THE FINEST CRAGS IN THE UK & IRELAND Wilton, Lancashire Mike Hutton in association with
I woke to the terrifying sound of crashing debris. There was a pungent smell of cordite and a thick dust in the air hindered my vision. Surely this wasn’t an active quarry? How could I have been so foolish?? Maybe this was it: my climbing days were about to end in a tragic quarrying accident! I managed to sit upright, limbs seemed intact. This was a relief, as I might still be able to climb. As the dust settled I felt a poke in the ribs and a voice shouted “Are you going to sit around all day or get cleaning some lines!”. That would teach me to dose off during a BMC clean up meet.
Wilton for me has always been that crag people talked about, but seldom visited.
For those venturing up from the south there are possibly more attractive propositions on offer, with many climbers drawn towards the fruitful delights of the Peak District - just like every other man and his dog. Having been a local to the Peak for the past ten years I was keen to seek out pastures new. Rumours of a large-scale BMC clean-up finally lured me up to Lancashire to sample a bit of the action for myself.
The Grader E3 5c, Wilton 3
Situated in the heart of Lancashire the Wilton quarries don’t exactly entice your average climber. It’s perhaps not too surprising that they see far less traffic than the likes of Millstone. This is not all together a bad thing as in our present day it’s a real challenge to find any decent climbing that hasn’t already been spoilt by the likes of people and polish. Luckily for me, on my first visit I had the likes of Geoff Hibbert to chaperone me round to the best areas. Geoff was responsible for many of the first ascents in Wilton and other nearby crags.
I tried not to lure myself into a false sense of security as Geoff ran around like a kid in a sweet shop soloing just about anything he could get his hands on! As the day progressed what also became clear was how proud the local Lancastrians were about their climbing history. I listened in awe as locals gleefully recounted tales of climbers such as Hank Pasquill and Paul Pritchard on some of their first ascents in the quarries. One of Geoff’s classic near misses was on a route in nearby Egerton, where Basil (his dog) narrowly avoided being flattened by an exploding rock that he had crowbarred off whilst cleaning a new line. The route was thus named “Bombing Basil”. I didn’t dare ask how “The traverse of the beer drinking Gods” got its name.
Geoff Hibbert, Christine Arete E3 5c
The Wilton complex is divided into four main quarries: Wilton 1 is owned by the BMC for climbers to enjoy anytime; Wilton 2, 3 and 4 are owned by the resident gun club, with access arrangements whereby you must not climb on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays (unless of course you want a backside full of lead). Perhaps not a good idea as the additional weight could seriously impinge on your climbing style.
Generally speaking the best lines tend to follow superb cracks running, in some cases (and if you’re lucky) the entire height of the crag. These tend to be of a more positive flaky nature than those found at places like Millstone and Lawrencefield in the nearby Peak District. There is something for everyone and if jamming isn’t quite your forte then crimp to your hearts content on the steep walls, or jibber like an idiot on those precarious arêtes. Wilton 1 is the largest of the quarries has at this point in time over 200 routes; many of which are up there with the best crack climbs in Britain.
Scott Sadler, Crooked Crack VS 4c
My first acquaintance with the Wonderful Wilton rock was on the Prow at Wilton 1. It’s impossible not to be impressed by this remarkable fin of rock attached to the main crag at one end only. Possibly the ‘Sharpnose’ of Lancashire, only without the tide problems. Geoff was keen to point me in the direction of Cameo (E1 5a) after quickly soloing it himself. I was assured that the gear was now better than on the first ascent in 1964, when Ainsworth and co used only two peg runners - one of which was an old bicycle crank. As I began to climb I realised I had made the right decision to give this place a chance.
Next on the agenda were some of the original Pasquill routes, climbed back in 1967 - impressive efforts for their time.
Central Route (E1 5b), which follows a series of delightful cracks, is good value at the grade. The protection is (thankfully) never far away, so I was able to savour the moves without getting gripped.
By the time we reached Paradox (E2 5b) the vibes I was getting about this place were so good I was actually considering re-locating to Bolton and selling my house in Macclesfield. Once off the ground you’re immediately forced into the kind of jamming territory that doesn’t treat kindly to those that dither. After doing just that I arrived at one of those ‘thank god’ rest holds that cruelly coaxes you into resting so much that you are actually boxed stupid, incapable of continuing with any kind of style. By some miracle I managed to land myself on the arête still glued to the rock. A few teetering moves on fragile rock, then glory: you’re taking in the views out across Lancashire.
