"How about trying to do the Rockfax 8 Top 50 routes up to and including VS in North Staffs? If we start at 10 we should be finished by 5 ish."
Andy knows me very well. Send a text with even the most esoteric challenge and there’s a good chance that I’ll sign up as quick as a flash! So, with the children organized and my wife set to spend the day in a busy outpatient’s clinic, I found myself crawling through the gridlocked streets of Buxton in search of the exciting A53. Believe me this isn’t a road to miss! If you've a bit of imagination and screw up your eyes the nearby rock formations seem to emerge out of the thick green heather like prehistoric serpents breaking the surface of the ocean! When I first moved to the Peak District I would be drawn to these creatures and regularly climb on their backs. However over time the crags closer to home have embraced me in and I’ve been neglectful. Now on my return it felt good to be back!
The Upper Tier of The Roaches - From Pedestal Crack towards Hen Cloud
Turning off at Upper Hulme I quickly caught sight of Hen Cloud and the Roaches. Once parked, Andy and I walked up past the historic Whillan’s Hut and headed towards the base of Pedestal Crack (S 4a - 28m). We doubled up the 60m rope and tied on. Andy read the guidebook description, “A great outing through some impressive territory…” and I was pointed to the crag. A couple of metres of steep scrambling lead to a shield of rock and the first decision of the day. Head left up the sloping corner crack or climb steep steps on the right? Since I only had 30m of rope a sharp detour right was not going to work. Instead, the straighter, albeit slightly harder, direct line proved to be the better choice. With plenty of places for protection, the series of short polished layback moves passed all too quickly. Soon I was traversing left and looking for a way through the steep overhang. Thankfully this soon appeared and after placing nuts and cams in a series of breaks I was soon able to step up with enough confidence. Easy ground followed and the top quickly emerged. But without an obvious belay in sight I just kept walking and did my best to keep the rope tight. Andy soon realised what was going on and he quickly followed. The first route was done!
The Upper Tier of The Roaches - Andy making light work of Black and Tans.
Our next route was close by – Black and Tans (S – 30m). A route I’d climbed as a beginner in driving rain and a strong wind more than 20 years earlier. I seem to remember losing sensation in my hands shortly after the start and not being able to feel them until I returned to the car several hours later. I think it may have taken an entire morning to climb 30m. I'd just assumed that this was par for the course! Today was very different. The rock was already feeling warm and Andy was going well. In less than 10 minutes he was on the top and hauling me up. On the previous climb we’d made 3 belays and run short of gear. What a difference the weather and a bit of experience make! In less than an hour we’d climbed 2 routes! Next up was Inverted Staircase (Diff 30m), 50m or so away to our left. We kept our shoes on and hobbled over to the start. Earlier in the week Andy had soloed it and was keen to do so again. However the indignity of falling off and suffering an injury at this grade was too much to bare so I insisted upon roping up. To Andy’s credit he didn’t protest and happily followed me up the easy ground. The final squirm up a boulder choked chimney was one of the highlights of the day and put a smile on both our faces. We were now thoroughly warmed up and ready for the climbs on the Lower Tier.
The Lower Tier of The Roaches - A long reach for Andy on Via Dolorosa.
Via Dolorosa (VS 4c – 32m) and Valkyrie (VS 4c – 40m) are amongst the best VS rock climbs in the country. Sitting side by side, they have much in common – steep, well protected and just a little bit polished! Via Dolorosa starts with a series of worn steps that lead up to a gnarled holly bush. This is gained by a wild stretch, or in Andy’s case, a leap, before reaching easy ground. The rest of the pitch weaves back left over friendly cracks and corners before stopping abruptly on a slab below a steep overhang. Here I took over the lead and headed further left towards a shaded wall. I remembered leading this pitch before and knew that my height would be an advantage. Using what could best be described as a head jam, I steadied myself and placed a cam between the wall and an overhanging flake. Stepping back down I traced a series of polished footholds heading up right. Unfortunately these seemed to run out as the climbing steepened up. Where next? Andy could sense my hesitation and started to make encouraging noises, something about a hidden flake and easy ground above. Sometimes you just need to trust your partner and with a deep breath I nervously set off. Andy was right and within a couple of moves a long curving flake crack appeared. Not much thicker than a bicycle tyre, it led to a straightforward mantelshelf and easier ground. With Andy following quickly behind we were soon moving back down to the start. We were heading for Valkyrie…
Valkyrie from below! Andy setting up a belay at the top of the first pitch and a climber about to make the crux move on the second pitch.
