The Five Best Hard Severes in Britain

Hard Severe is a funny old grade. Not quite VS but often far from easy. The very best ones feature interesting climbing throughout and no ledge walking. As Rob Greenwood pointed out in the opening of his recent Five Best E3s article, the best things about these articles is the endless speculation and debate they stir up. So before we go any further, Main Wall on Cyrn Las doesnt make my list. There. I've said it. And yes, I've done it. And yes I enjoyed it.

Maz seconding Demo Route (HS 4a), Sennen, Cornwall  © Wangy
Maz seconding Demo Route (HS 4a), Sennen, Cornwall
© Wangy, May 2005

In fact, my before work, onsight solo of Main Wall was one of my most memorable climbs of 2015. However, on reflection I don't think it quite cuts it. For starters it's often wet. The rock is far from perfect (and in my view the best five routes of any given grade should be on immaculate rock) and the line is a bit of a cop-out, sneaking up the left hand side of the crag.

Anyway, I digress. Picking the routes wasn't too tricky, I took a trip down memory lane and my best Hard Severes came jumping out at me. When I wrote the Five Best E1s article a few years back I made the unforgivable mistake of thinking the E1 I'd most recently climbed (Sirplum) was the best I'd ever climbed. I wasn't going to make that mistake twice. Unlike some of my more meticulous friends I'm not a big fan of logging routes and as I climbed all the routes in my five long ago, if I can still remember them now then they must have been good.

Growing up the Lake District, mountain Hard Severes (they often call them Mild VS up there more on that later) were what I cut my teeth on. While writing this article a whole host of youthful misadventures came flooding back to me. Thanks for sending me back to the days when climbing Bridge's Route on Esk Buttress, in the swirling mist and drizzle, was a real adventure.

This one has it all. Great rock, great climbing, buckets of exposure and a thrilling final traverse. It was also on the cover of the old red FRCC Lake District Rock guide book, which was something of a bible to me as a teenager. Despite all this, for some reason I didnt get around to attempting Tophet Wall until I was in lower sixth. It was my good friend Will Sim's eighteenth birthday and we'd agreed to meet up for a celebratory climb. Will's parents lived in St Bees so he walked in from Wasdale, whilst mine lived near Ullswater so I approached from Borrowdale. In our youthful enthusiasm wed failed to be deterred by the fact that it was raining and that it was November. Somehow we managed to find the base of the route through the mist. Will gallantly set off up the soaking, greasy and surprisingly thin first pitch, in his brand new red Scarpa plastics, before scuttling back down and retreating to the Wasedale Inn for his first legal pint of Cumberland. I came back and did it on a glorious summers day a couple of years later, with my school friend Wayne. The juggy traverse on the final pitch is breathtakingly exposed.

Tophet wall pitch 1  © Brand
Tophet wall pitch 1
© Brand, Sep 2007

Demo Route  © rhudson
Demo Route
© rhudson, Mar 2012

Rockfax West Country Climbs Book - Demo Route  © Rockfax
The Demo Route page from the West Country Climbs Rockfax

The granite sea cliffs of West Penwith are simply fantastic. With solid rock, a friendly atmosphere and plenty of high quality, low-grade climbs, theyre a fantastic place to experience sea cliff climbing for the first time. Aged fourteen, Demo Route at Sennen was possibly the first time I experienced being in-extremis when climbing. After spending the morning getting into the swing of things on Corner Climb and Banana Flake it was time for the main event. My Dad led the first pitch, a fantastic flake, followed by a memorable narrow chimney. I scampered up, nervously looking leftward at the traverse that follows. After some words of encouragement from Dad I set off shakily leftwards, getting a good runner in before committing to the undercut traverse. The exposure and the roaring sea were getting to me and I was over-gripping on the huge undercuts, causing me to get increasingly pumped. With not much left in my young arms I lunged round the overlap, feet skating, fully expecting to be off. Instead my hands caught hold of a huge jug and by some sort of miracle I stayed on. After placing a bomber Friend, and regaining some semblance of composure, I continued up the superb final layback to the top and a well-deserved ice cream.

