“The lower section is bold, you could hurt yourself if you came off”
Lake District resident Dave Birkett made the long drive down to Devon to repeat James Pearson's infamous route The Walk of Life.
Birkett was accompanied by his wife Mary Jenner, his friend Andy Mitchell (41) and Mitchell's son Callum (11), all talented climbers. Andy Mitchell tried the route on top-rope, flashing it on his first attempt, and then climbing it again on his second attempt. Even after these two successive top-rope rehearsals, Mitchell didn't opt for a lead; "it would be a different proposition leading it" he said.
Birkett, one of Britain's gnarliest climbers, did opt for the lead and took multiple falls on to the small but good gear. Birkett is no stranger to hard headpoints and lonely onsights. His tally of E9's is almost unparalleled and his experience of the top end grades is vast. After working out the gear and the sequence for The Walk of Life he got on with the job, taking four days in total to successfully climb the route.
His ascent is the third, Dave MacLeod made a repeat back in January 2009. MacLeod suggested E9 for the route, an opinion that Birkett shares.
The Walk of Life, perhaps most famous for being initially graded E12 7a, the hardest grade ever given to a route in the UK, is a long and bold wall climb on slightly friable rock, situated on Dyer's Lookout, a big sea cliff on the north coast of Devon. The route naturally attracted Birkett, due to the superb nature of the climbing, but also due to the difficulty.
“It's a bold E8 into a sustained well protected E8. Benchmark E9 6c, although "If 6 Were 9" and "Holdfast" are a bit harder.”
Both Mitchell and Birkett were impressed by the line and the climbing and Mitchell thinks an even better ascent is certainly possible. And he has a climber in mind:
"The big news would be for someone to onsight it now it's all chalked up. It's the kind of thing that James McHaffie wouldn't fall off. The first section is E8 in it's own right and would probably take a couple of days to ground up. The top is thin and the gear fiddly."
Both Dave Birkett and James 'Caff' McHaffie are from Cumbria and top climber Pete Robins described them as two of the best trad climbers he has ever seen:
"Dave Birkett inspires me, like Caff, he's got super-human Cumbrian powers of gnarl and you could imagine either of them charging down the enemy on the front line in a medieval battle."
The battle for the third ascent of The Walk of Life has been won by Birkett. Who knows which route he'll set his sights on next.
Want more details on Birkett's ascent?
In the exclusive UKC Interview below, Senior Editor Mick Ryan talks directly to Dave and gets straight to the nitty-gritty.
Dave Birkett Walks The Walk:
I caught up with Dave Birkett yesterday morning. He was sat on a carpet of dried sphagnum moss below Spout Crag in Greater Langdale, taking a break from doing a spot of dry stone walling repair, the sun breaking through the clouds. Later he was off to do a lecture at the Keswick Mountain Festival. Although Dave is an exceptional climber, and has a small amount of sponsorship, getting mainly gear, he describes himself as a weekend climber like most of us.
We talked by phone.
Eh Up Dave. What attracted you to the Walk of Life?
Watching the film of James Pearson climbing it. It's a stunning looking wall and an amazing feature. Then when I actually got there, at the base of the route, I knew I just had to do the route. It's in an amazing location. When everything settles down as regards the grade and the hype that surrounds it, it will be heralded as a modern extreme classic of the 21st Century. The Cenotaph Corner of Devon.
How's the climbing?
It's not strenuous, you never get pumped. It's long, very fingery climbing and mentally arduous. Your fingers feel strained from pulling on all the small edges. Feet are very technical, the crux though is to remember all the moves and in the upper reaches you feel the weight of the rope. It's a long 55-60 metre pitch. I used two lightweight 8mm ropes to reduce the weight.
How's the gear?
On the upper reaches it's got great gear, lots of small cams and micro-wires. It's probably a lot safer than it was with all the rotten pegs in, full credit to James for taking them out. The lower section is bold, you could hurt yourself if you came off.
What style did you do Walk of Life in and how long did it take you?
It's a long drive down from the Lakes and we had to fit it in between trips to Skye. We took four trips down there over the last six weeks. Because of the fingery nature of the climbing, I only got a day of climbing on the Walk of Life on each of the four trips, so it took me four days.
The style? Headpoint, same as James and second ascensionist Dave MacLeod.
First day, with Mary, I abseiled down, cleaned the holds as it hadn't been climbed since Dave MacLeod's ascent. Checked the gear out, sussed some of the moves and by the end of the day I'd top roped it in one.
As I said we went down four times, with Mary, then Andy Mitchell and his son Callum. Andy's a very talented climber and flashed the route on a top-rope.
I placed the gear on the lead, but on the final headpoint I had some gear placed from previous lead attempts, there was no point stripping it. I think I got it on my fourth lead attempt.
OK Dave, the grade!
Well first I'd just like to say that far more credit should have been given to Ian Vickers who climbed the top part of the route. Walk of Life is essentially a direct start to Ian's Dyer Straits an E8 6b. James straightened it out and it is better for it but the meat of the pitch is the top part.
If you were to apply a sport grade to Walk of Life it would weigh in at about F8a+, or in American 5.13c R.
As regards the E-grade. A bold bit of climbing into an E8 would never make E12. It's a bold E8 into a sustained well protected E8. Benchmark E9 6c, although If 6 Were 9 and Holdfast are a bit harder.
(If 6 Were 9 is Birkett's E9 at Iron Crag repeated by Dave MacLeod and Holdfast is Dave MacLeod's E9 7a in Glen Nevis, repeated by Birkett.)
So no, not E12, but E9. But despite the hype about the grade it's a great quality climb. I essentially agree with Dave MacLeod's take on the route as regards the grade.
You've said in the past that there's no such thing as an E10. Do you still have that opinion?
To me E9 represents the top end trad grade in the UK. I suppose if something like Walk of Life had no gear and you had to solo it, that would be considered E12.
What else have you been up to recently and any plans?
We've been doing a bit of scrambling in the Lakes with our informal Thursday night scrambling club. We've had some good trips up to Skye and went back up to Loch Coruisk and Andy and myself did a new 4 pitch E5 corner system near Sky Wall. Absolutely brilliant, there's so much new route potential up there.
We really enjoyed going down to Devon, driving down country lanes, meeting people, sampling the local beers. Mary and me did Eroica on Pentire Head, that must be one of the best E3's in the country. I think we will be heading south a lot this summer to Devon and Cornwall. I've spent a bit of time down there in the past but it's great to rediscover the area.
Photo Gallery - The Walk of Life:
Thanks go to both Dave for the interview and to Andy Mitchell for the photographs.