Don’t Look Left

Pavey Ark

From down in the valley, Pavey Ark doesn’t have an immediately obvious role in the drama of Langdale’s towering battlements. In the jagged arrangement of peaks and crags cutting out into the mist, it sits back, a sullen wall of black stone sunk obliquely into the mountainside high above the dale. From below, it’s more a presence than a peak, standing over its neighbourhood with a quietly threatening demeanour of dignity and calm. Up close, when it slides into view over the crest of the hike from the valley floor, its effect is breathtaking.
   A quarter of a mile across and some seven hundred feet in height, the face of the precipice rising from the north shore of Stickle Tarn forms the back wall of an immense natural amphitheatre. Lodged in the slopes of Harrison Stickle to the west and tapering down to nothing at its eastern shoulder, it appears on first sight as a giant, stegosaurid ridge, slashed top to bottom with deep, yawning gullies and embroidered with grassy terraces and vegetation, its rocky spine saw-toothed against the sky and massive, cracked black slabs hanging still and silent over the lake. So flawless is the configuration of mountain, tarn and crag that it’s almost as though the whole arrangement has emerged from the imagination of a Romantic painter – an impression somehow reinforced by the stone barrage that dams the southern shore of the tarn, doubling as a viewing platform from which to take in the grandeur of the composition.
   This masterpiece of geology was a playground for the pioneers of British alpinism who flocked to the north of England in the late 19th century. Walter Parry Haskett Smith, the ‘father of rock climbing’, visited in 1882 on one of his first trips to the Lakes; Owen Glynne Jones, Cecil Slingsby, Norman Collie, Aleister Crowley and the Abraham brothers would all put their mark on it, as would more or less every luminary of twentieth century British rock climbing. Successive generations have bequeathed their own legacies to the rock in the invisible lattice of climbing routes that snake around its giant slabs and gullies. The stories they inscribe into its fictive inscape keep the mountain’s past quietly present in the jagged lyricism of the stone: some disingenuously picturesque (Little Gully, Gwynne’s Chimney), others openly malevolent in the chthonian toponymy favoured by the type of people whose accomplishments they weave into the philological contours of the land: Crescent Slabs, Arcturus, Fallen Angel, Cruel Sister, Mother Courage, Rainmaker, Impact Day, and a long list of others that would look as at home on an Iron Maiden setlist as in any climbing logbook.
   For most visitors, the calls of the climbers echoing around the cirque are just one of a million brush strokes that make up the spectacular vista that bursts upon the senses at the end of the climb from the valley floor. But while the poetry of their route names might go unnoticed except by those for whom it provides the reference system of their sport, the name of the mountain itself, of course, rarely does. ‘Ark’ seems like an unusual toponym in these parts, yet even without knowing anything of its provenance it somehow feels strangely appropriate: a vessel of secrets, sacred things, unknowable; ‘arcane’ – as if a statement of the mystery the human animal ascribes to these great natural monuments that have stood in place since the planet was in its fiery infancy.
   For many years the name was thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon hearg, a holy grove or temple (from the Old Norse hörgr, meaning a heathen altar, a place of worship or sanctuary), and the Icelandic paufi – a “lurking fiend” (according to some sources; to others, a “dark and mysterious corner”): “Altar of the Lurking Fiend”. Current consensus puts the etymology of the term ‘Ark’ in the Old Norse element ‘erg’, a relative of the Gaelic airigh, meaning ‘shieling’ or ‘hill-pasture’. The element appears in more subtle forms (-er, -ergh, -argh etc.) in many place names of northern England, as in Mansergh, Cleator and Torver in Cumbria, Grimsargh in Lancashire and Arkengarthdale in Yorkshire. Arklid, at the south end of Coniston Water, is the hlíð (fellside) of the erg. Little Arrow near Coniston, formerly known as Little Ayrey, and Airey Force at Ullswater derive from an alternative form of the word, also found in Orkney, Shetland and the north of Scotland in Askary, Halsary and others. As for ‘Pavey’, ‘Pavia’ is now thought to have been a woman’s name (a 1902 study of the region’s Viking history notes Pavy-fields on the Solway, named after Pavia, the widow of a local landowner named Robert de Grinsdale); so, ‘Pavia’s Shieling’.
   Oddly enough then, the obvious Noachian connotations aren’t actually a million miles from the most probable etymology of the name, suggesting a place of sanctuary. Put it to a vote among anyone who’s ever visited Pavey Ark on a rainy day in winter though, and I’d hope that ‘Altar of the Lurking Fiend’ would be a stronger contender. For while the cavernous topography of this remote corrie tarn no doubt provides shelter from the arctic winds sweeping down over the fells, the primeval giant rising from its northern shore looks anything but beneficent, especially through the murk of the crepuscular months when the mountain’s summit is shrouded in cloud and the specks of primary colour against the gunmetal grey are few and far between.

