Standing majestically above Hathersage, in the Peak District of Northern England, the quarried faces of Millstone are fundamentally different to the archetypal gritstone crag. Reaching heights in excess of 100 feet, they are considerably higher than most of the natural 'edges'.
The fact that Millstone has been quarried has left it with less-than-par frictional properties; angular holds and an abundance of cracks, from the thinnest hairline seams to bottomless off-widths. The length of the routes and quality of the rock leaves one with a definite sense of climbing rather than extended bouldering, as is sometimes associated with gritstone crags.
Millstones, are the symbol of the Peak District National Park – there's one by the roadside where every main road enters the Park. Walk around the base of Millstone crag, Lawrencefield and even Burbage Valley, which hosts a few micro quarries, and you'll be virtually tripping over the things. They're left lying abandoned like the old shopping trolleys in the canals of northern Sheffield's steel yards, sign-posting an era long gone. Back then the stones signified prosperous times, and although they now lie derelict, they represent as much, symbolically, as they ever did in use. Most visitors who have ever walked the paths through the old quarries will have an artistic shot or two in their collection of the moss-clad wheels lying immoveable in the heather. If you were to somehow extricate one of them as a souvenir for your garden you'd be in a lot of trouble. They're a real part of the identity of the area, the second most visited national park on the planet, and located less than an hour's drive from the homes of some twenty million Britons. It isn't half tempting though, to up-end one and trundle it down the hill to Hathersage!
Because it was a working quarry not so long ago, Millstone's history is markedly shorter than the likes of its nearby big brothers Stanage and Froggatt. The first recorded climbs were in the 1920's. Presumably even then the bays were either still being worked, or the newly uncovered rock was loose and dangerous, as the early visitors left few notable routes and concentrated their efforts elsewhere. In 1952 Great Slab was among a clutch of first ascents that marked the turning point. 1956 saw a bunch of modern-day classics extremes such as Coventry Street and London Wall. Had they been climbed in today's style they would have been way ahead of their time, but Millstone was, for many years, the hub of the local aid climbing scene. The thin cracks were too small for fingers and toes, but ideally suited to blades and pitons. For any nearby residents the noise must have been akin to the days of the actual quarrying as each ascent would have meant the bashing in and taking out of dozens of pegs. Relatively quickly the outer patina of rock was weakened and the peg placements grew as repeat ascensionists used the same points. Trevor Peck and Peter Biven were the main activists of this time forcing many of the great future classics
"The cracks at Millstone were not always as wide as they now are, in fact many were originally hairline fractures - too small for pegs, never mind fingers. Trevor Peck owned an engineering firm at the time and he set about finding a solution to pegging these extra-thin cracks by making his own pegs. He and Pete Biven would start up one of the unclimbed lines with a set of blanks made from thin metal. They measured what was needed and returned to ground to fashion the correct pegs in the back of Trevor's VW camper van parked in the quarry, which he had kitted out as a workshop. Using this technique they managed the first ascents of such classics as London Wall, Coventry Street, Jermyn Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street."
Enter Joe Brown et al in the late 1950's and the rest, as they say, is history. Aid climbing continued, but the coveted FFA's (first free ascent) began to fall thick and fast as fingers exploited the widened peg-scars. Today many of the harder routes are relatively basic, if extreme, exercises in repeated finger locking a line of flared, two-finger pockets. Although many were freed during the late 50's and 60's, some remained obdurate until the 70's;
As with most nationally significant crags Millstone has seen its fair share of news-worthy ascents, mostly centred on one route. In 1983 a certain Mr Fawcett wandered up to the crag and established one of the most iconic routes in the country with 'The Masters Edge' (E7 6b). For those who've stood at its base and admired the majesty, or even been on the route itself, bear in mind that Johnny Dawes has apparently top-roped the arete one-handed! In 1994 a young and impetuous Airlie Anderson lugged an old double mattress up to the crag (it used to be the practice to park underneath the crag in a road-side lay-by, but car thieves have stopped that practice) to repeat the route, and in doing so become the first woman to climb E7. Wolfgang Gullich famously broke his back in a deliberate fall to test the gear in the half-height shot hole in the early 90's, and James McHaffie made the first ground-up ascent of the route with no falls only in 2007 - see photo on right! Also in 2009 Alex Honnold, part of the jaw-dropping 'Team America' trip, made an audacious on-sight solo of the daddy of all finger cracks - London Wall (E5 6b), thought by many to be more impressive and significant than the many headpoints and roped on-sights of much harder routes that the team achieved.
