Toby Archer shares a tale of a cycle-climb adventure between crags in the Peak District...
There's a long history of great rock climbers being 'lost' to the addictive pain and dodgy lycra of road biking, but I've not heard of that many trading in quickdraws, cams and Ronhills for '140 mm of suspension up front', full face helmets and flappy clothing baggy enough to get over body armour.
So, it was a surprise when back in the winter lockdown my good mate and sport climbing guru Tony messaged me to say he was buying a mountain bike. I was green with envy when we met for our first ride and Tony got his (confusingly) blue Orange beauty out of the back of the car. That day we pedalled around the lovely Five Dales route in the Vertebrate Publishing White Peak mountain bike guidebook. We even stopped and "sessioned" the rocky-rooty switchbacks dropping down to the Lathkill, just north of Youlgreave.
Completing the first, I felt like a proper mountain biker, so of course promptly fell on my arse on the second. Tony, much to my annoyance, after summing up the guts to go for the first one, proceeded to "onsight" the second. Beginner's luck or a better bike than mine? I'll go with a bit of both! A week or so later we rode the Linacre Classic route from the same book, a local and regular route for me, but Tony was buzzing. Midweek messages that for years have been "Where shall we climb this weekend?" were becoming "Where shall we ride?" instead.
I've always ridden bikes of all types and always at a very amateur level, but doing most of my miles commuting to work in recent years, I'm often keen to climb at weekends instead. Last summer, with the various COVID restrictions, I got into local Peak District sport climbing - clipping more bolts than I have in years. Sport climbing is - if you are careful and systematic - generally safer than trad, but that means you also feel obliged to try more and climb harder moves than on trad.
I've always dabbled in sport but until last year never really caught the bug of wanting to go out and try harder each time - admittedly at a level that still isn't actually very hard for many climbers, but it felt it to me and I was chuffed to get up a few 6bs and lots of 6as and 6a+s onsight last year. This spring as the lockdown eased, I had been getting out locally again and found I hadn't lost too much climbing strength over winter. After onsighting some more 6as, I've been "psyched" to keep at it.
Tony, on the other hand, had for a number of years trained very hard for sport climbing and really threw himself into it, which meant a couple of years ago he achieved his big ambition of climbing 8a - one of those 'magic grades'. But it did take lots of time and effort, so Tony has been consciously enjoying other ways of being outdoors: whether that be mid-grade trad climbing or canoeing and backpacking with his family or - now it seems - flinging himself down rocky hillsides on his hardtail.
For the May bank holiday weekend we both had a day pass from our respective families and a tentative plan to 'do something', but what to do? I wanted to climb, Tony wanted to ride his bike - so how about a compromise: ride between some cliffs and do a climb on each one? To sell this plan I thought I would need a bit of a marketing push, so decided to make it into a "challenge": enough technical riding to challenge the newbie mountain biker (Tony) and enough climbing to challenge the punter sport climber (me). The inaugural "Peak District Bike-to-Climb 6a Challenge" was born!
Tony seemed to think this was a splendid idea and agreed to it with a slightly alarming degree of enthusiasm. At just this time I got a message from another climbing mate, Simon, asking if I wanted to climb tomorrow. I knew that Simon had also bought himself a nice hardtail over the winter. A text back: "We're going to mountain bike between some crags and climb some routes. Wanna join?" Almost immediately the text comes back: "I'm in". Again, a worrying lack of hesitation meaning I was well and truly stuck with my oh so clever idea now.
0900 - Sunday morning. A sunny and bright Stoney Middleton. I'm late of course, Simon and Tony have already parked up, built their bikes up and have even laid some gear down on the verge, Yosemite style. We selected the bare minimum of climbing equipment to keep pack weights down as low as possible. I had about 44 metres of 9mm single rope, always a bit scarily thin looking when above a bolt but of course actually perfectly safe, and only weighing about 2.5 kgs. I also provided most of the quickdraws - normally I use big beefy plain-gate quickdraws for sport, but today brought along 8 almost comically light Edelrid 19G wiregate 'draws. Not the easiest things to clip, but lightweight was taking precedent today. We chucked in another four light quickdraws - 12 proved more than enough for the routes we did - one belay device and a spare screwgate krab or two. Additionally we carried our own harnesses, climbing shoes and chalk bags. Being sensible chaps we generally wear helmets sport climbing, but for this trip we decided to trust our bike helmets for the climbs as well as the riding, maybe not perfect but I think better than no helmets at all. We also took Tony's compact clipstick to avoid any embarrassing slipping-off-and-breaking-ankle style incidents trying to get up to the first bolts.
