Bowfell Buttress

The buttress from the foot of Cambridge Crags

Rising at the head of Langdale, Bowfell dominates the upper reaches of the valley. Cast across its north-eastern slopes are four buttresses: Flat Crags, Cambridge Crags, North Buttress and Bowfell Buttress.

The first is a summer crag - what a crag! The next two seem to lose themselves in a welter of ribs, grooves and ledges. The last is architecturally the grandest, rising prominently from the fellside, whence it is joined by a narrow though easy col, to present a frontal aspect of smooth, steep slabs. From Mickleden it stands proud against the skyline.

The summer route on Bowfell Buttress wends its way up the prow of this grand mass of rock; a classic piece of route finding: never too hard but always interesting.

The first winter ascent of the buttress is something of a mystery, probably occurring in the early ’60s. Even though it was only given Grade III, I knew of no-one who had, or claimed to have, done it.

Boxing day, 1984: the day dawned as forecast - clear and crisp. Mike blasted along the valley road, hoping to ensure a parking place before the local hunt arrived. This done I could relax, the first danger having been passed.

I’d wanted to climb the buttress in winter for some years now. Not that the old description leapt at you from the pages, more a feeling that it should provide excellent climbing if it ever came into condition.

Unusually, snow had fallen before Christmas, and a few days of good weather and steadily falling temperatures should, I hoped, have created good conditions on the higher crags. The buttress needs a good build-up of névé, since there is little natural drainage on its front.

As we plodded eagerly up the Band it looked as though we were in luck. Crossing beneath Flat Crags (which are most definitely not flat), the variegated form of the buttress loomed large over the wide slopes of South Gully. A curiously formed snowdrift curled around its base. We hurried on, past the spring at the foot of Cambridge Crags, into the now hazy sun.

Spluttering through the unconsolidated drift, we stopped on the hard packed snow that lay at the foot of the route. Time for tea and sandwiches. Looking round, all was still; there wre few folk out on the fells yet. Most would still be sleeping off the excesses of the previous day's festivities. The North Buttress was fantastically coated in rime, the sun in play with its deeply etched features.

Mike eyed the route, mumbled, and offered me the lead. Keen to get moving, I shot off, only to come to a halt after only ten feet as I stared a non-frozen grass sod in the roots - not over inspiring! I carried on more carefully, avoiding the steeper sections wherever possible until I stood at the foot of the first chimney.

Mike in the initial chimney.

Mike in the initial chimney.

It is here that the buttress route leaves the vegetated side wall and emerges onto the exposed front of the pillar. Before me though, the chimney looked hard, if short. Squirming inside I fixed a runner then played at sweeps, eventually uncovering a flake high up.

Both axes on this, pull, then slump back as thuggery fails to make an impact. Obviously not as simple as first thought: a little old fashioned, full body wedge technique was called for. This proved to be the key and a short while later I emerged onto the first platform with a distinct lack of élan.

Mike followed with no greater ease, looked at the slabby wall above that led to the next chimney system and walked off rightwards into North Gully! Dis-gruntled at this lack of spirit I followed, to wander up the north wall of the gully vowing to return.

Thirteen months later we were four heading into the clouds that shrouded the Bowfell buttresses. Deepening snow slowed our progress until we called a halt at the spring - tea and butty time again.

Above us two recorded summer lines snaked their way to the summit plateau, and sloth being what it is, we declared these to be our objectives for the day. Rick and Andy took the left hand line, Dave and myself the right hand. Again I was thrust into the lead.

An easy but insecure slab was excavated rightwards towards the crest of the buttress. I made an awkward step, then pulled over the bulge to unconsolidated snow filling the bay above. I pointed out the way ahead to Dave and, reluctantly, wondering what he'd got himself into, he set off, un-snowing grooves and chimneys until he declared he’d had enough and belayed.

Once again it was my turn and, fool that I am, I ignored the easy arête leading up rightwards and elected instead to move left to a steep groove, reminiscent of Venom at Tremadog. This looked great. Dave moaned, but ignoring his lack of fibre I headed for the feature.