While an onward ascent into the eaves of the Langdale Pikes may follow one of several possible routes, for a certain kind of walker, from the moment Pavey Ark presents itself over the crest of the climb from the valley floor, there is really only one.
   From the foot of the East Buttress, Jack’s Rake cuts a sharp diagonal west across the face of the cliff, a jagged scar so geometrically precise as to appear at first sight an act of human vandalism, but which in fact follows a natural fissure slashed into the mountain during its violent birth in the freezers and furnaces of prehistory. Presumably this ledge had been known to shepherds for hundreds of years before the Victorian aristocracy arrived, and before them by the unnamed generations who cut the Neolithic axe heads in Dungeon Ghyll as they scrambled around the precipice in search of sites to quarry their stone. Of these, however, or indeed of Jack himself, no record remains. A footnote to an essay by one A.P. Rossiter in the 1954 Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club mentions a Captain Brown, who apparently tackled the rake sometime in the 1700s, but aside from being noted as “a very bold fellow”, nothing further is ventured as to his identity. It is to one Dr. Richard Pendlebury that the first recorded ascent is generally credited. A legend of British rock-climbing, later to find fame in the climbing world for being one of the party to make the first ascent of the east face of Monte Rosa in Italy, Pendlebury spoke of Jack’s Rake in a casual remark in the visitors’ book at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in the 1850s as a “striking yet simple excursion” into the dramatic rock scenery of the Lakeland fells.
   The nonchalance of Pendlebury’s assessment echoes through the accounts left behind by Pavey Ark’s Victorian visitors, perhaps befitting of the footsoldiers in modernity’s battle to assert mankind’s mastery of nature. In an article in the Pall Mall Budget in March 1892, by which time the climbing world had arrived in Langdale, H.A. Gwynne, after whom Gwynne’s Chimney on Pavey Ark is named, thus describes the rake with similar matter-of-factness as “a ledge that looks from below hardly wide enough for a cat to stand upon”, but which in fact “offers no difficulty whatever, unless the climber is given to attacks of giddiness, and if that is the case there will hardly be any need to tell him that he has no business there at all”.
   To climbers, a rake is a functional thing, a conduit to more serious routes higher up the rockface, and which to this end serves a purely utilitarian purpose. But it might well be argued that the insouciance of the climbing fraternity has given this path a much less fearsome reputation than it deserves. Those who arrived in Langdale in the late 1800s, as Haskett Smith records in his Climbing in the British Isles (1894), were in many cases ill-prepared for the reality of Jack’s Rake, and in that respect not a great deal has changed. Today’s guidebooks class the route as a Grade 1 Scramble: a climb, technically, but as Alfred Wainwright puts it, “just about the limit that the ordinary common garden or fell walker[1] reasonably may be expected to attempt”. As with many of the ascents with which it shares this designation, it’s at least in part down to a general misinterpretation of the grading system that the route draws so many visitors, and a growing inventory of tragedy over recent years has fanned the embers of an ongoing debate among the Lakeland cognoscenti over the suitability of the classification.
   Wainwright himself seems to have been of the view, now widely-held and enthusiastically promoted by local Mountain Rescue, that despite its Grade 1 status this is not an ascent to be underestimated. AW of course was hardly a stranger to the ragged escarpments of the Lake District. Striding Edge on Helvellyn, Lord’s Rake on Scafell, and Sharp Edge, the rocky blade slung from the roof of Blencathra in the north, are all described in his books with characteristic warmth and affection, as are plenty of others. But in the case of Jack’s Rake he saw fit to make an exception. “Difficult and awkward” he says, it “climbs high across the face of a fearful precipice”, and he resolves, one senses in the name of a selfless dedication to the furtherance of human knowledge, to describe the path in “a wealth of gruesome detail”. In a later essay he notes the satisfaction to be gained by the humble fell-walker from having completed what is, officially, a rock climb. But “it is the only notch on my belt,” he remarks, “and there will be no more”.

