21 years after the first completion of all 82 'Classic Rock' routes by bike, Oli Warlow decided to follow in Jamie Fisher's tracks. Here's Oli's account of his 72-day adventure, with some fascinating stats thrown in at the end...
Published in 1978, 'Classic Rock' is Ken Wilson's compilation of some of the best rock climbs in the UK. With 82 routes, the vast majority climbed in the first half of the 20th century, it is a showcase of British climbing in its exploratory heyday. In 1997, Jamie Fisher decided it would be a fine idea to climb all of these routes in a continuous round, making things even more challenging by shunning any motorised transport and linking them all together by bicycle.
Being a close family friend and my child-minder whilst he was at university in Edinburgh, Jamie took me for my first rock climbing experience at Blackford Hill quarry and was generally a larger-than-life character in my childhood. Sadly, in 1999 Jamie died in a climbing accident in the alps, an event which devastated so many peoples lives and had a big effect on me at a young age.
Inspired by Jamie's original trip, I decided to repeat his round, setting myself the same rule of being entirely human powered (except for a few ferry crossings) and raising money for the John Muir Trust. I hoped to experience some of what Jamie did, exploring the wild reaches of the UK in a rather unique way.
Back at the time of their first ascent, these climbs were at the cutting edge of British climbing. However, with modern climbing shoes and equipment, their difficulties, and the dangers of climbing them, have been reduced. Nevertheless, these climbs all provide interest and challenge on some of the finest mountains and cliffs in the UK, stretching from the rugged coastline of Cornwall to the jagged summits of the Black Cuillin on Skye. The height of the routes varies, from just 30 feet on the gritstone edges of the Peak District to over 1500 feet on Ben Nevis. Several are on remote and serious mountains, getting relatively few repeat ascents, making them a daunting prospect. Although the technical difficulties of the individual climbs were all within my ability, linking them together in one continuous trip was going to be a challenge. Not only would it be knackering, with lots of routes day after day and all the cycling in between, but I would also be at the mercy of the British weather. Like Jamie, I planned on using the trip as an excuse to cajole as many friends as possible from around the country into accompanying me on the climbs; the experience of meeting up with them of course turned out to be the best part of the trip.
Classic Rock Challenge – Second Ascent?
A big grin breaks out across my brother's face, replacing the look of slightly tense worry that has been there for the last few days. Seals hunt for fish in the turquoise waters 300 feet below at the base of the immaculate slab of granite, aptly named the Devil's Slide. After months of planning, the first climb is now behind me, ahead lies celebratory fish and chips washed down with a warm can of Stella. Only 81 more to go and 2,000 miles of cycling.
The following day and I am already plotting how to lose weight from my heavily laden bicycle. I grind up yet another steep incline onto Bodmin Moor, its stark beauty unappreciated by my dehydrated mind, tormented by demons with their whisperings of self-doubt.
I had initially struggled to find a willing accomplice for West Penwith, but persistent emailing, friends of friends and the insistence that this trip is 'a thing' paid off and I am rewarded with two. Sadly the bottom half of Terrier's Tooth has been washed away by savage Atlantic swells, but James, Rob and I make do with its steep upper reaches still standing. Encroaching on herring gull territory on Pendulum Chimney, James gently encourages me to place a runner, an incoming dive-bomber swooping down, attempting to startle my fingers from their tenuous grip.
Buoyed by the enthusiasm of previously unknown friends, Cornish lanes thronged with wild flowers become more forgiving and spirits cannot be dampened by the presence of two loved-up kestrels on Climber's Club Ordinary. Like Jamie before me, the desire to complete the full list does not alter the right of birds to nest in peace, Central Grooves provides a fine alternative.
Ice creams in hand, we lean back against the railings high above the river. The air is thick with humidity and the horizon hazy with a thunderstorm that never came. Having forsworn any more of its delights, Caz has been convinced to join me on just one more climb in the Gorge. After Piton Route's insecure glassy slabs I think I might now be joining her in happy Avon retirement.