photo
Sally Baxendale on pitch 1 of Creagh Dhu Wall (HS), Tremadog
© Stephen Reid - Needle Sports

Tremadog is one of my favourite places to climb and I've done most of the good routes the ones that I can do anyway - many times. Although the undoubtedly fine Christmas Curry with the Micah Eliminate Finish is more popular, for me Creagh Dhu Wall has better climbing and positions, plus it's not an eliminate. This is another route that I first climbed as a teenager with my Dad on a summer holiday and I can still vividly remember leading the hand traverse on pitch two with eyes on stalks.

The first pitch squirms up a fun groove, before an exciting foot traverse rightwards leads to an imposing wide crack. Thankfully this isn't as difficult as it looks and you are soon sat leashed to a tree, admiring the excellent view, from a very comfy belay ledge. From here, climb back down and monkey leftwards across the huge flake. This puts you in a spectacular position normally reserved for climbs of a much higher grade. At the end of the traverse there is a small ledge. Spend a while composing yourself before committing to the thankfully short-lived crux groove. Juggy holds and bombproof wires lead to the top and another tree belay. A 50m abseil takes you back to the base of the route. If you've still got an appetite for more, Mensor to the right is a gem at VS. Or if you are fancying something a bit more chilled wander along to the Craig y Gesail and climb Bramble Buttress, one of most underrated V Diffs in Snowdonia.

Rockfax North Wales Climbs book - Craig Dhu Wall  © Rockfax
Rockfax North Wales Climbs book - Craig Dhu Wall
© Rockfax

I think it was Gaston Rebuffat who said that ambition is far more preferable to memory. I couldn't agree more. I spend far more time daydreaming about routes I want to do, rather than reliving those I have done. With this in mind I thought I'd include a route I havent done, especially as by all accounts it is one of the very best routes out there.

photo
Lazy days! Matt on the classic "Ardverikie Wall" HS, Binnein Shuas.
Tris Fox
© Smelly Fox

Located on Binnein Shuas in the Central Highlands, Ardverikie Wall offers superb climbing on perfect rock throughout. Best of all, the crag can be bathed in sunshine whilst rain falls on Ben Nevis and Glencoe. The first ascensionists Graham Hunter and Dougie Lang could think of no other route of the grade or length of a comparable quality. I've asked around a few well-climbed friends and none of them could think of a better Hard Severe. Ardverikie Wall is right at the top of my wish list. Fingers crossed for an Indian Summer this year. I'll report back when I've done it.

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Graeme N Hunter after the 1st Ascent of Ardverikie Wall, Binnein Shuas with Doug lang - June 1967
© hunter, Jun 1967

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Turnbull's on Christmas Crack!
© Rob Turnbull, Feb 2013

Finally a gritstone favourite: Christmas Crack. The best hard severe on grit's undisputed best crag. Living in Sheffield I've climbed it more times than I care to remember and it never ceases to delight - although by living abroad for the first half of 2016 I've not managed it yet this year, perhaps I can rectify this later this afternoon. It has everything you want and expect in a three star classic: good rock throughout, interesting moves - there is a mono in there somewhere if you look hard enough - and plenty of bomber gear.

However the best thing about Christmas Crack is the name. Walk up to Stanage on any Christmas morning, rain or shine, and you will find a procession of friendly climbers, many dressed as Father Christmas, stretched out below it. It's a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, make some new ones and share minced pies and mulled wine. Plus there is the added bonus that you get a really good route in before returning for Christmas dinner as well. If you want to continue in the festive spirit there is another appropriately named route a Hard VS called Cold Turkey around the corner. Make sure you're not late for dinner.

Rockfax Eastern Grit book - Christmas Crack  © Rockfax
Rockfax Eastern Grit book - Christmas Crack
© Rockfax

Five more top quality Hard Severes:

If the top five was a top six this one would have probably made it. Alas it isn't and the less than perfect rock has relegated it to here. That said it's a fantastic climb and should be right at the top of every Hard Severe leader's wish list. Make it even better by climbing Gambit Climb on Clowyn y Ddysgl and continuing up to Snowdon's summit. This makes for one of the best days out in Wales.