The hike up to the cliff is a lonely one, but for the odd detachment of politely quizzical Herdwicks entering and issuing from the long grass by the side of the tarn. The sensation of solitude and the sheer enormity of the rock intensify as the path fades away and the springy peat ground of the eastern shore becomes the boggy delta of Bright Beck, and finally a steep scree slope up to the cairn that marks the start of the route. Suddenly the peaceful waters are a long way behind, and up ahead, what had appeared not ten minutes previously as an oblique diagonal reveals itself as a near-vertical ascent.
   The rock is wet with runoff from the summit plateau – and in winter frozen solid – but squeeze into the narrow gully, face pressed up close against the stone, and it’s with surprising ease, though not a scrap of dignity, that one finds oneself lurching suddenly upwards.
   This first section is the steepest and most technically challenging part of the climb, but once attuned to the awkward rhythms of the mountain, the anxiety of fast-increasing altitude quickly dissipates with the realisation that the ribs of stone to the left form a protective balustrade between the climber and the sheer drop to the scree field below. The rock here is dodgy at the best of times, crumbling and eroded by the thousands of hands and boots that have left the polished patches that map the route for those who follow, but the worst that can happen for now is a nasty fall back down the gully. After a tricky bridging move past a narrow chimney, progress can be made with confidence toward a large splinter of fallen rock, known as ‘the Gun’, jutting out into the sky.
   And then the scrambling suddenly becomes more serious. Awkward manoeuvres past the Gun lead straight into a narrow terrace with an unprotected edge above a vertical drop. The sidewall suddenly gone, the path, such as it is, tightens to the point of disappearance, to the left, nothing but air between the climber and the steel grey sheet of Stickle Tarn a sickening distance below.
   ‘Don’t look left’ is frequent advice to first-timers undertaking an ascent of Jack’s Rake, and, dispensed though it often is with a wry smile, it’s not entirely facetious. Fear of falling is a natural fear, a reflex we share with many of our fellow creatures, and one that serves a fairly obvious evolutionary function. This fear, when it takes hold, manifests physically in a number of ways, one of which being an unsettling sensation of involuntary motion that kicks in as the vestibular system grapples to make sense of new, unfamiliar stimuli, adjusting its postural sway to compensate for the sudden instability it senses. The view from any point on Jack’s Rake is breathtaking, but only from a place of safety does distant grandeur make an engaging companion. To focus on far-off things at altitude is to risk losing sight of closer realities: at a certain point, all of a sudden, the priority becomes putting one hand in front of the other and making it off the cliff-face alive.
   The now inevitable onward course of the climb depends entirely on how this visceral rush is channelled. The mechanics of human gyroscopy pay no regard to reason, but there are holds in the rock that offer firm support, and there is no choice but to find them: to edge carefully upwards, rock to rock, hold to hold, with racing heartbeat thumping through the silence. A short climb up Great Gully leads to a series of vertiginous ledges, and onward to gargantuan square-cut blocks and slabs of volcaniclastic rock, dizzyingly exposed, with nothing to the left but a 500-foot drop. But volcanic bombs and andesite lava spatter make for a surface texture rough and coarse enough to give decent handholds if you can keep it together long enough to find them. Leaning in to the right, body pressed up hard against the mountain, a final breathless clamber over the slabs leads, all of a sudden, into the heathery embrace of the summit plateau.
   On a clear day, most of Cumbria lies spread out below in a sprawling, circular tableau. To the north west, across the long slopes of High Raise, undulating moorland punctuated by rocky outcrops and bilberry terraces rises gently towards Thunacar Knott; panoramic views over the Eastern and Southern Fells: Pillar, Gable, the Buttermere fells, and to the north, the Helvellyn ridge, the Rydal fells and old Skiddaw. To the west, the knobbly outcrop of Harrison Stickle, and beyond, Crinkle Crags, Esk Pike, Bowfell and the Scafell Pikes. To the south, the Coniston fells, and in the far distance the sparkling sands of Morecombe bay. Two thousand feet below, the luminescent green of the Langdale valley winds its way elegantly around Lingmoor Fell towards Elterwater and Windermere. Looking out to the east over Sergeant Man to the Fairfield Horseshoe, somewhere beyond, lying low in misty blue across the dappled drumlins of Blea Rigg, the velvet of the Howgills and the western reaches of the Yorkshire Dales. “You could not ask for more” wrote the classicist H.H. Symonds of this magnificent vista. “This is the hub of the wheel, the nodal point for a man looking into space; it is Apollo’s central temple for the worshipper”.
   It’s been almost exactly a quarter of a century since I first climbed Jack’s Rake, and only a few times in the decades since have I arrived at the summit to find it lacking a congregation. But the sort of person who makes it up here is likely the type for whom loneliness is a thing more keenly felt in the midst of multitudes than in the solitude of a remote mountain scramble. This solitude is not one of insularity, but one wrought by the sensory onslaught of immersion in the wild and the untamed into something altogether different, and very difficult to describe.
   The odd thing is, Jack’s Rake isn’t actually a particularly difficult climb. It’s not technically difficult, it’s relatively short and it doesn’t require any real climbing skills, and, however much the senses may protest to the contrary, only for about a quarter of the route is the climber actually in any real danger. But the senses do protest to the contrary, and in that protest is a vivifying force. With the sensation of cold stone on the palms of the hands and the rush of panic at seeing the world drop away beneath your feet, an instinctual self-reliance takes over (an odd word, that: reliance; the original double meaning is somewhat lost in our English usage), jolting us back into an ancient assemblage shattered by the forced banality of lives ripped from their source for all but these tiny splinters of time: stark, ineradicable, unintellectualised; intensely individual yet shared by every last one of the countless souls that have been nourished by this same confluence of forces. This solitude is not an escape from time and space; it is not a turning away from the world. On the contrary, it defines our very being as being in the world, attuning us to the rhythms that underpin our very existence on this planet.

[1] Word order in original

Image © James Horrox, 2011