Birkett Climbs Scafell Super Winter Route

“I have a photo of this route taken in January 1982 on which I've drawn an arrow and written “THIS IS IT!” I recognised then that this was going to be the best winter route in the Lakes, ever. It's the most important winter route for 25 years, the only other route that has caused any headlines in that time is Snickersnack on Gable by Steve Ashworth and Woody. Well done Dave and Andy, and thanks to Ed for getting up there for the shots.” Al Phizacklea

The East Buttress of Scafell in superb Winter Conditions© Al Phizacklea, 31 Jan 2010

Dave Birkett, Andy Mitchell and Mary Jenner climbed a once-in-a-lifetime winter route last weekend on Scafell's East Buttress. Birkett has an almost religious relationship with this hallowed crag and this new winter route, he told us, was one of his most intense mental and physical climbing experiences ever. The route takes a combination of the rock routes: Gold Rush (E1) the Yellow Slab (HVS) to finish with a grand finale up Overhanging Grooves (E3) The ascent was completed over two days and Dave has kindly written an account for, see below. Dave wants to thank his partners on this historic winter route, his wife Mary Jenner and friend Andy Mitchell.Thank you very much to Ed Luke for the action photographs and Al Phizacklea for the crag shots.

The East Buttress of Scafell showing Dave Birkett's new route and the climbers circled.© Al Phizacklea, 31 Jan 2010

Never Ever Say NeverVIII 8 or E7 5c, (whichever you prefer) by Dave BirkettA picture paints a thousand wordsBut what if it's a really really small pictureYou'd be struggling, to not repeat yourself…When it comes to the East Buttress of Scafell it seems like I've been repeating myself for many years. I walk up and turn the ridge at Mickeldore, expecting to be inspired by her fantastic lines and beauty every time. But in the last couple of years, the magic has gone out of our relationship. I'd started taking her for granted, thought I knew all her secrets. I'd even dabbled with a few other crags. We were just going through the motions.But on Saturday when I saw her, she was looking the most beautiful I'd ever seen. I even shouted down to my wife that she looks beautiful today. The sun, just coming up over Harter Fell was catching the icicles above Shere Khan and May Day Climb where I was hoping to complete a new ice line. But it wasn't there to be climbed, maybe she was rejecting me in return? It felt good just being there in the sun so I wandered further round to admire the rest of her.And that's when I saw it, the mythical line of ice running the length of the crag, from the top of Overhanging Grooves to the start of Gold Rush. I'd heard of this icefall before but it felt more like climbing folklore than reality.My wife told me afterwards that she was hoping the East Buttress would be black and we could go and climb Moss Ghyll. It wasn't her day.The ice formed a fat pillar at the start, which took good ice screws. This was topped by a few metres of very steep rock, typical of the East Buttress. Many of the rock routes here work their way through the steepness following corners and grooves, but the ice formed a vertical line down the crag which dictated where we had to climb. The East Buttress was fully in the sun, which made the temperature very pleasant but big chunks of ice were continually falling from above. We stanced in a corner, on Yellow Slab, to keep out the way.Maybe the winter will last a few more weeks. Maybe we'll be here next weekend. And maybe, if I love her enough, she'll share some more of her magic with me.Leaving the stance was fraught as there was no gear above the belay and a fall would have had me landing on Mary. Finding protection proved difficult as the East Buttress's usually good small wire placements had to be slowly chipped out of the ice. The climbing was balancy and delicate on tenuous hooks and verglassed rock. Eventually we arrived at the start of what seemed to be climbable ice, down the finish of Overhanging Grooves Direct. But it had been in the sun all day and was running with water, it was also getting late and we had optimistically left our headtorches in our sacks. So we came down. I knew I had to come back the next day.Mary had had enough of being cold, scared and bored and didn't want to waste another perfect gritstone day. So I needed a new partner. And a good man is hard to find, especially if he's hiding…But I thought I might find one in the Prince of Wales in Foxfield and Andy Mitchell didn't let me down. He also agreed with me that gritstone was for girls.Next day we had an even earlier start to get there before the sun melted all the ice. Our biggest concern was a huge hanging icicle at the top of the crag. So I decided to abseil in to our previous day's highpoint. Anyone who has abbed off the top of the East Butress knows how frightening this is. We were already scared before we started climbing. Before I could think about what I was doing I'd almost finished the first pitch. It was poorly protected on very thin ice and was a good indication of what was to come.We looked up at the next pitch, plotting our line, knowing we'd have to find rock protection because the ice was way too thin for screws. Luckily within the first 15 feet I got 2 good wires which gave enough encouragement to move on. I was concentrating so hard that I managed to forget about the hanging icicle right above us which was now running with water. Andy didn't manage to forget. I made steady progress, even balancing a big hex between knobbles of ice to persaude myself I had some gear. The ice was so thin I couldn't tap it more than once for each placement or there wouldn't have been enough left to climb. Finally, just below the icicle I got a couple of ice screws in which made me feel a lot better for the last steep section to the stance. I brought Andy up and sent him up the last pitch because I'd had enough. Andy climbed it well and we were soon on top.Maybe the winter will last a few more weeks. Maybe we'll be here next weekend. And maybe, if I love her enough, she'll share some more of her magic with me.All Photos Ed Luke

Just approaching the belay on Yellow Slab. Gear is very fickle, all rock gear, hard to place, easy to lift out
Just starting up the steep thin ice of Overhanging Grooves Direct
Second to last pitch below a big hanging icicle. The relief of the first good gear just short of the belay. Andy Mitchell keeping cool, aware of the threat of the giant chandelier of ice may collapse on him.
Andy Mitchel leading the final pitch to glory on Never Ever Say NeverUKC News, 02 Feb 2010© Ed Luke

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