'1984', this photo was just before the 1st ascent
With many visits to Bowfell and Flat Crags I often walked under this route and always tried to imagine how it would go in winter, it was obvious that the entry to the hanging groove was going to be hard but the eye catching groove itself always looked like it would provide great winter climbing in an amazing position. So taking the detour up to the base of Flat Crags a couple of times and looking up the pitch it clearly had cracks and slots that would provide potentially good, and very steep winter climbing, so I decided to give it a try...
This was a few years ago and it wasn't until the following year that I was able to get up with Steve to have a look. Many many visits were made with this route as a possibility but ended with climbing on Bowfell and North Buttress as Flat Crags were not in condition. Having walked past the crag many times, usually in winter when conditions were good, we knew that whilst the top corner is often snowed up or frosted, the steep sheltered roof section and below doesn't often look white or iced... So when we arrived to find the crag white and the overhanging wall beneath frosted I decided to give it a go. This attempt failed as I ran out of steam and couldn't get through the steep crux moves which involved high heel hooking and pulling up on a couple of very thin hooks whilst carrying a large winter rack. I lowered off a nut and retrieved the gear. Last season, despite a lot of watching I failed to find the crag in condition, it was not the best winter for the Lakes generally and many of the reliable venues were in condition much less than normal.
So over the last week the Lakes has seen some good conditions developing, the combination of good freezes, unsettled snowy windy days, and then settled cold days, there was a chance that Flat Crags would be snowed up and the turf would almost certainly be bomber in the upper groove. So a visit with Tom earlier in the week was rewarded with a plastered crag, with ice hanging below the overhang and snow blown around the route. I decided to get on and have another go, eventually managing to get over the crux section and start into what I'd later find was the last hard moves to gain the upper corner I heard the clanking of a falling tool, the hook I'd stored the tool in was blind and the rope must have rubbed past the tool and knocked it out, unable to get stable I lowered off. The effort required at the crux and time meant another go was probably not going to happen.
So yesterday, having had another windy snowy day Thursday and knowing the turf was still good up high, and with the added pressure of a stripping thaw forecast, me Brian and Tom went back up. At this stage the 'on-sight' was obviously gone but I was looking for a clean 'ground-up' ascent. So arriving at the crag it was obvious that the crag was plastered but we couldn't see the overhanging wall start without detouring to the crag, so going up around the corner we saw that the ice at the grooves bottom and icicle was still there, there was more fresh snow blown around the lower part of the route and now was also ice in the cracks to clear. So happy with the condition of the lower section of the route I gave it another go. Repelled with some sequence confusion on the crux which I new from before and then the pump setting in I returned to the deck, rested, and started again... This time I got through the crux, gained the upper corner still with both axes, and climbed the brilliant upper corner to the belay. The pitch was seconded and cleaned with initially some aid to gain the corner. On the belay with a short exit pitch to gain snow to the Great Slab it was clear the thaw was arriving, the day had changed and things were starting to drip. We topped out up the upper pitch at about IV and returned around to the crags base, by this stage the lower part had stripped bar some ice and the rest of the crag, and other crags in the area were stripping fast. It was great to get this climbed and the climbing quality, hooks, and nature of the route gives a brilliant winter route with 2 contrasting sections. I am not really too sure about the grade but would suggest IX/9 possibly... The on-sight is there for the taking, but the bigger challenge could well be finding the route in acceptable condition...
The climbers traverse yesterday
Flat Crags as seen from the climbers traverse. 1984 climbs the obvious corner right of centre, the overhanging start is out of view below
Gearing up for the successful FWA yesterday
The crux roof on the first attempt
1984, Flat Crags. IX/9 ***
Pitch 1 - 26m 9 Climb the overhanging crack through the footless bulge (crux) to below a capping roof. Move right with some awkward moves around in to the groove, great climbing leads to the belay at some stacked blocks. A brilliant technical and strenuous pitch with generally good hooks needing an inventive approach.
Pitch 2 - 20m 4 Climb the groove behind the blocks being careful not to trust the blocks too much (!) and finish up snowy ramps to the top. If you don't like the look of the blocks there would be some other Pitch 2 options left and right of the belay...
Generally the thaw will likely have stripped most steep routes, there was some drizzle coming in later which will speed up the strip. If the turf doesn't thaw too much and we get another good freeze then we could get some brilliant conditions coming in, perhaps not for steeper routes at first but the saturated snow will freeze hard and some ice could survive and hopefully get better. Gully routes, for example the Great End gullies, could be worth watching when the temperatures drop again.