Monday, June 25, 2007

Ten routes that rocked my world

I have climbed thousands of routes over the years, but looking back, some stand out more than others. It's hard to define what makes a route memorable. It can be its situation, the partnership, the line, the achievement; many factors play in. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the variety that a decade of memorable routes will throw up. How do you compare a full-on multi-pitch route in the mountains with a 3-move boulder problem? You can't, of course, except perhaps by the elation felt on completing them. My most memorable climbing experiences seem to coincide with junctures in the climbing journey. Perhaps this is not so strange; the first lead at a new grade is likely to stick in the mind for the added degree of commitment or mental reserve required.

Right Angle Variation, Gurnard's Head, Cornwall, UK (VS 4b, 4c, 4b)

Still one of the best routes of its grade in the UK, and a fantastic example of real 'adventure' climbing. The situation is truly spectacular - a narrow zawn gashing into the coast line, and a long traverse in over frequently crashing waves into the apex, and then, from a hanging belay, straight up a corner on jugs. From the opposite side of the zawn one can get an amazing view of the whole route, and it looks gut-wrenchingly intimidating, at least five grades harder than it really is. The rock - Killas Slate - is of exceptional quality, and the gear is great apart from a 5 metre section of the traverse leading into the hanging stance. I climbed this route during my first season of climbing, and leading the last pitch was my first proper lead. I remember belaying Pete on the second pitch watching two seals playing in the waves beneath us. A gem of a route, utterly inescapable, totally memorable. I went back with Sarah many many years later, and even as a much more experienced climber, it's still a top route.

Valkyrie, The Roaches, Peak District, UK (VS 5a, 4c)

A benchmark VS, and a rite of passage for any aspiring Gritstone climber. This is probably the most gibbered-on route on grit. Climb the crack up to the obvious stance. Now, up, and then down the massive flake. Step out, and then - yes, then what? 'That' move. You look down between your legs and see nothing but air. You try to find anything to hold on to, and there's nothing. Your belayer first tries encouragement, and then ridicule. You're stuck, no matter how much beta you've had, say, tales of hidden foot holds. It's only one move, and it's all a matter of balance. Suddenly you decide to commit, and it's easy. You look back and wonder why that took you so long. Out on the nose, and some glorious break-to-breaking later you're taking it all in from the top, with an exceptional vantage point to mock your second. If you took care with the ropes, your second will essentially be on a top rope.

The Hunk, The Buttermilks, Bishop, California (V2)

Bouldering, US style. This boulder is a real high ball, higher than most parts of the grit stone edges in the Peak District. A huge lump of granite with a sequence of Barclaycards stuck onto it. The crux moves are close to the ground, but as you move higher and higher, and the holds only marginally improving, it's a real test of character. A real achievement for Sarah aswell, overcoming her natural aversion to soloing by slapping a 'bouldering' label onto it.

Ordinary Route, Old Man of Stoer, Northern Scotland (VS 5a, 4c, 4c, -)

James and I were doing a lightning road trip around Scotland, and on our last day ended up climbing the beautiful sea stack Old Man of Stoer. Everything was perfect that day - even the weather. We'd been midged to hell for a few days, so walking in along the coast with a gentle breeze was a great relief. There was one party ahead of us, but they were almost finished. First man has to swim across, unless you have a boat. We weren't particularly well prepared for this. I stripped to my boxers, and sum across with a rope. The water was rather refreshing, shall we say. Not a long swim by any means. We set up a tyrolean to pull our gear over before James swam over. We pulled the roped through a belay device to get the water out, and set off. The stack itself is a kind of hard sand stone, very much like grit, in fact, of exceptional quality. The route itself is never very taxing, but on a stack we soon found that route finding was surprisingly hard without a topo, and only a vague guide book description. Pulling over the top we found that a crowd had gathered on land, giving us a healthy round of applause in the sunshine. Getting off was a real trouser-filler. We abbed off some old bleached tat at the top, landing on a ledge at the top of the second pitch. From here, you have to solo out along a break to a cluster of dodgy pegs, attach yourself to some more bleached tat and ab off. Firstly, soft-iron pegs in a sea cliff is a bad idea in general. Secondly, once these pegs are 40 years old and wobbly to the touch, you get a niggly feeling in the stomach. Still, there were lots of them, and it's body-weight only. No problem.

Serenity Crack/Sons of Yesterday link-up, Yosemite Valley, California (5.10d)

This was (and still would be) right at the limit of my ability. Fortunately, I was climbing this with a very capable partner, Bruno Marks. Essentially, 9 full rope lengths of crackwork, thin fingers to flared fist and off-hand. Technical crux (supposedly) the end of the final pitch of Serenity, but for us Euroweenies, the first pitch of Sons was the meat of the day. Flared off hands, as the expression goes. The crack is too wide to get any jams to stick, and too flared to be able to lay off. Every move a struggle to hang on. At the time, the sun was starting to get hot, and the chalk was never quite enough to keep your hands dry. Higher up things eased, and some of the best crack climbing I've ever come across anywhere was found. Once we abbed off, both Bruno and I were totally spent. A long day.

