I started climbing properly in 2003. As an over keen thirteen year old I would drag my Dad out after school and we would tick our way through Lake District classics: Troutdale Pinnacle, Adam and Eve, Overhanging Bastion, Fool’s Paradise, Kipling Groove, etcetera. For some reason I desperately wanted to climb E1. I’m not sure why but it seemed like the grade tha real climbers did and there was probably some attraction to that evocative word: extreme. That summer I seconded my first E1 - Crypt Direct - at Quayfoot Buttress, followed a few weeks later by the Hard Rock tick Praying Mantis at Goat Crag.
By the end of the year I had managed to lead my first E1, possibly before I even led my first HVS. The route I chose was nothing special. An esoteric eight metre high climb called Crusthound at Head End Quarry, in North Cumbria. My parents had dropped me off there on a bleak Saturday morning in October, with a school friend Joe and the instruction to lead nothing harder than VS. This was like red rag to a bull. Crusthound was the only extreme at the crag and after doing a few easier routes I set off up it. I climbed it in exceptionally bad style, shaking my way up and taking my first lead fall, onto a badly placed microwire, which thankfully held. At the top I was chuffed bits and the seed was sown.
Fast forward eleven years and I haven’t got much better at climbing, but have managed to climb well over a hundred E1s all over the UK. Below are five of my favourites in no particular order. Followed by five more slightly unusual choices.
It was the Easter holidays, not long after I’d passed my driving test. Amazingly I’d persuaded my mum to lend me her car. Even more amazingly she’d agreed that I could drive it to Skye. Duncan and I left Cumbria with dreams of the Cullin Ridge and blue skies. We picked up our friend 'Fingers' in Glasgow (getting very lost in the process) and many hours later arrived in Glenbrittle. After a horrendous night of rain and wind we woke to see fresh snow on Cullins. The ridge was out.
Instead we drove North to Kilt Rock. The imposing Dolerite seacliff is easily seen from the popular viewpoint overlooking a picturesque waterfall. We were there in high winds and the waterfall was being blown upwards, creating a rainbow from the spray. I led Grey Panther, the classic E1, and my first lead from the book Extreme Rock. The route is only one pitch... but what a pitch! Forty five metres of well protected bridging and jamming up a dolerite sentry box. Never super difficult but very sustained and in a fantastic position. An absolute must do.
Heron crag in Eskdale is a simply stunning location, with a beautiful bubbling beck set in a classic lakeland valley, right in the heart of the national park. You can’t see any roads or houses from the crag, adding to a sense of remoteness and solitude, and taking you back to a time when the fells and cliffs were quiet, peaceful places. Heron crag itself is mossy, overgrown and looks uninviting, except one clean pillar, standing out, calling to the climber. This pillar is Gormenghast, the route of the crag and you can see it shining on the left in the above photograph by Gordan Stainforth.
The first bold, easy pitch leads up to a possible stance, however I clipped the peg and wire belay as runners, and linked the two pitches together. Now the route steepens up a notch and you must attack the runnerless wall above, luckily on the biggest jugs imaginable. A short traverse leads to a crack and (thankfully) the first runner since the belay which is now well below. Phew.
The top pitch is well protected technical wall climbing that contrasts nicely with the bold thuggery below, but it's the view of the evening light across Esk Hause that is the icing on this Lake District cake.
The climbing above looked hard and with my nearest runner miles below me I got gripped. I tried to climb down but couldn’t. I tried to climb up but couldn't. I tried to place more gear... but couldn't.
Eventually I decided that the only way out of my sticky situation was to slide my rack down the ropes, untie and jump into the sea. Jez threw me a rope and we escaped up a VS. I came back last year with my friend Fingers and managed to find the route this time. It’s brilliant, with two sustained and contrasting pitches (and a little to the left to the line I jumped off which is E4).
Four pitches long, the gently rising traverse line of Astral Stroll is not dissimilar in appearance to the Gogarth classic A Dream of White Horses. They both weave their way through lines of least resistance and take in some truly terrifying terrain yet remain at an amenable standard.
The crux third pitch is only twenty metres long but as it was soaking wet when I climbed it it felt very tenuous. I spent a long time pressing my way across it and arrived at the belay completely exhausted.
Of course we were late for lunch but it was totally worth it.
Okay, the first pitch is nothing special, a bit pokey, a bit slabby and a bit ledgey. But wait... the crux top pitch is outrageous.
Grasping thankfully huge holds as the crag drops away beneath you, you swing out with the exposure of Yosemite or the Verdon Gorge. Duncan led it and I'm glad he did as I got pumped and tried to head into the top groove a move too early and fell off seconding. This left me hanging in the void. Thankfully prussiking wasn't required and I was able to swing myself back onto the rock, but only just!
Rock Idol - A bit predictable but a Pembrokeshire classic. It takes you through terrain usually reserved for E5 leaders on some of the world’s biggest holds. Well protected too.
Falcon - Tremadog's finest. Go-ey climbing on less than perfect rock leads to a technical section protected by RPs. A step right followed by easier, but not easy climbing leads to a whale’s back mantle shelf finale. When you’ve led this one you are ready for E2.
The Philistine - Just my type of route, all on your feet and well protected where it counts. Brilliant, balancey climbing that gets bolder and easier the higher you get. Beautifully situated high above Buttermere.
Thunderball - A Boulder Ruckle adventure with a solid (for Swanage) top out. The first pitch tackles a steep, juggy overhang to get off the deck, whilst the second sneakily navigates its way through a number of roofs. All on huge holds.
Moyer’s Buttress - Leafy Gardoms is surprisingly tall for a Gritstone crag. Moyer’s Buttress is the line of the crag. Interesting climbing leads to a strenuous traverse leftwards and an awkward balancy move round the arete. It isn’t over though; delicate climbing leads boldly to the top. Scary in 2014, one can only imagine what it was like for Pete Biven in 1955!
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