Its Southwest-facing aspect, coupled with exposed walls and bays, mean it's a very quick-drying venue that gets rather toasty at times, although shaded routes can usually be found. It consequently sees more winter action than most grit crags.
Gear is varied and (thankfully) plentiful. Curved nuts often sit well in the flared peg scars, and cams are essential in the wider cracks. Some routes are characterised by deep, round shot holes, reminders that the faces were once quarried by means of explosive charges. These shot holes famously take an eclectic assortment of specialist gear including Aliens, Tri-cams and inverted wires – The Master's Edge being the prime example with a shot hole at roughly half height providing the sole protection on the immaculate arete. Ask at Outside in Hathersage for the beta. A few pegs exist, but these are few and far between and should not be trusted (the author, quite some time ago, managed to fall onto the bent piece of ironmongery at half height on White Wall, with a static sling clipped to the peg, snapping the karabiner in the process – the peg remains to this day). Some new pegs were controversially placed on Top Loader, a new E7 6c established in one of the Northern bays of the crag in 2001 as Millstone became one of the first crags to open up after the Foot & Mouth epidemic.
The belays are often awkwardly distant from the squared lip of the crag, meaning that double half ropes are virtually essential given the length of the routes.
Descents are frustratingly long for a Peak District crag unless you can reverse the highball boulder problem at the left most edge of Embankment Wall (not advisable unless you've climbed up it and know where the shot hole is!).
There is a small amount of bouldering at the crag, most notably around the base of Green Death (the groove between The Master's Edge and neighbouring arete Edge Lane (E5 5c), and the left most edge of Embankment Wall. If you've seen the film 'Best Forgotten Art' you may remember seeing Johnny Dawes stemming his way up the direct start to Green Death in a pair of very sticky 5.10 approach shoes. Go try it and you will realise just how immortal the man really is!
Some time ago a friend and I set out to climb all the starred HVS's at the crag in a single day. There are 20 in the current definitive BMC guide (if I recall correctly there were 26 in the version we were using at the time). On most gritstone crags that would be a fairly achievable goal, but at Millstone the length of the routes and the long descents resulted in a memorably long day. I won't list every route, but below is a potted version featuring the highlights.
1. Bond Street HVS 5a
"The hand jamming crack of the crag". From the word go your hands are sucked into the cold, parallel-sided crack, splitting its way mercilessly through a couple of cruxy bulges to a large belay ledge more than 20 metres above. From here the norm is to scramble off up and rightwards, although a few optional second pitches are on offer, the best being the impressively exposed arete of Covent Garden (VS 4c). Hexes and wires adequately protect the whole route, but having a few cams (optimum size 2.5) in reserve for those panic-moments will undoubtedly make the whole experience a little less harrowing.
2. Great North Road HVS 5a
"The Cenotaph Corner of Millstone". The longest pitch on gritstone has just about everything. The beginning is easy, lulling you into a false sense of security before throwing a number of stubborn, baffling obstacles at you. There is no definite crux point. This depends on the individuals' strengths, or more importantly, their weaknesses! The most common problems come in the form of a couple of tricksome roofs and a long, smooth laybacking section. Protection can be placed almost anywhere on the route, as a thin crack in the depths of the corner runs the entire length of the route. Superb.
3. Dexterity HVS 5b
Providing another stern test in jamming skills, and with the crux coming towards the top, the ascendant's forearm endurance is often tested to its limit on this fierce contribution. Large hexes and cams (size 2 to 4) are essential (unless you've a thing for soloing gnarly fist jamming cracks), with more definitely being merrier, so get borrowing. After jamming up to a small roof you'll be glad of the extra protection when faced with a strenuous pull round onto the headwall. Those choosing the appealing option of scurrying leftwards just below the roof may still award themselves the HVS tick, but should feel the need to hang their heads in shame whenever discussing the route in the future...
4. Plexity HVS 5a
This is an unquestionably fine route and well worth the extra five minutes walk along the base of the crag. It's the least climbed route in this list and is so for a number of reasons. Many people don't even venture past the Great Slab area of Millstone, and therefore miss out on a further 80 or more routes. So next time you're at the crag and there are huge crowds milling (sorry) about at the base of all the routes you wanted to do, walk along to the final buttress where Plexity tackles the impressively steep and intimidating crack up the left wall of the bay. Not for the faint hearted, this well protected route abounds with solid jams, but will certainly get those arms pumping.
