What makes a 'best' route? Brilliant climbing, the laugh you had with your partners on the day, the atmosphere of the crag, did you make it by the skin of your teeth, did you cruise it (while your mates blew it?)…
Of course climbers are a tricky audience, everyone has their party piece route, and everyone's local favourite crag is the best… well if it's better than the ones on this list and I've not done it I'll certainly look forward to giving it my best shot. The list is here to inspire some of you to new climbs, as a trip down memory lane for old hands, or to just kick start some new psyche for those jaded after all the back to back sunny weather!
I've given myself a few criteria to help me choose; fair grades (can't be E3 or E5 in an old book), generally clean enough, a bouldering mat can't make a difference, no bolts or pseudo trad, not on generic coastal limestone (brilliant though it is), agreed by my local expert pals and genuine consensus classics.
And so I can sit on the fence, I've given away a couple of alternative lists... A sort of "best of for connoisseurs and E4 fledglings". It's fairly geographically balanced I hope, so no one feels too left out, and if you do, re read the criteria! I thought genuinely hard about the South West. I think you're blessed with great E3s and E5s. Please be happy with that. Anyway, here goes….
How many have you done? You can tick your way through them with this UKC Ticklist!
Also in this series:
- The Five Best HVS Routes in the UK?
- The Five Best E1 Routes in the UK?
- The Five Best E2 Routes in the UK?
Born To Run - Fair Head - Northern Ireland
I'm originally from Northern Ireland and as everyone who's climbed there knows Fairhead is the most inspiring crag after El Cap. Pat Littlejohn put up his favourite new route here and he's no one trick pony. It's also a great E4 crag and the king of these is Born To Run, pronounced 'Borntyraaan' (quickly). In the shady depths of the White Lightning Amphitheatre is where you'll find this 3 pitch beauty. It was originally climbed by the legends Eddie Copper and Martin Manson with a point of aid, the steely fingers of Keefe Murphy set it free to be the must-do route of that grade.
Talking of which it's a giveaway with runners above your head (the only kind?) nearly all the way, perfect rock and elegant stances with fine views all the way to Jura (if you're lucky). It was probably 26 years from when I saw a photo of it in my first guidebook until my lucky day, and it was worth the wait and the built up hype in my mind, in fact it had a constant train of mates climb it that day all with smiles as wide as Fairhead itself. I could fill the rest of the list with Fairhead E4s like Hallowe'en, Track of the Cat, Rusty Halo and Face Value but that wouldn't be fair.
Metal Guru/Golden Bough - Wen Zawn - Gogarth
n.b. in 2019 the base of Metal Guru, shared with T-Rex, was severly affected by rock fall and is no longer climbable - as such Metal Guru/Golden Bough is currently impossible. Thankfully there's a suitable list of alternatives at the base of the article.
For the last 25 years I've lived in North Wales, not a bad spot for the E4 climber either, and if you're used to climbing in Yorkshire, the Peak, Northumberland or even Cumbria they're easy pickings too.
A tough call but in the end it wasn't the almost perfect Ressurection that I chose, but the wild Metal Guru/Golden Bough line in the famous Wen Zawn. Even though it has barely any ticks in the UKC logbook those in the know were unanimous with an "Oh yes…for sure". This big line up the big crease in the back of the biggest zawn at Gogarth keeps charging up where T Rex scuttles off right and relents only where it scampers awkwardly back in.
One huge, arm-wilting pitch takes you to a belay somewhere on the final pitch of Dream from sea level. What little rack I still had left for the anchor was all on one remaining karabiner including my belay plate. The Golden Bough beckons above for an equally spectacular finish and rewards the commitment that often only comes when the alternative seems worse. If the obvious stuck on flake doesn't un stick you should be ok.
Best enjoyed with an evening ascent. Low tide and a fresh breeze should give you the best chance for minimum soapiness and maximum atmosphere as the sun sets and you're lying in the heather suffering a glorious thunderpump!
Freak Out - Aonach Duch - Glencoe
Scotland… now there's many lifetimes of climbing there for sure and all with very grand surroundings. I had a few firm favourites, but just in case I double checked with some friends north of the border. Murdoch Jamieson, Iain Small and Blair Fyffe know a thing or two about Highland climbing and spotting footholds through midge nets (only joking...) and there was a common denominator in our list and some really strong contenders unsurprisingly. Wilderness on Carnmore Crag is now on my list of NW diversions, but the Extreme Rock classic Freak Out made the final cut, as well as featuring in one of the first climbing films I ever saw.
