Just Like My Nan's Biscuits

Scafell from Bowfell Buttress  © Dave Birkett
Scafell from Bowfell Buttress
© Dave Birkett
(click on the smaller photos to make them bigger)

The Westmorland Gazette said it was the coldest winter in 20 years, I didn't feel so cold then...

Dave Birkett and Scale Force  © Dave Birkett
Dave Birkett and Scale Force
© Dave Birkett

We arrived back from two weeks in the Ariege to find that Lake District had more snow than the whole of the Pyrenees. That suited me though because I hated skiing anyway. I had one day left before going back to work so I climbed Bowfell Buttress with my mate Graeme Lee. The question about Bowfell Buttress is: Do you walk up the Band or up Mickledore bottom, Rossett Ghyll and the straight slog to the base?

We did neither because I now have a Land Rover and my mate is the farmer. Of course he's the f*cking farmer.

We did neither because I now have a Land Rover and my mate is the farmer. Of course he's the f*cking farmer. So we drove to the head of Mickeldore. It's a route I've done many times but it's always one of the best.

Next day, sadly, I was back to work and the thought of pulling frozen stones out of the ground to finish the house we were working on up Kirkstone Pass seemed horrible; especially when the Lake District had been frozen solid for the last 2 weeks. But as luck would have it, nobody could deliver any stone for the next week at least.

Freedom! I could go climbing for a week, but who with? Everyone else was at work. Enter schoolteacher-fanatic climber-friend Andy Mitchell. His school was closed all week due to ice-clearing-related-potential-litigation issues. Next day, Scafell.

Are you the farmer?  © Dave Birkett
Are you the farmer?
© Dave Birkett

But we didn't make it there because the right hand finish to Central Gully on Wasdale Screes looked in good condition, the first time I'd ever seen it so. It was a stunning 90m of continuous ice, the longest in the Lake District. It was fantastic although the approach pitches were approaching death as there was very little ice. After climbing, we made the long drive back to Langdale and then straight out again with my wife Mary and Andy to do Low Water Beck on Coniston Old Man. Up and down just in time to get to the pub in Coniston! We did the second pitch direct, to me climbing at night on ice always seems easier as you can't see how high up you are.

.......the right hand finish to Central Gully on Wasdale Screes looked in good condition, the first time I'd ever seen it so. It was a stunning 90m of continuous ice, the longest in the Lake District.

photo
Mark Radtke on first pitch of the Great Gully (right hand) climb, Wasdale Screes.
© Terry Holmes


Early start the next day, off to Esk Buttress. It's always been a dream of mine to do a winter route on Esk, for many reasons. It's one of the most beautiful and remote parts of the Lakes and no-one has ever managed to do a winter route on it, probably due to it's sunny aspect and low altitude. After a reasonably exciting drive to Cockly Beck in the Land Rover, we set off walking at 8am, arriving at the crag at 10:30. In summer the walk in takes me an hour, but it was hard going due to crusty deep snow. We also took time out to check out the huddled Emperor penguins on a windswept Great Moss.

We also took time out to check out the huddled Emperor penguins on a windswept Great Moss.

photo
Esk Buttress
© Dave Birkett

One of the great things about Esk Buttress is that you can't see a light, or a house, or any indication of civilization so you can imagine you are anywhere in the world. Our mission for the day was to climb the summer HVS, Trespasser Grooves which takes a long mossy corner up the centre of the crag. After the main corner pitch of Trespasser Grooves, we went right, following the snow and ice and finished up Bower Route. It was 4 pitches of excellent mixed climbing, grade VII 7. And then the long walk out, which seemed as hard as the walk in, but we knew we had the Prince of Wales in Foxfield to look forward to.

Next day, Andy was still off school, and I had a hangover, so we had an easier day. We did the classic Shoulthwaite Gully, grade 5, which was in superb condition, followed by the winter wonderland that is Launchy Ghyll. Then back to Lakes Climber and Bilbo's Cafe for another brew where we met the legend that is Tony Greenbank. He told us about a great unclimbed winter line, so we were off home for an early night. I rang the Harrisons at Brotherilkeld farm, Eskdale to see if I could park the Landrover there in the morning. They said to take care on the roads because "it's really nipping up tight now".

We met the main man Jeff Harrison in the yard, who told me his wife had been up at 6 that morning to make me my favourite biscuits. They're a light, buttery, thick shortbread, just like the ones my Nan used to make, absolutely awesome.

In the morning the coast road didn't seem to bad but the road up Eskdale was sheet ice. It had in fact nipped in really tight! As we approached the farm we passed some of the Harrisons, who told us about a sheep stuck in Harter Fell Ghyll, which we promised to rescue after our climb. We met the main man Jeff Harrison in the yard, who told me his wife had been up at 6 that morning to make me my favourite biscuits. They're a light, buttery, thick shortbread, just like the ones my Nan used to make, absolutely awesome. Andy thought so too, they're so nice that no pack of biscuits I've been given have ever made it out the valley. The route we went to climb was not in condition so we were early back to the sheep rescue. It looked like a very simple one, I said to Andy; I'll just tie the rope around my waist, give me a waist belay, pay out some slack, and I'll go down a little ways, lassoo the sheep and pull it up.

