Central Buttress Scafell
A couple of weeks ago we were contacted by Vertebrate Publishing with a request to publish a sample article on our blog. The article is about Scafell and in particular, the first female ascent of Central Buttress - E1 5b
Vertebrate mentioned the article be quite long and that we may wish to edit it for the blog. Having a very quick scan I was in agreement, there's lots of it. But then I sat down to read the article properly and was mesmerised by it's humour, style, quality, and of course Mabel. We haven't chopped anything out for the blog, it's all too good, quite unmissable.
To climb this route with modern protection (dynamic ropes, cams, extenders, nuts, and more) and sticky rubber climbing shoes is still worthy of celebration and a great sense of achievement. But wow, to climb it back in 1925 with hobnail boots, and only 80 feet of rope, that's a completely different level.
Mabel's story, although focusing on Central Buttress, is much more than that. Read deeper into the text and let it transport you back to a bygone time before e-mail, mobile phone, internet, and even the household telephone!
So, here we are, the first female ascent of Central Buttress E1 5b, and only the fourth ascent of the route, it's August 1925. After reading the article, if you find yourself wanting more, follow this link to the Vertebrate website
Mabel Barker, 1925
August, 1924, was a wet month, almost as wet as August, 1923, but once again we spent it in camp at Seathwaite. My camping comrades, who had narrowly escaped drowning by the swollen Derwent, and squashing by a falling tree, insisted upon returning there and nowhere else. One of them was on honeymoon, and wanted to ensure a thorough initiation for her husband, and so had to have her way; and perhaps I didn’t take much persuading, anyway. But more than chaff for their love of water, or congratulation on their grit are due to my cheery fellow campers, for whatever happens to them, it is I who am sure to get all the best going out of camping in Borrowdale.
That August, 1924, for example, while we sat at the foot of the swollen Sour Milk Ghyll, C D Frank-land came and stayed at Seathwaite Farm for a week. That week was fine, all except one day, on which we stayed in camp to receive all his families, none of whom turned up; but all mine did. It simply poured. I believe they think I arranged it on purpose!
He suggested one day, rather casually, that we should go and do the Girdle Traverse on Scawfell. I was thrilled at the idea, but somewhat dubious of bringing it off. All I knew of it then was that it was reputed to take about six hours, and included Botterill’s Slab (which had been pointed out to me as ‘a foul place’!) However, I had never climbed till I had had enough, and the chance of so long on the rocks!
‘Which end shall we begin?’ said I innocently, as we wandered through Hollow Stones.
‘O, the Mickledore end, I think,’ said my partner. I did not know that this was not the usual proceeding, and that it was even doubtful if a complete reversal had ever been made. We were nearer it, and it was convenient for the lunch pool on Mickledore, and chimed with my own inclinations.
Not having done all of the Girdle Traverse the usual way, I can offer no very definite opinion as to respective merits and difficulties, but one thing is obvious. Taking it our way, the descent of Botterill’s Slab comes almost at once, very early in the climb and before one has ‘got going’. It has to be tackled in cold blood, and it remains a vivid memory of one of the thinnest bits of climbing I ever did. No muscular effort is required, nor any particularly long reach, so it is theoretically possible for anyone — and just possible. The upper part, where it is climbed on the edge, is not so bad; but these holds fade away, and one has to traverse on to the face of the slab. Here I have the impression of a long, long pause. In retrospect I seem to stand for the greater part of the afternoon on the ample security of a half inch ledge, wishing I had brought a pocket lens with which to look for a handhold; assured by my optimistic partner that there was a foothold somewhere beneath me; wondering if suction could be applied to the rock. Reluctantly, I had just said that I didn’t see what to do with it, but come on the rope, when I tried something — have no idea what — and with immense astonishment and relief found my right foot in the hold. The rest was easy; but CDF’s descent of that slab as watched from the belay at the foot of it was probably one of the most beautiful bits of balance climbing ever seen.
