The Finest Crags in the UK & Ireland Curbar A picture essay by Mike Hutton illustrates some of Curbar’s highly regarded lines.
Occupying a majestic position above the Derwent Valley is a playground that is home to some of the peak district’s finest lines. Although Curbar has a bit of a reputation for tough grades is does offer a multitude of areas with very distinctive styles. On first acquaintances, the type of climbing on offer might appear brutal and the protection quite awkward to place but those seeking classic grit stone experiences are unlikely to be disappointed.
Although the initially encountered south end contains some of the most distinctive lines it’s well worth losing yourself in the far end as you might just discover something that is more in line with your own climbing style.
Avalanche Wall HVS 5a. First Ascent Joe Brown 1950.
Debbie Birch enjoying an evening ascent of the well-protected crack line of Avalanche Wall HVS 5a.
When Joe Brown and the Rock and Ice Mountaineering Club set siege on Curbar in the 1950s there was so much unclimbed rock. Joe and his cronies would often shelter or spend the night in the famous Froggatt Cave. This was the era of hobnail boots and Woolworth's plimsolls, although the latter did have a habit of jamming in cracks whilst the foot annoyingly extracted itself from the shoe.
On first sight, this huge quarried wall seems to be devoid of any holds but luckily a set of fine cracks paint the way for any competent HVS leader. The start is slightly polished and the presence of two parallel cracks for hands, feet and gear can often confuse the climber as you're never sure which ones to use. The pump soon sets in as the crack twists to the right but if you're quick to place the best of cams then you should have enough in reserve for the awkward wide niche that often stops people in their tracks. Nothing on this route is ever that hard but it never relents so be quick and efficient with the gear to stand a chance of success.
The Peapod HVS 5b. First Ascent Joe Brown 1951.
A climber tackling the notorious and awkward Joe Brown classic, The Pea Pod HVS 5b.
For years the savage looking cracks on the previously quarried Eliminates Wall had been deemed impossible by-passing climbers. Crack climbing was not yet in vogue and the skills required were only possessed by a discrete few. Joe Brown stood out from the crowd in that he wasn't prepared to admit a route was impossible till he had stepped foot on it. The classic photo of Joe high above the pod with his belayer wedged in the base of the cleft paints a picture of how serious these climbs were at the time. A fall from the pod would almost certainly have yanked them both off the route. In fact, Don Whillans actually fell off the lower section during an early attempt and severely burnt his belayers arm with the rope. It's hardly surprising that this one was awarded the grade of extremely severe back in the day. In fact, many modern-day climbers wouldn't disagree with the assignment.
Reaching the pod is easy but progressing up it and exiting it can stop even the most accomplished of HVS leaders. Deep in the back of the gruesome flared pod are cam placements galore but the difficulty is successfully placing these as you frantically fight with whether or not to bridge facing in or out.
Thankful the exit moves require more conventional jamming but even these can be taxing after such an awkward battle. There are really no rules with how to climb this monster and often the best approach is simply to get ugly!
L’Horla E1 5b. First Ascent Joe Brown 1957.
James Turnbull launching out on the glory hold near the top of the menacing groove of L'Horla E1 5b.
Arguably one of the most awkward and demanding E1s on Curbar. The initial groove may seem riddled with holds but they aren't as useful as they first appear and always seem to hang the wrong way. Bridging up the bottom section can be a tiring experience as your calves start burning and you realise the runner you've just placed is the one sliding down the rope. This is just the start of the fun as you reach out precariously to a jug on the lip. A friend 4 may offer some assurance as you hold the swing and battle to the top. I imagine it must have been terrifying for the locals who witnessed a young and confident Stevie Haston solo this in the '70s with just his trainers and a chalk bag before leaping on a train bound for his home in London.
Soyuz E2 5c. First Ascent John Allen 1972.
Martin Kocsis tackling the steep flake line of Soyuz E2 5c.
Tucked away on the shady north facing wall of Apollo Buttress is a leaning flake crack that despite its shorter stature kicks a right punch. The magnificent overhang of Apollo E2 5c attracts most that venture this way but for those fancying something less steep then Soyuz can be just the ticket. Generally, protection is very good on the lower section but hanging around in the steep environment soon takes its toll and to stand any chance on the top-out you need to be efficient. Very soon one arrives at a sloping ramp which is where the fun starts. It’s either a pumpy traverse rightwards on rounded breaks to an awkward top out or a hideous undercut and long reach for the sloping top. Success tends to be granted to those that don't procrastinate and have the correct large cams to hand. Not really E1 5c as the BMC guide suggests.
Elder Crack E2 5b. First Ascent Joe Brown 1950.
