The Best of the Best - VS routes in the Lake District

© S11
Eliminate A
© Tom Ripley, Jul 2007

Tom Ripley extols the virtues of the best VS's in the Lakes, with a little bit of help from some local experts...

Many climbers believe that VS is the first, and the finest, climbing grade. There are many stunning routes at all grades, but VS is where climbing really begins; you have to think not only how to climb the route but how to protect it too and there is usually a good hold and a good runner never (too) far away. The best thing about the VS grade is that it's both inspirational and attainable for every climber, whilst providing some truly unbelievable routes, especially in the Lake District.

As a Lakes local, I believe there is no finer place for traditional climbing in England. If one was to typify Lakeland climbing then big, long multi-pitch climbs, soaring up huge bastions of clean rock would immediately spring to mind. The Lake District is basically a succession of glaciated valleys, bounding out like the spokes of a wheel from a focal point around High Raise/Esk Hause. A series of incredible cliffs constructed primarily from volcanic rock, jut out from the valley sides. This vast array of mountain crags, provide a hearty crop of VS routes of the very highest standard; from perfect wee pitches located at little known outcrops in the Eden Valley to glorious multi-pitch wonders picking their way through improbable terrain high up on Scafell or Dow Crag.

Eliminate A – Dow Crag.
Very Severe: 4b, 4b, 4c, 4a, 4c, 4b. H S Gross G Basterfield - June 1923.

My ascent of Eliminate A was on the afternoon following my last AS exam in glorious sunshine (as is to be expected during exams!) at a virtually empty Dow Crag. Eliminate A is the epitome of all that is good about Lakeland climbing, providing stunning moves and following a line of weakness up an otherwise impregnable buttress of perfect rhyolite. I had wanted to do Eliminate A ever since I had started climbing and now I had my chance. Whilst trying to cope with the gob smacking exposure as I stepped out right onto Gordon and Craig's traverse, I realised that my extremely high expectations had been blown away by the absorbing quality of the climbing. Maybe it was the elated circumstances that I climbed the route under, but for me Eliminate A is the best VS in the Lakes.

Stuart Wood: – (The alcohol fuelled anti-hero of Lakes climbing.)

Eliminate A – “Best VS in the Lakes? Eliminate A, mate. Not only is it the best VS in the Lakes, but also in the world.” No other route of its grade travels through rock architecture as stunning as that; a beautiful and devious line. Superb.

Al Phizacklea: – (Lakeland activist with over 1000 new routes to his name and illustrator of the FRCC guidebooks.)

Eliminate A – “Best VS in the Lakes? There's only one, Eliminate A. Best VS in the world that.” First climbed, as a naïve seventeen year old; the end of October 1976. “Walked up on a sunny day in shorts and t-shirt, got on the crag and near froze me bollocks off.”

Renny Croft on Medusa Wall (VS) Esk Buttress
© S11
Medusa Wall – Esk Buttress.
Very Severe: -, -, 4c, 4c, 4b. A R Dolphin, L J Griffin - .August 1947

Back in the summer of 2006, Esk Buttress was my favourite crag and Medusa wall was the first route that I climbed here. My climbing partner, Will Sim and I had been camped out by Blackmoss Pot for a few days; climbing all day before returning to our tent. On our last day we decided to walk up Langstrath, across to Esk Hause and then down to Esk Buttress; to make an ascent of Central Pillar – an E2 and a much converted 'Hard Rock tick'. Though neither of us would admit it, three days of solid climbing combined with a five mile walk-in, meant that we weren't in any position to be attempting sustained multi pitch E2s, right at the top of our grade for both of us. Instead we settled for the more amenable Medusa Wall. What a substitute it was, with five brilliant pitches straight up the left-hand arête of the Yosemite-like central pillar of Esk Buttress. The fourth pitch is the only pitch (except at Gogarth) where exposure has truly scared me. The memory that is forever etched on my mind is of teetering along a narrow ledge with the wind whipping around the arête, creeping my eyes around it, trying not to barn-door and being stunned, not only by the huge, sheer drop, but also the blank, impending groove taken by The Cumbrian.