After that it was mostly pure joy. I am a poor hand at writing up a climb, for I fail to remember detail, and when asked how I liked so and so, am generally driven to reply vaguely that I suppose it went, while trying in vain to remember what my questioner is talking about, and being at the same time seized with a horrible suspicion that I never really did that climb at all, but got off it on to some alternative and far inferior route. If a description is available I then read it to see what we are supposed to have done. The result is unconvincing, and I am inexorably driven to the conclusion that I haven’t done a single decent climb in the Lake District! Or would be, but that there are such vivid and purple moments. One cannot very well get ‘off the climb’ on Botterill’s Slab or the Flake Crack!
Anyway, I did read up the previous accounts of the Girdle Traverse, and the Guide (when it came) with great interest, and must surely have missed out large portions of that climb. (And as this is being written by the Mediterranean, I cannot get them up again now.) But I remember the traverse from the Fives Court very clearly, for it went well that day; and the thrill of reaching Hopkinson’s Cairn for the first time, and looking from it into Deep Ghyll, is unforgettable.
It began to rain slightly while we were on the Pinnacle Wall above Deep Ghyll, and my partner betrayed some anxiety, and hurried a little. Now I thought that the Traverse continued round the West Wall (and why not?), and when asked the time, replied tranquilly that it was 4.20 (we had started from Mickledore at 2.00 precisely). ‘Hasn’t your watch stopped?’ said he. ‘Good heavens, we’ll be on the top of the Pinnacle in ten minutes!’ We were. I believe he would have suggested the Central Buttress then and there but for the rain; also we wanted to go to Wasdale to vindicate the character of my blameless watch.
So when on August 17th of this year we returned from a fortnight in Skye, splendidly fit and in beautiful weather, we suggested to the camp in general that we might as well go to Scawfell next day; the Corridor Route always made a good expedition, and some new friends had joined us who were anxious to see some climbing. The day was fine, and we set off in a leisurely mood, which persisted through lunch in Hollow Stones. But this late start was partly a strategic move in order to give the rocks time to dry (for the morning had been misty) and about 2 o’clock we went right on to the climb.
The first ascent of the Central Buttress of Scawfell was made in 1914 by S W Herford and G S Sansom, C F Holland, C G Crawford and D G Murray, and having been pronounced ‘unjustifiable’ was again climbed in 1921 by C D Frankland and B Beetham. A third ascent was made in 1923 by A S Pigott, Morley Wood, and J B Meldrum; so ours was the fourth ascent and Frankland is thus the only man who has been up it twice. It was this, of course, which made it possible for us to climb it as we did, straight through without loss of time or undue expenditure of energy, and with very great enjoyment.
The rocks were dry, but not in perfect condition according to CDF, because of the amount of lichen which has grown on them since his last visit; but I cannot blame the lichen for the fact that during the first part of the climb I felt decidedly scared. No doubt I would have climbed better and more confidently had we done something rather more modest by way of prelude, for most of us probably take a little time to get warmed up, and this was again like meeting Botterill’s Slab early in the Traverse; but my nervousness was partly due to respect for the climb. It seemed a sort of impertinence to approach the Flake Crack at all — and I had dreamed of it for a year!
Up the rib on to the Oval was just good stiff face climbing with small holds which did not always appear when one first called for them. CDF seemed to walk up lightly with a jest about their insufficiency, and I crawled after, endorsing it heartily.
We had only an eighty-foot rope (which proved ample) and he ran out most of it on this section. When I joined him near the foot of the Flake he seemed wrapped in meditation. There was the question of that wretched thread belay. We both knew it wouldn’t be wanted, but of course it had to go on. He got up a short pitch, and I came right along to the foot of the Crack, where there is a good enough stance, narrow but quite sufficient. The left hand and arm can go right into the crack, but there is nothing to hold there, and there is nothing for the right hand. It is a position where the second can wait comfortably for any length of time in reason, but cannot safeguard the party. If the leader came off during the difficult business of climbing up to the chockstone and putting the loops of rope over it the second could not possibly save either of them. We therefore wasted — no, spent — about twenty minutes of precious time and temper, he trying to induce a loop of rope to pass behind a small chockstone near him, while I tried to see it, and then to catch it with the left hand and pull it through. Coils of rope seemed to be fed into the crack, while nothing happened so far as I could see! At last it appeared; I pulled it through and put my left arm through it. Meanwhile, however, there was time to examine the crack near me and I think that there is a small chockstone, far in and pretty low down, which might serve for a belay if it can be reached and if a rope will go round it. If so, it would be a great simplification and help at this part of the climb.