Dark clouds, heavy with rain, greet us as we cross the Severn Bridge. Maggie and Sara have agreed to join me on the three-day cycle from Bristol to North Wales. As Jamie discovered twenty years ago, this trip is just as much about the people you get to meet along the way as about the climbs themselves, and I was pleased to have partners not just for the climbs but for pedalling too.
Ian is not meant to be in Wales. Having removed his living room floor in Newcastle a few weeks previously, it has yet to be replaced. With family arriving any day, he receives regular phone reminders of his failure in DIY as we enjoy yet another North Wales classic. The Pass is busy and we squeeze in two climbs at The Cromlech before the masses arrive, nimbly fitting in between parties at Carreg Wastad we find ourselves at Dinnas Mot in the shade of the early afternoon. The Cracks, prove pleasant, but chilly in T-shirts, laughing as we in turn attempt the summit mantle with as much grace as we can muster.
Polly brings a touch of Chamonix glamour to the Welsh hills, cruising up the final steep crack in visor and shades. The previous morning Tom and I had sat glumly sipping cups of tea, his van requiring an emergency trip to the garage scuppering our plans together. A message appears on my phone:
"Are you in North Wales? I'm in Llanberis" A chance trip back to the UK has brought the elusive Polly's orbit on course with my own. I am relieved to see her emerge from her Micra in the Ogwen café carpark the following morning, a spartan rack of borrowed climbing gear ensures our packs are light and the climbing fast.
As a deftly aimed foot dislodges the only decent runner, Grey Slab proves as bold and exhilarating as it must have felt back in 1932. Finding ourselves with no map or guide and only a vague idea of our next crag's location, we enjoy taking our time, hopping across the boulder-strewn summit of Glyder Fach. The glint of sunshine off a climber's helmet leading us to the Direct Route and later down to the temping waters of Llyn Bochlwyd.
"Great Gully is exactly the kind of thing Chris enjoys," Spencer assures me as we wait in the layby. Chris seems baffled when I mention this later, but he keeps any grumbling to himself as we scramble our way up this classic of the pre-buttress epoch. I leave Ogwen heading for England, a smile on my face and confident, momentum on my side.
As Andy racks up for the first pitch of Central Climb, he casually informs me he has just got on a waiting list to have his hip replaced, hence why he felt I should lead the trickier second pitch. Unfortunately his memory of the route has played tricks on him and it is in fact the initial sandpaper-like wide crack that provides the crux, he is already limping by the time we leave Hen Cloud three routes later. Andy can now climb better than he can walk and we use it as an excuse for not making the diversion back to the lower tier, the two climbers look suspicious but graciously give way to us at the base of Technical Slab. Later I question my wisdom as I cycle 20 miles in the wrong direction, the temptation of a warm bed and hot bath prove well worth the effort.
I assure Libby, that despite the droplets beading on our jackets, it is definitely not raining as we stride across the moorland. Our positive attitude is rewarded with one of those perfect gritstone evenings; sunshine, blustery skies, Popular End proving just popular enough for friendly conversation and no more.
Three weeks on leafy country lanes give way to industrial South Yorkshire, dark underpasses with their distinctive aroma, glass-filled alleyways ending in bike-defying bollards. Almscliff looms on the horizon against a grey sky; the crag is busy on a Sunday afternoon, but for some reason Parson's Chimney remains unclaimed. Weeks of practice on classic chimneys ensure a thoroughly enjoyable experience on my part and I'm sure after their injuries have healed Andy and John might one day feel the same.
"You're going the wrong way!" comes the unwelcome jovial shout from yet another cyclist flying down the hill towards me, a fierce westerly not helping my mood. Fortunately we find shelter at the base of Red Pencil Direct, the crag facing directly into the gale, its fury angled up and over Pen-y-Ghent. Later, Alasdair retreats to meet friends for dinner in Settle, leaving me to clock up my one thousandth mile as I climb past Ribblehead viaduct. A summer of sport passes me by, a football tournament perhaps the reason for the raucous shouts I hear from within the pubs as I freewheel into Cumbria.
