Just two hours flight away from the diminutive gritstone edges of the Peaks District are Northern Italy's granite paradises of Valle dell' Orco and Val di Mello. Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall have just had a two week rampage of new routes and hard repeats there - showing those damn Euros how to climb cracks. Pete established perhaps one of the very best offwidth roofs in the world and Tom got the coveted third ascent of Greenspit. But that's only part of the story.
Full report, with videos, photos and an interview.
Greenspit, Valle dell'Orco, ItalyWhen it comes to earning your E-points for effort there is perhaps no greater expenditure of energy, grit and determination than when trying to climb full body or off-hands cracks.
Greenspit is a 12m horizontal roof crack of hand, fist and finger jams. It was first bolted in the Eighties but not climbed. In 2003 Swissman Didier Berthod took the five bolts out and climbed the crack on pre-placed gear giving the route a sport grade of 8b+. He returned in October 2005 to place all the gear on the lead. The name reflects the bolt free nature of the climb.
Last year (2008) Nicolas Favresse from Belgium made the second ascent taking just two days
Favresse said of Greenspit "This route is truly fantastic and very unique for European climbing. I can't believe I'm the first person to repeat this. It's so classic!"
Grades are pretty meaningless - but suffice to say some of the routes described below, if climbed by a celebrity climber on a photo-incentive deal would be inflated into the E-midteens, E13 or 14 maybe, and grabbing headlines on the magazine racks of W.H.Smiths.
"It's not the grade that counts, it's the width." Russ Walling
But it's not about the grade, it's about the experience and when it comes to The Wide the experience is the same for everyone: that means nausea, vomiting, third degree burns, knuckle and shin abrasions, open flesh wounds, lots of blood, pressure wounds, the full body pump, stacked fists, kneelocks, headlocks, full body constriction, lack of oxygen, inside-out peristalsis, and above all, power and rubber. Not to mention spending a small fortune on spring-loaded camming devices and expandable tube chocks.
And it's not just about brawn; there is the ceremony and cerebral conundrum of whether to climb left-side in, right-side in or be fully submerged in the orifice. Hand sequences are technical and complex, foot placements sophisticated, and when fully inverted you have to know which leg to lead with.
Importantly, you have to revel in the frustration and the severe pain of it all.
It takes a special kind of climber to fully embrace the wide fetish, to almost make a career of going wide. Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker are two bad ass mamas who have.
Two Bad Ass Mamas
Tom and Pete have racked up a pretty impressive CV of crack achievements. Both have led Ray's Roof (UKC News), the short and unbelievably savage off-width at Baldstones climbed in 1977 by the visiting American Ray Jardine (the inventor of Friends).
Tom's screams could be heard across the south of England last year when he aced his away across a 6 metre limestone ceiling crack near Bath, Somerset. All Elements, weighing in at Font 8a or V11, is one of the hardest cracks he has climbed (UKC News).
Last April (UKC News), these two crack addicts established Gobbler's Roof - an E7 6c at Harborough Rocks, a horrible and truly disgusting 7m horizontal damp offwidth to a flared pod finish.
But it is getting increasingly difficult to feed their habit in the UK. When Tom met up with Pete Whittaker and friends after a family holiday in Northern Italy there was a lot of pent up frustration and desire to release. They were like two kids in a candy store, the granite valleys of Valle dell' Orco and Val di Mello, both often compared to Yosemite, providing a bounty of established and new cracks to have a go at.
Tom had unfinished business from last year when he got near to repeating one of Europe's hardest crack climbs, Didier Berthod's Greenspit in the Valle dell'Orco (see sidebar). Only Iker Pou's trad crack Lurgorri in the Picos de Europa is given a harder grade (8c+) (UKC News). In the Val di Mello they made the second and third repeats of Fessura Impossible - Impossible Crack E5/6 6c
But it was in the lesser developed Valle dell' Orco that they really started motoring, with a host of first ascents, including Pete's Gloves of War that Tom considers one of, "the very best offwidth roofs in the world".
See Tom's list below, the videos, a Q+A with Tom and his commentary about Greenspit.
Tom Randall Reports
Offwidths are our grades, as Euros can't grade wide cracks!
5 new routes (single and 2 pitch routes) in the Orco Valley up to E6 6c.
All grades are "proper grades" i.e. you won't do them unless you're solid!
All were cleaned on the lead, and only the E6 required a few falls and multiple grunts to get up! The line of No Rest for the Wicked now provides a decent 2 pitch offwidth test piece for those who are keen on the wide, but don't want to get totally mauled. Gloves of War (FA, Pete) is a truely exceptional line which is one of the very best offwidth roofs in the world in my opinion.
It easily rivals Owl Roof, Lucille and Ray's Roof. The climbing is extremely brutal requiring excellent core stength and good hand-fist stack technique. It's only the second time that I've ever heard Pete say he's felt sick on lead!
The Ascent of Greenspit
My ascent of Greenspit had turned out to be a bit of an epic and I have been out there a number of times over the last few years and only earlier this year I was falling off the last move round the lip.
This then lead to an infuriating further 6 days-ish (over 2 trips) of goes where I repeated this feat of failing with the finish in sight. I'd never before experienced redpoint frustrations, so it was a very interesting game (which I'm clearly rubbish at!) that finally terminated on 31st Aug.
To be honest I still can't quite believe it's all over as the whole thing had built up in my head so much. Myself, Andy and Pete were all trying it on this trip, so I did it with the cams in place, much out of convenience for all of us. Just to make sure there wasn't too much difference in placing the gear on lead (#3 friend, 1.5 friend and 2.5 friend - the others could be placed and then down climbed from) I tried it straight after my ascent place on lead. Not surprisingly, there was very little alteration to the difficultly as the gear could be placed from relatively restful positions.