Engineer's Slab – Gable Crag.
Very Severe: 4c, 4c. F G Balcombe, J A Shepherd, C J A Cooper - June 1934

Engineer's Slab is so good that I've climbed it twice, both times on perfect days. First aged fifteen with my dad and last year with a friend. On clear summer's day, the clean, almost rectangular formation of Engineer's Slab, flanked on either side by ragged buttresses is daunting, however when one realises that it is cast in shadow, whilst everything else is light it becomes eerily intimidating. Added to all this was Al Phizacklea's brilliant, but hard looking picture in the old (1991) Gable Guide and the advice from my dad's friend that it was “hard for the grade, with two pitches of 5a” and I was beginning to get overwhelmed. Rather than climb the vertical grass to the foot of the crag (I've done it since, I thoroughly don't recommend it) we decided to climb Sledgate Ridge, a Hard Severe leading up to just above the left side of the main crag. This further lessened my morale, when I nearly fell off the short jamming crack on the first pitch. After a short abseil to the bottom of the Slabs, dad elected to go first. The first pitch is a joy, just the right mixture of gear and holds to make you think; everything required on the perfect VS. All too soon and I'm in the sentry box, a quick sort of the gear and then I'm off out right. Stuff in some big friends and continue up; a ledge, relief; another short crack then another ledge and more relief. The top groove looks damp - head out right - running out of gear now - a few awkward and breath-taking moves - friend 2, teeter, rock-over and I'm on top of a spike on the arête! Phew! A short scramble to the top, “Safe”, it wasn't that bad!

Steve Ashworth: – (Lakeland and Scottish mixed climbing master).
Engineers Slabs – “An equally a good route in either summer or winter condition, on perfect rock; surrounded by awesome territory offering lots of scope for new winter lines.”

Renny Croft and Tim Noble on Mickledore Grooves, Scafell East Buttress
© S11
Mickledore Grooves – East Buttress.
Very Severe: 4c, 4c. C F Kirkus, I M Walker, M Pallis – May 1931

Stephen Reid's literary masterpiece; 'Lake District Rock', touts Mickledore Grooves as, “One of the best routes of its standard in the Lakes”. With an appetizer like that and being back at school, I was desperate to climb it before the cold winter's nights made East Buttress inaccessible. So on an Indian summer of a Saturday, my dad and I set off early from Ullswater and blasted through the Lakes to Wasdale. We raced up to Mickledore and were at the foot of the route in no time. The start was steep, thuggish and desperate; I had to give my poor old dad a leg up! Once past this deviant launch the climbing became superb, a series of grooves leading to the belay. Next came delicate climbing up the bold slab- superb, followed by the crux bulge. We then chased down Broad Stand, managing another three routes: Yellow Slab, Trinity and Fulcrum, before haring back down to Wasdale Head by head-torch, nearly knocking three-peaks-challengers like ninepins! What a grand day out in the Lakes.

Ron Kenyon: – (Penrith Accountant, Lakes activist and author of the forthcoming FRCC Eastern Crags and Outcrops guide)

Mickledore Grooves - Soloed this way back when; “I remember teetering across the slab and thinking that I'm up shit street if I can't do the final crux groove.” A steady head prevailed however.

St John's & Castle Rock
© Jonathan Lagoe - UKC, Jan 2006
Overhanging Bastion – Castle Rock of Triermain.
Very Severe: 4b, 4b, 5a, -. R J Birkett, C R Wilson, L Musgrove – April 1939.

Except perhaps by its lesser known but equally fine neighbour; The Barbican, this route is unrivalled as the best roadside VS Lakeland has to offer. OB has previously been mooted as HVS, albeit as a soft touch and to some extent I'm inclined to agree. Regardless of the grade it is bloody good route, following an obvious ramp line up the otherwise impregnable fortress that is Castle Rock. The climbing is never desperate, but the crux does require commitment, which I remember only too well from the time I climbed it. Teetering up the polished moves off the ramp certainly focused the mind. Ron Kenyon told me an interesting tale about OB's first ascent. In the April of 1939 whilst rest of the country was preparing for war Jim Birkett had found a secret crag. Jim Haggas had assumed it was Dove Crag, and first ascended the superb, classic Hard VS, Hangover the following month. Birkett's secret crag was the North Crag of Castle Rock of Triermain; he also climbed the first ascents of Zigzag (MVS) and May Day Cracks (VS) in the weeks that followed. It is amazing that his secret crag is so huge, yet so proximate to the road.