The evolution of the TwinGate system continues with the double wire carabiner.
Super light carabiner with super light double wire gate.
Only 39 grams for the safest wire carabiner. A clever S-design of the first wire offers the key-lock benefit.
The Sigma Twingate is a classic offset carabiner for to be used in place of a normal snap link or wherever you want to add extra security like on your cams, hexes or on your last quick draw before a crux.
The main problem with the belay carabiner on the harness was always to keep it in the correct position. Grivel has designed a totally new carabiner where a simple second wire gate isolates the belay loop and keeps the proper orientation, both with and without the rope, even when the carabiner gate is open.
The great thing about the fin is when the backside is cold (literally), you can move around and join the sensible folk on the sunny west face.
Christine arête (E3 5c) I selfishly decided would make a fine photo for the new guide but of course Geoff was required to climb it without a side runner for the full on experience! This bold route follows the left arête of the inside of the prow on very small holds and is more like E5 5c without the gear. It was a lost cause and no amount of beer bribery would persuade Geoff to forgo the side runner. I was starting to feel quite guilty by this stage, as during the second effort (the first for photographic reasons was a cock up) he almost lost all bodily contact with the rock and narrowly avoided slamming into the adjacent route.
Geoff Hibbert with the side runner on Christine Arete E3 5c
The time of day had been reached whereby if we were to make any kind of uphill progress it would have to be on non-strenuous rock. Cracks were definitely out!
I had always been fascinated with a route called ‘Cheat’ E3 5b, as there is a picture of it on the front cover of the BMC guide. I was curious as to why the belayer’s attentions are elsewhere rather than on the climber who is miles above their gear, launching themselves at the crux. It turns out the belayer was signalling to his Dad, who was miles away on a ledge somewhere, to take the photo. The story about how ‘Cheat’ got its name is a good one too. Rumour has it Ray Evans and Hank Pasquill were egging each other on to do harder and sillier things. This started out with a solo ascent of Wombat Chimney (E2 5b), which was too easy so had to be repeated with a rucksack on. Finally, Pasquill launched himself up the blank wall completely devoid of holds. To reach the top he chipped the holds at full stretch knowing Ray wouldn’t be able to reach them! Luckily, I am over six foot and the only problem I encountered was the heinous run out to the top.
It was approaching ‘beer o’clock’ and the prospect of a benightment in the quarries was not altogether appealing, plus it would take some explaining in the pub.
I heard a distant echo bounce off the side of the prow: “We’ve got time for one more”. As my eyes strained in the quickly fading light I spotted Geoff, who had managed to navigate to the other side of the quarry and get racked up in a nano second ready for Supercrack (E3 5c). This really did look like a great line when I had spotted it ten hours earlier (in the light), with its soaring finger crack travelling almost the entire length of the crag. An absolute must for any E3 aspiring crack climber and - apparently - quite soft at the grade.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me the first ascensionist did it without rock boots on and in the dark” I mumbled whilst desperately trying to jam through the final crack in what was left of the daylight. It turns out Geoff’s mate seconded it in a pair of Leather Royals some years back.
Wilton 2 and 3 would have to wait till another day as I was struggling to see my feet through the darkness. I now speak of these quarries most favourably, and after recovering from the first trip - not to mention investing in a head torch - I ventured up north once more to tick off a few of the great Lancashire lines.
After a long day at The Prow, everyone relaxing to enjoy the evening
Next Page - First Photo: Sobeit E3 5c Naomi Buys, Second Photo: Jordan Buys The Soot Monkey E6 6c
Generally speaking more of the climbing here is on easier angled rock with plenty in the VS-HVS range. Crooked crack (VS 4c) is a definite goer if you’re into slabby jamming cracks. It covers some impressive ground for VS and swallows large cams by the bucket load. Once again Geoff recommended another route he had just soloed, Central Crack HVS 5a, which follows the obvious line in the centre of Wilton 3; however, the techniques required to over-come it were not quite so obvious. I didn’t find the quote; “It’s much easier to solo cos you don’t have to hang on and place the gear” too constructive.