Herdwick Sheep  © Dave Birkett
Herdwick Sheep
© Dave Birkett

At this point, the sheep made a leap for freedom off the crag over my head.

The sheep had another idea, if you can credit sheep with anything as sophisticated as an idea, that it would run further and deeper into the crag. My time saving plan was to climb down further and traverse beneath it, to scare it back to the main ledge. Now the rope was making a big L shape and I wasn't really in a safe place to fall off. I only had heather for handholds and no gloves so my hands were a bit freezing. Andy only had the rope around his waist and no belay. At this point, the sheep made a leap for freedom off the crag over my head. I grabbed it with one hand, and then the heather in my other hand broke. I went flying into the ghyll and just before smashing into the bottom the rope started taking and swung me sideways. I tore a big hole in the arse of my new OR pants, my thermals and my arse cheek and bruised myself badly, almost pulled Andy off the crag, but I didn't let go of the sheep. This is obviously why I get biscuits made for me at six in the morning! A bit shaken, we drove down Eskdale and soloed Birker Force, which contained thousands of tonnes of ice. A great 60m pitch of grade 3. Back to the Prince of Wales again for a pint or three. When I got home I just wanted to go to bed but Mary made me go and solo Launchy Ghyll with her.

On Saturday morning we were waiting for a report on Dove Crag Gully, Grasmoor, but didn't get one. Mary and I drove round to Buttermere (Andy needed a rest day by this stage ;-) We took a chance that Scale Force, meant to be the tallest free falling waterfall in the Lakes, would be in condition. The walk around the head of Crummock Water was stunning and when we got there it looked hopeful but 20 feet up a giant slush puppy, I was getting soaked and decided retreat was more sensible. We drove up the valley to the icefalls on Honister Pass. We saw only one other team which was suprising because there were huge amounts of ice. We climbed Gantry Icefall, grade 5, one pitch of which felt longer and more sustained than anything on Point 5. It was a superb route but the high point of the day was spotting an unclimbed icefall above and right of the existing routes, I don't know if it's ever even formed before.

photo
Long Bendy Straight Things, Honister Pass...you can see it yes?
© Dave Birkett
So the next day we were back, walking in from the Borrowdale side of Honister Pass. Up to the mines, through the tunnels of Moria and to the foot of the new icefall via the rather handy via ferrata. We climbed a new 4 pitch route, Long Bendy Straight Things, VI 5. The first pitch was easy mixed, followed by the crux pitch on thin and steep ice. That was followed by another 2 pitches of fantastic ice. It felt really special to climb this route because most new routes in the Lakes are mixed and follow existing rock routes, so to find 3 pitches of completely new ice is a real rarity. The route tops out too, so if its ever back in nick, you could climb about 8 pitches of steep ice from the valley bottom to the top of Fleetwith Pike. Who needs Scotland?

Pitch 1, One Armed Bandit, Upper Buckstone How  © Dave Birkett
Pitch 1, One Armed Bandit, Upper Buckstone How
© Dave Birkett
Pitch 2, One Armed Bandit, Upper Buckstone How  © Dave Birkett
Pitch 2, One Armed Bandit, Upper Buckstone How
© Dave Birkett

On Monday I was faced with a big problem. Mary and Andy both were back at work and my site was still frozen. I was knackered but not getting any sympathy. But the day before I had seen another new line of ice on the opposite side of the valley. But who could I climb with? A lot of my more recent winter climbing has been done with Mark 'Ed' Edwards. Ed was flying last winter, doing hard first ascents and repeats but unfortunately broke his arm in April and has recently been told that it's not fused properly and needs to be pinned. None the less, he couldn't resist the thought of new ice. So once again we were walking in from Borrowdale to Honister. We climbed a 2 pitch icefall on upper Buckstone How, grade V, 5, One Armed Bandit. Ed placed his axe with his good left hand, pulled up, swapped hands on the axe, then used his left hand again to place the next axe.

Bowfell Buttress  © Dave Birkett
Bowfell Buttress
© Dave Birkett
Monday night I got the bad news that I might be back at work on Wednesday. So Tuesday I was Scafell bound with Steve Ashworth, Malcolm and Paddy. The East Buttress was whiter than a very white thing but the 70 mile an hour winds made it almost impossible to see, never mind climb. We had a quick try but headed back over to the North Buttress where Malcolm and I did Steep Ghyll. The first two pitches were waist deep snow, but the main pitch felt a bit easier than when we did it last year. It was great topping out and descending Deep Ghyll to the West Wall traverse due to the amazing amount of snow.

Wednesday I was back at work, feeling very tired but having had the best winter climbing spell I've ever had in the Lake District. I was feeling reasonably content, just hope the thaw doesn't strip it all from Scafell!


Dave Birkett is sponsored by:

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Dave Birkett

This post has been read 10,494 times

Return to Latest Articles or view other Features


31 Jan, 2010
What a cracking spell of climbing. - glad to see he's a Withnail fan too - sound man!
31 Jan, 2010
Bob Dylan reference, anyone?
1 Feb, 2010
we're not from london you know
1 Feb, 2010
Stop saying that Withnail; of course he's the fu*king farmer.
2 Feb, 2010
Great article! But Andy and rest day in the same sentence......?
More Comments