Richard Taylor tells the story of a 24-hour climbing challenge across Stanage and Burbage in the Peak District.
The idea came to me a while back…I had been thinking about one day going across the whole of Stanage Edge as a traverse! That idea sprung to my mind in multiple visions (illusions!) over 25 years ago. Of course, it's not really possible as the Edge, even though it is five miles long… has too many gaps. So where does this story begin?
Mid-December on one rare dry day, I set off to Stanage's Dennis Knoll car park. The mist and clouds slowly cleared. I could see just up from the car park a very obvious bit of rock, a slab wall, exactly what I wanted. I promise myself I will climb just one solo and be happy; I wanted to test my footwork and mental control. Bouldering, highballs and a few shorter solos at a lower grade would only take me so far.
I stand at the bottom of the crag (Duo Slab). It looks OK, but can I keep it together? Can I escape or reverse if I need to? I read the rock, I don't use a guidebook.
I climb, it flows nicely. Just one more, I say to myself.
I continued to study and climb other crags until I had soloed over 20 routes in a very short time. The seed had been planted.
I started visiting Stanage every week. I searched out bits I could solo. I covered the whole crag by the start of May. Total Addiction. 425 routes I had now committed to memory! Could I do them all in one day? No… but I could if I gave myself longer - say 24 hours - that was it!
Last year I had done 100 boulder problems and a few solos on the way for Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. This year I wanted to do more, so I asked Derbyshire Wildlife Trust if they would let me raise money for them. I decided to keep the challenge a little open and not necessarily go for the most routes I could do or even aim for my 425. My dad always says "Simple is perfect!", so I called it a 24-hour climbathon. That way if I found poor conditions or if my nerves or strength faded, I could still complete the challenge by slowing down and just staying on the rock as much as possible for the given time.
The Trust welcomed the idea and I set up a Just Giving page and that was it, it was happening!
On Thursday 8 July at 3.30 a.m. I found myself at the first buttress of Stanage Edge.
An overhead curlew is making its dominance known by taking on a rook of crows and winning. Nature never sleeps. The rock is still green from the day of rain that had gone before and wisps of thin cloud are clearing. It's not perfect, the humidity is high, but I am going to give it a try.
The first handhold and foothold don't feel great! I climb on, unconvinced as the top is still wet. Should I call it off? No, the end slab is always green. Eleven routes in and the inner rust is clearing, and once I go around the back and climb a very wet Prospero's Climb (just V Diff but feels like a VS today) I am starting to feel myself tune in. A few hours in I am at Crow Chin - I am happy - I love that bit of rock! Easy pickings, October Crack is bomber-safe and lovely to climb. Only a Diff, but I am not one for grades if the rock invites me to climb it. I feel good, my inner music plays at a good rhythm. 69 routes in I walk on to the next crag!
Enemy number 1 is not the rock, not the conditions, and not (in my case) crowds of people, but something much worse: bracken! Three weeks ago it was hardly visible, but now it's waist-high and still wet from rain and morning dew. I am soaked just getting to the rock. No one is here, sod it. I take my trousers and shoes off (I don't wear socks) and hope there are no adders waiting for my bare legs and feet. I've brought my only bouldering mat with me (25 years old now!) and find a way of putting it into a V and use it as a sort of plough; standing inside it I push my way through to Undercut Crack.
I move on above the crag (wearing my trousers now) to keep dry. On Treatment, deft footwork and a good reach help (though I am not tall, my wife says I am shrinking). Radox returns me to the land of normality. I climb routes no harder than Hard Severe for most of the crag, well, until the next crag Puss Buttress — yes it's mostly cat-inspired here with one rebel Pup (HVS 6a) that I won't let bite me. I climb Jam Good (not a cat), Kitten and Lucky (could be a cat's name).
I promise myself not to climb too hard; I have a long way to go and I am at best only a mid-grade climber and no spring chicken at 49. I scare myself on Cosmic Buttress on a climb I have done at least 10 times before I go off my normal way up, stand on a ledge full of water, dry my shoe on one leg of my trousers and then slip. My finger lock (lucky for me) saved me, it's not a big fall from that point, but I don't think my ankles would thank me…I regain my focus.
Clouds pass by, the sun rises a little more. I climb Birthday Buttress. I thrust up Overhanging Chimney. Facing the wrong way, I get momentarily stuck but I am happy on Duo Crack Climb. This was the first place I came to on that day in December that lit the fire.
With each climb I complete, I remember it's a strange thing, climbing — especially without a rope, maybe because you live the moment so intensely it burns into the memory forever. Not wishing to bore you, my journey continues. High Neb, Tango Buttress, Cave Buttress. Onwards and onwards to Enclosure Buttress. It's hot now and I am drinking a lot of water and eating nuts for the slow burn of energy. I haven't stopped yet.
At Counts Area I push a little too much. I climb hot rock and lose concentration on Protractor. I need to stop for a while after Setsquare to steady my nerves. I retreat to the cave under Counts Buttress and spread out my mat, roll up my fleece, lie down and shut my eyes. I think I actually fell asleep for those 20 minutes and it was solid too, a real power nap. Do I keep climbing as many as possible or slow down and just play for time? I base my decision on the next few climbs.
My last climb before I cross over to Goliath Area is Waffti, an easy and short VD. I have drunk most of my water now and my van is at Dennis Knoll. I decide to walk, back get more water and snacks, move my van to the Plantation Area and start again. It feels like a long way back to the van and I curse my bouldering mat - do I need it?
Hot and bothered, I throw my mat before my van door. Upon sliding the door open, a blast of heat hits me. I open the door and the back, drink water and sit in the shade. My phone has nearly run out of charge and I forgot the lead to recharge. I need to keep in contact every few hours. I text my wife, she is coming along later.