Delilah – High Crag.
Very Severe: 4a, 4c. W Peascod, B Blake - August 1951

When one thinks of the best VS in the Lakes, Delilah will never be the route immediately conjured into their mind. This is a great shame as when linked together in to one long pitch it offers a superb outing at the grade. I set off up this route, as a warm up to the superb Philistine, expecting it to be just another VS, but it was brilliant. Solid rock; exquisite moves up a cracking direct line with the crux where it should be; right at the top. Delilah completely blew its mediocre expectations out of the water; it's not Eliminate A, but brilliant none the less.

F Route/North West Arête – Gimmer Crag.
Very Severe: 4b, 4c. R J Birkett, V Veers – September 1940 and May 1941

In its own right F Route is probably the best single VS pitch in the Lakes and no pushover either. Combined with North West Arête it offers two superb pitches at the VS grade. I first climbed the combination on a blustery day in late September 2004. It was the last day of the summer holidays, the wind was bitter and we'd just climbed The Crack which hadn't come anywhere close to its 'Hard Rock' expectations and I'd had to make an intermediate stance! Pretty deflated I began leading North West Arête. Brilliant. What a line, following the exposed right hand arête. The climbing was full on, I was pumped but I was chuffed at the top. Dad then lead off up F Route, I followed but found it unmemorable. Returning last summer with a friend who hadn't climbed all year, I set off up F Route with low expectations. At the top my opinion had bounced to brilliant, but certainly no pushover. F route sums up all that is great about Lakeland VS's. Solid rock, good quality, testing moves, good gear, but never desperate.

The Shamrock and Pillar Rock
© AH2005
North West Climb – Pillar Rock.
Mild Very Severe: -, 4a, 4b, 4b, 4b. F W Botterill, L J Oppenheimer, A Botterill, J H Taylor – June 1906.

This final contribution comes from the Fell and Rock's guidebook editor, Stephen Reid. I am yet to climb the route myself, but Steve's judgement can certainly be relied upon.

Stephen Reid: – (FRCC's head guidebook honcho and owner of the finest emporium of climbing equipment in the world)

North West Climb - “Best VS in the Lakes? Loads of contenders of course, Eliminate A, The Crack, Botterill's Slab will no doubt all be nominated. But how about Fred Botterill's other great creation that staggered the climbing world of the day, North-West Climb on Pillar Rock climbed in 1906? He did it in company with his brother A Botterill, Lehmann Oppenheimer and Dr JH Taylor who took the fine photo of the team just before they set off, that now forms the frontispiece of the FRCC's new Gable & Pillar guide.”

It starts with a fantastically steep, big square chimney, offering loads of exposure that you have to bridge, which leaves you thinking; "Is this really MVS?” Easy, slabbier climbing on delightful rock leads to the terrace, a fine place to stop and admire the view before the challenges above. The huge headwall is gained by a devious sideways entrance and then a succession of steep little corners and ledges lead you leftwards across the face. The wall above is split by some shallow grooves which despite their names are not really chimneys at all. The farthest left, Taylor's Chimney was the original route of ascent, but most modern climbers will go via the later variation of Lamb's Chimney. This is steep and, even with modern gear, still quite bold - as George Abraham wrote a century ago, "a slip on the part of the leader on the upper section would almost certainly mean that none of the party would take any further interest in old age pensions."

Finally there is the crux, Oppenheimer's Chimney, and a more intimidating offwidth crack at this grade is hard to imagine, but in fact it's far more reasonable than it looks and you are soon basking in the sunshine on the summit of Low Man. Finish up to the High Man via Slingsby's Crack and then descend via Slab and Notch, before the long walk back to Wasdale via the High Level Route and you have the makings of a perfect Lakeland day, and if you're quick you might just make last orders at Wasdale Head.

