I was almost up to my knees in extremely cold water, and as I looked around I realised my bag and camera were floating down the not so frozen waterfall. The ice had crumbled beneath our feet. We, (Richard Harrison, Pete MacDonald and I) were at the base of Cautley Spout, a 250-meter, grade-3 ice climb in the Yorkshire Dales. I had changed my mind thinking my plastic boots with knee-high gaiters were a bit excessive. Pete was not so lucky. His soggy feet would plague him for the rest of the climb. The morning sun was quickly warming the hillside and it became apparent that this waterfall wasn’t going to be around much longer. Cautley Spout comes into condition once every 10 years, and we were the first of a string of teams about to climb.
Pete got the first pitch. It was about 40 meters. The climbing was delicate, on beautifully formed cauliflower shaped ice, though protection placed was more for psychological confidence than holding falls. The route was rapidly changing shape as Pete was climbing, and as water broke through the ice, was forced to re-think his direction. He moaned something about getting wet! Tenko and I found this quite amusing and laughed as we mentioned something about waterfalls being wet. It was a photogenic pitch with a heart pounding finish. The last few moves were performed on very steep, unconsolidated, crappy, deteriorating ice with an exposed step out onto a rather dodgy looking ice mushroom. It was only possible to finish by matching both hands on one axe in a thin runnel of ice. (And praying to God it held). The seriousness, of course didn’t compare for us seconding. What a gnarly lead for Pete!
Next was my turn to take the lead. I started up a short 15m section of ice, steep to start and then panned out half way to large steps. It looked like thick, hard ice from the bottom. It wasn’t. It turned out to be thin with a fully operative waterfall an inch beneath. My mind started to drift to a story that Tenko had told me. It was a similar situation where a piece of ice the size of a door had collapsed with him on it, due to the thin ice. I quickly dismissed this thought, reverted my mind to the job in hand and made my way up to a nice big tree.
Tenko took the lead, “when the rope pulls tight, you two climb”, he said and took off quickly. Soon the rope was tight. We shouted for him to stop, he didn’t hear. We dismantled the belay and were practically dragged up the waterfall by a very eager Tenko. We gathered at the bottom of a steep section. Same drill, “follow when tight”. Tenko was off, no time to smell the roses. Tenko wanted to get to the top! This time we were stopped by a more significant section of ice, a good 40m steep wall. STOP, BELAY, GO! He stopped to put in a warthog and a couple of screws and climbed the pitch in no time at all.
The waterfall continued to meander up a scar in the hills for another 150m with the odd steep section to provide interest. To our surprise it presented us with another 50m pitch. This time I got to lead a decent pitch. It started off on nice solid ice up to a ledge with some awkward moves that had me scrabbling around on my knees. Now I had to climb a wall that became a lot more imposing than it did from the ground. I quickly screwed in a hefty 20cm screw in a big chunk of ice and started to climb. I had made a few moves, when “aaarrghh, b@!locks!” the shoulder strap of my rucksack caught on my harness and SNAP! I tried to tie it up, but was irritated by fixing it, so I left it undone. I just wanted to climb! I climbed about 10m to where some beautiful hard ice awaited a screw. My dreams were cut short. The ice had deteriorated into utter crap under a sheet of shiny blue ice. I chopped around for an eternity trying to dig away enough to find a placement. I had to accept that I would not get the luxury of a good screw and headed to the top. The last move was nasty. I couldn’t trust the axe placements to pull me over the top no matter how many times I sent them in. My arms were weakening. I just had to suck it up and make the move. I decided to kick away a good step to transfer my weight onto my right foot and barely load my axes. With anticipation and adrenaline pumping I slowly moved across, a fall here would be… no, don’t think about it.
Relief! I did it! I’d done the hard bit. I should have stopped here where I could communicate with my team and belay from a sheltered alcove. But I didn’t. I looked up and saw another wall of ice. Hard, blue and shiny. It had been two years since I’d climbed on ice and these conditions are rare in this country. I couldn’t relinquish my tools just yet. I carried on to almost a rope length, flopped to the floor in a wasted heap, worn out by the flow of adrenaline and recovering from a dose of swine flu. I hammered in a couple of pitons and sat belaying on what was probably the windiest place on earth. I got hammered in the face by violent spindrift and couldn’t hear a thing from anyone.
Soon enough, my companions joined me. We shook hands and shared a great sense of happiness that anyone who’s had a good day out in the mountains can understand.