Parthian Shot is an iconic gritstone route; a bulging nose of perfect rock that forges forth in to the Burbage Valley like the prow of a huge, storm-battered ship. This is not a tiny one-move-wonder, on the contrary, Parthian Shot is a mighty route - steep, powerful and, well, perfect. Except for one thing... the gear.
Will Stanhope rips the flake from Parthian Shot
Protected solely by tiny wires delicately teased behind a frighteningly hollow flake, the hard and tenuous climbing of Parthian Shot is both a physical and mental challenge.
An on-form John Dunne made the first ascent back in 1989, grading the route HXS 7a and suggesting the flake was too poor to hold. As far as we know he remains the only person to date to have climbed the route without taking 'the' fall.
John told us:
"The Burbage Prow had a huge reputation - Johnny Dawes couldn't top rope it in one, the flake wouldn't hold a fall and even several top performers of the day talked about putting a single bolt in it.
As soon as I watched 'Stone Monkey' I knew it was no different to climbing a sport route at Malham and that fitness was the key to unlocking the problem, coupled with a bit of boldness.
In terms of the gear it never crossed my mind to pre-place it, that's not how it was done back then. Because gear was placed on lead it meant the nuts were very close to the edge of the flake and I was convinced a part of the flake would rip if you fell."
Seb Grieve, the cover star of perhaps the most famous climbing film of all time - Hard Grit - repeated the route in 1997, in what seemed like a frenzy of bold gritstone ascents, and became the first person to test 'that shipwreck of a flake' in anger. Seb took multiple falls in his quest to repeat the route, proved the fall to be 'safe', and paved the way for all future ascensionists.
John commented on Seb's ascent:
"When Seb selfishly loaded bags and drop tested the gear that he had pre-placed in the flake, for me that showed a real lack of respect for the route and for the flake, which could have ripped off - leaving a defunct route.
Once the flake held the mystery was over and Seb made the second ascent of the route, which regardless of style, proved it was climbable and opened the door for others to follow."
And follow they did. Since Seb's myth-busting repeat Parthian Shot has seen multiple ascents.
But now the flake has finally broken and a young climber has been hospitalised.
Canadian Will Stanhope wrote on his blog:
"Two months ago I ripped off the flake on Parthian Shot, at Burbage South in the Peak District. Tim Emmett, trusted friend and well-known British climber, belayed me, and eventually piggy-backed me down the trail...
...Tim and I fooled around on the line all afternoon, dialing in the nuances and getting a feel for it. I one falled it on toprope. At that point I decided I would try to lead it. My friends Alex Honnold, Matt Segal and Kevin Jorgenson all took multiple wingers onto the flake. While I knew it wasn't 100 percent bomber, I thought it was more or less okay...
...As I climbed higher I got a deep pit-in-my-stomach feel that something wasn't right. The superstitious feeling came too late, though- I was way above the flake without a hope of downclimbing. The next thing I knew I was on the ground, spitting blood, struggling to breathe. I tried to weight my left foot, but I immediately knew it was broken. It felt like the bones were swimming..."
Stanhope's bone crunching fall comes as quite a surprise to many, after a number of others had safely succeeded on the route, many of them taking multiple falls in the process. The list includes; John Dunne (no falls), Seb Grieve, Neil Bentley, Nic Sellars, Ben Cossey, Tom Briggs, Kevin Jorgeson, David Lama and most probably a few more, not to mention those who have taken the fall but not ticked the route.
In fact, falling became so common-place, so 'safe', that the route became an obvious ground-up target, the promise of a soft swing in to space urging the brave and the bold to slap their way up those slopers and see how far their luck would take them.
The prize of the first ground-up ascent fell to visiting American Kevin Jorgeson, who topped out on the route a couple of years ago, taking a few big falls in the process (UKC News).
VIDEO: Kevin Jorgeson climbs Parthian Shot Ground-Up
For those who were in-the-know this ascent wasn't unexpected, as others were attempting the same thing at the same time, such as British climbers Ben Bransby and Pete Robins - and for a brief couple of weeks Burbage South became the place to be if you wanted to see big air.
Ben Bransby is not a reckless man, in fact he takes safety very seriously. He must have thought the flake was good if he was willing to go for the route without pre-inspection and take multiple falls.
Bransby explains how it all panned out on his and Pete Robins' ground-up attempts:
"We were initially pretty nervous about the flake - mostly through the reputation it had. We went up expecting it to be pretty hollow and loose and expecting to have to be really careful placing the gear and minimising the impact if/when we fell. That was our starting point and with that in mind it felt better than we expected, we were pretty soon taking pretty big falls onto it.
We made sure we were giving a good belay to minimize force on the gear, were trying not to push off backwards when falling, didn't place any cams in it and tried to keep the gear right in the back of the flake, we also used different length quickdraws to kind of equalise some of the pieces - but as we were climbing ground-up on steep terrain we couldn't do the best job of equalising it all like you might when red pointing.
