Black Crag is imposing. From the foot of Troutdale it looks steep, dark, and impregnable. A closer look reveals ramps and rakes leading up to the famous Troutdale Pinnacle that stands proud of the upper buttress, separating the sombre North Crag from the slightly friendlier South Crag. The climb that takes in the Pinnacle is a classic in its own right. Troutdale Pinnacle is worthy of its three stars in anyone’s book, but that cracking Severe is not the focus of this blog. Nor are the two direct versions of the same route, the very splendid Troutdale Pinnacle Direct (VS 4c) or the amazing Troutdale Pinnacle Superdirect (HVS 5a). When I build up the courage to drag myself on the sharp end up Raindrop (E1 5b), the Pete Livesey route that forces an even more direct line up this wonderful piece of rhyolite, I will probable bring you another Classic Climbs blog, looking at all of these routes together. I’ll come back to you on that though…
Here, I’m thinking of a pair of classic VS routes up the forbidding walls of the North Crag. I can’t explain why I’d not climbed either of them until just a couple of months ago. Maybe the names were off-putting. The Coffin and The Shroud both sound like routes that can only lead to death. The naming of a route can do that. I know of at least one book that blames Paul Ross for naming both The Coffin and The Shroud, listing a good handful and more of other climbs in Borrowdale with morbid names of which Paul is supposed to have made the first ascents. He certainly did put up The Shroud, on June 1st 1958, with Peter Lockey, but it was nine years after The Shroud that Ray McHaffie first climbed the parallel line of The Coffin, on 12th February 1967. Paul Ross certainly did climb some incredible lines though. Looking at his historical photos from his days in Borrowdale in the 50s and 60s – photos that we’re lucky enough to have Paul sharing with us on the Facebook ‘Lakeland Rock and Ice’ page – it looks like an amazing time to be a climber in Borrowdale. Bentley Beetham had all but stopped new-routing in the valley, and Ross, Greenwood, Fisher and other founder members of the Keswick Mountaineering Club were busy bringing Borrowdale up to speed with standards elsewhere, and pushing the grades beyond.
Anyway. I’d not climbed The Shroud or The Coffin until summer 2017. I had arranged to meet up with Tony Jones at the layby, and we found ourselves gearing-up beneath the tree at the foot of The Coffin. Tony gamely took the first pitch, which is an easy crack followed by a swing around said tree. This left him to arrange his belay on a heathery ledge overlooked by a moss and lichen-speckled wall that looks like it hasn’t been climbed for quite some time. This was my pitch. I made moves to the right of Tony’s belay, up a shitty wall. Then climbed back down again. I looked at the wall to the left of his belay, and thought that looked improbable at the grade, so attacked the shitty wall a second time. It wasn’t that it was hard, but just didn’t feel like a wall that had ever been climbed. Verdant is the adjective I would use. I sneezed – heather pollen full in the face – and climbed back down to Tony’s ledge again. I suggested that maybe he’d built his belay in the wrong place, but knew that this was just me stalling for time and making excuses for my own indecision. I looked again at that improbable wall to the left, and stepped up onto it, using small smears and edges for the feet. A couple of moves upwards brought good holds, and I was away.
I’d worried about route-finding here. The guidebook seems to make a lot about moving left at overhangs, and right up gangways (or was it the other way around?), but once I was up there, making the moves, the route was obvious. Just climb where it’s VS I told myself, and that worked well. A ramp lead leftwards beneath an overhang, and a superb groove line, with rusting nuts in place, took me up rightwards. A step left into a continuation groove lead to a small ledge, but I ploughed on, onto slabby ground and soon realised that that ledge below was where the guidebook thinks I should have belayed. I linked together three nuts above the slab and took a semi-hanging stance. Tony climbed up in raptures, enjoying the moves and the fact that he wasn’t leading them.
Pitch three was Tony’s. It took him up to the top left corner of the slab to where it stopped being a slab. A step up a steep wall and into a groove around an arete brought him to a ledge of heather and bilberry, and a belay.
It looked like rain by the time we’d walked off and were back at our sacks.
I started up one of those corner cracks that looks like it will repulse, but is actually quite benign. That’s the first pitch of The Shroud. The Paul Ross route that, for us, The Coffin had been the warm-up act. Switching between bridging and climbing flakes on the left wall gave 4b moves to a stance on a ledge to the right.
Here, once Tony had arrived, he announced that all bets were off, and this climb was mine. We switched the lead ropes, and I carried on, following pitch two up a vague groove to an overhang. There’s a peg here, out to the left, right under the overhang. Probably placed by Paul Ross on the first ascent, I told myself. Better not fall on it, I told myself, and put in a nut over to the right. The next move is the celebrated crux. You make ‘precarious’ moves right to a jug, then haul yourself up onto easier slabs. I moved precariously to the right. Could not reach the jugs. I moved precariously back left again. Repeat.
I shouted down to Tony that this looked a bit hard, or words to that effect. Repeat again. There’s a good hold way above, but you can only curl your fingers over it if you don’t move in from the left. Not moving in from the left involves not making use of that peg. That bloody peg! Without that bloody peg my only protection would be a rubbish peanut that might well rip if I fell. I went back to repeating the above a couple of times. Then, as I noticed Tony starting to lose interest (he was now gazing at the view down Borrowdale) the thought struck me that I could use the peg for protection, but not be pulled towards it if I extended the runner a bit more. And, if I got on with it and climbed it while Tony was still wondering how many launches cruise Derwentwater every hour, he wouldn’t see how it was done, and THEN he’d learn the hard way just how hard this bloody climb was, and just what an amazing climber I was. Double, or possibly even triple whammy. But first I had to climb it. I clipped an extended sling-draw in, moved lower to the right, and just climbed up from below, rather than trying to swing across into it. My left hand reached, and my fingers curled over the good hold, feet smeared for a couple of moves, then my right hand found, fingers clenched around, a good jug hold. I moved up and onto slabby ground, as Tony said, “Oh! You’ve done it! I didn’t see that!” I belayed on the slabs, just right of my semi-hanging stance of The Coffin, and brought Tony up. Annoyingly he made it look easy, but then he was on a top rope. He was also very quiet when he arrived, and let me tie him in to the belay.
The final pitch is OK, but not great. A grotty corner lead to mossy slabs. I tried to follow the cleanest line, then stopped worrying about it and just struck out for the top.
Both The Coffin and The Shroud had proved to be more than worthy of their stars. I’d return any day to do either climb again.
Paul Ross recently suggested that we should get together for a climb. While my climbing is certainly not in the same league as Paul’s was in his heyday, I desperately hope he had climbs like The Shroud, and Troutdale Pinnacle Superdirect (Paul’s first new route, I believe) in mind when he made that suggestion. Paul?
There are other routes of around the same grade on North Crag. Sadly, due to lack of interest, they’ve been dropped from the new FRCC guidebook to Borrowdale. User comments on UKC make both The Wreath and Moonraker sound vegetated and horrible. I want more of what The Coffin and The Shroud gave me. I want the North Crag to keep providing. Anyone up for a bit of gardening, and opening up a couple of once great climbs, and more importantly, keeping them open. I reckon with a bit of love and care, The Wreath and Moonraker could, and should, be saved from the encroaching jungle.