Majestically sitting centre stage on the east facing nose of Aonach Dubh like a sentinel overlooking Glencoe, its perfect line begs your arms to give it their best shot. This total belter gives them a great warm up on the first half of the crack, then a rest on an airy stance just out right. The business starts soon after regaining the crack on pitch 2. If you're still going above the A shaped roof don't forget to look either side of the crack for holds leading to the capping roof. Yard victoriously over this and gloat on the hillside above. Afterwards a wander around to the north face of the hill can reward evening sun in midsummer for an ascent of another Glencoe ultra-classic…The Clearances. A tough mission for its old tag of E3, it's set in the most austere of rock architecture not far from the curious Ossian's Cave. It could've been a contender if it wasn't for all those old climbers braying on it wasn't E4 in my day... so I say you should go do it and decide for yourself!
Lost Horizons - East Buttress - Scafell
Cumbria… it breaks my heart to say it, but the rock is definitely better up there than in Snowdonia, even if it's mostly covered in moss! They don't give them away up there either and sometimes they grade them E4 - just to mess with your head (Mother Courage on Pavey Ark being a fine example of the E4- /old E3 genre). James McHaffie has probably soloed them all too.
He recommends Grand Alliance on Black Crag, Borrowdale and Lost Horizons on the mighty Scafell's East Buttress. These are at either end of the grade spectrum and Grand Alliance is a great first E4 (my wife Lou wisely chose this one) but as Lost Horizons is THE line (as well as being on the finest crag in England) it's got to be on the list. Plenty of other friends recommended it too and as it's had plenty of attention this summer (for the Lakes that is) it's probably as clean as it's ever gonna be - no excuses - even Caff said go do it (he might not be sandbagging this time, but he is from Cumbria so you never know!) Anyway, there's got to be a proper tussle on the list and this one is not only the hardest on the list, but the highest too!
Flaky Wall - High Tor - The Peak District
Finally, something a little closer to home for most climbers. High Tor is undoubtedly the superior Peak trad crag and home to a great collection of E4s that seem unlikely to suffer the dreaded Peak retro bolt. The most classic and fair of which is clearly Flaky Wall. It requires a reasonable repertoire of skills from the E4 leader, especially the placing of secure wires in the slick shallow cracks at the start. Confident undercutting rightwards gets you started and leads to THE move in the shallow groove above.
With bomber kit boulder it out from a fortuitous rest then classic High Tor pockets lead to the feature that gives it the name. This jug rail romps you to the top of this true E4 classic. You'll enjoy the crux moves again when you climb Decadence (for the connoisseurs) and Supersonic (maybe on the next list?).
Some more great E4s:
Belters, that in old guides got E3. Could be good first E4s, but then again….
- Bitter Oasis, Goat Crag, Borrowdale.
Mega climbing from the pages of Extreme Rock and another from Pete Livesey (I guess as he seemed to be inventing E4 he got to pick the best) - I definitely thought E4!
- Slender Loris, Malham Right Wing, Yorkshire.
Ron Fawcett probably gave it HVS. My friend Tim Jepson broke his leg trying it before Ron. This character enhancing trip is a classic Yorkshire experience. You'd better hope that top peg's still there.
- Great Wall, Clogwyn D'ur Arddu, Snowdon.
On a sunny midsummer evening this climb transcends the grading system. Best lead in one pitch like the early ascents... magic.
- Great Wall, Craig y Forwen, North Wales limestone.
Naughty but well worth it. You can't shout "watch me here" from the crux at the top or the landowner will surely hear you. Stealth.
- Old Friends, Stanage.
One of the many superb E4s on this majestic crag. It has a quintessentially great grit sequence.
Very honorary mentions…
- The Prozac Link, Screaming Geo, Lewis.
Glenda Huxter and Howard Jones did the first ascent on a tip off from Cubby after his own ascent of The Screaming Abdabs, E6, which takes in most of the route. The Prozac Link took, ultimately, the more balanced line and remains the reason many will make the trip out to the island… unless you're strong enough for Cubby's route?
- Vulture, Cilan Head, Lleyn.
This might be the best sea cliff route I've ever done and if you like this sort of thing, forget all those other routes. It's probably E4 just abbing into this cliff and even the pitch that doesn't get a grade is wild. If you get up the first pitch the rest is almost probably on. The penultimate stance is a fantastic perch to feel good about yourself. Surprisingly and thankfully, perfect rock and runners lead to the top from here and the ultimate E4 experience… in my opinion of course. Enjoy!
About The Author:
Tim Neill is a fully qualified British Mountain Guide, has climbed more routes than every other climber in the world put together (seriously!) and lives for most of the year in Nant Peris, North Wales.
He has worked for many years at Plas y Brenin and for himself, teaching and guiding both rock and ice climbing.
He has an insatiable appetite for rock and can also grill a mean sausage and you can follow his adventures on his blog (a great place to find out alpine and UK trad conditions and psyche!).
There's more about Tim on his Guiding Website.