In 1984 Geoff Birtles wrote and published an article in High magazine #18 which described some of the hardest routes of the day and speculated on things to come. In this essay, I will start with Geoff's article, and then take a closer look at some of his predictions and outline some of the challenges that remain 34 years later. This essay has been written to promote the recently published Gogarth coffee-table book: The White Cliff and is written in the same style.
"I wish some day to make a route and from the summit let fall a
drop of water, and this is where my route will have gone."
Identifying the hardest climb in Britain at any given time is a debatable issue. It might well have been that Livesey's ascent of Right Wall was a new level which climbing would reach, as was Proctor's Our Father before that and any number of Brown/Whillans routes well before either of them. But, occasionally a new route does capture wide acclaim and reasonably indicates a new level of achievement.
It could be argued that the free ascent of The Prow by Ron Fawcett was a culminating point in the history of British rock climbing, a new plateau that other climbs would reach, the result of scores of technical smaller problems, pull ups, press ups, climbing walls, even a high fibre diet – all built on achievements of the past. A dodgy sweeping claim you might say, but no matter.
It was obvious for years that rock climbing would develop in Britain towards steep rock and sustained strenuous free climbing which would require a fitness approaching that of an Olympic athlete. And that is precisely what has happened.
Various other factors have contributed to the high standard of climbing in Britain. Oddly enough, a shortage of rock close to the mass of population has been one of the biggest factors. The mass of Pennine outcrops, for example, has provided a potent boiling pot of activity. But, having lured the masses and sifted out the overweight discards, we have then been left by natural selection with a solid force of ape-like rock athletes who then proceed to climb every crack and corner in sight and look beyond, not to some distant canyon, but to a higher standard on their existing playground.
But where to now? Where will the next generation of climbs be? Certainly we will have a consolidation period with similar climbs to The Prow being achieved. But what is there beyond that? With the modern high-friction boots, slab climbing is unlikely to offer a high standard of climbing; quite the opposite, if anything. And where is there a crack or corner not already well fondled? All right, there is the Scottish wilderness with its acres of untouched rock. But that is about raw adventure which is not the point of this article.
Overhanging rock, dear boy, that's where it's at. Leaning walls and giant overhangs are where the next generation of climbs will be. Interestingly enough, while the Peak District has often been at the centre of new development in the past, it is a fact that it has little to offer for the next generation. It has the odd overhang and the odd bit of steep rock, but basically it's elsewhere that the true E7 will come to be. And it will begin in Yorkshire, at Gordale on the walls adjacent to Cave Route; on Kilnsey's leaning buttresses and its magnificent Main Overhang; on Malham Cove with its impending blank central wall, capped by the seemingly impassable Main Overhang.
All the scratching of last year on the wall beneath Kilnsey's Main Overhang were signs of increased activity in the area; fine steep climbs ending where the vertical became horizontal. The young baboons are creeping in on the real action, getting ever closer to the edge of the existing physical and psychological barriers.
And what of elsewhere? Surely some adventuring spirit will take a pot shot at Strone Ulladale, probably the most impending piece of rock in the British Isles.
And what of Parliament House Cave on Anglesey, a hundred feet of tottering overhang. Is there really a single move on it that cannot be climbed in a bouldering situation? That is the real question because if there isn't, it will only be a matter of time and fitting the pieces together.
The same applies to The Curse at Berry Head, 140ft of impending horizontal doom. And then, when you've done all that, look abroad to the big overhang of the Cime Ovest: climb the wall for 500ft to the overhang (belay); now climb the overhang for 100ft. Spooky stuff and not for the faint-hearted.
Stamina has been the key to recent progress and looks likely to be so in the foreseeable future. Climbers will continue to develop great strength, improving their training programmes on climbing walls, in gymnasiums, on boulder problems and on real climbs.
None of these future routes will be climbed without some form of bad style, in the traditionally accepted sense, but then again is there a genuine worthwhile route above E4 in existence now which has received its first ascent in pure style? And by pure I mean no preinspection whatsoever. The answer is no, except possibly for some prattling little technical problem that is not much more than bouldering. So why pretend with pious preachings when bad style is already with us and has been for some time – and for purely practical reasons.
