Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The Stanage VS Challenge - a two thirds-successful attempt.


Me, climbing sideways on "Rubber Band", route 9 of 24.
Yes, I know, technically speaking being two thirds successful is still a failure, but lets try to take an optimistic view on life eh? So here's what happens when myself and my mate Tony had a go at the Stanage VS Challenge.

I've spent a fair bit of time at Stanage over the last year; I was always a bit sniffy about gritstone previously. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with it, but there are lots of British (well, English) climbers who don't seem to see much past it. Grit climbing is great, but if you start your climbing in a non-gritty area of the UK, you can see there are lots of other types of British rock and British climbing. Yet, for Sheffield residents it IS just very convenient. 20, 25 minutes in the car and you have thousands of routes, at all grades, many with real historical resonance too. And so I've been going lots, and as a result getting lots of routes climbed. Of all the grit crags, Stanage is the most impressive. It is so popular and well known, it's almost a cliche; but when you stand on the top of cliffs at "Popular End" and watching the edge sweep away northwards - about 6 kms, not unbroken but pretty consistent cliffs along that stretch - it really is one of the most impressive sights in England. But it is not the Alps though, or the high mountains of the Norwegian Arctic. Few of Stanage's rock climbs reach 20 mtrs in height. If you want to have a BIG day out climbing, you are going to have to climb a LOT of routes. 

Stanage Popular End, on a nicer afternoon.
I'm not quite sure why Tony and I decided we should do something challenging in an endurance way like this. Tony's finger is recuperating, stopping him from hard sport climbing currently but he is still very 'climbing fit' as long as he doesn't have to crimp hard. I had read about the VS Challenge since moving to Sheffield and having done a number of the routes involved, fancied my chances. John Roberts, whose blog post seems to be the modern spark for this silly idea, has set the rules: all the routes on Stanage that get the grade VS (Very Severe) and have stars. Stars, normally *, ** or *** are given in guidebooks to denote quality of climbs, three being the best. The grade VS, despite sounding, well, very severe is actually very much a 'mid grade' these days. Most keen climbers will get to climb VS with experience and practice, even if they don't train at a climbing wall or have much natural ability. Many young climbers climb VS very quickly and progress well past it. Nevertheless it retains some historical cache, as "serious" grade for "serious" climbers and VS climbs on gritstone can often be quite brutal or physical, even if you don't need seriously strong finger strength to do them. One quirk of the challenge is it is based on the 1989 Stanage guidebook - there are probably more starred VSs in the newest guidebooks BUT there are a few "sandbags" (routes harder than their given grade) in the 1989 list, so you need to be willing to climb a bit harder than your normal VSs to do the challenge. The rules also state no soloing, all climbs are to be led or seconded by a team. This seems very sensible, soloing with tired arms is not a great idea.


Route 13, Mississippi Buttress Direct
We arrived at Stanage at 7 am, first car in the often full car park. We were climbing within 10 or 15 minutes. We decided to start at Popular End thinking we would do those routes early and avoid any queues. The first climb is Heather Wall, which is one of the first routes I did at Stanage sometime back in the 90s. Easy. Tony led the first five routes, then I did a block of five leads. I'm not sure if its true, but this is deemed to be quicker than alternate leads. The first routes where I seconded flew past, but we also cocked up - I had marked up the guidebook making easy to see on each page which route we needed to do, but in my haste I didn't look carefully enough at the topo-photo for Narrow Buttress and we shot up one climb only to realise we had done the wrong line. Tony quickly rectified this and blasted up the real Narrow Buttress, but it wasted probably 15 or 20 minutes. 