Jim and I watch the rain clouds dispersing from our vantage point. Awaking to heavy drizzle we have convened conference in the local café. Impatience or perhaps just overenthusiasm leads me to plunge my hands and feet into the icy water. The initial crack of Murray's route is in full flow and the mossy overhang above is a steady drip, the wind fortuitously whipping it sideways onto the already precarious slab. Jim hands me the ends of the rope and graciously offers the lead, thank goodness the climbing is straightforward and moisture levels decrease with altitude.
Jamie Andrew joined Jamie Fisher for the Lake District leg of his challenge in 1997. Fine weather and dry rock enabled them to solo almost every climb, including one memorable day on Gillercomb, Pillar and Gable. Jamie lost both his hands and feet in the same climbing accident that claimed Jamie Fishers's life, but he is still as fit as ever and was keen to repeat some of the Lakeland classics. A walking blade is not going to last long on steep rock, so instead of a change of shoes, a change of feet is required. I can't imagine what the approaching climbers think, finding Jamie sat at the base of Napes Needle sorting through his climbing gear whilst Sam tightly grips a carbon fibre leg socket with me, foot in hand, furiously trying to waggle it off the end! A snug fit is important however; as Jamie pointed out later, having your leg fall off mid-climb is, at best, a little inconvenient.
That evening Mav, Sam and I are regaled with stories of the two Jamies' past exploits, a trip to El Chorro providing many tales of misadventure. An overenthusiastic leap onto handlebars and cable, rewarded with derailment and a mid-gorge marooning. The undercarriage height of trains passing through tunnels is estimated, and fortunately – given the zipwire experience – deemed insufficient clearance for human experiment.
The steep nature of the passes ubiquitous to Lakeland roads leads me to adopt a sensible tactic: don't cycle up them. Instead Lucy and I walk from Seathwaite, I imagine a seldom-used starting point for the approach to Pillar. Stephen, our talking guidebook for the day, emerges at Robinson's cairn to meet us; he is currently writing a history of this remote Lake District spot, so we enjoy his lessons in its past as we make our ascent of High Man.
Melting tarmac claws at my tyres as I struggle up the military road, the hot wind blasting me like a hairdryer. I am diverting to Northumberland, the county of my climbing apprenticeship, not favoured in Ken's selection. Instead, it is a wedding that brings me east, and rather than breaking my momentum it bolsters it, just Scotland to go. Right?
A revolving chock stone in the upper reaches of Labyrinth provides a perplexing obstacle, I gently roll it back, careful not to release it from its slot. Later, the granite fin of Cir Mhor basks in the afternoon sun as we cool off in the crystal pools, counting dragonflies and swatting clegs from our backs.
An early boat, CalMac cooked breakfast, a wave goodbye to Jim and it is time to head north again. A road closure forces the endless procession of oversized campers onto my quiet back lane. Sunburnt beer bellies wedged behind steering wheels fail to grasp the importance of momentum for my heavily laden bicycle.
Chris and I last saw each other in winter 2012, he was watching me gently slide past him in a shin deep avalanche instead of making more conventional progress up Deepcut Chimney. The Cobbler in summer is quite a different prospect, T-shirts and indeed shoes being surplus to requirements.
The weather had to turn at some point and it rained just in time to provide an authentic experience in the Chasm. Mind-altering is certainly not an unfair adjective to use, the direct finish providing a fitting culmination to a long series of intimidating problems. The slimy walls of its final exit close in around me, leaving me stuck, unable to move up or down. Perhaps my only option is out, the distinct lack of runners make the prospect unappealing. Not without many exasperated sound effects do I manage to extricate myself and find relief above in gentler gradients, the climbing instead of terrifying only worryingly insecure.
Two days later, and I arrive into the Stob car park, soaked and inexplicably midge-ravaged whilst cycling at top speed. Tom is still thankfully unwavering in his support as we set off into the clag, crags identified by features at their base rather than anything we can see above us in the murk.
"Tom! TOM!!!" I scream, the deafening sound of crashing boulders filling my ears. Perched within the bowels of Churchdoor buttress, I frantically take in rope, expecting instead of my second to be left with just two shredded ends of nylon. Fortunately I eventually hear a reply, cheerfully informing me that the sound I had thought was the bottom of the route collapsing, was just in fact rocks in the gully well below us, no panic.
