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Rainy Day Dream Away: Sampling England's Middle Grades


 

by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

"We do not deceive ourselves that we are engaged in an activity that is anything but debilitating, dangerous, euphoric, kinesthetic, expensive, frivolously essential, economically useless, and totally without redeeming social significance. One need not probe for deeper meanings." Alan Steck

One of the main reasons I wanted to live in Europe was my life-long fascination with history and the people who made it. I love visiting ancient castles and cathedrals, imagining the great battles and ceremonies that took place hundreds of years ago. The history of climbing as a sport began here, and I found great pleasure during my time in Europe retracing the steps of Whymper, Cassin, and Bonatti on some of the classics I'd read so much about.

After a couple of seasons in the mountains, it was time to visit England to sample its famous rock climbing. It all really started here in the 19th century, when English gentleman climbers, having practiced on their home crags, traveled to the continent and hired local crystal hunters and woodcutters as Alpine guides. Then again in the 1950's, the English led the way, when the exploits of "the Rock and Ice" hardmen presaged the current free climbing ethic. Don Whillans, Joe Brown, Chris Bonington, and many others showed what concerted effort on small local crags could do toward pushing technical limits in alpine climbing. As a young climber in the late 1960's, I was strongly influenced by the dramatic photographs in Mountain showing the short but fierce test pieces on varied and interesting rock that these English climbers cut their teeth on.

Luckily, my plans fit perfectly with my British friend Neil McAdie, who had just graduated from college and was in the limbo of job hunting. He arranged for an Indian friend, Satish Patke from Bombay, to join us for the 1986 International Welsh Tour. A fourth member was added when we found Bert Levey, a high school chemistry teacher from Berkeley, wandering around Stanage Edge looking for partners.

We all met in the first week of August at Neil's parent's house just outside Sheffield. Its proximity to the Peak District, with its variety of grit and limestone made this a perfect base. Mr. and Mrs. McAdie's unflagging hospitality made us all feel at home. One night Bert and I took over though, and made everyone their first all-American dinner of burritos, nachos, and guacomole dip. Many pleasant rainy day hours were spent sipping tea with milk (always first into the cup!), nibbling hobnob digestive biscuits, and exchanging stories about our various cultures.

We had typically-variable English weather. Fantastic sunny days at Stanage and Millstone were mixed with wet, blustery afternoons walking the moors. On our two week tour of Wales, it rained every other day. Nevertheless, we managed to get in a lot of climbing by taking advantage of dry mornings, then using wet afternoons for driving, shopping, or showering.

None of us were real rock jocks, so we didn't venture onto any modern desperates. We focused instead on what the Brits call "The Middle Grades": HVS (an overall pitch rating), 5a (most difficult individual move), which is about 5.9 +, up to E3 6a (5.1 1). These climbs are difficult enough to be interesting and of high quality, and an experienced weekend warrior can aspire to lead them in good style. Luckily, many of the best classics such as Cenotaph Corner, and Dream of White Horses, fall into this category.

My favorite climbing in the Peak District was on Stanage Edge. Hundreds of short (25-60 feet), high-quality routes of every grade can be found on the miles of rough gritstone. Neil warned me that the rock would take some getting used to; many a steel-fingered E5 limestone leader backs off rounded, delicate E3 grit. I loved it, though, quickly soloing a succession of HVS routes, then leading some E1's.

Moving up the scale was something else. The upper E grades on grit tend to be very necky, with little or no protection. The anti-bolting ethic is strictly adhered to; I didn't see a single fixed piece of protection on the entire Edge. The most difficult new routes put up by Jonny Woodward definitely separate the men from the boys. I could only stare in awe at the crackless, rounded corners and slightly-rippled faces he's managed in the best style possible.

I would have liked to stay at Stanage for two weeks, but time was short and we had to get to the coast for some sea cliff climbing.

Our first stop in Wales was Eric Jones' campground/cafe, where we parked the van for two days' climbing at Tremadog. As is often the case, the weather was better here than in the mountains. The setting, next to a highway, is not as esthetically pleasing as Cloggy. Easy access, good rock, and tea served in your sleeping bag at 8 am, make Tremadog a must. Two of the hardest, and best, routes we climbed were the Vector-Cream Connection (5.10 + just right of the infamous Strawberries) and Void (5.11).

