Climbing on the Yorkshire Limestone
by Karin Magog 2008
Some Blue For You, Blue Scar E1 5a
Blue Scar is one of those crags I look forward to visiting each year. The fact that it is banned for over a quarter of the year and usually wet for the rest, makes a visit all the more special. If we’re lucky the weather is kind and the crag will be dry from the 15th July through to the end of September, but often rain spoils any plans and we’re lucky to get a couple of days there. My first trip to Blue was the summer of 1991. I’d started leading regularly the year before and had enjoyed a great summer ticking plenty of classic VS and HVS routes in Northumberland and the Lakes. Although the Yorkshire limestone boosts several good quality sub extreme routes, such as Club Foot and Terrace Wall at Malham (both VS 4c), the opportunity never arose for me to climb them, so my first limestone lead became Some Blue For You. I was actually intending to lead Blue Bottle, a HVS which starts in the same place, but was encouraged to try the E1 instead by another girl at the crag who’d just done it. Back then it was a rarity to see another female at the crag, certainly up north, so I felt quite inspired. She ensured me that the blank looking wall was actually riddled with good gear slots and positive holds so up I went. The beta was spot on and I was quickly absorbed in the intricacies of the route. The upper wall was an absolute joy to climb, with good edges and positive slots, as well as sufficient gear. I was buzzing when I got to the top. The following weekend I climbed another two E1’s, this time at Pen Trwyn and my love of limestone trad was well and truly born.
Wombat, Malham E2 5c
One of the must do classic routes at Malham and no soft touch. I first heard about Wombat from Steve and his tale of a very young Andy Earl’s ascent of it. Having cruised up to the long crux move Andy decided to come back down for a breather and down climbed the whole route, including ‘the desperate start’ (after a quick rest he headed back up and dispatched the route). This emphasis on the start stuck in my mind and I never seemed to get around to climbing the route, or any of the other classics on the right wing. In fact it was only in 2004 that the opportunity presented itself. It was Easter and Steve was away enjoying the sun in Europe. I was just climbing again after an injury lay off and was keen to get the trad rack back out. I gave my good friend Jill Blackburn a ring and the next day we met up at the Malham farm car park. We used to climb together once a week but different work patterns over the past few years meant we rarely got the chance to get together. It’s a shame as climbing with Jill is always fun. There’s no underlying competitiveness, instead she’s really supportive, enthusiastic and inspiring. Having climbed Wombat years ago Jill was happy to second which was great. Fortunately the start of the route wasn’t as bad as I expected with a good runner a couple of moves off the ground then improving holds to gain the base of the corner. However, it is incredibly polished so a careful but confident approach is needed. The crux of the route is definitely the top with a big move to a good crimp before the final break is reached. What a great route and a good start to a very enjoyable day. We went on to tick Crossbones E2 5c and Wind and Wuthering E3 6a as well as fitting in plenty of girly chat, which is always a bonus. Unfortunately, Jill has been plagued with a shoulder injury in recent years and is currently recovering from a second op. Like me, climbing is an obsession for Jill so here’s hoping she’s back on the rock soon.
Face Route, Gordale E3 5c,6a
Gordale is a very special place to climb, both intimidating and awe inspiring. Entering the gorge early on a sunny summer’s morning is always memorable. One minute you’re strolling along the path, enjoying the sun then you step round the corner into the shade, the temperature plummets and the overhanging rock faces press down on you. Fortunately the sun does a good job and picks out virtually all the walls in the gorge at some point of the day so if you time it right you can always enjoy its warmth. As it moves across the Left Wall the shades it creates are amazing as various faces materialise in the rock and stare down at you.
The first wall you see as you approach the gorge is the Face Route wall. This faces south and enjoys the sun virtually all day, which is just as well as it’s also very exposed to the wind so can be particularly cold. It’s home to several classic ‘Gordale adventure routes’ such as Mossdale Trip, Cement Garden and Nothing to Declare, as well as the more amenable Face Route. Gordale is an interesting mix of very hard, high quality limestone and some more fragile rock, which requires a very considered climbing style. I particularly enjoy these routes, of which Face Route was my first. Just setting off from the ground was quite intimidating, but good gear in the often wet crack soon materialised. I quickly became involved in the bridging and palming required and was soon at the roof. The next few moves were quite intimidating as you’re relying on some old pegs for protection whilst trying not to pull anything off but it wasn’t long before both better holds and gear were reached. The top pitch was a complete contrast. The rock here is excellent and the climbing over the bulge very powerful but very well protected. After climbing up and down several times I eventually committed and after much puffing and muttering I reached the ledge and belay. It’s a great place to belay from as you can watch the crowds of tourists pouring into the gorge below or glance across to the Right Wall to see how your mate’s getting on with his red-point. A great route that certainly requires a confident but careful approach, best suited to the weak but bold climber!
Bolt Revolt, Malham E4 6a
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about climbing on the Yorkshire limestone is the number of ‘hybrid’ routes. Here the protection comes in all forms, from fiddly or bomber wire placements to threads, rusty old pegs and the odd bolt. Although still relying on much fixed gear these routes seem to have more soul than the fully bolted sports routes and provide for a much more memorable experience. Bolt Revolt is one such route and was climbed by Tony Burnell in 1986, at the high point in the development of sports climbing in The Cove. At time it was very popular as it enticed climbers down from the wings for their first taste of climbing on the Catwalk. It was one of my first leads there and I remember being bitterly disappointed when I fell just a few moves from the lower-off, the final tricky moves being too much for my screaming forearms. The benefit of knowledge however, made the next attempt feel so much easier and soon my first red-point was successfully completed.