If I was to impart one piece of advice in this blog it’s this – never miss an opportunity to climb Valkyrie (VS 4c – 40m). If you don’t believe me, consult the guidebook. The authors of the Rockfax guide, not known for their hyperbole, write, “A wandering line of great quality – the archetypal “must-do!” The route is neatly split into two. Fuelled by a couple of sandwiches Andy set off at speed up a steep slabby corner, before traversing left and belaying in a slot below a spike of rock.
Valkyrie on the lower tier of The Roaches - Andy leading the first pitch.
The next pitch was mine. All mine! Over the spike I clambered and then, with some trepidation, descended the wide crack. With nothing below my feet for 15m I nervously bridged out and rested. The next move was the crux. Those in the know, start on hidden footholds and say that there’s nothing to worry about. But if you’re like me and have never been able to find those elusive holds you’ll be faced with a delicate 5a or 5b move that involves finding something low for the left hand, stepping awkwardly onto a ledge and making a big anti-clockwise sweep of the right arm to find something in a distant crack. Once across, the rest is straightforward. After much instruction from Andy, I belayed him across, making sure not to pull him off. Soon he arrived smiling from ear to ear, Valkyrie had been climbed!
The start of Great Chimney.
Three routes remained and time was moving on. We changed out of climbing shoes, untied the rope and headed over to Hen Cloud. Great Chimney (Sev 4a - 18m) was next. Andy hadn’t climbed the route before and was keen to lead. The route is hidden to the right of the main buttress. Straight as a ruler, the slabby chimney is well served with cracks in each corner. Andy floated up the route, placing gear at will, before finishing the route with a nod of the head and a thumbs up.
Next was Central Climb (VS 4c - 38m). Once described as an, “old classic finding a sneaky way up the crag’s tallest face”, the route neatly divides into three pitches – a bulging off width crack , an awkward slabby corner and finally, a steep wall. Although the guidebook description sounded straightforward, all was not as it seemed. A quote from Classic Rock gave a clue of what was to come,
“This crack repulsed a good number of pioneers, before being climbed by John Laycock in 1909. Unfortunately his second A.R. Thomson was unable to climb it as, “he was handicapped by a congenital disability which made all climbing a matter of heroic endeavor!” Laycock continued, but became benighted below the top of the crag and was rescued after several hours by a sturdy chauffeur…”
Whenever Andy and I climb together we always insist on leading alternate pitches. Whilst this might sound fair, it does make it possible to work out who’ll get the hardest pitches to lead. Unfortunately I didn’t know the order in which we’d complete the climbs. But Andy’s smile at the base of the off width crack seemed to suggest that he did. The pitch was as hard as it looked. At first I was able to bridge out and relax, however this didn’t last long as the crack started to overhang and widen. A way out left seemed possible and so I headed off only to meet a smooth bulging arête that lacked anywhere to place protection. It took some time to get over the disappointment and I eventually returned to the crack. A mix of zig zagging elbows and peddling feet were needed to reach flat ground.
A challenging off-width at the start of Central Climb!
Encouraging noises from below suggested that I should keep going and climb the next pitch as well. Since part of me wanted to get as far away from the off width crack as possible I must have thought that this was a good idea. Off I went along a short grassy shelf and placed protection below a flake and corner crack. Fortunately this crack fitted my chest perfectly and I was able to force several parts of my body inside. When a rest was required I simply took a deep breath and wedged myself between the two smooth walls. Feeling somewhat breathless I eventually emerged, safe and sound, close to the very spot where Laycock had spent the night. After some effort, Andy eventually joined me. Unfortunately his small frame had meant that the crack was far too wide for him and after several attempts he had resorted to climbing the steep slab to the right instead. Comfortably positioned at the belay I was very happy to hand the rack back to my sturdy chauffeur and watch him wrap things up. Despite it’s steepness, Andy did this in good style and I was soon able to follow.
Andy cruising the steep top pitch on Central Climb at Hen Cloud.
Time was now catching us up. The routes on Hen Cloud had taken longer than anticipated and we had less than an hour to climb Boomerang (VDiff – 16m). Despite its low grade and short length, the route was a stiff 10 or 15 minute walk away on Ramshaw Rocks. “Never rush the last climb!” is a good maxim and reluctantly the decision was made to call it a day. Nevertheless, we were pretty satisfied. Over the course of 208m of climbing we had accumulated no fewer than 21 Rockfax stars. Boomerang would have to wait for another day!
Heading back to the start with The Roaches in the distance.
Thanks to Andy Tomlinson for a brilliant day!
The British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) are organising a Science Day in the Peak District on the 13th November 2019. Why not come along? Details can be found here.