CLIMBING NAPES NEEDLE
Trail squares up to the Lake District's most infamous pinnacle. And cries.
This article appeared in the April 2006 edition of Trail Magazine
I'm shaking. Hard. It could be the cold. It probably isn't.
Rearing 22m above me into the cindery Wasdale sky is a sight to freeze-dry my mouth and turn my knees to sponge. It looks every bit the monstrous, ice-shattered ziggurat as it does in those ancient photographs - minus the rope-laden Victorian standing atop it. Those pictures of this rock spawned rock-climbing as we know it. And even today, that's how it remains: a monochromatically revered, feared icon. To stand on the top and replicate that classic photograph is the Oscar of British climbing. The Grammy. The Grail. And for me, glory day is today. And I'm scared.
The great thing about Napes Needle is that it hates you. There are no easy options, no sly short cuts. It sits in the wettest spot in the Lake District. If it isn't rain that stops you, it's wet rock. If it isn't wet rock, it's strong winds. If it isn't strong winds, it's the walk-in. And for those who still aren't dissuaded, the final bomb in the foundations detonates when you actually see the thing. Located on the splintery southern flank of Great Gable, the whole area radiates weapons-grade menace. Beetle-black rock, a permanent mask of cloud and surroundings that sport gleefully sinister names ripped straight from some Gothic myth: Tophet Bastion, Hell Gate Pillar, Arrowhead Gully. Fall asleep here and in all likelihood a giant bug called Sepulcra will come along and bite your head off.
Oh, and there's a climb involved, too. To land yourself on that famously teetering top block - the shot every mountain-lover secretly itches to have magneted to their fridge - you have to tackle a Hard Severe graded rock-climb. But for us, even that has macabre connotations: our particular route was christened by everyone's favourite pointy-toothed rock-climbing satanist, Aleister Crowley. Talk about bad karma. If I'd paid attention to the omens, I wouldn't be here. But no. I had to go and open my big mouth.
Yesterday, photographer Matthew and I had arrived at Keswick Youth Hostel in something approaching a hurricane. The phone had rung soon after we had settled in; it was the guide who had agreed to take me up the Needle.
The second I picked up the phone, I knew what was coming.
"Something's come up… not available… forecast not good… sorry."
It looked like we were stuffed. I was absolutely delighted.
But, being a man of conscience, I had to make at least a half-arsed attempt at saving the story. Something to enable me to walk back into the office, wringing my hands in mock anguish while explaining that I Tried My Best, Sorry. Skipping downstairs, I propped my elbows on the desk and - using The Force to will a 'no' into her mouth - blandly asked the lady on duty if she happened to know any super-highly-qualified mountain guides.
"Well, now… yes, actually. Hang on, I'll get him on the phone."
Oh, no. This wasn't supposed to happen.
I played my trump card. "And he needs to be available at 8am tomorrow."
But it was no use: we had indeed found a guide. His qualifications were about as high as you can get without actually being a mountain. He was free tomorrow. And he sounded like a top bloke. This was all going wrong.
Next morning, Harold Edwards arrived at 8am sharp, complete with a grin and a handshake of reassuringly muscled fingers.
"It's a bit damp out there," he conceded, indicating the behind-Niagara-Falls view outside, "but you never know what it's really like until you get there."
Turns out that Borrowdale had escaped the worst of the rain, and the wind was doing its best to dry off what had fallen onto the windward outcrops.
Now, I could talk for hours on the mental trauma associated with a climb of this kind. I could tell you that - to misquote one of my dad's favourite phrases - as a rock-climber, I'd make a great plumber. But you don't want to hear about that. You want to hear about the climb.
Which I think about brings us up to date.
"Right. Off we go then."
I'm squeezed into rock boots that wouldn't fit a four-year-old. Through rain-speckled, misty glasses, I look across the gully to Matthew, installed on the so-called Dress Circle, a ledge giving the classic view of the Needle. He gives me a good luck/nice-knowing-you wave as I strap on my helmet.
Harold leads the way towards a diagonal crack, arcing towards an arête. It looks horribly exposed. But, as we inch beyond it, a spacious, grassy ledge opens up: our launch pad onto the wall of crocodile-hide rock that is our initial climb to the shoulder.
After coolly running through some basic commands, attaching the belay to my harness and issuing a few calming words, Harold cheerfully spiders up the first section, attaching an assortment of rope-spewing protective gadgets into cracks and beneath ledges as he goes. I watch with saucer-eyes. In a minute I'm going to have to do the same, and the rock seems too steep to be able to scale without some buccaneer-style hand-over-hand rope action. Minutes later, he's on the shoulder.
