100 years of solitude: the centenary anniversary of Central Buttress, Scafell

Posted by Claire-Jane Carter on 19/04/2014
Siegfried Herford on the Great Flake, first ascent of Central Buttress, Scafell, April 1914. Photo: GS Sansom / FRCC Archive.
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Easter Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of Britain’s most legendary mountain climb: Central Buttress on Scafell, first climbed on 20 April 1914.

“The most arduous ascent in the Lake District; unexampled exposure; combined tactics and rope engineering essential at one point; not less than three climbers. Rubbers…The difficulties met with are so great that the expedition ranks amongst the world’s hardest.” - 1924 FRCC Scawfell guide

Scafell, the second-highest mountain in England, is famous for inspiring Britain’s writers and walkers. Encouraged by William Wordsworth’s romantic verse, rock-climbing Victorians hungrily visited the Lakes, and by the turn of the century the newly-formed Fell and Rock Climbing Club (FRCC) had explored much of Scafell Crag, though the striking face of Central Buttress was left unscaled.

The innovative climber Siegfried Herford attempted pitches of Central Buttress in 1913, even inspecting parts he couldn't complete on a rope, but concluded that ‘the CB problem is solved as much as it will ever be’.

However, he returned a year later with George Sansom and managed to climb the route in two parts, thanks to a new gritstone technique and the traditional use of his partner’s shoulders as footholds on the crux.

The team promised to return to climb Central Buttress in one but the First World War began that summer and Herford was killed in service – along with many others of the FRCC.

Considered the hardest climb in England, Central Buttress assumed an atmosphere of memoriam and wasn’t revisited until a second ascent in 1922.

Incredibly, Mable Barker is thought to have managed the first ascent without aid or human holds in 1925, writing in the FRCC Journal “there are moments when it is quite good fun to be a woman. Probably no lady in history was ever so sure of creating mild sensation by the mere fact of being where she was.”

Given its fantastic history and intimidating mountain position, Central Buttress (E1 5a, 5b, 4c, 5a) is a still a favourite multi-pitch adventure for today’s climbers.

Watch: Leo Houlding climbing Central Buttress with his dad Mark on BMC TV:

To celebrate its centenary, we asked a few Lake District devotees for a hundred words on their top memory of Scafell:

James McHaffie (born 1981)

I think the climbing in the Lakes, for its size, gives some of the finest in the world. My dad did Troutdale Pinnacle well over a 1,000 times. I started climbing in 1996 and spent quite an intense few years doing as many climbs as possible, and know most of the FRCC guidebooks to the Lakes inside out. The Nazgul would probably take my top spot. It offers a striking crack line in a steep face, and I like Tolkien’s books a great deal. The final pitch up the ramp is as good as it gets right on top of Scafell. C.B. would be high on the list as well; I remember soloing it on a lovely evening with an empty crag and only my friend Wez down on Hollow Stones by the tent. 

James is a BMC ambassador, and lives in North Wales. He made the fourth ascent of Indian Face, and put up the hardest slab in Britain, Meltdown 9a.

Rick Graham (born 1954)

A Scafell favourite in a hundred words. Only a hundred? To cover East Buttress, Scafell main crag or the Pinnacle? Summer or winter? Any good spell of weather in the Lakes and locals think of how to make the best of it. The obvious first choice is Scafell, but then what to do? We’ve done all we can, several times, but we still go, it just takes longer to walk up nowadays. It’s magical when you enter the Wasdale valley, even the car parking at the FRCC hut at Brackenclose has a surreal feel. Where better to eat your butties between routes than sitting in the sun on Mickledore? I have even got my favourite sitting place, but I am not letting on exactly where in case you park your sac there before me!

Rick has lived in Cumbria since the late 70s after visiting more weekends that was sensible. He has established many new routes in the Lakes in both summer and winter.

George Sansom (born 1888)

When Herford and I in an inquisitive spirit, climbed up a grassy scoop leading out of Moss Gill onto the Central Buttress, we did not seriously believe that we should find a new climb on this rock face, for it appears to be singularly unbroken and almost vertical for over two-hundred feet. The Great Flake looked quite hopeless as a means of ascent and we dismissed the idea at once.

However, consideration of other climbs which lead up apparently impossible but actually feasible rocks, impressed on us the necessity of not judging by appearances, and we accordingly assured one another that there was still a chance. The Central Buttress climb as a whole is extremely interesting and the situation is absolutely unique. The Flake Crack excessively severe, the traverse and ascents on the upper wall are extraordinarily exposed, but the climbing is exceedingly enjoyable.

George joined the FRCC in 1908 and made the first ascent of Central Buttress with Herford. Surviving the First World War he continued to climb, developing many new routes his beloved Wasdale. He died in 1980 aged 92.

Katy Forrester (born 1986)

The first time I visited Scafell at 17 was in a disorganised collective of myself, who had only just started climbing outside, my maths teacher, Gary Baum, and two old friends of Gary's, talented alpinists of their day. Now with a combined weight of nearly 50 stone, they were called the Blobbies. A plan to visit Scafell meant a 6am start from the Eden Valley. The walk in took forever. I remember clearly being on the rock above the cloud, this brilliant sunshine making the world technicolor again, the peaks of other fells sneaking through.

I knew nothing of the history of Scafell, but it was so impressive, a hulking, imposing figure, steep and brutal in places. I fell through my front door that night, tired but elated, because I'd found a secret: why climbing on the high crags in Cumbria is such an honour. So, go to Scafell. It's not important what you do. Just go, and feel the magic of the place.

Katy still lives in the Eden Valley and training to be a maths teacher. She is an ‘obsessive climber’, and is a Scarpa-sponsored member of the GB Ice Climbing team.

Are you inspired?

Is there a better way to celebrate Siegfried and George’s achievement that to visit Scafell for yourself this summer? You’ll need spell of good weather, a sense of adventure and the new FRCC Scafell and Wasdale CB Centenary Edition guidebook. See you up there. 

Now available from the BMC shop

Siegfried Herford’s letters describing his 1913 attempt on Central Buttress will on display at the Kewsick Museum this summer, as part of an exhibition by the Mountain Heritage Trust.

Read George Sansom's account of the first ascent of Central Buttress, first published in the FRCC Journal 1914.

Watch: Scafell Pike timelapse by Terry Abraham on BMC TV:

 



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Anonymous User
20/04/2014
I'm a walker, not a climber, but I enjoyed reading this. The hundred words of enthusiasm, camaraderie and affection for the climb from each writer was enough to make me consider taking it up, briefly, before I came to my senses and remembered that you're all a bit mad :-) Just one thing though, how old was George Sansom when he died?
Anonymous User
13/05/2014
Solo ascent of Central Buttress several years ago, quite simply a divine experience. Intricate route finding up the massive crag.
Anonymous User
09/06/2014
I climbed CB, led by the late Colin Taylor, on 2nd September 1961. Colin tried to lead it clean, but had to come down and we did it in classic manner. The Flake was quite a struggle, but I remember the upper part as delightful, airy, quite hard climbing, and it remains for me my finest climb ever in the Lakes. We followed it with Great Eastern on the East Buttress; I found it hard, but not as memorable as CB.

Richard Gowing
Anonymous User
09/06/2014
George Samuel Sanson: Born 7/08/1888, died 21/03 1980.
If you get chance buy the book ' Climbing at Wasdale Head Before the First World War' by GS Sansom. Out of print. Published by Castle Cary Press, 1982.A good read. Also worth a read is ' Siegfried Herford, An Edwardian Rock-Climber. Biography by Keith Treacher. Published by Earnest Press, 2000.
Mark Scott.

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