A Middle-Aged Punter on Peak Grit

© Tim Waterhouse
Desperately searching for a good jam
© Tim Waterhouse

“We've never really done any jamming. Let's go to Higgar Tor and do the File.”

And so, on a freezing cold, late November day in 2003, began my acquaintance with Higgar Tor and the delights of the File.

It had been a fantastic year of discovery for me – a discovery of climbing outdoors, something which until the Spring of that year it had never occurred to me to try. I had been 40 when I had followed my then-6-year-old daughter into indoor climbing. At the end of 2002 I had been lucky enough to fall in with a group of new friends who liked a laugh and a climb, and after a winter of regular visits to the Foundry in Sheffield, they said “The evenings are long enough now, we'll be climbing outside from now on.” I was highly dubious, but out we went on a sunny evening to Rivelin Edge, where my first experience of touching rock was of following Paul up Altar Crack. It was brilliant. After a couple more ascents with the comfort of a rope above me, Paul points me at Root Route (Severe), saying “Here's one for you”. “What, me leading? I dunno about that” says I. I had never even seen a hex or a friend before, but the upshot was that after a couple of minutes of being shown how to place gear, my fourth route outdoors was a Severe lead. I was hooked.

The next few weeks saw further trips to Rivelin, as well as others to Stanage, Froggat, Burbage North and the Roaches, even Agden Rocher. Within a couple of months I owned a full rack and rope, and was comfortable on just about any VS I tried. I suppose the highlights of that Spring and Summer (apart from that first lead) were an on-sight lead of the Left Unconquerable at Stanage, and perhaps more satisfying still, a return to Rivelin at the end of August to make a clean ascent of Altar Crack, this time leading it.

Meilee on Left Unconquerable (1)
© kevin stephens
By the time the weather had turned bad, I had notched up about 75 ascents around the Peak, 40 of them led, mostly at VS, but with a couple each at HVS and E1.

And so dawns that freezing cold day, coincidentally my 43rd birthday. There is a hard frost, the ground is frozen solid, a cutting wind is swirling around the base of the leaning block at Higgar Tor. I rack up and set off up the File. I know the basic theory behind the art of hand-jamming, and I'm prepared to give it a good go, but I soon discover that I can't do it when the cold has left me with no feeling in my fingers. I flail my way up, more than once resting on the gear while trying in vain to regain some sense of feeling in my fingers, until at last, standing in the break above the crucial roof, I grope around and find a solid jam – and it feels good! This isn't the end of my troubles by any means, but I eventually make it to the top, whereupon my second has an equally torrid time, and then the third of our party leads the route, perhaps not as badly as I had, but not cleanly. We retire, chastened and with raw hands. The comment in my route log begins thus: “A bugger,” and ends “definitely HVS”.

If we were sensible, we would return to it in warmer (but not too warm) weather. But for some inexplicable reason, our next attempt was almost exactly a year later, not quite as cold as the first time, but still pretty damn cold. We failed again, finding that although our technique may have improved, numb fingers cancelled out any advantage that gave us.

By the time we were into the Summer of 2005 I had learnt to love hand-jamming, and I felt I should be able to romp up it. I was wrong. In July I made a reasonable attempt, but I felt the need to rest briefly before the initial small roof. Shameful, though perhaps I was just having an off day. There were other trips to Higgar Tor in the meantime. We did most of the routes to the left of the leaning block, I made a decent stab at seconding the Rasp, I even managed a clean lead of the Surform. I hoped that perhaps 2006 would be the year to lay the ghost to rest.

Roof Route, Rivelin © Olly
It was in early June this year that I next returned to the File. It was a lovely warm spring morning. I was with Simon, who hates jamming. When I told him what I had in mind, he was not best-pleased, but as always was willing to follow where someone else leads. While I didn't cruise up it as effortlessly as I had hoped, I did make a clean ascent. At last I had earned that much sought-after tick.

As said, the File and its grade are much-discussed. Having spent so much time on it, I now see that although it certainly “felt” every bit of HVS on my first feeble attempt, the grade is, in my opinion, spot on at VS. If you can't jam it will feel like HVS, if you are really comfortable with jamming then it may well feel like HS.

After only a couple of visits to Higgar Tor it had become one of my favourite climbing venues, and my liking for it has only increased as I have gradually been able to tick off more of the routes there, most recently the Rasp, an even more satisfying experience than finally “conquering” the File. Apart from Zigzag Flake Crack at Stanage, on which I inexplicably slipped and took a short fall, out of the 50 or so VS routes I have attempted to lead, to date the File remains the only one which I have failed to lead on-sight. Now, I must get back to Rivelin for a third attempt at Roof Route....

Tim Waterhouse discovered climbing at the age of 40 when his 6 year-old daughter took it up - and she's still better than me at it!

16 Aug, 2006
Good stuff, really enjoyed this! Cheers, FT.
23 Aug, 2006
Yeah, thought it was an enjoyable article too. And I don't normally read (let alone enjoy) the personal/subjective/personal experience based articles as much as the fact/discussion stuff.
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