A blood sacrifice at the altar of Brown and Whillans
Every climber has heard of The Nose. Perhaps the most iconic route there is, often dreamt of, much aspired-to, but unfortunately also a bloody long way from Bristol. So we devise our own challenges, closer to home. Girdle traverses are a favourite, maintaining the feeling of being off the ground for many pitches at a time. In this vein is The Equator at Avon Gorge: an 11-pitch traverse of the Main Wall at Avon Gorge. Another is the ‘big day out’: choose a set of routes in an area, preferably connected by some theme, and climb them all, back-to-back, in a day. The one I attempted this weekend is of the latter type and has jokingly been dubbed the ‘Staffordshire Nose’.
The challenge is to complete, in one day, the 31 routes at the Roaches (including Hen Cloud and Ramshaw), which were first climbed by legends Joe Brown and Don Whillans. Many of these routes are notorious sandbags, and most are crack climbs. As many of you know, grit cracks are far from the platonic ideal of the Indian Creek splitter. They are nightmarish creations, hewn from rough, course stone, studded with tooth-like pebbles. They are often steep, flared, rounded or all three. They tend to be short, but just plain hard (see appendix I).
With that background, I expect it’s a manifestation of my masochistic streak that on Sunday afternoon, Alex and I set off to Staffordshire to make our attempt. We discuss tactics on the way up, deciding to relax the “in a day” criterion to “in 24 hours”. This permits us to make a start on the Sunday evening, complete the remainder on Monday, and hopefully get back to Bristol at a reasonable hour. We set our goal for the first evening as completing the 7 routes at Ramshaw Rocks, including Ramshaw Crack, the stopper route. Most of the routes on the list are HVS or E1, with a couple of E2s and then Ramshaw Crack. At E4 6a, this 45 degree overhanging crack (starting at hands, widening to squeeze all within about 20 feet) is by far the hardest route we have to complete, and harder than either of us habitually climb.
When we make a start at 19:01 on Sunday, I’m already feeling pretty broken. I’ve climbed on 4 of the last 5 days (and the remaining day wasn’t a rest day either) but I agreed on the tactics. “The Great Zawn” (an HVS chimney) makes a good warm-up, then we jump straight into “Masochism”, one of the more vicious sandbags around (see appendix I). By the end of route 4, in Alex’s words I look like I’m about to keel over. I rally a little over the course of the next 2 routes, then all too soon I’m standing at the bottom of Ramshaw Crack. I give it a good go, but in the end employ a point of aid, pulling on a cam to get matched on a sloper in the top of the crack. Alex climbs it clean on the other end of the rope and we call it good. Reports vary, but it’s suspected that Joe Brown used some aid on the FA.
Monday dawns with low cloud shrouding the crags.
It doesn’t exactly fill us with enthusiasm but there’s no time to lose: 24 routes to get through before 19:01. The first three go easily and the cloud starts to lift, things are looking up! The next route is another hard one though, “The Crack of Gloom”. The name says it all really, a dark, damp crack set deep in a cave-like recess, breaking it’s way out through a series of overhangs to finally emerge round an enormous chockstone. To make things worse, I arrive at the bottom of the route to find my sandwiches half-eaten and scattered around in the dirt, presumably at the hands (hooves?) of a sheep. A definite low point.
On my first attempt I fall off at half way. We pull the ropes and I set off again, easily getting past my previous high point to reach the chockstone exit. Here, you must exit the crack into a kind of bottomless chimney, back against the boulder, with leftwards progress desperately hard to obtain. I have to take my helmet off in order to wedge myself higher up in the constricted space. At least it’s harder to fall off from here, more a case of trying hard than technical proficiency.
