which did not stop until 7p.m. the next day came in, but the tent stayed up. Then by the morning after, the sun was out and so were we. We had walked along the Napes path five times by now. Some would call that inefficient; we called it adaptable.
The best way to climb to Tophet Wall is at 7a.m. on a summer morning. Hard to think of anything more gorgeous and Hell's Gate was a kind of heaven that morning. The best time of day in one of the best places on earth. Off we went along to Black Sail Pass and Moses trod, over Brandreth and homeward bound. Leaving our sacks at the top of Gillercombe Buttress, my joy was tempered by the familiar pain of my back going. Soldier on. Mandy led like a train and we overtook 7 people, all of whom were happy to let us through. Mandy then insisted on carrying almost everything down over the Honister road and along past Castle Crag, where we chatted to my mother, whose ashes are there. At Grange the café was open. Best ice cream ever!
Troutdale Pinnacle is so familiar, we know every crack and move but I was moving more like a board than a climber. Then just Little Chamonix, joined by our long-time friend Fiona Garry who hitched a ride on the rope and gave us a beer afterwards at the bottom. We sat drinking in the sunshine and this familiar world, and the view over Derwentwater towards our house near Keswick. It was amazing. It had been amazing. It is amazing - that two little mortals can have such a stand-out experience, right here at home.