From my heart in Borrowdale

© Elizabeth Stephenson

Elizabeth Stephenson writes about Borrowdale and climbing, and what they have given to her.

I wonder as people drive down this valley if they feel the same connection I do?

View from Goat Crag, Watendlath  © Elizabeth Stephenson
View from Goat Crag, Watendlath
© Elizabeth Stephenson

Peering out the window of the car to look for familiar angles in the rock, my mind jumps to the time I was lowered off Wild Sheep into the broad arms of the oak tree below, or the tentative steps across the absorbing traverse on Ardus. The history in this valley is hard to grasp, to think how many hands have touched the same rock I have, I feel inconsequential, my name wonderfully unknown.

As I watch the paintbrush of autumn gradually sweep across the valley this year, I'm struck by the role it has played in my progression as a climber. Between the vibrant oranges and softly decaying greens that flow seamlessly into the reflected surface of Derwent, my mind skips along the hours I've spent creating shapes on these rocks.

Borrowdale is where I did my first VS, an unheard-of stretch of rock, there's nothing famous about Ambling Ant, VS 4b. But to me, that route is liminal. It marked the first step off the Hard Severe ledge that I'd been trembling at the edge of for so many years. Self-belief a chasm, fear and inadequacy narrating the internal monologue that viewed myself as someone who couldn't really climb.

I look back and try to recall the time my self-belief as a climber started to change; I can tell you when I did my first HVS, my first E1, but if I asked you exactly when Borrowdale blazed with an ochre glow, you wouldn't be able to tell me the date autumn came.

What imprints have these experiences left on my rough palms and slowly shifted my identity as a climber?

Swift paying loads of attention to the definitive Borrowdale guide...  © Elizabeth Stephenson
Swift paying loads of attention to the definitive Borrowdale guide...
© Elizabeth Stephenson

Perhaps it's the people I've climbed with?

My life has been infinitely enriched by the variety of people climbing has brought into it, the knowledge passed on and laughter shared. Moments such as abseiling off Bowderstone Pinnacle in the dark with Rachel cemented my prusik's home permanently on the back of my harness, a low consequence lesson as she fortuitously had two. I admired her steady head as we lowered down a tree-filled gully, late home for dinner yet again (apologies to my eternally patient mother) but fulfilled by the after-work escapade.

Days with friends newer to climbing sometimes surprise me with how far I have come. Climbing Little Chamonix earlier this year, encouraging Ash across the tremulous steps onto the glassy slab, I found myself wondering where the girl who nearly broke down in tears leading this route a couple years ago went? Later in the summer, a poignant moment occurred ambling around on Donkey's Ears with my partner when I heard a young woman struggling similarly on Little Chamonix. I walked over and met her at the top to offer some words of encouragement, her blotchy face laying bear the fear she'd experienced. I told her I'd once cried on that route, but now lead it with steady confidence, promising her it does slowly get less overwhelming.

The support I have been offered by other climbers leaves a lasting impression on me. Climbing with a good friend Jammie (the same day I was lowered off Wild Sheep on second after pinging off, dangling in space with no way of regluing myself to the overhanging), I remember her saying 'your gear is bomber, now you just need to start falling on it'. Advising how she found the switch into E1 territory a hard step to make but one she felt I was ready for. Words of encouragement from my partner Sam, spread over many years, have been invaluable - his confidence in my ability to lead certain routes often outstripping my own.

People aside, my identity as a climber stretches beyond those I tie in with; the environment I get to immerse myself in and share with them helps fill the well I feel in this detached society. 

Time spent outside in all weathers is to me like a roaring hearth to cold bones. Cold crisp winter days, sweaty summer trad or running home as Borrowdale lives up to its status as the wettest place in England, all bring different types of joy. The post climb dips in Derwent in summer and winter, letting the water envelop my chalky, aching bones, are an integral part of my wellbeing.

Wintery Dip in Derwent  © Elizabeth Stephenson
Wintery Dip in Derwent
© Elizabeth Stephenson

Climbing focuses my mind on the land I inhabit more acutely than any other experience I have found. When my innate inhibition to falling is honed on the few centimetres of rock below my nails, I gain, each time, a newfound appreciation for the diversity we are surrounded by in nature. The intricate fault lines, sharp crimps with tiny plants sprouting out the cracks, glints of quartz that split the rock and the mottled patchwork of lichen whose absence lays clues to the route.

