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Peak District: English paradise for trad climbers

Peak District: English paradise for trad climbers


Author: Tomáš Brzobohatý Date: 17.06.2019 Category Climbers Guide to the Galaxy

Pioneers of the sport of climbing in England saved on bolts and rivets. Thanks to them, the Peak District is a pearl of traditional climbing. Read how many friends you should pack with you for the trip and how much courage.


When you say climbing in England, most climbers imagine climbing on one’s own or trad climbing. No bolts and no rivets, just a solid rock, excellent friction and beautiful nature. That image is exactly right! Traditional climbing has a magic and requires good preparation.

In England, you can climb on your own on the crags that skirt it, and mainly in the celebrated Peak District. This inland national park is the true Mecca of climbing with friends and chocks. Many climbers, used to the instant security of the limestone sports area of the remainder of Europe, may get goose bumps when saying its name – the local rocks are celebrated for the high concentration of nice routes of all difficulties, of course without a single rivet. Surprisingly, the absence of fixation in the cliff face does not mean that a person will definitely kill himself here. In the Peak District you will find lots of wonderful routes that can be safely secured using chocks and friends.

The beginnings of climbing in the Peak District

Climbing in the Peak District was begun by James W. Puttrell, who came here to find the first line back at the end of the 19th century. The first guidebook was released in 1913. Thus, tradition in the Peak District reaches far back and with each new generation new, usually more daring and difficult directions are opened. In light of the climbing style and its demand on technique, this area has been put to the test by climbers with such big names Johnny Dawese, John Dunn, Peter Whittaker, Jerry Moffat, Steve McLure and Ben Moon. Climbing the largest local crags usually require not only strength, but also mental resilience. In some of the routes, falls are not a safe choice. The Peak District is simply a good holiday destination for Czech sandstone climbers. But not just for them! There are also lots of boulder sectors with super quality boulders in the area.

Each well-known area has routes that are more famous than the others. In the Peak District these are, for example, Master´s Edge from Ron Fawcett from the year 1983. To this day climbing it has a high value, because it is a bold arete with a difficulty of E7 6c (about 7c-7c+ in the French system) with a single protection roughly in the middle. Climbers from all corners of the world come to the Millstone sector to try it.  Master´s Edge is a test for the climber and the protection, since when falling from the crux right under the top, the climber falls to only a bit above the ground. Simply nobody can be certain, even with a morale trained from Czech sandstone. But let’s take a look at the Peak District from the beginning, from routes of more approachable classes and protectability.

Cracks, slabs and other jewels of grit

The Peak District spreads out over an area of approximately 20x40 km and you can find it west of the city of Sheffield in the northern part of England (1 hour from Manchester, 3 hours from London). The local material is called grit and geographically speaking, it is very hard sandstone. From a climbing point of view, its excellent friction is of key importance.

The area is entirely devoid of fixed protection, everything is secured by friends and chocks. The faces are not that high. The highest has about 30 metres, many of them have around 20 metres. Even on the smaller cliffs you will find first-class routes. Fans of cracks will feel they have gone to heaven – the area offers the possibility of crack climbing in all sizes and difficulty levels. Climbing cracks, moreover, is the safest local discipline; it is usually possible to feed a crack with friends from the bottom to the top. In addition to cracks, you will also find a great number of chimneys in Peak, as well as more difficult jugs and slabs. Climbing the slightly leveller routes, where you make use of your balance and faith in the quality of your climbing shoes, is a joy. Slabs are often divided by horizontal cracks, which provide sufficient protection. You will find solo climbs here and there in the Peak District. Thus, the routes have to be chosen carefully, to look to see where protection is possible and to read the descriptions in the guide books. In the local guide books, unlike ours, you can read where the crux is and what friend sizes will come in handy. Sometimes the advice is PRICELESS! From what I have written, I am sure it is clear that the Peak District has its own climbing etiquette, vastly different from our sandstone.

