The Finest Crags in the UK and Ireland The Roaches Mike Hutton in association with
Away from the mayhem of the Eastern Edges, the Roaches enjoys a unique atmosphere of its own. Amongst this mind-boggling cluster of chaotically balanced gritstone boulders are over 350 of the most varied and interesting climbs in the Peak District.
If the rocks had eyes they would have a lifetimes worth of stories to tell about what went on in the dark woods many years ago. Better still would be to come climbing, let your imagination run wild and picture what it would have been like back in the days when the wallabies once inhabited these parts and the legendary Doug Moller lived with his wife Mollie in the remarkable Rockhall cottage beneath these fascinating cliffs.
From as far back as 1901, pioneers of the climbing world have been coming to test themselves on the brutal cracks, sandy flakes and pebble dashed slabs that collectively have provided some of the best challenges on grit during the last century.
The renowned Jimmy Puttrell and members of the Kyndwr Club put on a fine display for the villagers when they assaulted the Raven Rock Gully (Diff). It did take them a while to actually find the crag as their first visit involved hours wondering lost in the mist as they tried to locate the historic Lud’s church, which turned out to be disappointing, at least for climbing.
Dave Mawers on 'Track of the Cat' (E5 6a) at the Skyline.
During my days as a youth I sought comfort from lying amongst the larch and the scots pine that cloak the lower tier boulders. During that period of my life I needed space, peace and a place to develop my creative side well away from the more suffocating areas in the peak. This spooky forest with its myths and legends was just the spot to wind away the hours. Although the wallabies no longer roamed amongst the bilberry and heather of Goldsitch Moss and Doug Moller had moved out of Rock Hall cottage with his wife to a new home at Flash, the place still had a charm and it was easy to imagine how things might have been. I had seen John Beatty’s eerie photo of Doug standing in the misty woods with his axe, the ground covered in a blanket of snow. Rumour has it he would wave his fists when local climbers dislodged stones onto the roof of his house. Lord of the Roaches seemed the perfect title for this incredible guy.
Teck Crack (HVS 5b) first caught my eye mainly because there seemed no easy way to reach the elusive crack that started high above the Inertia Reel Traverse. It later transpired that one had to ascend the ramshackle gully to the right whilst negotiating the prickly holly bush. Climbed by Joe Brown in 1955 with a piece of aid, this is a great sandbag but worth every bit of effort in my mind. Like royalty, you even have a special carved seat from which to belay. The seat and monument were carved specially for the Duchess and Duke of Teck who used the iconic steps to reach their picnic spot.
Andy Banks climbing the Inertia Reel Traverse on the Lower Tier. Tech Crack (HVS 5b) begins above.
Speaking of sandbags, a trio of Joe Brown - Don Whillans’ routes around the corner are exceptional and not surprisingly quite brutal challenges. The challenging test piece of Matinee (HVS 5b) is a brilliant feat of jamming and takes you right up the centre of Raven rock. Matinee is French for an “afternoon performance” which referrers to the audience Brown and Whillans attracted during their ascents in 1951.
The Mincer (HVS 5b) as the name suggests is an even bigger hand mangler and it’s fair to say if you survive this then most other HVSs will seem easier in comparison. If you’re struggling it’s worth remembering that Don, just for a laugh tried to pull Joe off the route by hanging his weight on the rope. Joe just about managed to stay on!
Valkyrie Direct (HVS 5b) is an excellent version of the famous Valkrie but nowhere near as much fun as the original route, which involves belaying halfway up Raven Rock and down traversing the enormous flake. A large piece of this did break off a few years back and ended up impaling itself into the ground like a tombstone.
The Mincer (HVS 5b) with its excellent gradually widening crack.
Valkyrie Direct (HVS 5b) - A long and elegant pitch up the steep jamming cracks in the arete.
As climber’s techniques improved they discovered it was feasible to climb the often-blank looking slabs between the main fault lines. Mike Simpkins climbed the notoriously bold Elegy (E2 5c) with some aid in 1960, which even today causes some serious procrastination for most on the top slab. Ron Fawcett recollects the time when Phil Burke attempted to solo it and lost the plot on the top slab miles above the deck and started yelling for help. Dougie was there looking over the top and was asked to throw down a rope. He did just that but forgot to tie it to anything. It whizzed past Phil and landed on the floor meaning he had no option but to solo it anyway.
Of all the routes at the Roaches it seems to be the terrifying Piece of Mind (E6 6b) that has conjured so many tales over the years. Jonny Woodward climbed it first in 1977. The blunt nose took slab climbing to a new level as it was all about having faith in the friction of something that would land you in hospital if you fumbled the top. Five years later Woodward couldn’t even top-rope it, which says a lot about the moves though it was a warm day. Astonishingly, Johnny Dawes fell from the top during an on-sight attempt in 1986 and lived to tell the tale. It was Pete Robins that finally did it ground up in 2001, despite also falling from the top.
In 1985 Simon Nadin was the man who took slab climbing to the top when he somehow balanced and crimped his way up the big bad slab on The Swan wall and created Against the Grain (E6 7a), just as it had started to snow. This was distinctly different from other E6 slabs at the time as it was protected by a series of side runners.
I remember turning up one bitingly cold October afternoon with my Mum and the dog. I had a tip off that a load of top climbers were giving the route a bash and was keen to get some photos. In a mad rush I pulled into the Roaches parking but didn’t leave enough space to get out of the driver’s door. I went for the passenger door that my Mother had just slammed but nearly broke my thumb in the process. Clasping my camera with the other hand I rushed off to a vantage point whilst my Mum got to witness climbers in action for the first time. Goodness knows what she thought when the likes of Pete Whittaker, James Mchaffie, Ryan Pasquill and Andi Turner all kept lobbing off the top moves. Despite 25 years of advancements in techniques and improvements in rubber this route was still spitting off the country’s best climbers.
