Mensa Moor. We gazed out at the spur opposite that lead to what appeared to be the summit of Magnet Crag, lavishly decorated in shining sheets of ice, but punctuated with patches of green that could provide a passageway. It was a gamble. If it worked, it could be faster than the rather horrific route a few hours ago. But if we failed, it could spell disaster. We didn’t really have time for failure with the overnight temperature said to be minus 5. We both knew how rapidly temperatures could drop once the sun set, and even though it was only an hour and a half since we’d lunched on the summit, the rays of the sun seemed disturbingly low – seemed to have adopted already the aureate tones of late afternoon.
“What do you reckon?”
“I’m game if you are.”
“Yep. Let’s give it a go, but back out quickly if it’s not working, and if we meet obstacles, take them to the right, nearer to the way we came down.”
I felt a little nauseous with the risk, but if we pulled it off, everything could go much better than it had done in the morning.
But let me begin at the beginning, when we set out excited to be on another adventure. So excited that I failed to turn off the lights of my car which didn’t have the courtesy to bleat at me and tell me so. That would be a problem for later. The beauty of our surroundings covered in a layer of white rime, and the crispness of the air captivated us. The ski poles led us onwards to higher ground. The creeks were ribbons of white ice with water flowing underneath. Icy pools were everywhere, and the rocks we were supposed to walk on were treacherous. We chose the bushes beside them, wondering what lay ahead.
Once it became time to descend into the valley of Borrowdale (Rafferty Creek), our pace slowed from cautious to downright slow. This route was pure rock, and that translated to pure ice. Not for the first time, I was excessively grateful that we had elected to travel with our full packs rather than be daring and try to do the whole thing in a day (which we would have happily done had it been summer; but it wasn’t). We had the luxury of time and leisure on our hand. No time-induced panic need drive us into lack of caution today. Neither of us was in the mood for broken bones, so we maintained four or even five points of contact on this uneven slippery slide as we made our way to the valley.
Even with all that care, we were up on the flat ridge to the north of Coalmine Crag by just over an hour, and I had allowed an hour and a half for this section. Things were going well. Even so, I didn’t want to waste daylight erecting tents, so we dumped the packs with reflective tape over them and set out with minimum delay (apart from my normal need to have a tiny snack). The going was delightful. Everything had crisp outlines and saturated colours; the ice shone all around us. We were having a ball, and the dance continued all the way to the “left hand summit” (E) of Magnet Crag, from which our descent began, as per the black line route on the old 1:100,000 map.
This started out fairly scrubby and descended into a nightmare of prickles-in-your-face scoparia. We slid down some sizeable drops. It was fine enough, but we were both thinking the same thoughts about how unpleasant (and difficult) climbing back up was going to be. Down the bottom we steered for broken ground which seemed faster than detouring around the myriad tarns and surrounding scrub. Going was not rapid. My watch kept recording the passage of passing time to an extent that did not please.
The climb up to Mensa Moor was the part that had the bad reputation. What was it going to be like? We dared not think, but continued along to where the spur off Magnet Crag met the valley, the point where I wanted us to change direction. We both then eyed up some broken ground on the flanks of the northern lump of Mensa and aimed for it. It offered us a wonderful free (of scrub) ride that gained us a great deal of trouble-free height, and left us with not much climbing to do to reach the saddle between the two parts of our goal. We were both very happy, as we’d been told that the top of Mensa Moor had pleasant alpine walking, so our trials were nearly over …. we thought. We decided that our informants’ information was very dated. The top of Mensa was scrubby, but compared to what we’d been through on the flanks of Magnet, we were fine. It’s just that we expected the kind of glorious walking we’d had on Coalmine Crag.
Be that as it may, we had our goal in reach, so walked purposefully along past the old black-dot-on-the-map summit to the new fancy-equipment-determined one where we had lunch watching the sheets of ice lining the dolerite columns opposite calving off from time to time. The total walking time thus far had been 3 hrs 33. OK, but slower than the Abels‘ book’s 3 hours. Again, we were glad of our plan to camp on Coalmine.
… And this takes us to the opening paragraph and the fact that one and a half hours after lunch, we were willing to risk a route which was totally unknown yet held out the possibility of being more pleasant. As we climbed, however, I felt nauseous with anxiety. The cost of failure at this point could be extreme. Did we still have time to do a different attack if this didn’t come off? Things were going well. I believed we hadn’t wasted too much time even if we landed in a cul-de-sac, yet still I couldn’t relax. At one point, about two thirds of the way up, Angela went left and I went right of an obstacle. Suddenly I heard a cry. An excited cry. Angela had found a cairn. That meant someone else had at some time done this route. That meant this route WAS possible. That meant that we were going to make it back to the packs and it also meant we were going to live. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders. My chains fell off; my heart was free. My nausea vanished in a flash. I laughed. We could relax and enjoy the superb scenery. The sheets of ice were fun and we continued to find passageways between them, climbing well all the way. Oh what fun it is to climb in a duo on such a day, hey. I relaxed enough to even take some photos. We could now afford the time for this luxury.
When we breasted the top, we decided we had enough time to summit the lump of rocks to our left, climbing to a very attractive cairn and enjoying the views it offered over the area we’d just come from (and more). Now we could delight in the long shadows and yellowing light, as they were no longer a threat to our survival. Happily we sauntered back along the crag, down to Borrowdale and up to the broad ridge where our packs (and tents) awaited us. As light faded and temperatures plummeted to an alarming degree, we pitched tents and gathered water, each then retreating to her aegis of relative warmth. The sky was a beautiful soft pink as we disappeared to boil our billies.
Next morning, we rid the tents of the stalactites of ice lining the ceiling, put on our frozen boots, struggled with the fact that our water had become ice inside the tent, under our sleeping bags, and set out to explore our white, icy world. I was already sad that this glorious adventure was almost over. Everything had been so superbly beautiful. It was a marvellous world up there. Despite the minus five degree temperature, I had breakfast outside where I could appreciate the coming of the sun to the rocks around, and its kiss of warmth as it arrived at our tent site. Life is a wonderful gift.