Tag Archives: mountaineering

A long-ago winter’s day on Coniston Old Man

When I look back over more than forty years of hillwalking and mountaineering, starting in 1977 and continuing to the present day, there are a small handful of summits I find I have visited time and time again. Tryfan and Snowdon are two of them; Blencathra is a third. I was very surprised to find, when I started preserving my written mountaineering logbooks, that the Old Man of Coniston (803m) was actually quite high on my list.

We visit the mountain here in February 1986, in what were superb, icy-cold snowy winter conditions: quite remarkable for the English Lake District even forty years ago. I rather suspect that we shall not in our lifetime see snow like that in the Lakes. But one may hope.

Five of us left the hut in Coniston and walked up the path, towards Low Water. A tedious slog saw us into the Low Water corrie in deep snow, where we practiced ice techniques for a while on a large, gently sloping icefall. We went on up a gully to the right of Low Water Crag. Apart from a steep grassy step, it was easy but very satisfying snow climbing. It brought us out in due course onto the unconscionably cold and icy summit of Brim Fell.

Nick Hough on Brim Fell February 1986

In mist we continued south along the ridge, which looked quite alarmingly sharp in winter conditions. Snow can sometimes have the effect of making the merely British hill look alpine, and give the appearance of difficulty to what is merely straightforward. I recall being told that one of the first French mountaineers to see the Snowdon Horseshoe in winter, in the late 19th century, wildly over-estimated the height, length and complexity of the route under winter conditions. The party got to the start of Crib Goch, and saw Snowdon in the distance, covered in snow, looking very Alpine. The french mountaineer declared that the summit of Snowdon was too far away to reach from where they stood, in daylight.

Coniston Old Man was iced over, but not completely covered; the Lakeland summits are not high enough to permit a serious build-up of snow. We left north, as the mist cleared to reveal Goat Hause and Dow Crag. We stopped for lunch at Goat Hause and continued across rather rough mixed ground, which was very hard on the crampons. This would be scree in summer and there would be a perfectly obvious path to follow. We were aiming for a snow gully at the northern end of Dow Crag. The first section was just drifted snow, but soon it became some rather trickier frozen-over grass and rock steps. Nearer the top we moved over a rocky rib into the next most southern gully, which was well in condition, packed with hard snow, especially near the top. It twisted away below us down to Goat Water. [It is entirely possible that the photograph of me that opens this article, was actually taken here. At 40 years remove I cannot be sure.]

Not sure where we are here: except it must be broadly west into the sun at that time of year and time of day. Possibly taken from Swirl How. The small lake middle left may be Devoke Water. February 1986.

This was fulfilling and satisfying work, a great end to the route as we scrambled out onto the summit of Dow, to clearing weather and the sight of the Scafell massif absolutely plastered in snow. The weather was photograph-clear. From Dow, we considered our options, and moved onto Grey Friar. When we got there, it was cold, and windy, and we were becoming rather tired. We thundered around the hause and up the gentle slope to Swirl How.

This is Seathwaite Tarn – a reservoir

From Swirl How there is a very steep ridged descent called the “Prison Band”. This was excellent sport downhill to Swirl Hause, and from there, down to Levers Water through a good foot of soft powdery snow. That was hard going. In the sky, pastel hues of pink and yellow, a beautiful evening in the making. An absolutely grand day. Down past the iced-over quarry roads through the Coppermines Valley, arriving at the hut around 5pm.

Levers Water, late afternoon, February 1986

The ongoing project of preserving paper notes of mountaineering and hillwalking going back as far as 1983, can be browsed here: https://plateroom28.blog/great-outdoors/

Curved Ridge

Whilst I was physically unhurt by what happened at Curved Ridge, I don’t doubt that it had a deep and lasting effect on my psyche. Rob and I (Rob was the lad from Kingussie who knocked me from my perch on the ice) had no business surviving such a fall.