Tim Louds battling with the Curbar classic off-width, Elder Crack E2 5b.
Around the 1950s Brown and Whillans were taking crack climbing to the next level. They had devised cunning techniques to overcome steep cracks like no other climbers. Joe mastered the art of jamming and learnt how to wedge all parts of his body into cracks of hideous dimensions whilst conserving energy at the same time.
When Joe tackled Elder crack back in the day there was no protection and you simply couldn't fall off. Since then with the advent of large cams, it can be enjoyed in the knowledge that falling off is at least survivable. Whether the experience proves to be enjoyable or not shall be for you to discover.
The initial crack is fairly steady but very soon you reach a bulge of awkward dimensions. If you're lucky enough to possess a Friend 6 or Camelot 5 then the next section will at least feel safe. A good hold on the left arete beckons but reaching and leaving this is possibly the toughest 5b crux you will ever do. The upper easy angled wide crack is a relative breeze so you can relax in the knowledge that you have survived one of Brown's all-time masterpieces.
Finger Distance E3 6b. First Ascent Gary Gibson 1980.
Pete Whittaker taking advantage of cool conditions during an early morning ascent of Finger Distance E3 6b. Pete climbed this as part of his 150 gritstone routes in a day challenge.
The delightful Kayak slab can offer a welcome respite from all those bulging Brown classics. Whilst it might not have the height of its bigger brother buttresses, it makes up for this by packing in some pretty taxing sequences on pockets and pebbles. Realistically the routes on this slab can be classed as solos so adding a pad or two will make the experience a whole load less stressful. Gary's route requires pulling on a selection of pockets and a rather harrowing rockover. True bouldering connoisseurs will ignore the easier start using the right-hand pocket.
Right Eliminate E3 5c. First Ascent Joe Brown 1951.
Simon Cox soaking up the winter sunshine during an evening ascent of Right Eliminate E3 5c.
Splitting the mighty eliminates wall in two is the mother of all Joe Brown's crack routes.
This ferocious off-width has spat out many competent E5 leaders over the years and is still regarded by some as the most challenging E3 crack in the Peak District.
Crack master Joe Brown must have had big balls back in the day when he set off to onsight this with just a low down chockstone for gear and a pair of pumps on his feet; a phenomenal achievement which many fail to replicate even with gear. There really are no rules when it comes to upward progress and chicken wings, arm bars and knee jams have all proved useful. The key thing since the disappearance of a higher chockstone is to come armed with friends 4, 5 and 6 and of course be prepared for it to get ugly.
Moon Walk E4 6a. First Ascent John Allen 1976.
Andi Turner experiencing perfect grit conditions as he climbs the airy arete of Moon Walk E4 6a on a misty autumn day.
The renowned Moon Buttress contains some of the greatest challenges on gritstone. Everything from E4 to E8 exists here and there is just about every kind of climbing style.
Few who have climbed it would dispute that Moon Walk is the ultimate grit experience. This airy route climbs the aesthetic flakes on the left arete which lead to a break where all possible gear must be placed. From here committing moves up the sensational arete will hopefully lead you to the top via a crucial pocket. The lower flakes represent the technical crux but the easier top arete is definitely the physiological crux. Not especially hard for E4 but with big fall potential.
The 2nd ascent when Gabe Regan soloed it having previously fallen 10m on an earlier lead attempt was most impressive.
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.
Don’t Slip Now E5 6a. First Ascent Phil Burke 1978.
Max Dutson high but not dry on the aptly named Don’t Slip Now!
Lurking amongst the woods on the northern end of Curbar is a lesser known horror show on the mysterious Beech Buttress. The reason for most people’s visits would be to enjoy the esoteric Beech Buttress HS 4b but few are prepared to risk the aptly named Don't Slip Now. It essentially climbs a rising line leftwards up the unprotected slab to a crux where falling off is not an option. It got its name from the words a friend uttered as Phil Burke embarked on his solo mission. "For f... s sake don't slip now!"
My experience was even more harrowing. I was taking photos from a rope when my friend Max shouted across that the handholds were covered in snow and he couldn't move up or down. I miraculously untied from my rope and managed to swing it towards Max's groping hands. He grabbed it in the nick of time but dislocated his shoulder in the process. Being a doctor, he was meant he was able to relocate it with a simple crack.
Linden E6 6b. First Ascent Ed Drummond 1973 with 2 points of aid.
Tanya Meredith climbing Linden E6 6b at the end of a perfect winter's day.
