I know it's arbitrary, but everyone has their favourite grade. Usually it tends to hover around that point between success and failure, that fine line tends to create quite a vivid experience. For me, that grade is E5…
The first dilemma I had when writing this article was putting aside several biases, the first of which was my love for sea cliffs. Over the past 10 years the coastal regions of the UK have been my favoured place to climb, as a result my first two 'attempts' at writing a list consisted of:
- Rob's Top 5 Version 1: Positron, Dinosaur, Hunger, Citadel, Mammoth
- Rob's Top 5 Version 2: Darkness at Noon, Minotaur, Head Hunter, Witch Hunt and Scorch the Earth/Just Another Day
The more observant out there will note that these are simply lists of routes on Gogarth's Main Cliff and Huntsman's Leap in Pembroke (and what lists they are too!). But no, a little more diversity would be required.
The second dilemma was that this list wasn't going to please everybody. I know I've sat shaking my fists at the screen of my computer whilst reading previous articles (I mean Chimes of Freedom (E2 5b), one of the best E2s in Britain - really?!?). As each day went by I felt greater and greater regret in having accepted this challenge, what have I done?
Finally, my last concern and confession: I have never climbed in Ireland. All I can do is offer a formal apology to the people of Ireland with regards to this glaring omission. I am wholly aware that Fairhead and the Burren could probably have 5 of the best E5s within the British Isles – much as Main Cliff/Huntsman's do – but due to an inexcusable madness I have never been. Please forgive me.
Anyhow, with all that said and done here is my list. Please be kind…
Have you done all Rob's top 5? If so why not tick them in this UKC Logbooks 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?
- The Five Best E4 Routes in the UK?
- The Five Best E7 Routes in the UK?
Black Magic (E5 6a) - Pentire Head - Cornwall
This initial choice could be seen as somewhat controversial, seeing as the true classic at Pentire is Pat Littlejohn's Darkinbad the Brightdayler - it's got the history, it's in Extreme Rock and it's clearly a very, very good route. However, Black Magic is the one that left a lasting impression.
Unlike Darkinbad which is quite cruxy, Black Magic is a more sustained affair sweeping it's way majestically up the wall. Many small wires/cams protect, but it's so long you've got to run it out a bit else you'd run out of gear too soon. And the moves keep coming, and coming, and coming. Never desperate, always good, you reach the belay spellbound – wow… For added effect it's worth waiting until late in the day when the crag gets the sun.
Driving home afterwards just as the sun was setting, I couldn't stop smiling. "Wow…". Not many routes do that to you.
Dare I say it, but Black Magic is so good it makes Right Wall on Dinas Cromlech look crap.
Darkness at Noon (E5 6a) - Huntsman's Leap - Pembroke
I remember looking down Huntsman's Leap a year after I had started climbing, peering into both the depths of that narrow cleft and my own soul – down, down and dooowwwnnnnn.
Many years on, many E5s later, my attitude had changed. The Leap had transformed from a place of terror into a place of joy and the West Wall of the Leap - with its selection of some of the best E5s in the country – the object of my desire. Climbing any route in the Leap is a memorable experience, it's a place with a real atmosphere: the noise, the tide, the darkness, the intimidation. Nowhere is this more pronounced than the underneath the chockstone where Darkness at Noon begins.
The route winds its way up alien cocoon-like formations until forced out through wild overhangs. The climbing itself is quite unconventional in style and the position ridiculous, it's definitely more than just the moves – you are on the centre stage of one of the premier trad venues within the British Isle.
Hunger (E5 6a) - Main Cliff - Gogarth
The Main Cliff E5s are a great bunch to get your teeth stuck into, each of them is steep and pumpy, but ultimately well protected (and therefore fun). Furthermore, there are loads of them: Hunger, Dinosaur, Positron, Mammoth and Citadel are the classics, but others such as Eraserhead, Sebastopol, Tet Offensive and Orindary Route mean that there's more to go at.
I have chosen Hunger because it's essentially got a bit of everything. A very unlikely lower wall, featuring some classically wide Gogarth pinches, leads to a rest (a much needed rest!) before the final moves up the bicep blowing overhangs. After this rather physical pitch comes the psychological second pitch, which always seems a bit more trying than it should.
One tip I would have for anyone wishing to do these routes at Main Cliff is to wait until 12pm at the earliest before getting on the route. A mid-afternoon low tide and a gentle breeze will make all the difference to removing the Vaseline that coats the cliff throughout most of the morning. In this lubed up state routes will feel a lot harder, but isn't necessarily reason not to get on them – just prepare for a bit of a fight.
Shere Khan (E5 6a) - East Buttress Scafell - The Lake District
The East Buttress of Scafell is home to some of the best quality rock in Britain (THE best if you ask the unbiased people of Cumbria). It's not exactly as if any of the routes listed above feature what I could describe as poor quality rock, it's just that there's something about the texture of the rock on Scafell that is…well…better. Furthermore, you've got to invest a bit of time and effort to get up there and do these routes – there's a walk-in, the inevitable dirtiness of the routes, the fact that the cliff is wet for most of the year! That said, they are memorable as a result of this.