Route 14, Louisiana Rib
I took over the leading at Central Trinity, a route I've done before once or twice and really like. Solid hand jams, easy to place mid-sized cams. Bang - done. Bring Tony up. Hargreaves’s was next, a route I had led nearly 15 years ago on one of my last days in England before moving to Helsinki and starting that phase of life. It was a bit more delicate than I remembered, but perhaps I'm just more of a wuss now. Inverted V - another one I had done back in 1999, the year I started my PhD in Manchester - feeling like half a lifetime away. Ellis's Eliminate was my first onsight of the day (a route I hadn't climbed before). Not much for your feet on the traverse but solid if slightly odd horizontal hand-jamming. The next route is Rubber Band, again onsight for both of us and yet more weird horizontal jamming. Tony’s next block of leads included the first “mystery route” – Via Roof Route. It isn’t in my Rockfax guide and the description in the BMC guide is a bit confusing. The lower slab is very technical, Tony did a great job balancing up it on the lead with no gear in. It was spitting rain by the time Tony led Hell Crack (route 15) and then I took over to do the tricky Stepladder Crack (route 16). The next route was the Nose, which I found hard work and a bit scary – I’m glad to have done it, but didn’t enjoy the process. As we walked to the next route, The Punk, it started chucking it down. We pulled on waterproofs and hid under the big roof that the Punk traverses. Psyche was low for me at this point but it was a good excuse for a rest, food and coffee. The rain stopped, but more grey clouds were racing across from the Kinder Plateau. The strong winds did mean the rock dried very quickly though. After the pause, I led the Punk. Yet more bizarre sideways jamming and not much for you feet. I had to fight more than I would expect to on a VS and came worryingly close to falling at one point. 17 routes in, my shoulders and arms were starting to tire noticeably; I tried leading the next route – Cleft Wall Superdirect but thought the overhanging traverse with little for your feet felt desperate. I lowered off, my first failure of the day, and Tony blasted up it. But even seconding, I still think the moves are too hard to be VS. It’s sister route Cleft Wall was next. It is meant to be harder than its sister at 5b, but I think is actually the easier of the two.

Stanage on a nicer afternoon, a couple of weeks ago.
First rain, hiding under "the Punk"
Moving down to the Plantation area Tony put in a sterling effort on Wall Buttress (route 21), a bit of beast with some offwidth action in the middle. With more rain falling I then led Paradise Wall. In the rain and needing to places lots of runners in case I slipped off the sopping and polished holds, it didn’t feel much like paradise. The rain eased off for a bit as Tony seconded, so I carried on and sent Pegasus Wall and Valhalla, two VSs I haven’t done before. As we walked down from Valhalla the rain started again and soon it was bucketing down: water trickling down the cliff faces and soon the ground had streamlets running down it. We ran for one of the big trees below the cliff for some cover, but even under its canopy the rain was still dripping through. The edge itself disappeared into low cloud. We had our rain jackets on but we were both quickly soaked to the skins on our lower halves, water squelching out of my trainers as I walked! We waited half-heartedly for a bit, hoping it might clear, but looking across the Hope Valley there was no let up in the grey clouds racing towards us. The decision was made, soaking harness were taken off and packed with the rest of the soggy gear and we walked down to the road and back along to the car.

Tony, the offwidth master, taming Wall Buttress, Route 21.
Soggy climber bailing
Postmortem: quitting at 24 routes in at 17.30 suggested we would have been doing the last couple of climbs by head torch, but if it hadn’t rained earlier and we hadn’t done one route by mistake we might have been on schedule though to finish in the light. Tony wants to try again later in the summer, so an earlier start seems obvious. I was pretty tired after 24 routes. I’m not sure how I would have fared on another 12 but Tony was still going full gas. He does train though, so there is probably a lesson in there for me! I’ve climbed (and also hiked) far more metres in a day on alpine routes like Sydpillaren, but the climbing on routes like that is so much less sustained. If you really are a VS climber, i.e. VS is the best grade you can reliably onsight, then I think the Stanage VS Challenge might be too hard for you. That’s definitely how I felt. I’ve only onsighted one grade harder this year, a handful of HVSs and I have never led E1 on natural grit. So 24 routes just below my limit was a lot, I don’t think Tony ever felt he was likely to fall off, but I felt that a number of times towards the end. If we do it again he might need to lead a few more of the final ones!

Fancy giving it a go? The list of routes is here on UKClimbing.

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