An Early Mountain Rescue

by John Ruskin

(from England's Lakeland - a tour therein)

(Updated with a comment from Prof. Stephen Wildman - 27 May 2011)

The famous rainbow-tinted Screes are on our right hand; next is Lingmell; then the Pikes of Scafell, (3,166 feet), and then Scafell itself.  These Pikes are the highest land in England, and much sought after by the ambitious pedestrian, although not always found.  It was in the summer of 1859 that, coming over from Borrowdale to Wastdale, over Sty Head, in our walking costume, we overtook a young gentleman attired as though for a lounge in Bond Street; shirt-collar had he, an umbrella-parasol, and (if we do not exaggerate) straps! yes, he was bent upon ascending Scafell Pike in straps!!  After that little walk, he said, he hoped to have the pleasure of meeting us that evening at William Ritson's, one of the excellent farm houses at Wastdale; whereto we replied something civil, but very much doubted in our inmost heart of the events coming off.   

                      John Ruskin

When we told one of the dalesmen what this superlatively dressed person was about to attempt, he pulled his pipe out of his contemptuous lips, and said 't' lad el dee', - meaning that it would be the death of him. 

When mist came on that evening, in such thick folds that Wastdale might have been Salisbury Plain for all that we could see of the mountains, the good dalesman and some friends of his started to feel their way up those pikes.  They found poor Straps, dead beat, but upon the very summit of the hill, lying down breathless upon his back, and watching the awful curtain of night and death descending upon him.  It was so dark that even the dalesmen themselves lost their way in coming down, and carried the poor young gentleman into Eskdale.  The Wastdale folk will do any kind thing for any body.

Also see first ascent of Napes Needle by WP Haskett Smith


The following email was received from Professor Stephen Wildman in May 2011

I have just been alerted to the piece on the Wasdale Mountain Rescue site referring to the first recorded rescue in 1859 and credited to John Ruskin.  

While it is always good to see Ruskin remembered, I am sorry to disappoint, in that I really don't think the text is by Ruskin: it is too colloquial, and he would never have used a slang phrase like 'dead beat'.  The CD-ROM version of the Library Edition of Ruskin's Works, published in 1996, made it possible to conduct searches of words and phrases throughout his published work, and this does not appear (nor in contemporary selections of Ruskin's work).  Also, he didn't visit the Lake District between 1847 and 1867 (taking up residence at Brantwood only in 1872), so he could not have been a witness to an event in 1859.

The book 'England's Lakeland', from which it comes, seems to be an anonymous compendium of accounts, first published in the 1880s and recently re-issued by the British Library.  Because of his great celebrity as a writer, there are many quotations wrongly attributed to Ruskin, which still proliferate – especially on the internet – and this may be an early example!

 With best wishes,

Professor Stephen Wildman

Ruskin Library and Research Centre
Lancaster University

Ruskin Library webpage:
Personal page:

Incidentally, I know of no evidence that Ruskin ever visited Wasdale or went up Scafell !  Because he lived latterly in the Lakes it tends to be assumed that he travelled about, but this simply isn’t the case: he had certain favourite places (such as Derwentwater and Yewdale) but rarely ventured anywhere else.