Shere Khan is all the more memorable due to it's rather wild position and bold upper groove. When I did it last summer I bumped into James 'Caff' McHaffie at the base of the crag, he'd been out for a quick solo (?!) in preparation for this years Lakeland 100 - reported here - and he offered me the advice: "the starts a bit pokey, but the tops all fine – you're on big holds". It was at that point in time that I realised Caff suffers from some sort of gross distortion of reality, as what he described is essentially the exact opposite of what actually occurs. The start is well protected and the upper section borders on unjustifiably bold, in fact it was so obvious you could see this from the ground?! Anyhow, maybe I'm exaggerating slightly, but it's definitely a route with 'character' on a cliff with 'character'. I guess you could say I was sandbagged by a 'character' at the base of it too…
Stone (E5 6a) - Strone Ulladale - Harris
If you hit Scotland in good weather, without the midges, then it is quite simply the best place on earth. Mistime it and it's probably the worst.
After a week of perfect weather, coupled with a gentle breeze, I had grown complacent. The sea-cliffs on Lewis had been our home for the past week and it was now reaching the end of our time away – just one day left to go. It seemed logical that we should spend our last day climbing on The Strone, a legendarily overhanging cliff and formidable rock bastion, pierced by only a select few long, hard routes.
It had rained heavily the night before, and with this rain came the midges… Approaching the crag (which I would definitely recommend doing with a bike) there was a stillness in the air, not a breath of wind, and it was humid – so very, very humid. Alarm bells were ringing already and as we finally got underneath the route midge level had hit Defcon 3. The humidity meant we were sweating buckets, yet we had to wear everything we had: trousers, long sleeve tops, long socks in our rock-boots, and finally the lifesaver – the midge net over our heads. Without the latter we would have almost certainly have died. At this point I couldn't comment on the beauty of the cliff, the valley, the route or the surroundings. Survival was key.
Thankfully two pitches up the midges had gone and a breeze was swirling around the crag, finally we could enjoy ourselves. The highlight of the route is without doubt the 45m groove pitch, which features both superb moves and protection, then probably the finest stance I have ever had the privilege of belaying on within the British Isle. A golden eagle circled around above us and down the valley there were two men fishing on the lake, there was a certain tranquility that contrasted with the utter horror we had experienced earlier.
As/when you've done all of the above, and all the other E5s on Main Cliff Gogarth/Huntsman's Leap, here's a 5 more to keep you entertained:
Polaris and The Lean Machine, Swanage - There are two Swanage E5s that stick firmly within my memroy: The Lean Machine and Polaris. Originally I had opted to include The Lean Machine, trad climbing doesn't get much steeper or wilder than that - it's a must; however, after having a conversation with the evergreen Nick Bullock my decision was swayed. Polaris has the same levels of steepness as The Lean Machine, but with more adventure, guano and loose rock thrown into the mix - what isn't there to like about that?! Interestingly when I asked Nick was his Top 5 E5s would be he said: Crow, Helmet Boiler, New Moon, Bobok and Death Trap Direct. This list definitely doesn't come HSE approved and most of them are so unpopular they don't even feature in the UKC Logbooks!
Supersonic, High Tor - Much though I love Peak Limestone, a lot of it is - for want of a better word - crap. That's not to say I don't like it, I do; it's just that it isn't always of the highest quality (if you've convinced yourself otherwise you're lying). High Tor is the exception to this rule, with its immaculate pocketed walls, and Supersonic taking the immaculate line up the centre face. The runout at the top makes it all the more memorable, not that the rest is exactly forgettable...
Psycho, Caley - Being based in Sheffield I am sure I could be hung for including only one route on the gritstone. As if that wasn't enough, the one I've chosen to include is in Yorkshire. Psycho could be considered a highball these days, but I thought I'd include it anyway as it features very different climbing to all of the routes listed above. The start move rocking over onto the slab is without doubt the crux, but it's the moves at the top that really test the nerve. Also, where else on grit do you find chicken-heads?!?
Pacemaker, Lower Sharpnose - The fins at Lower Sharpnose Point are some of the most unique formations I have ever climbed on and it is a marvel, considering how thin they are, that they're still standing. I'm still not sure which I preferred out of Fay or Pacemaker, but why choose one when you can go down there fit enough to climb them all - none will disappoint.
About the Author:
Rob Greenwood is the Advertising Manager at UKClimbing.com.
He's a passionate climber, hot yoga addict and eater of vegetarian food. He has done more UK trad routes than he's had roast dinners. And that's got nothing to do with the vegetarianism.
Aside from UK trad, he's dabbled with alpine climbing, Scottish winter, Himalayan climbing and more recently Peak limestone sport climbing.
- He keeps an occasional blog about his adventures here: Rob Greenwood Climbing