The original version of this article was published in December 2010 on my Blogspot site.
“Oh s**t”, here we go, the nausea builds up in my stomach making me feel like I’m going to be sick. It’s only a matter of time now, a deep seated dread of whats coming, helpless, nothing I can do except I brace myself and accept the inevitable as blood pours back into my frozen hands. Then it arrives consuming my fingers as if they have exploded into flames or been dipped into boiling acid, its like nothing I’ve experienced before. Curling over my axes I wedge my self into the gully waiting for it to be over 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 too 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 also from constantly holding axes above you head which encourages the blood to drain out of your arms, and also the tendency to over grip whilst on a route, especially if slightly scared.
The place I’m going through this purgatory is 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 spend a lifetime endlessly chasing, as rare and valuable as diamonds. It’s 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.
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 a warm fire and mug of tea. I however spent last week getting progressively more excited at the thought of an early start to winter. With the internet now its easy to scour the weather forecasts, brain a mass of wind directions and temperatures, devouring online blogs and 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 are lost in a blanket of grey cloud, not an auspicious start for a day that proves to be close to perfect. 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, its light inkling through the clouds and filter it to a gentle pastle hue illuminating the mountains and hinting at clear air higher up.
As we reach Hole In The Wall and turn walking towards Red Tarn nature now moves her chess pieces with all the drama of a Wagnerian opera. The cloud slowly begins to roll off Striding Edge and across the Helvellyn headwall like the curtain of some massive auditorium to reveal a brilliant backdrop of blue sky. Below this the tarn surrounded by black buttresses and gully’s is laid out as the stage on which today’s drama will be played out. Talk about good timing.
As the actors in todays drama (me more of a stand in!) we struggle into harneses and crampons; metal cold against bare skin. Carves begin to burn as we front point 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 snow cone shining white in the sun. Then 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 moves 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 from view 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.
Then its my turn, “don’t fluff your lines” I think to myself; although it’s not a barnstorming performance the axes move nicely biting deep in the hard neve, crampons feel solid and I smile as concentration and adrenaline course through my body. Dom is right about the style of the climbing; a big three dimensional puzzle, holds to the left and the right, a step out to bridge here, a bit of axe swapping there, and finally two really good ice columns I can hook my axe right round.
Then half way up 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 the hammer on my axe, or trying to leaver it out with the pick fail. Finally after a right battle it moves but my hands and fingers 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 and I move up to the belay blurt some incoherent words at Dom and let my hands recover again. Then diving into my bag for a proper pair of gloves, I lead strait through running up easy angled neve to the summit, right by the shelter.
The view is a showstopper! 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 warm tea surrounded by such beautiful landscape.
Having spend time just sitting and enjoying the view we drop down Swirl Edge and back into the corrie to have a crack at a second route Thor’s Corner another grade IV. This turns out to be rather thin, with turf not really frozen. Dom gets no decent gear until after a rather delicate crux sequence which sees him bridging across the corner on thin rock ledges.
Then with a bit of time left before the sun departs and wanting to make the most of the conditions 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 for the encore it’s down Striding Edge trying to stick to the narrow ridge line as much as possible enjoying the exposure and absorbing the view. Nature has granted us one of those rare days that live long in the memory, that we can forever recall when navigating through a white out or climbing up into a bitter wind and heavy spindrift, proof of what can happen if you get out there and climb.