Since the lifting of lockdown Horseshoe Quarry has become the busiest crag in the Peak. These days the most popular area of this popular crag goes by the insalubrious name of The Toilet. Most older climbers will remember why it was called that however, these days it is not only clean and tidy but a popular spot where a lot of people get their first outdoor leads and there are frequently family groups enjoying picnics.
This Sunday was no different. Most of the routes in the central section of The Toilet area were busy and there were lots of people underneath. A plucky leader was trying and taking falls off the route Thomas Crapper. She came down but had pretty much given up and offered me the lead, which I gratefully accepted. The ascent went fine up until near the top, where I put my hand on this massive loose block. It had a slightly faded white chalk X on it and my instinct was the one recognisable to many climbers - avoid this hold at all costs. I was able to do this and climbed to the top but took a closer look while lowering and realised that this was an absolutely lethal block that was coming loose and could easily drop off at any time. It was about the size of an old-style TV.
We warned people below but I wasn't going to move it on this day since the crag was simply too busy. Returning early the next morning we crowbarred the block away. It was slightly more keyed-in than expected and it turned out that the loose rock was actually the section above it, which was collapsing. As soon as I started pulling on that with the bar the block came loose very easily.
The interesting thing about this story is that this is a really popular route - 580 ascents in the UKC Logbook, making it the 4th most popular route on this busy sector - and there have been 25 ascents since lifting lockdown. On not one of these logged ascents has anyone mentioned a loose block. This might mean that it has only just become loose, although the chalk X looked to have been there for a while. It had definitely become looser recently since it had started shedding small stones from the cracks, which is the tell-tale sign of a block that is rapidly losing its stability.
It is possible that the circumstances have combined to hide this potentially lethal situation. Many people with limited outdoor experience could well be climbing on this section in the last couple of months and others with experience could have been avoiding it because it has always been so busy. We may assume that everyone knows how to deal with loose rock, or how destructive it can be, but that is probably a result of experience. It seemed to me that people climbing on this section of crag were blissfully unaware of the danger lurking above. Even after I came down and told them there was only a muted response. Most were also unaware of the practice of taping the first bolt as a sign to avoid a route.
What to do if you find a big loose block on a route
If you encounter a major loose block on a route then it is best not to try and remove it yourself unless you have experience at setting up a safe rope from above and the crag is very quiet. Even with small blocks you should be wary about removing them unless you know what you are doing since a small block can hold a big block in place. Also, you almost always discover them when your belayer is below you!
The unwritten method of indicating a loose block is to put a chalk X on it, however this isn't always enough as our story here showed, since it may not be visible from below. The other method on sport routes is to put finger-tape over the first bolt. This is a general method used Europe-wide to indicate a route that shouldn't be climbed for a reason that could be a nesting bird, a loose hold, a missing bolt or something else.
If you don't remove the block then report it. This could be through the UKC Logbook, the UKC Forums, or by contacting the BMC. Neither UKC nor the BMC has the resources to send someone to act on this report (although in this case we did), however the aim is to get the message to local climbers that there is a loose block that needs some attention. Many areas also have local Facebook groups that are worth posting on.
Follow the BMC's Respect the Rock Video Series for safety and ethics tips on outdoor climbing for newcomers. The episode below covers sport climbing at Horseshoe Quarry.