The loop belay settled, however, CDF led up the crack, and passed three loops over the chockstone and under him-self. I pulled on each loop to his direction, but not quite to his satisfaction, for the rope sagged a little, and he said the loops were lower than on his former ascent. He then called to me to come up as quickly as I could. I did so, but by this time was too excited to climb decently, and scrambled up in an untidy fashion, remarking as I arrived that I was tired. It was a thoroughly commonplace observation, meaning nothing, but was bad psychology, for I fear it alarmed my partner. But after the long wait and this short struggle, the next few moments of tense excitement and rapid action passed quickly, and I do not really know what happened; except that I got on to and over my partner and off his head as quickly as possible. He says he felt for my foot to hold it if necessary, but could not find it, and I do not know where it went. Probably, being slimmer than former climbers, I got farther into the crack, and chimneyed it. I faced out, and think there was a small hold far up on the inside wall. Almost at once I felt the top of the Flake with the left hand. ‘I’ve got it!’ I said, thrilled with the realisation that the thing was virtually done, and there probably was not a happier woman living at that moment!
There is a good belay a few feet along the Flake. I pulled in the slack as the loops were taken off the chockstone, and CDF came up very quickly on a tight rope. We looked at the traverse in front of us. It is a marvellous situation, and it is difficult now to believe that I have been there.
‘Beetham walked along that and coiled the rope,’ said CDF. ‘Well, I’m going to walk along it,’ I said, and did so, but with the utmost caution, and with both hands on the wall; and then saw to it that as CDF followed there wasn’t any loose rope for him to coil! Another upright piece of Flake follows (‘dead easy’) and another broader edge, still to the left and leading into a collection of broken rocks easily visible from below. Here CDF took the lead again, and just then we heard voices and came within sight of two men on Keswick Brothers, who asked with some interest what we were on.
‘Central Buttress: just got up the Flake,’ said my partner with careful indifference and just as his second appeared. There are moments when it is rather good fun to be a woman. Probably no lady in history was ever so sure of creating a mild sensation by the mere fact of being where she was.
The traverses to the right again, and especially the second one, are undoubtedly very thin indeed. Its poor handholds and sloping footholds are just about the limit. There is nothing to put one’s weight on, and the only method is a slow and careful change of balance. Nor must the climber take any risk of a slip, for though the stances are good, the belays are poor. The climb is by no means over when the famous Flake is conquered. But after the second traverse it is relatively easy, and my memory of its detail is vague.
There was a nice slabby wall presenting no special difficulty, and the climb finishes among several small slabs where I lost my partner’s trail, so that we chose different ones. We forgot to look at the time, but our patient support party watching from Hollow Stones, say it was just two and a half hours till they saw us on the sky line, and we joined them again in three hours exactly, having come down Moss Ghyll (without help from Professor Collie, as we think, but is there only one Step?)
I was told later that there had been some criticism and talk of risk taken on this climb, and I would like to say here that no risk whatever was taken by either climber. All the rules of the game were most carefully and conscientiously observed, and had there been any risk at any moment I should surely know it. I can also say quite honestly that at no point did I find myself having any serious difficulty with the climbing. Whatever he may say about it, I know very well who was the real leader at every point. Frankland found the route, carried through the difficult matter of engineering the loops over the chockstone, gave calm and clear directions, and took all responsibility. What remained for me was a very real sense of co-operation (absent in some measure from the stiffest slabs and traverses which can be done alone, for I do not think that the Flake Crack is possible for the safest solo climber), and a perfectly splendid climb throughout, compelling respect for it, and giving no excuse for carelessness or relaxed attention at any point. Yet nowhere was there much call upon my very small reserve of muscular strength, nor had I ever the feeling that my power was taxed to the uttermost, and the pitch unjustifiable without the moral support of the rope.'
FRCC Journal, Vol VII, No 1, 1925
With thanks to Lorna at Vertebrate Publishing for allowing us to include this in a blog post, we are most grateful. The vertebrate web address again is: http://www.v-publishing.co.uk/books/categories/millrace-outdoor.html