Even so this is, has been and will be no reason to abandon good style. Bolts will be used wisely for protection, toproping and hang dogging will be unacceptable as will the unholy practice of leaving long slings in place. The British climber will certainly pursue the best ethic possible. He will certainly not stop climbing new routes just because of some out-of-date code.
Quite simply the leading routes of the future (and of late) will be done at some cost to the pure concept. Many will take advantage of existing bolts and pegs on old aid climbs. All will have some form of prior knowledge. Anybody who thinks otherwise is out of touch with reality.
2018: 34 Years Later
But, what about the mighty Strone Ulladale? Doug Scott described the first ascent of The Scoop in Hard Rock: 'It may not be everybody's cup of tea, but as an exercise in imagination and ingenuity, as on swings high above the moor and the lake, it is a unique experience in fear and fascination.'
In his article, Geoff opined that 'surely some adventuring spirit will take a pot shot' at it but commented in the photo captions that it 'may be more than one generation away for the free climbers' and that was a perfectly reasonable statement in 1984; the Strone just seemed too remote and futuristic. After all, it was infamously included in Ken Wilson's Hard Rock in order to hinder climbers from ticking the whole book. But, only three years after Geoff's article The Scoop was audaciously free climbed by Johnny Dawes and Paul Pritchard. Dawes recounted the ascent in Full Of Myself:
The Scoop by Johnny Dawes
Now the make or break moves of the route. A fall from here will launch a 60 footer. A fall had already cut my ropes to the core from half that distance. Retreat was now unthinkable. The top was so near. We had released the fixed lines. With 1,500ft of exposure, terrifying gear and uncleaned terrain above, I had to be determined.
Moves flow together well, and before knowing it a final rub of the rock with my frayed 'Wendy Lawrence' jumper reveals the last smears for
my feet. I contort in a crouch to rest and compose myself for the final hand traverse. The end of difficulties is a class act: a jug positioned right on the very rim of the scooped face of Strone Ulladale. It seems almost a shame to take it, and there it is. Slow, careful… fingers curl around the trophy jug.
"We got it Paul."
"Nice one," in Lancashire, floats up.
We cruise a long delightful pitch on perfect black rock to the summit tufts and unimpressed sheep. We have a team photo and celebrate with a sesame snack Pritch has squirrelled away in his jacket. Next morning it is overcast. In a cloak of mist, the Sron regains its aura of impregnability.
Thoughts swing to Knucklehead (A5), The Nose (A4) and Sidewinder (A4). If The Scoop goes, maybe they will. This was to become a long obsession, this big cliff with its stupendous unclimbed lines and aid routes waiting to be freed. We'd be back one day to rob more Hebridean treasure from the ravens.
"'Impossible': it doesn't exist anymore.The dragon is dead, poisoned, and the hero Siegfried is unemployed. Not anyone can work on a rock face, using tools to bend it to his own idea of possibility."
Reinhold Messner, 'The Murder of the Impossible' in Mountain #15, 1971
Many of these aid climbs are examples of the 'direttissima' philosophy of aid climbing. The concept of the direttissima (Italian for most direct) coupled with the use of expansion bolts to facilitate climbing blank rock resulted in major controversy as climbing challenges were, seemingly, reduced to exercises in engineering. Geoff Birtles (again) recounts below the experience of aid climbing in the '60s.
A Lousy Job by Geoff Birtles
Artificial climbing was very much an accepted activity in the 60s, not just on limestone but also on the gritstone quarries. It was a way to keep active during winter and to practise for the Dolomites and the Alps.
Because of its very fine grain, we made wooden wedges from beech. These were never really trusted, but they were all we had for wide cracks. Then we would make our own etriers, either with wooden or alloy rungs, and usually about three rungs each made into a rope ladder with 5mm line. Whilst this form of climbing has always been looked down upon from free climbing, it did have its own skills and dangers and was painful and hard work.
The routine was to have three etriers, two of which to either stand on or sit in, depending on the steepness of rock, and having placed another peg and attached the third etrier, you then had to make the transfer across, often assisted by a tight rope. This transfer was the apprehensive bit where you would find out if the new peg would hold or fall out. The second's duty was to sit at the bottom for hours in a duvet freezing and then, in that immobile state, second the climb removing the pitons in order to make the leader look magnificent. It was a lousy job.
