Leading the Way

“And you’re happy with that?” asked the walker, looking sceptically at my anchor – an ice axe buried in snow. “I was until you said that,” I thought, too tired to speak having hacked a hole in névé with the consistency of set concrete, as I now tentatively shouted “Safe!” down to my second, Nick.

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On a sliding scale of proficiency from zero to 100, if the best winter climbers in the world are at 100, and Nick, being a proficient hillwalker and summer climber but having no winter climbing experience is at 0, I’m somewhere at 0.14 if we’re being generous. Nonetheless, that difference was enough to put me on the sharp end of the rope, honing my modest skills in getting Nick up modest stuff safely!

Nick is my bad-weather-buddy. We are cursed in the mountains and this time seemed doomed again as my phone pinged at me. “So this happened …” accompanied a photo of a Seat Leon with a smashed in front, in thick snow, intimately acquainted with a barrier.

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The weather forecast was pointing to conditions that winter climbers dream of: cold with low winds and excellent visibility. With Nick’s car in such a state, we had no means of getting to the Lake District. I frantically searched for alternative transport. The train companies seemed to think I wanted to buy the train, as opposed to just ride it, and coaches work on a currency of misery and unhelpful departure times. This weather window was slipping through our fingers and I was miserable.

My joy at the courtesy car Nick finally managed to get was mitigated by his persistent grumbling about how much better his own car was. That happiness came flooding back however, as we climbed out of Langdale the next day in the beautiful hazy morning sunshine.

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We delicately stepped along the climber’s traverse on the eastern flanks of Bowfell. Soon the imposing Bowfell Buttress emerged from the haze, collared by the south and north gullies – our climbing options for the day.

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We briefly wallowed in the sensation of being properly hardcore and kitted up underneath the vertical prow of the buttress. Any illusions of aptitude were nipped in the bud as I realised I had forgotten how to properly take rope coils.

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“I’m a little teapot,” I muttered to myself, desperately trying to remember the trick I had learnt a few years ago at a training day with Lyon Equipment. This nursery rhyme was quickly lost in a mess of rope and profanity until Nick jump-started my muscle memory, forcing my hand into position.

He was seemingly undeterred by the lack of competence I had showed up to this point, and was happy for me to set up the narrow North Gully, a steeply angled slope guarded by two steeper rocky steps.

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The first easy step on North Gully of Bowfell

The first proved trivial, but as I stood beneath the ten foot obstacle that was the second, I realised that it was going to be harder. The ice was thin – very thin. This rocky step is supposed to be an icy step. The only ice to speak of was the small pillar that looked about as stable as Nick’s no claims bonus.

A delicate mixed move was called for, but how to protect it? I waggled an ice screw into the hard-looking shelf beneath the rock. It ate through what turned out to be honeycombed ice, going all the way in with a gentle push and coming out with just as gentle a pull. Rubbish.

Stepping up onto the snow shelf, I nudged the aforementioned ice pillar, detaching it from the boulder above. Suddenly, now broken off, it seemed far less thin and delicate. It now seemed more like the circa 50 kilo, large, sharp block of ice that it was. I cuddled it with one arm, I and it both delicately poised on the shelf.

I now had to hang off an axe and pick up this block one-handed to throw it back into the small cave underneath the boulder, or it slides down the slope directly into Nick, leaving his face resembling the front of his car.

The effort and adrenaline in getting this block away safely gave me the shot I needed to make the next spicy crux move. With my right axe reassuringly buried in a funnel of thick névé, I tickled my left axe over the boulder, happening upon a small lip. It was as good as it was going to get.

I sent my legs out right, with only the open face of the cave directly below the move. With my body at an ungainly angle, I grunted my way up, scrabbling my axe into the snow beyond the rock. On the easier snow slope, I cursed my coils as Nick shouted that I only had a few metres of rope left. That was until the most perfect belay spike appeared just within reach.

What I’d have given for a perfect belay spike the following day! On a gently angled gully with a wealth of easy places to belay from, I found the most awkward and uncomfortable stance atop a steep slope to perch on. I wasn’t enamoured with much of the gear, so placed loads to compensate.

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Starting up Broad Gully on Browncove Crags, later choosing the steep stuff to the left to belay from for some reason

My anchor looked like I had dropped all my gear from a great height onto the rock. It’ll have to do I thought as I glanced over to the other climbers standing comfortably and chatting at their spike.

Nick arrived and was unamused at the stance I had created for him. Somehow we contorted ourselves and 60 metres of bundled rope onto our sloping doormat. 

A few pitches later on the snow slope at the top of the route, I had a chance to reflect on my weekend of taking the lead. I’m relatively new to multi-pitch climbing and the cold statistics don’t look favourable; I’ve fallen off of 10% of the ones I’ve attempted.

In the easy routes we climbed that weekend, I learnt more than I had on any harder stuff I’ve climbed previously. My key lessons were:

  • Take plenty of screwgate carabiners, and at least one big, wide one for gathering several hitches at an anchor.
  • Stance management – can my second fit on the belay stance, am I facing the right way, where’s the dead rope going, where can the second attach themselves?
  • If you find an ideal belay, use it, instead of pressing on to make it a longer pitch.
  • 60 metres runs out very quickly on easy terrain.
  • Shout loud, even in good weather.

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