GLIMPSES OF A LIFE, 13: NEEDLE RIDGE
1956. Aged 17. School friend Ben and I were having a Spring holiday in Borrowdale in the English Lake District for the second year running. This year Rodney came too and we were camping rather than youth-hostelling. We felt that hostelling had been too restrictive because of the need to pre-book the hostels, and thus our exact route for the whole week.
Following day one’s bus and scramble to the top of Helvellyn via the wonderful and hair-raising Striding Edge, we were trudging down the road towards the field where our tents were pitched:
“Hi! I thought I might run into you lot. Where’d you go today?”
It was a boy from our school two years above us. We hardly knew him beyond knowing his name was Warwick Wilkinson.
“Hi Warwick!” Ben said. “How did you know where we were camping?”
“I overheard you planning, back at school.”
“In other words you were eavesdropping,” Rodney challenged.
“Keep your hair on, Rodney. I’m offering to help you chaps out. Would you like me to take you rock climbing tomorrow? I’ve got all the kit we’ll need.”
“Golly! I’d love that,” I said.
“Me too,” Ben agreed.
“Hang on! Will you …. Are you qualified for this?”
“You’re quite right to ask, Rodney,” Warwick replied. “Yes I am. My dad’s a professional climber. He’s been teaching me intensively since I was ten. So I know more or less all there is to know about rock climbing. Bugger all else, mind! I’m about to fail all my A-level exams next term, but I couldn’t give a damn.” He grinned cheerfully.
For my part I was starting to think we were in the presence of a god.
“So, can we meet at nine o’clock tomorrow at the entrance to Seathwaite car-park?” Warwick asked.
Ben and I reached the rendezvous ten minutes early (Rodney had cried off, and Ben lent him his map for the day). Warwick soon arrived. We took off along the bridleway following the River Derwent upstream to Stockley Bridge. The bridleway turned right across the river, and we continued steeply uphill to reach Sty Head. Here, Warwick turned west along a narrow footpath. We reached a tall, slender pinnacle of rock (680 meters high), with a huge chunk of rock balanced on top of it.
“That,” Warwick said, “is called Napes Needle, and worry you not, we’re not going to climb it. We will be going that way.” He pointed to the massive heave of mountain known as Great Gable, of which the Needle was an outcrop. He showed us how to tie the rope round our waists. He would lead at the top of the rope, I was to be number two in the middle, and Ben number three at the end. He explained that there would never be more than one person climbing at a time. Warwick had planned it in three pitches. At the end of each pitch it was always the first task for the person above the current climber to belay the rope between them with three turns around a suitable pinnacle of rock. As the climber below climbs, the one above will wind the rope around the belay. Thus the person climbing is always protected if he should fall, with, of course, the exception of number one. “That’s why he’s called the leader and knows what he’s doing,” as Warwick put it.
The memory of this climb, beyond the fact that it was wildly exciting, I have largely lost – with the exception of the second pitch. This was along a narrow ledge, about two centimetres wide for the most part, running diagonally up a rock-face at an angle of about 45°. There were a few handholds at a usable height along the way. I had watched Warwick step along the ledge with apparent ease until he reached a small rock platform at the end of the pitch. He belayed the rope and called me on up.
Jesus, I can’t do that! But I must. I’ve just got to. I very slowly stepped along the ledge, face pressed against the rock, desperately grasping at hand-holds in the rock when I could – often no more than swellings in the cliff. About half-way along I took another small step. My foot slipped off. I fell. I continued dropping. Help! At last the rope went tight. But it was stretching. I fell another couple of feet – and I was swinging like a pendulum across the cliff – from side to side about a foot from the rock-face. I pushed my boots forward to drag on the cliff and stop the pendulum. Slowly, slowly with the help of knobs and cracks in the rock I pulled myself up the cliff, with Warwick keeping the rope tightly belayed. I have no memory – none at all – of the rest of that day. Not surprising, I suppose.”