Tom A has replaced Tom P and I'm glad he sees the comedy in the situation as he grins out at me from beneath the boot of his van. Three days of persistent rain have turned Clachaig Gully into a torrent. The flow of water enters one cuff as my hand desperately searches for holds behind the watery curtain, exiting into my trousers and finally my shoes. The sandy soil to which the shrub is attached finally gives up; soil, shrub and Tom plunge towards the river below. Miraculously the wire holds without pulling the rest of the garden down with it and we share a look of amusement, fear, desperation?
I am keen to make it to Fort William that evening, replacing the dangers of climbing with those of the A82. I successfully avoid being flattened by a logging truck, spinning my way up Loch Linnhe in the gathering dusk. Es Tressider's hospitality is all it is hyped up to be and nightmares of loose rock and vegetation are soon washed away.
The Long Climb has a fierce reputation, but with Es I feel confident, especially as we came armed with one of Jamie Fishers's old bar cams which we place at every opportunity. The previous days' cloud already clearing as we reached the summit, by the time we make it back to Coire Leis it has turned into a fine summer evening. Es jogs back down to make it home in time for kids' bedtime, leaving me alone to scamper up Tower Ridge. The crux passage now behind me, I feel almost on the home stretch, my mood so happy I cheerfully greet all 200 Three Peaks challengers trudging their way up the Ben.
Fuelled by a couple of easy days I make quick time along to Loch Laggan for my rendezvous with Ailsa. Certainly some of Ken's selections in Glencoe are more for the connoisseur, but he quickly redeems himself with Ardverikie Wall. The stunning climbing followed by the now obligatory loch swim makes for the perfect pit stop as I head back east.
Rob certainly wins the prize for the most enthusiastic partner. Upon receiving my speculative email many months previously, he immediately replied specifically requesting the five-day Cairngorms hiking adventure. Panniers are hastily swapped for a backpack. Savage Slit without its winter coat is an inviting open book of ancient cracked pages.
Months of dry weather make the remote heart of the mountains a joy to explore, where we would have once been up to our necks in the mire, there is now firm footing for our journey across to Garbh Coire.
"How are you finding it Rob?" I enquire, squinting up at him tackling the final crack of Squareface.
"Slightly larger than our largest gear!" comes the slightly terse reply. With over 60 miles of walking ahead of us, I feel sure it had been a joint decision to leave most of the rack behind in the car park. On our return north, our feet pounding the tarmac towards Linn of Dee, we agree that Hard Rock will certainly be best done by skateboard, being able to take your wheels with you seems a distinct advantage.
I first met Paul on the face of El Capitan, well, I was dangling some way above the ground and he was 200 feet below. I had found myself two pitches up into a six-day solo, with half my karabiners inexplicably left behind in the campsite. This friendly character without hesitation quickly clipped a bunch to the proffered rope, on the promise they would be returned within a week. A firm friendship was made and I vowed that the very next time I was in his locality we would go climbing together. It took six years but I finally made it, not quite to Gairloch but the Cioch Nose is close enough. Following coffees at the café and spurred on by Paul's infectious enthusiasm, I cycle onward to Skye and the end of my adventure with a grin from ear to ear.
Ten years ago at Loch Coruisk, I sat with Jamie's dad Stu, in the shadow of the Cuillin, him telling me of this crazy idea of a 'Classic Rock Challenge'. Now I am here, flecks of rain sting my eyes and clouds rush urgently across mountaintops, a sharp left at Carbost and weary legs heave my bike up and over into Glenbrittle. The forecast is atrocious, rain for the foreseeable, my luck has run out.
We crouch behind our inadequate rocky shelter, the wind that flattened three tents in the night ripping at our jackets, visibility barely beyond the end of our noses. It is gone midday by the time we leave Gars Bheinn, the cold driving us from our perch. Miraculously within an hour the wind has dropped and the clouds show signs of lifting, revealing glimpses of the ridge enticingly stretched out before us. By the time we get over the Inn Pinn it is no longer a question of are we going to continue, it is more a question of last orders.
