Grizedale and Ruthwaite Lodge
On a cold November day, some years ago, I took a party of about a dozen of my Sixth Form students, one of whom was my eldest son, for a walk up Helvellyn. Conditions were Arctic. As we tip-toed along the ice-encrusted pinnacles of Striding Edge, the mountain flanks on either side of us fell away like those of an Alpine nordwand.
On reaching the summit, after a struggle through deep snow, we proceeded in brilliant sunshine across the wintry wastes of Nethermost and Dollywaggon Pikes, then down to a frozen Grizedale Tarn. From there we followed the track back toward the mini-bus which we had left in Patterdale. As we approached Ruthwaite Lodge, nestling amid the drumlins at the valley head, I was delighted to see smoke rising from its chimney.
We invited ourselves. inside, and were welcomed by a member of Sheffield University Mountaineering Club who was spending the weekend alone in the hut. During the course of our conversation, I told him that, for the academic year 1964-5, I had been the warden of the lodge, and had spent many memorable days there. With a slow nod of the head he replied, “I was being born just about then.” That put things into some kind of perspective.
Ruthwaite Lodge was found as a roofless shell, by members of SUMC in the early 1950s. It had previously been a hunter’s refuge. On acquiring the lease, the discoverers rebuilt it to its present Spartan elegance, as a base from which they could walk and climb on the surrounding hills. By the end of the 1950s it had become a major focus of activity. Men such as Jack Soper, Nev Crowther and others were beginning what became quite illustrious mountaineering careers by making frequent assaults on the largely unclimbed rock faces in the valley.
Ruthwaite Lodge in 2011
I first saw the hut in June 1963, after hitching from Sheffield with a fellow chemist, John Uphill, the day we completed our first year exams. For three perfect days, we baked on the sun-scorched crags of Grizedale and Deepdale, before returning to Sheffield, almost drunk on adrenalin.
By then, however, I had acquired a huge appetite for rock, and returned a few days later with another companion, Adrian Brooks, eager to climb everything that was climbable. The next week turned out to be one of those which I will always remember as a high point of my life.
For seven days, we lived on a meagre diet, and suffered the discomfort of hard seats and harder beds without complaint. Our attempts at cleanliness and hygiene would have had our mothers screaming. We followed a regime of physical activity which would have been condemned as brutal had it been imposed upon us by someone else. Yet by the end of the week, we had become healthier and stronger than we had ever been before.
We rose at around seven o’clock each morning, and after a frugal breakfast, set out for the crags. On some days this meant a hard slog, laden with ropes and rucksacks, up the side of St Sunday Crag and over into Deepdale, the next valley. After completing more than a thousand feet of rock climbing, we trudged back to the hut at seven in the evening. Refreshed by our only meal of the day, we then went to a nearby crag to do one more climb before dark.
At the start of the week, we regarded ourselves rather as beginners at the sport. By the end, we had assumed the manners and mode of speech of experts. From tentative forays onto easy climbs, we quickly moved to confident attacks on the hardest.
The climb with the biggest reputation, then, was ‘Sobrenada’, on Eagle Crag, first done a few years earlier by another Sheffield undergraduate, Mike James. This, we were told, was quite desperate for men of short or even average stature. As I was 6 feet 3 inches tall, and Adrian three inches taller still, we found it quite reasonable, and knew that we were ready for greater things. (26 years later, I surprised myself by repeating ‘Sobrenada’, with no more difficulty than on that first occasion.)
That week in 1963, however, was magical. We had withdrawn completely from the world, and lived on a permanent high. My home and family were no more than twenty miles away, at the other side of the Lake District, yet I felt no desire to visit them. The completeness of our isolation may be gauged from the fact that we missed, entirely, the biggest political scandal of the ‘sixties. By the time we returned to civilisation, The ‘Profumo affair’ had become dead news.
There were other great days at Ruthwaite Lodge during later years, though perhaps none quite achieved the intensity of those early visits. Nevertheless, the experiences I had on Scrubby, Hutaple, Falcon and Eagle crags played a major part in forming what I have, for better or worse, become.
On one occasion, as hut warden, I organised a working party to the lodge after the roof had blown off during a winter storm. In spite of a blizzard, six of us spent a cheerful and very noisy Sunday hammering it back on again. At other times, the valley was quiet, and even on a sunny bank holiday, we would have the crags to ourselves and could climb on rocks where no more than two or three others had ever been before us. This was the great charm of the area, and stood in complete contrast to the often frenetic bustle of the more populous valleys of Langdale and Borrowdale.
I remember the stillness of early morning, and how it magnified the slightest of sounds. Being wakened by the thud of a sheep’s horn on the stone of the hut, and the loud crunch as the animal cropped the grass of the hillside. The icy coldness of a naked bathe in the waterfall. Drunken songs echoing from the valley walls at midnight, after a session in the White Lion in Patterdale. Arguments and scuffles over who should have the ‘Honeymoon Suite’ in the front room of the hut. Muffled giggles from the same suite carrying through the wall to the bunkhouse at the rear. Mice scratching amid the crumbs on the floor after the last candle was blown out.
And finally, there is the abiding memory of the sharp light of early evening, and the last pink rays of the dying sun about a darkening valley, picking out, in profile, the countless ridges and gullies on St Sunday Crag.
St Sunday Crag