After being brutally sandbagged on several more of his party pieces I insisted he climb ‘The Grader (E3 5c)’ for another guidebook photo. The tantalising finger crack glowed in the hot afternoon sun, making it perfect for a photo but not so much fun for the climber. Judging by the thrashing and cursing that came my way, conditions had been far from perfect and I had got my own back at last.
As the sun dipped behind the horizon and the midges began their evening feast on the few remaining climbers. I thought Shivers Arête (E1 5b) would be an appropriate end to the day, or even my life if the twenty-year-old peg that protected the crux failed. Luckily the lack of light prevented me from seeing the wretched state it had degenerated to as I slapped franticly for the finishing holds.
My future experiences at Wilton continued to be just as rewarding, and I must admit to becoming a bit of a convert. I even made it to the pub for last orders on the third visit. So why not give this wonderful place a go. It needs you, and one day you might need it!
Geoff Hibbert, The Grader E3 5c
Next Page - First Photo: Jordan Buys Chocolate Girl E7 6c, Second Photo: Master spy Direct Naomi Buys E4 6a
How to get there
The Wilton quarries are located five miles north of Bolton on the A675 Bolton-Blackburn road. Park on the left next to the Wilton arms pub in the BMC owned car park. Walking out the back of the car park uphill leads to Wilton 1.
For Wilton 2,3 and 4 take a sharp left 1km after the pub onto Scout Road and park in 300 yards on the right. A green gate on the right marks the access to Wilton 3. Wilton 2 and 4 can both be accessed from Wilton 3.
Wilton 1 is owned by the BMC so no issues here.
The Bolton gun and rifle club own Wiltons 2,3 and 4.
In Wilton 2 and 4 climbers have priority on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
In Wilton 3 climbers have priority on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
See BMC website for latest information.
Dave Mann, Master Spy E4 6a, Wilton1
When to go
Late spring through to early autumn is generally the best time to climb. Be warned as even during the summer the north facing Wilton 1 can take a few days to dry.
Most of Wilton 1 faces northeast and gets little sun, so perfect for hot summer evenings. Luckily the prow has climbing on both sides, so climbing in the sun is always possible here. Wiltons 2 and 3 get morning sun only.
“999” (HS 4b) is a classic 3 star and jamming crack with plenty of gear
Central crack (HVS 5a) is a perfect crack with the crux by the gear and easier climbing to follow.
Central Route (E1 5b) a fine well protected route following cracks on perfect rock.
Not cruxy but quite sustained.
Cameo (E1 5a) a bold committing but never desperate climb on good edges and flakes.
Super crack (E3 5c) a perfectly protected and sustained finger crack. The Indian creek of Lancashire
Bruce Waddicar Super Crack E3 5c
An abundance of cracks means most of the routes are very well protected by bomber wires. Friends can be handy. There are plenty of stakes at the top to belay from.
Grades (starred routes)
Excellent if you are climbing HVS and above.
VS-HVS 36 routes
E1-E3 50 routes
E4-E6 48 routes
This is limited at Wilton, but nearby Brownstones offers an excellent array of problems on quick drying rock. Details included in the guidebooks below.
BMC Lancashire Rock 2016 is the definitive guide to the area.
RockFax Western Grit contains a selection of the best routes.
Food and Drink
The Wilton arms does great food and a fine selection of real ales. It even does “take out” beer; useful for later if you have drawn the short straw by driving.
The locals seem to favour the “Black Dog”, further down the road in Belmont.
Naomi Buys The Soot Monkey E6 6c
Mike Hutton is an Adventure Photographer and Writer working for the Outdoor Industry.
During the past decade, Mike has travelled to over 30 countries capturing images of climbers in places rarely visited by people. He has accumulated over 2000 photo credits to his name and his work has been extensively published in the world's leading magazines and books and on national television. His editorial client list includes Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Geographical Magazine, GQ Italia, Red Bulletin, Rock and Ice, Women's Adventure, The Outdoor Journal, Rockfax, Climbing, Derbyshire Life, Klettern, Desnivel, Pareti, Vertical, Climax, Climber, Summitt, Outdoor Photography and Rock and Snow.
Mike has worked with sponsored athletes from many of the top commercial outdoors brands such as Casio, Berghaus, Patagonia, Rab, Wild Country, Mammut, Boreal, Edelweis, Scarpa, Five Ten, Sherpa and Sterling. His sporting background as a Climber, Runner and Cyclist has given him the edge to keep up with some of the best athletes.
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