"Okay, Simon. Climb when ready."
Deep breath. Here goes.
Onto the rock goes a foot. It grips. Both hands on. Off the ground. Off security. Up I go.
To my surprise, I don't slip. The rock is cold and eel-slick, but there are plenty of ledges and grooves. And it's those vital few degrees shy of vertical. Soon I'm moving, towards the pliers of rock between which Harold is wedged. Soon I'm within stretching distance of a rock-steady handhold that will lever me into the shoulder crack and… I'm there.
Easy bit done.
The last two pitches will land us on the upper of two mismatched blocks. In keeping with nature's illogical whims, the top block is wider than the lower. Viewed side-on, the monolith looks less like a needle and more like a mallet - its free-sitting top block overhanging to gravity-defying extremes. This isn't evident when viewing the Needle from its postcard pose, but from my position it's rather harder to ignore. As I shimmy into the crack and attempt to expand, Polyfilla-style, into a secure position,
Harold moves away from the shoulder to the last - unprotected - pitches onto the block. This is it: the difficult bit. The crux.
After a few minutes wedged into the crack and holding my uncomfortable position, I begin to shake with exertion and adrenaline. Though the rock is stable, the drop beneath my feet is distracting, and long. Despite the rope and well-placed protection, all my instincts are telling me to be afraid. I'm human, after all. The rope is twitching as Harold disappears behind the block. I grip it hard in my two, white-knuckled hands.
Seconds later there is a whoop from above me. He's on the top.
For a few minutes, Harold busies himself with attaching slings and ropes while I quietly hyperventilate. I feel as if I'm gestating a Jack Russell. Six feet of awkward, fissured rock above me sits the top block. It might as well be Jupiter.
"Climb when ready," comes the shout from above.
I shout my tremulous response. "I'm climbing." I hold my breath and swing out from the shoulder. Below me a drop opens. My stomach closes.
"Don't worry about that. I've got you."
Forcing my eyes back to the rock, I inch right beneath the top block, my fingers jammed into the crack separating it from the Needle. At eye-level, where the crack runs round the corner, is a tiny triangle of horizontal rock, exposed by a chip off the top block. It's the only foothold for the final move. Ever calm, Harold directs me.
"Move your hand to the right. You'll find a hold."
"I can't reach it...ah, shit." My right foot is off the rock and dangling. I try to re-place it, but can't. My movements become quick, desperate, jerky. "I'm gonna fall..."
"No you're not, you're fine. Move your right hand up to the right."
For a split second, I wobble at that horrible point between friction and falling. I stretch so hard I can hear my bones separating. Suddenly, the fingertips of my right hand find the hold. It's tiny - but enough.
"Good lad. Up you come."
I pull myself straight. My foot finds the ledge. I lever myself up, cling for a second, breathe, and find the last, smooth handhold. I take a deep breath and push for broke. Suddenly I can see Harold's foot, dangling at eye-level. My left hand finds the lip of the block. One more move. I'm there. I'm on top of Napes Needle.
Harold grabs my hand and shakes it. "Well done. You did it."
I shiveringly breathe out and shoot him a nervous, thankful, grin.
"Now stand up so the camera can see you."
"Joking, aren't you?"
"Trust me. You want this picture."
The feeling on top of the angled, millstone-sized parapet is surreal. The view takes on a dizzying, skewed perspective - familiar, yet unpleasantly different - like shimmying up a slanted flagpole on top of a skyscraper. The only real sense that you're on a very thin steeple of rock comes when you tremulously stand up - and look down. As I do this, I receive a reassuring pat on the back.
"It's all right. The camera won't be able to tell your legs are shaking."
I look over to the blue speck that is Matthew. A second later I get a thumbs-up. "How do you feel?" asks Harold.
I feel great. But there's a lifetime for that.
"I want to get down, please."
Very carefully, we descend. Job done.
Physically, I had done harder things. Technically, with Harold's expert lead, all I had to do was follow. But, mentally, Napes Needle had been a big stretch. Matthew is down from his perch, wiping rain of his camera lens.
"Did you get the shot?"
Never mind the magazine. Never mind the personal fulfilment brewing nicely inside me, and the swagger-worthy realisation that I had just scaled Britain's most famous rock pinnacle. All I cared about was triumphantly sticking that picture to my fridge, and raising a Napes Needle-shaped middle finger to anyone who dares to call me a coward. Ever again.
Words Simon Ingram. Article Copyright Trail Magazine.
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