The law of averages is the commonly held idea that a certain outcome or event, if repeated regularly, will over the course of time, occur at a frequency similar to its probability. Now most of us average climbers, I am not referring to any particular grade, like to hedge our bets by going on routes we have looked up in a glossy guidebook, which will give us some idea of what to expect.
Back in the late 70s and early 80s I had the feeling that climbing new routes on the Culm might be akin to Russian Roulette, so eventually retreated to the safe havens of the Cumbrian Fells and the Yorkshire Dales. Not so one Mick Fowler, whose belief in loose living led him to an all-out attack on the law of averages. Not content with the likes of the horrendously loose Breakaway at Henna Cliff near Morwenstow, or the equally explosive In Memoriam further down the coast, he basically created that most ephemeral yet totally unjustifiable phenomenon: the Culm icefall. All I can say is sit back and enjoy the armchair ride around some climbs that you might only ever consider attempting in your nightmares during a nuclear winter.
A minus 10 degrees forecast for North Devon is not something to be wasted.
Dave Wills, Danuska Rycerz, Lynne Allen and I were faced with such a forecast when we met at my place in London on the evening of Friday 8th February 1991. We had planned to indulge in the usual 1,000+ mile return trip to Scotland but the forecast made us dither. Scotland was undoubtedly in fine winter condition, but perhaps Devon would be too? And that would be interesting, unusual and involve 500 miles less driving. Much prevarication followed. Eventually we headed west. The chance of a lifetime was too good a possibility to miss.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the history of winter climbing on the south west sea cliffs appeared short. Dave Hillebrandt and Jon O'Neil had climbed Salute to the Admiral at Yeolmouth in 1987 but we were not aware of any other winter climbs. In any event it was the apparently unclimbed waterfalls at the likes of Henna, Tidna and Speke's Mill that were the main attraction for us. Saturday saw the Tidna falls and Henna ticked which left the crown jewel of Speke's Mill for Sunday. I have vivid memories of that day.
After a chilly night in a clifftop barn, a quick breakfast was devoured in the (unique and now much missed) Shamrock cafe in Hartland and we were keen to get to Speke's Mill Mouth as fast as possible. We had checked it out in the dark the evening before and although there was a lot of water flowing, it looked as if there might just be enough ice to make it climbable. But the weather seemed slightly warmer than the day before. It might even have been thawing and I was worried that any delay could make all the difference.
I have to admit that I was a little over-excited but the verglassed roads were empty and a bit of extra speed didn't seem too irresponsible. The tractor from Hartland farm was very old and its appearance coming the other way very unexpected. Braking appeared not to work well and steering into the hedge simply meant that we hit it at an angle rather than head on. There was a disturbing bang and a nasty metallic tearing noise. It was one of those robust vintage tractors with bulbous hubs and huge projecting wheel nuts. My tinny Ford Sierra Estate was no match for it. The wheel nuts tore into the front wing and ripped it open like a baked bean can.
I jumped out quickly. Normally such an incident would have caused me much distress, but I distinctly remember that I was pleased to see that my car looked to be drivable and surprised to sense that my over-riding concern was for the possibly thawing waterfall rather than my car.
There was no damage whatsoever to the tractor and the young driver, who spoke with an accent which was delightfully unintelligible to us Londoners, showed little interest beyond appearing to say something along the lines of 'my tractor is fine but your car is not.'
Being as he was stationary when I hit him there seemed little scope for dispute and after explaining the urgency he soon got out of the way and we continued, albeit a little more carefully.
The middle of the fall was flowing freely, but ice had formed down either side. Initially we thought a swim or wade across the plunge pool might be necessary and it was with some relief that closer inspection showed that the ice could be gained by a dry traverse.
The streak closest to the corner had formed more thickly and was the obvious way to try. Donning ice climbing kit at the seaside felt unusual. To begin with all went well, the ice was thick and placements good, but as I gained height the ice became thinner and less well attached to the smooth rock below. It had looked as if the ice right next to the water might be thick enough for secure placements, but in fact it was thin, undercut, bubbly and kept collapsing under my weight.
The last 10 feet were particularly insecure but the rising temperature meant the thin ice away from the water easily parted company with the rock and revealed a spot where a poor peg could be placed to give some protection. The climbing was not technically hard but it got the adrenaline flowing such that I remember it was a relief to pull over to the flat stream bed above. A harder freeze would have helped, but then today, nearly 30 years later, I'd probably still be waiting.
Despite climbing many three star winter routes elsewhere, the Speke's Mill weekend still holds a very special place in my heart. 'Drive only if you have to' the motoring associations had advised. Obviously we felt we had to. My poor Sierra suffered, but there has never been any doubt in my mind that we came up with the right decision after that Friday evening dither.