INTERVIEW: Stu Littlefair's '40 Routes at 40' Birthday Challenge

Everyone's favourite 9a-climbing astrologist astrophysicist Stu Littlefair turns 40 this week. As is customary for a 40th birthday celebration weekend, Stu was left knackered, feeling sick and a bit hungover afterwards. However, in Stu's case no alcohol was required: climbing 40 routes in 16 hours at Malham and Kilnsey achieved the desired effect...

Stu getting cake from his Dad, 214 kb
Stu getting cake from his Dad
© Ian Littlefair

I caught up with Stu to find out more about his 40th birthday challenge...

How did the idea of doing 40 routes at Malham and Kilnsey on your 40th birthday come about?

There's a long and fine tradition of birthday challenges in climbing. I think I first came across the idea of doing as many routes as your age when Alex Johnson did 25 routes in Red Rock Canyon on her 25th, and again when Alex Honnold soloed 290 pitches on his 29th. But they were easy routes, and doing this kind of thing in your twenties is a soft option. 

What really got me inspired though was the epic long days Tom Randall & Pete Whittaker have put in on grit, and McHaffie soloing 100 Lakes extremes. I wanted to do something like that, but can't run between crags and I'm too scared to solo. 

Describe your plan for the day - where did you start and when, what were the rules? 

I started at Malham Cove at 5am. My wife Jules drew the short straw and was my early morning belayer despite being freezing cold and having got no sleep the night before. The only rules were that it had to be 40 different routes, climbed on lead (with one exception) and that I wanted to finish in time to get a meal in at the pub.

What was the hardest route you managed?

On paper, the hardest route was Raindogs. But it was the 7bs and 7b+s that I didn't know so well which proved to be the hardest on the day. Especially near the end of the day.

Stu on Dominatrix 7c, 151 kb
Stu on Dominatrix 7c
© Ian Littlefair

Did you fall off at all, or maybe have to change your planned list of climbs?

There were a few changes I had to make, especially since the weather was awful in the morning. There was a cold wind and the rain was blowing into the cove so it was pretty grim! I had a few mid-7s on the LHS of Malham that were soaked which I swapped out for a couple of 7a's and one bouldery 7c+ roof.

I only fell off twice; by route 23 I was falling apart and fell off a technical 7b+ at the chains. That was a bit of a low point. Then, right at the end with two routes to go I had to redpoint a buggy 6c. My support crew were pretty angry about that, because the pub deadline was approaching and the midges were fearsome by then!

Who did you have with you to support you? 40 routes is a lot of belaying!

It was amazing the efforts people made to help me out; I was really touched. My wife Jules, Rob Sutton and Matt Pascoe shared the belaying duties, and Rob climbed over 20 routes himself to help me strip the steeper routes! 
Karin Magog and Steve Crowe deserve an extra special mention - they arrived early and put the quickdraws in all the hard routes at Kilnsey and even pre-placed the wires in the one trad route I did. That was amazing for them to do that. 
What was really nice though was having my family come out to cheer me on. They brought me birthday cake, and tried to keep my spirits up. Except I felt too sick to eat much cake, and it was a bit deflating to bust a gut climbing The Ashes (7c+) as route number twenty and my Mum to ask "Is that a hard one?" when I got to the ground. She thought Achilles Heel, 6c, looked harder.

Climbing Dominatrix (route 21) whilst Mum looks on, 209 kb
Climbing Dominatrix (route 21) whilst Mum looks on
© Alex Fennah

How did you keep up the psyche and the energy?

I definitely didn't keep up the psyche. I just maintained my usual miserable demeanour and kept on plodding. 

What time did you finish? How did you (and your skin) feel at the end?

We finished just before 9pm, 16 hours after starting and (not coincidentally) just before the Tennants Arms stopped serving.

How did the challenge compare to doing Rainshadow 9a - which felt more satisfying?!

Obviously all climbing is a pointless self-indulgence but this challenge had a particular arbitrary character to it that I found quite pleasing.

Done! Just about enough strength left to pop a cork, 139 kb
Done! Just about enough strength left to pop a cork
© Ian Littlefair

Was there a trip to McDonald's to celebrate?

No, none of that sort of thing. I'm too old for it now...

50 at 50? Is this the next goal?

I reckon if I look after myself over the next ten years I might try and climb 50 feet for my 50th...

What was your favourite birthday present - get anything good?

My actual birthday is on Wednesday. If my Mum reads this I'd quite like a sous-vide cooker.

Stu's List


- [x] Appetite 7a+
- [x] Yosemite Wall 7a
- [x] Against the Grain 7a+
- [x] New Dawn 7c
- [x] Raindogs 8a
- [x] Chiselling the Dragon 7c
- [x] Seventh Dragon 7b+
- [x] Seventh Aardvark 7b 
- [x] Rated PG 7a 
- [x] Consenting adults 7a 
- [x] Thriller 7c+
- [x] Free and Even Easier 7a+ 
- [x] Something Stupid 7b
- [x] Rose Coronary 7a
- [x] Hartley Hare 7a+ 
- [x] Puddlejumper 7a+
- [x] Just another dead end job 7a
- [x] Sycophants 7a


- [x] Hardy Annual 7a+
- [x] Deja Vu E5
- [x] Directissima 6c
- [x] Face Value (TR) 7a
- [x] Sticky Wicket 7b
- [x] The Ashes 7c+
- [x] 50 for 5 7c
- [x] Comedy 7c
- [x] Nerve Ending 7b
- [x] The Bulgette 6b
- [x] Ground Effect 7b
- [x] Highway 395 6c+
- [x] Open Road 6c
- [x] Achilles Heel 6c
- [x] New Mystique 6b+
- [x] Allakazam 6c
- [x] Quiet Flight 7a+
- [x] Dominatrix 7c
- [x] Wysiwyg 7b+
- [x] Last Gasp Finish 7b
- [x] Slab Culture 7b+
- [x] Smooth Torquer 7a+

Stu is sponsored by: La Sportiva

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