Suddenly things looked hard. My only runner was well below my feet and the groove was now vertical and almost holdless, save for a hand ledge on the left wall. I could hold on for a while at least. Above, beyond bravado’s reach was a grass sod, and beyond that easy ground. A frantic clearing of snow revealed a shallow, ice coated crack. It would have to do. Out of my winter rack came a wire of indeterminate origin, which I proceeded to weld into the crack.

Even with this moral support I was nervous. Contorting upwards I slammed my axe into the sod, it pulled out and with a reflex action I grabbed the wire. Only one thing to do now - a sling clipped into the nut and gently heave ho. I stretched past the offending sod and hit frozen scree; it was enough. I was up. Dave followed, muttering darkly about men in white coats through the thinning cloud to the top. The aid point remains .

Rick and Andy had finished their route a short while earlier and were waiting for us as we stumbled down the Great Slab to recover our sacks.

I was surprised to see Ben get in the car. Being a rockstar I had not considered him to be interested in ice climbing. Not true, however. While Rick and I battled with Route Two Direct and Minus One Gully, Ben quickly and quietly ticked off the classic grade fives on the Ben, solo.

On the return journey he expressed interest in doing some Lakeland winter routes. Seeing my chance it took little persuasion to arrange the next day’s agenda. This being the best winter (1986) for years, Bowfell Buttress came to mind. Ben agreed out of ignorance and so, under deep blue skies, I once again headed up The Band with a new partner. (They only seem to last one trip!)

Again the curious snowdrift defended the base and again I had first lead. This time however, conditions were excellent and I soon reached the first chimney. Fifteen months earlier the rock had been free of scratches. Now the chimney walls were scoured with crampon marks - evidence of several ascents in the preceding weeks.

Ben climbing up to the crux corner crack.

Ben climbing up to the crux corner crack.

The chimney proved no easier and my climbing was just as ungainly.

Ben, surprisingly, was still enthusiastic, and now set off on the second pitch. From below this gave the impression of being free of snow, but all the holds were covered and from above the wall appeared white.

A two step shuffle led leftwards into a shallow chimney system, generously supplied with ice and holds, Ben ran it out to the second platform. Following was slightly tricky as all the holds sloped slightly, making movement insecure. The chimney was a doddle.

This could not be said about the next obstacle, the summer crux. My turn again and with a secure runner fixed in the crack it yielded to one axe and a gloved handjam. Here the summer line takes off leftwards on clean, smooth slabs. Under present conditions it was better to climb straight up to a steep wall where a snowy, blocky ramp led back onto the summer line. Above rose a steep, shallow corner holding little snow and covered in crampon scratches - the crux.

Ben leading the grade 4 groove.

Ben leading the grade 4 groove.

With no ledge below to hit in the event of a fall and with good protrection, the thug approach was adopted. Ice axes hooked over flakes, lock off with one arm, while finding the next flake, a few moves later and it's over, feet finding holds to relieve pressure on the arms. A belay follows and minutes later Ben, also finding the corner hard, joins me. The final corner rears above us. But Ben makes short work of it and leaves the shade to relax in winter sun on top of the buttress.

Elated, we cross the col and stowed away the gear before whooping down the easy slopes of South Gully. Below the shadows were lengthening across Mickleden as we slithered over the boulders beneath the buttress until smooth slopes led to the valley floor and the car.

The summit of Bowfell Buttress in the evening light.

The summit of Bowfell Buttress in the evening light.

I rarely make comments in my guidebooks other than recording the names of my companions and the date. For Bowfell Buttress I made an exception - “Excellent”.


Route:            Bowfell Buttress
Grade:            V (Technical 5/6)
Guide:            Winter Climbing in the Lake District (Cicerone)
First Ascent: 1937/8  - S. Cross, A. Nelson
Access:           Park at the Old Dungeon Gill (fee) and walk up The Band.