You're reading an extract from 'Extreme Lakeland' by Jon Sparks. The illustration is by Anna Sharpe. Available to purchase here.
It’s only a Grade 1 scramble, but the wind seems to get stronger with every metre we rise. As the ridge gets a bit steeper, a bit more continuous, a flurry of hail rattles on the rock. Hands, already stiff and awkward, start to numb.
At an easing, an almost-ledge, I half-crouch, braced against the rock. When Bernie joins me, we have one of Those Conversations. Do we, don’t we … ?
We go on, but we could easily have made a different decision. A degree or two colder, a little more wind, another scour of hail … We go on, and almost immediately face a couple of trickier moves. Nothing crazy, but the holds aren’t quite the stonking jugs you might expect on a Grade 1 – at least they don’t feel that way with chilled hands. And, let’s be honest, hands that are out of practice too.
A reach, a lean, a subtle side-step to unlock the problem; the precise anatomy of the moves is immaterial. It’s the feeling that counts. The commitment to continue in the face of steep rock, cold, wind, lack of practice and – in my case at least – general decrepitude. It’s only a Grade 1 scramble, but for me, on this day, in these conditions, there’s not much of the ‘only’ about it.
Perspective is everything. Some might dismiss a Grade 1 scramble as too trivial to mention; others might think we were crazy to be out there at all, when there were snug coffee shops and pubs in Coniston half an hour away.
I have my own perspective now. Once, I might also have thought of this route (Long Crag Buttress) as no more than a light-hearted romp. But then came a time, not so very long ago, when I would have struggled even to reach the foot of the rock.
Age comes into it, of course, but when I hit sixty I didn’t think I was doing too badly. Rock climbing had rather taken a back seat, but only because bikes had taken over. Road, gravel, MTB … I was probably fitter, and certainly more technically adept, at sixty than I had been at forty. I even celebrated, if that’s the word, by doing my first triathlon. Only a ‘sprint’ distance, and I was dead slowest in the pool, but still …
Then Fate, Chance, Nature – whatever you want to call it – served up a double whammy. First, cardiac arrhythmias (atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation), resulting in alarming episodes when my heartbeat went haywire. A trip in an emergency ambulance and two ablations later, I was arrhythmia-free, but something wasn’t right. Walking or cycling, even on the level, my speed dropped, and going up any kind of hill I was reduced to crawling pace. I’ll never forget going up the lovely, but very modest, Hampsfell at a pace that wouldn’t have looked out of place at 8,000 metres.
It took longer than maybe it should have to work out that the culprit wasn’t my heart. But, once we did, answers weren’t long in coming: I had cancer. This explained my debilitating lethargy; I had severely depleted haemoglobin levels. Specifically, I had a variety of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (even more specifically, Waldenström’s macroglobulinaemia; is that a disease or a tongue-twister?).
Lesson 1: just because you have one health condition, it doesn’t make you immune to others. It’s all too easy to ‘fit’ new symptoms to an existing condition, to overlook the possibility that they’re a pointer to a new issue. Lesson 2: the NHS is bloody brilliant.
That was then. Now, at another comfortable ledge, I pause and look out: the rooftops of Coniston village, the glinting waters of the lake, and the dark mass of Grizedale Forest (full of mountain bike memories) shrouding the rise beyond. In the far distance, mere hazy suggestions, the Howgills and
the Yorkshire peaks. A wide world, and a stark contrast with the way my world contracted when I was at my lowest ebb.
In the few days following each round of chemotherapy, I hardly stirred from the house. Between those episodes, I kept walking and kept riding, even if it was just a few slow miles to a local cafe for eggs Benedict. I keep recalling some words from John Hunt’s essay on Gimmer Crag in Ken Wilson’s Classic Rock. In the summer of 1939, as war-clouds gathered, ‘we went climbing every day, with a desperate, unspoken wish to hold on to things we loved while the world threatened to fall apart’. I was struck by that when I first read it, but it resonates more deeply now. Every mile on the bike, however slow, every step along the canal towpath, every move on rock, however easy, was also my way of holding on to things I love.
And now, moving up again, I’m holding on to cold, hard rock. There are streaks of black moss and splatters of lime-green lichen. Clean, weathered rock is mostly mouse-back grey; but in the secret places, where a flake has recently spalled off, the raw rock is a startling, almost cranberry, pink. Cold, and hard – and utterly wonderful. A reconnection.
The wind is still buffeting, but the hail has relented. My hands are chilled but functioning, though I’m constantly searching for the luxurious jug-handle holds that surely should be there, but surprisingly often aren’t. This may be ‘only’ a Grade 1, but not every move can be reduced to grab and heave. Subtlety – the hallmark of Lakeland rock – is still called for. So it’s good to find not just that some strength has returned but that muscle memory is present and correct too. Given half a chance, the body remembers the gentle transfer of weight, the intuitive feel for when the best way over is actually the way round.
Many years ago, I wrote, glibly, ‘With most things in the outdoor life, the most interesting place is around the edge of the comfort zone.’ That’s come to seem more and more true over time, and a quick text search on my computer suggests I’ve flogged it almost to exhaustion. And yet here we go again … In fact I believe it more strongly than ever, not in spite of but because of recent experience. I’ve been through a phase when my comfort zone shrank dramatically, but I was still picking and poking at whatever limits there were.And Bernie, who’d watched me struggle many times, is watching me now. Not making a song and dance about it, just quietly keeping an eye on me as I pick a line up a little groove and out on to a knobbly slab. I’m hardly aware of it as I focus on my moves, but if she’s more anxious than she seems – well, she’s seen me blue-lighted to A & E; she’s seen me receive the attentions of the crash team after reacting badly to one of the chemo drugs. I could hardly blame her if she wanted to wrap me in cotton wool, but she’s here and getting on with living, same as I am.
Carpe diem has always seemed a good philosophy, but it has even more force when you’ve confronted the possibility that it could all be taken away.
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, ‘Extreme’ is in the eye, and the arms and legs and feet and fingers – and, above all, in the mind. Only you know where the limits of your comfort zone are. (Of course, if you never push those limits, at least a little bit, you’ll also never really know.) Extreme is not necessarily confined to E9 7a, or Class VI, or Double Black Diamond. For me, all those things aren’t Extreme, they’re impossible. For me, even thirty years ago, Extreme was leading the wall pitch of Central Pillar (E2 5b) on Esk Buttress. I looked across at The Cumbrian (E5 6b) and knew it would always be beyond me. And even then I was pretty much OK with that.
Long Crag Buttress is only a Grade 1 scramble, but doing it at all was an affirmation. And for this body, this mind, on that day, in that weather, it was definitely flirting with the edge of the comfort zone; there was not much ‘only’ about it. To paraphrase Master Yoda: ‘Do. Or do not. There is no only.’