I felt there was more chance of all the gear ripping when the flake expanded rather than the whole thing coming off. I guess I was wrong!
Pete and I didn't treat the flake like a bolt, but it did seem people were a bit more blasé about it afterwards. We were after an improvement in the style of ascent which was achieved when Kevin Jorgeson did it (although he had pre-placed gear, and always had a top rope up to the flake).
We knew we were making a far from perfect ascent but hoped that it would be a step towards an onsight for someone. With the limited amount of rock (especially grit) this style improvement does seem to be the way to go, but also for the same reasons there is a good argument for really looking after the rock and trying not to fall onto suspect flakes too often and risk ruining the route - and hurting yourself in the process."
Full Circle - now a 'No Fall' route again.
Niall Grimes, long-term Sheffield resident and climbing writer, was on hand to witness Seb Grieve's infamous 1997 repeat of the line and has been following the two decade long 'Parthian Saga' with interest.
He told us:
"I'm not surprised that the flake has broken really. It had to sometime, for the story of the route to be complete. First it was a probable death route, then Seb broke that barrier and proved that it wasn't.
After that there was a gold rush where, if you were good enough and quick enough, you steamed in, took a few wingers and got it ticked. But it was still Parthian Shot. It was still a big deal and you still got to wear the badge.
It was like those legal highs that were around for a while. People said it was like the old days but you could just send off for them and they'd come in the post. But you knew it couldn't be allowed to go on so one day they got the thing stopped. The door was slammed shut again and the chance was gone.
Bouldering mats open doors, but Ulysses will never be what it was in 1984, or 86, or 95. After 1997 Parthian was different from what it had been before 1997. But now, the flake has broken. The door has slammed shut and the holiday is over. Time to pay again.
The only pity is that Steve McClure didn't flash it first. The good thing is that the lad is okay."
But where to go from here? One of the UK's most iconic routes has suffered a crucial broken flake, most likely affecting the climbing, the character and the grade. There have been murmurs of glueing or even bolting the flake back on, mutterings that it is best left alone, and splutterings that it never should have been fallen on in the first place.
No one has lead the route in its current state, so to guess a grade would be just that - a guess, but Tom Briggs, who climbed the route in 2008, has recently peered up at the broken flake from the floor (you can see it quite well) and is perhaps slightly more informed than most. I asked him for his thoughts on the change in the character of the route:
"The moves are certainly going to be harder, but crucially, it will be very difficult to place the gear on lead without the top of the flake to switch hands on and peer into the placements from. I think [when the flake was still there] it was 8a to top rope and 8a+ to lead putting the gear in (it's such a strenuous position, and most sane people would put 4 pieces in - that takes time). Now, who knows! At least one less gear placement, harder moves..."
John Dunne says:
"What to do next - glue the hold on, or leave as it is - who knows, for me it's perhaps a decision that needs more than my consent. I will leave that to some else to decide, after twenty years of slander and abuse surrounding the route I'm happy to step away."
The flake itself is reportedly in safe hands in Sheffield, and the future of the route is now uncertain.
Whilst the latest chapter in the saga of this evocative gritstone route has been written, the book has certainly not been closed. There will be more twists in this epic story, and whether those twists will include a successful ascent in the route's current state, or more controversy in the form of glue or even hidden bolts (to hold the flake securely), only time will tell.
Whatever occurs, the Parthian Shot Saga is not over yet.
UKC SPECIAL - The 1997 'On The Edge' Article by Niall Grimes
NB: This article was written almost fifteen years ago and was first published in On The Edge Magazine. It is with the kind permission of Niall that we republish it here to act as a time machine back to those glorious Hard Grit days. Enjoy.
MAN DEFIES DEATH
Pensioner fires self from cannon into nettles. Couple travel Niagara falls in one pair of pants. Boy traps wasps in trouser pocket.
Seb Grieve repeats Parthian Shot!
Late last Wednesday, on a hushed Burbage evening, the sun was just about setting. The trees were still, the brook was blubbering and the grouse were lightly waddling. Yet all was not well. I looked across to a bulge of rock forty feet away. Ropes went up to this and then disappeared. Obscured from my vision by the prow of rock, a climber cowered, readying himself for the passage ahead. The crux of Parthian Shot.
Everybody knows Parthian Shot. Its' the one on Stone Monkey where Johnny falls the height of the crag on top rope, and Johnny shouts "THERE'S BELAYING, AND THERE'S BLOOMING BELAYING." But they cut the blooming out. It was for Channel Four, you see. It's the one that John Dunne did a notorious ascent of, where people insinuated he hadn't because the proof photos looked staged, and bitching in Sheffield would get to the level of stuff like "He didn't do it. He's never done anything. I seen him. He hasn't." Well it's not like he's strong or necky or anything, is it?