5. Great Portland Street HVS 5b
So how's your mantelshelfing these days? A tricky mantle at about 3m provides the technical, and probable mental, crux of the route. It can sometimes be a little demoralising to encounter such an obstacle so close to the ground, but for those proficient enough to overcome the worrying mantel, the delightful bridging above is a fitting reward. The remainder of the route is never desperate but is always a little thought-provoking. Occasional run-outs and perplexing peg scars simply add to the memorable character of this classic route.
6. Embankment 2 HVS 4c
The first pitch provides the real meat, taking the two striking parallel cracks in the Embankment slab. The left-hand crack varies from hand jams to leg jams while the right-hand one allows only painful finger locks. climbing the route using a combination of the two is the best technique, although this often confuses matters. The recommended method of approach is to thrutch and squirm up the left, in a manner as dignified and relaxed as possible, while placing bomber wires to the right. Once you start to waver a little, the squirming and gear placements appear to deteriorate at an alarming rate.
As I said earlier, this selection is merely a sample of my favourite HVS's at Millstone. I haven't even had the space to sing the praises of fine routes such as Svelt, Billingsgate, Whitehall and Lyon's Corner House – and for those who're hungry for even more, within its walls Millstone offers 45 HVS routes. If HVS is beyond your measure, try your hands at Eartha, HS 4a, a satisfying flake system, The Great Slab, a 2 star HS 4b oozing with excitement and history. Embankment Route 2, VS 4c, 4b, despite some serious polish on the lower pitch, is a very enjoyable two pitch classic with an accommodating belay at half height providing the perfect outing for leaders looking for practice in multi-pitch climbing. Covent Garden is another two pitch classic, whilst The Mall, VS 4c, is the only 3 star, sub HVS route in the quarry and well worth the effort, atmospherically sandwiched between the ultra-classic test-pieces London Wall and White Wall. Millstone is really a crag where the stars are disproportionately loaded onto the harder routes. Embankment Route 3, E1 5b, 5b, Regent Street, E2 5c, Time For Tea, E3 5c, Xanadu, E4 6a and London Wall, E5 6b would provide one of the best days out in the country.
So what are you waiting for? Get cracking!
How to Get There
Parking is at Surprise View car park on the main Sheffield to Hathersage road (A6187), about a mile east of Hathersage and some five miles from the south western edge of Sheffield. The car park is served by the following buses: 242 and 272, roughly hourly between Sheffield and Castleton, and the train station in Hathersage is only a half hour walk from the crag, making it one of the most accessible crags anywhere. If you have an aversion to public transport I've found that hitching works very well in the eastern Peak as there are so many climbers and walkers out and about that you rarely wait for more than a few minutes.
Food and Supplies
Hathersage is well supplied with all the usual amenities - a garage, grocers, mini-market, butchers, Indian restaurant, chip shop (little-known fact: the lidocafe serves fish and chips on a Thursday and Friday) public lido (open March to September), two banks with cash machines, chemist, and a gaggle of gear shops including the institution that is Outside. The Outside Cafe is reasonable, but it's worth the trek to the Grindleford Station cafe just a few miles away (and only half an hour on foot from Millstone down the beautiful Padley Gorge). On sunny days there's normally an ice cream van parked in the car park. If you fancy a pint after your session, instead of the Fox House, head for the Millstone pub itself, on the very eastern edge of Hathersage. It does a fine selection of beers and some good food to boot.
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This article was written by Matt Heason, local climber, activist and event organiser in exchange for letting its readers know about Cliffhanger, the daddy of all climbing events, which is on the weekend of July 3rd and 4th in Millhouses Park, Sheffield, only about 7 miles from Millstone crag. Now in its 4th year Cliffhanger this year will be hosting a round of the Bouldering World Cup as well as providing enough demonstrations, taster sessions, bargain kit stands and general outdoor-pursuits driven entertainment to shake a very large stick at. If you're thinking of visiting the Peak for the weekend, and fancy a session at Millstone, and also checking out the event, you can camp between the two at the Big Shake Out on the outskirts of Sheffield, enjoy some local beer and cook your food on one of the communal BBQ's laid on by the organisers Alpkit. Hope you can make it, and even if you don't, make sure you get along to Millstone before too long. It's a stunning venue.
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