I have gone too far to stop now! I take off to Goliath's Area and instead of climbing from right to left, I find my way through the cooling Plantation Woodland. I climb just one, on Hathersage Trip Buttress. I don't like the look of the others.
I circle back, doing an alternative start to Spur Slab on the way to the path. It feels warm and the rock is hot to touch now; anyone who climbs gritstone knows the cold is a friend. There is absolutely no one bouldering below, an indication of the fact that despite it being dry, it is way too warm for gritstone moves.
Then out of the bracken below, a familiar walk, a familiar floppy hat and red fleece... is it? I see the figure lifting what looks like a phone to his ear, no good calling me, got no charge. I scramble through the undergrowth. It's my friend Wayne. The first person I will speak to since 8 p.m. the previous evening when I parked my van at Dennis Knoll in preparation for an early start. At last, some support — and his phone has got charge so he can (and already has) told my wife I am still alive.
Done at Goliath, we go to my van where my wife will meet us. I have to stop for a while to charge both phone and self.
I slump down before my van. Two climbers ran past with full packs, tut at me all sprawled out, "It's hard work for some, isn't it?" one says sarcastically. How little they know. I have actually done over 250 routes, perhaps more by now, I just say "Oh yes, very!" and smile as they pass.
I feel my energy slump for the first time. The heat is now intense and I have my least favourite part to do after the Unconquerables Area. The Popular end I hate for two reasons: it's too polished and it's too popular.
I look through my binoculars and it's crowded with groups on or near to the routes I want to do. I won't be that annoying git and solo over them. I play for time now my wife has come, my phone has a charger I can take with me, and for now, both she (Joze) and Wayne accompany me to the Unconquerables. I find actual waterfalls pouring down the rocks, the rain soaked into the sponge-like peat above. It looks beautiful in spite of impeding my upward progress on routes I would have done. I climb all the easy pickings, all the shorter walls and this takes me up to Saliva Buttress at B.A.W's area.
Still too busy at Popular End and I am about to go into the crowds. I hold off again. Wayne had parked at Popular End with the hope of me being at that end by mid-afternoon. Am I behind schedule? Can I still do this? The Cowper Stone is still a long way away. I move my van again, I seem to be doing more walking than I wanted but at least I didn't bring my cumbersome mat with me this time.
Re-parked, I watch the groups begin to go, say goodbye to Wayne and go back up. I change my t-shirt (it stinks, I probably do too) and I soak my other shirt in a pool of water and tie it to my pack to dry.
I stay out of everyone's way. I hear a few passing comments as I solo — not nice comments either, I might add. No one speaks to me as I walk past even when I say hello. I ponder my belonging to this community. I decide that perhaps I don't. I am a recluse and a misfit, a self-confessed eccentric. I don't let the taste go bitter; I love climbing, I love the rock, the freedom and that feeling of being fully alive and aware. I do think a lot of modern climbers are missing out on what makes this so special. A lot of the time it's actually not the climbing but where it takes you; the intimate observations of nature, those magical moments of light and sound, a rare sighting of wildlife or a triple rainbow, the shape of a cloud, the whisper of the cotton grass, intensified by the sharpened mind that this activity hones. Everything becomes laser-clear and immensely beautiful. I never could be happy just climbing hard routes on a top rope or bouldering in big groups shouting 'Allez Allez' or false praise of 'oh good effort'. This grumpy old man is getting cynical…
On with the climbing, midge o'clock came and went without biting. My wife comes along to see me again before the sun sinks down into a melted red.
It's mainly bouldering now at Apparent North, with a few routes all the way to the Cowper Stone. I race, I reach the Cowper Stone at 11.30 p.m. when it's still lightish. I struggle on both Salt and Vinegar, only a Severe, and on Pudding, a HVS which I find easier because the first one was covered in green and lichen.
I have run out of rock. I move my van for the last time to Burbage North, set up my sleeping area for my return, get extra batteries for my head torch and descend past the Bubbling Brook. Owls hoot and screech, a distant fox maybe? Screams, night climbing is completely different. I have not climbed much on Burbage and never intended to keep going, so I have not rehearsed this bit at all; onsight and partially blinded. The saving grace for the next 3 ½ hours is that the conditions are now perfect, the rock is dry, the heat is gone and the routes are shorter and easy enough for me to stand back to read first and climb. I am amazed at how easy it feels; I don't feel tired, it's so strange.
Eventually reaching what I decide is the last climb and seeing my watch is about to click on 3.30 a.m., the sunrise makes an appearance on a very short night.
I have travelled the length of Stanage all the way down to Burbage Valley while the earth turned around. My senses have fully merged themselves in nature in every way possible. My feeling of total connection is overwhelming — don't tell anyone, but it was actually quite an emotional moment when my Mickey Mouse watch went past 3.30 a.m. Challenge over, done.
I go back to Bluebell (my van), sleep until 5.30 a.m. I need to contact my wife, no signal. It's a beautiful morning and I go back to Apparent North to send a message. All is well.
The rock looks at me. Oh go on then, just one last climb before a long rest. I traverse Long Wall with my very last strength, watch a mating or competing pair of ring ouzels. Some people start to arrive; the human world is emerging and traffic starts to sound. The very last thing I do is drive my van back down past Stanage, park up and whilst waiting for my family I take a very refreshing dip in the stream…
A huge part of me never wanted this to end and whilst I had to leave and go back to the world we live in, there is an energy of mine connected to that place that will never fade or leave.
The kettle boils in Bluebell, my family arrive, the circle is complete.
512 routes all solo
20 repeats alternative start or finish
18 reverse climbs
634 climbs in total
Total height: 4548m (approximately 2x the height of El Capitan for reference)
Money raised for Derbyshire Wildlife trust (so far) - £530.00