Well, eventually Seb turned his eyes to it, and began to work it. I hope Seb won't take offence, but power is not something he is naturally gifted with. But what he lacks in strength, he makes up for in weakness, and so settled down for a long stint on top rope. Most people active in the peak, know stories of Seb's ascents of necky routes, of feet shooting off on End of the Affair and stuff, of how he looks as if he's always about to come off. That's because he is. He's crap. Yet his tick list is probably the best on grit. Don't figure.
Luckily for the climbing population of the Peak, when he started going on the route, it was obvious he didn't stand a chance of getting up it. There was a general sigh of relief. Yet on he battled. For a long time now, a phone call from Seb- "Want to go belaying to Burbage South?"-would be a common wake up, and you'd have to think of an excuse. "No. I've lost a needle in my bed and I'm trying to find it. Sorry. I'd love to."
But in much the same way as the wind eventually sculpts grit, Seb made progress. Next thing you know, he starts saying he wants to lead it. Seb's verdict: "I'd go for it if I could do it one time out of three. The gear behind the flake is good." The rest of the world: "You'd need to be doing it every time, every day. That flake's just about ready to come off." He's mad. He's supposed to be a scientist. How could he be so wrong?
Seb invested a lot. Conservative rumours say he has put somewhere between 800 and 1000 man hours into the route. More Liberal estimates are around 1.5 man light-years, and I know who'll get the most votes there. That's not to mention six ropes, five pairs of shoes, a dozen climbing partners, and the best years of his life. But the time came when he wanted to get on the sharp end of that flake. And the pressure was on. As I said, Seb is no Sean Myles. But Sean Myles is, and he'd been top roping the route too. With relative ease. Competition. So down in the pub that night between pints, Seb said "I want to lead Pathian tomorrow, anybody want to come?" I had noticed he always called it Pathian, not Parthian. My theory was that he had a speech impediment which had him bullied at school by hard men, and that is why he ended up doing death routes, just to show them. Well it's better than becoming a serial killer. Everybody dropped their pints and ran, like in a western when somebody says, "Run boys, run. Big Jake's acomin." I hadn't heard right, and thought he was offering to buy pints, and said 'me.'
When he explained it was too late. I was in on it. But I thought it was cool. I had never seen anyone killed before. Mega. Must bring a camera. Day one was last Friday. Cold, grey. There was me, who wanted dead body photos, Rich Heap who wanted the death on video, and Swedish Richard who didn't understand. Three Staffordshire climbers totalled six pall bearers. Perfect. All was set and Seb top roped it without falling, lowered, let himself get cold and went for it. All this slapping around started, crimping, dynoing, while Seb all the time issued mouthshite at high volume. He shook out above the gear, went for the crux AND FELL OFF. An instant lasted an age, a fall became an arc, and gear started to ping. But he stopped. It held.
Everyone joiced and rejoiced. Seb lowered off and prostrated himself. We examined the flake. Some of the seven pieces of shite gear had popped. "Looks like some came out of the bottom," someone said. Seb checked the back of his trousers and said he thinks he got away with it. We had witnessed an E9 fall. You don't see one of those every day of the week. By the time I left the crag that day I had seen three. Up up up. Down down down. That first fall was horrible, as no-one, not even Seb, had any idea if it would hold. Thank Christ, it did. You've got to hand it to Seb, he really embraces danger. Many climbers, even doing bold routes, are really in control, and safe. But this man.......he not only embraces danger. He take it to bed with him. It's obscene.
Day two was sunnier and more lighthearted. Ah! the joy and the merry abandon with which Seb was gallantly throwing himself off from miles up the route, swinging like an acrobat with ease onto that flake, each time expanding it a little more, making it a little weaker. A beautiful sight. Again third time lucky. I ran round to the top to watch, in the beautiful evening. It was hushed. Seb was under the bulge.
As before, a hand now slapped over the top of the bulge to a steep slab, to a poor hold, followed by another. Then the eyes. And in them, as they brought the head over onto the slab, was horror. From the grossly bulging lower section, the climber must start a desperate slabby rockover. As Seb started jerking up this, I began to feel uncomfortable. The gear now looked so far away, and so delicate. What if he did fall off, was killed. I horripilated. That is a word from the dictionary that means my hair stands on end. Don't fall Seb, man. Don't. Rock up, and then cross through with the least sensitive part of the climbing body, the outside of the foot. Soooo long it took. Not a fly flew. Then slowly, standing up for the top and it was over, he was safe.
Pathian Shot, second ascent. What next?
VIDEO: Seb Grieve repeats Parthian Shot - from Hard Grit
Thanks go to John Dunne, Niall Grimes, Simon Wilson, Tom Briggs, Pete Robins and Ben Bransby for their help with this article.
All at UKC wish Will Stanhope a speedy and full recovery.