The eccentricities of local belay stations

Climbing in the Peak District is traditional in the strictest sense. Only your own temporary protection is used: friends, chocks, sometimes stopper knots or feeding a tunnel. In some of the older routes you will encounter older, usually rotten pitons. Afterwards the pitons are not changed – once they fall apart, there will no longer be any there, making room for chocks. All fixed protection is strictly prohibited, and the same applies to anchors – there are none here. There simply is no drilling in the Peak District. One essential question enters your mind now – where to practice routes or pick up a climbing partner?

The answer comes from the character of the local rock formations. Most of the climbing in the Peak District is climbing on rock-masses, thus after climbing the route the cliff can be circumvented. To take in the second, you have to create your own belay station above in one of the following manners. You may encounter part of a fence or a pen for sheep up above and voilà! You can tie up to one or preferably more wooden or stone posts. In light of their age, it is always best to thoroughly ensure that they are firmly embedded in the ground. Another possibility is to take in from a large stopper knot or from a belay station created out of several suitably-connected friends and chocks. That, of course, is only possible in routes that are naturally ragged up above.

An extra thirty-metre rope often comes in handy when making a belay station, as you can also create it in a route where you will not find good protection on the arete. With an extra rope you can also create a belay station a few metres from the arete. Yes, sometimes it is a bit of a nuisance, but it is good training! After a few routes in the Peak District placing a belay station will get in your blood and you will be able to creatively create a safe belay station in any terrain.

Morale testers

From your own beautiful belay stations, with a top-rope you can then practice more mentally demanding routes of higher difficulties. The actual protection of the routes is highly variable, depending on the topography of the crags. There are routes where you place a single friend. Others are protectable from about the middle. Others have an unprotected finish… In the Peak District you will find several morale-boosting slabs, where you climb on bad holds and with feet smearing high over the protection. Such crags are (mainly with increasing difficulty) very rarely climbed in on-sight style. It is much more frequent that the climber practices a route with top-rope, studies the exact position and type of required protection, or he marks the place to put your foot using magnesium (yes, this controversial magic powder is permitted without restriction here and does not appear to damage the sandstone in any way), until subsequently they climb strictly from the bottom to the first end of the rope. Whoever comes here does not need to worry that they will not climb to their maximum ability, simply choose a suitable top rope station and you can merrily begin to try to endure the unendurable. 

Unique British scale of difficulty

Throughout the United Kingdom, the difficulty of trad climbing is evaluated by a unique difficulty grade, which is available, for example, here. In short, the evaluation is comprised of two components that, taken together, give a very exact description of what the climber can expect in the route. The first part gives the overall difficult of the route (a combination of the required technique, endurance and morale). This is indicated by the letters D, VD, HVD, S, VS, HVS (Difficult, Very Difficult, Hard Very Difficult, Severe, Very Severe a Hard Very Severe) on the lower orders and in the higher by E1, E2, etc. up to E10 or E11 (Extreme and a number). The second component represents the difficulty of the most difficult individual steps on the route, regardless of the protectability of this spot, and is designated by a combination of numerals and a lower case a, b or c (5a, 5b, 5c, 6a, etc.).

Common combinations are, for example, HVS 5a, E1 5b or E2 5c, in which the necessary morale and protectability of the routes usually corresponds to their physical difficulty. Let’s look at two examples:

  • If a route will be designated, for example, HVS 5c, it means that the most difficult individual steps will be very difficult (the standard for HVS is 5a), though the overall difficulty of the route will be relatively small – in light of the required morale, placement of the protection and technical difficulty, the crux will most likely be well protected by a short boulder.
  • If the difficulty is E2 5a, it will be a very hard to protect route. These numbers tell us that even if we will not be making too difficult steps (5a), the overall difficulty of the route is higher than we are used to for such demanding movements (E2). Maybe there will be more demanding steps in a row (endurance climbing) and/or the route will be mentally demanding due to a long climb down or the poor quality of protection (e.g. unstable chocks).