Mick Ryan: – (Climbing's answer to Piers Morgan)

“Any VS on White Ghyll – Langdale - They always seem to be E1 and above to me; I like the accessibility, the history and the views.”

Dave Birkett: – (Third generation Lakeland climbing legend) “Best VS in the Lakes? That's a hard one. Like choosing your favourite Bob Dylan song, impossible! Can I only have one? Too many crackers to choose from so here is my top three:

Great Eastern – I normally solo this to put a rope on one of my headpoint projects. Stunning line following the line of least resistance, impossible for a VS leader to get lost on as all the other routes are much harder; on the top rightwards traverse you're surrounded by E8s and E9s. One hell of a position for VS.

NW Arête/F Route – When I started climbing I decided to climb all my Grandfather's routes first. NW Arête/F Route was one of my first leads; two brilliant routes linked up into two equally balanced pitched. The top groove of F Route is really quite hard.

Gimmer Crack – One of my first leads and a beautiful compelling line that is so obvious that you don't really need a guide book to know where it goes.

If you have done all my suggestions here is another 22 VS's to whet your appetite.

10 more cracking VS's that I've done:

1. Jean Jeanie - Trowbarrow
2. Fool's Paradice – Gowder Crag
3. Murray's Direct – Dow Crag
4. The Crack – Gimmer Crag
5. Flasherman - Armathwaite
6. Sinister Grooves – Buckstone How
7. The Yellow Slab – Scafell East Buttress.
8. The Barbican – Castle Rock
9. The Fulcrum – Scafell East Buttress
10. Marik – King's Meaburn

12 more that I'm yet to have the pleasure of:

1. Haste Not – White Ghyll
2. Botteril's Slab - Scafell
3. Dexter Wall – Grey Crag
4. Falconer's Crack – Eagle Crag (Borrowdale)
5. Sobrenada – Eagle Crag (Grisedale)
6. Eagle Front – Eagle Crag (Buttermere)
7. Communist Convert – Raven Crag Thirlmere
8. Rake end Wall – Pavey Ark
9. Grooved Wall – Pillar Rock
10. Grendal – Scrubby Crag
11. New west climb – Pillar Rock
12. Great Eastern – East Buttress

There you have it! Twenty two of the finest VS's in the word. Which is the best of them all? You'll have to climb them and find out!

Tom Ripley
Tom Ripley, 18, lives in, and loves, the English Lake District. He climbs rock, ice and frozen turf.

Tom in his own words:

"I'm really enthusiastic about climbing, and try to fit as many trips in as possible around my studies. I've lived in Cumbria since I was two. I reckon I'm lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world, at Watermillock on the edge of Ullswater. My love of the hills started from a young age, and I've been climbing since the age of six. There are too many amazing places to climb in the Lakes, so I couldn't say where my favourite crag is. But I've had some great days out on Esk Buttress, and walking through a cloud inversion on Swirl Edge in the winter is probably one of the most memorable.

Discovering new places with new friends is one of the things I enjoy most about climbing in the Lakes. A good beer at the end of the day is hard to beat too!"

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19 May, 2008
Excellent article and very inspiring. Rather embarrasingly I've never done any of them. That's 22 more routes on the ticklist then...!
19 May, 2008
is trowbarrow classed as the lake district now? must remember that next time i go to lancashire !-)
19 May, 2008
The Lakes is definitely the best place in the country for VS's. Of those not mentioned in the article I'd say Adam at Shepherd's Crag is stonking. One that seems to rarely get a mention is Pacemaker at Buckbarrow, also Central Crack at Brantrake is a treat. Others that stand out are Dexter Wall at Grey Crag, Grooved Wall on Pillar, Eliminate C on Dow, Bellerophon at Heron Crag.
19 May, 2008
i do hope this inspires lots of peole to go and explore the mountain crags and routes, it is a good list to tick off a few routes, and hopefully people will see some new crags they hadnt walked to before
19 May, 2008
Really enjoyed that Tom, thanks. Top photos as well!
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