My scattered thoughts were broken by a cry of terror from above. Powerless horror gripped me as I watched my father plummet down the mountain. He flailed uselessly, limbs finding no purchase on the treacherous icy rock. I could only stare, and wait for the rope to pull tight and drag me off with him. One thought cut through the numbness of my mind with stark clarity, a thousand childish fears merged into one; will it hurt? I closed my eyes. Gasps and screams, and then…nothing. There was no wrench at my harness, no endless fall. Holding my breath, I looked down, and saw Dad lying motionless, perhaps ten feet above a cliff edge. The belay had held. A mere sling, draped around a tiny outcrop of stone had saved all our lives. The platform Jordan and I were perched upon was less than a foot wide, and made up of loose, crumbling snow. We would never have held Dad’s fall. Slowly, my breathing returned to normal, and I tried to concentrate on the task ahead. We weren’t safe yet, not by a long way.
Our objective was a huge rock buttress situated on Brown Cove Crag, the north face of Helvellyn; England’s third highest mountain. Its first ascent hadn’t been until 2008, and we planned to climb a variation of that route. The previous day we had climbed a new route up the side of Sharp Edge, a knife edge ridge that lead to the summit of the 2848 foot Blencathra, and filled with confidence, we wanted to try something longer and harder.
We quickly walked up the path that lead to the summit of Helvellyn, then turned off at the foot of Brown Cove Crag, and made our way to the base of the left buttress. From below it looked like an impenetrable maze of ice laden rocks, and as I tightened my harness and tied onto the rope, I felt the thrill of anticipation run through me. I was doing what I loved most, in a beautiful part of the world so few people ever saw. My climbing partners, Dad and my friend Jordan, were similarly thoughtful, and kept glancing upwards and flashing nervous smiles at each other. I had lead the Blencathra climb, and now it was dad’s turn. He tied onto the front end of the rope and began the first pitch. Although I was probably the most skilled climber among us, Dad was far safer. He would always make sure we were protected, whereas I, driven by a mix of blind optimism and ego, simply wouldn’t bother, confident I was too good to fall off.
The first few pitches were an interesting mix of snow slopes, rock and ice, and we made fast progress up the buttress. I lost myself within the motions of climbing, barely realising how steep the angle was getting. We were moving well, and working as a team. I didn’t even notice the thick mist which clung to the mountain, obscuring our view. The bottom of the buttress was barely visible itself, and already a long way below us. After an hour or so, we were well over half way, and had encountered no real difficulties. Dad and Jordan were waiting on a narrow ledge on top of a steep snow slope, and as I reached it, Dad set a belay and started up the next section. As far as I could see, the rest of the climb would be 70-80 degree snow, and should present no problems. How wrong I was.
Dad had climbed about twenty feet or so when he fell. The belay held, and he shakily regained his high point and shouted down to us.
“There’s a huge patch of shit ice here! The whole slope is cr*p, and I can’t find a belay point!”
Endless minutes passed, and Dad slowly edged up the mountain, desperately looking for something, anything to set a belay on. Eventually he disappeared around a corner, taking the last of the slack with him. Jordan had no choice but to start climbing. I remained where I was, on the loose, treacherous ledge, responsible for safeguarding the only half decent belay we had. If either of them slipped, they would fall 40 feet at the very least. I clung to the icy rock, unable to move. Soon Jordan was out of sight, and I was alone, adrift in a sea of cold mist. Every time I called to Jordan I got the same response; that the climbing was hard, and Dad still hadn’t found a belay. A chill settled into my body, and I furiously rubbed and clapped my hands, trying to regain a little warmth. I couldn’t do anything about my feet. If I moved them, I would fall.
I guess I waited for about half an hour on the ledge, but it felt like an eternity. My teeth were chattering, I couldn’t feel my hands or feet, and I was beginning to wonder if I was actually capable of climbing the rest of the buttress. Then Jordan called down to me, his voice distorted by the wind. Had Dad finally set a belay? Hope filled me, and I asked him to repeat himself.
“We’ve run out of rope! Can you uncoil some more?”
So they still weren’t protected, and I doubted the climbing was any easier. Balancing on my precarious perch, I undid my rucksack, untied the rope, and unwrapped the spare coils from my shoulder. The whole process probably took about five minutes. Slowly, the slack rope trickled away, and I resumed my lonely vigil on the ledge. Finally, just as I was getting seriously worried, Jordan called down and told me to climb up.
What followed was undoubtedly the hardest piece of mountaineering I have ever done. My hands were so numb I couldn’t even feel my ice axe, let alone grip it properly. Every time I swung it into the slope, it bounced straight back out again. I was left with no choice but to trust all my weight upon the front points of my crampons, tiny spikes which dug perhaps two centimetres into the snow. Inch by inch, I climbed upwards, leg muscles screaming at me. Every few feet I encountered a protruding boulder, essentially making the climbing vertical. Jordan was meters above me, balancing on two rocks, his face showing utter exhaustion. I looked upwards, and saw Dad’s head poking over the top of the buttress. He had climbed the entire slope without a belay. At least if I fell it wouldn’t be too far. I hardened my resolve and attacked the mountain face, determined not to let it beat me. By this point, I was so tired I had to tuck the ice axe under my shoulder and throw myself forwards, hoping the pick would hold. Finally, just when I thought my strength had entirely gone, I reached the top of the route, and emerged onto a narrow ridge, which would lead to the summit of Helvellyn.
Exhausted, we slumped in the snow, put on spare warm clothes and gorged on biscuits and flapjacks. There was no question of going on to the top; the mist was so thick there would be no point. All we wanted to do was get down as fast as possible. Like drunks, we staggered down the track, and eventually reached the bottom just as it got dark. It had been an incredible days climbing, a proper “epic”. It reminded me of all the reasons why I loved the mountains, and willingly put myself in such perilous situations. Climbing completed me, and made life seem so full and rich and worthwhile. Our route, for all its moments of anxiety and raw fear, had been a fantastic challenge. The final pitch had been desperate and exposed, and I admired Dad for leading it so well, despite the appalling lack of protection. A quick check of the guidebook confirmed that most of our route was previously unclimbed. Flushed with victory, we gave it the only name that seemed appropriate. “F**k…”