A guide can help you differentiate protectable routes from highly dangerous ones. You can tell what your numbers are after climbing the first few routes. And careful, even with the graphical similarity, the British grade differs from the French. Thus, HVS 5a is very roughly equivalent to 5c or 6a fr. To get an idea, look at the conversion table available on the server rockfax.com. From my own experience, I can say that once used to a specific climbing style, I converted the difficulty to the sandstone rather than to the French system for myself – the morale is often an essential component of climbing in the Peak District. Let’s say that an average VIIc with a basic sling in the Bohemian Paradise or in Tisá would very roughly correspond to an average E1 on grit.

The most famous sectors and the most beautiful routes

The entire Peak District offers more than 10 000 routes, so there really is a lot to choose from. When choosing a sector, you practically cannot misstep; climbing is fantastic everywhere in the Peak District. The individual sectors are a few minutes away from each other by car, thus they can very easily be switched depending on the conditions and on the current number of people. Nevertheless, some sectors are more famous than others – let’s take a look at three of the most well-known of them.

Everyone who visits the Peak District should climb in Stanage. It is a 3 km long band of cliffs that can be climbed. Thus a sure bet is climbing only the two- and three-star routes here according to the guidebook – even then you will have more than enough fun. From the easier routes, I can recommend Flying Buttress HVD 4a, the easy cracks Christmas Crack HS 4a and Ellis´s Eliminate VS 4c, Outlook Slab VS 5a and the beautiful pillar Narrow Butters Direct VS 5a. Once you have climbed a bit, try perhaps Queersville HVS 5a, Cold Turkey HVS 5a or Leaning Buttress Direct HVS 5b. Among the more difficult here, I have only climbed Yosemite Wall E2 5b, whose protectability is still bearable, and the absolutely unprotected Fear and Loathing E3 5c (or 6B boulder) and Not To Be Taken Away E2 6a (6C boulder). The last two are climbed without ropes as boulders. The most difficult of these is the famous route Unfamiliar E7 6c.

There are excellent boulders in Stanage, so if you manage to somehow get bouldering mats into the Peak District, I definitely recommend trying out Pebble – a huge rock that you can’t miss, with about 20 boulders of all difficulties leading up it. There are also a great number of boulders around this crag that the famous Johnny Dawes climbed “no hand” style. I heartily recommend trying it on a day you want to protect your skin, but it is also too beautiful to not climb. This mantling practice will diversify your climbing movement repertoire and in a party of friends, you will have your fun cut out for you for several hours. There is an inexhaustible choice of routes here in all difficulties.

Another mandatory stop is Curbar Edge. Hundreds of routes and hundreds of possibilities, all in a beautiful, solid crag. After warming up climbing the easier P.M.C.1 HS 4a, October Crack VS 4c or Pale Complexion VS 4c, it is possible to gradually raise the bar, for example on the corner crack Maupassant HVS 5a, on the overhanging exposed arete L´Horla E1 5b or in the short and striking finger crack The Toy E1 5c. There are also slabs to choose from: Kayak E1 5b and Canoe E2 5c. If you prefer wider cracks, definitely don’t miss the fist jam Elder Crack E2 5b or the strenuous offwidth Right Eliminate E3 5c. For pumped-up daredevils, you can find the renowned Knockin´ on Heaven´s Door E9 6c here, one of the toughest routes in all the Peak District. Just like Stanage, this sector also offers dozens of excellent routes of all difficulties. And here, too, you will find lots of nice boulders.