The next route described in Geoff's article has yet to be free climbed. Another Doug Scott route, The Big Overhang, is located at Gogarth and was produced by him over the winter of 1967/1968 as he describes below in an excerpt from The White Cliff which originally appeared in Up and About. It takes an uncompromising line across a massive roof.
"The cave under North Stack is called Parliament House Cave on account of the great concourse of nesting seabirds making a disagreeable gabbling noise, as if in some mighty debate concerning their civil policy, the better regulation of their fishery, or of some other affair of moment. It has been observed by some wit, or other, that the cormorants represent the bishops, the peregrine falcons the lords, the razorbills the commons, and the gulls: the people."
Gogarth. Peter Crew, 1969
The Big Overhang by Doug Scott
The first weekend, we checked the line of the route and removed a mass of loose, slimy rock from the back wall to reach the start of the roof. Over the next two weekends we took turns out front, eventually reaching the top after 22 hours of climbing and some 40 pegs. The roof in profile is in the form of a saw blade with several protruding teeth of rock that we had to climb down, and then back up. It was all very strenuous, especially as we did not have harnesses, only an arrangement of loops of tape.
With the back wall at right angles to the roof, keeping the ropes moving required great care. Hanging from the roof, we watched a litter of seal pups being born in the zawn below. At the top, John Carey, superintendent of the warning station, walked across with cups of hot sweet tea as I belayed Henry on the final pitch.
The route, which we called The Big Overhang, became quite popular, especially as more pegs were left in. I later did it again with Bob Wark in just four hours, the two of us moving together about 20ft apart; it was an indication of the difference between making the first and subsequent ascents of an aid route.
The Climbers' Club 1990 Gogarth guide threw down the gauntlet, describing a free ascent of The Big Overhang as: impossible. That gauntlet has been languishing on the ground for almost 30 years.
Geoff's next challenge, The Curse at Berry Head, was described as '140ft of impending horizontal doom'. It was put up in March '71 by Nigel Gifford, Martin Chambers and Frank Hayton on the Old Redoubt Cliff in Torbay. Pitch 3 was free climbed during the first ascent of Lip Trip by Mick Fowler and Andy Meyers in 1980. Pitch 2 was free climbed with a rest by Martin Crocker and Ian Parnell 1996 and then completely free as Cro-Magnum by Bob Hickish and Dave Pickford in 2011. The first pitch, which tackles an outrageous 90-foot ceiling, has yet to be free climbed.
Curses by Nigel Gifford
It's a 140ft roof from the very back of the cave. I'd just got back from climbing the Grand Wall at Squamish and was one of the few Brit climbers who had experience of artificial routes, so I got recruited by two Royal Marine Commandos: Frank Hayton and Martin Chambers. They did the first pitch; Martin led most of it and Frank cleaned it, but all the gear fell out when he got part way along the roof and shook the rope.
There are two bolts in the second pitch. It's so steep that my feet were higher than my head when I was drilling the first bolt. Somebody told me that a block might have fallen away here since. Chouinard Lost Arrows fitted perfectly, but in vertical placements that your body weight was pulling directly out.
It took four or five days; every day we abseiled off and tied off the ropes. We stayed in a Marines' hut near Plymouth. I got a nasty surprise one day when I jumared back up. When I got to the stance, I pulled the peg, I'd just being jumaring on, straight out by hand. I hastily bashed it back in again with my peg hammer.
The route was called The Curse because it entailed a considerable amount of bad language... something servicemen are well versed in. We also had a radio to listen to Jimmy Young's show on Radio 2. The two commandoes would take the piss out of me when 'Jim's recipe of the day' was read out as I was an officer in the army catering corps. Great fun times.
In the mid-70s the BBC asked Joe Brown to look at it as a potential TV climb, but he didn't want to climb it.
The Curse by Rolfe Sterratt
My friend climbed the first pitch around 2006 with the intention of climbing the full route. Unfortunately I was belaying and got spooked – not helped by the car-sized block knocked off by one the guys filming – so we ended up setting up an elaborate abseil, with the tag line, from the end of the first pitch. It's a tough A3.
Another aid route in the same 'direttissima' mould, but not mentioned in Geoff's article, is Giant on Cilan Head.