Another one I've not done, but if I had I'm sure it would be vying for a place in the top five. Just look at it. 120m of perfect granite padding up one of the most iconic bits of rock in the British Isles. It has the added bonus of being on a remote island that you need to make an extra special effort to visit. To my lasting shame, I've never visited Lundy. Something I really need to rectify.

An exhilarating solo of The Devil's Slide, my 400ft intro to Lundy  © Paul Phillips - UKC and UKH
An exhilarating solo of The Devil's Slide, my 400ft intro to Lundy
© Paul Phillips - UKC and UKH, Sep 2006

Hard Severe roof cracks are few and far between. This is the HS leader's answer to Yosemite's Separate Reality, or maybe more realistically Quietus. A great way to test your hand jamming ability, if you can do this one you're definitely ready for VS. Don't even think about laybacking it.

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Mutiny Crack Burbage. Skiing in to above the crux. With some objective danger overhead.
© si cooke, Jan 2010

This one couldn't really be in the top five as it gets the ridiculous Lakes District grade of Mild Very Severe. Grading aside it's a fantastic route that climbs fantastic rock on England's finest crag. Get up early one fine morning and climb it in the sun. It's unbelievably good.

Scafell Crag with teams on Bottrill's Slab (VS), Nazgul (E3) and Moss Ghyll Grooves (MVS)  © Mark Glaister - Assistant Editor
Scafell Crag with teams on Bottrill's Slab (VS), Nazgul (E3) and Moss Ghyll Grooves (MVS)
© Mark Glaister - Assistant Editor, May 2008

Another of the South Wests corkers, it was first climbed by Biven, Biven and Peck back in 1955. Doorpost has perfect rock, amazing climbing and absolutely nothing to dislike about it.

photo
New year on Doorpost
© Johnny Baker, Dec 2008

And finally for the adventurous connoisseur:

Fingal's Flue, Stoney Middleton

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The author 'enjoying' Fingal's Flue
© Tom Ripley

I'd be lying if I said this was a good route, cave might be more an appropriate description. That said if you like this sort of thing this probably will be the best route on your list. I climbed it the day before my wedding on the recommendation of Outside's James Turnbull and it did not disappoint. Fingal's Flue makes for a quality adventure. Go and do it if you're at a loose end in the Peak on a wet day. Walk to the back of the dank cave, back and foot up the chimney, before posting yourself through a human-sized letter box in the roof. Crawl through to daylight. Taking a head torch definitely isn't cricket.




31 Aug, 2016
Haven't done Demo Route : (. Ardverikie just needs to be about three times the length to be perfect ..
31 Aug, 2016
A great article Tom but no Right Angle at Gurnard's Head with it's amazing positions reserved for far harder climbs, superb rock and quality of climbing?! Tsk tsk... ;-)
31 Aug, 2016
If Mutiny Crack has any place in this article then Raven's Buttress is also deserving of a mention, amazing moves for the grade on bigger jugs than riders on the storm!
31 Aug, 2016
To have Christmas Crack in the top five, and relegate Main Wall and Moss Ghyll Grooves to also-rans, is quite absurd. Also, Doorpost is a better than Demo Route. Tophet Wall, though, is probably the best in the country.
31 Aug, 2016
Hi Gordon, I think you are taking this a little too seriously. The idea of the article is to give a flavour of the best our country has to offer, hence one route from each area. Christmas Crack may be short, but it is on good solid rock, with great moves from start to finish. Moss Ghyll Grooves is Mild VS so it doesn't really count. And whilst Doorpost may be better than Demo Route, I have a very distinct memory of slapping round left in extremis as a wide-eyed teenager on Demo Routes. Whilst my memory of Doorpost, which I climbed a few years afters, is just a fuzzy haze of enjoyment. (I also think Commando Ridge is far better than both!). Cheers, Tom P.S: They're all good. ;-)
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