The third highly-recommended stop is the Millstone Edge sector, which differs in its character from all the others. It is a former quarry, so the routes here often lead over artificially altered rocks: smooth corners, right-angle edges and drilled holes, that all can be found here. This area is one of the highest, with routes often reaching 30 metres, creating a unique atmosphere and climbing style in connection with the perpendicular, artificially tooled walls. The easier routes include the largest classic crack routes Bond Street HVS 5a and Great Portland Street HVS 5b. Here in Millstone Edge you can also escalate the tension in your tendons and the mental strain, specifically in the wonderful Embankment 3 E1 5b, Time For Tea E3 5c, on the difficult and protected London Wall E5 6b or on the daring Edge Lane E5 5c (a practically unprotected roughly 15m high arete). The sector’s top route is definitely the legendary Master´s Edge E7 6c, which I wrote about in the introduction to the article.

The list could continue for many pages, but it probably wouldn’t be all that interesting reading, so to be concise: I definitely recommend Burbage South and North for bouldering and for rope, the small but pretty Mother Cap sector (bouldering), the quiet and empty Bamford (rope), the only markedly overhanging sector Higgar Torr, the low Baslow Edge (rope) and lastly also Froggatt Edge, Gardom´s Edge and the former quarry Lawrencefield.

My key memory of the Peak District is the realisation how astoundingly diverse climbing on your own can be. There is everything in the Peak District: protected and dangerous, level and overhanging, walls, corners, cracks, aretes… Choose according to your tastes! In my opinion, the material here is absolutely unique and the atmosphere under the rocks is created by visitors from all over the world.

When to go for the grit season

The locals will surely tell you that you can climb all year round. That’s essentially true, though the best chance at pleasant weather tends to be in the spring (April, May). In the summer it can be too hot and calm, which means attacks by clouds of insects. Climbing is also possible at the end of the summer and beginning of the autumn (August, September). Though it is a bit cooler and windier, it means the insects will leave you alone.

England is famous for its changing weather, and that is why this rule is very approximate, even in September it can rain for a week and in March it can be 15-20 degrees and dry for a week. It is ideal to check the weather over a period of time so you will know what to expect. No matter what, never forget to take weatherproof clothing and insect repellent.

Practical tips

How to get here? A combination of air to London or Manchester and then by hiring a car. You can also drive from the Czech Republic through Germany, Belgium and France. In light of the distance and the necessity of a ferry, however, we only recommend this alternative if you are planning to spend a longer time here.

All of the sectors are at most 20 minutes from the car and also suitable for families with children. Be careful if you have a dog with you. There are flocks of sheep in the wetlands around the crags and it is often prohibited to have your dog off his leash.

Free camping is prohibited. There are several camps in the Western European style (showers, Internet, kitchens) in the vicinity. The town of Hathersage is kind of the heart of the Peak District, where you can find everything that you may be lacking. There is a petrol station with a small grocery store, an outdoor shop, cafés, restaurants and an OUTSIDE shop with climbing gear (which I recommend visiting, it is full of guidebooks, equipment and climbers). If there is something you cannot find, Sheffield is about a 15 minute drive away. Sheffield is about as big as Brno, so there you can find anything, a service station, climbing walls (we were on Awesome Walls, what if it was raining, right?), a cinema, large supermarkets with less expensive food, a hospital, accommodations in airbnbs, etc.

Pack one or preferably two ropes in your backpack, some routes are climbed better with two ropes due to friction on the cliffs. You will also appreciate the second rope when mantling belay stations. Even if you will have only one 60m rope, you should be all right in most cases. Add 10 quickdraws, some slings for extensions or stopper knots, a set of friends and chocks. Lots of people climb with a helmet here.

Due to the character of protection, the area is not suitable for absolute beginners – there are lots of easy routes, but it is always necessary to place your own protection, so be careful.

TABLE FOR GENERAL PRESENTATION OF AREA:

Location: ENGLAND

Material: hard sand = grit

Climbing character: a little of everything, but mainly slabs, aretes, cracks, mounds

When to come: spring and early autumn

Protection: all your own – chocks, friends, bouldering mats…

Photo: Tomáš Brzobohatý, Simona Lencová

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