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Book of the month: Lake District Mountain Landscape

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The northern fells swamped in a cloud inversion, as seen from Pillar. Photo: Alastair Lee.

We're giving Alastair Lee’s acclaimed photography book, Lake District Mountain Landscape, a fresh reprint in the next few weeks, so this month we thought we'd share an extract on our blog to show you some of the extraordinary images that have made his work so popular. Celebrated as ‘jawdroppingly stunning’ by the Westmoreland Gazette, the book offers a new perspective on the Lake District’s much-visited landscape. Finding originality in the mountains’ ever-changing terrain, Alastair escaped the region’s honeypots to capture the breathtaking and less-travelled areas of the Lakeland countryside. 

In the following excerpt, the award-winning photographer takes us back to where rock climbing began, with Scafell Pike. Photography and the media had a huge hand in developing the popularity of rock climbing by disseminating images of the early twentieth-century climbers exploring in the Lake District. This marked the beginning of modern-day sport climbing and played a part in increasing tourism to the Lakeland fells, which now see unprecedented levels of popularity and are home to the classic Borrowdale and Wasdale fell races. While the Lakeland crags attract climbers of proficiencies, when it comes to cutting-edge modern climbing, Alastair says, none compare to local cragsman David Birkitt, whose combined skills as a climber and farmer mean he’s uniquely equipped to tackle the trickiest of mountainside rescues ... 

Mountain Craft

The King, the sheep and the crag

The birthplace of rock climbing in England, the UK, and, some claim, the known universe, is often said to be Napes Needle on Great Gable. First ascended (solo) by Old Etonian Walter Parry Haskett Smith on 29 June 1886, turn-of-the-century photographers, such as the celebrated Abraham brothers consolidated the Needle’s fame by photographing climbers on it and shooting the very first climbing movie there in 1911. Pictures of climbers on the Needle began appearing in periodicals and photographic shop windows as far away as London and had a powerful effect in recruiting more people to try climbing. It is therefore easy to see how the glamorous Needle became associated in the mind of the general public with a sport that was completely new to them. However, climbing had actually been taking place well before Haskett Smith’s celebrated ascent. Indeed the mountains and fells of the Lake District have been scaled by people for probably at least 7,000 years while the first recognised rock climb had been achieved as long ago as 1802 when Samuel Taylor Coleridge descended Broad Stand on Scafell. By the 1870s several technical rock climbs had been undertaken in the mountains of the Lake District, most notably on Pillar Rock and Scafell. Nevertheless, the publicity surrounding the early Victorian ascents of Napes Needle marks the beginning of the modern sport of rock climbing whose development accelerated from this date. Within a decade, a system for grading the difficulty of rock climbs had evolved which is still used to this day, while an ever-growing band of enthusiasts were succeeding on increasingly difficult climbs. The opening of the railways after the mid-nineteenth century also brought a greater number and diversity of tourists than previously seen in Lakeland.

A 360-degree view from just below Helvellyn’s summit. The popular Striding Edge and St Sunday Crag take centre stage. Being on the tops in late evening light can be a magical experience, just make sure you’ve got a head torch to get down (not that I ever have). Photo: Alastair Lee.

Now, the professional middle-classes as well as the leisured wealthy could make affordable regular visits. Many harboured alpine aspirations and so the craggiest fells such as Pillar, Great Gable and Scafell became popular destinations for hiking, scrambling and now rock climbing. Equipment and maps remained relatively primitive however, and knowledge of weather, ‘conditions’ or objective dangers was limited. Yet, such was the skill of the early climbers that no serious accident occurred until 1903.

The Lakeland fells now see unprecedented levels of popularity with a dizzying array of mountain pursuits, old and new, to choose from. Naturally, the most popular remains fell walking, but scrambling, rock climbing, winter climbing, fell-running, mountain biking, paragliding, even hound trailing, are also popular. The connection between mountain craft and community still remains; old ice axes, crampons and ropes are on display in bars of the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale; the annual Borrowdale fell race adds the name of the winner every year to a plaque in the Scafell Hotel Bar while the names of the Wasdale fell race winners are to be found in the Wasdale Inn. They signify a deep-felt and long-standing empathy between the local community and athletic endeavour pursued on the fells.


Left: An old piton removed from Blea Rigg Crag. Pitons have been in use in Britain since the 1930s to protect rock climbs and winter routes although they are rarely used in summer nowadays. Right: Belaying on Central Gully in winter with modern equipment. Photos: Alastair Lee.

King of the fell

The Lakeland crags attract climbers of all skill levels. Some make fleeting visits to ‘tick’ a few classic routes or to try a famous test piece, whilst others are more prolific at adding new routes. But when it comes to sustained cutting-edge modern climbing, none can compare to one particular local stoneworker and cragsman. Dave Birkett, a local man raised on a Langdale hill farm, is also one of the most accomplished rock climbers in the world. As a result, the Lake District is once again in the forefront of climbing advances. Here Birkett is battling a vicious overhang on his route Nowt but a Fleein’ Thing on Cam Crag above the Wasdale Screes. The picture both captures the athletic dynamism required to ascend the hardest of modern routes, and the timeless environment in which Birkett has charted his recent campaign of extreme climbing, a quiet backwater of the Cumbrian landscape that Birkett calls ‘a lost Kingdom of the Lake District’.

Dave Birkett’s stunning 2004 climb is named after the famous response given by the legendary Victorian Wasdale farmer and mountain guide Will Ritson, when asked what he thought of Scafell as a climbing ground: ‘Nowt but a fleein’ thing would git up theer’ was his scornful retort. Photo: Alastair Lee.

Despite over one hundred years of pioneering by climbers in the Lake District, Dave Birkett still contrived to discover arguably the best ‘line’ in the area while wandering around Wastwater in 2003; a reward for his adventurous spirit. Ironically, the location is in one of the most frequented valleys in the district: Wasdale, the route to England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike. Nevertheless it is worth noting that access to Cam Crag itself is pretty tough, its overhangs defended by extensive scree slopes (some parts loose and greasy) and patches of a veritable jungle of bracken and thorn bushes, all very steep and unmarked.

Climbing on Scafell is without doubt one of the finest climbing experiences to be had in the British Isles. Apart from the opportunity to revel in the crag’s great history and climb on some fantastic rock, it is the sheer sense of scale that really makes the experience stand out.

Scafell is Dave’s favourite place and it’s easy to see why. The mountain’s collection of buttresses, rock walls and pinnacles offer some of the grandest rock architecture in Lakeland. Climbs here also offer peerless views by virtue of their location on England’s highest peak. Dave was born of farming stock and spent his childhood under the wing of a hill-farming grandfather with whom he helped herd sheep on the Lakeland fells. This sowed the seeds of a long and intimate relationship with the mountain landscape. 

While Dave Birkett’s rock climbing feats are famous, his unique and valuable contribution to the local farming community is less well known. Sheep sometimes find themselves cragfast on exposed and dangerous ledges onto which they have climbed or fallen and cannot escape. To the rescue comes vertical sheep wrangler Dave Birkett. Dave’s role as an unofficial one man ‘sheep-rescue team’ keeps him busy after hours when his unique combination of farming and climbing expertise come into their own. Dave’s climbing stories pale by comparison to his animal rescue tales – on one occasion he was asked to rescue some ferocious hunting dogs but warned that being savaged by the bloodthirsty hounds was a real risk. (As if swinging around on a rope above the abyss while wrestling with a panicking animal wasn’t frightening enough!) 

Carved from Langdale Rhyolite, the climbers’ climber and
undoubted king of the hill, Dave Birkett. Photo: Alastair Lee
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