Thursday, June 2, 2011


After my all-too-brief stay in North Wales, I went to Sheffield with Alan James director of Rockfax Publishing and UKClimbing. This was a great opportunity to revisit a place I had not been to since college when I spent a couple of semesters at the university and doing a lot of climbing, especially on gritstone.

Coming from a background of New Hampshire granite, the cracks and slabs of Peak District gritstone were a natural fit but there was also the allure of entering an intense urban climbing scene, the likes of which Sheffield was probably the first to inaugurate. This was aided immensely by the institution of the dole, essentially welfare payments for the chronically unemployed. By the time I arrived in fall of 1985, the hard free-climbing revolution was well under way, propelled in large part by the proximity of motivated impoverished climbers and a huge variety of climbing options. The only drawback was really the weather which in turn gave rise to climbing walls, public and private, and lots of training. Coming from an insular and parochial New England scene, it was a profoundly transformational trip, especially when combined with a stay in Buoux in the spring of 1986

I spent most of my time on gritstone, as it was closer to the city by bus and much less expensive to reach. Burbage, Millstone, Froggat, and Curbar Edges were the most popular options though I did make the trek to Stanage on oocasion, most memorably to onsight solo Archangel and Right Unconquerable. The sense of space, light, and atmosphere I always found more compelling than the humid overgrown and often polished limestone cliffs in the valleys below. On the other hand there is no denying that if you want to get strong, limestone is the way to go.

The first afternoon Alan and I went for a walk over to Burbage North where I took a few laps on the 20-foot crack, a perfect 5.7 hand crack, and scoped out the Remergence area, ticking the venerable classic Banana Finger and scoping out some other problems. Sadly, being sans pads, I didn't put any time on the harder ones. The intermittent rain and strong winds didn't help much either.

Next we went over to Stanage, just next door. A quick look at the outcrop that holds Hamper's Hang netted only more wind so we headed down to the Plantation Boulders, perhaps the most famous collection of gritstone boulders in the Peak. The first boulder problem I tried was The Green Traverse, probably about V6, and a really fun series of moves on fairly large holds. I flashed it and then had to repeat it for the video! After looking around a bit at the testpieces such as Brad Pit (V10) and Careless Torque, a beautiful and tall V11, I set to work on Crescent Arete a relatively moderate but fairly insecure and tall V2. This took a few tries to get the feel for the crux, especially with no pads. The landing is fairly flat but you would be jumping from high up with excellent ankle injury potential. A couple of pads would reduce the commitment and perceived grade substantially. Anyway, after I got the balance worked out, I committed and reached the easier upper bit without any problems. A great pair of problems! Here's the video.

Thanks again to Alan for shooting the video and taking the nice shot of me on Crescent Arete.

The next day I was picked up by climbing legend and owner of Moon Climbing, Ben Moon, along with his daughter Sylvie, to check out Burbage West and perhaps meet up with some friends. After a quick tour and some easy warmups, the rest of the crew turned up including Jerry Moffat, Marcus Bock, Gerhard Horhager and Andy Cave. We set to work on some slightly harder problems including a cool little V5/6 overhang called the Nose, which I shot a picture of Jerry on, spotted by Gerhard.

After this, we moved on to West Side Story, one of the most famous problems on grit, a vertical wall with a thin seam, graded V8/9. This has a couple of methods, one coming in from the left which I tried and another coming in from the right, which Gerhard tried. The key for the more direct method on the left is getting a fairly bad sidepull with the right hand and standing up on poor feet to throw for a good break. A highball finish awaits. I was making pretty good progress but having trouble finding the sweet spot on the sidepull. Increasing sun made completion unlikely as well. A good problem to try in fall or winter with a few thick pads.

Ben and I decamped for Stanage to find some other friends of his. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the midst of Stanage on a warm weekend. I already was thinking of my trip to London scheduled for the next day and then one more day before heading back to Colorado.

Monday was my last climbing day before going back home and I decided, since the weather was rainy and I really needed to train a bit harder, to check out Climbing Works, the newest gym in Sheffield, and the only one dedicated to bouldering. It was a good choice though a bit idiosyncratic for a visiting climber. The walls were fairly slabby throughout though the so-called competition wall was fairly steep. Perhaps the biggest issue was the lack of tape for finding problems. This made it very hard to follow sequences or locate starting holds. Once found the problems were actually quite good but after about an hour and a half, I focused on the campus board. There was also "The Motherboard" a steep woodie covered in terrible little wood holds but again the lack of clear problems and a number of arcane rules made this option unappealing.

Nevertheless, I got a solid workout in and felt like I had sampled (or resampled after 25 years) a bit of the Peak scene over the past few days. Looking back to that time, I recognize that one of the motives for going to Sheffield in the 80s was finding a place where residents really focused on climbing but within an urban context, that a critical mass of climbers lived climbed and trained together but not in a campground like at Yosemite. Now of course, such locales are much more common, perhaps nowhere more so than here in Boulder. But in the 1980s such places were very rare. For me, in my early 20s, this time was a revelation of sorts and left a lasting impression of what could be achieved in climbing.

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