From the car park we rode just a couple of hundred metres up the road to Garage Buttress on Stoney Middleton Crag itself. Here I had selected a short 6a I've done before: Smoothlands. It was a bit dusty but otherwise fine, and soon dispatched by all of us. Now some proper riding, on the permissive bridleway up Coombs Dale to Black Harry Gate - supposedly named after a highwayman of yore, who robbed passing mule-trains and ended up hanged, drawn and quartered. It is also said he was gibbetted and left on display at nearby Wardlow Mire, and I did wonder as we pedalled up the forested and steep-sided dale, if Black Harry had been quartered, wouldn't the bits of him surely fall through the bars of the gibbet? Thoughts of barbarous 18th century punishments were left aside as we came out onto the high moors, and took another bridleway back east, towards crag no. 2 - Deep Rake.
Deep Rake is a relatively new find to climbing, having only been developed a few years ago. None of us had been there before, so some nav skills were needed to find it. Although a good sized wall, it is very reticent, being literally a hole in the ground. Previously I had biked past it many times as a number of bridleways converge up on the top of Longstone Edge, but I had been totally oblivious to this particular hidden old quarry. We left bikes at the top of the slope and slithered down the steep grassy slope using the handy fixed rope to the bottom of the quarry.
Simon and I did the wonderfully named Great British Rake Off, another 6a, while Tony showed his sport climbing power blasting up Raking Liberties, 6c, onsight. Routes sent, back on the bikes and off on the lovely grassy track descent back to Black Harry Gate. From there we went east on old quarry tracks to the road down to the hamlet of Wardlow, before turning north. After an unpleasant 500 metres along the A623 it was back onto lanes north and soon off onto the single track bridleway through the fantastically named Silly Dale. A few more lanes up to Great Hucklow, then the tough and rough B.O.A.T. (byway open to all traffic) that climbs up past the school towards the gliding club. Simon was suffering a bit by this point, with knee pain that didn't seem to go away no matter where he put his foot on the pedal. Unfortunately there aren't any bridleways across Abney Moor from the south, so for the next bit we stuck to the lane over to Abney village. Simon decided his knee was hurting as we got to Abney, so he would bail - realising he could pretty much just roll home to Hathersage without any more pedalling!
Tony and I took the Brough Lane B.O.A.T. over Abney Moor before the brilliant descent down Bradwell Edge into the village - probably my favourite bit of riding all day. It's a bridleway, but singletrack, and plunges quite steeply down off the moor. It is also relatively quiet — that day we only saw two other people on that section: a father and daughter walking up the hill. They saw us coming down and kindly stepped off the path, even giving us a cheer as we bumped and bounced our way down past them - a great example of the "Be Nice, Say Hi!" campaign, the little signs you will see on gateposts and bridleway signs around the Peak, encouraging different types of trail users to get on and be friendly to each other, regardless of whether they are walking, or riding either horse or bike.
The next crag on the list is Bradwell Dale, really a collection of bits of old quarry wall next to the Tideswell road, just south of Bradwell. Climbing and mountain biking have not too dissimilar access issues; the limited trails that bikes have a right of way on, and difficult access to some crags in climbing. Some parts of Bradwell Dale are sensitive, so we went with the guidebook advice and picked routes on the Lower Tier where the landowner reportedly doesn't mind climbers as long as no one makes a mess. The routes are nothing particularly special, but it was another crag ticked and another 6a for me, and a 6b for Tony.
