Roderick A Smith

The Needle: a lifetime ambition achieved 16 August 2008

The Needle Climbed

Roderick A Smith

(Submitted to the Journal of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club, October 2008)

“The task of finding anything either new or interesting to say on the subject of the Napes Needle is one which is vastly easier for the light hearted editor to set than it is for the unhappy contributor to perform”

W.P.Haskett-Smith, FRCC Journal No. 8, 1914


I am on the polished crux move of the Needle. A strong wind is tugging at me, below there is “a drop into nothing, as straight as a beggar can spit”, there seems to be no way of making upward progress. Retreat seems like the only wise move, but yet……

Needles are closely associated with threads. It this case I need to draw together the threads of my own mountain background, the history of our Club and a serendipitous opportunity.

Great Gable was the first mountain I climbed in the Lake District. I was probably about six or seven, and was led by my father from the top of Honister, via Green Gable and up the stony approach to the summit. Maybe the strong name of Great Gable fixed in my mind that this was a big and important top. I was suffused with pride on getting there: a pride somewhat tempered by realising on my return I had left the woollen bobble hat, so lovingly knitted by my mother, on the top. Still, it was a memorable day and its images are still fresh in my mind. This was in the age of the first ascent of Everest, the film of which I thought was just about the most exciting thing possible. It was also the age of the Eagle comic of Dan Dare, coloured cut-away technology centre-folds and lots of wholesome advice to young boys. I carefully cut out and stored a short series of articles about beginning rock climbing, which included an ascent of what looked like an impossible pinnacle of rock, the Napes Needle. Later we climbed Gable by the Climbers Traverse from Sty Head and the Needle in reality looked to me as fearsome as the pictures I had seen. Later still, the Traverse route taken became more adventurous, and treading the Needle through the gap between the rock tower and Needle Ridge gave an even closer view. I then started rock climbing in the age of the hemp waist band, army surplus karabiners and rather primitive protection. I was sent on a Mountaineering Association beginners course in Skye and then climbed regularly on gritstone outcrops, rather less regularly in the Lakes and North Wales, with a friend from school. I think we were perhaps too rigidly fixed with the idea that the leader must never fall, and as a result never progressed beyond the easier Severes. University introduced me to a bigger world of the Alps and expeditions to remote ranges, but rock climbing became a sporadic pleasure still confined to the lower grades. It was at Cambridge that I met the lady with whom I thought I might share my life. But first I wanted to test her in trying circumstances. Arrowhead Ridge on the Napes on a damp, misty and cold November day was the test. She passed with flying colours, but the test nearly backfired when we un-roped. “I will never go anywhere with you again.” Well, she did and we are still married 35 years later.

Just over thirty years ago, when I was elected to the Club, I already had a appreciation of the history of rock climbing gained though voracious reading. The intervening period has consolidated this knowledge, whilst at the same time heightening the appreciation of the boldness of many of our predecessors. The Needle is of course the badge of our club. It appears everywhere from ties, to sweatshirts, to centenary wine goblets and on the cover of our Handbook. All members know (references are given for anyone whose memory needs refreshing!) how on 27 June 1886 our sport was firmly established by the first ascent of the Needle by W. P. Haskett Smith. My first care was to get two or three stones and test the flatness of the summit by seeing whether anything thrown-up would be induced to lodge. If it did, that would be an indication of a moderately flat top, and would hold out hopes of the edge being found not too much rounded to afford a good grip for the fingers.  Out of three missiles one consented to stay, and thereby encouraged me to start, feeling as small as a mouse climbing a milestone. After the bold solo ascent, Haskett Smith left his white handkerchief fluttering on the top. This was a signal to awaken ambitions to repeat this bold climb. Indeed so many of these ambitions have now been fulfilled that the whole climb is highly polished, and over the years the designated grade has risen. But Gable itself has a greater significance. The high ground on Great Gable and surrounding fells is the Club’s war memorial gift to the nation. The bronze tablet on the summit tells the story of the losses suffered by the Club during the First World War. It is hard to imagine any heart not being moved by reading the words and, strangely, in our increasingly material society, the number of visitors to the top of the mountain to attend the Remembrance Sunday service has shown a marked and substantial increase in recent years. So Gable and it’s Needle is so entwined into the fabric of our Club, that it seems to me an imperative that it should be climbed. But the years have gone by for me. Active mountaineering has taken me to many places, but I have not yet climbed the Needle. Nor if I am to believe my doctor am I likely to: high blood pressure and too much weight (94 kg) being cited as the critical show stoppers.


