The life aquatic: England, part two

Thinking back on my trip through England, I came to a couple of major conclusions that fit in with the stories from the trip. So without further ado, here they are.

Conclusion #1: The Pacific Northwest of the US needs to stop pretending they have it especially wet. Unless you live in Forks, Glacier, or Skykomish, the English are way, way wetter and less perturbed about it than you. And if you do live in those towns, you’re probably about on par with the climbing conditions we encountered on my first outing with Rich T. and Rich B. upon arriving back in the Lake District.

I did some cursory research before leaving for the UK. The Peak District is more like a bunch of rolling hills, and the Lake District is where they actually have mountains. However, as we rolled into Old Dungeon Ghyll, I realized that how the dry the road is has nothing to do with whether or not climbing is going to happen. Because Rich and Rich racked up, we made it up Middle Fell Buttress, and headed on to Gimmer Crag where the conditions were somewhat near the Underwater variety.

Yep. We climbed up that slippery sheet of lichen. Not a bolt in sight, and Rich T. made his way up, over, and around. Some of the footholds were puddles. I found myself longing for dry cracks to jam a fist into. Looking back, my facial expression reveals that I was having a lot of fun, and seriously impressed that we weren’t aid climbing. Our middle belay, below D route.

Rich B. then led D route. Somewhere near the spot in this photo, Rich T. described the conditions as “a bit grim.”

I’d have to agree. It was slippery. And since I was following, I had the task of pulling the gear from the rock, knowing full well that the experienced folks ahead of me wouldn’t be rappelling abseiling back down. Thus did I fail to pull a number 4 wallnut from where it had seated in an underclinging crack. It’s yours for the taking. And as I’m not experienced enough to know if it was truly lost, or if I just suck at removing stuck nuts, I did replace it for Rich B.

Toping out. I believe this is called the lunatic grin. Apparently, the old school climbers would put socks on over their boots when conditions were like this. However, the new “light and fast” movement has dispensed with the sodden socks, such that they’re climbing in the same conditions without the added grip.

Here’s the Riches cleaning up.

Some casual scrambling took us to the summit, where I discovered that our alpine-style ascent had been bested by a veritable herd of free soloists using natural fibers for their outerwear:

Which leads to conclusion number two: sheep poo is practically indistinguishable from mud. Sheep may not be everywhere in England, but they were almost everywhere I went that wasn’t in a town. There’s probably a process whereby the poo becomes the mud, making it some level of continuum between stages. And somehow, it was always on my shoes.

This trend continued the next day, on my second venture with Rich T. up and across Striding Edge to Helvellyn.

What’s usually a few hour run for Rich proved to be a very nice day hike hill walk up and around the rolling hills. Striding Edge is famous enough to warrant its own postcard. Apparently, people like to fall off on a somewhat regular basis.

Which makes sense, because some of the rocks were, you guessed it, wet. I have to give serious credit for the summit wind shelter though: the X shape design doesn’t even begin to question that the wind might come from any given direction at any time, so it’s just prepared for the eventuality. We really didn’t have much wind. It was a nice, calm place to hang out while Rich filled me in on an absurd 65 mile run he’s planning over basically every hill and valley that we could see from up there.

The peaks of the Lake District remind me of the Two Medicine area of Glacier, but covered almost entirely in grass (and sheep poo). There’s a serene beauty to them that doesn’t come with more rocky outcrops. I found myself really enjoying the contrast, green, and general calm that comes with these places.

Over one roll, Rich had a surprise for me. I can only describe it as inspired madness. Way up in the hills, at least an hour’s walk from the nearest road, a creaky looking platter rests between rows of snow fence. It’s the project of the Lake District Ski Club, and it boasts nine “unique” and ungroomed pistes. A season pass costs 55 pounds quid and even after hauling gear uphill for an hour, members often have to shovel out the lift before using it.

I have nothing but respect for the people that operate and ski at Raise. And next time I go back, I really hope there’s snow, because this seems like the best idea ever: put a big walk before the lifts to cut down on numbers. Then go out and play on your club tow with your buddies. Brilliant.

There’s also a serious sense of history in the area, owing to a quarry that’s a casual three hundred years old or so. Debris from whatever they were mining is everywhere. It sort of looks like natural talus to ignorant American eye. On the trail switchbacks, I threw out one, and only one, exceptionally Texan “Howdy” to a group of hikers going the other way. They immediately fell silent, and I don’t know if they heard me chuckling with mirth as I walked off.

My Texan accent must have registered with the place, though. On the absolute last grass/water/mud/poo slope before the car, I managed to completely lose my footing and land ass first. Which meant I went into Whole Foods Booth’s looking exactly like a muddy American.

Given that my runners trainers had yet to dry out, I realized that rubber boots might be the absolute best footwear for these sorts of places at this time of the year. However, rubber boots make things a little bit harder when my third conclusion is brought into play: Never, ever bolt anything.