When the weather cleared, we headed for Llanberis Pass. Cenotaph Corner was still wet, so we continued down the other side to the abandoned slate quarries just out of town. You can't imagine a more disgusting-looking area: a huge hillside gouged out, its gray slate bones laid bare in tiers of shattered rock. In their relentless search for new routes on this small island, British climbers finally resorted to exploring this mountain graveyard, finding some of the most unnatural, strangely-fantastic climbing anywhere.

The terraces used to haul the quarried rock away provide easy access. A ten-minute walk put us beneath our first slate climbs on the Rainbow Wall, famous for some hard, bolt-protected routes on its right-hand slab. We chose instead the moderate, but superb "Pull my Daisy" (E2 5b), which follows a very thin crack up the middle. My best performance of the trip was on "Dervish", a sustained E3 5c following a thin crack up a steep slab, then over a small roof. The lower wall is very well protected with small wired wedges, but the runout above the overhang is unnerving if you're pumped.

The purplish roofing slate is quite smooth, providing almost no friction, but small serrated edges at the bottom of almost any dish or scoop bite nicely into rubber and fingertips. The numerous small edges are clean-cut and positive. Although the cracks generally protect well, the hardest routes require bold run-outs. These bolt-protected masterpieces combine the best of friction and edge technique in a quiet and uncrowded setting.

The weather never cleared enough for Cloggy, but luckily, we got in a good afternoon on the Cromlich, managing to bag the classic trio of middle grade routes: Left Wall (E3 5b), Cenotaph Corner (E1 5a) and Cemetery Gates (HVS). Cenotaph Corner, perhaps England's most famous route, climbs a striking line directly up the center of a huge square-cut corner, it cries out to be climbed. The ascent, however, might be disappointing if you find it as wet as I did. The routes on either side are superb, and usually drier. I enjoyed photographing other parties on these great routes almost as much as the climbing.

Reports of better weather on the coast sent us west to Gogarth. I was still a bit sore from my protracted struggle with "Left Wall", so took a day off. The others explored the Red Wall, finishing with an interesting climb on the rippled sandstone of "Wendigo".

The next day dawned clear and blustery, perfect for a visit to Wen Zawn and an ascent of Dream of White Horses (HVS). This Ed Drummond gem is a rising traverse on excellent, roughly weathered white limestone. The situation on the last pitch is incredible, sliding with deceptive ease between overhangs, the sea crashing 200 feet below.

With a fixed rappel, it was quick and easy to do two more excellent routes here; Zeus (E2) and Concrete Chimney (HVS). As Satish and I finished Concrete Chimney the wind rose to gale force. Luckily it blew directly up the wall, lifting us as we climbed, but also threatening to pluck out the protection as the rope whipped wildly about.

A storm that night disturbed our sleep and broke a pole in Bert's tent. Clouds and scattered showers the next day sent us scurrying south to the sunny shores of Pembroke. Hundreds of routes are found on the miles of 50-meter cliffs here, but you wouldn't know it while approaching across a perfectly-flat plain of grass, which abruptly ends in a cliff, dropping into the sea. You often can't see what you're about to climb until rappelling down beside it.

The rock can be incredibly corrugated, eroded by the waves into knife-edged fins of jagged quartzite which preclude falls in many places. Even if your ropes don't cut in a fall, you would surely be shredded.

Thankfully we didn't take any falls in our five days here, and managed to bag a fine selection of two and three star routes. In contrast to my recent bolt-studded experiences in Germany, protection in Britain is almost exclusively with nuts. The discontinuous cracks make for some thought-provoking, psychologically-difficult leads. It takes confidence and nerve to go for it when faced with moving out from a no. 2 RP up a steep, blank looking wall, trusting that holds and cracks will miraculously materialize. When the tide has come in, covering downward retreat, the impending wall can overhang too much for an easy rescue from above. As your forearms start to burn whilst hanging 20 feet out, struggling to get in a marginal placement, the atmosphere seems positively alpine. This "big feel" on a crag carries a lot of the sea cliff allure, often providing the extra push to carry on through, and leaving a deep satisfaction rarely found on inland "sport" crags.

At the end of my three-week visit I couldn't quite decide which I liked best - the fantastic rock on the gritstone edges, or the environment at the sea cliffs. But I knew I was hooked on the clean British rock, and didn't look forward to the heavily-bolted German Frankenjura (although I quickly readapted on my return!). If you can manage to slide in through the clouds and find some dry crags, a climbing tour in Britain guarantees a wide variety of high-quality routes at any grade.



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