Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Stage Is Set - Ice Climbing on Hellvellyn

"Oh F**K", here we go, nausea building up in my stomach making me feel like I'm going to be sick. It's only a matter of time now, nothing I can do except I brace myself and accept the inevitable as blood pours back into my frozen hands. PAIN! Excruciating pain as if my fingers are on fire, or in acid, or both. Curling over my axes I wedge my self into the gully thankful I have a solid footing and am mearly seconding the pitch.

Hot aches, the climbers name for the feeling when blood rushes back in to hands that have got to cold and drained of blood. Most climbers have experienced them at some point and will testify to the potency of the experience. Climbing in winter leaves you particularly susceptible, not just from the colder conditions; but holding axes above you head, and over gripping whilst on a route.

I'm half way up a mixed route called Blade Runner (IV,4), perched high on Helvellyen the third highest hill in the Lakes. I love winter walking and climbing to the point of obsession, mountains draped in gowns of snow and ice, brilliant blue skies, and a soft clear crispness to the light and air which makes for amazing days out in the hills. This is the dream, the ideal, days we will spend a lifetime endlessly chasing as rare and valuable as diamonds. For these experiences we put up will all the bad days, the white-outs, blizzards, spindrift, the heavy loads, and exhausting walk-ins, and yes the hot aches. Winter climbers are optimists of the first rank.

The last wisps of cloud exit stage left; the scene is set 

Dom and I had driven up to Glenridding and camped discreetly overnight in the corner of the carpark. This cold snap appears to have inconvenienced most and driven many inside in search of warmth. I however spent last week getting progressively more excited at the thought of an early start to winter. Scouring the weather forecasts, brain a mass of wind directions and temperatures, devouring the UKClimbing log books to see what what was getting done and where. 

It's minus two when we leave the village, the sumits of the hills lost in a blanket of grey cloud. Heavy packs weigh us down and i'm soon regretting a summer spent doing too much cragging and to few big mountain routes. Getting higher an we begin to feel the sun, the clouds filter the light to a gentle pastle hue hinting at clear air higher up the mountain

We reach Hole In The Wall and turn walking towards Red Tarn. Nature now moves her chess pices, the cloud begins to roll off Striding Edge and across Helvellyn like a curtain of some massive stage leaving a brilliant blue sky, the tarn and it's backdrop of buttresses and gulleys as the stage on which today's drama will be played out. Talk about good timing.

Castye Cam from the belay ledge

The actors (me more of a stand in!) struggle into harneses and crampons; metal cold against bare skin. Carves begin to burn as we front point it up the broad lower slopes of Gully 1, moving centre stage. Just after the gully narrows a large belay platform up left marks the start of our route, Blade Runner a narrow chimney chocked with ice and frozen turf.

Dom ties in as I take in the view back to Catstye Cam a perfect cone shining white in the sun. The we go, I enjoy climbing with Dom (aka The Crux Monkey) it's really important to have partners you trust on winter routes as really falling off is a very bad idea. He move slowly and delicately up the chimney making appreciative noises about the quality of the climbing, and less appreciative noises when he forgets that putting metal gear in you mouth in winter is not sensible idea. Disappearing above leaving only the rope continuously paying out to keep me company as I stamp my feet and bob around to keep the body warm and muscles loose.

Dom nearing the top of the first steep section on Blade Runner

My turn, "don't fluff your lines"; it's not a barnstorming performance but the axes move nicely biting deep, crampons feel solid and I smile as concentration and adrenaline course through my body. Dom is right about the style of the climbing; really three dimensional, holds to the left and the right, a step out to bridge here, a bit of axe swapping there, two really good ice columns I can hook my axe right round.

Then the hot aches arrive. I stop to remove a well buried warthog and get my thin liner gloves covered in powder. The warthog refuses to budge, hitting it with my hammer, or trying to leaver it out with my axe fail. Finally after a right battle it moves but my hands are now freezing. I realise I've cocked up my glove system and should have gone for my bigger pair. Knowing what's going to happen I  climb quickly to where the chimney relents to an easy angle slope where I can suffer in safety.

Purgatory. After what seems like an age the nausea and pain subside. I move up to the belay blurt some incoherent words at Dom and let my hands recover again. Then put on a proper pair of gloves, and lead strait through running up easy angled neve to the summit, right by the shelter. The view is a showstopper!

South east from the summit over Red Tarn and Striding Edge

The summit shelter is coated in horefrost blasted against the rock by the freezing wind. The scene takes the breath away, enriching the soul  Beneath the azure blue sky the hills stretch away on all sides. East beyond the great whale back of Highstreet, Cross Fell stands proud of the northern Pennines, north Skiddaw and Blencathra, south and east the Langdale Pikes and Scafell massif complete the panorama all reigned in white. The day has been worth it just for this, sitting drinking tea surrounded by such beautiful landscape.

Dropping down Swirl Edge back into the corrie, we have a crack at Thor's Corner another IV. This turns out to be rather thin, with turf not really frozen. Dom gets no decent gear till after a rather delicate crux which sees him bridging across the corner on thin rock ledges. 

As a finale to the day we solo up Gully 2 a broad easy Grade I although this early in the season a few small ice steps add a bit of extra interest. Then it's down Striding Edge trying to stick to the ridge a much as possible enjoying the exposure and absorbing the view. Heres to a long and productive season.

Gully 2

1 comment:

  1. Nice write up, Jonathan!
    Looks like a beautiful and exciting day. I am jealous!
    Personally I have never experienced hot aches... My circulation is so bad that the blood never comes back in gush. I just have cold hands always ;-(
    I remember you kindly lend me your spare gloves in Sgorr Dubh, when I underestimated the temperature. It was a real treat, thanks!