The Finest Crags in UK & Ireland Ilkley Mike Hutton
Overlooking the picturesque slopes of Wharfedale is a climbing destination of national significance. The distinctive Cow and Calf rocks, plus the secluded Rocky Valley, offer 278 routes on some of the finest Gritstone in the country. The variety of features on offer is mind-boggling, with protectable cracks, terrifying arêtes, technical walls and blind grooves lines all found amongst this gritstone playground.
My first experiences of the area were formed during many an hour working with the dedicated and friendly Yorkshire Mountaineering Club guidebook team. They confirmed to me that there is so much more to Ilkley than just a bunch of climbs. They opened my eyes to a place that oozes history and I soon discovered that some of the greatest challenges on gritstone were born at Ilkley; challenges that had been conquered by some of Britain’s most talented and highly regarded climbers. For years I had been a peak district climber, but I was introduced to a whole new world.
Ilkley is not so much renowned for its quantity of climbs in the mid-grades, but more for the number of outstanding achievements that took place in the last three decades. It became the testing ground for some of Britain’s best. Pete Livesey, Ron Fawcett and John Dunne were instrumental in setting the standards and many of their routes have stood the test of time.
Previous page: Rich Connars on Somersault (VS 4c) and Dave Prince on S Crack (VS 4c).
Many of the early routes were climbed pre-second world war by Charlie Salisbury, including the ever-popular routes of the quarry; Napoleon (VS 4c) and Walewska (VS 4c). In the 1940’s Arthur Dolphin was the main man and the first to peg Wellington Crack (E4 5c). Perhaps the older generation will remember Allan Austin as the man who kicked off the YMC guidebooks in the 1950s and his affectation for climbing in woolly jumpers during the foulest weather. A true Yorkshireman some say.
After a quiet decade it was to be Pete Livesey and Ron Fawcett who dominated the 1970s with some ground-breaking performances. Livesey claimed the first free ascent of Wellington Crack (E4 5c), but his ascent of the bold quarried arête line, Guillotine (E6 6b), must rank as one of his most impressive performances, particularly since this was done prior to the advent of pads. Ron climbed the bold arête of Shock Horror (E6 6b) at the Rocky Valley which still sees very few ascents. His roof crack Milky Way (E6 6b) on the Cow still deters most people who try it. By far his most notable achievement though was a pad-less ascent of Desperate Dan (E6 6b) up the rounded left arête of the Cow, which in those days was considered to be Yorkshire’s first E7.
Adi Gill on Shock Horror (E6 6B), which is climbed on a series of small and widely spaced pockets.
There is no doubt that the 80s were the decade of John Dunne. John pretty much repeated every line at Ilkley before his 18th birthday. Before the decade was out some of his notable first ascents amounted to Fast Forward (E6 6c), Deathwatch (E7 6b), Snap Decision (E7 6b), Loaded (E8 7a), Countdown to Disaster (E8 6b) and The New Statesman (E9 7a). It has to be New Statesman though that took gritstone climbing to the next level. Pete Livesey had claimed that it was the last great problem on grit and John had conquered it. Interestingly, it was the same Pete Livesey that many years earlier had rescued John with a rope as he tried to solo Josephine Direct in walking boots, shouting “It’s people like you who give climbers a bad name!”
Even to this day The New Statesman has seen just a handful of ascents. In fact, it was 9 years before it saw a second ascent. It’s deterred some of today’s most talented climbers and even resulted in a ground fall by Italy’s Michele Caminati.
Michele Caminati on The New Statesman (E9 7a) just before taking a ground fall.
The 90s were rather quiet mainly because most of the obvious hard lines had been done - although the terrifying knife blade arête of Rodney Mullen (E9 7a) was finally put to rest. It had laid tucked away in the Rocky Valley for years with most deeming it as an unacceptable level of risk. Sean Myles climbed it with the peg in place, but credit has to go to Ben Bransby for giving it the first and only ground up ascent.
Impressively, John Dunne made a comeback in the late nineties and traversed out right from Wellington Crack to climb the desperate arête on some ridiculously small crimps. The safe-ish line of Loaded (E8) had to wait till until 2013 before it received a repeat by Jordan Buys, and it hasn’t seen an ascent since.
Then when everyone thought there was nothing left, Ryan Pasquill added Ilkley’s hardest line. Gerty Berwick (E9 7b) (named after the graffiti at its base) quests up the insanely blank wall left of The New Statesman on a series of crimps and pockets. Naomi Buys also proved herself as one of the top female gritstone climbers after she completed the very bold Snap Decision (E7 6b) in the quarry and the ankle breaking Deathwatch (E7 6b) on Doris buttress - two very impressive ascents.
Naomi Buys on Deathwatch (E7 6b).
Next page: Jacob Cook on The Lizard King (E9 6c) and Jordan Buys on An Unexpected Journey (E6 6b)
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The Cow and Calf
A wonderful collection of natural gritstone walls, quarried faces and boulders all within easy access of the car park, makes the Cow and Calf popular not only for climbers, but for the tourists. It’s not a place to come if you crave peace, but a great spot to become acquainted with what’s on offer.
The rather neglected Doris Buttress on the left, whilst not representing the best of Ilkey, has a few tremendously good routes. However, it would benefit from a clean due to the build up of green lichen over the winter on it’s north facing walls. Once brushed the routes come alive and their true quality can be appreciated. Allan Austin’s Transparent Wall (HVS 5a) and Piton Wall (HVS 5a) when clean are by far the best lines and certainly not endowed with protection.