The whole experience made quite an impression and sparked both my love of sports climbing but also my passion for other limestone ‘hybrid’ routes, of which there are many. I was therefore horrified a couple of years ago to see this fantastic route relegated to just another soulless clip-up by an unknown retrobolter. However, it wasn’t long before we’d restored this route to its former glory with new threads and pegs, and the bolts removed. I appreciate that the attitudes of many of today’s climbers may be different but I feel that these routes should be maintained in their original form. This once starred classic deserves to be popular again but not at the cost of losing it’s historical significance. It can be climbed on just the in-situ gear, but a bunch of wires will make it feel super safe, it’s well worth doing.
Central Wall, Blue Scar E5 6a
This is probably Yorkshire limestone’s finest E5 and E5 is a grade that the limestone does well. I was torn between choosing Deja Vue (E5 6b at Kilnsey) and this route, as they’re both favourites of mine. However, the position of Central Wall is so inspiring, taking pride of place up the middle of Blue’s Central Wall, that in the end there was only one winner. The first ascent of the route was by Yorkshire devotee Pete Gomersall in September 1980 after a recommendation by John Eastham and Graham Summers, who had abbed down this ‘Great White Wall’ but decided that to climb it they would need a bolt so instead left it for someone bolder. For me the recommendation came from Steve who had climbed it several years earlier. He had raved about it at the time and his description of this technical wall climb made quite an impression. 1997 was a good year for me and although I’d led a few E5’s in 1996, this was the year I started to really consolidate at the grade. The previous weekend I’d led Jenny Wren and Comedy of Errors, two classic Gordale E5’s, so my confident was up. I was a little nervous as I set off up the route but also excited to be finally good enough to have a go. Everything came together so well, good gear in the main with a couple of bolder bits, positive crimps just in the right place, sustained and technical but fortunately not at all powerful, it was as if the route was designed for me. I was totally in tune with the rock, a fantastic feeling when it happens. I’ve now climbed Central Wall so many times I’ve lost count but each ascent is just as enjoyable. If face climbing is your thing then get it on your list.
Cave Routes, Gordale E6 6b and E6 6c (or 7b+ and 7c+)
The last wall in Gordale to receive the sun is the Right Wall, which makes it a great warm weather venue, as it takes some heat wave to beat the freezing Gordale wind. The Right Wall is also home to some of Yorkshire’s finest sports routes, such as Pierrepoint and Supercool, and the two classic Cave Routes. These two routes each follow prominent crack lines which merge at about 20m for the last 10m up to the large cave where they finish. They were popular aid routes in the 1960’s and 70’s and in fact both routes still rely on various and threads for protection. Freed by Ron Fawcett in 1982 whilst on his honeymoon, they still pose a good challenge today. I took on Cave Route RH back in 1996 after some of the rusty old pegs had been replaced. It can be climbed using just the fixed gear, although a few wires always prove useful. After climbing up and down the start for ages I eventually committed to the hard and bold move over the first roof before sprinting to the sanctuary of the niche. A good rest here leads to the ‘technical’ crux, which never feels so bad after that good rest. However, the route then really kicks in with a very sustained sequence leading to some old peg slots in the crack, which, if all goes well, lead to a good crimp on the left, then a couple of big moves before a thank god jug and the final crack. Unfortunately for me, and many before me, the forearm burn was too much and I was off. It took me another 3 attempts (getting closer each go) before I reached that jug. The top crack is always enjoyable in a perplexing kind of way, with a great last move to the cave. What an awesome route!
I returned the following summer to take on the challenge of Cave Route LH. This is a good mixture of threads, pegs, bolts, with several wires and cams also recommended. It’s steeper than RH, more sustained and with a hard crux move in the middle thrown in (plus you get to do those old peg slots moves again). This year I was fitter and stronger, however the crux move still spat me off. The rest of the route went well though and a couple of goes later it was in the bag. I was buzzing.
Each year the first route we do in Gordale is Cave Route RH. Steve enjoys beavering his way up, sitting on the odd piece of gear and cleaning off the holds – it takes a hell of a lot of seepage over the winter (and the summer’s these days!). We then enjoy a ‘work-out’ day, top-roping each route several times, relishing that forearm burn and the great moves, pretending we’re being altruistic and cleaning it up for others, when really we’re just looking for an excuse to climb them again. Routes just don’t come any better than these two.
The Groove, Malham F8a+
What a route – 35m long, gently overhanging, never desperate (but never easy) and bang in the centre of Britain’s best sports climbing crag. It starts up that fingery nightmare Something Stupid, and then a hard sequence past the chain allows access to the stunning route above. The route is then in turn powerful, technical then unrelenting as it heads every upwards to the ‘tricep press’ crux. It eventually relents 5m from the belay as the angle eases and the edges turn into mini jugs. Steve was always inspired to climb this route so I joined him for a few days each spring and had a play on the route. The headwall came together quite quickly but the powerful bulge at the bottom was often wet so it was difficult to get this worked properly. I decided I wasn’t really strong enough for the route so left it for a few years before returning to it in 2003. I’d had a good winter, combining some strength training early on, followed by climbing routes on the new Sunderland Wall. We also enjoyed a stunning March that year and Malham was bone dry. A mid-week trip to the crag saw the headwall sorted before returning on the Sunday to firstly work the start, before then getting the successful red-point once the sun had moved off. Conditions at Malham those last two weeks in March were the best I’ve ever known and routes were getting sent left, right and centre. It was great to be part of it.