Q+A with Tom Randall
Some may jest that the birthing channel is every child's introduction to the world of 4 inches and more.... But in all honesty I'd probably say it's because I've always enjoyed a good scrap. Nothing's better than giving a few punches and taking a few and then walking away to lick your wounds afterwards. I'm also a big wuss when it comes to bold climbing, so vaguely protectable cracks are definitely an attraction!
How often do you go wide?
I like to do it at least once a week, although I have been known on trips to go a bit mad. Anything more tends to lead to hospital.
Are you addicted and is there a cure?
Totally obsessed. But that's probably because I have an obsessive personality. I see this disease as being totally incurable, but that's no bad thing!
What is the attraction of wide over skinny?
I actually really like both (I'd be hard pressed to choose between London Wall and Right Eliminate). I only really got into The Wide when I realised how bad I was at it. A friend, Toby Dunn schooled me whilst out in Yosemite and I pretty much took that as my opportunity to try and work on getting better. There's certainly more kudos attached to the wide cracks, and a 5.10 offwidth in the Valley is probably worth more than a 5.12 finger crack.
I think it's probably my fault, although Pete is now the Jedi Master. His offwidth skills are totally brilliant as he's a real 3D thinker.
What's in an off-width climber's arsenal? In short describe your rack - brands, sizes, special wide fetish toys.
On the fetish side of things, I've got some Wild Country Friend 4,5 and 6's and also a couple of car jacks which I'm dying to use when I find something appropriate. I'm too mean to go and buy any of that fancy stuff like big bros and the like and I'd have no idea how to use them! I sort of belive (unless I'm totally gripped) that: hand jam = belay, fist jam = belay, offwidth = get moving! and anything bigger = belay. Why use a #5 cam, when you can use a knee-lock?
What is your take on rubber suites and neoprene pads? Ethical, acceptable or no?
A Rubber suites or rubber suits? I'm pretty sure you only get rubber suites in certain types of clubs eh Mick?! Rubber suits has got "family planning clinic" written all over it - too safe, to insensitive and no fun! Tape up only ladies.
You have a strong partnership with Pete Whittaker. Who led who astray?
I think it's probably my fault, although Pete is now the Jedi Master. His offwidth skills are totally brilliant as he's a real 3D thinker. His dish sessions with 20Kg weights have paid off on those upsidedown marathons. It's been great climbing with him as he'll never shy away from anything
Could Pete and yourself have achieved what you have without each other? I suppose what I'm getting at is how much do you feed off each other for the psyche? After all, we aren't talking some pansy sport climbs here, this is real climbing.
Not sure really. Probably not, as for me, Pete has been the best climbing partner I've had for many years as the mix just works. I very much work off the energy of other people and can go from a total rubbish climber to something ok if I'm with the right person. He's also totally silly like me, so to go out and mess around and not take anything too seriously whilst climbing hard is brilliant. He's also an extremely fair partner, unlike many others who sometimes won't split the climbing evenly or will be gutted if you get an ascent over them.
Top boulderers Dan Varian and Ned Feehally have set up a small company called Beastmaker making wooden fingerboards. Do you have any special training devices and techniques for climbing wide, and if so are there any plans to set up a cottage industry selling products and services for those who want to follow your lead?
I have a crack woody in my living room! I designed it about a year ago and have been driving my wife and neighbours up the wall with the moaning and banging into the small hours of the morning. Everyone who comes round (from friends to British Team Members) eventually gets drawn into the darkness.... In fact I believe Highball Climbing make a excellent crack machine based on the one I have at home.
Physically I had it ages ago, but mentally I found I was pretty weak. Favaresse's 2 day ascent was phenomenal. It wasn't as hard as All Elements, that I put up a couple of years ago, but more technical.Greenspit at long last. 8b+ you say? What is that in real money? Pounds, shillings and pence.
Yeah, what an epic. Physically I had it ages ago, but mentally I found I was pretty weak. Personally I thought it was about 8b, but very particular in the way that it spits you off as soon as you make the slightest mistake. Favaresse's 2 day ascent was phenomenal. It wasn't as hard as All Elements, that I put up a couple of years ago, but more technical. In real money? What like British E grades? I couldn't say.... I'll leave that for the good people of UKC forums!
Who are your off-width heroes?
Firstly, Duncan Frisch for teaching me the art of "Frisching"
Best off-width experiences in the UK?
Ray's Roof - I'd said I would give up climbing when I did that one!
For the UK off-width novice could you list some routes they should try, in sequence, from the soft to the hard.
Oooh.... now that's an invitation! I'd actually recommend getting a load of crack boulder problems done first and then:
That'll do for a year's worth of weekends!
Yeah, that's what my wife asked me last week! I'd better not let her read this answer then... In the UK me and Pete are psyched for some of the quality Welsh lines like The Quarryman and Llyn new routes. I've still got a crack project of around 8c that needs a little more work and then there's the "big project." We've vowed to train to the max for the next 2 years in order to prepare. I'm paranoid about giving things away but it's 9a/+, a crack and very steep. Oh dear, my cellar is going to need modifying...
Tom works at The Edge in Sheffield. You can read more about Tom at UKClimbing.com, I Want That Job! - Tom Randall, Professional Route Setter by Jack Geldard here
Pete Whittaker FA of Gloves of War, E6 6c: 'one of the very best offwidth roofs in the world'
UKC News, Aug 2009
© Tom Randall/Pete Whittaker