It’s the quarry though that offers the best selection of mid-grade climbing at Ilkey. Many of the lines follow a maze of crack systems on the sunny and breezy south facing walls and were climbed in the early days in big boots. Josephine (HS 4b), Napoleon (VS 4c), Walewska (VS 4c) and Botterill’s Crack (HVS 5a) represent some tremendous challenges to perfect your skill at jamming.
Pete Wilkinson on Pebble Groove at the Cow and Calf.
The towering Cow buttress is what draws most folk to Ikley. The routes give sensational views out across the countryside and whatever your grade you can be guaranteed an exhilarating experience. There is also no denying that this crag isn’t for the faint hearted. Even the renowned and classic A Climb (Severe 4b) packs a massive punch and certainly isn’t as good as it’s hyped up to be, although it is a grand way up the buttress. In many ways Cow Rib (HVS 5a) is far superior due to its wild position high on the arête and much cleaner rock. Adi Gill’s superb action photo on the opening chapter of the YMC guidebook completely sums up for me what Ilkley is about. It’s the quality of the cutting-edge lines at The Cow that gives the place such a reputation.
The less intimidating Calf boulder is still a monster of a block and offers a huge array of world-class boulder problems. Many of them are trouser fillers and would benefit from multiple pads and a team of spotters. It has even been known for the odd tourist to become stranded as they watch the boulderers in awe and then attempt the descent route in their trainers.
A wonderful wilderness of interesting rock awaits those prepared to make the gentle slog to the other side of the valley. It’s not even that far, but just far enough to put off the convenience climber. To spend a summer evening with just the sound of the birds can be a sole cleansing experience and the routes are pretty fine too.
This is certainly no Stanage, but that’s not why you’ve come. Spend time to hunt out the gems and you will be rewarded. Long Chimney (Difficult), The Flake Climb (Severe 4a), Illegitimate Crack (VS 4c) and Beeline (HVS 5a) represent some of the best mid-grade climbs in the area. The advice I can give for this place is to explore and perhaps give some of the lesser-known routes the attention they deserve.
James Merriam on Beeline (HVS 5a) - tricky to reach and pumpy to climb.
A Climb (Severe 4b)
This can only be described as a full on multi-pitch expedition of squirming and thrutching. An unprotected slab of chipped holds followed by an airy traverse, set you up for the final fissure of bird shit and broken bottles. Whilst this may not be the finest line in Yorkshire, it gives one a grand journey up the Cow with plenty of exposure and fine views. Classic Rock’s rating of HS is nearer the mark, or are people from Yorkshire simply made of tougher stuff?
S Crack (VS 4c)
The unmistakable and aptly named crack is an all time quarry classic and an absolute must for any VS leader. It’s clean, relatively safe and is full of brilliant finger locks. It’s as good as quarried VS’s get and no pushover.
Transparent Wall (HVS 5a)
One of the best routes on the exposed Doris Buttress. On closer inspection you will discover this is in fact a discontinuous crack with a cunning pocket. Another gem of a route that with a gentle clean, transforms the climbing into a totally different experience. So put in the effort and you will be rewarded with some great moves.
Tufted Crack (E2 5c)
Ilkley does seem rather thin on routes in the E1 category, so if you’re an E1 climber on steroids (standard Yorkshire Climber) then you might want to be brave and do battle with this piece of jamming mastery. Don’t be fooled by the easy start as the crack soon widens to just the wrong size and the finale is fierce. Styles have changed, and this route is no longer climbed on wooden wedges like it was back in 1954 during George Walker’s first ascent.
Blind Valley (E3 5c)
For those that like to indulge in cracks at the thinner end of the spectrum, this peg-scarred line should be just the ticket. It’s reasonably protected and best enjoyed in the summer months after a bit of brushing. Just don’t stray out right, as that’s E4 territory.
It's incredible to think that Pete Livesey soloed this back in the day. If you’re at ease, then take time to marvel out right to the shockingly exposed arête line of Countdown to Disaster (E8 6b). A remarkable achievement by John Dunne in 1986.
Wellington Crack (E4 5c)
The much-talked about and feared E4 crack line. It’s not a pretty affair and many competent leaders have been repelled from this demanding crack. As Pete Livesey once said:
“The crack itself is more of an evil unnatural slit, no comparison with the perfect Yosemite crack.”
When to go
Most of the buttresses in Rocky Valley, and on The Cow and the Calf face north, making routes rather green in the depths of winter, so late spring to late autumn can be best. However, the south facing walls of the quarry receive more sun and wind, making them bearable on a sunny winters day.
Yorkshire Gritstone Volume 2 by the Yorkshire Mountaineering Club is the only definitive guide to the area. The Northern England Guide by Rockfax contains a selection of the best routes.
Routes reach a maximum of 20m so a 60m rope doubled should suffice.
Pads and lots of them are the most important thing to consider for the highball starts to many of the harder routes. A soft brush is an absolute must to spring-clean the greenery during the start of the season and fully appreciate the quality of the routes.
The kiosk in the car park sells bacon sandwiches and coffee and the Cow and Calf Hotel serves fine ales.
Adi Gill on The Gnome (E2 6a).
Previous page: Adi Gill on Wellington Crack (E4 5c) and Robin Nicholson on Beyond the Fringe (E5 6a).
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.
Currently, Mike divides his time between editorial commissions, tutoring and working for commercial clients.
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