The opportunities that climbing brings to visit far flung outcrops I would otherwise not venture on, and the closeness to nature it facilitates, have led to a secure sense of belonging. Allowing me to push my grade harder or simply enjoy being outside on days when feeling scared doesn't take my fancy. Being below a piece of rock feels like a different sort of home, one not sheltered from the elements; instead embracing them, marvelling at the creatures that also make this land their home. Be that the tadpoles wriggling about in the bottom of Dalt Quarry, their teeny black forms bright with the spark of a life just starting (child-like delight ensued when I returned to find the quarry teeming with frogs smaller than my fingertips). Or the company provided by the slugs that have joined me on many a climb, seemingly grinning at my efforts while they slither effortlessly upwards. Perhaps though I could leave out the ants at the top of Shepherd's…

Climbing has set both my body and mind on a path that has brought many joyful and unexpected changes, broad shoulders I've grown fond of aside.

Exploring my favoured climbing styles on a golden summer's evening at Goat Crag, Watendlath, Son of Oz sparked a love of jamming in the compelling corner that splits the crag. The light on the fells danced joyfully in the day's dying glow, mirroring my gratitude to this valley during lockdown, seeking the release it has on the knots in my head.

View from Goat Crag, Watendlath  © Elizabeth Stephenson
View from Goat Crag, Watendlath
© Elizabeth Stephenson

Noticing the knowledge that accrues over time on an after-work evening out with Julie, where experience reached down and placed a headtorch in my pocket, guarding us as the sun set faster than either of us expected. As we pattered about in the dark on Quayfoot, I marvelled at the trust we place in our bodies and the familiar movements over rock that accumulate in our muscles. The start of a poem popped into my head as I waited at the belay ledge on Aberration whilst Julie admirably dispatched the second pitch in near total darkness.

Aberration by night

As darkness sets in Borrowdale,
we climb,
mouse-like, beneath a shroud
as stillness rests,
between the trees,
the valley edge a place to breathe

Pittering gently 
up the cracks,
the soft pad of rubber on rock
betrays our twilight escapade

Jangling voices 
muffled in damp wisps of cloud,
"I'm safe, Julie"
floats down with soft pink embers

of a dying day
mirroring pale streaks
on Skiddaw's slopes,
that fade and give way
to an inky cloak

as shadows give chase
to deftly made moves,
alone but for thoughts 
on dusk-lit edges

Dark now, 
footholds hidden,
relying on a lifetime of movement
to trust hands will stay
on cold but familiar rock

Breathe in, breathe in 
and out
darkness isn't sharp 
if you let it hold you

fold it
round your edges
knead it
between your hands
feel it
in the quiet noise

of two lithe figures
scampering up the rock

Borrowdale still,
dark in night

Learning to love what my body can do, rather than holding onto the way it looks, has been one of the biggest gifts that climbing has given me.

Memorising the feeling of rough rock below my palms, the finger-snatching cracks at Steel Knotts or the glassy footholds I tried not to let my fear linger on as I bridged my way up Conclusion at Shepherds. Treading that fine line between being both on and off the route as I pulled through the crux - just managing to maintain a thin film of friction between me and the rock. It's an unending dance of movements that I go back for time and time again.

Conclusion, E1 5b, at Shepherd's Crag  © Elizabeth Stephenson
Conclusion, E1 5b, at Shepherd's Crag
© Elizabeth Stephenson

In contrary to the name though, my climbing isn't 'concluded', it's only just starting. Little by little, these gradual changes sneak up on me, coalescing together as autumn drapes an oak in gold.

But just like an oak I am still growing, coming green again each spring, shaking out the shared ache of limbs from a winter of snow and ice.

There's so much I have yet to learn, a comfort zone I still hem with lingering doubt, a lifetime of learning from the land still ahead of me.

I know I'm far from alone in being moulded by these experiences. The title of this piece comes from a poem of an early Pinnacle Club member and pioneering climber Mabel M Barker, the final stanza of her poem, Borrowdale, reads:

"From my heart in Borrowdale
The rowan trees shall grow:

I shall be undying in the earth I know".


I feel a strong sense of attachment to this land. It's where my head goes when it needs to pause, contemplating the emotions of fear, joy, exhaustion, and elation that I've shed over the rocks that shroud its edges.

Anchored in these moments, Borrowdale changes, and so do I.

View into the back of Borrowdale from Goat Crag, Watendlath  © Elizabeth Stephenson
View into the back of Borrowdale from Goat Crag, Watendlath
© Elizabeth Stephenson

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Elizabeth_S

Mentioned in this piece:

Wild Sheep (E2 5b), Ardus (VS 4b), Ambling Ant (VS 4b), Bowderstone Pinnacle (S 4a), Little Chamonix (VD), Donkey's Ears (S 4a), Dalt Quarry, Shepherd’s Crag, Goats Crag, Watendlath, Son of Oz (HS 4c), Quayfoot Buttress, Aberration (VS 4c), Steel Knotts (Borrowdale), Conclusion (E1 5b).