I recall falling head down on my back, and tipping head over heels, until I was facing inwards to the snow and ice, head uppermost. I came to a halt. I truly don’t know how that happened, because I had let go of my ice-axes, and they dangled uselessly on their wrist cords. They played no part in my narrow escape from death. One might retain no composure at all during such an event. One moment I was climbing a fifteen foot wall of ice and someone shouted “Watch out”! The next moment I was off and falling. In fact my colleague, hoping to snap a racy and exciting action shot of me battling my way up the ice pitch, had slipped and plunged off downwards, unfortunately landing on me on the way past.

When my wits returned – it was probably no more than a few seconds of confusion – I found myself on the steep snow below the short ice pitch. Of my friend there was no sign. My first understanding was that we had been caught by an avalanche. A few glances about me, however, and I knew the truth, that we had fallen off. I looked around for Rob, but of him there was no sign.

Darren, the third member of our team, bravely made his way unaided down the ice pitch we had been climbing, and together we gazed into the depths. It was entirely possible that a small yellow speck on the snowfield a thousand feet below was the broken body of our friend. He could not have survived such a fall. It was a sour moment.

We could not follow him down the cliffs of Buchaille Etive Mor, the mountain we were climbing. To get down, we had to move on up to the summit. Girding our loins, we set off, hurrying up and over the top. We went swiftly on down into easier terrain, country where we might walk without risk of falling to our death. After an hour or so, we chanced upon some of our colleagues from the mountaineering club, to whom we relayed the terrible news. All of them were stunned to silence, appalled at the news of violent death. Someone immediately set off on foot to raise the alarm – this was 1986, long before the advent of mobile phones. The rest of us moved in a group around the skirts of the mountain, through the melting snow, to search for Rob. At this point I was suddenly struck with a tremendous fatigue. I felt terribly guilty about it, as if I was betraying my friend. I could go no further; I was almost staggering with exhaustion. That I had myself been involved in a serious fall, that I was bruised and in shock, and had narrowly escaped with my life, did not occur to me. I felt bad that I could not keep up with my companions.

And so it was that that paragon of the mechanical engineering department, Mr. Ray Boucher, came into view some time later, with unlooked-for good news. Rob lived yet! The best news ever delivered in a strong Ulster accent. By some miracle he had survived a fall of some fifteen hundred feet. Really this was what I needed to hear; uncaring of anything else, I felt I could retreat to the minibus without further disgrace. I recall stumbling right through the icy and swirling waters of the river, hip deep, unheeding of the cold and wet, the quicker to get back to the minibus.

Much later there was the helicopter, settling onto the car park in the grey and blustery afternoon. In the artificial gale caused by the helicopter, an old Citroen 2CV in the car park was rocking back and forth on its springs to such an extent that we thought it would blow away. From the chopper emerged Mr. Hamish McInnes, mountaineer extraordinaire and leader of the Glen Coe mountain rescue team. He was dressed in immaculate light blue Gore-Tex over-trousers. The Great Man spoke briefly with us, telling me that Rob and I were incredibly lucky to have escaped with our lives. More chance of winning the football pools than both of us surviving such a fall, he said. Odd that. It didn’t feel like I had won the pools. I’ve thought about it a bit then and since, thought about other narrow escapes. Is there destiny? Does God in Heaven direct the affairs of men, delivering one, whilst allowing another to die alone and in pain? I didn’t really consider myself important enough to be delivered from death, and still don’t, but that never stopped me wondering.

Rob dislocated his hip. He fell over a thousand feet over snow and ice and rock and dislocated his hip. And that astonishing luck meant that he made the Daily Mail, as did I myself in a small paragraph in the same article. In hindsight he reflected that the dislocation of his hip had done more damage and hurt more than if he had actually broken his leg. He was on crutches for months and limping for longer still.

 That summer I put the Curved Ridge accident behind me. Three of us went to Glen Brittle on Skye in an old black Mk I Escort, and climbed and walked the Black Cuillin. It is only a coincidence, so I tell myself, that I have not climbed ice since the fall at Curved Ridge. The final word? News of the accident, published as it was in the local press and even in the “Daily Mail”, made it to the ears of a teacher from my old school. He was a very experienced alpiniste, a climber of an entirely different stamp to me. He said to me at beer one night, in jocular reference to an article in the local press,

“So did you fall off the dangerous and treacherous Curved Ridge or was it the easy and classic Curved Ridge?”