Matthew Hargreaves reflects on memories of years gone by as he spends a night at Stanage with his young son...
Startling yellow-orange horse chestnut hues nearly brought a tear to my eye as we drove up from Hathersage. Get a grip. Now strangers make appreciative remarks as we plod the path up to the popular end. The 80 litre pack on an 8-year-old is attracting comments.
"New Porter in training, eh?"
It's really full: a big-looking load on the little lad. I'm with my son Monty, his rucksack towering above the back of his head, like a Slovak in the Tatras carrying teetering frames with emergency booze barrels to mountain refuges. But we have no beer today. The sack is stuffed with two sleeping bags, two carry mats, two Thermarests, one pillow, one woolly jumper and a small cuddly toy with a name collar imprinted with "Monty", who is known as Monty Dog.
All in the lightest, biggest sack ever.
"Is that what you call character building?"
Climbers pass, returning after a beautiful autumn day's dalliance. Smiles lighten my load of water, food, pans, gas, climbing gear and more water.
We are late, as is the day. The chance of an evening climb is fading with the setting sun. School home time and the A6 traffic have conspired against us. But, we are here for the night and to put to bed a missed opportunity.
Stanage is everything I accomplished and everything I failed to do.
Sheffield University freshers' week 1990 and an invite to stay the night in Robin Hood's Cave. It was a busy week. I declined. Over the years, that has niggled as I can't recall what I did that night instead. Tonight I'm making amends. Life is about saying 'yes' more often. Even if it takes nearly 30 years.
I'm not entirely sure where the cave is but there is a living guidebook to ask and the packing climbers point the easy way up. Some are still climbing: dedicated denizens more than happy to finish in the gloom for the glory of an extra route.
We are below Flying Buttress Direct. Winner of the combined best name and best looking overhang on grit. It is also the most intimidating. Big moves on big holds for the bold. Two teenagers are considering doing it. Monty and I pause. They go for it and boy do they go for it. Solo. Effortlessly heel hooking ledge after ledge and pulling up. As soon as the first is over the lip the second swings up too. It looks easy when it's done well. I'm relieved; they are delighted and show it in a shared summit fist bump. This route was always on my tick list. I have seconded it. The lead was always for 'next time'; limestone and life got in the way.
We ascend and I look at Kirkus' Corner, a 1934 climb. The excitement in the opening of "Let's go Climbing" describing a moonlit 1920's Crib Goch scramble. I read this in my early teens; it rivalled "Touching the Void" and "The Ascent of Rum Doodle" as the best book ever written. Colin Kirkus cycling from Merseyside to Snowdonia for a weekend climb and claiming Clogwyn Du'r Arddu's Great Slab. When the traverse was wet he carried his boots and finished it in socks.1933 saw Kirkus visit the Indian Himalaya and make the first ascent of Bhagarithi III 6454m in Alpine style. He went on to become R.A.F. Pilot Officer Kirkus, a navigator; his Pathfinder Force crew going missing on a mission to Bremen, Germany in September 1942. He was 32. What a life.
Or that's no life at all.
The first time I climbed here was with a bowline around my waist, in pumps, in 1986. I was 14, tagging along with my girlfriend's family.
They were odd.
They did things my family did not do. They holidayed in a tent, ground coffee beans, picked wild mushrooms, drank from a cafetière, drank raucously, ate granary bread that needed a bread knife to make it work, had real paintings hung in their home, walls of books, a prayer wheel on the mantel-shelf and a joie de vivre in their heart, but this was the weirdest thing: they climbed. Real grown-ups who all had funny pixie climbing shoes they called P.A.'s, all had down sleeping bags, even harnesses, karabiners and ropes. When they went to a crag, which they did every weekend, I was invited along, puppy dog keen. I felt sorry for the surrounding climbers - little did they know we had a secret weapon on our team: Fissure Boysen, or Martin - but I did not dare address him at all. A man happy climbing at Harrison Rocks, discovering Gogarth, climbing new routes onsight and with a hangover before his big expeditions of the '70s: Annapurna, Everest the hard way, and a Transit van to the Trango Tower. Little did I know then that a VS day was not a taxing outing for the Boysens.
Monty and I find the cave. Our spot is half under rock, half under sky. We have a room with a view and a balcony overlooking the Hope Valley. The cement works is an incongruous invasion in the Peak District National Park. Mam Tor sits behind, a bastion of shale, 'slip sliding away.' I went up to the Iron Age hill fort on a field trip, aged ten in top infants, and every year from school in Manchester for 7 years, then each year from University. Fact of the day about the local geomorphology: the factory chimney is 132m tall. That may be the only knowledge retained from 11 consecutive years of fieldwork.
I unroll the sleeping mats, inflate the mattresses, spread the sleeping bags and assemble the stove. The horizon boasts an orange glow at its fringe. Venus is beacon bright and Mars will be with us for a few hours.