Now the serendipitous bit. Some years ago, I was Warden of Stephenson Hall of the University of Sheffield. I was delighted to discover that Tom Stobart had been a resident in the Hall during the late thirties. Now Tom made the famous Ascent of Everest film that so stimulated my generation. I produced a display of Tom and his work to decorate the wall of what became the Stobart Room. By this means the students were aware of my interest in climbing. One summer at a garden party for JCR committee, a young man introduced himself to me as Tom the Treasurer and, much more importantly, a rock climber. And indeed as I listened to what he had already climbed, I could sense that he was something special. Being nominally charged with his care, I gave him a little homily about being cautious: you know the sort of thing, Whymper’s, “climb if you will but remember each step may be your last”. Then at the end of that academic year, I moved from Sheffield to Imperial College London and so lost touch with this group of students. But Tom managed to find me and tell me that he had named a new climb that he had just accomplished, “Professor Smith’s Warning”. I was pleased with this for two reasons. First, it was clear that my warning had not just been dismissed as  old fogie’s rambling and had been taken seriously and secondly, to be frank, it was rather nice to have an eponymous climb even in this second-hand way. Imagine my surprise and delight when Tom contacted me about 18 months ago, to ask if I would officiate at the informal wedding ceremony he was planning in a Derbyshire barn! The day went off delightfully, the sun shone, the bride, also a student from Stephenson Hall, was radiant and the guests were not too troubled by the informal officiating and rambling advice to the pair delivered through a climbing analogy. The quid pro quo for performing this pleasant duty was that Tom should get me up the Needle.


Our busy schedules finally permitted a gathering at Brackenclose last weekend, Tom and his wife Kim having left Sheffield at 4 am. The weather had been in keeping with the rest of the summer so far: that is terrible. But on Saturday morning the rain had stopped at last and we set off for the Napes. As the reality of achieving my lifetime ambition drew near, I was weakening with apprehension. The climb is now graded hard severe and I suspect that the polish on the rock gives this grade inflation rather more substance than the reasons usually given for A levels. As a concession to modernity and to maximise my chances, I have therefore equipped my self with rock shoes and a belay friction device. I hope Tom will have time to show me how to use the latter. We are informed by a genuinely modest Tom that he recently climbed an incredible 510 named rock climbs in 17 hours and one minute, thus creating a world record recognised by the cognoscenti. On the one hand I am delighted for his success and know I will be on the rope of a true expert, but will he have sufficient patience to wait for the time it will take me? Conversation with Kim assists the grind up to Sty Head and helps to move my mind to other things. We debate the problems of funding of the National Health Service. Kim, a junior hospital doctor brings new perspectives to my view.


The traverse across the screes of Great Hell Gate followed by the climb to the Dress Circle across from the Needle goes well: and still the rain keeps off. Before there is much time to think, we are geared up complete with truss-like harnesses and at the bottom of the Wasdale Crack. Tom is up effortlessly, smoothly and rapidly. So fast that I have no chance of seeing the sequence of holds and moves. I move up a few feet, thrutch around and grunt, exploring the possibilities whilst admiring the polish on the holds and eventually move out of the crack over to face on the right and, not exactly in style, join Tom at the belay his has created at the top of the crack. The crux lies out of sight up and round to the right. Tom moves up the easy approach slab, shouts that the wind is very fierce at the corner. Perhaps he will call it off and save my face? No, in next to no time he announces he is on the top and fixing a belay. This belay fixing seems to take some time, leaving me thinking about what comes next. Climb when you are ready. Climbing. At least something recognisable from my day. The slab is very easy and now I am at the crux.


The crux consists of a “strenuous and highly polished” mantelshelf. The shelf is about mid chest level. There appear to be no handholds on the wall above the shelf. There are no footholds on the wall below the mantelshelf. It looks and feels impossible. The drop is sucking at my heels and my resolution is being blown away by the wind. It would be very easy and is very tempting to give up. But, problems can usually be overcome by concentration and application. I am most probably not going to get another chance at this and increasing age means things are only going to get worse. So this is most likely the last chance. Come on, take a grip, let’s look round the wall on the right. I find a tiny footscrape just above knee high. Well, this is exactly what rock shoes are for. Tom is encouraging and drops me a rope end with a knot. Use that for a hand and push hard. I push very, very hard. I cannot believe that my leg slowly straightens above the foot on the minute hold. I can balance into the mantelshelf. I stand up, toe traverse left for a couple of meters and here is the final slab. Looks hard from below, but in fact there are small but sufficient holds. I am on top!


My joy is unconfined although I know I could not have got up as leader. The satisfaction of achieving a lifetime’s ambition is overwhelming. Only now do I realise that Tom’s belay is thin. Someone should talk to him about safety. Coming down on the rope is surprisingly easy. As we arrive back at Brackenclose the rain begins again. We have been extremely lucky.