I linger for a second, savouring the final moments before placing my hand on the summit cairn. Would I feel different after ten weeks to reach this final small pile of stones? I don't have long to wonder. As soon as I touch it Josh wraps me in a bear hug. No, it isn't any different, just another great day in the hills, with another great friend. Feeling chuffed; we set off down, soon breaking into a run when we hear that Stu has already ordered our dinner in the Slig.
I'd like to thank everyone who supported me on this trip, be it coming climbing, cycling or just sending a message of encouragement. I'd also like to thank The Next Challenge for the grant, Montane for their excellent equipment, and The John Muir Trust for keeping wild places wild.
Classic Rock Challenge Fact File
Climbs: 81 out of 82 (Climbers Club Ordinary had nesting Kestrels)
Time taken: 72 days
Vertical metres climbed: 8989m (excluding the Cuillin traverse which is a bit of an outlier with over 3,000m of ascent!)
Climbing partners: 27
Crags visited: 55
Shortest climb: Topsail – a couple of minutes
Longest: The Cuillin ridge – 8hours 25minutes
Distance cycled: 3038km (1,888miles) + lots of walking!
Top speed: 47mph (Cairngorm mountain road)
Cycling buddies: 5
Worst bit: West Country hills
Best bit: Every friend old and new that I met on this trip
West Penwith: James and Rob S
North Wales: Ian, Polly, Tom A, Spencer & Chris H
Peak: Andy B & Libby
Yorkshire: Andy T, John & Alasdair
Lakes: Jim, Sam, Jamie, Mav, Lucy & Stephen
Arrochar: Chris M
Glencoe: Tom P & Tom A
Ben Nevis: Es
Binnean Shuas: Ailsa
Cairngorms: Rob A
Sgurr a'Chaorachain: Paul
Bristol to North Wales: Maggie and Sara
Northumberland: Josh and Jezabel
Northumberland to Arran: Jim
May 19th: The Devil's Slide
May 22nd: Terrier's Tooth, Pendulum Chimney & Demo Route
May 23rd: Doorpost
May 25th: Central Grooves (alternative to Climbers Club Ordinary)
May 28th: Piton Route
June 2nd: Will o the Wisp
June 3rd: Creagh Dhu Wall
June 4th: Avalanche/Red Wall/Longland's & Nea
June 5th: Flying Buttress, Spiral Stairs, Wrinkle, Crackstone Rib & The Cracks
June 6th: Main Wall & Milestone Direct Route
June 7th: Hope, Lazarus, The Arete, Grey Slab & Glyder Fach Direct Route
June 8th: Grooved Arete, Gashed Crag & First Pinnacle Rib
June 9th: Great Gully
Peak and Pennine
June 13th: Central Climb, K2, Modern, Black and Tans, Technical Slab & Via Dolorosa
June 15th: Topsail, Powder Monkey Parade, Sail Buttress, Hargreaves Original Route, April Crack & Flying Buttress
June 17th: Parson's Chimney
June 18th: Red Pencil Direct
June 20th: Murray's Route
June 21st: Ash Tree Slabs, C Route, Bracket and Slab & Bowfell Buttress
June 22nd: Gillercomb Buttress
June 23rd: Tophet Wall, Napes Needle & Needle Ridge
June 24th: Jone's Route & Moss Ghyll Grooves
June 25th: New West Climb & Rib and Slab Climb
June 26th: Troutdale Pinnacle & Little Chamonix
July 4th: Sou'wester Slabs & Labrynth
July 6th: Recess Route, Punster's Crack & Ardgartan Arete
July 8th: The Chasm
July 9th: North Face Route & Agag's Groove
July 10th: The Long Crack, Archer Ridge & Crypt Route
July 11th: Clachaig Gully
July 13th: The Long Climb & Tower Ridge
July 16th: Ardverikie Wall
July 18th: Savage Slit, The Clean Sweep & The Talisman
July 19th: The Cumming-Crofton Route & Squareface
July 21st: Eagle Ridge
July 26th: Cioch Nose
July 28th: Cioch Direct, Arrow Route & Integrity
July 29th: The Cuillin Ridge
More information about the trip and photos at www.classicrockbybike.com