The big addition went to Nick Dixon when he climbed the first E8 on grit and named it Doug after the King of the Roaches. The slab to the left of the steps has crux moves at 13 metres which are totally reliant on pebbles that may not even hold one's body weight. It therefore seems very sensible that Nick had his mates hold a picnic blanket below him as a precautionary measure.
Escaping from the lower-tier is like entering another world. The lung-busting hike up the steepest of steps never seems to get any easier. I’ve witnessed many great moments as I’ve emerged from the forest. I remember one cold November when the mist was ebbing in the lowlands, as I was about to meet Aniseed Dave on the upper-tier. As I climbed higher the mist sat like a blanket of silk and eventually we were above the clouds.
Away from the protection of the forest, there is a wilder feel on the upper-tier as winds blow in from all directions. Many of the buttresses are intimidating on first acquaintances and present more of a physiological challenge. One such challenge is the unmistakable and widely acclaimed roof crack of The Sloth (HVS 5a).
On a bitterly cold winters day in 1953, Joe Brown and Don Whillans set off on the pedestal slab beneath the big roof just as it had started snowing. The theory was it would be dry beneath the large roof. Whillans succeeded with a large crowd of on-lookers who were inquisitive as to how someone could climb such a thing. Still to this day climbers sit in awe as others surmount the huge roof flake and fight for their lives whilst dangling from just their arms.
Leanne Callaghan on The Sloth (HVS 5a) - The crack that splits the enormous roof is a total gripper; though like the school bully (and unlike Whillans!) it isn't as 'ard as it looks once you take it on!
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Saul’s Crack (HVS 5a) (also one of Joe Brown’s) on the buttress to the left is no less character building and if anything represents more of a technical challenge whilst being a tad less committing.
Of all the easier routes Black and Tans (Severe 4a)is the pick of the bunch in that it delivers a brilliant outing with bags of exposure at such an amenable grade.
Black and Tans (Severe 4a) - a classic trip weaving its way up the impressive buttress.
A wonderful environment can be experienced here and well away from the bustle of the upper-tier. The buttresses may be significantly less in stature, but they more than make up for this by the quality of the climbing. When I mean quality, there are some world-class sequences to be unlocked on these micro-routes. John Allen’s Safety Net (E1 5b) is definitely one of these and is composed of three very contrasting sections. A thuggish start followed by a puzzling sequence up the blunt rib and intimidating layback to finish. Carry a range of cams and there shouldn’t be too much heart fluttering.
The buttresses here tend to be secluded and more sheltered than you might think which is partly due to the conifer plantations that cling to the bases. Further along is the utterly brilliant slab of San Melas (E3 5c), which never fails to disappoint. It may be only 8m but the holds are seriously lacking when the only runner begins to feel redundant.
Finally, just when things couldn’t get any better you arrive at the end of the road.
What lies waiting is a selection of some of the Roaches best routes in the E4/E5 grade range. Jonny Woodward’s Track of the Cat (E5 6a) has to be one of the best arêtes in the peak. Some even say that Willow Farm (E4 6a) which follows the unprotected groove to the left is actually harder. I would be tempted to agree with this having taken a ride from the final moves.
Woodward’s Wings of Unreason could realistically be anywhere between E3 5c and E4 6b, the crux being entirely dependent on reach. It isn’t quite the end of the road as down below the plantation is the elusive and rarely visited Nth cloud. To mention anything about this location would be spoiling the fun, so I shall let you decide whether to pay this one a visit.
David Hudson on Prelude to Space (HVS 4c), another excellent route at the Skyline.
When to go
Although it’s possible to climb at the Roaches all year round it does get very green in the winter months especially on the lower tier and combined with the wind chill this season is best reserved for bouldering. The higher skyline buttresses are the most exposed and hence are the quickest to dry, but prepare yourselves for the cooler temperatures up there. They are the best places to escape the crowds during the summer months mainly because they have the longest approach. You just might just be able to escape the midges too!
How to get there
A few miles north of Leek turn left off the Buxton A54 towards Hulme End. There is ample roadside parking but be warned it can get very busy with walkers on the weekends.
Hawkwing (E1 5b) on the Lower Tier
Andi Turner climbing Roscoe's Wall (HVS 5b) on the Upper Tier.
A normal rack with a wide range of cams and a pair of 50m ropes will suffice. The shorter routes on the skyline can easily be climbed with a 60m rope doubled up.
Several thick bouldering pads would come in handy if attempting any of the highballs on the skyline.
Where to stay
Accommodation doesn’t get much better than the BMC owned Don Whillans Memorial Hut, which is conveniently situated at Rockhall cottage in the grounds of the lower tier.
It is reasonably priced and should be booked well in advance. The simple campsite at the neighbouring Hen Cloud crag is also perfectly located and has the advantage of being within walking distance of the Rock Inn.
The Roaches Teas room apposite Hen Cloud is a delightful but for food supplies your best option is the shops in Leek or Flash Bar stores further up the A54 Buxton road.
The definitive guide to the area is Staffordshire Gritstone – The Roaches by the BMC.
Western Grit by Rockfax contains a large selection of the best routes.
Pete Bridgewood on Bloodstone (E5 6b).
Flake and Chips - a lovely boulder problem on the Upper Tier, overlooking Hen Cloud.
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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