I was told that there are indeed sport climbing crags in England. They do exist. But the general ethic of trad crags are far more in keeping with the climb-in-the-rain philosophy I’ve already described. The third day I was in the lakes, Rich T. and I headed out to Trowbarrow. It’s an old quarry, with a few rusted out pitons serving as the only fixed protection on the wall. A quick survey eliminated most of the easier leads as too damp. So Rich saddled up and lead some bizarre English grade that I don’t particularly understand, but felt between 5.9 and 5.10.

En route, he managed to dry out a few of the wetter spots with chalk, so I had that benefit for my follow. The little pourovers in the limestone made for an aesthetic finish.


Given that this was a crag, I thought that we’d just rappel abseil off, per the typical American custom. Nope. We did more soggy walking down a footpath in climbing shoes. And after some brief but thorough instruction from Rich, I managed my first trad lead ever up Coral Sea. It’s apparently named after the fossils that can be seen in the wall.

The leading success continued a couple days later, when I managed to actually swing leads with Rich B (I think he did the harder ones) when we went someplace that had Pinnacle in its name. For a trad newb, it was a really cool introduction to not just looking for the next hold, but also thinking about the next protection while climbing. So now I face the financial doom that is acquiring a trad rack–I swear that just when you seem to have the gear program dialed, something new comes along to ensure that it stays expensive.

Looking up at the Pinnacle thing. I got to lead the top pitch, which went around the upper arete, and was super fun and exposed. If it looks wet, the bottom most certainly was. Rich B. clarified that the international wetness scale is nothing like the English wetness scale. Worse, the video (forthcoming at some point) clearly shows that he totally forgot about the sopping lower section when the upper section was “bone dry!”

Looking down from the top:

More confirmation that the Lakes aren’t ugly:

Walking out from the crag, we passed through a few of the fields in the lower left of the above photo. There’s a lot of public rights of way dating back to some seriously bygone era, meaning that access is a lawful right through many pieces of private land. Which leads me to another conclusion about the places I visited: wandering around has some serious history. After one day of computering, Rich T. and I went for a fell run. I took the term literally and fell into some rocks on the downhill during the gathering dusk. We went over some stiles, ran past some lakes, and it was gorgeous. I also remembered why running hills is hard.

I’m going to skip the tourist day that I spent in Windermere. Conclusion: you don’t care about me eating cheese and crackers by a lake. 

The last part of my trip included a few days at the Kendal Mountain Festival. It’s pretty dang similar to what Banff is like when you actually go to Banff, but there’s a higher concentration of serious mountain talent from Britain and Europe. Basically, we walked around town, ate, watched films, and went climbing. Cheers to Sam for meeting up for lunch. And yet another conclusion: when England does put up bolts inside, it does it right. 25 meters of overhanging pump to keep things interesting in Kendal.

A couple shots from wandering around Kendal:

I managed to meet a few really neat folks too, so cheers to Ben, Abs, and Tom, and also to the gents at Whitedot. Thanks to Rich W. and Rich T. for all the help around town. One big highlight, personally, was when Bjarne Salen got the whole crowd on their feet and yelling for Andreas Fransson. Thanks for that.

On my last day, I woke up hungover after going to sleep at 3am. I wandered town for a bit, met up with Rich T, and we took a stroll over to the Kendal Ski Club with the idea that we’d check it out.

And as it does, one thing lead to another. Whitedot was doing a demo, their rep had pants, the kind folks at the ski hill saw fit to let me borrow boots and poles, and before I knew it, I was on the little carrot tow.

The surface is something like mats of the fibers from fine hair brushes. In that picture, you can see all the sprinklers that keep it wet (it has to be wet, of course), and sliding down it is something like the texture of skiing under a snow gun. The Club had a couple jumps, a quarter pipe, and even some moguls. I made laps for about an hour, and the grin on my face in that photo stuck around into the afternoon. Thanks to everyone who got me on the hill. Conclusion: heart matters more than snow if you really want to go skiing.

That afternoon, I headed back down to Manchester on the train, spent an excellent evening with Rich W., then headed to the airport in the morning. More or less the last thing that I saw before takeoff:

Conclusion: there’s an airline out there where the inflight entertainment is nothing but epic guitar solos. 

This whole trip wouldn’t have been possible without the support of everyone at Mountain Equipment. Thanks for bringing me over, including me in the family, showing me around, and supporting me in what I do. Duncan Machin deserves a huge helping of accolades for his detail wizardry and for putting up with my emails. Rich T. , Steph, and Serin have my gratitude for letting me invade their home for most of my stay in the lakes, and for showing me around along with the guidance of Rich B. Cheers to the Kendal Ski Club for letting me slide. Thanks to Sam and Hannah for their hospitality in Manchester, and to Rich W. and Sandra for theirs in the same.

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