A Lesson in the Peak

© Matt Owen
It was all a little miserable at the car park
© Matt Owen

Finally up the start
© Matt Owen
Living and working in London I tend to have difficulty getting out climbing as much as I would like. Trips tend to be preplanned. Very rarely do they get cancelled. So, late last November when myself and two friends had planned a quick dash up to the Peak we weren't put off by a slightly dodgy forecast. I'd heard much about the amazing powers of friction bestowed on gritstone by the cold. The prospect of rain ... well, if every time it rain was forecast I stayed at home I'd never get any climbing done.

I've been climbing for about three years now. Generally in North Wales, occasionally the Alps and, prior to this trip, just once in the Peak. Evin's been coming out for the past couple of years and we'd done some routes together in Wales. Also with us on this trip was Luca, an Italian, living with Evin and from the Dolomites. A lack of Italian on one side and a lack of English on the other prevented a complete understanding of his climbing experience, but from what we could gather he'd been rock climbing for a few years. From the evidence of a couple of trips to the local wall he seemed pretty useful.

So, early, on the morning in question I made the short drive from Leytonstone to Homerton to pick up Evin and Luca. A few minutes later we were driving north. About three hours later we arrived at the car park below Stanage Popular.

It was cold, damp and miserable. The wind was cutting across the moor. The only bright spot was that it wasn't actually raining. A quick drink, smoke, chocolate bar and piss later we were walking up to the crag. All pulses were quickening and moods brightening at the prospect of a few good climbs.

Bags were deposited at the base of the crag. The guidebook was brought out and all eyes were scanning the cliff for routes. One stood out – a right-angle of buttress cut, at the corner, by a groove. It was a nice line. It was mine. A glance at the guide revealed it to be Crack and Corner, a nice warm-up I thought, Hard VDiff, three stars. Lets go!

I geared up, Luca got ready to belay. The book said that the initial moves were the crux, so I figured I'd give them the full artillery and flew at it. Ten seconds later I made a considered retreat from about a metre up. Starting again, I made the first few moves then my foot slipped sending me straight down to be nicely spotted by Luca. By this point, I was distinctly pissed off and my hands were freezing. I went at it again, got higher and was able to place a nut (a #7 I think) in a good constricting crack, probably about three metres up. It was going well. I could see a decent hold, above and to the right. I had to straighten my left knee (it really didn't want to), then reach up with the right arm (my elbow was practically locked at 90°), and place my hand firmly on the rock (although my fingers were frozen, almost like claws, and numb). When my hand finally reached the hold, I weighted it, couldn't grip and peeled straight off. Before I could think, I was sitting in my harness about ten centimetres off the ground.

I don't know if I was more annoyed or embarrassed. At Luca's insistence I waited for five minutes to compose myself and warm my hands. This done I went at it again, and flew up the moves – the site of the second fall went easily to a well placed foot and a confident step. The rest of the climb was easy – nice and juggy, gear where it was needed – though at the top I was exhausted.

The belay setup, I brought the other two up. It was pleasing to see that Luca's efforts to climb it in approach shoes failed – with rock shoes on they were up pretty quick. The only major delay was removing the aforementioned nut. They couldn't.

What followed was, on all our parts, a demonstration on how not to remove stuck gear. We should've rigged an abseil and retrieved it from above – I'm not sure why we didn't.

Anyway, as it was so close to the ground we decided we could get it out from the bottom. Luca and I were going to give Evin a leg-up, he would then place some gear and clip into it. Safe he would then concentrate on removing the nut, then Luca and I would shepherd him down to safety.

At the top of Crack and Corner
Evin O'Riordain, Nov 2005
© Matt Owen

So, up Evin went. There wasn't much in the way of gear so a Friend was placed. Which promptly ripped out as he sat back on it. All things considered he could have landed worse. Hitting the ground feet first, he rolled backwards without hitting any rocks. After a bit of hopping, which led on to limping he seemed ok. But we figured Luca could get the nut out. Another leg-up, this time he clipped directly into the nut. Then secured a decent placement above it. After a few minutes the nut was freed and Luca was back on the ground.

Evin was still limping, nothing was twisted, so we figured he'd probably just bruised his heel.

We really fancied Flying Buttress, but it was really wet. It was still cold and getter wetter. So we settled for Hollybush Crack, a stunning looking three-star VDiff corner. Luca led, I belayed and Evin had lunch – sitting out the climb. Watching Luca climb, with smooth, considered movement I started appraising my own technique (or lack of it) and resolved to really focus on improving this over the winter. He was up it quickly and I followed – it's a route I'd thoroughly recommend, with a beautiful layback.

Getting back down to the base of the crag we joined Evin in Lunch. Phenomenal homemade sushi. We were talking about another route, but as the snow began to fall (fairly hard) we made a retreat to the car. The short walk took quite a while as Evin couldn't weight his foot.

We were back in London by about 8 and had a good, spicy, Stroganoff, while Evin iced his foot.

The whole day was a compelling lesson.

First, I won't underestimate a climb again (at least for a while). Second, I've learnt, the hard way, the effect that cold can have on your body and climbing ability: not being able to straighten limbs and not being able to feel the rock with you fingers really does hamper you. Third, to really consider your climbing movement. Look at the problem, work out what you've got to do and do it. Rather than fly in, the proverbial, guns blazing, waste your energy and fall off. Fourth, perhaps most obvious from the day. When retrieving gear, abseil from above. Don't try and fart around from below.

Luckily for us Evin only fractured his heel bone, but even so is unable to climb till the end of January at the earliest. If he'd landed badly it would've been much worse.

Evin recuperating

Matt Owen has been climbing for the last three years although he has been having adventures in the mountains for the last eleven. He lives and works in London. This is his first article for

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10 Mar, 2006
Gear ripping, again. Such a big issue in recent years. It's good to post something that people can learn from, but I think THAT (i.e. the cruciality of placing good gear, whatever you're using it for) should have been highlighted as the main lesson. I hope Evin is recovering well, and that things go safer in the future.
10 Mar, 2006
It's a....nah I don't want to spoilt it ;)
10 Mar, 2006
I'm almost tempted to write that you win today's prize prat award at Graham. But I'll hold back, as I haven't had a coffee yet and I'm sure I can come up with something more cutting with a bit of caffeine in my blood.
10 Mar, 2006
Polished horror which is slippery enough to start in the dry; hardly a route to boost confidence on a cold damp day. Main lesson might be appropriate route selection.
10 Mar, 2006
1,000 mg of Vit C and two cod liver oil capsules Graham. S'OK I've calmed down now. I know you were just joking.
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