I have been guiding Peter Little for 25 years and we have climbed together all over the UK and the Alps, so it was only natural that when he told me he was getting married in Keswick that I should travel from my home in Chamonix to be there.
A day or so before the wedding we decided that it would be good to catch up with a walk up Blencathra, a mountain I had never visited before. Our plan was to ascend via Sharp Edge, apparently one of the Lake District’s famous scrambles.
As we set off, it started to rain and the mist came in. Peter was frustrated because he was keen to show me as much as he could of ‘his’ beautiful Lake District . Frankly I wasn’t too bothered; I was just happy not to be in charge and was just out for a walk. Or so I thought.
Now Peter is a member of Keswick Mountain Rescue Team (KMRT) so when a text came through he was obliged to read it. "Guess what? Some one's fallen off Sharp Edge", Peter announced.
Immediately we could hear shouting not far away and we assumed that we would be ‘On Scene’ soon. The mist momentarily cleared and we could see about 200 metres up and to our left, just below the ridge, an orange survival bag that we guessed was the casualty.
We had two choices of approach: either a traverse from below, or to scale the ridge and then descend from above. Neither looked appealing. In hindsight (a great tool in mountaineering), we made the wrong choice and went in from below. We climbed up, being very careful, but the problem was that when we got about 20 metres below the casualty we were faced with a band of rock about two metres high which was unclimbable; or at least for us.
We found ourselves on a mixture of super-slick loose wet rock, interspersed with equally treacherous vertical grass. Cast into this toxic mix were some huge cliffs, meaning that one false move would almost certainly be your last slip ever.
We had no alternative but to retrace our steps and down-climb the loose rotten ground we had climbed up, while simultaneously being hosed down by lashings of Lake District rain.
With some considerable relief we edged back to the ridge. We then started up the crux towards what is called the ‘bad step’. Peter had, over the years, told me about this accident blackspot where the rescue team were frequently called out to. In dry conditions, for a seasoned Lake District walker, it is a thought-provoking move or two which requires care. Plus the ability not to be intimidated by the big drops below. However it is impossible to adequately describe how slippery this rock becomes when wet. If rock could be described as schizophrenic, this one it becomes an instant psychotic killer as all its frictional security vanishes.
Peter climbed up in front of me with the confidence that experience brings. On this occasion, the casualty had negotiated the bad step and had fallen higher up. He had landed in a gully then cartwheeled down, stopping at the top of a big cliff. Luckily a fellow walker had found him, got him into a survival bag, phoned the rescue and then stayed with him until Peter and I arrived.
Peter clicked into Mountain Rescue mode and stabilised the situation. He burrowed inside the bivouac sack and checked over the casualty, establishing that the he had probably broken his lower leg. To complicate matters he was deaf and therefore could not have called for help himself, because he could not use a mobile phone.
The rest of the team arrived in superhuman time, having run up from the road carrying 300m long ropes and a stretcher. But even they came to a full stop when faced with the bad step in these treacherous conditions. They were obliged to fix ropes so that they could safely get the stretcher and all their other paraphernalia into position.
Standard practice for a rescue on Sharp Edge is to dispatch a helicopter. Frustratingly this Sea King from RAF Boulmer could not get anywhere near the misty ridge, and had to land below the cloud base. The team would have to lower the casualty off the side of the ridge to the chopper. Wanting to make myself useful, I helped set up the belay anchors for the stretcher lower and then stood out of the way. I was impressed watching the team organise the rescue.
The weather started to clear, enough for the helicopter to get a little closer and the KMRT decided to attempt to winch the stretcher. Yet just as the helicopter got in position, the mist enveloped it and trapped it in hover where it remained for 20 very fraught minutes before the murk cleared for a few seconds and the helicopter could escape and speed off to Carlisle Hospital.
By now our enthusiasm for summiting Blencathra had evaporated so we took advantage of the KMRT safety rope, reversed the ridge, and headed back down the way we had come. As I walked back down the path, I reflected on two facts. Firstly, if I was confronted with a ridge like Sharp Edge in the Alps then I would be roped to my client and we would be using rock protection as we climbed up. Of that I am 100% certain. Second, there would be at least steel posts drilled into the rock so that a rope could be passed around them. Probably more likely there would be bolts and a connecting chain already in place.
From what I could see, there is a well-made path that delivers you to the foot of Sharp Edge. There is absolutely nothing to warn people that it might actually kill you. Contrast this with the world of Health and Safety. For example, earlier that day, I stopped at a motorway service station and fell over an unnecessary cone that had the warning “Slippery When Wet” written all over it…
Footnote; The weather for Peter and Jacqui’s wedding was perfect!
Above photo: The Sea King moves in below the cloudbase
Cover photo: Moving the stretcher down to the casualty