Then on via the bridleway through the cement works to get to Pin Dale. My first attempt to ride up Pin Dale was on a CX bike with 32 mm tyres. It didn't go well. Even on my mountain bike with 3 inch tyres is wasn't easy, as your tyres deflect off the chunky rocks that make up this "road". Pin Dale quarry isn't exactly picturesque either, but it is very conveniently situated for the passing cycling sport climber. We both led Substitute, 6a, on the left hand sector, while watching 4WD-types seeming to have fun grounding the Landrovers and, at one point, dragging the burnt out remains of another vehicle round and round in circles on the quarry floor for no apparent reason!
Moving on up Pin Dale, above the quarry, we have to admit to failing to ride for the only time that day, and getting off and pushing for maybe 100 metres over the worst of the big loose rocks. Once back on to the less rubble-strewn lane at the top and out onto the moor, we slogged another few kms on the tarmac towards the next crag - Moss Rake. Moss Rake turned out to be the only failure in my planning for the day. The clouds had turned the sky lead-grey by this point and there were spits of rain in the wind.
We reached the quarry and went to look at the upper tier to pick a route, before noticing a small and very faded sign at the base of the cliff. It was from the BMC noting a voluntary bird-ban on climbing on any part of the quarry until nesting season was over. Only at this point did I think to check the BMC RAD (Regional Access Database) app on my phone, which I of course should have checked when planning the tour. It confirmed what we could just read on the sign - schedule 1 protected birds' nest there - ravens or peregrines perhaps - so we scratched Moss Rake and got back on the bikes.
More lane-bashing before the good, rough bridleway back up to Great Hucklow. From Hucklow we took the road along the top towards the Barrel Inn at Bretton, and the back track north of Bretton for another km or so of rough stuff. Rejoining the road we went along to Highcliffe, up above Eyam, to take the what I think is amazing byway that plunges down into Eyam. About halfway down we had to slam the brakes on to avoid and overtake a Landrover creeping down the track. Childish perhaps, but leaving Mr Off-Road in our dust felt fun.
From Eyam we went up past the Riley Graves to the great bridleway down to the closed road into Eyam. Tony flew down this, while I was on my brakes a bit more - I think for me with plus tyres but no suspension, the fatigue was setting in by this stage. Nevertheless I still beat my own previous Strava times down that descent. Then it was just the equally fun byway down into Stoney village and we were back to the start - bob-on 50 kms - but with the Moss Rake debacle, the day wasn't over quite yet.
We rode past our cars and carried the bikes over the stile to Goddard's Quarry to tick route five. Tony once again showed his climbing strength by rapidly onsighting the long 6b+ Brachiopods Bite Back. I wanted another 6a, even though the one on that part of the wall "Corner, is it not" neither looked inspiring nor even had an inspiring name! Nevertheless I pulled on and went for it.
A few metres up, I reached and stabbed for a pocket in a horizontal crack. It was OK, but my fingers came out smeared in mud. I quickly wiped them off and went for the next hold, a smooth small crimp. Pulling as hard as I could on that, I reached up with my left for the next good hold when, pop! My right pinged off the crimp and I was flying. It was a tiny fall being right next to the bolt, but SO annoying after onsighting or flashing all the other routes. I pulled back on and finished the route. I think before Tony had even lowered me back to the ground I decided I couldn't be bothered to lead it again to get it clean. I would just have to live with "lead, dogged" in my UKC logbook.
We packed up, rolled out of the quarry and down to the cars - knackered but satisfied. Strava informs me we had an elapsed time of 9 hrs 19 minutes, and a moving time of 5 hrs 2 minutes. We did 1,285 metres of ascent on the bikes and 50.46 kms in total. I reckon at least half of the distance was off-road. I climbed five 6a routes (yeah, yeah - one not cleanly, I know!) and Tony, five routes ranging from 6a to 6c, because he's a boss! 40 metres of rope was enough for all the routes we picked, as were 12 quickdraws.
The lightweight approach meant our packs never felt particularly onerous - weighing only a bit more than they might for a big ride or even a hill walk out in the hills, and much less than what you need to carry for a day out trad climbing. We used the Rockfax App on my phone which covers all those crags and obviously negates the need to carry a tome of a paper guidebook around. Finally, if you fancy giving our route, or something similar a go - download and check the BMC RAD for bird bans or other access issues before you go!
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