Ed Drummond's ascent of Linden in 1973 ended up being one of the most controversial events in gritstone climbing history. The general consensus amongst climbers was that the route was ahead of its time and really should have been left for a better climber to come along. The initial moves to leave the flake proved too hard for Drummond so he reluctantly chipped a hold for a skyhook to get him over the bulge and then used a second one to pull up a move higher as he didn't think the wire would prevent a ground fall. Drummond never got the credit he deserved for climbing the final unprotected section of the route. Mick Fowler made a very valid point in the account of his first free ascent in the book Extreme Rock by saying “It’s worth remembering that, having quit his second skyhook, Drummond was committed to the same piece of gently overhanging wall.”
It’s this unprotected and lonely wall that spooks even today's best climbers.
Sketch City E6 6b. First Ascent Tom Randall 2011.
Tom Randall climbing in beautiful evening light during the first ascent of Sketch City E6 6b
This rather alarming route climbs the initial section of the highball Old Codger E3 6a, then proceeds to pull through the horrible honeycomb rock in the upper bulge. A fall from the top could be devasting.
Janus E7 6b. First Ascent Johnny Dawes 1986.
Ethan Walker about to embark on the notorious crux groove of Janus E7 6b.
To the right of the more amenable Profit of Doom E4 6b, is a compilation of two beautiful hanging grooves. Unlocking the sequence to transfer from one groove to the next has baffled climbers for decades. The lower groove is not only awkward to climb but very difficult to protect as wires have a habit of zipping straight out, only adding to the stress. The actual sizes needed are very particular and it is absolutely critical that these are placed correctly.
The ground-up ascents in 1990 by Simon Nadin and Andy Cave were most impressive.
Cool Moon E7 6c. First Ascent Daniel Lee 1981.
Ethan Walker on the classic frightener, Cool Moon E7 6c.
Up the left side wall of Moon Buttress is a route for the bold. The reachy lower section is extremely highball and could be considered the technical crux. Trusting the dubious cam and pushing on to the S-shaped finishing crack requires extreme commitment and a very cool head. It’s worth remembering that the cam size used to protect the upper section wasn’t available in 1981 although side runners were utilised in the neighbouring Moon Crack.
The End of the Affair E8 6c. First Ascent Johnny Dawes 1986.
Rob Greenwood going for the final “oh-god” moves on the much-photographed arête line of The End of the Affair E8 6c.
The End of the Affair is probably the most talked about E8 in the Peak District. Ever since it featured in the famous film “Hard Grit” where a youthful teenager climbed it in brilliant style, teams of talented climbers have added this to their “must do” route list. Although the cams in the break at third height are bomber, they offer no hope when you are fully committed to the off-balance and fluffable moves up the precarious upper arete.
Of those that have taken the ride from the top, few have walked away. Dave Pickford was airlifted out and several others have been carried.
Ryan Pasquill’s flash ascent in 2006 stands out as one of the most impressive moments on grit.
Knockin on Heavens Door E9 6c. First Ascent Andy Pollitt 1988.
Jordan Buys fully focused as he commits to the harrowing thin moves on the upper slab of Knockin on Heavens Door E9 6c.
How to get there
You will encounter the south end of the edge by driving uphill out of the village of Curbar in the heart of the peak district. The Curbar gap car park here is the best access point to the climbing. As Curbar edge peters out at its northern end you will arrive at the popular edge of Froggatt. Once below the southern end of the crag, it is possible to walk along the bottom to most of the sectors but if planning to climb at the far northern end beyond moon buttress you are better descending directly from the top track as the paths connecting the far end are a bit hard going.
When to climb
It is possible to climb all year round provided you can tolerate the temperatures. In fact, some of the best gritstone conditions can be experienced during the winter months. The crag’s south-west aspect means it is exposed to most of the prevailing winds ensuring it is quick to dry. The crag is best avoided during hot still summer evenings as the midges can become unbearable.
Hidden Pleasures E3 6a. First Ascent Andy Bailey 1984.
Pete Whittaker enjoying an early morning solo of Hidden Pleasures E3 6a during his 150 gritstone extremes in a day challenge.
A pair of 50m ropes will suffice for all of the routes as few exceed 20m. In most cases a 60m rope double up will be ample. A full set of cams and double set of wires protect most of the climbs. Occasionally very large cams 4, 5 and 6 may come in handy (Size 5 on Elder Crack, size 4 on L’Horla and sizes 4,5 and 6 on the off-width of Right Eliminate)
The Rockfax 2015 Eastern Grit guide contains pretty much all of the routes at Curbar and also covers a substantial area of the peak district. The BMC 2010 Eastern Gritstone: Froggatt to Black Rocks guide is the current definitive guide to this and other areas.
Predator E2 5c. First Ascent John Allen 1976.
Sam Hamer utilizing the cunning knee bar rest on the nasty thin crack of Predator E2 5c
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.
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