16 Nov, 2022

thats rather lovely

16 Nov, 2022

Great writing, I think Little Chamonix holds a special spot in many climber's heart. I on sighted it, soloed it and once used it as a downclimb. I fell of Conclusion though, nearly splattered myself as the one cam slipped down the crack catching on the very edge of the lip. Troutdale Pinnacle is another mega classic.

16 Nov, 2022

Fantastic writing & such a lovely article

17 Nov, 2022

Great read well done and right up my street

17 Nov, 2022

Borrowdale has also meant a lot to me – and continues to mean something more that makes my heart constrict in my chest.

I was there just the other day, leading a small party of Italian relatives, the family of my partner, Benedetta. We parked at the bottom of the valley. Langstrath and the high coombes were full of mist and the light slanted through in big sheets of pale blue and silver.

The Italians were fascinated with the pillows of moss on the drystone walls and the peculiar Englishness of the damp cottages. I tried to point out Raven Crag, Coombe Gill, and Sour Milk Gill’s cascata leading up to an illuminated Gillercombe. Questo circo, sulla cascata – siamo stati la una volta per fare arrampicata sul una falesia grande... Ho un foto! Il foto hai visto di Detta con piedi nudi nel fume. I tried to explain... struggling to find the words. Some things are hard to say.

We continued to a stream under trees beside a field and followed the riverbank. I remembered seeing a dipper there with Detta one quiet weekend day, when Detta was too tired to continue climbing. She marvelled at the little black and white “stream-penguin”, hopping, darting, skimming the water in flight. My first dipper sighting was in Borrowdale, too - with an old school friend, one of my first times out leading the rope up VDiffs and HSs at Shepherds: we stopped to watch its strange antics from the stone bridge at Grange.

The last time Detta and I were in Borrowdale, we had also spent the day climbing easy things at Shepherds, then walked back to Grange and idled on the stony riverbed, watching birds and talking quietly and bouldering out the bridge. We took photos. Later, at the car, we saw a red squirrel... “Look!” hissed Detta – hushed, tense, excited all at once. It made her day. Afterward, unusually, we drove out of the valley via the west road. We were about to move away from the Northwest and knew it would be our last time in Borrowdale for some time. Driving slowly above the lake, full of conflicting emotions, as the evening settled in upon Skiddaw was profoundly elegiac.

Whilst these memories leaked through my mind, we continued along the stream. Zia Eli and Detta’s sister, Noa, were taking photos of the Herdwicks, so I showed Detta’s mother the exposed tree roots interwoven through the path: radisce, si! I noticed a couple of tubs lurching around the field and thought of the lambs of early spring climbing trips, joyfully leaping around with wriggling tails or squeezing under their mothers on frosty mornings as we set off from the campsite at Chapel Farm. I set out on a faltering account, in Italian, of over-grazing and a reported memory of 50-years ago: the valley floor, full of wild flowers. Abbiamo perso tutto.

Leaving the wooded stream, the hill climb was fine for Noa, busy with her camera, and Detta’s brother, sweating lightly in a neat leather bomber jacket, but tough for Zia Eli with an arthritic foot. We made slow progress – first through trees and then up piled dinnerplates of slate. I wondered, vaguely, whether this had been a good idea. In the distance, Eagle Crag hovered darkly in the bright fog obscuring Langstrath, while grey-black clouds rolled down from Glaramara and Great End. The wind was picking up and I knew rain was coming, eventually.

After some time, we found the top of the hill and a bonsai garden of wind-twisted evergreens: cedar or juniper, perhaps. At the lookout, there were wreathes of poppies. The Italians admired the view north across the valley as we sat, huddled against the wind, to eat bread and cheese and other picnic things. Mm, mi piace questo formaggio – come si chiama? Il Cedder? Si, Cheddar extra maturo. I did my best to point out places: Bowderstone Pinnacle, Shepherds, Steel Knotts, the ridge line from Catbells to Maiden Moor... other places Detta and I had been.

And then we had finished eating and put everything away. Zia Eli had gone to sit slightly apart from the others, her face a little crumpled. I put my arm around her. Gradually the others drifted over – Detta's mother last, with a hollow look. Siamo pronti? And then I took from a rucksack a plastic bag, and from the plastic bag a glass jar and from the glass jar one more small part of the ashes of my beloved Detta. Daughter, sister, niece. And we took it in turns to spread them, one handful at a time, weeping.

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