A factual account of a solo attempt of Nethermost Gully

From my Diaries; 28th March 1982: Nethermost Gully

March had been a quiet month for activity, a couple of days rock climbing in wet Lancashire quarries whilst keeping an eye out for any snowfall in the Lake District. There had been weather reports of a heavy snowfall last weekend, a week of freeze-thaw action should bring the gullies into reasonable condition, I had been hoping for good winter conditions before the season drew to a close. And a bit of training before Easter week in Glencoe would be highly desirable.

Sunday morning, just before ten o’clock and here I was, without any plans for the day, it just felt wrong, it just felt ridiculous. A respectable Spring day and I was about to waste an opportunity, and they are never in abundance. A high pressure was keeping the blue sky clear of any cloud, so at a beat of the heart, I packed my rucksack, crampons and ice axe. My thoughts were on a big snow route before the melting snows disappeared and Summer took hold. It felt like a last chance.

I said my goodbyes focusing on the journey to Patterdale, it was an hour and a half driving but if I got my skates on, I could be up and down before dark fell. With a following wind, I could be walking by just after 11am, I thought a couple of hours into Nethermost Cove and say an hour and a half up Nethermost Gully, that would see me on Helvellyn for a late lunch and back down Striding Edge before dark.

I knew the back lanes to Troutbeck, then onto Kirkstone Pass, I was virtually there. My heart filled with hope as I reached the snow line at the top of Kirkstone Pass, I always try and catch a glimpse of the obvious snow climb of Kilnshaw Chimneys, it leads directly to the summit of Red Screes and is easily surveyed from the road. Conditions looked good as I descended towards Brothers Water. My heart filled with apprehension, this was normal for me when I was going climbing, my heart, mind and inner-self tended to grapple with a mix of raw excitement and brutal reality. These tempering feelings kept my feet on the ground, I was never one to ‘conquer’ a climb, I felt privileged just to be there, it was ‘Nature’ that granted me was a day-pass who’s only demand was my respect and dedication. And I always tried my utmost to keep my side of that bargain, believing my efforts would bring reward, both physically and mentally. As I carefully descended Kirkstone Pass I caught glimpses of the snow-covered tops, the East facing crags of the Helvellyn range should be in good condition. Well I’ll soon find out.

I parked up in Patterdale. It didn’t take a moment to be on my way up Grisedale, the bridle-way becomes a track where a bridge crosses the beck. Over the beck I left the main track, well before Ruthwaite Lodge and followed a narrow track climbing into Nethermost Cove. Snow conditions were reasonable supporting every step. Steep ground followed as I pushed on, always conscious of my schedule. I made good time as the ground on my right shoulder steepened, from their lofty position, Bleaberry Crag and Striding Edge looked down over me.

Into the Cove and the ground eased a little, before me the huge Eastern face of the Helvellyn range. Snow covered crags towered above me, almost a thousand feet of what looks like a vertical wall intimidated me, but this place today was mine. A wry smile crossed my face. Nethermost Gully was obvious just to the side of Striding Edge; a long snow slope ascends to a division, the right hand branch climbs a steep pitch onto steeper ground for the final 200 feet, the gully may carry a big cornice. I had memorised the description in the guidebook but now it was no longer words on a page, this was real. Nethermost Cove looked dramatic in the sunshine, snow glistened and a big cornice clung to the highest edge. It was breathtaking, moments like these, alone in this vast empty arena, where the rules of nature were in command, such feelings remain within for a lifetime. But not only is it staggering visually, it’s the silence and then the waft of a breeze. It’s a quietness where only your breathing is heard and senses are sharpened filling your mind with wonder. This is not the everyday, I feel like a passenger on a journey and as I am carried along, the experiences will burn into my memory, and mine alone. No other being will know the meaning of these moments. My heart filled with hope because this, this journey was my adventure.

Nethermost Gully continued

Onto the easy lower slopes of the gully, it was time to compose the mind and prepare for serious stuff, there was no room for carelessness, this was serious. I had made good time, as I told myself the schedule was fine, no need for extra pressure, it was time to calm down, not be overwhelmed, not to rush, but to face the task in hand with a clear and methodical mind. Nethermost Gully was a big climb, over 600 feet of sustained snow climbing with a steep finish that may have an overhanging cornice, it may need tunneling. I glanced up to a huge cornice. Once you start, there is no escape, you have to finish the route, there is no stepping off to easy ground, so it is a little intimidating. I swung my rucksack off my back, I was perspiring after my speedy walk-in, my base layer was soaked in cold sweat, I stripped off and decided to climb in just my fibre-pile jacket which could be unzipped for comfort control. I ate a couple of sandwiches, chocolate and drank plenty of fluid. Loosening the straps on my rucksack, I removed my ice axe and plunged the shaft into the snow then turned my attention to carefully fix my crampons to my boots, ensuring they were secure. All ready, now the climb.