A very impressive route with hard free and artificial climbing. It tackles the wall right of Vulture and the massive roof above. The roof and the final overhanging wall are particularly impressive. An ethically difficult situation has now arisen; the aid bolts are no longer of much use and to replace them would be frowned on. The climb is in effect obsolete. Keith Myhill, Ken Jones, Al Evans and Chris Boulton 15/11/70.
Slaying the Giant by Ken Jones and Al Evans
On our initial explorations into the depths of Cilan Head in October 1970, Keith Myhill and I made the first ascent of The Crow. However, it was very obvious that the most impressive piece of rock and greatest challenge on the crag was the enormous roof to the right. Fresh with success on The Crow we decided to return as soon as possible and force a direct line over the intimidating overhang. Keith and I realised the route would necessitate a great deal of bolting, so we enlisted two other local climbers, Chris Boulton and Al Evans. This created what we considered to be a cutting edge Sheffield climbing team to share the work.
The following week I set about making the bolt hangers. The only ones available to buy at the time were expensive and made of aluminium which quickly corroded in the sea air. As I was studying art at Sheffield College at the time I made productive use of the workshop facilities to painstakingly cut angle-iron into numerous two-inch lengths which I then drilled out; all under the pretext they were for a new sculpture. On the first weekend, Keith and Al climbed part of the lower wall on the Saturday whilst Chris and I sunbathed.
Giant is one of the most adventurous routes south of the Scottish border. It has aid but you still need to lead E4, at least, to do it. None of my pitches except the roof had any aid. I think Keith may have used one point. In the early days on Cilan 'outsiders' couldn't believe what we were doing, and I think that's how so much aid was described. I really think a maximum of 20 hand-drilled-on-lead bolts were used on the first ascent, including the roof. Keith and I had been saying how much we hated bolts, and especially drilling the bloody things while hanging on with one hand.
On the Sunday we exchanged places. Chris and I climbed a little further up the wall whilst Keith sunbathed and Al took photographs. Chris and I moved slowly on his section as it involved very unstable rock which was the cause of a leader fall on the later first ascent. We all departed on the Sunday evening with the roof as yet untouched. I don't think Chris was over impressed with events as that was the last part he played. Not surprising as the route contained difficult climbing on loose rock on both a small and large scale with precious little natural protection making it a most serious undertaking. Our protection comprised of an archaic, rather basic set of nuts without any of the micro-nuts and range of camming devices available today. Even peg placements were scarce as the cracks tended to be blind. This felt like climbing in a different dimension compared to the more traditional crags of the day.
As I was unable to make the next weekend, it only left Keith and Al to continue the route further. Keith systematically bolted the roof which was a tremendous act of dedication, whilst Al encouraged and patiently belayed him throughout.
On the roof, Keith worked his way out in the shade while I wilted on the stance in a heatwave. About 40ft out, Keith suddenly pulls out of his etriers and hangs free from a flake in the roof. 'Al, it goes free from here.'
Rapidly locking off the belay, I replied, 'Oh no, it bloody well does not!'
They successfully gained the lip of the roof at the base of the impending headwall on the Sunday. However, they got no further and were forced to retreat by a memorable free 150ft abseil into the sea and back to Yorkshire.
The 80-foot roof and how you get round it is a spectacular part of the route, but not the main part – that is reserved for the headwall. An abseil from the lip lands you in the sea; we should know, we did it then had to climb the route again to get back there and finish the headwall.
Actually Keith went down first because he was the stongest swimmer (he used to swim in the Windermere long distance race, once swimming Windermere there and back). I brought all the gear down and Keith pulled me clear of the waves.
On the next visit Keith and I returned alone to complete the final ascent. We steadily re-climbed the lower wall, made more interesting by Keith pulling off a loose flake and taking a 30ft fall. In 1970 there was no such things as belaying devices so it was down to my trusty waist belay to hold him. For once I was paying attention rather than watching the seagulls, so I checked his fall, luckily with no injury to Keith or my hands.
We quickly continued across the roof and gained the dramatic belay on the lip where Keith and Al had previously retreated from. Keith then boldly led the headwall which provided the most difficult and technical free climbing in a spectacular position throughout. Fortunately it succumbed without major incident and we completed the first ascent of a most serious and sensational route. Travelling back to Sheffield I proposed the name Giant which we agreed was suitable.
