Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.
The crag gods tested me, but they must have had a conversation with the weather gods in the end.
Again, it was an early morning, the sun up at 5 with stirring in the alicoop in a farm field in the crook of the fells. The day began muggy, with drizzle then thunderstorms predicted. I was to meet Tom, the climbing guide, somewhere down the road near Borrowdale. A farmer said it was at least a mile, so I set off in search.
Luckily Tom found me in the road in his kitted out van. Tall, blond and fit, Tom is an accomplished guide having led teams in Nepal and China. He’s done much in his 26 years, now building a business as a personal trainer. But not like any trainers I’ve come across. He helps people achieve fitness and life goals in the outdoors whether hiking a certain number of peaks in a set time, learning the skills step by step to orienteer, or training to climb Everest.
We had to walk back up the trail I just came down the night before, this time with gear and rope, heavy, but nowhere near what I’d been carrying exploring the Lakes with my own pack.
When we took the cut off for the climbers route, he stopped to check his book. “Actually,” he said in his Lancashire English, “I’ve never done Napes Needle.” OK, then. It was going to be a discovery for both of us, clearly at different levels of achievement, but nonetheless, starting fresh.
On and on we went, my mind wondering if the rain would come making any climb out of the question. Just one more scree slope to cross, just one more heap to climb over. And suddenly – after a two hour approach – it was there, just like the pictures in the guidebooks. Another hand-over-fist scramble and we were at the base with not a soul in sight. All ours.
We clambered up the scree and clattered over rocks, carefully placing our feet on the thin grassy strips of trail at the edge of a 1,000 foot drop to the Moses Trod leading back to beautiful Wasdale. You may not die instantly if you tripped, but as you gained speed rolling down, you’d certainly create a show for the tourists walking below.
Every rock outcropping looked promising, beautiful ashen black pillars and ledges, but we had our heart set on the Needle. It’s famous for its shape, a kind of Thor’s hammer cut out from the rest of the wall. It’s not a technically difficult climb for me, but the views would be superb as would the airy feeling that high on a tall obelisk.
Tom led the climb, that’s why he was there, and I followed. Easy and short, the route on Napes turns sharply, so you have to separate the climb into two pitches. But here was the problem: there is no way the leader can abseil from the top. The only way he could get down was to downclimb, using his pieces of gear as a handrail. Fortunately someone left a sling at the ledge, where he would be able to bring himself off the first “pitch.” So with a sigh of relief I prepared myself to belay him the 20 feet or so to the top. He struggled just a bit, practicing the downclimb a few times before landing on top.
And then he gave me the bad news: there was no way he could belay me from the top. He placed only one piece of gear within easy reach of the ledge. But it left me an exposed climb above it and if I slipped, I would definitely deck.
We sat there in that stunning setting, my disappointment obvious. The moves didn’t look too hard, but I’d have to do them going up and down. Could I risk a broken ankle just to say I did this climb? I touched the rock, put my foot on the first hold and decided, no.
Tom told me that the English way is not to make things too easy. This is why they don’t place bolts at the top for safety. If you can’t hack it, you shouldn’t be on it. That sling at the ledge will be taken down soon enough.
And come to think of it, we abseiled off that one piece of gear: a piece of rope lassoing a rock with one carabiner for the rope to pass through. Not the wisest thing I’ve done but likely safer than making Tom downclimb and it was there because others wanted a modicum of safety on such a classic climb.
I got to the bottom, took off my climbing shoes and harness and had a snack before packing it in, feeling disappointed. Tom told me there have been plenty of climbs he quit when the feeling wasn’t right. The entire experience is a process of learning, not just succeeding. It was a hard pill for me to swallow, but a sobering one. Not every summit can be reached and I knew I needed to accept it.
Assuming we’d head back as the weather moved in, he suddenly suggested trying another route. It hadn’t even occurred to me and my whole mood lightened. Had the weather gods discussed my little lesson learned today with the crag gods? Perhaps.
Black mist swirled over the fells across the dale. It looked unlikely any more climbing was possible that day. As we ruminated should we be caught out in thunder, I asked that we sit a moment longer. I leaned back and touched the rock, and said I’d really like to climb. And this seasoned guide said he couldn’t resist that kind of enthusiasm and told me, let’s get on it.
It was a beauty, maybe 80 feet of bliss. Nothing too hard, certainly within or below my grade, but the striated, pitted rock was so nice under my fingers as I felt about for the holds. My feet stuck to everything and I pushed right up to the grassy bench.
We put on our trainers and simply walked off the back side of the cliff to pack up and return on the pencil thin trail, over the rocky bits that shifted down the slope with each step and back to the main trail just as the first drops of rain touched down. The thunder rumbled as we reached the stone steps, but it wasn’t until we got to his van parked where I camped the night before, that the heavens really broke open and the rain dashed down.
What timing, what luck, what a perfect day. The kind of dreamy sort of changeable day about which Wordsworth penned, and here I am right in the thick of it.