Friday, 11 May 2012

Pillar Rock, Ennerdale

It’s May. People are either stressing before or after exams. All of my big coursework deadlines were last week, so I was pleased to finally rid of the last report on Friday. The previous weekend was spent living in a computer cluster on Leeds campus, which meant that I had to make up for it the following weekend. When the opportunity of three days in the Lake District reared its head, I pounced.

Matt had an agenda for the weekend that went something like – camping in Buttermere and multi-pitch climbing in Ennerdale. I didn’t know anymore than that, but it sounded perfect so I got my kit together hours after I’d handed in my last piece of work.

Staying at Syke Farm campsite near the shores of Buttermere lake, I realised I’d been here before on a rainy Gold DofE expedition, years ago. We had tried to dry off in the stone shelter there on a dark, miserable night, to no avail. Still, it was great to be back, this time with clear, hot weather.

On the Saturday morning we packed up camp, Dave, Matt and I, in search of Pillar Rock for a good climb. I was told it would be cold - freezing in fact, with wind, rain and possibly snow coming our way. Embracing the last of the warmth, I zipped up full winter waterproofs. This was regrettable, since I haven’t got a Saharan expedition coming up anytime soon that I should prepare for... immediately sweating buckets. The walk around Buttermere lake was picture perfect mind, the cool waters shimmering, inviting you in.

Buttermere Lake

We ploughed on up the pass between Haystacks and High Crag, away from the lake, sweating as we went. We were going steady but still relatively quick, and I was feeling dehydrated already. Since Dave had no water bottle, we’d be sharing supplies between us, so I rationed my water and put up with the thirst.

The walk into Ennerdale valley from Buttermere is one of scale and solitude. The area feels remote; only large swathes of forest, a 4x4 road and a river running through it. I could picture parts of Canada’s wilderness looking just the same. Pillar Rock is a great triangle of volcanic rock halfway down the valley, the face of ‘Pillar’ mountain, which stands at 892 metres.

The approach was not easy, using a combination of guidebooks and map to skirt below a grassy terrace at the base of Pillar Rock, and to bypass a slimy gorge aside the face. Added to the scree, any ascent of Pillar becomes a proper mountain route and a full day out.

The first pitch

New West Route is a popular Diff climb of 5 pitches. It starts with good, steady climbing, but then becomes more tricky and exposed, with an awkward traverse and a more awkward ‘chimney shuffle’. I was blaming my big boots at this point for their bulk and clumsiness. I think a day of not much water and even less food was taking its toll. Matt had to lead every pitch, since I'd lost my energy and any psyche for the route, and Dave, who started the weekend with no food, was even worse. The sky had clouded over and a slight breeze was making the place uncomfortably cold. Stiff limbs are just no good for climbing.

Matt leads NWR

We should have enjoyed the route more, but we were slow to make progress. I was pleased to be moving through the last couple of pitches steadily, topping out to late-evening, golden sun catching the rock. Some more route finding and an abseil later and we were down.

Evening sun on Pillar Rock

The beauty of our route was that from Pillar Rock, we could trek up and over Pillar, onto Scoat Tarn. It had been one of ‘those days’ – a twelve hour day, a complete bastard at times in the heat and in the cold, but beautiful as well to see Buttermere, Ennerdale and to climb the iconic Pillar Rock. We camped at Scoat Tarn that night in solitude and trekked for another two hours in the morning to get bacon butties at Wasdale. It was the antidote I needed that weekend, to escape the grip of coursework and exams. When you’re thinking so hard about where to get your next meal from, your mind rarely turns to the mundane idea of exams.

Thanks to Dave Williamson and Matt Fuller for their photos and companionship.

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