Eventually I top out and we can move on. The routes all start to blur together at this point and a blow-by blow account would be too long for this report anyway. By lunch time, we’ve finished the 15 routes at the Roaches and have a rest and a bite to eat back at the car before moving on to Hen Cloud and the final 9. Single figures now: a good milestone! The Hen Cloud routes are a bit longer, up to 25m, but also less brutal and we make steady progress. An unexpected highlight was getting the lead on all three of the classic trio of HVS routes: Bachelor’s Left Hand, Hen Cloud Eliminate and Delstree. Under other circumstances I’d consider this alone to be a good day!
We finally reach the last route of the day: Main Crack. At VS 5a, it is—on paper—one of the easier routes of the circuit. It certainly didn’t look much worse than anything that had gone before, but appearances can be deceptive. It’s Alex’s lead, and I see him rapidly arrive at, then completely disappear into the wide crack at 2/3 height. For the next 10 minutes or so I just hear a series of grunts and groans emanating from the fissure, the rope feeding desperately slowly from my belay plate, before the eventual shout, “Safe Nick!”.
I soon find out what the grunting was about. Upwards progress is hard-won, requiring shoulders, knees and an awful lot of thrutching. It was unplanned but remarkably appropriate that the last route of the day was squirming up a squeeze chimney to the narrow slit of daylight above. Topping out into the sun was very satisfying; knowing it was over even more so!
The day after, Alex must have been perusing the guidebook. I receive a text, “Oh Christ. We climbed Hedgehog Crack instead of Slimline”, shortly followed by another, containing the single word, “Bugger.” I didn’t want it to be true but he’s right. I’ve checked the guidebook myself. Bugger.
Select quotes from the guidebook
Masochism, HVS 5b
“Good fun and obviously undergraded but what the hell”
Brown’s Crack, E1 5c
“Short and just plain hard” [like Joe Brown himself]
Main Crack, VS 5a
“Men have disappeared for days in this fissure. Some have never returned”
Teck Crack, HVS 5b
“A fantastic sandbag”
The Mincer, HVS 5b
“The overhang… will reduce all but the most adept to a flailing display of appalling technique”
The speed record
As you might expect, the natural next step after simply completing the routes is to complete them in the shortest time possible. This current record stands at 5 hours, 53 minutes (compared to our 22 hours and 25 minutes) and was set in November 2013 by Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker, aka “The Wide Boyz”. Here is the writeup on Tom’s blog:
and the accompanying video (in two parts):
As you can see, it was raining when they did it, making the time (and even just completing it) even more impressive!
Start time: 19:01 Sunday (finish for the day at ~21:00)
End time: 17:26 Monday (started the day at ~06:20)
Total time: 22 hours, 25 minutes (climbing time ~13 hours, 5 minutes)
Here is the complete list, in the order we did them. Maybe you’ve done a few yourself?
1. The Great Zawn, HVS 5a
2. Masochism, HVS 5b
3. The Crank, VS 5a
4. Don’s Crack, HVS 5b
5. Prostration, HVS 5a
6. Brown’s Crack, E1 5c
7. Ramshaw Crack, E4 6a
The Roaches (Upper Tier):
8. Aqua, VS 4b
9. Saul’s Crack, HVS 5a
10. The Sloth, HVS 5a
11. The Crack of Gloom, E2 5b
12. Slippery Jim, HVS 5a
13. Ackit, HVS 5b
14. Teck Crack, HVS 5b
15. Lightning Crack, HVS 5b
16. Dorothy’s Dilemma, E1 5a
17. Valkyrie Direct, HVS 5b
18. The Mincer, HVS 5b
19. Rhodren, HVS 5b
20. Choka, E1 5c
21. Matinee, HVS 5b
22. The Bulger, VS 4c
23. Bachelor’s Climb, VS 4c
24. Bachelor’s Left Hand, HVS 5b
25. Slimline, E1 5b (see addendum, actually climbed Hedgehog Crack, VS 4c)
26. Hen Cloud Eliminate, HVS 5b
27. Second’s Retreat, HVS 4c
28. Delstree, HVS 5a
29. Reunion Crack, VS 5a
30. En Rappel, HVS 4c
31. Main Crack, VS 5a