Two go play on Blea
It’s 4am and the alarm bleeps and within 2 seconds it’s been switched off, a combination of light sleep through excitement and ‘it’s too early’ autopilot that kicks in. Peter and I are soon up and out of bed, he’s gone to the kitchen to put the kettle on, I’ve gone to the toilet. We keep the chatter quiet, respectful of our buddies who are still sound asleep. All of our kit was packed and pretty much ready to go to minimise fuss and challenge at such an early hour, as well as the calamitous ‘you packed the ropes didn’t you?!’ – Yes, it has happened before.
We walked into the cold morning air by 4.30, although there was no frost on the car windscreens we were still going to stick to the plan. Drive round to Hawes Water in the Eastern Lakes with our goal being Blea Icefall. Driving down the final road approach by the side of the Lake a road sign appeared saying closed, which we chose to ignore. The car park, to our surprise, was empty – so far so good. The morning beauty was yet to be realised, still held in the clutches of darkness and requiring head torches, but the crescent moon cast what felt like white silhouettes of the snow covered hills, beneath the starry sky.
It wasn’t a particularly good sign that the path was covered with running water in places, although the sound was enchanting, as this was indicating the level of freeze was limited, but there was no question that we were going to turn back. The path disappeared under snow once we reached the dam and by this time the light was changing to the warming morning hues. There was still no sign of following head torches. The going under foot was tough, one second the snow crust was holding your weight and then the next breaking through, shocking muscles and draining energy. The snow depth varied from ankle to near knee deep and breaking trail became exhausting at times, but I found the distraction of the black lake beneath us and the anticipatory excitement of what was to come kept my mind off the tiredness that was entering my legs.
I still had an expectant eye on the trail we left behind, to be picked up by another team, thankful of a trail already broken, but still there were no sighting. From a distance we tried to make out Birkett’s Gully, an addition to the ice fall, but it was unlikely that it would be in condition. However, we still took the opportunity to sight ourselves in for the next trip. The route was clearly not as well formed as we had hoped and on turning the final corner we stood below a partially formed ice fall, which meant it was also a partial waterfall! The signs were certainly there earlier in the day as to this being a likelihood, however it was climbable.
Call me paranoid, but in winter you expect to be followed in by others or following them, but today was different and in many ways unbelievable. Sure, conditions weren’t great but the ice was there and I’ve seen and heard others going up in far sketchier conditions than those in front of us.
So, we kitted up at the bottom, Peter leading the first pitch which was a bit like a game show of dodge the flowing water which became an increasing challenge as the ice broke off from the rock. The internal narrative begins – ‘are you going to leave any ice for me?!’ I also stood in wonder as I watched Peter’s gloved hand right in the waters flow,’ what the heck is he doing?’, I can be somewhat hydrophobic in such situations, I don’t like getting wet and cold unless I have to. Once Peter was belayed I started my own game of water dodging and feeling smug each time I came off dry. I was more than happy, giggling away to myself, occasionally looking behind me, no longer for another approaching party, but at the stunning back drop and how the landscape changes as my perspective changed with elevation.
Clearly the less than fully formed ice steps and bulges presented an alternative ‘groovy’ feature. This was absorbing stuff and not straightforward, it required a little more finesse and thought, gingerly edging my feet up, increasingly wider apart until I was able to get a decent placement with my axes or rather one axe before I could trust to pull up on it. With each placement the choices of options for feet narrowed, so some funky moves, and knocking down some more ice, enabled me to surmount the bulge and head up to below the final ice wall. It was a stunning rippled steep slab, but had a slightly unnerving hollow thud with the sound of water running behind the ice. Smiling away I continued up the slab to the final belay. I sat myself down looking back towards Hawes and Blea water’s with a wonderful sense of satisfaction and joy.
Although we were at the top of the route we still had a fair way to go to the summit, so we packed away the ropes and worked our way around a few rocky bulges and snow slopes to a sheltered spot behind a rock monolith for Peter’s surprise – a homemade mince pie and a flask of Darjeeling tea- what a treat. It felt like everything stopped as the joy increased and the common experience of a sense of heightened taste buds, both tasted pretty flippin’ good. All that was missing was an armchair and an open fire, but in a perverse way that’s what made it so special, it was the total opposite.
Once we left our sheltered spot we were getting knocked about by the cold wind and the trudge to the summit felt endless, our partnership had shifted, no longer joined by a rope, but feeling two separate units working away on a cold, baron and windswept mountain. I felt the remoteness of our location once I looked across at Peter amongst the whiteness of the mountain. It felt like both of us were plodding with heads down keen to get to the ridge of our descent, here we would rejoin in regular conversation aided by some shelter from the wind.
I was tired walking off and when we reached Blea water we finally got to see some other folk, two pairs. We returned to the car and I sat back into the comfy seat and looked at the clock – 13:19, and my next thought developed as Peter took his seat – ‘back for a sauna then?’ ‘definitely’.