Crescent Arete, Stanage Plantation, Peak District, UK (HVS 5b or V0)

Small, but perfectly formed, the Crescent Arete boulder lies next to the path up to the main edge itself. The Plantation boulder field is packed with classics of all grades, and Crescent Arete marked the culmination of a very personal journey. This problem has everything. Impeccable line, with a very balanced difficulty. A landing that's awkward enough to demand commitment. You need a good grasp of arete technique to get up this one. I'd stood beneath it so many times, always in my mind walking up to the edge, wandering if this is the day. Feeling the starting holds. Trying the first few easy moves, but always putting it off. A bit too warm, or too damp, I kept telling myself. I've seen good climbers flounder on it. Then, one solo-marathon weekend I'd stared off doing Pebble Arete, another highball nearby, taking a fall from the last move landing on my arse on the mat, and then topping out on the next attempt. I soloed another 50 routes that weekend, and packing it in for the day wandering up to the Plantation boulders to meet up with Sarah. She and a bunch of others were trying Crescent Arete. After watching for a bit I decided to have a go, with a bit of encouragement and beta from Airlie Anderson I suddenly found myself first grabbing the 'thank God' notch and soon after pulling over.

The Arrow, St Govan's Head, Pembroke, Wales (E1 5a)

For some reason, it took me a long while to get to grips with limestone. This is a bit ironic (in the Alanis Morrissette sense), seeing that there's hardly anything but limestone around Bristol where I live. I learnt to climb on Gritstone, and it's a very different beast. For a gritstoner, limestone feels sustained, and cams won't stick very well. On the other hand, the grade scale feels much more linear on limestone. Harder grades mean harder routes, not necessarily more dangerous. Pembroke is arguably one of the few noteworthy cragging venues in the UK, on a world scale. Ok, it's certainly not Ceuse, Yosemite or Akh Su Valley, but it's got a certain something for the discerning adventure climber. The Arrow is sometimes touted as a soft touch for the Extreme, and perhaps this is true. It sees its fair share of epics for this very reason. It's got a poorly protected start over an iffy landing, but once the gear starts appearing, it's a fantastic romp. Never desperate, but interest is sustained to the end. For the non-limestone afficionado, it's a race against the pump in your fore arms.

Cenotaph Corner, Dinas Cromlech, Llanberis Pass, North Wales (E1 5c)

This route represented a first for me. Many firsts, in fact. First E1. First 5c. First lob on trad gear. First, second, and third lobs, actually. Me, James, Pete and Mel were camping and climbing in the Pass one of my first seasons, and I defy anyone to walk up to the Cromlech and not want to climb this route. It's the most striking line in the UK. A perfect open-book corner, one big mother of a pitch. It just begs to be climbed. Of course, I wasn't good enough to climb it clean, and looking back, it should have been obvious, but I don't regret for a second giving it a good go. It's deceptively easy the first third, and the temptation is to absolutely stitch it up, which I did. Two thirds of the way up, as the climbing starts getting harder, and the arms a bit weary I found myself out of gear, and had to downclimb to retrieve some of the more unnecessary pieces I'd placed. This could only go one way, and after running it out a bit, the lob came. After a few more attempts, I was spent, and lowered off. James set off on my gear, and managed to complete it, and I seconded it cleanly. It's an amazing place though, so many ultra-classics compressed into a small area.

Nutcracker, Manure Pile Buttress, Yosemite Valley, California (5.9)

Oh, the irony (again) of the name - Manure Pile Buttress. This 'pile of shit' would have been the star attraction had it been situated anywhere else but at the foot of El Capitan, the most famous rock face in the world. Nutcracker is perhaps the most classic of the easy Valley classics. Five or six pitches of glorious granite, and an amazing day out for me and Sarah. The route surprised with a crux mantle that felt exposed. Pitch after pitch of perfect hands and run-out slabs makes for pretty much the ultimate punter's route.

Flying Buttress Direct, Stanage Popular End, Peak District, UK (HVS 5b. Or is it?)

The iconic grit stone route, soloed by players in trainers, fallen off by punters and on everyone's grit tick list. The grade is a joke, really - an anachronism from the days when men were men, but it's stuck. A gentle-angled, but unprotectable slab leads up to the huge roof. A good nut can be placed, and a moment's respite whilst contemplating what's coming next. The span required to reach the lip of the roof feels enormous, but there is a nak to it. What follows next is the wildest sequence on grit. At full stretch, you get the left hand's fingers in the break to about second joint; good hold really. As you match, you're committed - come off now, and it's the slab below. Now cut loose and latch a heel up out right at the same level as your hands. If you're tall, you may have been able to place a crucial cam from underneath the roof, but for us sub-6-footers, it's easier placing the cam from the outrageous, but reasonably secure position hooking at the lip. A wonderful sequence of further hooking and stretching between the breaks enables you to reach a standing position, and onwards to glory. Peerless.

Finale Groove, Boulder Ruckle, Swanage, UK (HVS 5b)

The Ruckle is one of the most intimidating places to climb in the UK. The long free-hanging abseil access. The tides. The unstable nature of the rock, especially the exits. One single, massive pitch, Dorset's response to Cenotaph Corner, and although not as iconic, it certainly packs a punch. On the day Sarah and I climbed it, the sea mists rolled in soon after I set off, and put a dense lid between us, making it impossible to communicate. The loneliness of the lead was very apparent. The route's sustained, but never desperate, and puts to shame the ferocious reputation of the crag. The open book corner starts out wide, and gradually narrows to the top. An uncharacteristically strong line for limestone. Sarah had a terrible time following, as she struggled with extracting some of my pieces, and me being unable to see or hear her, was unable to offer any assistance.

So there you have it. Ten routes that rocked my world. Or eleven, actually. I could as easily pick a different ten.

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