Notes & references

An' a drop into nothin' beneath you as straight as a beggar can spit” comes from Kipling’s Screw-guns, in Barrack-Room Ballards, First Series (1892). It was used by Ashley Abraham, First President of FRCC, at the first Annual Dinner, Commercial Hotel, Kendal, November, 1907, see FRCC Journal, Vol.1,2, No.2,1908, p178. He gave another account in the special Lakeland number of the Journal, Vol. 11, Nos. 30 & 31,1937, pp. 4-22, published to mark the Jubilee ascent of the Needle. His article contains pen portraits of many of the Lakes climbing pioneers. In the same Journal, Kelly & Doughty wrote, A Short History of Lakeland Climbing, pp. 32-55.

“My father”, Vol. 25,2, No 73,1992, pp. 223-226.

First ascent, when he was president of the Club, Haskett Smith wrote an account of his first ascent in 1886, see Vol.3,2, No.8, 1914, pp. 5-10.

War memorial, buying the land, Vol 6,2,No17, 1923, pp. 240-244, the unveiling of, Vol.6,3,No 18,1924, pp. 365-368.

“The designated grade has risen” Traditionally, and up to the FRCC guide of 1948, the ordinary route up the Needle was graded as Very Difficult. Successive editions have elevated the grade through Hard V Diff, Mild Severe, and Severe to the current Hard Severe. The latest guide (2007) notes the “glass-like” polish.

Tom Stobart, Director, The Conquest of Everest, (1953), Countryman Films.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end. Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps, 1871.

“Professor Smith’s Warning” is an E4 6a in Holcome Quarries (Avon & Chedder area).

Brackenclose, see the article by G R Speaker, Vol10,2, No 29,1935, pp. 262-263. Speaker, a charismatic President of the Club, was killed by a fall from the Napes,  Vol13,3, No 37,1943, pp. 305-307. He is buried with his headstone facing the mountain in the graveyard of the tiny church at Wasdale Head.

“Great Hell Gate” is overlooked by the imposing and huge Tophet wall. Tophet is believed to be a location in Jerusalem where the Canaanites sacrificed children to the god Moloch by burning them alive. A fine example of a Tophet can be seen in Carthage, where hundreds of headstones over children's graves are still standing. Tophet has become a synonym for hell.

 “Strenuous and highly polished mantelshelf”  Even as early as 1950 in his Rock For Climbing, Chapman & Hall Ltd C Douglas Milner, wrote:  It makes a spectacular little climb, and the ordinary way of ascent is by a traverse to the right edge, then up the arête, and finally the top block by a strenuous bit of gymnastics. Nowadays, owing to processions of the faithful resembling, in numbers and perhaps in devotion, the pilgrims to oriental mountain shrines, the route is over-polished for comfort. But 50 years before this Owen Glynne Jones, in Rock-climbing in the English Lake District, 2nd ed., G P Abraham & Sons, Keswick, had commented: The few footholds on the top boulder bear the marks of many nailed boots, even its smooth face is scored by futile scrapes of the nervous. His account of an ascent several years after Smith first solo ascent is rather flamboyant. I was rather gratified to read that Jones, probably the leading climber of his day, said of the crux, This corner is difficult to climb alone and exceedingly daring work, for the climber drags his body on to it over a sheer drop of a hundred foot, and feels no certainty of safety till he is up. Hankinson in his “The First Tigers” (1972) and “A Century on the Crags” (1988) quotes, but fails to reference, Norman Collie (of “step” fame in Moss Ghyll) giving an entirely different and much less flattering account of Jones climb, in which not only did Jones stand on Collie’s shoulders to reach the top, but subsequently had to be rescued from the summit. One is inclined to believe the account of the reserved Collie, because Jones, fine climber that he was, frequently indulged in hyperbole.

 “I am on top”. When Haskett Smith repeated the climb on the 50th anniversary of his first ascent, it is often said that as he reached the top, a spectator shouted from the Dress Circle, Tells us a story, eliciting the famous reply, There is no other story. This is the top storey. However, this was not reported in the account of the climb given in the 1937 Journal,

“We have been extremely lucky”. We climbed the Needle on 16 August 2008 during a short rain-free interval in this very wet summer. Simultaneously Northern Ireland was drenched with over three inches of rain, causing considerable damage and disruption. Perhaps the adverse weather forecast for the day had put off others, because most unusually, aside from a single walker, we had the whole of the Napes to ourselves.


A break in the weather: Great Gable and the Napes from Brackenclose.

A drawing by Ellis Carr from Haskett Smith’s Climbing In The British Isles, Vol.1, England, 1894. Smith’s brief instructions on the route are included

The details remain largely unchanged from Carr’s drawing: the author descending.

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