W3C A Day Out in the VW Beetle MEMORIES

The Beetle drew up outside the house, a hurried goodbye and out into the murky morning. Climbing in with my rucksack I greeted Bill and his dad who had come to pick me up. It was unusual for Bill to come down to Ambleside - there were few places to climb around Ambleside so usually I cycled up to his home in Little Langdale or met him at the Dungeon Ghyll Hotel for our days climbing.

This would be in the late 1960s. There was little or no rock climbing history in my family, except when a hound got "cragfast" and someone was lowered down on a rope to affect a rescue. Bill on the other hand came from a rock climbing family, his father Jim was a man who put up routes on high crags in the 1940s wearing, on occasions, nailed boots and using a hemp rope doing routes which even today some lycra clad "rock gymnasts" laden down with aid fail on. He was at his peak before the real advent of media and his story has not yet been told. (See links below.)

Off we went, by Rydal Lake and then over Dunmail Raise to Keswick and up the winding road through Borrowdale. It wasn't much of a morning, murky cloud hung low over the peaks with the promise of mist on the tops with associated rain or drizzle.

We parked up at the top of Honnister Pass and shouldering our rucksacks sought out the path that leads to Great Gable. Slowly we ascended the path and disappeared into the mist, the atmosphere was damp and, as it usually is in the mist, very quiet. I cannot recall seeing anyone on our way to Gable scree and I don't recall much conversation, I was lost in thought wondering how things would go.

You see, the lifelong problem I have suffered from is a bad fear of heights. As a "lad" I fought against it, making myself climb steep rock, occasionally leading but more often as second man where the shout, "tight rope, Bill," gave added confidence. In the end it beat me and today I keep away from the edge of things steep, but I gave it my best shot.

Soon our destination loomed out of the misty murk - Napes Needle, a triangular pillar of rock standing on the Wasdale face of Great Gable, slightly detached from the main crag. The Needle will be approximately 80 feet high, first solo-ed in June 1886 by Walter Parry Haskett-Smith, who, if I recall correctly, had seen a picture of it in the window of a shop in London and vowed to climb it, which he subsequently did, solo, leaving a white handkerchief wedged in a crack as proof.

On February 3, 1956, Harry Griffin wrote of Napes Needle, Great Gable...

"Just about 10 years ago, there died far from these hills, in distant Dorset, a lonely old man whose name will be revered in Lakeland and many places scattered about the world so long as men come to climb the rocks and walk the mountains.

"His name was Walter Parry Haskett-Smith and when he died, far from his friends, he was 85-years-old. He was the father of British rock climbing, the pioneer of the very earliest routes on half a dozen different Lakeland crags, and the man who first discovered and climbed Napes Needle.

"Nobody can be claimed as the 'inventor' of British rock-climbing but this tattered Old Etonian, with his ragged moustache and a glint in his eye, probably came nearer than anybody else."

The first ascent of the Needle was the start of English rock climbing and put Wasdale and particularly the Wasdale Head Hotel in the forefront of rock climbing. It seemed fitting therefore to try to climb it.

We sat at the base of the Needle and unpacked the rucksacks, an old hemp rope and a few hemp slings. No nylon rope in those days as I recall although one appeared soon afterwards.

We roped up, using the old bowline technique and off we went, while Jim found a comfortable seat nearby in order to watch proceedings. I cannot recall who led the first pitch to the shoulder - I have a feeling it might have been me but no matter. I do recall however sitting belayed with Bill as he prepared to lead the final pitch onto the top block. The mist was still enveloping the Needle and visibility was very limited, water dripped off the rock and it was quite slippery.

As my memory serves you go out to the left with your feet in the crack between the two blocks of rock, one piece perched on the other. You place your hands on the fairly flat top and you step up with your left foot onto a knob of very polished rock that protrudes from the side of the top block. A simple mantelshelf move then takes you to the top of the Needle. Sounds easy but there is a vertical drop below you.

This Bill accomplished with ease, took a belay around the top block and brought me up. I'd like to say I found it easy but the simple truth is I found it difficult. In those days the grading for our particular route was the old Hard V Diff - God knows what it is today where every move has to have a grade. Finally like a landed trout I sprawled on the top and clipped into the belay.

There wasn't much of a view, the mist hung around the crags above and as we looked out into a world of grey a breeze suddenly sprung up in the crag above where we were sitting and the mist began to disperse. Within minutes it cleared to our front and we were gazing down the Wasdale valley and the full length of the lake. I confess it added to the sense of exposure and I wasn't too enamoured of it.

Suddenly the top block to which we were belayed moved! Only slightly but enough to put the fear of God into me - this caused some mirth on Bill's part shared in equal measure by his dad sitting on the ground below. He, unknown to me and no doubt encouraged by his father, had gently rocked the block.

The retreat from the top block was from my point of view desperate. It was not graceful and done on a tight rope; Bill followed me without any difficulty and as I recall we abseiled from the shoulder to the ground, classical style as we had no safety harness. It had only just been invented in those days and was unavailable to us.

The landing on the turf at the base of the Needle came as a relief and I looked up at it in silhouette, in some ways disappointed it was over but in other ways glad it was. We returned to the Beetle parked at Honnister Quarry car park and began the journey home - the day had turned out nice in more ways than one.


Before I published the above piece on the web site I emailed it to Bill to check my memory was the same as his - this is his reply.

Dear Ron,

Smashing, really enjoyed reading it, please go ahead and use it at will.

Only one n in Honister!

I'll get the other stuff to you ASAP (next few days) - rather under pressure just at the moment.

Bill Birkett
Member: British Guild of Travel Writers, Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, Writers and Photographers Unlimited, Society of Authors.

Links to pages about Jim Birkett:
Mountain Heritage
The Independent
The Guardian

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