It's dark as we eat fresh pasta with the decadence of a whole pot of pesto going in the pan. Snapshot silhouette bats fly between us and the clear starry night. Jaffa cakes for dessert.
In ascending order of excitement we watch planes, satellites and shooting stars. UFOs are regularly spotted too but downgraded when green flashing lights appear instead of little green men.
It's time for a midnight walk. It's 9pm. Back up to the top of the edge to see a full moon rising red and the Plough pan pointing to the North Star. Monty leaves arrows in the quartzy sand to help us get back to our bivvy.
We discover the grouse drinking basins chiselled by Victorian gamekeepers. Fingers trace the feeder channel that increases the catchment helping the water flow into the hollow. Each is numbered with sinuous digits, thumb-deep and set in stone.
Medieval footsteps echo along a packhorse route: the Long Causeway. People have been crossing here for a long time. The oldest manmade features in a landscape are not churches or names but the lines; the old ways.
We search the moor for gleaming tapetum eyes by head torch. 300 lumens beams could find a German bomber. We fail to spot a sheep or rabbit.
"Daddy, can they see our lights on the moon?"
Maybe they can but tonight we appear to be alone, night time conquerors; free from wolves, bears, Legionaries or hobgoblins. Though I'm not entirely sure.
Stanedge Pole stands proud; a guidepost and boundary marker for centuries. Once Mercia/Northumbria, today on the South Yorkshire/Derbyshire divide. Parish road surveyors carved their initials each time the pole was replaced, 1550, 1581. Men who could have walked the same roads as Shakespeare. "HW 1880" is shallow, "FN 1740" has been spray painted over, "HH 1697" is smoothed perhaps by ramblers' rears resting on this stone seat. Health and safety cut the rotting 1915 pole down in 2015. The towering totem was reborn in 2016 in scorched larch with a brand new base plate, inscribed with cardinal directions and as the crow flies distances. Sheffield is just 6.9m away, and we are 438m above sea level.
Returning, using the arrows, settling, we snuggle down in the cave entrance. Shoes off, hats on. Silent star study.
"Daddy, can you tuck me in?"
I unzip my sleeping bag and throw my arm and another cover over Monty's bag. If only I could always protect him with such ease. The cold air chilling my face is no match for the sack now covering us both.
Stanage, the stone edge. I recall the summer days hitching from Hunter's Bar, Sheffield, to climb here in lieu of lectures. The day seeing the air ambulance carry away a life taken. Playing in the plantation and being mobbed by midges. Watching people climb in lycra and wondering why, climbing in fancy dress, queueing to climb Christmas Crack on Christmas day. Fraying a rope and my fingers on this gritstone. Learning to hand jam; leaving scrape scars. Some days getting to the top and some days backing down. Being in awe at the unconquerable Brown and Whillans climbing in big boots in the 1950's on routes that still scared me in tight rock slippers and an even tighter rope. My non-climbing sabbatical years, walking the edge on snowy days, running the edge on windy days.
I close my eyes. The moon crosses over our crag canopy and is now visible. I open my eyes in surprise at the light that has been turned on. Dozy confusion before clarity returns.
I snooze as a small boy snores.
Two climbers approach chatting, cheering the night, calling the names of routes and of each other. The pub is closed, then.
"Dave......here's that HVS..........
.......'this is the one you fell on'...."
I'm out of my pit peering out of the portico as their head torches approach. They pass and settle on the cave around the corner. It's a relief our dormitory is still private.
Monty has slept through all of this. I lie awake on the Thermarest. I can't recall the names of all those whom I have climbed with here. Whom did I climb The Tippler with? It was that friend of.... and who was in that group when.....?
It's cold. A train toots, waking sleepers and signalling the light to roll back into the world.
Father and son share a hot chocolate dawn.
A solitary photographer arrives with a tripod to capture the wispy cloud that cloaks the valley floor.
I pack the sacks thinking we will storm the first climb of the day award, but already several parties are sieging 3-star classics. A typical Stanage Saturday.
Monty and I play at the farthest end as the frozen flicks of grass are melted. He has been removing nuts and Friends for a year but I have never shown him how to place them. We use a 6ft section of rock for Monty's first lead. He places two pieces of gear. Those walking down from the top of their climb congratulate him on his ascent.
We move along to a VS and I remember watching Jim Curran climbing this route deftly. It must have been in 1987 as he had just published Triumph and Tragedy about his time as a cameraman on the K2 trip where 27 reached the top but 13 died trying. I recall Maggie Boysen commenting on his nifty footwork and me thinking, for a man who likes his scones buttered, he climbs well. Not Martin Boysen well - who else can climb like that? - but well nonetheless.
The wind picks up and we retreat for a Grindleford Station café pint of tea and a chip bacon butty late lunch.
Stanage will always be here, inhabited by yesterday's climbers as well as today's. I can only hope that Monty will look back fondly on this night and perhaps fill in the gaps that I left blank.