A Grand Day Out 34: Inaccessible Gully

by LeighJ Mar/2009
This article has been read 2,166 times
Dovedale in winter
© Alistair Lee

Sometimes a third party adds something to a relationship and, for me, a husband isn't sufficient for a winter night's climbing. A lifetime's commitment to each other doesn't stretch to a commitment to get cold and knackered as well as probably scared and lost. It's far too easy, when it's just a husband I'm letting down, to have the weight of a day's work pin me to a chair by the fire for the evening. Why pretend to be brave and fearless, he's seen the truth too many times to ever forget it.

So this time there were four of us setting off into the sharp dark, passing returning climbers, eager for the warmth of beer and medals. They accuse us of being keen. We're employed is what it is and it's that unmissable time of year - the routes are in!

The path is familiar but grown longer under the weight of winter gear and slippery snow. The fells are a different country, no longer playfully rounded and green they have matured into mountains, grown taller, icier and serious. Snow! It's almost unbelievable, the way it crunches squeakily underfoot or gives way unexpectedly, filling my socks. And the painful cold turns to sweat, soaking my carefully selected layers, starting the usual see-saw between breathless sweatiness and burning cold.

At night there is no-one to politely but furiously race to the crag, the route is ours. Just us and our mates in friendly circles of light. This route is hard for me, not our usual post-work quick-fix. Snow and ice are unpredictable mediums and I climb like a rock climber on ice, trying to rely on friction and moving quickly rather than reliably hammering each axe in. That's far too tiring anyway, a lifetime of chopping wood or braying fence-posts in would be better training for this. As always, I weigh up the disadvantages of a manual job. Tonight though I'm patient and in spite of cramping forearms and numb fingers I spend enough time searching out solid placements to stay on. It must be warming up because occasionally a perfect plastic placement presents itself. Then the second pitch starts with a tricky step round a chockstone. It would be so easy in summer with the dexterity of fingers and so is easy in my head. But in reality I'm left fighting and kicking, axes clunking, hammering uselessly at non placements, feet disappeared out of my light circle, until a cunning bit of kneemanship releases me into the easy upper gully and romping sweatily, legs protesting to the top.

I top out first, just me and moon, appearing and disappearing behind blowing clouds. Its brightness casts shadows and as far as I can see the fells are white and glowing strangely. The snow is so soft it caresses our ankles as we leap about, hopping and dancing to keep warm while we wait for the others. My husband is enough now, we're done, let's go home. What an awesome team, fast, efficient and fearless!

Slithering and buzzing we make our long way back to the car, wittering on about each move, uncaring if no-one else is listening. Elated, released from cold and fear with only fatigue left, we're mad for tomorrow and are willing this icy spell to last forever.

At home the washing up isn't done, there's no milk and unopened mail covers the kitchen table. If I had a wife there would be a plate of tea waiting for me, with vegetables. But I am the wife, so we eat toast. After a night out it tastes fine.

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A Grand Day Out, 154 kbimage © Mick Ryan

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