A free Saturday , a favourable forecast and an axe to grind with Napes Needle lead to an early pick-up and arrival in Borrowdale at 9am. Accompanied by two good friends, Graham and Barry our heavy sacks of carefully chosen equipment were packed and re-packed, until frustration and uncertainty caused us to take everything we had brought. The sun was already hot as we trekked towards Sty Head.
Arriving at Sty Head our early start paid dividends, with fine vistas of the mountains in the morning light. With more people behind us on Great Gables' Climbers Traverse, a race was on for the first assent of the Needle that day. We made a bee line past Kern Knotts and Tophet Wall to the base of the Needle. Without pause we donned rock boots and harness as others proceeded towards us. With rope and gear, I was ready. I stepped confidently onto the polished holds of the Wasdale crack, only to be unnerved by the unprotectable off width gash . "Bloody hell this is hard" I felt my confidence lapse having remembered the guide book, *** H.V.D with the crux at the top.
( I occasionally lead V.S but tend to leave a couple of grades in hand for safety).
I reached the spike half way up the crack and placed a sling, then standing on the spike reached up in an attempt to place more protection only to find narrow blind pockets. The moves were so strenuous that I kept letting out little trumps as I thrutched my way up the crack. I reached the shoulder with no further protection, my constant unwelcome companion was the fear that a fall would take me to the rocks below.
At the shoulder, mixed feelings enveloped me, relief that that pitch was over and anxious that the crux was to come. Anyway for now I was safe. I found a good belay and called Graham to follow. Giving him a tight rope, his head soon appeared over the shoulder. His face wore a look of dismay as he came to rest beside me . All that remained was a fifteen foot wall split by a small ledge at a height of about five feet, (THE CRUX).
I placed a bomb proof runner in a crack at the back of the ledge and proceeded to mantle shelf using the smallest of holds. Some how I managed to delicately balance on a small toe hold and move upwards to stand on the ledge. The situation and exposure felt tremendous, as the right hand side of the ledge fell away hundreds of feet to the Wasdale valley below. I toe traversed leftwards to the edge of the obelisk then moving around onto the adjacent face meant that with only two more moves I would be sat on the yard square top. Happy and relieved having reached the needle point, I set up a belay around the top block, ensuring the rope was secure under the overhang which was out of sight at the back. I called for Graham to follow, I felt the rope go loose which meant that he was on the move. Seconds later the rope as tight as a fishing line landing a fish, as a slip caused him to swing around the toe traverse, and giving him as he put it, an unfair advantage. Seconds later his face appeared wearing a big smile. We sat astride the Needle with a feeling of high admiration for Haskett Smith and his solo assent in 1886.
After soaking up the atmosphere of the whole situation, Graham set off back to the shoulder and I followed protected by a loop over the top. We arrived from the shoulder via absail to the base of the Needle, happy, content and satisfied as only we climbers know.
We continued to the top of Great Gable by climbing Needle Ridge, a classic of the crag. Whilst enjoying our climb on the ridge we overheard other climbers on the Needle comment on its Fell & Rock Climbing Club guide grade of Hard Severe, "HARD SEVERE?" If I had known that earlier , would I have lead it?
Needle Ridge turned out to be everything that I like in a climb - interesting , long, some exposure, but most of all a real "V- DIFF"