The warm sun had raised the air temperature, the snow was quite wet and it took a boot easily. In bitterly cold conditions where the snow was more like ice you would have to cut steps or stand on the front prongs of your crampons, but today, a kick of the boot formed a step. I left my stance and kicked easily up the lower snow slope, the key to progress is rhythm, reach up then plunge the shaft of my ice axe into the snow, then step up with one foot, then the other, reach and plunge the shaft again and continue. It’s a slow process but progress is good as I inched my way up the mountain. Beyond the lower slopes which fan out, the gully turned becoming a little more interesting, it narrowed as the walls came in, just around five feet wide and most intimate and intimidating, my senses sharpened. The snow steepened as I moved up with care.

At about 300 feet, around the half way point was a short pitch. With care I negotiated the pitch on the left, stood above, gulped in some air then calmed my breathing. It was getting steep and once above the step, I was totally committed, from here there was no turning back. I would never be able to reverse the steep ground without high risk of a fall. The gully steepened and the climbing now arduous, it demanded care as I pressed on. Another fifty feet and I plunged the shaft of my axe deep into the snow, only the pick and adze remained visible, I rested and took a moment to look around, over my shoulder I spotted people on Striding Edge, but I couldn’t relax.

After catching my breath, I moved on for another 100 feet or so then suddenly, I heard a strange noise, such a strange noise didn’t belong here and I sensed an unfolding drama. This strange sound, it sounded like a whoosh, like particles falling down a chute should not be here. My thoughts scrambled searching for something normal, something tangible, something rational as my concern levels streaked off the scale. My mind searched for an explanation, I looked up. For a moment I was puzzled, there was no blue sky, the gully above was filled with a cloud of spindrift and about to envelop my world. Instantly, I knew the next moments would be crucial, I was about to be covered by a huge cloud of snow particles. Beyond that I could not imagine. I needed to act quickly, I was about to be engulfed as tons of fluid-like snow would pour over me. I rammed the shaft of my axe deep into the snow, with both hands I was clinging on. My mind raced as I prepared myself to be torn off the mountain. Pushing my body as close to the snowface as possible, I almost anticipated a large clump of snow dislodging me and sending me down the mountain. My face was inches away from the gully as I stared at the snow slope before me, it was like a river in spate, like a fluid bed rushing past me. My thoughts continued to race as I braced myself for what seemed the inevitable, then suddenly, a cold shock covered my upper body. The instantaneous cold pain focused my thoughts, my half-zipped jacket filled with powder snow. Delicately, I eased my body from the snowface letting most of the powder run past leaving an enduring memory of tumbling powder snow pouring inches away from my face into the chasm below. What seemed an age was over. The noise disappeared as quickly as it came, a calm silence was restored, except for the pounding of my fast-beating heart. I looked up again to see the blue sky. Well that was interesting I thought. I had just clung on through a powder snow avalanche, I guessed part of the cornice just broke away and smashing into particles careered past me. It was time to move swiftly before another event.

The last 100 feet was steep, I made my way steadily to a break in the huge cornice, probably to the spot where the snow avalanched from. Now tightly under the cornice, I needed to move quickly before anymore snow fell, as the large blocks would certainly take me down the gully. Reaching up with my axe I carefully tested the firmness of the vertical wall of snow, stepping up I reached over the top and plunged my axe in as far as I could reach, quickly stepping up on my front points then I reached again onto the plateau, I cleared the vertical wall and scrambled to safer ground. I was on all fours, relieved, I caught my breath as a wide smile of satisfaction crossed my face, I mumbled to myself ‘well that was a good route’.

It was a short walk to the summit of Helvellyn, I sat quietly in the shelter reflecting on the last hour, outwardly calm but inside my head flowed in emotion, pure emotion. I feasted on some malt-bread and a drink before heading down Striding Edge. At the high spot on Striding Edge I sat and turned to Nethermost Gully, it was in darker shadow now but I could see my trail of footsteps all the way up, the only physical trace of my climb. But in forming those footsteps, I captured a memory that I have treasured for a lifetime. Happy days.


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