In conclusion, the Giant was climbed over a number of days. Keith, Al, Chris and myself shared leads to varying degrees during the first two days on the lower wall. Over the next weekend Keith and Al gained the roof which Keith then led, belayed by Al, to the lip of the overhang. On the final visit, Keith and I made the first complete ascent up the lower wall, then across the roof and up the headwall. I don't know if the route was repeated or who was involved if it was. However, as Mick Fowler has been mentioned, I can recall talking to him in 1978 on Curbar Edge when he was contemplating his free ascent of Linden. He said he'd recently climbed Crow and considered it 'unjustifiable'. However, he did not mention climbing Giant. I think the date of our first ascent was 15th Nov 1970 (and not 1971 as incorrectly recorded). This later date was not possible as details and photographs of the route had already appeared in the Feb/March 1971
edition of the legendary Rocksport magazine.
Mick Fowler: I tried Giant once, around the time we did Crow, Vulture etc. , but we didn't do it; the first bolt crumbled away.
Looking at the concentration of hard and bold routes on the nearby but more accessible Craig Doris, Cilan Head offers massive potential for new routes. The exact, bolted, line of Giant may or may not go but there are definitely feasible free lines close by.
One of the steepest bits of rock in the UK, Carn Vellan hosts another yet-to-be-free climbed route: The Lid.
Like many other crags in Cornwall, Carn Vellan was caught up in the controversy which started during the 1980s and persists to the present day surrounding the, unquestionably talented, father-and-son team of Rowland and Mark Edwards. The duo pioneered a host of routes in Cornwall and elsewhere, some excellent. However, they could be described as modern examples of the 'direttissima' philosophy; their achievements on the iconic granite crags and the killas slate of Carn Vellan were accompanied by power-drilled protection (between them they established at least 130 drilled placements on over 43 routes on 18 cliffs: mainly protection and belay bolts, but also drilled pegs and drilled slots for cam protection). Their routes also featured chipped and manufactured sika holds.
In 1980, Rowland and Mark climbed Ziggurat, E5, which finishes by free climbing up the final corner of The Lid. In the early '90s, Mark established a number of bolt-protected sport routes either side of The Lid including Blue Sky Lightning (F8a+) and Monster Munch (F8b+). A few years later due to the controversy around the bolts, the sport routes were chopped. In 1999 Mark headpointed Blue Sky Lightning on trad gear to produce Rewind. This route was given the grade of E10, the first claimed in the UK. Rewind remains unrepeated; the first confirmed E10 in the UK was Neil Bentley's ascent of Equilibrium on 24th February 2000.
Mark did have the advantage of having already worked the route with bolts in place: 'I had the climbing wired at that point having climbed the line a bunch of times.' And, it should be mentioned that many of his routes have been subject to down-grading after repeats including another purported E10 in Cornwall, Academia, which appears after repeats to be more like E6/7. Nevertheless, if Rewind is indeed F8a+ on trad gear then one would expect it, at least, to be in the region of E8/9. In 2012, Alexis Perry headpointed another of Mark's defunct sports routes, 1025, at E8. There are other climbs to be done there, including the complete free ascent of The Lid, that will certainly be very difficult.
So where else shall we find the 'super routes' of the future in the UK? I expect that we will see 'more of the same' on the mountain cliffs in the mould of Echo Wall i.e. technically desperate and serious routes in remote locations. Sea cliff venues like Pembroke's Mount Sion and the far north Scottish sea cliffs host acres of steep, unclimbed rock.
Hybrid swim/ deep water solo/ trad route techniques may tame difficult-to-access areas on sea cliffs that top-out too high for a simple DWS approach.
Finally, there are eliminates to be climbed, making the most of already well-travelled crags with the hardest possible link ups of exisiting routes. Scraping the barrel? Yes, but why not? New and challenging ways of climbing pieces of rock are the life-blood of the climber's motivation to climb. And there is still a lot of hard, unclimbed rock out there for those who are seeking the challenge.
Thanks to Geoff Birtles, Ian Smith, Johnny Dawes, Doug Scott, Nigel Gifford, Rolfe Sterrart, Pete Saunders, Dave Pickford, Ken Jones, Al Evans, Mick Fowler and Mark Edwards. The White Cliff is available via Cordee and Amazon.